People die, they don't 'pass on'

BBC Obituary Editor Nick Serpell Nick Serpell, BBC Obituaries Editor, says death is as natural as birth

"Macabre", "spooky", "must be a depressing job" are just some of the reactions I get when people find out what I do at work.

The agent of one personality put the phone down on me when I called her saying my request was far too morbid. Ironic really, as I'd only wanted her client to be available to talk about someone else. And, while a few people are fascinated with the concept, it has certainly abruptly ended conversations at some social events.

The truth is, and whisper this softly, I consider myself lucky in having one of the best jobs in the BBC. It's a job that I obtained almost by accident.

Eight years ago I was asked to spend some time in what was then the Obits Unit to help them come to terms with the demands of the 24-hour news agenda, and the beginnings of the digital transformation of our output.

I now find myself as the only person in News who spends their whole time looking after what I consider a vital element in our output.

Opportunity to reflect

When someone famous dies then our readers, listeners and viewers don't just want the news of the death, they want an opportunity to reflect on the life and career of the deceased.

It could be a famous actor who has come into their living rooms via their television, Christopher Lee was a good example of this, or perhaps a scientist who made a major contribution to human knowledge and wellbeing such as the DNA pioneer Francis Crick.

So, how do we decide who gets a BBC obituary?

The fact is of course, with limited resources, we cannot produce a piece for everyone whom our audiences might feel deserves it. More than once I have been asked to appear on programmes such as Radio 4's Feedback or television's Newswatch, to answer charges from disappointed viewers or listeners that one of their favourites failed to get a mention.

In order to decide who is going to be immortalised with a BBC obituary, I carry a loose priority list in my head.

At the top come those major public figures whose death I think our audience would expect us to cover. Actors and entertainers closely associated with the BBC will also feature near the top, as will a fairly loose definition that I mentally entitle "National Treasures". Theatrical Dames and Knights tend to fit in this category as do other much-loved figures, people such as Patrick Moore for example the somewhat eccentric but eminently watchable astronomer.

Talked about in the pub

I also like to include people whose life has an interesting story.

An example from earlier this year was Nicholas Winton, the businessman who helped rescue Jewish children from almost certain death at the beginning of World War Two. I suppose my rough rule of thumb is to ask myself whether people will be talking about the death in the pub this evening, and I don't mean in the posh watering holes of middle-class London but the real world beyond the M25.

I am always aware that my work, particularly the obituaries for the BBC website in which I take a special pride, is going to be around for ever as a document of record.

I am constantly surprised at the vast range of websites on which some of my pieces end up being cached.

A good obituary, like any other journalism, has to be scrupulously researched, checked for facts and as fair as possible. On the other hand it should not avoid negative factors in the lives of the subject. My ambition is to steer a middle course between eulogy and character assassination, with perhaps a slight deviation one way or the other, depending on how I feel about them.

Warm reactions

I have always been pleased by the warm reactions that some pieces get. Oliver Postgate was a good example of this, a man whose creations, from Ivor the Engine through the surreal Clangers to the cuddly Bagpuss had entranced successive generations of children.

So, are there any thorns in this bed of obituary roses?

One or two perhaps. I don't think obituaries feature high in BBC thinking, particularly in this era of continuing cuts.

I also hate euphemisms so you won't find the words "passed on" in any of my scripts. I reserve particular bile for a certain US newspaper that entitles its list of deaths on its Twitter feed as "passings". In my view, death is as natural as birth and should be seen as such. And I'll be quite happy to carry on doing this job until they finally remove me in the proverbial box.


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