In the UK, there is a nightly ritual that, while a bit bizarre, is deeply embedded in the British way of life. If you live in the UK, you know the drill. You switch off the TV, lock up the house, slip into bed, turn on your radio, and begin to listen to a mantra, delivered by a soothing, soporific voice. “Viking, North Utsire, South Utsire, Forties, Cromarty, Forth, Tyne, Dogger ….” says the voice. You may or not be aware that that each of those names refers to big blocks of sea around your island nation, stretching all the way up to Iceland and down to North Africa.
Whether you tune in for coastal forecasts, tide tables, inshore waters, news on the high seas or, you just tune in to accelerate your ability to nod off, complacent in the knowledge that whatever storms are blasting away on the oceans out there, you’re in your pajamas, sensibly tucked up at home, the BBC Shipping Forecast is an institution that is as much a part of Britain’s national culture as is Doctor Who, Shakespeare and the Beatles.
BBC Radio 4 broadcasts the Shipping Forecast four times a day (at 0048, 0520, 1201 and 1754), but it’s the late-night bulletin, shortly before 1 a.m., that possesses a particular mystique. It’s not uncommon for listeners to ask for the music that introduces it, which is “Sailing By” by to be played at their funerals.
On 18 December 1993, as part of the Arena Radio Night, BBC Radio 4 and BBC 2 collaborated on a simultaneous broadcast so the shipping forecast was read that night by Laurie Macmillan, a BBC Radio 4 newsreader, could be seen as well as heard. To date, it is the only time that it is has been broadcast on television.
The Shipping Forecast is such an institution, a few years back, when someone suggested changing the bulletin’s timing by just 12 minutes, there were angry speeches in Parliament and indignant newspaper editorials. Listeners brandishing banners demonstrated outside the BBC’s London headquarters and the idea was eventually abandoned.
The reasoning behind why it is held in such high regard continues to be debated in pubs across the UK today. Many locals compare the forecast with listening to poetry. The BBC’s Arlene Fleming is one of the presenters of the forecast: “It is poetry! … There is a natural rhythm to it,” she says, “just like the sea.”
Peter Jefferson, who presented the Shipping Forecast on the BBC’s airwaves for 40 years, offered this explanation in his book And Now The Shipping Forecast, “There is something in many of us that likes the certainties of life and is averse to change. The Shipping Forecast is a comfort, a given, a sign that maybe, just maybe, everything is alright with the world after all, until the next day dawns, anyway, but that’s a few hours of delicious sleep away! Time for the febrile mind to repair itself, rest, chill out, relax and take gentle stock of things.”
The great thing is you don’t have to live in the UK to hear the Shipping Forecast thanks to BBC iPlayer. There’s also a BBC Radio 4 app that you can download and listen. Sadly, with the time difference for the 0048 broadcast, you may find yourself needing to go to bed around 6-7p depending wherever you are.