The Fall Of The Berlin Wall With John Simpson/London Calling: Cold War Letters, BBC Four

Screened to mark this weekend’s 30th anniversary of that world-changing event, The Fall Of The Berlin Wall With John Simpson told the story of the divided city and the wider Cold War era through the eyes of the BBC’s veteran world affairs editor.

On November 9 1989, the day the Berlin Wall fell, Simpson was actually in Warsaw reporting on a state visit there by West German Chancellor Helmut Kohl. It was his colleague Brian Hanrahan who got the scoop. By the following day Simpson had arrived in the city but what should have been a history-making broadcast from near the Brandenburg Gate crossing was hit by technical gremlins after a few seconds, even today a source of great “embarrassment” to him.

His own reflections and recollections of the time were interesting enough, though. And to test the old maxim about journalism being the first draft of history he compared his reports and the claims and suppositions made in them against the experiences and knowledge of people such as historian Timothy Garton Ash, who had been a student in East Germany at the time, and Professor Sabina Mihelj, an expert in media. She countered Simpson’s long held belief that it was a live East German press conference on the morning of November 9 announcing changes to travel restrictions which caused the spontaneous gatherings that effectively signalled the end of the Wall. In fact it was the spin put on the story by West German TV news outlets that did the trick – after all, most East Berlin TV aerials pointed west.

Another BBC correspondent and another tale of Western spin was at the heart of London Calling: Cold War Letters, though the man in question was a very different sort of character to John Simpson. He was the mysterious Austin Harrison and for the 20 years of its existence he was the voice of Letters Without Signatures, a programme on the BBC’s German Service. Weekly between 1955 and 1975 Harrison read out and commented on letters written by anonymous East German citizens. These were posted to an ever-changing series of fake Berlin addresses given at the end of each programme, and then taken to London by diplomatic courier. But with the German Service actually being an arm of the Foreign Office, much of the information received ended up with the shadowy Information Research Department, a 300-strong office advising British and West German spooks.

Naturally a programme about stories had some very human ones to share, such as that of Karl-Heinz Borchardt. He was a 16-year-old schoolboy in Greifswald in northern German when he wrote to Harrison in 1968 but by then the Stasi were adept at intercepting letters and identifying the writers. Borchardt spent two years in prison. After his release he returned to Greifswald and he’s still there today, a living monument to a troubled time in Germany’s recent past.