Global Airwaves Part II

RGS President Michael Palin’s earlier collaboration with BBC Television, ‘Full Circle’.

Benjamin Sacks

Collaboration and mutual documentation between the Royal Geographical Society and the BBC’s domestic and external services continued throughout the Cold War.

In the 1969 Reith Lectures, Dr F Fraser Darling publicised the ‘present serious ecological imbalance’ in Loch Leven, Kinross, as part of a broader push toward greater environmental awareness. The RGS shouldered subsequent advocacy for the loch, its parametres, and ecological future. In 1971, R P Kirby authored ‘The Bathymetrical Resurvey of Loch Leven, Kinross’, in which he examined contemporary efforts by the Fife County Council and the University of Edinburgh to resurvey the loch and, he hoped, promote its sustainability. The charts his team created, he added, ‘produced a map considerably more detailed than that of any other comparable inland body of water in Great Britain’ (p. 377), establishing a model framework for subsequent bathymetrical surveys.

The following year, the BBC television series The Search for the Nile catalysed a public reflective discourse at the RGS. Dorothy Middleton, lecturing at Lodge House on 7 February 1972, reminded her audience that the Society was rightfully the ‘focus’ of the nineteenth century exploration of the Nile River and its ancillary rivers and streams. The Nile represented both a rich source for new historical and geographical discoveries as well as a springboard to the vast, largely uncharted African continental interior. The combination of the BBC’s programming, Middleton’s and others’ work served to re-publicise the RGS’s African “roots” on the centenary of Sir David Livingstone’s last expedition, the RGS’s efforts in the Sudan, and Sir Henry M Stanley’s journeys across the breadth of Africa.

At about the same time, the BBC and RGS  responded to a so-called “crisis of Welsh”. The 1961 and 1971 censuses precipitated national debate over the survival of the Welsh language . E G Bowen and H Carter, writing in The Geographical Journal (Oct., 1974), identified the 1962 radio lecture entitled ‘Tynged yr Iaith’ (‘The Fate of the Language’) as the locus from which public discussion had stemmed. The two authors went on to document and analyse the distirbution of Welsh speakers throughout the British Isles. Both these articles evidenced, at the very least, mutual awareness between public discourse, BBC documentary and current affairs programming, and the RGS’s position at the centre of the geographical establishment.

The RGS-BBC relationship was not always based on a jockeying back-and-forth between relevant focus stories or issues. Sometimes, the BBC, whether directly or indirectly, deliberately or by happenstance, aided RGS expeditions. In 1974-1975, the RGS, in cooperation with the Saudi Arabian government and petroleum concerns, executed a new survey of the Arabian Peninsula. Aided by satellites and Land Rovers, the surveyors undertook to complete a new national chart (pp. 244-46). To calculate longitudinal coordinates in such inhospitable and largely unexplored regions as Arabia’s Rub’al-Khali (the ‘Empty Quarter’), the surveyors employed the latest version of the chronometer method first successfully developed by John Harrison in the 1760s. Astronomical observations were logged with time signals broadcasted by the BBC’s Greenwich Mean Time ‘pips’, guaranteeing a precise, highly reliable calculation that provided the surveyors with (often) their only bearings in the endless desert sands (p. 249).

 R P Kirby, ‘The Bathymetrical Resurvey of Loch Leven, Kinross‘, The Geographical Journal 137.3 (Sep., 1971): 372-78.

 Dorothy Middleton, ‘The Search for the Nile Sources‘, The Geographical Journal 138.2 (Jun., 1972): 209-21.

 E G Bowen and H Carter, ‘Preliminary Observations on the Distribution of the Welsh Language at the 1971 Census‘, The Geographical Journal 140.3 (Oct., 1974): 432-40.

 John Leatherdale and Roy Kennedy, ‘Mapping Arabia‘, The Geographical Journal 141.2 (Jul., 1975): 240-51.

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