First live broadcast from Porton Down

Porton Down Lee Stone conducts an interview at the Porton Down complex

BBC Wiltshire will host Wednesday's Drivetime show at the Porton Down complex, in what will be the first live broadcast from inside the government's centre for military science testing.

Secrecy has surrounded the base, designed to research chemical and biological weapons, since it was established in 1916 during World War I.

The UK government only publicly admitted the centre's existence near the village of Porton Down in the 1960s.

As well as storing bubonic plague and anthrax, the site enables kit such as "bomb-proof pants" to be tested.

It has also been reported that since World War II, more than 20,000 people have taken part in experiments there, some of which have allegedly led to health complications and, in rare cases, death.

"You only have to do a website search and there's stuff about alien autopsies," says Drivetime presenter Lee Stone.

Secret history

He describes the base, now known as DSTL (Defence Science & Technology Laboratory) as a "secret in the heart of our county", which sits between Bristol and Southampton in southern England.

"We wanted to get our audience a little bit closer to something they have known of - but not really known anything about - for a very long time," he adds.

Benedict Cumberbatch as Sherlock A Sherlock episode was set in a fictional site similar to the Porton Down complex

Months of long conversations and emails between the station and DSTL will culminate in a live three-hour programme tomorrow, with listeners able to text and email their views and questions.

"Their [DSTL] press team had to work really hard because obviously there's a history of Porton Down being a fairly secretive place and they're keen to make sure that legacy doesn't spill into what they're doing now.

"They want to be seen as being as transparent as they can be, so they had to work out how much stuff they can put in the public domain."

Stone and his team have already pre-recorded some on-site interviews including at a rig - shown above - that tests the impact of roadside bombs, also known as IEDs (improvised explosive device).

Tight security

However, the logistics of broadcasting via a radio car signal from within the site initially posed a problem.

"They pointed to this building which was 20 metres away and said that's our explosive magazine and we're genuinely quite concerned that if you start transmitting you might blow it up," explains Stone.

Attempts to improvise via the internet were met with laughter from the DSTL staff. "They thought it was funny that we thought we could get access to their [network] system, which is so secretive. All 3G signals are also blocked there."

The use of the radio car was eventually approved, although Stone and his colleagues accidentally set off an alarm when they carried their mobile phones into a "sensitive" building.

"We just heard this harsh metallic voice going, 'The use of mobile phones is not permitted'. We had to shamefully take them out and hand them in at reception where they got locked away."

Having reported from Afghanistan and RAF Lyneham, he says security is tighter at the Porton Down site.

The offices look relatively normal but he believes the Sherlock episode, The Hounds of Baskerville, partly inspired by the Porton Down site, showed the closest tv portrayal of the laboratories, "except that the security is even higher, the walls even thicker, the doors even heavier, and the razor wires even taller".

"It does feel like a movie set - it's very different to anywhere I've been."

  • BBC Wiltshire Drivetime, Wednesday 21 November, 4pm.


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