The skills of making an obituary

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When it was announced two weeks ago that Dad's Army actor Clive Dunn had died, within 20 minutes his obituary became one of the most popular articles on the BBC website.

But what skills lie behind a good obituary and are the profiles experiencing resurgent interest?

"It's a biography, really," says Nick Serpell, who has been obituary editor at BBC News for the last five years.

"Whether it's tv or online, it's an ideal time to actually just pause and say this person was really significant and they did this.

"I think the art of either writing or making a television obituary is, you have to project yourself 50 years into the future - that might sound a bit strange - but we're looking back at the life of somebody who will still be remembered in 50 years' time."

Hence he doesn't put topical references in and looks at the subject's life as a whole.

"As long as the milestones go in, that's all we need…because of this 24-hour news syndrome that we live in, I'm always being badgered to update obituaries that don't need updating."

Advance obits

Researching and condensing decades of a person's achievements into a three-minute tv package can be overwhelming but Serpell reckons a report can be worked around three or four standout moments.

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There are probably 300 tv obits already done”

End Quote Nick Serpell Obituary editor, BBC News

"You have to steer a course between character assassination and a complete eulogy ... because people are warts and all.

"We bring the same standards of journalism to obituaries as we do to everything else, it has to be truthful, fair and get properly researched but there's no reason why you can't reflect on the criticism of someone, particularly if you use somebody else's quote.

"If I write something like 'not all critics were in love with his work' I don't think that's unfair at all."

Serpell, who was previously NUJ father of the chapel at BBC News Channel, quips: "You're protected from any legal comeback as the dead don't tend to sue very often and no one can sue on their behalf."

When it comes to research, he looks for interviews on the Nexis news cuttings service and, if possible, gets quotes from documentaries on his subject.

Wikipedia is not to be trusted, although it can be useful for dates of births, and tweets announcing deaths have to be double-checked in case they're spoofs.

Online is Serpell's favourite medium, with its scope for creative writing and more hits than the News Channel. "You can actually do justice to somebody's life which you can't do on tv or radio because you just don't have the time."

As with other media outlets, most BBC obituaries are done months, if not years, in advance.

"There are probably 300 tv obits already done, maybe 4 to 500 online, and 3 to 400 radio as well," Serpell says.

"We always have an obituary for the US president, whoever it is, we always have an obituary for the British prime minister and one for the Pope."

Living politicians, scientists and royal figures feature among the obits but nearly half relate to people in the entertainment industry.

"That's because those are the people that come into people's living rooms. People feel like they know Hollywood actors and actresses, even though they have never met them, so I think there will always be a slight bias towards that," Serpell adds.

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It's one of the few jobs where being older is a definite advantage ”

End Quote Nick Serpell Obituary editor, BBC News

But when does he start composing the obituary of a high-profile person? He admits Amy Winehouse's profile was done when she was around 25 or 26, about a year before the singer died, because of her struggles with drink and drug addiction.

"Sometimes we are wrong - there are people who have had somewhat hectic lifestyles who seem to have got themselves together and carried on.

"There are one or two young people but, in general - because people live for longer now - I don't start worrying until their late 60s or early 70s. Look at the Rolling Stones."

Lack of resources

Cutbacks mean the obituary unit has reduced from four posts to one in the last few years, leaving Serpell to produce all advance tv and online items and some radio packages.

"If somebody [without an obit] died today, the newsroom would do it - I'm not really geared up for doing stuff on the day."

The lack of resources also means the bar is higher for an individual to get a BBC News obituary.

Serpell had to answer complaints on the feedback show Newswatch when the life of the Scottish singer Kenneth McKellar, who appeared regularly on tv in the 1960s and 70s, was not marked by an obituary after his death in 2010.

"Because we don't allocate enough resources to obituaries, there are always going to be people who we ought to have done.

"There is also a tendency that someone whose career may have finished 20 or 30 years ago get forgotten as new generations of journalists come into the newsroom.

"That's always a problem. I don't know how we get around that … It's also one of those few jobs at the BBC where being older is a definite advantage because sometimes I can remember these people whereas, with the best will in the world, someone who is 23 or 24 may not."

Flowering periods
Bygraves obit To paraphrase the late Max Bygraves, obits "wanna tell you a story"

Much of the job revolves around the BBC archive in London, where Serpell has to do his tv obit research until Fabric - the BBC's tapeless archive scheme - is complete. He's also based half the time at Salford, where he moved with his wife, who works at BBC Breakfast.

"The Fabric thing will be great in five years' time - that's my view - but they've launched too early. I still get material delivered in film cans because a lot of the BBC archive has never been transferred from film due to the cost.

"When everything is digitised, Fabric will save me time, but at the moment I have to ingest everything in real time."

Interest in obituaries appears to be growing alongside the increasing fascination in genealogy. They are still an important and popular part of UK and US broadsheets.

"The flowering period of the obit started in the 17th century, when the news sheets started being published," explains Serpell.

He says obituaries reached their height in the 19th century, when newspapers published long obits of figures like the Duke of Wellington, before going out of fashion in the early part of the 20th century.

Now, he says, interest "seems to be coming back".

"My own view - and I've got no evidence to support this at all - is that as present-day life possibly becomes less secure and less certain for people, they find more certainty in the past."

Ultimately, like all stories, obituaries work best when they're about fascinating characters, even if they're not famous.

Serpell's monthly online column Been and Gone focuses on lesser-known characters such as one of the first female police officers to become a Metropolitan Police commander and the pirate radio dj who established the Principality of Sealand off the English coast.

But given that all stories are pegged to death, can the job of an obituary editor be depressing?

"No, it's wonderful, I love it," says Serpell.

"What better job could you have than telling the story of people's lives, of people who have made an impact in their own careers. Either they've entertained people or they've invented something that has saved lives - there are some really good stories to be told. I just find it a fascinating job."

  • An annual obituary round-up will air on the BBC News Channel at the end of the year.
  • Radio 4's obituary programme Last Word, presented by Matthew Bannister, also airs weekly on Fridays, 4pm.

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