Big Birthday Bash

Sir David Attenborough talks to Mike Williams Sir David Attenborough talks to Mike Williams at the Bush House open day

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In a giant marquee in the central courtyard of Bush House a buzz of many languages filled the air as the World Service celebrated 80 years of broadcasting on February 29.

The mix was eclectic - from politicians to an Iron Woman, via the morning editorial meeting, wildlife and reminiscences of the Service - and all the while the core news of the day was being reported and debated, just as usual.

Central Commissioner Steve Titherington was running about looking happy and harassed, answering a hundred queries and revelling in the coming-together of a long-planned celebration. 'I'm loving it.' he told Ariel, before rushing off to speak to the next language service heading into the marquee to broadcast.

Memories of the past

16 language services used the space over the course of the day, and much of what was broadcast was also video-streamed live on the web, with photographers and camera crews bustling around. Nor was the action confined to the marquee, on the stately marble landings of Bush House as presenter Lyse Doucet and crew filmed an interview on one floor, another team shot set ups on a different level.

Sitting quietly in the offices of the Nepali service Puran Agrawal was waiting for his turn on air. Mr Agrawal was the first Nepali presenter of the first Nepali programme, which aired on June 7th 1969. He's back at Bush to talk about those early days, when he was told the fledgling service was 'an experiment - it might last a week, it might last three months.'

'I fell into the job by accident,' he explains. 'I was studying in London when I was approached and asked if I'd like to do a half hour programme once a week.'

Forty years ago the programme was recorded on a reel to reel machine, cut together with razor blades and sticky tape and sent by plane to Nepal where it was broadcast on a Saturday morning. It was a magazine programme, designed to open a window on the UK to its Nepali audience.

Mr Agrawal qualified as an accountant and gave up broadcasting. Looking at the large offices, the digital studios, he said: 'Bush House is completely different. When I was here it was smaller, more old fashioned.'

Yet the Bush House of today is also old-fashioned. One of the reasons for the Open Day is that as well as being 80 the World Service is moving on, to the state-of-the art technologies on offer in the new news centre at W1.

A multi-media experience

Quite what the first, 1930s World Service staff would have made of the news that the Open Day was trending on twitter is anyone's guess, but their 21st century colleagues certainly made the most of every bit of media going to engage the global audience in the output.

9am editorial meeting 9am editorial meeting, live

Aside from the first ever broadcast of the morning editorial meeting - live - and the videos of the activity in the marquee, listeners were texting, tweeting, emailing or using facebook to send in questions and comments.

Nowhere was that more obvious than in the appearance of the day's star guest, Sir David Attenborough. As he took the stage with interviewer Mike Williams for a special edition of One Planet a screen to the side started scrolling through the questions being fired in from places as far apart as Melbourne, Cape Town, New York and Newcastle [England].

Warning from an old warrior

Affable and self-deprecating Sir David repeatedly told his audience his job was a 'privilege', saying he felt very lucky to have been 'allowed' to continue broadcasting into his 80s.

'Do you mind being called a veteran broadcaster?' asked Williams. 'No,' said his guest; 'It sounds like an old warrior.'

Attenborough recently stirred controversy by discussing the effects of global warming on the polar regions in his last series Frozen Planet. Asked why he didn't comment more on the destruction of natural habitats Sir David said: 'Broadcasting for 60 years is a huge privilege and you should not use it as a platform to propagandise. Nevertheless there are some things that have become so crucial, so important, like global warming and population growth, that you have to say something.'

Running on the spot for a health check Running on the spot for a health check

Sir David was not the only big name to grace the marquee. A rather incongruous pair of running machines in the middle of the structure came into their own later in the day when four-time World Iron Man champion, Chrissie Wellington put volunteer staff through their paces for Health Matters.

As the day wore on there was a special edition of World Have Your Say, and musical interludes. There was a staff party in the marquee on Friday evening, as the World Service enjoyed every minute of its 80th birthday. BBC History and Heritage have also dedicated a web page to the story of Bush House.

But perhaps the last word should go to World Service staff, reminiscing about their time at Bush House in a specially made video, or to the current Writer in Residence Hamid Ismailov, in an ode to the building. Ismailove wrote:

'Bush House - the Noah's Arc of nations,‬

‪the runway where voices take off and fly over the Earth,‬

‪the kingdom where echoes of dead are kept alive,‬

‪the thinking brain, the watchful eye, the sharp tongue and the caring heart of meridians,‬

‪Bush House - an English pub, an Uzbek chay-khana, a Spanish tavern, an African hut, a Russian kabak,‬

‪where views and opinions fly around vibrating the globe,‬

‪Bush House - a cold mirror in front of that old, beautiful and furious world...‬'‬

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