Sunday, 15 October 2017

"London Calling the Falkland Islands" – the BBC's lifeline service

Disclaimer: I was employed by the BBC at the time of the 1982 war, and continue to be so. However, this is an entirely personal blog post, reflecting only my views.

About this blog post: When I began this blog I intended to focus exclusively on Radio Atlantico del Sur, the Spanish-language shortwave station operated by the British Ministry of Defence in the final four weeks of the April-June 1982 Falklands War. Later, I felt that to tell the story of RAdS to the fullest I needed to look also at some other radio broadcasts during the 1982 war. 

So, I devoted one post to Argentina's Liberty station and another to a service run by the British Forces Broadcasting Service (BFBS).

This blog post looks at the long-running BBC programme Calling the Falklands.

A "lifeline for the islanders"

From the 1984 edition of the BBC Handbook:
[In 1982] the weekly thirty-year-old record request show Calling the Falklands came into its own. Overnight, the programme changed its format and during the Falklands conflict became the lifeline for the islanders. Every day throughout the Argentine occupation, the programme carried special news bulletins, interviews, press reviews, despatches and special messages from leading personalities such as the Foreign Secretary and the Archbishop of Canterbury as well as thousands of messages to the Falkland Islanders from relatives and friends in Britain and around the world. The programme also caught the attention and imagination of the world's television, radio and press, who filmed and interviewed staff in Bush House during the period.
After the liberation, the programme reverted to three transmissions a week until the end of 1982, and is now broadcast twice a week. The effectiveness of these programmes has been clearly indicated to Topical Tapes by the flow of letters, telegrams and messages from the islanders to the producers, and the rapturous welcome received by the Calling the Falklands team during a visit to the Islands.
Calling the Falklands is estimated to have received 3,000 messages for listeners in the islands at the time of the crisis, followed afterwards by many hundreds of letters of overwhelming appreciation and anecdotes highlighting the vital role of the programme. 

"London Calling the Falkland Islands" – profile of a lifeline service

Origins: The service began in 1944 as "a weekly compilation of record requests and personal messages from friends and relatives to the islanders". 

That description of the programme – in BBC press release in 2006 announcing the closure of the service – still held good immediately before the 1982 war. 

Name(s) of the programme: Both London Calling the Falkland Islands and Calling the Falklands were used on the air and in documents referring to the service. During the 1982 war, and for some years afterwards, the full name was used at the start of each programme. For example, a recording from 1988 starts: "This is London Calling the Falkland Islands on 9.915 megahertz in the 31-metre band."

In later years the frequency announcement was dropped and the programme always began: "From the BBC in London, this is Calling the Falklands presented by..."

In an excellent study, 'Strangers in the Night’: The Falklands Conflict as a Radio War, Alasdair Pinkerton says the programme was often known in the islands as London Bridge, after its signature tune. This is a problematic explanation, as the signature tune was not "London Bridge is Falling Down" but another British nursery rhyme, albeit one still referring to London, "Oranges and Lemons".

Programming during the Falklands War: The description in the BBC Handbook quoted above  that programming during the war included "special news bulletins, interviews, press reviews, despatches and special messages from leading personalities"  is how I remember it.

In particular, Falklands Governor Rex Hunt, deported by the Argentines from the islands immediately after the invasion, was a frequent guest on the show. 

An account from a listener in the islands has been provided by Graham Bound, a local journalist who would later become a Calling the Falklands presenter. He wrote in 2012:
[...] we would take comfort from tuning through the crackling interference to hear Calling the Falklands. This programme had been broadcast once a week for many years, but until 1982 it had simply been a medium for music and messages from families in the UK. Now, though, Bush House began broadcasting a longer edition every evening, dedicated to news about the conflict and inspiring messages from public figures and the families of those who were effectively imprisoned in the Falklands. These were often highly emotional broadcasts. 
The presenters did not avoid controversial topics. I remember some pointed comments in one show during the war about the role of the Falkland Islands Company (owned by the UK-based Coalite group, and which seemed to have a quasi-feudal dominance over aspects of the islands' economy) in its commercial dealings with the occupying forces.
Presenters: The main presenter during the war was Peter King, who came out of retirement specifically to take up this role. He had been a presenter on both BBC domestic and external radio since the 1940s. King's sign-off catchphrase at the end of each night's show  "Keep your heads down and your hearts high"  became well known.

The other main presenter in 1982 was Kathleen Cheesmond, who was already an established presence on the programme and who continued to work on it in later years.

Expansion of the service after the start of the 1982 crisis

At the time of Argentine invasion (2 April 1982), Calling the Falklands was aired each Sunday at 2209-2245 GMT. That was 1809-1845 local time, so the show must have been a notable Sunday evening fixture in many Falkland homes. As well as being aired by shortwave from the UK, it was also relayed by the Falkland Islands Broadcasting Service (FIBS), though of course these relays ceased after the arrival of the Argentines, who took over FIBS and renamed it "LRA60 Radio Nacional, Islas Malvinas". Islanders then had to rely entirely on the BBC's shortwave transmissions of the show.

The invasion was on a Friday, so islanders had to wait just two days before the first Calling the Falklands of the occupation. From the following Tuesday, transmissions went to three days a week (Tuesdays, Thursdays and Sundays) and were expanded to 45 minutes. The broadcast time was also made earlier, now going out at 2115-2200 GMT.

Importantly, the programme now went out live, rather than being pre-recorded.

A window of opportunity and further boosts to the schedule

The change in the broadcast time of the show (starting at 2115 rather than 2209 GMT) allowed for a significant improvement to its signals. 

