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Roger Bolton Roger Bolton 13:46, Friday, 1 July 2011

Jack Armstrong, one of the team of weatherman from the Meterological office, 1963

It was raining cats and dogs in London this week, with thunder crashing around Wimbledon and great forks of lightening slashing through the black clouds. That is when the sun wasn't beaming out of a flawlessly blue sky.

One day I was sweltering on the Tube, cursing the fact that I hadn't brought a bottle of water with me, while the next I was hiding from a cloudburst in a shop doorway, much to the irritation of the owner.

Changeable weather I think you'd call it.

And of course I blamed the weather forecasters for not warning me about it. (They had of course, I just hadn't listened, or rather understood what I was being told.)

In the UK we always seem to be blaming the weather and its messengers, while making more and more demands of the forecasts.

"Please tell us exactly when it will rain at the Test match", is one such query the BBC's weather team received recently.

Mind you some listeners are baffled by forecasts that include phrases like these:-
"Showers will squeak up",
"We'll have a weatherfront sitting down", and
"We are going to have a sandwich of weather today."

For Feedback this week I went to the BBC's weather centre, which is not located on some blasted heath or exposed coastline, but occupies a small space in the now doomed Television Centre in west London.

Apparently the weather team will be some of the last people to leave that famous doughnut when it closes in the next year or so.

I walked along the corridor past the gleaming photos of the predominantly young forecasters, dreaming of the long lost days of Bert Foord and Michael Fish, to meet the people who really know what pressure is, not least when they have to cut a bulletin in half with virtually no warning because a Today interview has over run.

I talked first to one of the Weather Centre's clients, the managing editor of Radio 4, Denis Nowlan.

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Roger Bolton presents Feedback on BBC Radio 4

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  • The picture shows Jack Armstrong, one of the team of weathermen from the Meterological office in 1963.


  • Comment number 1.

    How instructive that, in today's edition, an item on listeners' complaints being dismissed by patronising, self-absorbed BBC types was followed by an item in which listeners' complaints about the weather forecasts were dismissed in a patronising, self-absorbed fashion by Dennis Nolan. It seems that, yet again, we don't understand; they're right, and we're wrong.

    Informality? Personality? Poetry? If you really must, but not at the expense of information. Last year's stillborn attempt to rid the forecasts of presenters' whimsy was, quite rightly, recalled. At the time, Philip Eden said that the presenters needed to be more factual and to be a little less concerned with their egos. That doesn't seem to have happened.

    A system based on the Shipping Forecast is quite clearly the way it should be done. Mr. Nolan protests that there isn't time. Well, there would be more time if all the irrelevances were left out. In between the unnecessary asides that take up a sizeable portion of many forecasts we get a description of what the weather will be doing during the course of its day. That is not what we require. What we want is a description of what the weather will be doing during the course of OUR day - in other words; where we are, which is usually in one location.

    The forecasts are categorised by meteorology (some recent examples: "Some early morning fog in the East Midlands and Northern Ireland"; "Rain in North-east England, East Anglia, and along the coast of Devon."). They should be categorised by shared weather conditions and be chronological. I should not have to try to spot references to my region as the presenter mentions it in passing during yet another erratic tour of the British Isles and try to piece them together, having first discarded all the advice about wellingtons, cardigans, church fetes, and what football matches I can listen to.

    Even the temperatures are presented inconveniently: "Twelve in Edinburgh and Cardiff, fourteen in Leeds and Penzance, seventeen in London and North-west Scotland."

    Interestingly, in Roger Bolton's test with Liam Dutton, the latter is at pains to describe the conciseness of his forecasts and then begins his dummy run by saying, "Well, it's going to be fairly settled over the next couple of days, but let's get back to today . . " So that's 4 of his 45 seconds wasted in telling us that he's telling us something he didn't need to and apologising for bringing it up in the first place, as if it was someone else's idea.

    I'm afraid that this shows how little the perpetrators understand about radio listening. Of course, the TV version is even worse, with its orbits of the country and the opportunity for presenters to play-act in front of the camera. But there is a solution, and it should be applied to both media.

    Do it region by region. Not by the "standardised region map", but by flexible regions defined by their common weather that day. For example, if Northern Ireland and Western Scotland are to have similar weather, lump them together. If not, treat them separately, and combine Eastern and Western Scotland if they are to have similar weather. And so on. If Eastern Scotland and North-east England are to have similar weather, they become a region. If it's going to rain everywhere north of Birmingham and be sunny everywhere to the south - dead easy. There'll be plenty of time left to fill with self-indulgent claptrap.

    "The North of England"; not everyone in London will know this, but the North is divided longitudinally by the Pennine hills. Consequently, the weather to the east and west of the hills is frequently very different. We can get round this by the method described above. Some of Roger Bolton's interviewees were concerned as to where Yorkshire and Wirral are in the opinion of the BBC. Well, some days Yorkshire will be in the same region as North-east England, some days as East Anglia and Kent, some days as the West Midlands and South Wales, some days it will just be Yorkshire. Wirral could be linked with North-west England or with Wales. It depends on the area covered by similar weather. Northern Ireland might be in for the same sort of day as Wales and the West Country. There might be a rainy strip across the middle of Britain, in whch case you've got just three regions to talk about.

