The Fleet’s Lit Up! Thomas Woodrooffe’s Notorious Drunken Performance

Tired and Emotional – the BBC’s top broadcaster of the pre-war era produces a commentary for the ages.

Lieutenant-Commander Thomas Borries Ralph Woodrooffe was one of the BBC’s leading radio presenters during the 1930s, a voice of authority who became a part of history with his commentaries on everything from the 1936 Olympics to Neville Chamberlain’s return from his meeting with Hitler in 1938. Absolutely none of that is remembered now though. Instead, Woodrooffe will be forever famous as perhaps the first man to ever broadcast while drunk as a skunk.

In 1937, he was assigned to cover the Coronation Review of the Fleet at Spithead – the sort of thing that passed as radio entertainment back then. To add some colour to events, Woodrooffe was sent to post his report from his old ship, HMS Nelson. This, in retrospect, was a bad idea as he met up with several old naval chums and spent the day doing what old naval chums tend to do, namely drinking a great deal. By the time for his live broadcast arrived, he was very much the drunken sailor, but in this case the eternal question of what to do with such a character was answered with the unwise decision to put him on the air and hope for the best.

The resulting four and a half minute broadcast is quite the experience, as Woodrooffe alternatively rambles, mumbles and shouts excitedly in the manner that associates of drunks will recognise only too well. Much of his commentary seems to consist of saying that the fleet is ‘lit up’ – much like himself, you might think – by ‘fairy lights’, something that seems to both confuse and startle him. Then, he becomes almost frantic that the fleet has magically disappeared. There are several theories about what happened at this point, but the most popular is that he fell over and was looking at the ceiling. He ends the commentary in an almost philosophical tone:

We had a hundred, two hundred warships around us a second ago, and now they’ve gone, at a signal by the Morse code, at a signal by the fleet flagship which I’m in now, they’ve gone, they’ve disappeared.

There’s nothing between us and heaven. There’s nothing at all.

Unsurprisingly, Woodrooffe was then pulled off the air – the final straw, it seems, being his use of the word ‘damn’ in his drunken mutterings. Standards, after all, need to be maintained. Oddly, this dramatic faux pas didn’t result in him losing his job; instead, he was suspended for a week, which seems pretty light punishment all things considered. He would continue as a leading broadcaster, not only covering Chamberlain’s claim of “peace in our time” but also commentating on the first ever televised FA Cup Final, where he made another blunder – one minute from the end of the match he said “if there’s a goal scored now, I’ll eat my hat.” You can imagine what happened next, and a week later, he appeared on a light entertainment show to eat a hat-shaped cake – which frankly feels a bit of a cheat.

At the outbreak of war, he rejoined the Admiralty and stayed in their press division for the remainder of the conflict after a brief stint as Commanding Officer of HMS Coventry. But his remarkable drunken broadcast became the thing of legend, pressed onto 78s that were privately circulated around the BBC, some of which inevitably made their way into more general distribution. The excuse given for his outburst – that he had been ‘tired and emotional’ – became standard comical code for saying that someone was pissed as a fart, and a later musical comedy show was called The Fleet’s Lit Up. Woodrooffe – who had, by most standards, an impressive career – was doomed to forever be remembered for his moment of shame. What he made of it in later years is anyone’s guess – I hope he was amused.

Enjoy the whole recording below.

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