Sunday, 27 January 2013

"Coming up after this break.." The story and art of Continuity Announcing from those who have done it themselves

For all of its changes in presentation, style and even with new channels launching all the time, there is one thing that stays the same and has done since day one of television itself and that is the continuity announcer. But these people are lot more then just informing viewers of what may be coming up on any given channel at one time, the actual art of continuity is something to behold itself.

The earliest days of television saw the announcers themselves become celebrities themselves, but the idea of continuity announcing was seen as continuation of what people would have been used to say at a music hall or a theatre where a compère would announce the next act. Where as television was an extension of this theory, announcers were used to announced what act was coming next, a procession of items rather then programmes meaning there could be a singer with a cookery item in the next bit. Their job would be to sometimes to list the whole evening's programming in one slot, so that viewers knew what would be coming up during the evening, sticking rigidly watching the little box in the corner bringing themselves entertainment.

With the constant appearances in-between the programming, the faces doing the announcements became more and more recognisable, the first voice being Leslie Mitchell announcing on the 2nd November 1936 debut of the BBC's television and uniquely as well he was the first ever voice heard on Independent Television in September 1955 launching Associated-Rediffusion. Mitchell himself had been a trainee stockbroker and because of his good looks and rich voice started to get him parts in stage productions. As we'll see later, certain things can have a way of making a strange fate for people and how they became continuity announcers.

Carrying on with Leslie Mitchell, he started appearing on BBC Radio in 1932 and joined the staff at the corporation in 1934 starring as a announcer and producer on variety shows. Come 1936 though he was picked as one of the faces for the new BBC television service, though as war broke out, his voice was used by the Movietone News for their newsreels informing people what was happening during this turbulent time even with this fame appearing in a Will Hay film, The Black Sheep of Whitehall as himself. By the end of the war he sensed that commercial television would eventually come to these shores, Mitchell travelled to the United States to see how commercial television worked over there and particularly the style of promotion used for the programmes and the networks themselves.

All of this came in handy when he moved to Associated-Rediffusion in 1955 becoming their senior announcer and appearing on screen chairing discussions and also having input over the 'talks' department with his previous experience of this coming from being the compere of Picture Page for the BBC. By 1958 he had taken the decision to go freelance allowing him to jointly narrate the BBC's 25th anniversary of television in 1961 and also presenting Tyne Tees' 'Those Wonderful TV Times' between 1976 and 1978.

Along with Mitchell in the first three announcers on the new BBC television service were Elizabeth Cowell and the woman who at the outbreak of the Second World War made the final announcement that the service would be closing down for the duration and also the opening announcement in 1946, which was "Good afternoon everybody. How are you? Do you remember me, Jasmine Bligh?" where the last programme before the close the cartoon Mickey's Gala Premiere which had been the last programme before the service had been suspended in 1939.

Such was Bligh fame she would be see somewhat as a daredevil, having been filmed racing around in a motorbike's sidecar and even getting a fireman's lift! These things endured herself to the public and the fan mail came flooded in, even with Cowell the press described them at the time as 'Twin Paragons', Bligh's career much like Mitchell's stretched into the 1970's but in the 1950's she was the presenter of Television for Deaf Children seen as a forerunner to Vision On and was also a presenter on Thames Television's Good Afternoon as well, similarly moving across to the London ITV company much like Leslie Mitchell had back in the mid-1950's.

The early days has established continuity as a key factor in television's make up with some many names coming through it to become presenters in their own right such as Michael Aspel and Anne Greig as well, both starting announcing the programmes eventually becoming the ones who presented them. Memorably Sylvia Peters is another name who became a familiar face to the public during post war times, the BBC themselves had their announcers in-vision at the time allowing the public to see a familiar face night in, night out. The sense by the mid 1950's that ITV was using more voices out of shot over their each companies branding meant the BBC had to change and slowly by 1963 when one of the last recorded in-vision announcements at that time leading into that year's Eurovision Song Contest.

Though there was still in-vision announcing on ITV but out of vision continuity on BBC and ITV were becoming prevalent as the battle for viewers was hotting up, for example some ITV companies making a conscious decision to have only out of vision announcements with presentation consisting of slides and identities. BBC 1 and 2 had disappeared behind their identities with announcers being in voice only, however with ITV being made up of a regional system, each company went for a different approach to this. Here it was that the regional faces became celebrities in their own right as former LWT and Channel 4 continuity announcer Trish Bertram explains “I started at a time when working in-vision was about to change. Back then, my senior colleagues had a modicum of fame, were invited to open fetes, etc. and received a lot of fan mail. Such is the power of television.”

