Eight-year-old Phoebe Hanson, a devoted listener to BBC Radio 4, was horrified to hear the bongs of Big Ben were going to stop next year while the clock was repaired, and wrote to the PM programme volunteering to provide a replacement.
In a letter to Roger Sawyer, the show’s editor, Phoebe offered to hum the chimes and play an instrument for the bongs, recording everything on a microphone that she would bring to the studio.
Sawyer responded, admitting that “some of the cleverest and most important people at BBC are scratching their heads wondering what to do,” but gently suggesting that Phoebe wasn’t perhaps aware of what an arduous task hers would be.
He was much taken with her suggestion and would pass it on, he said, but added: “As you know, the bongs are live … and the beginning of the Westminster Chimes is always at a slightly different time. It depends on things like temperature and atmospheric pressure and stuff like that.”
“So it would be quite a task for you, doing the bongs: you’d have to rush in after school each day (and at the weekend), rush home for tea, homework, a bit of chillin’, then a quick sleep. And then – here’s the hard bit – you’d have to rush back in again at midnight because there are live bongs again before the midnight news. That’s an awful lot of work for someone who is still quite young. I know I wouldn’t like to do all that.”
He signed off : “I’m very impressed that you listen to Radio 4. I wish my two children did. Have a spiffing Christmas and a stupendous and lucky 2017.”
Her father, Jon Hanson, told BBC news: “She was listening to Radio 4 in the car and Eddie Mair was saying that Big Ben would stop chiming next year, and she said, ‘Oh no, we have to do something about it. I want to write a letter.’ She takes things very literally as she is on the autism spectrum, so I think she still wants to do the bongs.”
The clock that drives Big Ben’s chimes is 157 years old, and will have to be stopped next year for several months at least, for £29m worth of repair work. Renovation work is also overdue on the 96-metre Elizabeth Tower that houses it.
When the chimes last fell silent in 2007, Radio 4 substituted them with a birdsong, which was favourably received by most listeners. “Then the people behind Tweet of the Day stole our idea ... so we can’t do that again,” Sawyer said.
Phoebe’s father posted the story and the letter on his Facebook page, which has since received over 14,000 likes. Hanson told the BBC: “I’m very proud of her. I work in IT and we try to increase our internet presence, but then she has stepped in and done it in one fell swoop.”