A sombre Vivian Creegor dressed in a dark suit and white blouse sat behind the desk in the Sky News Studio in London and told the world: ‘It is with deep sadness that we announce the death of Her Majesty, the Queen Mother.’
In the production gallery, Director Mike Niblock and the rest of our Sky World News Tonight team rolled a montage of pictures over a background of solemn music and Vivian continued with her well -rehearsed link:
‘Elizabeth The Queen Mother died in her sleep at the Royal Lodge in Windsor Great Park with the Queen at her bedside. She had been suffering from a cold for four months. She was 93.’
Vivian was dressed in a black suit from clothes kept in a wardrobe in the newsroom.
Also in the wardrobe was the instruction manual and script for one of the most closely-guarded secrets in the world of British broadcasting ….. Operation Lyon christened after the second half of the Queen Mother’s maiden name, Bowes-Lyon.
Niblock cued a pre-recorded obituary by Sky’s Royal Correspondent Simon McCoy and along with the rest of the World News Tonight team we adjourned to the Brentford Tandori for Indian curries and to drink a toast to the Queen Mum with bottles of Kingfisher beer.
It was only a rehearsal, one which, along with the BBC and ITN, we carried out regularly so we wouldn’t be caught unawares when the oldest member of the Royal family finally did go to the great palace in the sky and we had to break the news to the world.
Our rehearsals took place at 11.30 at night in what we called the Back Half Hour when we were broadcasting a documentary before live news resumed at midnight.
We had just finished our Chicken Tikka Massala starters when Stan the overnight security guard telephoned the Brentford Tandori to tell us the switchboard had been inundated with calls from media organisations around the world about our exclusive report that the Queen Mother had died.
Executive Editor Elwyn Evans who had left the BBC to join Sky News held his head in his hands.
‘How the f**k did that happen?’ asked Scot Chisholm, Vivian’s tough talking Kiwi co presenter, who had come off duty just before the rehearsal.
‘I’ve no idea,’ I said as we piled into our cars and headed back to Sky Headquarters.
‘But I think we are in the sh*t. We’re going to be the laughing stock of the world.’
But then we weren’t living in Wayne’s World.
Wayne Hanson was a 26-year-old newly recruited Australian video tape editor who had been watching our rehearsal on the internal monitor in his edit suite and thought it was for real.
Edit Suite One was much in demand by the Aussies because it was the only one which had a telephone capable of making overseas calls.
Wayne’s mother back home was a loyal devotee of the Royal Family and he quickly reached for the handset.
‘Dreadful news Mam. The Queen Mum has died.’
A tearful Australian Mum tuned into her local radio station, Brisbane’s 4BH, and when there was no mention of the story on the news she phoned in and berated the disc jockey.
‘How can you be sure?’ he asked.
‘Isn’t my son Wayne the Editor of Sky News in England? If you don’t believe me I can give you his telephone number.’
The phone rang in the edit suite.
‘Good day mate.
‘Is that Wayne the Editor? ‘
‘Is it true the Queen Mum has popped her clogs?’
‘Too right mate. I’m watching the news here as it happens.’
4BH and its sister station 2UE in Sydney broke into their normal programming to announce the Queen Mother’s death. Editors at Channel 7 TV In Sydney also heard the broadcast and decided to wait for official confirmation.
But they were too late.
A junior producer had already passed the newsflash to a presenter.
Four minutes later the Australian Broadcasting Company picked up the story and broadcast the announcement nationally.
By 11.06 am, 100 miles away in the capital Camberra officials were preparing a statement for the Prime Minister Paul Keating to read to the nation.
But like Channel 7 News they were too late.
The Prime Minister was already live on air being interviewed about another matter entirely. The reporter heard the news in his earpiece and asked Keating for his reaction. He offered his condolences to the Queen and the rest of the Commonwealth.
The reports sparked tearful calls from the public to radio phone-in programmes and heated debates down under about whether the Monarchy could survive her death.
John Laws, the host of a popular Sydney radio phone-in took a call from a woman choking back tears.
‘It was expected,’ Laws told her.
‘She was the darling of the Royal Family.
‘But I wonder if this is the beginning of the end of the British Monarchy?