For many years, Calling the Falklands had been aired on two shortwave frequencies from UK-based transmitters. 

When the thrice-weekly airings started on 6 April these were replaced by two frequencies (11820 and 15400 kHz) from the BBC Atlantic Relay Station on Ascension Island. This would have meant a considerable increase in signal strength in the Falklands. [1]

As the two Ascension transmitters in question were used by the BBC's Portuguese service to Brazil from 2200 GMT, Calling the Falklands had to air before that time. 

But it also had to go out after 2115 GMT, as before then the two Ascension transmitters were carrying the BBC's Portuguese service to Africa.

So, the window of availability was 2115-2200 GMT. 

(There were four 250-kilowatt transmitters at the Ascension relay station. While Calling the Falklands, and the Portuguese services to Africa or Brazil, were going out over two of them, the other two were being used for the BBC World Service in English, one on a beam to South America and the other to West Africa.)

A further boost to the service came went it went daily from Monday 26 April (at the same times and on the same frequencies).

Argentine jamming – and the BBC response

About a month after the invasion Argentina started jamming the broadcasts. In his 2012 article, islander Graham Bound said:
[...] at about the same time that the curfew was declared [around early May], an Argentine signals unit began jamming the programme. The voice of the main presenter, Peter King, would gradually be obliterated by a mechanical noise. This was hugely frustrating, and it was not until BBC correspondents Robert Fox and the late Brian Hanrahan landed with the forces at San Carlos [on or shortly after 21 May] that word of the jamming got back to Bush House. At that point, World Service began broadcasting on a second frequency. To our relief, the Argentines never succeeded in jamming that one, so normal morale-boosting service was resumed.  
This interesting account of the jamming from someone who was in the Falklands at the time is a counterpoint to observations that were made back in the UK by the BBC at its Crowsley Park receiving station. This only observed the jamming of Calling the Falklands to start on 25 May. [2] 

Yet, according to Graham Bound, the jamming began some time before then. In the first edition of his own newsletter Penguin News to appear after the war, Bound said the period of effective jamming (i.e. before the extra frequencies were added) lasted for about three weeks. 

The most likely explanation for this discrepancy is that the Argentines initially jammed Calling the Falklands using low-powered local transmitters on the islands themselves. These would have had the serious effect that Bound describes but would have been too weak to have been heard in the UK.

Later, more powerful jamming transmissions, perhaps from Argentina itself, may have been used, and it's likely that these were the source of the jamming heard at Crowsley.

Whatever the explanation, the BBC responded as soon as it became aware of the jamming. On 26 May  the day after Crowsley first heard the jamming and five days after the San Carlos landings referred to by Bound – the two original UK frequencies (9915 and 12040 kHz, both from Skelton, Cumbria) were reintroduced, while retaining both Ascension frequencies.

This schedule remained in place for the remainder of the war.

Argentina ended its jamming after the 14 June surrender.

After the war

The daily transmissions continued for more than a month after the surrender. From 25 July 1982, they became three days a week (Sundays, Tuesdays and Thursdays), still at 2115-2200 GMT.

From the start of 1983 this became twice a week (Tuesdays and Fridays) and the length of the programme was cut to 30 minutes (2130-2200 GMT). 

Although Calling the Falklands went back to being pre-recorded it never returned to its pre-war format of a record-request show. Instead it remained a speech-based programme, looking at political, economic, environmental, historical and other topics of interest to islanders.

There was a further cut to 15 minutes in 1992, though the twice-weekly airings were retained, as was the 2130 GMT start time.

That schedule remained in place for the remainder of the programme's life.

The final broadcast was on Friday 31 March 2006 at 2130-2145 GMT on 11680 kHz.


The BBC maintains an online archive of recordings of 755 editions of the programme aired between December 1988 and June 2005.


With a very clearly defined target audience and objectives, this was a supremely successful service during the war.  

As a 1984 article in the Falkland Islands Newsletter put it:
Calling the Falklands was like a rock for Islanders to cling to: essentially something British and familiar, broadcast direct from London, especially for the besieged Islanders, assuring them that they were not forgotten and to hang on.
The one major unsatisfactory aspect was the period of around three weeks (out of the almost 11 weeks of occupation) when Argentine jamming appears to have been a serious problem for many listeners. It was unfortunate, though perhaps understandable, that the BBC's intelligence-gathering did not spot this jamming sooner. 


[1] The programme was fed from the UK to Ascension by two BBC independent-sideband (ISB) shortwave transmitters, on 19455 kHz (from Daventry, Northamptonshire) and 15670 kHz (from Rampisham, Dorset). In both cases, Calling the Falklands was on lower-sideband (LSB) while the main BBC World Service in English was on USB.

Two simultaneous feeder frequencies were used so as to provide "diversity reception" at Ascension. This could reduce the effects of shortwave fading by allowing at any one time for the stronger feeder of the two to be selected for the programme relay.

As explained in an earlier post, all BBC external services (either individual languages or groups of them) were colour-coded for ease of reference throughout the signal chain from studio to transmitter. For example, the main World Service in English was always coded Green. Calling the Falklands was coded Red, as were the BBC's evening Spanish and Portuguese transmissions to Latin America which went out over the Red Network immediately afterwards (Calling the Falklands at 2115, Portuguese at 2200 and Spanish at 2315 GMT).

[2] By comparison, Crowsley had first noted jamming of the BBC's Spanish service on 3 May.

© 2017. Material may be reproduced if attributed to Chris Greenway and any original source.

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