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Last Updated:  Tuesday, 11 February, 2003, 10:08 GMT
BBC's enduring Oscar fever

by Ian Youngs
BBC News Online

Alec Guinness in the BBC's first Oscars report in 1958
Alec Guinness in the BBC's first Oscars report in 1958

The BBC is sending its biggest team yet to this year's Oscars. A look at the archives shows how much the corporation's coverage has changed as interest in the awards grown over the years.

The Academy Awards were well established as Hollywood's main event by 1958, when the first BBC television news report on the awards introduced the UK public to Oscar fever.

Lasting one minute, the clip was broadcast 13 days after the ceremony had taken place, and reported on Alec Guinness' victory as best actor for Bridge on the River Kwai.

Taking advantage of the fact that Guinness was collecting his award in London rather than LA - having been too busy filming to travel to the ceremony - it included a civilised exchange between a BBC reporter and the actor outside a hotel.

I'm most excited - I don't know what it is though
Alec Guinness on his Oscar

Already late for the presentation, Guinness said: "I'm looking rather odd at the moment. I'm thrilled, of course. I'm most excited. I don't know what it is though."

The interview had to battle with reports about scout bob-a-job week, the 33rd Model Railway Exhibition and a landslide in Dover, which were also on the news.

But one report would have ramifications for the future of film, beginning: "The BBC has announced an important advance in recording television pictures, which involves recording them onto magnetic tape."

Julie Christie with her Oscar and a BBC reporter's hand and microphone in 1966
Julie Christie with Oscar and a BBC reporter's hand and microphone in 1966
In the following years, the Oscars were often covered on the news, along with clips from the ceremony - but not until several days after the event, when the footage had arrived in London.

The reports from the 1960s are more familiar to us, with shots of the crowds and stars walking down the red carpet.

By the 1970s, the BBC's coverage expanded as Barry Norman reported on the build-up and aftermath for his own weekly Film programme as well as current affairs shows.

Norman was to be a firm fixture in BBC Oscars coverage, presenting the ceremony highlights show from the early 1980s and the live coverage when it was first shown in 1995, with dedicated film fans staying up from 0300 to 0600 GMT.

I was surrounded by very bright, eager American television reporters with 64 teeth and long blonde hair
Barry Norman
"In the early 80s, there wasn't that much interest in the Oscars - there would probably be 20-30 television crews there," Norman told BBC News Online.

"Then things changed. It became a much bigger event. More and more people became interested in covering the Oscars from all over the world."

Part of Norman's role was to stand outside after-show parties and chat to the stars as they went in.

"This was the bit I used to hate, just standing there doorstepping people and grabbing them for soundbite interviews."

By his final year with the BBC, there were so many reporters trying to get the same interviews that the atmosphere had changed from "rather civilized" to "chaotic", Norman says.

Anthony Hopkins
Anthony Hopkins: Asked after the health of Barry Norman's mother
"There were scores, indeed hundreds of camera crews there by this time. And the fight, the struggle to get people to come and talk to you became increasingly difficult."

"I was surrounded by very bright, eager American television reporters with 64 teeth and long blonde hair, and I began to think 'I'm too old to be doing this.'"

But he did have one advantage over many of his rivals - he knew many of the stars personally, making it easier to persuade them to talk to him.

On one occasion, Anthony Hopkins walked down the line of reporters and headed straight for Norman, saying: "Hello love, how's your mum?"

Barry Norman with John Mills in 1980
Barry Norman with John Mills in 1980: Friend to the stars
"The BBC was one that they all knew and respected. So I never missed out on the interviews with anyone, either because I knew them personally or the BBC name dragged them over to talk to me. That was a big help," Norman said.

One year was the exception - when spoof interviewer Dennis Pennis crashed the Vanity Fair party claiming to be the BBC's main man.

"After he had insulted a couple of people, somebody in the Vanity Fair crew got a couple of very big security men out and Dennis Pennis was last seen running like mad down the road with these two big guys after him, and everybody cheering on the big guys," Norman said.

Norman's long-time producer Bruce Thompson said the BBC name was an advantage - but that the ceremony was geared towards US viewers.

Dennis Pennis
Dennis Pennis: Spoof interviewer got rumbled
"I can't emphasise enough that the smallest little news station in middle America gets equal prominence on the night," he said.

"It's their one big event and there's a lot of big shoulders and big elbows pushing to the front of the line."

BBC film correspondent Tom Brook has also been on the red carpet many times. He said covering the event was "frantic" and "exciting" but "not glamorous at all".

"I have love-hate feelings about it," he told BBC News Online.

The aftershock of an earthquake in 1994 while Brook was editing at the top of a building gave that year's experience an edge of extra excitement.

Rosie Millard at the Oscars 2001
Rosie Millard and her "best supporting dress"
The main news bulletins were always interested in the event - especially if there were British winners - but it was not until 1997 that the first dedicated BBC news correspondent, Nick Higham, was sent from London.

He also saw little glamour, watching the ceremony in a cramped edit suite, doing live early morning broadcasts and catching a few hours sleep on the floor in his dinner jacket before putting together packages for the One, Six and Nine O'Clock News.

Rosie Millard took over after several years, and came close to stealing the headlines when news anchor Michael Buerk described her outfit as the "best supporting dress" in 2001.

She will be the main face on the news bulletins again this year - and her news crew will be joined by teams from BBC One's Breakfast, BBC Three's Liquid News and Jonathan Ross' live ceremony broadcast as well as radio and online to make it one of the BBC's biggest events of the year.

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