‘Let’s hear what you all think at home…’
And yet another switchboard was inundated with calls.
The Australian Governor General Bill Hayden phoned Buckingham Palace to be told the Queen Mum was very much alive.
But the story already had a life of its own.
When we arrived back at headquarters and a tearful Wayne had confessed, the fake news was travelling around the globe like the Corona Virus and we were wondering if it was the beginning of the end of Sky World News Tonight.
‘F**k,’ said Scottie.
‘Now you know why we New Zealanders don’t trust the f**king Aussies.’
By now America was waking up and even Stan the security guard was fielding telephone calls from news organisations from New York to Los Angeles.
And back in Britain, newspapers, radio stations and other broadcasters were waiting for official confirmation of the death before their grand plan for Operation Lyon swung into action.
It involved the shutdown of most of Britain for a day of national mourning and the virtual closure of most of London for the mother of all funerals.
For several years International broadcasters like CNN and NBC News in the United States, NTV in Germany and ABC in Australia had been paying vast sums of money to rent spaces on top of office blocks to ensure they got the best camera shots of the funeral cortege as it wound its way down the Mall.
Sky’s Royal Correspondent Simon McCoy took a call from our old colleague Dickie Arbiter who had risen from being an LBC Radio presenter to the official spokesman for Buckingham Palace and her Majesty the Queen.
‘What sort of f**king cowboy outfit are you working for now?’ Arbiter shouted above a cacophony of ringing telephones.
‘We’ve just had to wake the Queen Mother to tell her that she is dead.’
‘What was her response?’ asked Simon.
‘She chuckled and went back to sleep,’ said Dickie.
Ian Frykberg who had not long arrived from Australia as the new head of Sky News managed to get through to the news desk on a private line. Frykberg, or Frykers as he was known, carried a lot of weight with his boss… upwards of 25 stone. So much so that Rupert Murdoch paid for him to occupy two seats in Qantas Business Class when he regularly returned to Sydney to report back on what was happening in Pommy Land.
‘What should we do?’ asked the beleaguered overnight News Editor.
‘Say nothing,’ yawned Frykers. ‘It’s only you f**king Poms panicking.’
But when the British Tabloids hit the streets it was a different story.
‘Newsflash! We’ve XXXX’d the Queen Mum’ headlined a Today News Special.
‘I killed off Queen Mother’ shouted the Daily Mirror alongside a picture of Vivian.
‘The Sky Falls in on Wayne’s World ‘ said the Daily Express.
And we knew we were in deep trouble when the Murdoch owned Sun joined in the feeding frenzy.
‘I killed her off’ screamed the front page splash above a photograph of a black suited Vivian.
And there was more inside on Page Three.
‘OOPS!’ said its headline alongside a sombre screen shot of Vivian and the story of how a ‘Bulletin Started an Amazing String of Errors’.
By now even the British Broadsheets had taken up the cudgels against what some saw as an Australian assault on the Monarchy.
And radio phone-ins were inundated with calls about the emergence of what worried leader writers in the broadsheets described in editorials as Tabloid Television.
Murdoch was apparently worried too and reportedly rang the Queen Mother’s official residence at Clarence House to apologise.
It’s also said that he told Downing Street how it had all been ‘a grave mistake’.
The Daily Mail tracked down Wayne and discovered he lived in a Volkswagen camper van.
‘Inside Wayne’s World’ ran the headline over a picture of the VT editor sitting on his bed in a sweat shirt and shorts wearing a wide brimmed hat with corks hanging down on strings and clutching a tin of Fosters lager in his hand.
But by then Wayne had been unceremoniously sacked by Sky News – not for killing the Queen Mother but for using a company phone to call his mum Down Under.
Fast forward almost four years and I’d just finished editing the Saturday edition of Sky’s main early evening news programme Live at Five.
I was about to head for home when the news editor Phil Wardman called me over to the desk.
‘Two of your producers have called in sick and will be off for the rest of the weekend. Will you be OK for staff in the morning?’
‘As long as the Queen Mother doesn’t die I’ll be fine,’ I joked.
The next morning at 6.00 am my radio alarm went off and I heard the news on BBC Radio Four.
It was Sunday August 31, 1997.
There had been a car crash in Paris.
And this time the story was for real.