January 3, 2006

The Fleet's Lit Up

A famous incident in the pre-war days of BBC Radio was the "Woodrooffe Incident", also known as "The Fleet's Lit Up". On 20 May 1937 the BBC was going to carry a live commentary on the illumination of the naval fleet, and its man on the spot was former Naval officer Lieutenant-Command Thomas Woodrooffe. Woodrooffe had taken full advantage of the generous entertainment provided on board his old ship, and when the time came for the broadcast his state can only be described as "tired and emotional". Because in those days there were no continuity suites - all switching was done in the control room, it was some time before the engineers took the initiative of fading him out themselves.

There's now an MP3 of what I believe is the full incident available on the web, from here at nr23.net, but there wasn't yet a transcript, so I thought I'd make one. It's hard to make out Woodrooffe's words at times due to the crackly off-air recording, so I apologise for the occasional (indistinct).

This incident is notable for two things. Firstly, even the fearsome John Reith must have been at least slightly amused, as Woodroffe was only suspended for a week after this incident. He went on to commentate on other things for the BBC, notably declaring in the closing minutes of the 1938 FA Cup Final that "If there's a goal scored now, I'll eat my hat." There was, and he did.

Secondly, it led to the development of continuity studios as part of the programme chain, where undesirable happenings on air could be taken care of much more quickly as continuity had direct control over station output. More on this here.


This is the Regional Programme. The Illumination of the Fleet. Once again we're taking you on board HMS Nelson for a description of the scene at Spithead tonight by Lieutenant-Commander Thomas Woodrooffe.


At the present moment, the whole fleet is lit up. When I say 'lit up', I mean lit up by fairy lamps.

We've forgotten the whole Royal Review ... we've forgotten the Royal Review ... the whole thing is lit up by fairy lamps. It's fantastic, it isn't the fleet at all. It's just ... it's fairyland, the whole fleet is in fairyland.

Now, if you'll follow me through ... if you don't mind ... the next few moments... you'll find the fleet doing odd things (indistinct, but that's my best guess). At the present moment, the New York, obviously, is lit out ... and when I say the fleet is lit up ... in lamps... I mean, she's outlined. The whole ship's outlined. In little lamps.

I'm sorry, I was telling some people to shut up talking.

Umm.. what I mean is this. The whole fleet is lit up. In fairy lamps, and ... each ship is outlined.

Now, as far as I can see is about ... I suppose I can see down about five or six miles ... ships are all lit up.

They're outlined, the whole lot. Even destroyers are outlined. In the old days, y'know, destroyers used to be outlined by a little kind of pyramid of lights. And nowadays ... destroyers are lit up by ... they outline themselves.

In a second or two, we're going to fire rockets, um, we're going to fire all sorts of things (indistinct). And.. you can't possibly see them, but you'll hear them going off, and you may hear my reaction when I see them go off. Because ... erm ... I'm going to try and tell you what they look like as they go off. But at the moment there's a whole huge fleet here. The thing we saw this afternoon, this colossal fleet, lit up ... by lights ... and the whole fleet is in fairyland! It isn't true, it isn't here!

And as I say it ...

It's gone! It's gone! There's no fleet! It's, eh, it's disappeared! No magician who ever could have waved his wand could have waved it with more acumen than he has now at the present moment. The fleet's gone. It's disappeared.

I'm trying to give you, ladies and gentlemen, (indistinct) the fleet's gone. It's disappeared. I was talking to you ... in the middle of this damn (cough), in the middle of this fleet ... and what's happened is the fleet's gone, disappeared and gone. We had a hundred, two hundred warships around us a second ago, and now they've gone, at a signal by the Morse code, at a signal by the fleet flagship which I'm in now, they've gone, they've disappeared.

There's nothing between us and heaven. There's nothing at all.

(recording ends)

Posted by mpk at January 3, 2006 11:16 PM

First, congratulations for pulling together the info. I've been trying on and off for years to even find the occasion and the name of the commentator (both of which I found earlier this evening) and now I have both the transcript and the link to the mp3 file from you.

Second, it says a lot for the promptness of Google that the article was listed within 3 days! (I searched for 'tired and emotional' 1937 broadcast).

Third, at least as told in a BBC radio programme sometime in the 1960s (the only time I had previously heard the clip), the reason Woodrooffe was not sacked is that he always denied he was drunk. Since there were no other BBC people with him on HMS Nelson, and presumably his former Navy colleagues backed him up, this could not be rebutted, so no disciplinary action could be taken on that account. It was felt that merely being 'tired and emotional' rather than 'drunk' did not warrant disciplinary action against Woodrooffe, since his superiors were aware it would be a tiring and very emotional experience for him, and should have sent a colleague to help him. And of course, he was both respected by and popular with the listeners.

Finally, is this the first ever use of the phrase 'tired and emotional' as a euphemism for 'drunk'? That was the info I was really after, and I am still no wiser.

Posted by: enginear at January 7, 2006 1:33 AM

"There's nothing between us and heaven. There's nothing at all."

What a great line. Many a true word is spoken in a state of sozzlement.

Posted by: Ashley Pomeroy at September 1, 2007 6:30 PM

I believe that it was my grandfather, Lt AH Bush, known as Harry Bush, who was i/c the Nelson's ward room on the night Tommy Woodroofe became "tired and emotional". He appears to have had a reputation as being unbeatable at drinking, and my grandfather loved a challenge!

My mother only told me about this a couple of years ago, after hearing a recording of the broadcast on Radio 4.

Malcolm Chisholm

Posted by: Malcolm Chisholm at March 5, 2008 10:57 PM
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