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 oclock (21:00) Home Service
bulletin, without any form of graphics, following the end
of each days 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 Pathés
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 Baths 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 items title superimposed. During the course
of evolution, these rings later also became
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 writers 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 programmes 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
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
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
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 todays
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 Childrens 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 Richardsons Holiday
Spirit. Here, again, regular BBC announcers took turns
in speaking the commentary. Childrens 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: Queens Hall Light
Orchestra Vol. 1 Vocalion CDEA6012, Vol. 2 CDEA6061,
& Vol. 3 CDEA6094; Sidney Torch and the New Century
Orchestra - Vocalion CDEA6080; Queens Hall Light Orchestra
Guild GLCD5107; Bosworth recordings Guild
This article first appeared in Journal Into Melody