The Greenwich Time Signal
I've been presenting Evening Extra, our drive-time news programme, for the past couple of days. News programmes present me with a challenge I don't have to deal with on Sunday Sequence -- the pips. They appear in my computer running order as "GTS", meaning "Greenwich Time Signal" (though they haven't indicated Greenwich Mean Time since 1972 -- we now use international atomic time).
It really doesn't get more "BBC" than the six-pip time signal, and "crashing the pips" (talking over them) is something we try to avoid. In fact, I've heard stories of presenters in bygone years being called to editors' offices to explain how they managed to crash. Sometimes, in the dash and splash of a live news programme, crashing may be unavoidable, but it's certainly not encouraged. I have contrived ways to stop talking seven or eight seconds before the hour to make space for the six-pip time signal. The easiest way to avoid crashing, I've found, is to have a broadcast assistant give me a ten-second countdown in talkback (our communication system between producers and presenter). This didn't work last night because the weatherman, giving the prospects for the week ahead, got as far as Wednesday before realising he had only 10 seconds left to do Thursday, Friday and the weekend -- I just had time to say "Thanks", before I heard the beginning of the pips ringing out let a death-toll. Thankfully, there is no stewards' enquiry into pip-crashing these days.
Before we had pips, a pianist in the studio played notes that chimed like the bongs of Big Ben. Pianists across Britain can thank Frank Dyson, the then Astronomer Royal, for the loss of work, for it was he who, in 1923, proposed a new public time signal that would enable everyone in the country to set their clocks and watches accurately. Though, if we still had pianists instead of the electronic time signal, I could have stared menacingly at him or her last night and given the weatherman more time to finish his read. (In other words, I could have played for time, while the pianist played for time.)
Here's a question for you. Each of the six pips is a tenth of a second, except the last, which is a full half-second. Why is the last pip longer than the previous five?