Just a Wee Blether…

About personal ‘big impact’ 2016 deaths

At the end of every year, we always look back and remember those who are no longer with us. Of course, people die every year, we know that, but let’s be honest 2016 has been quite a year for celebrity deaths – at times it seems to have been one long death-fest.

Back in 2008 I presented a weekly radio show on a small station in Scotland – Lundy Sunday, would you believe – and I decided to devote an hour to musicians who had passed away that year. I was limited to the 60s and 70s and it was a real struggle to fill the time slot.

Among the best known were Eddy Arnold, famous for ‘Make the World Go Away’, and Bo Diddly. Odetta, who sang ‘There’s a Hole in the Bucket’ had died, and I was reduced to Hurricane Smith – remember ‘Don’t Let It Die’, anyone? In 2016, I could have filled two hours without any problem.

Famous people – TV personalities, singers, movie stars – are a big part of our childhood and our growing up, what you might call our formative years. I religiously watched the suave Robert Vaughn as Napoleon Solo in The Man from U.N.C.L.E., and spent a fair bit of my hard-earned holiday cash buying Leonard Cohen LPs.

So, I was sorry to see them on the 2016 roll-call. Just as I was sad about Bobby Vee, Alan Rickman, Muhammad Ali, Arnold Palmer, Gene Wilder, Victoria Wood, Andrew Sachs, Caroline Aherne, Ronnie Corbett, Johann Cruyff, David Bowie, Keith Emerson and Greg Lake of Emerson, Lake and Palmer – they were all ‘in my life’ at some stage and left an indelible impression.

There were, however, two people who died in 2016 who affected me more than any of the ones listed above. In fact, for vastly different reasons, they both brought me to tears. While their names will be familiar to people in the UK, they will most likely mean nothing in the US.

Cliff Michelmore was a giant of broadcast journalism. A big, imposing presence, he oozed gravitas. It was as though he needed a large head to fit his large brain. When I was young he seemed to be the BBC’s presenter of choice for the biggest stories.

Although it may not have been my earliest memory of Michelmore, there is one major news story from my childhood which he covered and which I have never forgotten. The Aberfan Disaster was a hellish story from every perspective. I was only 10 at the time and details of it have been etched in my memory since.

If you have never heard of the tragedy, it was possibly the saddest and most harrowing in Britain in my lifetime. Aberfan is a village in the heart of the Welsh coal-mining country. In 1966, a huge slurry mountain behind the village was dislodged by water, and a river of sludge came pouring down the hillside, demolishing houses before scoring a direct hit on a school filled with children aged between seven and 10.

A total of 116 schoolchildren and 28 adults, many of them teachers, died. One of the most poignant discoveries was that of a teacher cradling five children in the remains of a classroom. They had all perished and of course, it made me think about my own class teacher, my own school mates who were all the same age.

Cliff Michelmore brought the full horror of Aberfan into our living rooms. Journalists are not supposed to cry on jobs. Michelmore admitted that not only was he in tears but he also had his sleeves rolled up and was helping with the rescue effort.

But I most clearly remember his evening broadcast, delivered live as darkness was falling over Aberfan. His speech was slow and faltering, the story was told in a sober and measured tone, without embellishment or exaggeration – there was no need for any. I remember thinking, ‘please don’t stop talking because if you cry, I will too’.

I cried anyway, and I admired and respected Michelmore from that moment. In my opinion there have been few TV journalists since who were fit to lace his boots.

Fast forward to 1985 and my next tearful moment. By this time, I thought of myself as some sort of hard-nosed newspaper reporter. But hard-nosed hacks don’t burst into tears watching soap operas, do they? So, that was that theory blown out of the water.

Hilda Ogden, played brilliantly by Jean Alexander, was arguably the best soap opera character British television has produced. She was the Coronation Street busybody, a typical ‘poor wee soul’ of a character who always wore a hairnet and curlers and had nothing going for her. She lived with her lazy, good-for-nothing, boozy husband Stan (played by Bernard Youens).

But even though they had nothing, and argued like cat and dog, Hilda and Stan were devoted to each other. Then in 1985 Bernard Youens died and the show’s producers had to find a way to write out his character. It was one of the most memorable soap opera moments of all times.

As the closing credits came down on what had been an already sad episode, Hilda was pictured opening a package containing Stan’s belongings. Finally, she came to his battered spectacle case, which she opened to reveal his trademark dark glasses. At that point she slowly put her head on the table and started to sob – and so did millions of viewers, me included.

Soap opera actors are a greatly under-appreciated species. Jean Alexander was so convincing that, to a generation of Coronation Street viewers, she and Hilda Ogden were indistinguishable.

Cliff Michelmore and Jean Alexander may not have been the most high-profile deaths of 2016 but they hold special memories. It is testament to their abilities that, as I sat here writing this and thought about them, I yet again struggled in vain to hold back the tears.