Trish had an unusual route in becoming a continuity announcer, she takes up the story herself “I blagged my way in! No radio or acting background and only a small awareness of television. I was a theatre struck teenager. I went to the Central School of Speech and Drama to study stage management and technical theatre and embarked on a career as a stage manager, finishing up at the National Theatre. The job included having to make the backstage and front of house calls ("The curtain will rise in .....3 minutes" ). A lot of actors would remark on my deep tones and suggest that I 'did something' with my voice. I knew I didn't want to be an actress - I saw too many talented ones struggle to earn a living. Then my fellow student and flatmate from my course at Central wrote to me and said she'd got a job as a continuity announcer at Westward Television . 'You were the one with the unusual voice' she said, 'why don't you have a go'? That friend was Fern Britton and she put the idea into my head.”

She continues “After that, I started paying more attention to television and the people who linked the programmes. I made a cassette tape at home and sent it to the BBC and around the ITV network. ( There were no satellite and digital channels in those days - no Channel 4 or 5 ) I still have my rejection letter file to this day!”

But for Tony Currie, the former Scottish Television and current BBC Scotland announcer had a more conventional route into the job himself “I started in radio – running my own attic radio station at the age of eleven, and having produced and presented a weekly show on KPFK in Los Angeles, I was first voice on radio Clyde when it opened in 1973. STV literally poached me from Clyde in 1976.”The route of radio and acting seemed an obvious route to go when thinking about becoming a continuity announcer, though for current STV announcer Derek Smith his ambition had shown from an early age “I grew up with Grampian and STV and wanted to be a Continuity Announcer for either station from about the age of fourteen. Both stations were very different in styles of presentation.
I wrote to Kennedy Thomson in 1982 who was the Senior Announcer at Grampian and he Invited me to the studios to have a look round and I met him and fellow announcer Lesley Macleod she was on duty that evening .I was so excited about my visit to Grampian and I have to admit it was everything and more that I dreamed of. Meeting Kennedy and Lesley and seeing the continuity studio was just the most amazing experience. I was quite shocked at the size of the studio though I didn’t realise it would be so small.
I had also written to STV’s Senior Announcer Tony Currie at the same time and he very kindly Invited me into STV to spend the whole day with him again it was a great experience that would shape my future. Tony bought me lunch took me on a tour of the whole studio complex at STV and he also let me sit in the hot seat it was just a dream come true for me I remember seeing the STV clock and being shocked that the STV logo in the continuity studio was attached to a piece of fishing gut! Another highlight was meeting Paul Coia who was the late shift announcer. I remember Tony escorting me out of the studio and I just didn’t want to go! It was overwhelming to walk back into Studio E at Cowcaddens twenty three years later to start announcing for STV.
Tony advised me to get some experience in Hospital Radio which I did at Stracathro Hospital near Brechin. I only went there twice though as I lived in Perth and it was quite a distance to travel. I had no aspirations to be a DJ or an Actor and the announcers that were at Grampian and STV all came from those backgrounds.” But Derek's route was just like Trish's one unsual, he continues “So I went off in another direction I joined British Airways as Cabin Crew I still had my continuity dream though. To cut a long story short and moving on a decade. I found out Grampian were looking for a Continutiy Announcer in 1995. I applied got all the way through to the second set of auditions and down to the last three but sadly It wasn’t to be.
However I did get some good feedback from Grampian and the experience drove me forward and put me back on track. I was lucky to gain experience Presenting for BA TV I also did some voluntary news reading at QFM in Glasgow to gain live experience. That lead to me getting my first Continuity job at The Travel Channel in 1999. I was then selected to be on the first team of announcers on The Biography Channel when it launched in the UK in 2000.The same year I joined Radio Forth as a freelance Newsreader .(Whilst still travelling the world for BA as Cabin Crew) For me though the goal was always STV that was my dream.”
Being a continuity announcer can be tough at times, it may seem to the untrained as just a person talking into a microphone but they are there at a moment's notice ready to go live when there is a fault in a programme, the pace and tone of an announcement is always important. Introducing any serious news bulletin or newsflash is sacrosanct, the ability of the announcer to come maybe from an entertainment programme into a news bulletin which may contain news which might be harrowing is one which is important. During significant times the announcer is called on at moment's notice when schedules may need to be changed at the last minute to do live announcing. Trish Bertram remembers one such occasion in August 1997 “1997 - the hardest shift of my life. I'd been on duty late the night before. The news had broken that Diana, Princess of Wales had been in a car crash in Paris. I'd stayed up watching news bulletins when I got home as I knew that this was going to seriously affect work the next day. Went to bed about 0200 after news updates saying she'd been taken to hospital.
The next day my morning lie in was interrupted at 0800 by my boss calling to say that I had to get in straight away. Diana had died. That day I was on air from 0925 until midnight or so and was networked for most of the day until the early evening when everyone went local again with their own announcers. There was no schedule and we didn't know from one hour to the next what we were going to do. Decisions were being made on high as we went from hour to hour .As we were the nominated contractor for the network for the weekend it was up to us to lead the rest of the network and transmit nationally. One of our promo producers and I made up menus slides on the transmission caption generator.

