I write about other things too – at least I used to, when I had the time. Every once in a while I’ll be dipping back into my ‘other’ archives and posting things here that might be of interest.
Sunday 20 April 2014 marks the 50th birthday of BBC2, the BBC’s second TV channel and Britain’s third. The grand opening night back in 1964 turned out different to all expectations, however. For the 40th anniversary, in 2004, I researched and wrote this piece about what happened.
Back in 1964, the much heralded Opening Night of BBC2 was wrecked by a power failure that tipped half of London into chaos and took down Television Centre. ‘There hasn’t been anything like it on TV since before John Logie Baird,’ ran the joke. Mark Lewisohn reveals how the BBC’s dark hours invoked the spirit of the Blitz and won the new channel unexpected friends and publicity
The BBC operated Britain’s sole television service for 12 years, and for another eight it competed with ITV – then, by April 1964, the Corporation was ready to launch its second channel and the nation’s third. Buoyed by the government’s Pilkington Report and restoration of the licence fee to a realistic level, and pressed by TV manufacturers eager to market new technology sets, the BBC determined to produce a channel of cultural distinction, pursuing excellence in drama, comedy, sciences and the arts.
To be introduced in London and the Home Counties before unfolding nationwide, the new station was the focus of great expectation. Dennis Potter declared in his Daily Herald column, ‘BBC2 offers us, for the first time, a genuinely planned alternative instead of a haphazard chase up the ratings table.’ Writing in Radio Times, the BBC’s Director of Television Kenneth Adam requested ‘recognition of what we are seeking to do, and forbearance when we fall short of our intention.’ Yet none could have foreseen how this falling short would blight even the triumphal Opening Night.
Tuesday 20 April 1964 was the launch date, when what had always been simply ‘BBC television’ became BBC1 in order to accommodate the new arrival. BBC2 was set to open at 7.20pm with a ten-minute Line-Up, and then present eccentric comedy from the Alberts; the top Soviet standup Arkady Raikin; Howard Keel in a new BBC recording of Cole Porter’s Kiss Me, Kate; and Off With a Bang, an ambitious fireworks display from Southend. Swiss Television had even arranged to relay the entire evening by closed-circuit to delegates at the annual Montreux TV festival.
Michael Peacock – BBC2’s unflappable Chief of Programmes, young at 34 – was steering the ship from his sixth-floor office at Television Centre in White City, west London, just as he had through two years of planning. This was the Big Night. On the dot of 6pm, uniformed catering staff wheeled in a trolley the content of which had been carefully specified: aperitifs, ice, glasses for 12, cigars, cigarettes, two Thermos of soup, cold meats, salads, cheeses, fruit and coffee. A dozen bottles of champagne were ordered for 11 o’clock, when the new channel’s first night would close down.
Numerous other key figures in BBC2’s start were in the Club bar, toasting the night ahead. Reflecting on subsequent events in Ariel, the Corporation’s staff journal, Line-Up producer Rowan Ayers saw the evening as the culmination of a ‘years-old dream of getting BBC2 off the drawing-board and on to the air,’ adding, ‘it seemed at Zero minus 60 minutes little short of gilt-edged.’ Then, at 6.34pm, the lights began to flicker. ‘Too many people are switching on to watch!’ one wag remarked. Then the lights failed completely.
A serious electrical fault had just developed at Battersea Power Station, five miles south of Television Centre. Switches to isolate the problem had burst into flames, and the fire then swept through cable ducts. At precisely the same time, out at Iver, Buckinghamshire, there was a breakdown in a 60,000-volt cable that fed electricity south from the Midlands. These twin failures caused an extensive blackout through west London and in parts of the central area.
The Battersea Power Station phone system was paralysed and firemen were not summoned for a full hour, until a worker drove to a phone box and dialled 999. There was an irony here. During summer 1963, when BBC2’s Opening Night plans were being formulated, the Head of Light Entertainment, Tom Sloan, had suggested placing camera crews across London to demonstrate the working capital, basing one of them at Battersea Power Station. The idea had been rejected.
