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Last Updated: Monday, 15 October 2007, 09:38 GMT 10:38 UK
The wrong man
By Mark Kinver
BBC News

Michael Fish
Fish was on British TV screens for 32 years

Michael Fish's infamous weather forecast 20 years ago today, in which he seemed to scotch rumours of a hurricane, has gone down in broadcasting history. There's only one problem - that wasn't what happened.

In the early hours of 16 October 1987, winds reaching 122mph ripped across the south-eastern corner of England, taking the sleeping nation by surprise.

As dawn broke, 18 people had lost their lives and 15 million trees had been uprooted.

As journalists searched for reasons why the forecasters had failed to predict such an extreme and devastating event, it was not long before Michael Fish found himself in the eye of a media storm.

After all, we have been told, it was his 2130 forecast the evening before that highlighted how badly the Met Office had got it wrong.

Uprooted tree
The storm took most by complete surprise
"Earlier on today apparently," he began, "a woman rang the BBC and said she had heard that there was a hurricane on the way.

"Well if you are watching, don't worry there isn't," he said sagely, reassuring millions of viewers.

Yet just a few hours later, the worst storm since 1703 unleashed its fury.

Although it was Mr Fish, now 63, who retired in 2004, he says it is not his, but the nation's collective memory that is failing.

"I wasn't even on duty that night, it was Bill Giles," he explains, referring to one of his colleagues, "so I cannot claim any responsibility whatsoever."

Mr Giles was on the afternoon/evening shift and Ian McCaskill was on the night shift, he recalls.

"Those were the only two people involved and not me at all. I came in the next morning at 0430 to do Breakfast News and the morning broadcasts."

Mr Fish, tongue-in-cheek, refers to Bill Giles as "the guilty one", adding that it was something his former colleague "forgot to admit until after his retirement!"

WHAT REALLY HAPPENED
  • 15 October (morning)
    Michael Fish tells viewers to 'batten down the hatches'
  • 15 October (lunchtime)
    Mr Fish delivers his infamous 'hurricane' forecast
  • 15 October (evening)
    Bill Giles' forecast focuses on heavy rain over UK
  • 16 October (early hours)
    Shipping forecast warns of gale force winds in the Channel

  • So what about the infamous "hurricane" forecast?

    "That was some time before and it was referring to Florida and had nothing to do with the (UK) storm," he states.

    "In actual fact my earlier broadcast, which I am sure never got recorded, actually said 'batten down the hatches because there is some extremely stormy weather on the way'.

    "If that is not a good forecast, I am not sure what is."

    Thanks to the wonders of modern technology, clips of "that" forecast are available on the web, which Mr Fish thinks originated from somebody's personal video recording.

    To be fair, after telling us all not to worry, he goes on to say: "Having said that, actually the weather will become very windy." But that part is rarely shown.

    Return visit

    For 20 years, he has been trying to put the record straight. He first tried shortly after the original broadcast, when the media attention was at its height. And he tried again in 2004, when he retired from the Met Office.

    Ian McCaskill and Bill Giles
    Bill Giles (right) made the broadcast, while McCaskill was on night shift
    His efforts "were in vain as it turned out". Which makes it odd that he has taken the BBC up on an offer, by returning to our screens 20 years on from the Great Storm, to be a guest weather presenter. Why do it?

    "[The BBC Weather Centre's manager], I think, had the idea of me returning to do one of the live bulletins," he says.

    The veteran forecaster had already approached the manager because he wanted to make himself available to be interviewed by local radio stations.

    It appears that after all these years of patiently and precisely trying to correct journalists' false recollections, he has realised that there may actually be a silver lining to the nation's clouded memory.

    GREAT STORM TIMELINE
    Wind speeds
    Great Storm's wind speeds
  • Five days before
    Forecasters predict severe weather for Thursday or Friday
  • Few days before
    Models suggest severe weather will only hit Channel and coast
  • 15 October (afternoon)
    Winds very light over UK; gale warning issued for Channel
  • 15 October (evening)
    Late TV forecast focuses on heavy rain over UK mainland
  • 16 October (early hours)
    Storm turns inland; emergency services are alerted

  • "Craftily, I am trying to promote a book on the subject and I thought doing a round-the-houses with local radio would give me a good opportunity to indirectly plug the book because one of the major chapters was about the 1987 storm," he says.

    "That was a good way of linking it and hopefully selling it."

    The book, co-written by fellow forecasters Ian McCaskill and Paul Hudson, is a chronology of some of the UK's most extreme weather events.

    So how does the storm to which he has become forever associated compare?