    They don't have to be in the same rigid order, but as the day's weather by region requires. Golden rule: name the area first, not the meteorological phenomenon. Then we know where we stand, and the presenter is not tempted to follow the clouds around the country. The same applies to temperatures: Glasgow, ten; Manchester twelve; Bristol, fourteen, Ipswich ten. And ban the nonsense about "foggy old days" and electric blankets.

    It needs someone with some discipline to sit down and instil this into the presenters. The there will be fewer occasions on which one listens to the forecast for three minutes and ends up having no idea what the weather is going to be like that day.

    And Mr. Nolan can sit back and read some poetry.

  • Comment number 2.

    I think Crapouillet hits the nail on the head in his first paragraph. Listeners who feel frustrated at the patronising answers given by BBC producers to their well-grounded complaints will have suffered elevated blood pressure listening to BBC apologist Nowlan. The point is that when time is devoted to poetic references it means that listeners elsewhere in the country are deprived details about the weather in their area.

    Nowlan seems detached from the needs of licence-fee payers and listeners. He laughs of listeners complaints when he should really be showing determination to provide a first-rate service. The impression he conveys is of someone who would much rather sit and read Wordsworth or Yeats than sort out what is a serious problem for many listeners with the reporting of the weather. If senior BBC management cannot see how much of liability this man is it raises serious questions about the competency of them all.

  • Comment number 3.

    Mr. Newlach; thank you for your supportive remarks. It's "Nowlan," is it? Funny, it sounds just like "Nolan." That's radio for you.

    Having listened again to the broadcast, I'm staggered by Mr. Nowlan's chortling complacency and his silly responses. The fact that he introduced changes over a year ago in response to complaints from listeners and yet listeners are still voicing the same complaints does not seem to have registered in the slightest. He clearly has a short memory.

    This is what was promised in October, 2009: "After listeners' complaints that forecasts are neither memorable or useful (sic), Radio 4's PM programme, with meteorologist Peter Gibbs, is experimenting with a new format. The first went out on Monday to much fanfare, with coverage in the national newspapers and a special map on the PM website. The new format divides the UK into regions - similar to the sea areas used in the shipping forecast - and the forecast for each will be given in the same order in every bulletin. 'It will be very precisely signposted so you won't have to listen to the whole of the forecast to catch the bit that's relevant to you,' says Mr Gibbs. 'Generally we'll start in the south and work northwards.' " (BBC News Magazine)

    Whatever happened to that? Wot, no poetry?

    The article goes on to attempt to persuade us that we BBC's customers dislike changes being introduced to the weather forecast. That is not true. We dislike changes when they are not for the better. In my view, the TV forecasts have become so busy, visually and aurally, that I simply wait for the summary chart at the end and learn more about my weather in a few seconds than in 3 minutes of computer graphics and inanity.

    Before anyone asks, am I old, stupid, confused, and reactionary? No, I'm 50 and university educated. I just know the difference between good and bad radio technique, largely through having done it for a living and learnt to listen like a punter. This is bad radio and a bad attitude.

  • Comment number 4.


    I wouldn't have the stomach to listen again to Denis Nowlan, but you are right to point out the way in which the views of listeners are disregarded again and again by BBC management. It was on my mind to contact the BBC about the breathtakingly dismissive attitude of Nowlan to listeners' concerns, but my complaint would only be directed by some circuitous process of pseudo-consideration to the nearest shredder. It is high time that the licence-fee payers who fork out over £3 billion a year for the likes of Nowlan were listened to.

    I would not be surprised if during his next visit to the Feedback studio to discuss the weather he quotes Norman Nicholson in an attempt to make aggrieved listeners feel better!

    "For what does it matter if it rains all day?
    And what's the good of knowing
    Which way the wind is blowing
    When whichever way it blows it's a cold wind now."

  • Comment number 5.

    This, like all items on Feedback, demonstrates the impotence of the programme itself. All guess are defensive and all refuse to acknowledge that anything is ever wrong - the first para of the first post says it all really.

    I switch off weather forecasts as soon as possible. I find them patronising, badly written, badly edited (if at all) and badly read. Last night I heard: '... sea breezes around the coast'. Well, well!

    When 'proper' CAs read them, they are brief, informative and straightforward. CAs do not stress the wrong syllables in words or sentences. (On tv, all forecasters look as well as sound like ventroloquists' dummies.)

    Please, Mr Bolton, tell us how much does it cost the BBC per annum for this 'service' which seems to be so unsatisfactory for so many? Add a few extra bob for professional training and I'll gladly teach them how to edit their own writing. Somebody must!

  • Comment number 6.

    Add your comment.

    Meteorological events have been de-formatted from the folkloric generality of seasons into an anthropomorphised pestilential Eight rider of the Apocalyse with the climate changes of one yesteryear, now appearing to happen in any unpredictable day or two. Inhospitable distant altitudes can be so facilitating.


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