It took 60 fire-fighters more than two hours to extinguish the Battersea inferno. Central Line trains ground to a halt, theatre performances were cancelled, cinemas closed, a QPR football match was abandoned, hospitals were affected, as were Buckingham Palace, the House of Commons and several thousand homes. The Prime Minister, it was reported, ate by candlelight at a National Liberal Club dinner at the Café Royal, and Lena Horne sang in twilight at the Palladium. A man working on the new underground Victoria Line fell down a 30-foot shaft at Vauxhall and was seriously injured. Though localised generators soon helped get life moving again, it would be more than six hours before Battersea was providing output.
When the power failed it was dusk, not dark. In the International Communications Area at Television Centre, a group of Fleet Street writers were gathered to watch BBC2’s opening night. Candles, storm lanterns and bonhomie were quickly located. On the sixth floor, though, Michael Peacock was watching the clock. ‘There was a general preoccupation with when the power would come back,’ he remembers. ‘After all, when you lose power it comes back, it doesn’t go away for a long time.’
Though there was emergency lighting for the stairs, Television Centre wasn’t equipped with a generator of sufficient output to sustain the studios. ‘To power up the whole of the building – six or seven studios as well as the central distribution system – would have needed a bloody big generator,’ Peacock reflects.
It wasn’t only BBC2’s opening that was in disarray, for several BBC1 productions – including Compact, Z Cars and This is Your Life – were meant to have been recorded in the studios that night, and the evening’s BBC1 transmission schedule was severely affected: four programmes were lost, replaced by apologetic caption cards and the western movie Devil’s Canyon. The signals were beamed to the Crystal Palace transmitter from the BBC’s former HQ at Alexandra Palace in north London, an area unaffected by the Battersea fiasco.
Moreover, the old studios were also helping out on BBC2, for the commonly held view that nothing went out on the second channel’s first evening is wrong.
‘Back home again, that Yorkshire bus-conductress who was sacked last week for calling Pakistani passengers “Stinking wogs” has got her job back. Union representatives went to see the management and the conductress made an apology.’
These, extraordinarily, were the first words heard on BBC2 on its launch night. Because of the west London power failure, the newsrooms, based in the BBC’s original 1930s TV studios at Alexandra Palace, were going live when they least expected. Seated at a small desk in Studio A, the journalist Gerald Priestland found himself reading a bulletin on BBC2 plum on its scheduled start at 7.20. Even here gremlins were at work, because for the first two minutes no sound accompanied the vision; it finally burst through on the bus-conductress story.
This much is known because, by good fortune, a 14-minute video of that first-night news bulletin was discovered last year in a box of obsolete tapes out at Kingswood Warren, near Tadworth, Surrey. In turn a private house, finishing school and hotel, this gothic pile was acquired by the BBC in 1948 for its Research and Development operations. Recently screened to members of the Test Card Circle, and also at the National Film Theatre as part of the annual Missing Believed Wiped TV festival, the video is a deliciously hilarious example of antique broadcasting.
Gerald Priestland is sitting at a desk on which is placed a portable manual typewriter and standard 1960s telephone, and towards which is pointed a microphone on a stand. Behind him, other newsroom staff and journalists contemplate documents. A lanky man with swept-high hair, a knotted brow and a casual sweater over his tie, Priestland sits bolt upright, and when the director rings the phone and interrupts his flow – as he does on three occasions in these first few minutes – the inescapable impression is of John Cleese in ‘And now for something completely different’ guise.
Mid-evening, back at Television Centre, the emergency lighting was failing to pierce the enveloping gloom. As Rowan Ayers would report, candles and torches met in confused pools of light in corridors and offices, the Line-Up presenters interviewed one another to pass the time, and engineers opened a book on when the power would come back. Michael Peacock was calmly re-drawing his plans by the half-hour. ‘As we moved past eight o’clock and towards nine I realised we couldn’t have anything like a full first evening,’ he remembers. ‘We finally decided that if power hadn’t come back by 9.45 we’d abandon everything and start BBC2 the following night.’
The London ITV company Rediffusion offered generous use of its control centre and transmitters after 10.30 but it was already too late. The gesture was all the more poignant in the light of how, in September 1955, the BBC had stolen a publicity march by killing off Grace Archer on ITV’s opening night. It crossed some minds this evening that ITV had scuppered BBC2’s launch by exacting piratical revenge down at Battersea, but this was quickly discounted.