    "It was severe, but not the severest. The 1703 storm was far more severe, so was 1990 in many parts of southern England," he replies.

    He says the 1987 storm was so damaging because it struck when the trees still had many of their leaves.

    "Whereas the 1990 storm was in the winter and although the wind was stronger, the damage was far, far less."

    HAVE YOUR SAY
    Let's keep this in perspective. It was indeed severe, but it only affected a small area of the South
    Keith Hutchinson
    Sunderland

    Although his appearances at the end of the Monday's One O'clock and Six O'clock news will be his first since retiring as a "broadcast meteorologist" in 2004, he will not be out of practice.

    Since leaving the Met Office's payroll, he has been presenting the evening weather bulletins on BBC South East.

    And after more than three decades of having to limit himself to the occasional brightly coloured jumpers or fish motif ties, he recently had the chance for a full costume and career change when he appeared in The Play What I Wrote.

    But it may still be a little too soon to offer him the lead in Gone With The Wind.


    Below is a selection of your comments.

    Michael Fish should not keep stating that the hurricane he was talking about referred to Florida. He did not mention the States and it was clear it was in connection with the UK. Our local newspaper, the Surrey Mirror, carried a headline the day before the storm, warning of "furious gales". It was given by local meteorologist Ian Currie and was probably the only published accurate forecast in the country. Not that anyone did 'batten down the hatches' as a result!
    Mark Davison, Reigate, Surrey

    I feel absolutely sure that Mr Fish made the fatal comment, but as I remember it, it was at lunchtime not in the evening! I believe we were more accurate at predicting the weather during the war when it was crucial for our troops than we are now with the latest technology!!
    Rosemary Walker, Croydon, Surrey

    Why is Michael Fish denying the truth? On the afternoon of the 15th October 1987 he publicly ridiculed a lady for being concerned about an impending hurricane. That very night he himself was shown to be the fool (and his department shown to be incompetent). These are the facts.
    Keith Owen, Royal Leamington Spa

    Surely the broadcasting company he was working for could confirm or deny his story...
    Richard, Luton

    I recall Michael Fish's forecast that day, in the afternoon not evening, and seem to remember after the quip about us not having a hurricane, there was a strong wind warning. My boat got wrecked because I didn't heed it!
    Greg Boyle, Leintwardine

    The misquote/partial quote, which we always remember, was indeed clumsy by Michael Fish. It was unfortunate that he would take time to report on a Florida Hurricane - which IS what he was doing - when there were concerns over a storm approaching the British Isles. So his ill-advised forecast for Florida is what we remember.(He might have been correct about FL, but when applied to England it was not correct). However, MY memory is of how glib the typically-smug Bill Giles was. Giles' forecast was simply that it would be "a bit blowy". (Isn't that the same as putting up a "Caution: Wet Floor" sign on the Titanic?)
    Garry B, Orlando, Florida (USA)

    Bravo, Michael Fish! His appearance on the BBC 1 O'Clock News was a joy to behold! Please bring him back full time! How wonderful to have a reminder of that smooth, slick, professional manner he has in which he gives the weather information fully and straightforwardly without all the personal preferences and interpretation that colour the presentation of so many of the current team of BBC forecasters. I always liked his coloured jackets too and the fetching ties! I am delighted for him that at last he's now had a full and proper chance to correctly apportion responsibility for "that" 1987 storm forecast.
    Simon Nickerson, Coalville, Leicestershire

    If film is edited to show a weather forecaster in a bad light, the lie stands. Likewise if film is edited to make it seem as if striking miners (rather than the police) were the aggressors. But if the Queen is shown in a bad light, people are sacked. Why is this?
    Joe, Birmingham, UK

    Michael Fish may try to rewrite history, but I too remember his broadcast, and he did say what he is reputed to have said, so he clearly was on duty that night, no matter how he tries to lay the blame on colleagues. Funny they don't confirm this.
    Peter Simmons, Leominster

    How much are these 'professionals' paid to predict the weather? They should have resigned after the hurricane. I understand that these weather forecasters have a 60% success record. Did you know that if you were to say "tomorrow's weather will be very much the same as today's weather" then you would also have a 60% chance of being correct. There you go, and I'm not paid 100,000 per year, I don't get to have my face on TV several times per day or cash in on writing books about my incompetence which led to the death of 18 people who could have been warned before they ventured out to work that morning.
    Rich Owen, Basingstoke, Hampshire

    Isn't it about time to let poor Mr Fish off the hook and enjoy his retirement? He remains one of our most cherished memories, and his ties more than made up for the hurricane. He was the messenger - let's not shoot him or even fillet him any more.
    Jonathan, Harpenden



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