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Thursday 27 Nov 2014

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BBC Archive celebrates 150th anniversary of Big Ben

A recording being made for the BBC Yugoslav Section in front of Big Ben on Westminster Bridge

Today the BBC Archive is launching a new online collection celebrating the 150th anniversary of Big Ben, as part of its plans to open up parts of its extensive archives dating back to 1922.

The new collection will enable the public to take advantage of the broadcaster's unique access and ability to witness defining moments in history and share them with the nation.

Sunday 31 May marks Big Ben's official anniversary, and the BBC Archive has captured and preserved some of the fascinating events around Big Ben in its various broadcasts – from how the chimes were first recorded on New Year's Eve in 1923, to Peter Duncan's both daring and brave scaling of the clock face in Blue Peter in 1980, and BBC television's Jim'll Fix It venturing inside the tower in 1988.

Julie Rowbotham, BBC Archive executive producer, said: "Big Ben is an iconic British landmark and we hope this collection will delight the public. It has been fascinating to see the different ways that the BBC has captured Big Ben, since we were able to make our first recording in 1923."

The Big Ben collection also showcases some of the intriguing moments in the clock's history, such as the times it fell silent and did not "bong" owing to repairs brought on by cold weather and redecoration.

The image gallery includes photographs of Richard Dimbleby reporting inside the clock face of Big Ben in 1949, first accredited female war correspondent Audrey Russell reporting from Westminster in 1954, and Daleks from Doctor Who crossing Westminster Bridge in 1964.

This collection is the latest in a series to be released online which explore the cultural and political developments that shaped the 20th century. The new collection goes live today (28 May 2009) and you can view the collection by going to

Through the creation of these online collections, the BBC hopes to release hidden treasures providing a fascinating source of socio-political history.

The BBC archive, which holds nearly one million hours of TV and radio programming, serves as a reminder of how the BBC evolved, and has an unrivalled record of recent British contemporary history.

Notes to Editors

Explore more than 80 years of UK and BBC history with the BBC Archive website. Programmes, documents and images bring the past to life and reveal forgotten stories. The Big Ben: A Look Back In Time collection will now form a part of this permanent resource which the BBC has made available to UK audiences. For more information, visit

The BBC Archive Big Ben: A Look Back In Time collection includes the following programmes and a 20-image photo gallery.


Scrapbook For 1924: How the Big Ben chimes were first recorded for broadcast by the BBC

Recorded: 1936

Synopsis: On New Year's Eve, 1923, BBC engineer AG Dryland climbed onto a roof opposite the Houses of Parliament with a microphone to record the chimes of Big Ben. The sound he captured has been broadcast on BBC radio ever since. This is an extract from the Scrapbook For 1924 radio programme.

These Foolish Things: Nancy Mitford and others comment on the sound of Big Ben

Broadcast: 1958

Synopsis: In this extract from a programme chaired by Claude Bourdet, guests share the feelings evoked by the sound of Big Ben. For certain contributors, especially those who had faced oppression in Nazi-occupied Europe, the Second World War has given this sound new resonance. Hearing Big Ben's chimes on the radio during the war raised morale and, in later years, the sound seemed more sacred for reminding people of what they had survived.

Blue Peter: The Story of Big Ben

Broadcast: 1967

Synopsis: In answer to letters from viewers requesting ideas for places to visit in London, Blue Peter recommends Big Ben. Valerie Singleton provides a quick overview of its origins, including how the 13-ton Great Bell was transported to the top of the tower.

The World At One: The World At One reports on the maintenance of Big Ben

Broadcast: 1971

Synopsis: The World At One describes how Big Ben has been kept up to the mark as an accurate time-keeper since 1859. The people who maintain the clock describe its intricate workings, which have survived wartime bombing and extreme weather. However, there is a risk that the dearth of their traditional skills in the modern age could threaten to silence Big Ben. The report also includes a wartime recording by Robin Duff.

News: Big Ben Repaired

Broadcast: 1976

Synopsis: Big Ben resumed working at noon after some three weeks of silence. The BBC's Nine O'Clock News reports on the possible causes of the breakdown and the condition of the mechanism.

Blue Peter: Big Ben Is Cleaned

Broadcast: 1980

Synopsis: Blue Peter presenter Peter Duncan sets a new standard for daring Blue Peter missions when he takes on the role of steeplejack to clean the clock face of Big Ben. He and the cameramen take on the task.

The Great Palace: The Story Of Parliament: Victorian Masterpiece

Broadcast: 1983

Synopsis: The Palace of Westminster is the legacy of architects Charles Barry and Augustus Pugin. They began rebuilding Parliament after a fire all but destroyed it in 1834. Contributors who pay homage in this programme include then Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, who drew inspiration from its designs. Meanwhile, chiming reassuringly in the background is Big Ben, the palace's crowning glory.

London Plus: Big Ben's Chimes

Broadcast: 1986

Synopsis: Engineers rush to fix Big Ben's chimes when one of the bells in the clock tower at the Palace of Westminster stops working due to the severely cold weather. Top facts about the famous bell are given alongside terrible puns about clocks, bells and time-keeping.

Breakfast Time: Big Ben Under Repair

Broadcast: 1987

Synopsis: Cracks in the striking mechanism mean that Big Ben needs to be repaired before it will bong again. But how long will Westminster be without the renowned chimes?

Jim'll Fix It: The Chimes of Big Ben

Broadcast: 1988

Synopsis: Jimmy Savile fixes it for an 11-year-old girl to climb to the top of the clock tower at the Palace of Westminster and hear Big Ben's chimes. On the way, she gets to look behind the clock face, see the machinery that makes the clock work and get a stunning view of London.


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