Throughout the long candlelit evening, BBC press officers served a running buffet of drink and information to the band of journalists, all of whom were happy with an unexpected lead story for the following morning – tales of dashed plans, plucky heroism and photographs of Peacock and co with their lanterns. Among BBC staff there was cheering when word came though that Alexandra Palace had beaten ITN with film of the Battersea Power Station fire, screened in the evening’s main BBC1 bulletin.
By 10pm, though, the ice-buckets turning rapidly to water, Television Centre was evacuated for the night. Michael Peacock told the assembled reporters, ‘We are very disappointed, but we will have a very good night tomorrow.’ In an evocative aide-memoire dictated the next morning, Kenneth Adam declared, ‘When I got to Reception, after negotiating the stairs with a flickering candle to guide me, I was surrounded by sympathisers, including large numbers of actors released from their vigil – and actresses, two of whom I lifted home in my car. It was like the Blitz all over again.’
The next morning there was indeed much sympathetic front-page coverage. ‘All publicity is good publicity …,’ Daily Mail editor Mike Randall would write to Kenneth Adam. The Director of Television himself was so ecstatic at how Alexandra Palace staff had kept their heads during the crisis that he wrote to the News Editor, Waldo Maguire, proclaiming, ‘Heroic action from ancient halls – with Gerald Priestland in magnificent form – cheered and heartened us all in our dimlit tragedy. We salute and thank our latterday saints!’ The letter was pinned with pride on Alexandra Palace staff noticeboards.
At 11am, Play School unexpectedly became the first proper broadcast on the BBC’s second channel, and that evening’s menu was replaced by the postponed first-night schedule, fireworks and all, kicking off with a Line-Up in which presenter Denis Tuohy blew out a flickering candle.
BBC director-general Hugh Carleton Greene expressed himself ‘pleased to the point of surprise by the sympathetic and friendly result in the Press after the calamity’. Forty years on, Michael Peacock reflects on how the night’s unforeseen events turned emphatically in BBC2’s favour. ‘The moral of the power failure was “no mistake no publicity, big mistake big publicity,”’ he says. ‘Had it not happened, the nation may not have known that BBC2 had gone on the air. As it was, everybody knew that we hadn’t.’
Mark Lewisohn wishes to acknowledge the BBC Written Archives Centre for providing information.
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© Mark Lewisohn, 2004, 2014
Friday 22 November 2013 marks 50 years since the assassination of President John F Kennedy. For the 40th anniversary, I researched and wrote this piece explaining how the dramatic news reached across the Atlantic in those now long-gone days before mobile phones and the internet.
Originally published by the British newspaper The Independent, I’ve revised it slightly for accuracy ten years on.
When JFK was shot, 50 years ago this week, the BBC’s Washington correspondent was stranded down a coal mine and, in London, the top brass were on their way to a black-tie ball. MARK LEWISOHN pieces together a bizarre picture of British broadcasters caught on the hop
In Britain, America and many other countries, the Kennedy assassination established a new pattern for crisis news stories. Instead of the radio or newspapers, people looked to television to establish the facts and, if circumstances allowed, see the pictures. As it happens, though, this particular story caught everyone on the hop. On the evening of Friday 22 November 1963 the cream of British broadcasters came to the late 20th-century with a bump.
President Kennedy was shot at 12.31pm Dallas time, 6.31pm in London. On BBC-tv, the six o’clock news finished on schedule at 6.10. It had been a quiet day: the results of the Dundee West by-election, the architect for the new National Theatre, the departure from our shores of the new Miss World. At Alexandra Palace, where TV news was based, staff gathered in the editor’s room and raised a glass to a departing colleague.
A good many other senior BBC personnel, along with their ITV and ITN counterparts, and including all the familiar TV newsreaders, were kitted out in their tuxedoes and making their way to the Dorchester Hotel. The annual dinner and ball of the Guild of Television Producers and Directors was taking place.
On the East Coast of America it was lunchtime. In New York, the BBC’s UN correspondent was out, while the chief Washington correspondent, Douglas Stuart, was, of all places, down a coal mine in southern Illinois. Stuart had a deputy, Leonard Parkin, about to go to lunch.
