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The Sunday Post: Clocking on - the BBC and BST through the years

Susannah Stevens

It's the one weekend of the year when young children are guaranteed to wake up an entire hour later. Alas – parents won’t feel the benefit...

That’s right, it’s time to adjust your watch (or simply check your smartphone) and make sure that your circadian rhythms don’t make you late for that important Sunday appointment... The clocks have gone forward; British Summer Time has officially begun and Genome is celebrating by looking back at some of the ways in which we’ve marked the spring clock change over the years.

Just as BST celebrated its 18th birthday in 1934, the National Programme broadcast The Extra Hour, a feature about the father of the clock-change: William Willett, “builder and health-enthusiast”, and his campaign for daylight saving. Billed as a serio-comic tale, it looked into the struggles that Willett faced to get the clock change effected, giving the “thousands who perform this now annual operation” an insight into the “difficulties, prejudices, and opposition encountered by the man who first thought of doing what they now do annually almost without thinking”.

The Extra Hour: A Summer-time Symposium. In praise of William Willett... how summer-time came into being... various views of summer-time, rustic and urban and a procession of summer sports and pastimes. Devised and produced by Laurence Gillian

Willett (incidentally the great-great-grandfather of singer Chris Martin), was described in the Radio Times as a builder and a businessman who was also “a lover of the sun and the open-air”. He was a keen golfer; and if you believe writer Laurence Gilliam, one of Willett’s main incentives was gaining an extra hour of daylight so he could get in an extra 18 holes before sunset. If only the rest of society would agree to surrender a precious hour of sleep…

Nowadays, the clocks always go forward on the last Sunday of March, but in its early years BST happened later. The very first was in May, 1916, but ensuing clock changes happened around Easter, which is why The Extra Hour was broadcast on 21 April.

Sluggard awake! Six years later, the BBC exhorted the lazy among us to arise with the help of a radio “time-switch”, which promised the end of rude awakenings by raucous alarm clocks. This invention was intended to make the passage between sleep and wakefulness a more gradual and soothing experience. The article promised it could even work in conjunction with the automatic tea-making machines then coming onto the market. Its timely inclusion in the Easter issue of Radio Times meant it was certain to be seen by readers who were still adjusting to the loss of an extra hour of sleep.

The Sluggard Reformed: with the aid of a time-switch and the BBC early-morning exercises

Notably, this issue came out in 1940 - the year that the clocks were not put back at the end of the Summer, allowing an extra hour before blackout during World War Two. For the next seven years, (with the exception of 1946), the UK operated under Daylight Saving Time permanently, with an extra hour added in summer (“Double Summer Time”). 

The news that British Double Summer Time would not be continued into 1948 was announced by the Prime Minister, Clement Attlee, on the Home Service, on 13 June 1947. But before that happened, at least one programme examined the possibilities provided by extra evening’s sunlight. In May 1947 gardening presenter Fred Streeter looked at how the clock change could benefit the gardener, in his series In Our Garden.

Fred Streeter took over from CH Middleton as presenter of long-running series In Our Garden

In 1966, the BBC celebrated the 50th anniversary of British Summer Time, with An Hour in The Sun – a retrospective by broadcaster Derek Parker. Could he have guessed that a mere two years later the country would be experimenting with continuous summertime – dubbed British Standard Time. According to Radio 4 Reports: Keeping us in the Dark, the move (discontinued in 1971), had angered a great many “who like to go to work or take their children to school in daylight”.

By 1989, the clock change was occasionally getting its own listing. This was at a time when most channels were not broadcasting overnight, so it was just a reminder for the audience. There has been some disparity through the years as to whether the actual “event” should be recorded at 1am, or 2am: technically, the clocks go forward at 1am, and back – in October - at 2am.

In 2009, the clock-change day brought about a very dynamic experience for Blue Peter presenter Helen Skelton, who was tasked with helping to move the hands of Big Ben forward one hour at the appointed time. It may have been an early start for her, but she’s got nothing on the Windsor Palace clockmaker, who is responsible for 450 clocks, according to 2005 programme The Queen’s Castle. I certainly wouldn’t want to be doing that job this Sunday.

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