When we knew when we were opting in and out of ITN ( decided as we went along in tandem with ITN) - we just made up 'ITV' slides and found appropriate music to fill the gaps, with me talking over them.

For me it was not only about thinking on my feet but also about finding the 'right tone' . But everyone I worked with that day was brilliant and our presentation management back up were amazing - it was a real team effort. That was certainly the day when I really earned my money.”
For Tony Currie it was another significant moment in history that he will remember “I was on duty on 9/11 – in fact expecting a quiet afternoon shift, a group of announcers were with me and I was filming a private video for the farewell party for an colleague who was leaving. The filming was cancelled and I went straight into the pres suite for the rest of the evening.”
It was both of their professionalism and thinking on their feet at times when the mood of the nation was sombre which saw the viewers through those very hard days, showing that continuity announcing was most key part of broadcasting right to the present day, their skills were able to pull this off at a time when others needed reassurance from a friendly voice as to what was going on.
Though over the years there has always been the choice of if a channel should use in-vision continuity or out of vision, when in the later 1980's most stations decided to use out of vision continuity, it was commonly thought apart from a few ITV stations and other channels that the days on the in-vision announcement had gone into the past. With Channel 4 launching in 1982, out of vision announcing was there from day one when Paul Coia launched the station nearly fifty years to the day when the BBC television launched. From the days of Leslie Mitchell, this was something new, this was the future.
At around the same time Trish Bertram applied to one of the most sort after jobs in television which was to find herself at the start of launch of Channel 4 breaking new ground in the process as she explains “Around that time (1982) Esther Rantzen decided to audition for a new That's Life presenting team and hold nationwide auditions. Anyone could apply - no experience required. She was certainly ahead of the X factor with that idea. So I applied. I must have written a good letter as I found myself on a short list of 100 out of thousands of applicants.”
She continues “Then I went through a lengthy audition process at the BBC's Lime Grove studios as the numbers were whittled down. Finally I was down to the last 3 girls for the one female place on the team. In the end I was runner up to Joanna Monroe. It was the right decision as I was beginning to feel I had bitten off more than I could chew. But Esther was brilliant, very encouraging and said I could use her name as a reference in case she could help.
After that I took Esther at her word and wrote back to everyone I had originally contacted, shamelessly using her name. Doors began to open - thank you Esther! One of the companies who replied was LWT. Channel 4 was about to launch in November that year and the ITV network were going to sell their advertising and transmit their commercial breaks in return for their investment into it.
LWT decided that live announcer cover for their C4 breaks would be a wise thing. They were the only company to do this - but they also viewed it as a way to train up announcers for their own output in what would be a relatively low key environment. The job required only 2 or 3 A/Vs ( alternative viewing announcements) per shift, plus the announcer would have to dive in and rabbit on about the TV times to fill the holes if the acr machines playing the comms broke down ( which they did – often!).”

But the announcers are back up by people who know their jobs and help the announcers themselves when things go wrong, they are the Transmission Controllers. These people operate the presentation suite who are responsible for continuity and punctual play out of scheduled programmes. With out of vision announcing, as Tony Currie says “I liked in-vision announcing but although it allowed transmission controllers some flexibility when things went awry, it required slapping on make up, making sure you were impeccably dressed, and knew your script inside out. It’s a lot easier to sit in a pair of old jeans at a desk and talk while you’re in control of the faders!”

As Trish Bertram continues from before about joining the announcing team at LWT “So - I auditioned for LWT and was lucky to be taken on as one of two Channel 4 cover announcers the week Channel 4 launched. I was thrown in at the deep end and learned on the job. Very scary. There were 3 transmission controllers whose brains I picked shamelessly and who gave me a fantastic grounding in television transmission. Malcolm, Jenny and Tony - I owe you a great deal to this day.