Technically too, all was quiet. There were three telecoms satellites in operation by November 1963 – the first, Telstar, having been launched in July 1962. All were in downtime, and putting them to use entailed complicated procedures far beyond flicking a switch. The daily New York–Washington–London ‘circuit’, a Post Office-enabled landline that provided good quality voice reporting, had been signed off for the day.
Then the tickertape machines burst into life . . .
. . . and, just seconds later, newsrooms across Britain erupted into noise too. It was 6.42, 11 minutes after the shooting.
President Kennedy was shot at today while riding in a motor convoy. A photographer reported seeing blood on the President’s head.Reuters
In Manchester, in a coup they would rightly crow about for years, Granada TV became the first broadcaster in Britain to break the story. Its local news magazine Scene At 6.30, screened only in the north of England, was on air until seven; a few minutes before its end, presenter Mike Scott made the sensational announcement, citing wire sources.
At the same time, Tannoy speakers were crackling the news around BBC premises. At the Alexandra Palace leaving party, glasses were (in one way or another) downed. In central London, in the BBC Club bar, radio’s foreign duty news editor abandoned his pint and sprinted back across the road to Broadcasting House. In its newsroom, the chief sub typed the flash that would alert three million listeners to the terrible events. It went out at 7pm across all three national radio networks, the Home, the Light and the Third:
News has just come in that President Kennedy has been shot. There’s no news yet of his condition. It happened as the President was riding with his wife in an open car through the streets of Dallas, Texas. Several shots rang out and the President collapsed into the arms of his wife. One eye witness said he saw blood on the President’s head. The Governor of Texas, Mr John Connally, who was with him, was also shot down. The President was rushed to hospital where there’s still no word of his condition.
On the Light Programme, this announcement kicked off the scheduled half-hour Radio Newsreel. Then Leonard Parkin – later to become an ITN newsreader, but presently knee-deep in tickertape – was on the phone from Washington with his first dispatch. There were three such calls during the half-hour; news was worsening. By courtesy of the Post Office, the Washington–London ‘circuit’ came back up. The ultimate news climax then came bang on 7.30. For some 2.7 million listeners up and down the country, the entire tragedy – from the first announcement of the shooting to the bitter end – had been recounted in a single 30 minute radio broadcast. One imagines a vast collective holding of breath.
Things were different on the BBC’s television service. At 7.05, between Points Of View and current-affairs programme Tonight, the dreaded caption card ‘NEWS FLASH’ appeared on the screen. Audience research figures indicate it would have caught the attention of around six million people. It held for five seconds, then the camera showed a solemn-looking man.
Who was he? Few, if anyone, recognised him. Richard Baker, Robert Dougall, Kenneth Kendall and the other known newsreaders were all at the ball. In their stead, fate was pointing its finger at a man junior to the task, John Roberts. This unfamiliar face now held centre-stage in Britain. From the moment he announced Kennedy’s shooting, his every word was absorbed, his every movement observed.
After this first newsflash Tonight came on, but it was to be a distracted and ultimately truncated edition. Set to end at 7.45, it was yanked at 7.26. The unfamiliar newsman was back with more: Kennedy had been shot in the head. His condition was critical.
Then the phone by Roberts’ side started to ring. Out at Caversham in Berkshire, the BBC’s Monitoring Service had picked up a decisive bulletin on the Voice of America and were phoning it through. An observer would write how John Roberts’ countenance visibly altered as he took the news and then relayed it to a mass TV audience:
We regret to announce that President Kennedy is dead.
And with that, Roberts bowed his head and did not look up again.
The news imparted, half the nation numbed, the BBC had to decide what to do next. But the great and the good were at the bloody ball, and if there were planned emergency procedures they weren’t necessarily being applied. What viewers got was the BBC-tv ident, a revolving globe, for 19 minutes. It was punctuated by three ultra-brief bulletins read by John Roberts but otherwise nothing to indicate to new viewers what was going on.
