Where I Live
A-Z Index
Introduction Flash version
1920s | 1930s | 1940s | 1950s | 1960s | 1970s | 1980s | 1990s | 2000s
TV triumphs with Coronation coverage
The Coronation of Queen Elizabeth II in June 1953 obliged the BBC to get its act together over the vexed issue of news on television.

There had been no doubt beforehand that the British people wanted to hear about the important events that were taking place around the world. The war had established that. Now there was proof that they were not content with listening. They wanted to see for themselves what was happening.

An estimated twenty million of Britain's population watched on television. Throughout the country, the tiny numbers who owned TV sets invited the neighbours round for their first experience of "the box".

Others watched in cinemas, pubs and public halls. Never before had the audience for television been bigger than for radio.

And the viewers liked what they had seen. The BBC TV coverage of the Coronation was hailed as a triumph. By common consent, the commentary by Richard Dimbleby had been "a masterpiece". In a survey by the BBC's Audience Research department, 98% of those viewers who were questioned declared themselves "completely satisfied".

The sales of TV sets rocketed. But still there was no proper news service. There was, however, every prospect that a fully fledged news service would soon be available - on commercial television. The possibility of an end to the BBC's monopoly had been raised by government more than a year before the Coronation.

In November 1953, a White Paper set the scene for a parliamentary bill -confirming that commercial TV was on the way. Its remit included the establishment of an "accurate and impartial" news service.

Richard Dimbleby in Westminster Abbey
Panorama's bumpy beginning
BBC TV viewers were able to watch Panorama for the first time on 11 November 1953. By all accounts, it was very nearly the last time, too.

The plan was for a forty-five minute magazine programme, covering perhaps five items, to go out every fortnight. But there was a host of problems.

In the end, the Controller of Television Programmes cancelled the second Panorama and it did not return until the second week in December. In September 1955, Panorama was relaunched on a weekly basis. It has since been cut back but is now the longest-running TV current affairs programme in the world.

For many viewers in the early days, the name of the programme became inseparable from the quiet authority of Richard Dimbleby, in the presenter's chair. His was just one of a host of famous names who have worked on Panorama down the years. The roll of honour includes Robin Day, Chris Chataway, Ludovic Kennedy, Julian Pettifer, Jeremy Paxman, Peter Sissons and Martyn Lewis.

The longest-serving reporter was Tom Mangold - who worked on the programme for a quarter of a century.

David Dimbleby presented his first Panorama on 11 November 1974. That was 21 years to the day after the programme started - and nine years after the death of his father.

Panorama achieved its biggest audience - almost 23 million viewers - in 1995, for Martin Bashir's interview with Princess Diana, giving her side of her marriage to Prince Charles.

Dimbleby Senior was in the chair when Panorama got away with the most famous hoax in the short history of British television. On April Fool's Day 1957, viewers were shown film of "peasant girls" in Switzerland busy with the "spaghetti harvest". The film was actually the work of a cameraman who had first draped several helpings of cooked spaghetti over a row of laurel bushes. However, Richard Dimbleby provided a convincing commentary on the complexities of growing spaghetti trees - and the BBC switchboard was jammed by hundreds of callers, wanting to know where they could buy one.

Early Panorama titles
A programme of two halves
A BBC news bulletin designed for television - BBC News and Newsreel - finally arrived on 5 July 1954.

Behind the scenes there was continuing conflict over editorial control. The radio news specialists based near Broadcasting House insisted on retaining responsibility for editorial policy, including headlines and story content. Only on those terms did they allow the TV service to get on with its job of looking after the pictures.

The result was a programme of two halves. It was Richard Baker who read the very first introduction: "Here is an illustrated summary of the news. It'll be followed by the latest film of events and happenings at home and abroad."

All that appeared on screen during the summary was a series of stills - photographs, maps and so on. The newsreader could be heard - but not seen. All the film came in the second half.

"Crazy", was the verdict of the TV men involved; the formula was "absolutely ghastly". "As visually impressive as the fat stock prices," said one newspaper.

