When Theresa May accepted the role of British prime minister in July 2016, she faced innumerable immediate challenges and tasks. One of them was to write four letters, one to each of the commanders of Britain’s nuclear submarines. Those letters contain her handwritten instructions on what to do should the UK be hit by a surprise nuclear attack that kills both her and a designated colleague who would become the decision maker in her absence.
They’re known as the “letters of last resort” and detail a series of checks that the submarine commander must make to establish exactly what has happened. Understandably, the precise nature of these checks is secret, but one of them is believed to require establishing whether Radio 4’s Today programme is still being broadcast.
Could a radio show be any more representative of “the establishment” than that? As its former star presenter, the late Brian Redhead, remarked:
If you want to drop a word in the ear of the nation, then this is the programme in which to do it.
Yet Today’s beginnings were much humbler. It may now be the nation’s most influential news and current affairs programme, but in 1957 it sounded rather different. The original proposal for the programme described it as a “morning miscellany” and as a result the variety of content was much wider than is heard now. Recipes and keep fit exercises were still a part of the show until the 1970s.
From the infamous gaffes of the late Jack de Manio, through the dulcet tones of James Naughtie (who also had his slips of the tongue), the furore and subsequent departure of Andrew Gilligan, and the welcome chortle of Sarah Montague, Today has been regarded as the breakfast companion of the political and business class for six decades. In reality, its listenership is far wider.
As the show marks its 60th birthday (50 years on Radio 4 and ten before that on the Home Service) it’s worth noting that it recorded the highest listening figures in its history this year. Over 7m people regularly tune in for their daily dose of Humphrys, Hussain and high-brow haranguing.