At 7.45, Rex Moorfoot, head of presentation, finally got through by phone to the Dorchester, to Kenneth Adam, director of television. Between them they agreed that the BBC should return to its normal Friday-night schedule, subject to interruption as necessary, and it so happened that the schedule delivered a sitcom. It was Here’s Harry, starring that inept ditherer Harry Worth, the man who did the arms and legs illusion in a shop doorway. Shocked by the Kennedy news, around 15 million people suddenly found themselves watching comedy . . . and after this came an episode of the cheery Highlands serial Dr Finlay’s Casebook. If the BBC’s decision was an attempt to lift morale, it was, to say the least, ill-judged. A confidential report circulated among senior staff made stark reading. ‘Well over 2000 phone calls’ of criticism poured in that night, followed by almost 500 letters and telegrams.
No doubt millions got up to their television and switched to ITV. Though Granada had scooped everyone, breaking the Kennedy news in the north at about 6.50pm, viewers in other areas remained unaware of the dramatic events. ITV was actually well behind the BBC. The network came together at seven for the raucous game-show Take Your Pick; ten minutes in, however, this was interrupted for ITN’s first newsflash. Take Your Pick then came back, and the hospital soap opera Emergency – Ward 10 began as scheduled at 7.30. This was then abruptly pulled at 7.40 with confirmation that President Kennedy was dead.
ITV ran no commercials for the next 90 minutes. For 20 of them, as with the BBC, the regions held their ‘Interlude’ cards, punctuated by newsflashes. Then at 8pm the network ran a recorded programme of solemn music performed by the Hallé Orchestra. After a news bulletin at 8.55, ITV also returned to its advertised schedule, screening a Jack Rosenthal play.
At eleven o’clock, four hours after the news broke, the top brass on both channels were ready for their own Texas-style shoot out. As the broadcaster of record, the BBC’s Tribute To President Kennedy was favoured by all three political leaders. Jo Grimond, Liberal, was in the Lime Grove studio, driven there from Oxford by undergraduates. Harold Wilson, Leader of the Opposition, had been sped from north Wales to the BBC’s Manchester studio – where, ironically, he was looked after by Harry Worth producer John Ammonds. And Sir Alec Douglas-Home, only recently installed as Prime Minister in succession to Macmillan, was in the TV booth in the Broadcasting House basement, walking the stairs in case the lift broke. He’d been on his way to Arundel when the news came through. Viewers saw the PM talk of ‘ . . . this young, gay and brave statesman . . . killed in the full vigour of his manhood.’
ITV’s Tribute To President Kennedy, running simultaneously, created a controversy all its own. During an interview by journalist Kenneth Harris, Labour’s deputy leader George Brown appeared to be drunk – a not uncommon event by all accounts. Harris, it was reported, ‘formed the impression that Mr Brown was tired, and possibly overwrought.’ London ITV company Associated-Rediffusion reported no complaints from viewers but a minor political scandal vexed for a while, fanned by the Tory press and magnified by Wilson’s public carpeting of Brown.
It had been quite an evening, and the fallout was already apparent. But before bow-ties could be loosened there was time for one last BBC bulletin, aired at 11.30. In this, the British public could see a range of dramatic photos from Dallas, received by the wire services. Pictorially now, the story unfolded: Kennedy in the motorcade; the book repository building; the rifle; the rush to hospital; Lee Harvey Oswald; Lyndon Johnson being sworn in as the 36th President of the United States. It was all happening fast.
The satellites were up by Saturday and both BBC and ITV beamed Telstar pictures into British homes. Here was Dallas, and here a wrecked people. Radio could not compete with TV moments like this. Though there were extra news bulletins and special programmes, both channels reverted to normal schedules. The BBC unveiled its new sci-fi serial Doctor Who and closed the day with an inspired edition of That Was The Week That Was dedicated solely to Kennedy. Issued as a record album in America, it rose to number five on the charts. On Monday afternoon BBC and ITV screened Kennedy’s funeral live via Telstar, bringing to an end the first period of the post-Kennedy era.
The hunger for imagery could only grow from here. Anthony Burgess, writing in BBC journal The Listener, prophesied the future when he declared of the assassination TV coverage, ‘We have seen everything now; that impartial eye has looked on murder; from now on there will always be the stain of a corpse on the living-room hearthrug.’
© Mark Lewisohn, 2003