Ken Bruce recalls ‘stress’ of broadcasting Queen’s Christmas message

Ken Bruce has revealed the BBC used multiple back-up tapes and an extra power generator as a precaution during its broadcast of the Queen’s Christmas message during the 1980s.

The veteran broadcaster, 70, was involved in the festive transmission on a number of occasions between 1986 and 1990 while hosting his weekday mid-morning show on BBC Radio 2.

He said the responsibility created a “particular stress”, despite him only needing to press a button on his desk to start the tape rolling.

Writing in the Radio Times, he said: “I volunteered to come in live on the big day for a number of years.

Ken Bruce reflects on the broadcasts in the latest issue of the Radio Times (Radio Times/PA)
Ken Bruce reflects on the broadcasts in the latest issue of the Radio Times (Radio Times/PA)

“With a show running from 9am until 11, I could pop the turkey in the oven at 7am on a low light and be home in time to take it out perfectly cooked for lunch.

“No traffic on the roads and a feeling of satisfaction at imagining I was providing a public service.

“The particular stress came in the form of the Queen’s Christmas message.

“Back then it was broadcast on radio in the morning, at 10am in our case on Radio 2. This was termed a grade one broadcast; nothing could be permitted to go wrong.

“Timings had to be exact; the introductory words had to be delivered accurately and with gravitas, and I had to press the button on my desk to set the tape rolling.

“I had to simultaneously start a back-up in case the original failed. To allow for the possibility of both failing, another studio next door was also running a further copy.

Queen’s Christmas broadcast
The Queen following the recording of a recent Christmas message (John Stillwell/PA)

“This, you might think, would be belt and braces enough. But no. As a final precaution, the generators in the basement of Broadcasting House were fired up, just in case of a power cut.

“Not one of these fail-safe measures was ever needed on my Christmas mornings, but their very existence fed the worries.”

Bruce said the thought of the detailed preparations that had gone into “protecting a straightforward operation from being fouled up by a half-witted broadcaster” made him doubt his ability to press the button at the correct moment.

“After surviving that, forgetting the bread sauce or burning the roast potatoes became unimportant,” he added.

Read the full story in Radio Times, out now.