Also - as C4's comm breaks were sometimes undersold, the announcer would also be used to read live low budget slide + announcer commercials for local businesses. One I had to read for an Indian restaurant had the tag line : " Ram Parkash Sonderdash - remember the name". And I always have! Another I had to do made a bit of broadcasting history as the first ever 'gay' commercial on tv . It was a 10" slide with live announcer v/o for a London magazine called City Gay.”

This proved that Channel 4 was breaking new ground, in their programming and also their advertisements, the continuity announcer was called on to voice over slides for advertisements, which at the start of Channel 4 was vital to allow the channel to sell some advertising when the Equity union refused their members to appear in advertisements on the channel which similarly happened during the launch of TV-AM during the next year.

But what about moments which the viewers remember the continuity more then the programmes themselves? How does the continuity announcer cope with those moments when it all goes wrong or maybe it goes right and makes unforgettable television? BBC Scotland and former STV announcer Tony Currie recalls one moment of which “Christmas Eve 1984 when a last minute OB link failure meant I had to fill in vision for around half an hour …. Then apologise over hymns as we only had sound …. Then do another six minutes in vision at the end to explain that a gale force wind had blown STV’s microwave dishes off beam. I found the next day that my performance (after I’d read through the TV Times I started singing Christmas Carols and telling jokes) had also been networked. I was told that I’d got three times the ratings they’d expected for the planned Watchnight Service.”

Though for Trish Bertram it was making an unexpected appearance one of the BBC's biggest shows of the year which was most memorable “Well I particularly remember were appearing on Children in Need live from the LWT studio in 1989. In those days television was a bit more relaxed than it is now. I was on late duty that night. We were watching Children in Need on the BBC monitor. ( We always kept an eye on the competition!) The transmission controllers and engineers I was working with had the idea to ring up BBC Elstree and tell them that if they put me in vision, we would have a whip round and send them some money. BBC transmission and the Children in Need production team liked the idea. A bit of furious line repatching and technical jiggery pokery and then I was on - going out on the BBC live from the LWT studio, merrily wishing Children in Need well on behalf of LWT. And yes - we did send them some money! And no, our bosses weren't cross at us arranging this late night stunt!”

Though we should leave the last word to the announcers themselves about what the best thing about being a continuity announcer is, first STV announcer Derek Smith “Xmas day is a big deal for STV with millions of viewers tuning in to see their favourite programmes and it’s great honour to be Invited into peoples homes to introduce some of the biggest shows such as Corrie,The X Factor and Downton Abbey not just on Xmas day though but all year round too and that’s what I love about being a Continuity Announcer.

I also enjoy writing short punchy scripts which reflect each programme I believe creating compelling content is crucial and key in connecting with our viewers. Working in a live situation is also another great aspect of the job as there is nothing else quite like it and there is only the one chance to get it right.”

and finally Trish Bertram “The best experience for me was being part of the transmission and presentation team. It is a collaborative job - you really are part of the jigsaw puzzle - no room for 'egos' or any idea that the announcer is 'the star' of the output. You really aren't! There was always a sense of satisfaction at the end of a shift if things had gone well. Particularly if it had been a tricky one ( eg. an live OB overrun or unexpected events that caused the schedule to change). You really feel as if you have earned your money then and done the job properly. One of my LWT bosses always used to say " I don't pay you for what you say - I pay you for what you do when it goes wrong' ) The other part is that I never stopped feeling lucky that I was, in essence, 'paid to talk' - but, as every announcer knows, there's far more to it than that.”

One thing is certain, they maybe seen to be just talking for money but there is a lot more to the job and lots more people behind the scenes to make sure the programmes get to air safely. Whether its in vision or out of vision, they are the people who link the programmes together and without them the sense of television being just a series of images spliced together gives some humanity to the day's viewing.

Tuesday, 15 January 2013

The World Around Us from those who studying it - The Story of Natural History Broadcasting

Over the years television has informed, educated and entertained in equal measure, but the education has been the cornerstone as it has transported us to the four corners of the world with experts as our guides. The natural world been in full effect since the dawn of the
television age, but the 1950's is where the first real programming to do with natural history started and one name like today at the beginning was David Attenborough, brother to Lord Richard Attenborough and also younger brother John. His formative years shaped his future direction, with his love of collecting specimens would continue through childhood and when one of his adoptive sisters gave him a piece of amber filled with creature from the prehistoric age, this charged his interest even more, even using it come back to in a later programme nearly fifty years later.

