Monday, 29 August 2016

Space Station Norfolk

A year or two ago, I was looking through the Sunday morning papers at work, ready to go on and do the paper review on Sunday Breakfast with Anthony Isaacs, when I noticed an article in one of the broadsheets which piqued my interest.

It was about the government’s plans to build a space base in the UK for commercial space flights, and part of the article mentioned that in the 1960s consideration had been given for building a rocket base in Norfolk. I was vaguely aware that Britain had once launched its own satellite into space, from Australia, but I had no idea that they’d considered launching from Britain, much less from in the county where I live and work.

I did a quick search online, and found an article written by ex-BBC East TV man Dean Arnett to tie-in with a television feature he made back in 2006, telling the story. I immediately thought this could be a good subject for a radio documentary, especially given that in radio we’d have more time and space (excuse the pun…) to explore the story than had perhaps been available to Dean. I discussed it with Anthony, who as assistant editor is also one of my bosses at the station, and he seemed keen, but it lay fallow for a while as I worked on other things.

Earlier this year I ended up talking about the idea with Anthony again, and he was still enthusiastic, giving me the go-ahead to start working on it properly. I began work in June – speaking to the writer Nicholas Hill, who Dean interviewed back in 2006, but also recording interviews at the Science Museum in London, and on the Isle of Wight where most of the British space programme of the 1960s was based. I also of course went to Brancaster, where the Norfolk rocket base might well have been built had history taken a different path.

As a little aside, there was an interesting moment when I was travelling to do some of the recordings on Friday the 24th of June – the day after the EU referendum. I was heading down to London early as I was recording my interview with Douglas Millard from the Science Museum at 9am, then making the journey down to the Isle of Wight to speak to the chief designer of Britain’s Black Arrow rockets, Ray Wheeler, that afternoon, then staying in Newport overnight before recording at the rocket’s engine testing base at High Down on the island the next morning.

The previous day the trains from Norwich to London had been seriously disrupted by flooding caused by heaving rain, so rather than risk missing my interview at the Science Museum I decided to cancel my plans to take the train and head down to London by coach instead, which meant I found myself in the salubrious environment of a MegaBus from Norwich Bus Station just before 5am.

For most of the way down I was listening to Today on Radio 4. At a quarter past eight, David Cameron stepped out of Downing Street to make his speech in reaction to the outcome of the referendum – telling the country that, as a result, he would be resigning as Prime Minister. As I listened to him speak, I could hear crowds cheering or jeering at the end of Downing Street, and as I looked out of the window of the coach I noticed a cheering and jeering crowd at the end of a street the coach was now crawling past.

My knowledge of London geography is minimal, but I was suddenly aware that we were in fact going past Downing Street just as Cameron was making his speech – so I can say, in a manner of speaking, that I was there at this particular moment of history. The coach was creeping forward so slowly in the traffic that I was even able to take a picture to mark the occasion.

If I were a better writer than I am, I'd like to pen a "state of the nation" novel telling the story of the man with the carrier bag; who he was, where he was going, and what he was up to...

Anyway, the recordings were all duly done, and I finished putting the programme together last week. I called the documentary Space Station Norfolk – not the best of titles perhaps, but I thought it riffed nicely on Ice Station Zebra! – and it will be broadcast this evening at six o’clock, available of course for 30 days afterwards via the BBC iPlayer, here.

It’s also results in another bit of writing for me. Twice before, for my Sherlock Holmes and Ayrton Senna documentaries for the station, I’d written tie-in features for the Weekend supplement of Norfolk’s main local paper, the Eastern Daily Press, to help promote them. A few weeks ago I decided to drop the editor of Weekend, Trevor Heaton, a line to see if he would be interested in having a piece about Space Station Norfolk as well, and he kindly agreed to take it.

I was pretty sure I’d done a decent job on a good story with the article, but I didn’t know until I saw the paper on Saturday that Trevor had once again made it the Weekend cover feature. This was particularly pleasing not simply because it got the piece more attention and saw it promoted on the front paper of the paper proper, but also because it meant I completed a hat-trick of EDP Weekend cover features, with the Holmes and Senna pieces also having made the cover. (Fortunately, only one of them required me to dress up in costume!)

My hat-trick of EDP Weekend magazine cover features from recent years!
The piece also appeared in Saturday's Evening News, the EDP's sister paper for Norwich, and there is a version you can read online on the EDP's website, here.

So there we are. I hope people like the documentary if they get the chance to hear it this evening. If you’re interested, there’s a preview clip available here, and a photo gallery you can browse here.

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