THE MOST LIVE EVENT THAT EVER HAPPENED Broadcaster James Burke talks to Jenny Priestley about his role in the BBC’s broadcast of the Apollo 11 mission
n July 1969 some 600 million people worldwide watched as Neil Armstrong took the first steps on the surface of the Moon. All three channels in the UK, BBC One, BBC Two and ITV, provided extensive coverage of the Apollo 11 mission from blast off on 16th July, to Armstrong’s history-making steps at 2:56am GMT on the 21st. The BBC broadcast 27 hours of coverage of the Apollo 11 mission over a 10-day period with much of the broadcast based at the Corporation’s Lime Grove Studios. Presenter Cliff Michelmore was joined by Patrick Moore and James Burke who provided the scientific and technical explanations and analysis. Burke began working on the coverage of the Apollo missions after fronting the BBC’s science and technology series, Tomorrow’s World. When Apollo 7 was announced in 1967, the producer of Tomorrow’s World put him forward as an expert who could provide insight into the technology used to take man to the Moon. After finding himself somewhat surprised, Burke got on the phone to NASA: “I asked them to send me every book they had and I spent months reading and reading about space,” he says. “I think the BBC didn’t initially realise what a massive impact the landing would have,” Burke continues. “With Apollo 7, which was really the first time NASA
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successfully put three men up into orbit, the BBC said the news division would cover it, not the technology division. I remember we were literally sat in a kind of small conference room, we didn’t even have a studio. There was me and a desk and a blackboard and a little TV screen so we could see the pictures being sent back to Earth. So it was a very small-time beginning.” After seeing the audience figures for that initial mission, the BBC began to realise the potential the race to the Moon could have: “All of a sudden on Apollo 8, which was the one where they went around the Moon and came back again, got a very big audience. We did that one at Alexandra Palace.” Burke admits that when he worked on the missions up to Apollo 11 he viewed them as “just another job.” The team at the BBC working on each mission knew what NASA’s plans were, initially 20 Apollo missions were scheduled, and so they “were just building up” to 11. “There was no one moment when I suddenly thought ‘I’m going to be doing the Moon landing’, because it was a year away and nobody knew what the Moon landing was going to be like,” explains Burke. “It wasn’t like a horse race, or royal wedding where you’ve been through something like that before. Nobody had ever been through something like the Moon landing.
TVBEurope June 2019 Issue 65