THE NOSTALGIC DELIGHTS OF BBC TELEVISION NEWSREEL
By PETER LUCK
When BBC Television resumed transmission on 7th June 1946 after an interval of more than six years during World War II, news was seen as the preserve of sound radio and no attempt was made to broadcast televised bulletins. At that time the BBC had a monopoly of public service broadcasting in Britain, long before the advent of any form of competition, and the only concession to news broadcasting on television took the form of an audio recording of a BBC radio news bulletin, latterly the 9 o’clock (21:00) Home Service bulletin, without any form of graphics, following the end of each day’s television transmission. This had been the practice in the pre-war era also, the idea having been implemented on 3rd April 1938, although on Sundays it had been customary to broadcast the 20:50 National programme News ‘live’ instead.
This derisory coverage was not an oversight, as the then Director General, Sir William Haley, was a newspaper journalist who later became editor of The Times, and he felt that news was not appropriate for television. Prime Minister Clement Attlee disliked the medium, and the opposition leader Winston Churchill, believed that the BBC was a hotbed of communists. It was for this reason that Churchill, when he became Prime Minister, encouraged the development of Independent Television. He did not give any television interviews throughout his term of office, and furthermore, it had been agreed in the Attlee/Churchill era that ministerial broadcasts were to be for sound radio only.
The early history of newsreels coincided with the turbulent times of early twentieth century Britain. Cinemas had been showing newsreels since around 1910, with the birth of Pathé’s Animated Gazette, and in the early days of television before the second world-war the BBC had begun showing Movietone and Gaumont British Newsreels. This practice continued after the war until the newsreel companies became cautious or completely obstructive. As the popularity of television grew, they saw it as competition and no longer supplied the BBC with this material.
As a result, in 1948 the BBC began to make its own newsreel style programmes, recruiting senior journalists from the established newsreels. These films were light in content but tended to be deferential to the political establishment. BBC Television Newsreel was launched on Monday 5th January of that year, on a weekly basis. The newsreels were shown on Monday evenings, with three repeat showings during the ensuing week, but very soon two new editions were broadcast each week and this situation continued until the end of 1950. This was the first time that any form of visual in-house news presentation had been attempted.
From the outset, BBC Television Newsreel opened and closed with an animated caption showing ‘rings’ radiating from the aerial mast at Alexandra Palace round which the titles were fed in a circular motion from right to left, to the accompaniment of Hubert Bath’s ‘Empire Builders’ march (from the film "Rhodes of Africa") played by Eric Robinson and his Orchestra.
Each news story had its own introductory caption, but with the aerial mast depicted at 45 degrees, originating from the bottom left hand corner, and the ‘rings’ frozen, with the item’s title superimposed. During the course of evolution, these ‘rings’ later also became animated.
Television Newsreel was an instant success and was under the control of the Television service at Alexandra Palace rather than the news department at Broadcasting House. News editors on BBC radio were content to see it as entertainment and therefore no threat to their reputation for news that was up to the minute, accurate and impartial.
One of the most interesting aspects of the television newsreel presentation from this writer’s viewpoint was the practice of allocating a suitable item of light music as a background to each of the stories covered in the programme. This resulted in a regular feast of light music, and although many of the musical numbers were instantly recognisable to the light music devotee, e.g. ‘Comic Cuts’, ‘Melody on the Move’, ‘Peanut Polka’, ‘Joy Ride’ etc., others were less familiar. The programme’s title music was changed to Charles Williams’ composition ‘Girls in Grey’ in February 1949.
It was frustrating that there was no means of identifying the many wonderful tunes used. Some of these are now gradually coming to light over fifty years later, by chance appearances on Compact Discs of light music. Two recent examples of this are ‘Fashion Parade’ and ‘Wedding March in Midget Land’, but it is a slow process, to say the least.
If, as sometimes happened, there were several minor news items to cover that did not merit a specific item in their own right, these were swept up into a ‘Here and There’ feature. This had its own title music, in a piece entitled Bowin’ and Scrapin’ (R.Casson).