After being educated in Leicester and after winning a scholarship to Clare College, Cambridge where he got a degree in natural sciences plus also studying zoology and geology as well. In 1947 he got called up for national serve with the Royal Navy based North Wales and the Firth of Forth over a two year period. But after leaving the navy Attenborough took on a job editing scientific textbooks for children. Though 1950 was to have change in career for him when he applied for a job becoming a radio talks producer. But it was his CV which caught the eye of Mary Adams, the head of the talks department dealing with factual programming. Though even though Attenborough did not even own a television set, he accepted a place on a three month training course and in 1952, he joined the BBC full time.

His first natural history programme for the BBC, The Pattern of Animals combined the dual roles of producer but more importantly presenter. The programme itself was studio bound, but with animals from London Zoo coming into the studio, the naturalist Julian Huxley discussed topics such as camouflage, aposematism and also the art of natural courtship between animals. Although this programme may not be remembered as much to the wider general public, it did have an effect as through the programme Attenborough met the zoo's
curator of the reptile house Jack Lester and they decided to make a series about an animal collection expedition. From the idea came Zoo Quest, first broadcast in 1954, the original idea was for Lester to present the programme but owing to ill health him step in at the last minute. The success of the series saw the public notice Attenborough for the first time, but later in 1957 the BBC set up the Natural History Unit in Bristol responsible for some of the most dramatic, breathtaking television, surprising David Attenborough was not a part of its initial set up, he declined as he did not move his young family from London, but instead he set up his own Travel and Exploration Unit which produced Zoo Quest, as well as the Travellers' Tales and Adventure series.

Just as the BBC were starting to corner the market in Natural History documentaries and films, in another corner of the UK at the start of the 1960's, ITV and Anglia Television in particular developed the Survival series of wildlife films. The originator was Aubrey Buxton, later Baron Buxton of Alsa, himself a founding director of Anglia Television. Though the origins of Survival came from Buxton's own regional nature programme Countryman in the summer of 1960, but he saw this as an opportunity to develop what he had been doing with Countryman as a natural history strand for ITV. The first programme in the Survival series was broadcast in February, 1961 called The London Scene saw Buxton visiting St James' Park, a derelict bomb site and other London locations as well. This first programme was made with the support of Associated Rediffusion who provided facilities for the filming and the editing as well.

A second film was more closer to home in East Anglia looking one of the rarest British birds, the avocet. Closely associated with these films was Sir Peter Scott, who became the series' scientific adviser as well as introducing and narrating some of the early films. Scott, the only child of the Arctic explorer Robert Falcon Scott and the sculptor Kathleen Bruce. When his father died in March 1912, Peter Scott was only two and in Robert Scott's last letter to his wife he wrote “make the boy interested in natural history if you can; it is better then games.” So it was almost fate, that he went into this field. Along with David Attenborough, he is credited in being one of the pioneers of natural history on television. Such was his influence, he was one of the founders of the World Wide Fund for Nature.

As Survival went from strength to strength during the 1960's, there were a regular appearance of the half hour films in the schedules. During 1963, a film, The New Ark which was narrated by Prince Philip had won a golden Nymph at the Monte Carlo Television Festival, which lead to himself presenting a film about the Galapagos Islands entitled The Encharted Isles in 1967 and in itself was one of the first hour long specials which became a key component in the series. By the colourization of ITV in 1969, Survival was a key programme to show of the new technology as many of the films had already been filmed in colour and were readily available to all the network companies.

But colour television itself was to help the BBC in their coverage of nature documentaries as well, with colour starting on BBC Two in 1967 and one of its advocates being David Attenborough, who at this time was controller of the channel itself. Though with being controller of BBC Two, he did have a clause in his contract to be able to make programmes on an occasional basis. In 1965, he filmed elephants in Tanzania and 1969 saw him making a three part series on the cultural history of the island of Bali. During 1971, he joined the first western expedition to remote highland valley to seek out a lost tribe. Though at this time he had thought the story of evolution for a natural subject for a landmark series, sharing his idea with Chris Parsons, a wildlife film maker based at the Bristol based Natural History Unit. As Parsons though about the idea, he came up with Life
on Earth. Though Attenborough himself would want to present the series himself, but he could not whilst in a senior BBC management role. So the idea went on the back burner for now.