Within weeks, BH gave its blessing to faces being seen on screen - but only those of its own radio correspondents.

First to get the call was the parliamentary correspondent, ER Thompson. One of the big problems was the lack of an autocue machine, he recalled later.

This meant he and his colleague were obliged forever to look away from the camera, to glance down at their scripts. The newspapers called them "the guilty men". But television news, of a sort, was up and running.

The amount of time devoted to news on BBC TV more than doubled between 1954 and 1955.

Richard Baker, the voice of television news
ITN inspires reorganisation
Commercial TV arrived on 22 September 1955 in the form of Independent Television News. But the knowledge that it was on its way was central to BBC news policy throughout that year.

A separate TV news department was established, as part of a reorganised News Division that now reported directly to the director general - at the time, Ian Jacob.

Jacob addressed news staff directly with a call for "enterprise, skill, fertility of ideas, hard work and integrity". He had already expressed the view that the Corporation's radio journalists "should be capable of operating successfully in either medium". Now, he declared his intent that the News Division should be fully equipped to "meet the competitor".

A fortnight or so before the launch of ITV, BBC newsreaders appeared on screen for the first time. Newsreading duties were shared between a "young team", as the Daily Mail put it, consisting of Richard Baker, Kenneth Kendall and Robert Dougall - who at the time was 43.

The change was considered "a daring new departure", Dougall writes in his autobiography. He recalls, too, trying to appear relaxed on screen - while, out of sight, his legs were "tying themselves in knots".

However, the changes in style were nothing compared with the changes in TV news presentation that exploded onto the screens with the arrival of ITN. In the brave new commercial world, the men in front of the cameras became "newscasters".

They were journalists, actually involved in writing the stories - rather than merely mouthing the words written by the sub-editors. They were personalities, big names like Robin Day.

The old hands at Alexandra Palace were said to be shell-shocked.

Early news presenter, Robert Dougall
Suez sparks BBC crisis
News editors are always aware that, to fill a news bulletin, you need news. In 1956, there was no shortage of it.

The Suez crisis brought another crisis - for the BBC. The Conservative government was insistent that the Corporation should give it total support - after Britain and France had sent troops into action, in response to Egypt's nationalisation of the Suez Canal. The BBC, however, insisted on telling the whole story - which was of a nation divided.

"At no time since broadcasting began had there been such a lack of agreement in Parliament and in the country on a major matter of foreign policy," said one senior BBC executive.

Prime Minster Anthony Eden accused the BBC of "giving comfort to the enemy". The Foreign Office called for the Arabic Service to suppress some news items. The BBC held firm.

Opposition leader Hugh Gaitskell was given the right to reply to a broadcast by Eden - despite government worries about the morale of troops who were able to hear the broadcast as they prepared for action. There were threats of a cut in the funding of external broadcasting - but they came to nothing.

When it was all over, the BBC's governors congratulated the staff on a "successful and creditable" performance during a period of "great difficulty".

There were further congratulations from the Board for the response to the other major international news of 1956: the Hungarian uprising. For the TV audience, Hungary brought a nightly drama of Soviet tanks opening fire on demonstrators in the streets of Budapest - just as Suez brought dramatic pictures of British paratroops leaping from their aircraft onto Egyptian soil.

The world had become a smaller place. For the first time, people were regularly able to see the results, overseas, of political decisions taken, in London, on their behalf.

Suez Canal crisis
Tonight heralds new interviewing style
In 1957 the BBC introduced the first major topical programme to go out five times a week. The new programme, called simply Tonight, began on 18 February.

It was the creation in particular of two men. Producer Donald Baverstock was a "human dynamo", a "little Welsh terrier", according to his colleagues. His number two was Alasdair Milne, who went on to become BBC director general.

A disused studio for the new venture was tracked down by one of BBC TV's true pioneers, Grace Wyndham Goldie. She saw the programme, presented by Cliff Michelmore, as "looking at those in power from the point of view of the powerless". Its visual interest derived from "carefully planned film reports", she said.