From the outset the commentary was spoken by Edward Halliday, but his appearances on screen were extremely rare, such as for example when introducing a review of the year. There is much to be said for this approach, rather than having the newsreader habitually staring into the camera, but that is not currently a fashionable view. Other regular BBC announcers also took turns with the commentary.
A standard running time of thirteen and a half minutes was adopted, but in due course the editions became more frequent. Cecil McGivern, then BBC Controller of Television Programmes, wrote in the Radio Times of 29th December 1950, "….We started 1950 with two editions of Television Newsreel per week; we start 1951 with three….." This took effect on 1st January 1951, with new editions being shown on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays.
The frequency was further enhanced to five editions per week (one edition each weeknight), as from 2nd June 1952, and this continued until the final edition on 2nd July 1954. Although it seems that the ultimate aim had been to produce seven editions per week, this goal was overtaken by events.
Snippets of hard news did tend to creep into the newsreels, but it was not until 1954 that agreement was reached on an improved format for television news. However, the Coronation of Queen Elizabeth II in June 1953 was an event that people were able to watch ‘live’ on television, and this effectively marked the beginning of the end of BBC Television Newsreel.
Eventually, on 5th July 1954 (by coincidence the very day of the withdrawal of the branch line train service to Alexandra Palace), the BBC launched a daily 20-minute ‘illustrated summary of the news’ with a commentary by an anonymous Richard Baker, off camera. The first broadcast, however, was not met with universal approval.
From this date BBC Television Newsreel was discontinued, but was replaced by "BBC Television News and Newsreel", with a similar format for the opening titles and, initially at least, it continued to use ‘Girls in Grey’ as its title music. The BBC News Division was to be responsible for all visual and audio output, and the programmes would run for a total of 25 minutes, including a 3-5 minute weather report.
The programmes were compiled at Alexandra Palace, and they incorporated film reports as received. The News Division staff assigned to the work took up their duties with great enthusiasm, and quickly developed a team spirit vital to the success of any enterprise.
In 1954-55 the amount of television air-time devoted to news increased greatly, and in September 1955 Independent Television was launched, with its own Independent News coverage.
BBC television newsreaders appeared on screen for the first time on 4th September 1955, eighteen days before the launching of Independent Television News (ITN), but only for late night summaries and only then during the headlines.
Whatever the advantages might be, if any, of today’s saturation news coverage, news reporting in those cosy far off days was a measured response to recent events based on available factual information. We were still in the time when news and comment were separated and the news itself was presented in a more positive light. Furthermore, to anyone growing up in the period, the newsreels were a joy to watch and the music enhanced their appeal.
A spin-off from the success of Television Newsreel was the introduction of a parallel programme aimed at children, entitled "BBC Television Children’s Newsreel", the first edition of which was broadcast for the first time on 23rd April 1950. The structure and style of presentation were very much the same as for the original Television Newsreel, and not in the least patronising. The commentary was spoken by Stephen Grenfell and the similar background music was used,but the title music was Clive Richardson’s ‘Holiday Spirit’. Here, again, regular BBC announcers took turns in speaking the commentary. Children’s Newsreel continued until September 1961.
Editor: any new collectors of production music may like to know that the signature tunes of the BBC Television Newsreels are available on the following CDs: "Empire Builders" Music From The Movies, Louis Levy – Living Era CD AJA 5445 [this is the original version, not the later one actually used by the BBC]; "Girls In Grey" The Great British Experience – EMI CD GB 50 [this is the commercial recording by the composer, Charles Williams]; "Holiday Spirit" – the original Chappell recording is on Guild GLCD5120 and also on Vocalion CDEA6021. Many pieces of music used in both BBC newsreels can be found on these CDs of tracks from publishers’ libraries: Queen’s Hall Light Orchestra Vol. 1 – Vocalion CDEA6012, Vol. 2 CDEA6061, & Vol. 3 CDEA6094; Sidney Torch and the New Century Orchestra - Vocalion CDEA6080; Queen’s Hall Light Orchestra – Guild GLCD5107; Bosworth recordings – Guild GLCD5115.s article first appeared in ‘Journal Into Melody’ June 2006.
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