Last night, BBC weatherman Rob McElwee gave his final TV forecast. It marked the end of 20 years tackling one of the toughest communication challenges of all: how to talk about the same subject every night and make it sound fresh. I began documenting his words on our studio blog two years ago, as part of a series called A Cloudy Language…
Rob’s final forecast began: “After 20 years of doing this, you’d think I’d get it right by now. Well, here’s one last go.”
A typically well-crafted two minutes later, it ended: “Waiting behind me is the wild week ahead. And if you’ve been listening to me, thank you.”
I have been listening to Rob for some time. A Cloudy Language features the words of several weather forecasters and was originally inspired by ITV presenter Siân Lloyd’s pronouncement that “Tomorrow we’ll be speaking mainly a cloudy language.” But Rob has always been the master.
Where other presenters have quirks and foibles that merely distract, Rob employed deliberate strategies to engage us in what should be one of the most fascinating subjects on television – the mysterious machinery of the elements that shapes our everyday lives. In doing so, he never compromised the dignity of his subject, or insulted the intelligence of the viewer. He expected us to take an interest.
Too often, we let him down in this respect. We treat watching the weather forecast as a passive exercise, rather than a two-way process. Note how Rob’s last words thank us for ‘listening’, not for ‘watching’. It’s a deliberate choice of word, aimed at those people who tried to meet him halfway.
And it’s an implied critique of the way forecasting has become an increasingly visual medium – full of whizzy graphics and camera-friendly presenters. Rob knows that, in the end, it’s all about the words.
As a final tribute, here are some of Rob McElwee’s finest moments from the last two years. Admittedly, these include some of his more esoteric pronouncements, where the search for an engaging turn of phrase took him up strange linguistic paths. But I and many others have enjoyed wandering those paths with him.
“This first week of the four will produce rain a-plenty, some thunder, Met Office warnings and limited area hotness.”
“From Tuesday to Thursday, a flabby low pressure area will allow warm sunshine between slow-moving heavy showers.”
“The thought of increasing cloud and rain is there with you in Wales.”
“Then, to end the week, pressure starts to build, the northerly is cut off and the sun can be bolder.”
“Settled, sunny and increasingly warm weather inhabits the south of the UK.”
“We are still in the story of rain for the time being.”
“That tongue of cloud is a forecast – it may be a little more dispersed than that.”
“A cloud envelope coming up through Cornwall late in the day…”
“Someone seems to have pressed the button marked ‘Rain’. At night.”
“This coming month will prove the point as we bring back very cold air and then sit in it.”
“Monday and Tuesday sees the decay of this cloud and its showers.”
“This week is not characterised by excessive sunshine.”
“A cold southeast breeze with much cloud will be our fate.”
“With low confidence, the signal from the virtual atmosphere suggests that central Europe will now be under the centre of the cold anticyclone.”
“Temperatures remain below average but snow will probably be more of a hill or temporary event.”
“Do not dismiss February as a potentially cold month.”
“There seems to be a reluctance on the part of the atmosphere to move with any speed.”
“It’s a jagged translation and rain is still in the story.”
“The first few nights this week could grow fog.”
“It’s breezy and the sky responds to that by breaking the cloud up and letting the sun through.”
“I say rain proper because behind my head is lime green and yellow.”
“Windy and wet, or wet and windy: it works either way.”
“Otherwise, it’s just a scattering of showers and big holes in the sky.”
“…and here’s the line of familiarity that brings rain to Northern Ireland.”
“The wind is very much not there.”
Best wishes to Rob in the wild weeks ahead.
Nick Asbury is a freelance copywriter, one half of Asbury&Asbury studio and a director of 26, the non-profit organisation dedicated to the promotion of good writing. This post is an edited version of one that originally appeared on the Asbury&Asbury blog and is republished with permission.