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Last Updated: Thursday, 1 September 2005, 15:37 GMT 16:37 UK
Phoning home
By Tony Grant
Programme editor

As From Our Own Correspondent marks its 50th anniversary, editor Tony Grant reflects on the lengths that correspondents have gone to over the years to file for the programme.

Gerald Priestland and colleague
Gerald Priestland in the studio with a colleague circa 1960

I haven't worked at From Our Own Correspondent for all of its 50 years - just the last 13 or so. But it's been time enough to appreciate that the correspondent has always had a unique relationship with the telephone.

Africa has proved to be the continent richest in strange tales about telephones.

In recent months Nicky Barranger has told us of the Ghanaians she met who loved their mobiles so much they were having their coffins built in the shape of them.

Anna Borzello wrote of how Nigerians were terrified by a story about a "killer phone number". Apparently, if this number flashed up on your cell phone, then your number was well and truly up. First you would vomit blood and then you would die.

The old telephone which Allan Little found on a visit to Zaire in the 1990s was an altogether more prosaic affair:

We rented a villa, last inhabited by Belgian planters nearly 40 years earlier. It was a brick and mortar time capsule.

Its bakelite telephone sat silent. No one had heard it ring in three decades. No one under the age of 35, in an area the size of Switzerland, could remember what the ringing of a telephone sounded like.

This new era, in which a correspondent can be dialled up in a second regardless of whether he or she is in the deserts of Africa, the steppes of central Asia or indeed the North Pole, is of course a relatively modern one.

'Interesting' situation

In the days before satellite and mobile phones, it was often hard to get through to London and sometimes harder for London to track down the correspondent.

In the 1960s, when telephone connections between London and parts of the Indian sub-continent were unreliable, to say the least, Gerald Priestland admitted that, when the thermometer went through the roof in Delhi, he and his colleagues would head off to cooler climes, far out of reach of the phone call from London:

We would cable our editors saying we were off to Kashmir where the situation was getting "interesting".

Once there, we'd hire houseboats around a lake, entertain each other, a little light reporting confirming each others' impressions that indeed the situation was interesting and, when things finally became a little cooler in Delhi, we reported back that the situation in Kashmir had now calmed down!

The telephone features in hundreds of different despatches over the years.

There's the chill of a one o'clock the morning ring recalled by Clive Small in Washington in 1980.

The White House was on the line. An American military mission to rescue the hostages being held in the US embassy in Tehran had ended in disaster and loss of life.


Stephen Sackur
Stephen Sackur has been the BBC's correspondent in Washington, Brussels and the Middle East

Stephen Sackur, recently swapping the world of the foreign correspondent for that of the television presenter, told us how he would miss those phone calls from the editor, summoning him to immediate, drop-everything action:

The instant knot in the stomach and the frantic dash to the airport may seem like dubious pleasures, but the buzz is irresistible.

It's the sense of being in the thick of something important, of writing the first draft of a story which matters.

Misha Glenny, then our Central Europe correspondent, had communications on his mind when he was writing a piece for the programme hunkered down in a cellar as a battle raged around him central Bosnia:

Long before the script is complete, I am pondering ways to tackle the most terrifying challenge of all - finding a working telephone.

The bad news is that there are no international lines, I can only dial as far as Belgrade. But I catch a friend at home in Belgrade who knows how to record onto a cassette from a phone line.

"Look, I know this is dreadfully inconvenient but the piece is due to run in two hours' time. Please can you tape it and then send it down the line to London?"

A pained pause. "Oh, God. I was just going out, but I suppose so. But you really owe me for this one."

Once again the ingenuity and persistence of our own correspondent pays off and the piece is on its way!

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