Its topicality depended on studio interviews - and Tonight therefore became "a kind of school for interviewers". The style was probing - sometimes aggressive.

Baverstock "trained his interviewers to outwit platitudinous politicians", according to another TV executive.

BBC folklore also has it that, if Baverstock got wind of what Panorama was planning to do, he would try to get in first with his own version.

"Tonight was operating on a blank canvas" was the recollection of one of its best-known reporters, Alan Whicker. There was a realisation that "you can ask any question, as long as it's asked pleasantly'", he said.

Tonight was described in the Observer as "superb and regular journalism, five nights a week". Soon, it was drawing audiences of more than eight million.

During Tonight's eight-year run, Michelmore was twice named Television Personality of the Year.

Tonight presenter Cliff Mitchelmore
The launch of Today
"The newspaper of the airwaves" is how BBC radio's Today programme was described by one of its best-known presenters, the late Brian Redhead. It was hardly the heaviest of broadsheets, though, when Today was first broadcast on the Home Service on 28 October 1957.

"Lots of stories about haunted houses and talking dogs" is one listener's recollection.

Today was seen within the BBC as "that potty little show", according to Jack De Manio - the presenter who was notorious for mis-reading the studio clock.

In one episode he recalls, the staff on Today became fed up with seeing people on other programmes forever swanning off, to put on special shows from "various exotic parts of the globe". So it was announced on air that the following day's programme would be an outside broadcast from an undisclosed location, a chance for Today to "meet the people".

The chosen location turned out to be a hole in the road being dug immediately outside Broadcasting House.

Even in the early 1970s, says BBC World Affairs Editor John Simpson, no-one accused Today of dumbing-down - "because it was pretty dumbed-down already".

It is all a far cry from the programme that now prides itself as "Radio 4's news and current affairs flagship". It is the programme to appear on "if you want to drop a word in the ear of the nation," said Redhead.

Margaret Thatcher and John Prescott are among those who have taken that advice - by ringing in to respond to stories they had heard.

The long list of previous Today presenters includes Barry Norman, John Timpson, Jenni Murray, and Sue MacGregor. The current team includes Jim Naughtie and John Humphrys, who has probably been accused more often than any other radio presenter of being too aggressive with his questioning.

The programme's philosophy has been summed up by the current editor Kevin Marsh. "It has to be an agenda-setting programme", says Marsh. "It has to hold the powerful to account."

Early Today guest Salvador Dali
TV News programming overhauled
BBC TV news was set on a new course in the spring of 1959. That was when its bulletins were the target of a damning report from a BBC study group - set up by the head of news and current Affairs, Hugh Carleton Greene.

The Corporation's television news lacked style, clarity and crispness, it said. The pace was "slow"; the writing was "bad". The sequence of stories and the amount of time allocated to each often appeared "haphazard and inconsistent".

News values at times showed "little appreciation of the public's interests". Too much emphasis was placed on "official pronouncements" - to the exclusion of opposing points of view. Some reporters were "very poor indeed". Foreign news coverage was dismissed as "inadequate".

None of the newsreaders was up to scratch. In any case, they were frequently being asked to read scripts that added nothing to what was already obvious from the pictures.

The filming itself was often "pedestrian". And, on top of everything else, the news scripts at ITN were "clearer" and "more incisive", and "gave more facts". As the members of the study group saw it, the reason was the familiar one: that the old guard in radio still had too much editorial say.

The solution proposed was that the head of TV news should take real control - and TV should have a proper newsroom of its own, with an editor-of-the-day.

Reporters were to be given the opportunity to write and voice their own scripts - without the "impossible burden" of also covering stories for radio.

The initiative was translated into action by editors appointed by Hugh Greene - as he moved on to greater things, on 1 January 1960, as the BBC's next director general.

News boss and future DG Hugh Greene

^^ back to top
About BBC News
Feedback | Help | BBC frontpage>>