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Friday, February 5, 1999 Published at 14:15 GMT


Entertainment

In praise of the pips

Pip ... pip ... pip ... pip ... pip ...

It is 75 years since the six pips of the Greenwich time signal first beeped across the BBC radio airwaves and into listeners' homes.


The history and mystery of the Greenwich time signal
They were first sounded before the main BBC radio news bulletins on 5 February 1924 and have, in British broadcasting terms, become an institution.


[ image: Today presenters wind-up at 9am  - the time of the first pips on 5/2/24]
Today presenters wind-up at 9am - the time of the first pips on 5/2/24
In fact the pips are so hallowed that they even carry their own vocabulary. For a presenter to talk over them is called "crashing" - and is the ultimate BBC sin. Not doing so however can take considerable practice - and no small amount of stress.

Nonetheless the pips hold a special place in BBC radio presenters' hearts.

Nowhere is this more evident than among the anchors on Radio 4's morning news programme Today. Mention the 'P' word and there is a definite misting of the eyes, even a lump evident in the throat.

'I love the pips'


[ image: Anna Ford: Even harsh lessons in pip management are remembered with fondess]
Anna Ford: Even harsh lessons in pip management are remembered with fondess
Anna Ford has just left Today after five years and admits to suffering from pip withdrawal. She is one of their biggest fans:

"I love the pips and know how important they are. They are amazingly BBC, the co-junction of sight and sound in the pursuit of unsurpassed public broadcasting," she says nostalgically.


Anna Ford exhibits perfect pip precision
But it was not always like that. On her very first day on the programme, she committed the cardinal sin.

"I crashed the pips," she gasps. "Not having been warned of their importance, I strayed over onto their hallowed ground. When I came off air, the rest of the team said 'We knew you would do it!'. They had even been taking bets."

'Enduring shame'

Sue MacGregor has been with Today since 1984 and to her "enduring shame" admits to having trespassed into pip territory two or three times in her career.

But although bowing to their control, Sue points out that they are as fallible to mishaps as their human slaves.


[ image: Sue MacGregor: The pips can be guilty of bad time-keeping too]
Sue MacGregor: The pips can be guilty of bad time-keeping too
"I believe the pips come from a little box in the basement of Broadcasting House - every now and then they pop out unexpectedly and appear in the middle of programmes," she says.

All BBC Radio presenters who have crashed will testify to having learnt an unforgettable lesson. Outside the BBC too, pip precision seems something of a preoccupation.

'The knell of doom'

Today presenter James Naughtie has been with the programme since 1994 but tells a sobering tale from his time on the lunchtime programme the World at One.

"I was strolling into the studio without headlines because they weren't finished, thinking I had a couple of minutes to go ... and heard the dread sound of the pips starting. I had to run to the chair and do the headlines from memory.


[ image: James Naughtie: The time signal has been known to leave him breathless]
James Naughtie: The time signal has been known to leave him breathless
"The Daily Telegraph rang up to ask if I had had a heart attack, because I sounded so bad. For weeks afterwards the pips sounded to me like the knell of doom," he says.

On occasion, of course, this has been close to the truth. The pips have preceded some the saddest announcements in history from the invasion of Poland in1939 to the death of Diana Princess of Wales in 1997.

The bongs of Big Ben

Elsewhere in BBC radioland, it is not the pips that bring fear - it is the bongs of Big Ben. The team of the PM programme have to leave the airwaves sharpish at 17.59.33 to let the clock do its stuff.


Radio 4 listeners compete to find the best pip
Its great age however makes it unpredictable since it can, experts claim, be affected by the atmosphere on any given day. Presenter Clare English says:

"We think we've got the hang of it now which means, inevitably, that any day now, we shall be bonged out of existence."


[ image: John Humphrys: Would like to be replaced by the pips]
John Humphrys: Would like to be replaced by the pips
Being eternally pipped from his post is however something Today presenter John Humphreys seems to relish.

"We have 18 seconds of pips and they are the best part of the programme. I propose we extend them by two hours and 42 seconds. I could stay in bed and the public would have a more satisfying broadcast," he says.



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