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It was one small step

Jenny Priestley talks to broadcaster James Burke about the 50th anniversary of the Moon landing

Everyone knows the words Neil Armstrong spoke as he stood on the Moon for the first time. What you might not know, is that those words might have been drowned out if the pictures had failed.

Broadcaster James Burke sat alongside Patrick Moore as they took BBC viewers through history. Burke had been tasked with explaining to viewers what was happening if the images from the Moon hadn’t been good enough to broadcast.

Asked how he felt about being part of such a momentous moment in broadcasting history, Burke uses one word: apprehensive. “There’s a contradiction involved,” he explains. “As a journalist, the last thing you want to do is run out of words. You have to be fluent in explaining whatever it is that you’re explaining whether it’s your point of view or a question, you don’t want to run out of words.

“At the other end of the scale the problem is when to know to shut up. Because the unforgivable sin would be to talk when an astronaut talks, and since you never know when the astronaut’s going to talk, because there’s no plan, apprehension was probably the word that explains it best.”

Burke, who is among the speakers at New Horizons, the DTG Summit 2019 on 8th May, describes the broadcast as being “like a very complicated horse race. You split the brain into two. One half was listening for every hint that the astronaut is going to stop talking, and the other half of your brain was ready to be voluble if they didn’t talk. And the nightmare was when he got to the bottom of the ladder, would you talk over the words?”

“I suppose really the whole thing boils down for me to that one moment. We all presumed he was going to say something when he stood on the surface of the Moon for the first time and we all presumed it would be when he got down the ladder. So you have to shut up and stay shut up. Of course one of the scariest things in television or radio is shutting up for too long. If you shut up for too long the audience starts to wonder what the hell is going on. But if you don’t hang on that dangerous extra second, you might talk over the guy and that’s the ultimate crime.”

To read more of TVBEurope’s interview with James Burke look out for our June issue.