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“Every year journalists like me report on the well-known names in the Queen’s New Year’s Honours list. But in fact, some of the most remarkable recipients are people who don’t make the national headlines. Buckingham Palace has recently re-introduced an award specifically designed to celebrate the vital work of local heroes.” Natasha Kaplinsky
Journalist Natasha Kaplinsky has gained unprecedented access to the secretive world of the Queen’s New Year’s Honours and in this one-off hour-long documentary she explores the British Empire Medal, introduced last year to reward the extraordinary, ordinary people all over Britain who have made a huge impact on their community.
For the first time ever, cameras have been allowed behind the closed doors of the Honours selection process at The Cabinet Office in Whitehall, where a high-level committee including Lord Coe, draws up the list of names to put forward to the Prime Minister and then to the Queen for all the awards, from knighthoods, MBE’s and OBE’s to the BEM (British Empire Medal).
The British Empire Medal was first introduced by the Queen’s Grandfather, George V, in 1922. It became known as the ‘working class medal’ and was scrapped in the 1990s because it was at odds with the Government’s vision for a classless society. But it was brought back as part of the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee celebrations.
Natasha is given access to look through the confidential nominees files of people who have all done something remarkable, to find out how the recipients are decided upon.
Alex McMurtrie, Head of Honours Operations says: “It’s very difficult, essentially what they’re looking for is someone who has made a difference in their local community, they’re looking particularly for impact. They’re talking about people who when the award’s announced the rest of the community will think, ‘This is just tremendous.’”
The Queen is planning to award around 300 British Empire Medals in her 2013 New Year list and the committee put forward recommendations of 293 British Empire Medallists before allowing Natasha to delve deeper into some of their stories. But none of the nominees even know they’re in line for a Royal honour and so Natasha is sworn to secrecy as she travels across Britain to meet them and witness their amazing work.
Alleging that she is making a documentary about fund-raising, Natasha’s first trip is to St Andrews in Scotland, home to Mike Reid, who has been a popular local bus driver for the last 40 years and spends every spare moment raising money for charity. So far Mike has raised over £70,000 for more than 20 different charities and he’s still going. Inspired by his passengers and the stories he hears, one of the charities closest to his heart is Guide Dogs For The Blind. After seeing how important guide dogs are to some of his passengers, Mike has raised £45,000 for the training of Guide Dog puppies.
Mike says: “It’s just something I enjoy doing, there’s no hard work to it. And when you see a guide dog walking down the street, you get a wee buzz because you can say to yourself, ‘Well I helped that dog to be here or that blind person to have a dog.’”
Natasha attends Mike’s latest fundraiser, an evening of music and bingo and before she knows it Mike has enlisted her to play the bagpipes - and then to stop playing them - to encourage donations.
Next up Natasha heads to Bradford to meet Matthew Milnes who has lived on the Scholemoor estate for all his life. When he was growing up there was a sports centre on the estate but it was closed down when he was a teenager and became wasteland.
Matthew says: “It’s had this reputation for a lot of years where it’s one of these estates that there’s racism and criminality and if you go there you’re going to get robbed….It (the wasteland) was just basically like a war zone, a bombsite. You’d go up there and you’d see needles hanging around and broken glass everywhere and burnt out cars. Energies got channelled into more negative stuff and although that’s a choice, maybe some people saw that they had no other opportunities and this is what they were left with.”
At the age of 16 Matthew began a ten-year project that has revitalised the heart of the estate and helped raise almost half-a-million pounds, which he’s used to transform the wasteland to sports and play facilities for children of all ages and a thriving community centre.
Natasha also meets Meena Dhawan from North London who works for the Royal Mail. Fifteen years ago, Meena’s best friend’s daughter, 11-year-old Tiana was diagnosed with cystic fibrosis. Tiana had to make frequent visits to Great Ormond Street Hospital for treatment to help her breathing. In 2006 improved treatment equipment became available on the market that could be used at home, but the unit couldn’t afford it.
Meena says: “I remember thinking, ‘Well that’s just ridiculous, how can you have a situation where a child can’t breathe at home and you’ve got nothing you can give that child to make it easier for them?’”
Meena decided to raise money for the equipment herself and spent nine months with Tiana’s family organising a fundraising auction that raised over £46,000. Tragically Tiana passed away in 2012 but the legacy of the work that Meena has done is very evident in the hospital’s Badger Ward to this day, as Natasha meets young patients on the ward whose lives have been transformed by it.
Natasha is cleared to join the Queen’s personal representatives in each area, the Lord Lieutenants, as they deliver news of the award to the three chosen medallists, who are themselves then required to keep the award secret until the honours list is officially published.
The programme captures the emotion of the medallists’ big day as they receive the People’s Medal at official ceremonies and Natasha brings her own special surprises to proceedings to make the events even more magical for the amazing individuals.