Thoughts on Gerry Anderson, Albert Reynolds, and Crowded Death Days

The Grim Reaper resumes his role as the ultimate great leveller: no matter who you are or how exalted your status, you have absolutely no control over exactly when It’s Your Time. For people in the public eye, however, there is an added curse: you also have absolutely no control as to the degree of media coverage your demise will elicit. There is always the risk of going at the same time as somebody else with a higher media profile. So it proves once again, and has done so on many comparable news days in the past.

On 21 August the death was announced of the former BBC Radio Ulster presenter Gerry Anderson. He is rightly remembered for his whimsical outlook on life and the brilliance with which he connected with a range of listeners. He became the first broadcaster from Northern Ireland to be received into the Royal Academy Hall of Fame. His one broadcasting “miss”, at the helm of Radio 4’s “Anderson Country”, should in no way detract from his outstanding oeuvre.

For all Gerry’s genius, however, few would doubt that Albert Reynolds merits the greater place in history. The former Taoiseach, who passed away on the same day, is remembered as playing a pivotal role in the Peace Process, working to secure the 1994 ceasefires, and developing an encouraging working relationship with the then British Prime Minister John Major and the leaders of most of the Northern Ireland parties.

It is certainly interesting that coverage of Gerry and his life’s work has somewhat overshadowed that for Mr Reynolds, at least in Northern Ireland. This is not the only time, of course, in which more than one major public figure has departed this life at exactly the same time. There are plenty of other instances of this happening.

Maria Callas, for example, passed away on 16 September 1977 – the same day as the death in a car accident of Marc Bolan. The flamboyant frontman for glam-rock legends T-Rex dominated more of the following day’s British front pages than the popular Greek opera singer. In a 1998 TV documentary about Bolan, T-Rex’s manager Tony Howard commented: ‘Marc would have been very pleased with that!’

Later, on the last weekend of March 2002, the acclaimed comedy writer and broadcaster Barry Took passed away after a long battle with cancer. As one of the masterminds behind classics like “Round the Horne” and “Monty Python”, and long-time presenter of Radio 4’s “News Quiz”, his was a keenly-felt loss to fans of British comedy. On the same weekend, the Queen Mother died at the age of 101 – no prizes for guessing which of those two events would garner greater news coverage. Politicians at Westminster certainly never devoted an entire day’s business to eulogizing the talented Mr Took. As “Private Eye” editor and “Have I Got News For You” star Ian Hislop commented at the time, ‘For once, Barry’s timing let him down.’

More recently, the model and “Charlie’s Angels” star Farrah Fawcett died of cancer on 25 June 2009. It just happened to be same day Michael Jackson was found dead, guaranteeing that coverage of her passing would be similarly overshadowed by that of the ever-popular music megastar.

The classic example of what might be termed a Crowded Death Day, of course, was the fateful (and, for obituary writers, very busy) day of 22 November 1963. Two influential and popular writers, thousands of miles apart, shuffled off their respective mortal coils within hours of each other: “Brave New World” author Aldous Huxley in Los Angeles, and Belfast-born “Narnia” creator C S Lewis in Oxford. Ultimately, neither writer’s family had to wonder whether the other writer was receiving more press coverage at his expense – as, on exactly the same day in Dallas, Texas, a gunman cut short the life and career of US President John F Kennedy. That day, fans of literature the world over accepted that that the Dallas assassination was always going to receive more news coverage. The extraordinary coincidence of the three public figures passing over on the same day inspired the American writer Peter Kreeft to write his 1982 novel “Between Heaven and Hell”, in which he imagined Kennedy, Lewis and Huxley discussing the big philosophical questions in Purgatory.

Exactly what Messrs Anderson and Reynolds are chatting about right now is a matter for individual speculation. Both men were, though, sufficiently clued-in about the modern media that, for all their respective power and influence, on the big question of how they and their legacies would be covered on their passing, they would have precisely no control.