Arts, Culture & Media

How a weather broadcast came to symbolize all it means to British

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Credit: REUTERS/Toby Melville

The Shipping Forecast offers Britain a chance to reconnect with its maritime history.

“Attention all shipping ... there are warnings of gales in sea areas Dogger, Fisher, German Bight … southwest four or five, moderate becoming slight. Showers. Good…”

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(This story is based on a radio interview. Listen to the full interview.)

Late night radio means different things around the world. In Britain, since the 1920s, the day’s BBC domestic broadcasting has always ended with a strange and evocative incantation: part cryptic code, abstract poem and comfort blanket.

Officially, the Shipping Forecast is a short summary of weather conditions affecting commercial shipping around the British Isles, but to its millions of inland listeners it has become much more than that. For many, the sound of the forecast has come to symbolize what it still means to be British and part of an island nation.

Each edition of the forecast consists of a list of different sea areas around the British Isles, the weather conditions last recorded in each of them and sometimes a series of gale warnings of the most violent weather in each district.

“It captures the imagination because it makes you feel part of a community that you’re not,” explains Gillian Reynolds, The Daily Telegraph’s radio critic and one of its fans. “If you’re washing the dishes at half past midnight and you are feeling all alone — there’s the shipping forecast to keep you company. It makes you feel as if you’re part of a national chant-in.”

When the forecast was accidentally omitted for the first time in May this year, there was polite outrage, which some listeners asking whether a nuclear apocalypse was approaching.

Part of the forecast’s cult status undoubtedly comes from its formal and mysterious language. The sea areas have a mix of self explanatory names (‘Irish Sea,’ ‘South East Iceland’) and others that feel like characters from a lost Shakespearean plan: ‘Fitzroy,’ ‘Fastnet’ and ‘Fair Isle.’

Even the most extreme storms are described with formal, resigned restraint. A violent cyclone near Iceland might be ‘poor, occasionally very poor.’

The forecast appeals to two deeply rooted aspects of what it means to be British: an affection for traditional radio and a love of the sea. Listeners like Reynolds feel comforted by the forecast’s connection to Britain’s maritime past, and the BBC’s history.

“We like familiarity; we don’t like change," Reynolds says. "And we love the radio. And when radio brings you something that builds unexpected communities and unexpected pleasures, you hang on to it for dear life. It has become an alternative national anthem.”

It is no surprise that the forecast also attracts poets and musicians. Jarvis Cocker chose its theme music as one of his favorite records. Britain’s poet laureate Carol Ann Duffy and the Nobel laureate Seamus Heaney both have poems inspired by what Heaney called the ‘sibilant penumbra’ of the forecast.

Is the forecast still needed by Britain’s fishermen and commercial sailors? In an era of GPS navigation and Internet connectivity, it is perhaps best not to ask.

When a forecast was accidentally repeated a few years ago, all the complaints came from listeners on land. As long as the BBC is still broadcasting, the outlook for the Shipping Forecast is probably 'bright, becoming good.'

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