The Wrong Bong Imperils Big Ben Tradition

From Associated Press

Big Ben’s chimes, which traditionally announce the queen’s Christmas Day message and ring in the New Year, might not make it onto BBC airwaves this time around. Seems the main bell has lost its distinctive bong.

A decision has yet to be made, and some British Broadcasting Corp. officials believe that it would be a big mistake to depart from tradition by banning the bong this holiday season.

The chimes have traditionally been used on BBC airwaves as a lead-in to news bulletins, but disappeared temporarily in March after cracks were found in the hammer arm of the 132-year-old main bell--Big Ben--that sounds the hours.

The original Victorian hammer was removed and replaced with a new, $15,000 steel hammer.


But ever since the 13-ton bell went back into service in August, BBC executives have been unenthusiastic, so much so that they have begun phasing the chimes out of regular broadcasts.

“It just sounds wrong,” said Simon Schute, the BBC’s general manager of operations and engineering, responsible for setting up microphones in the Big Ben belfry, 334 steps above the street.

“I’m no expert on bells, but this one has a sort of curious start and finishes sounding sort of small and clattery. It certainly doesn’t sound rich and important anymore,” Schute said.

Britain’s Independent Television News has solved the problem by continuing to use a 1967 recording of Big Ben. But BBC executives won’t hear of it.

“We shall either use the real thing or nothing at all,” said John Breach, presentation organizer of Radio 4, the BBC’s flagship domestic channel.

Breach said listeners understood the reason for the change, but BBC executives fear that the public may not be so patient with a change in a holiday tradition that dates back to midnight, Dec. 31, 1923.

Every year since then, the live sounds from Big Ben have rung in the New Year and introduced the monarch’s speech on Christmas Day.

“We’re still trying to decide what to do,” Breach said.