The early seventies, saw ITV's Survival series break into the American market, through the new Prime Time Access Rule which had come into affect for major network stations affiliates, by how much network programming they could take. Thus allowing the free time to be taken up by imported programming, usually cultural and documentary material and with Survival being a beneficiary of this policy. But with the rules on ownership and sponsorship of programming being different in the United States market, lead to one of the first Survival specials to be broadcast over the Atlantic about the beaver to be sponsorsed by the Quaker Oats company and the deal of this sponsorship lead to the advertising agency of JWT to take more of an interest in the films itself, necessitating a new company to be formed by JWT and Anglia Television called Survival Anglia for the documentaries and footage to be sold to which ever stations wanted them and thus becoming the first UK television series to form their own company in America.

Though around this time David Attenborough had resigned from his management role at the BBC, after rising so quickly up the ranks to a senior management position, when his name was suggested for the position of Director General. But he had no appetite for the top job wanting to get back to his natural history roots, when he did resign his position, Attenborough became a freelance broadcaster and started work on his next project which was to be a pre-arranged trip to Indonesia with a film crew from the Natural History Unit which became Eastwards with Attenborough, looking at the wildlife of that area but in different to his earlier Zoo Quest series, this time animal collecting element was not included in the programmes as sensibilities had changed since the 1950's on those issues.
On his return, the scripts for the Life on Earth series were starting to be written, though because of the scale of such a grand scale of the project that the BBC had to partner on the project with an American network to gain sufficient finances to fund the project. In the meanwhile he proceeded with a number of other projects for television including 1975's The Tribal Eye looking at tribal art, The Explorers about the voyages of discovery and Fabulous Animals which was a series for children looking at cryptozoology featuring mythical creatures such as the Griffin. Finally, finance for the Life on Earth series was sealed with Ted Turner's Turner Broadcasting in the United States and during 1976, the series went into production.

At the same time, Survival on ITV was getting bigger and bigger audiences for their specials and overseas sales were helping Anglia to put more money back into its funds, so thus being able to make bigger and better wildlife documentaries. Survival Anglia based in New York won a Queen's Award to Industry in 1974, showing how much the productions were rated in not only their quality but also the way they were helping the economy as well. Though output rose more then twenty five per cent for the half hour shows being distributed to the major networks and the production unit was expanded to reflect this. The half hour shows were packaged to the American market as The World of Survival, voiced by actor John Forsythe from 1971 to 1982 and later on the hour specials were shown by PBS in their Nature strand.

But it was during 1974 and 1975, that the programme was to have two of its most notable films. The Year of the Wildebeest and Safari by Balloon, filmed by Kenya based film maker Alan Root who worked along his then wife Joan as well, showed that wildlife film making could be on an epic scale as well as well as using the narrative style as well. Their 1974 The Year of the Wildebeest showed the story of the migration of the herds across the African plains and also the river of the Serengeti as well. Using a hot air balloon to film the migration, gave rise to another idea for another film in 1975's Safari by Balloon looking at the animals of the plains and mountains in East Africa, which also featured the first-ever hot air balloon flight over Mount Kilimanjaro as part of the film itself. Though the Roots were to feature heavily in some of the most notable films in Survival's history, the 1967 film The Enchanted Isles which featured Prince Philip was filmed by the Roots and was brought by the NBC network in the United States for $430,000 and it became the first-ever natural history film to shown on American television, leading the way for others.

By the late 1978, the domination of both the Attenborough and also Survival films were to be broken by a man new to television, but one not easy to forget. In 1978 Dr David Bellamy of the University of Durham made his first-ever television series for Thames television looking at botany from a new perspective. His seeming down to earth manner appealed to viewers, as well as his easy presentation style in conveying facts and also unique speech patterns as well. Through out the next decade, Bellamy was to be a regular face on television presenting programmes from all over the world with one of his finest being Bellamy at the Top of the World, focussing on the nature and wonder of the great white north in 1987. Though this proved that other ITV companies could make natural history programmes themselves and add to the already burgeoning reputation of Survival.

1979, was to see after three years in the making, the first broadcast episode of the epic Life on Earth series. The style of the film-making would influence both future documentaries and also their film-makers as well, though every subject was treated seriously and this gained the scientific community's seal of approval and let Attenborough and his film crew have access to many places unseen by film-makers before and also experience their work first hand. One such scientist, Dian Fossey and her research group allowed the Life on Earth crew to film the mountain gorillas, making for one of the most iconic scenes ever seen on television as David Attenborough got up close and personal with the Gorillas themselves, with them accepting as one of their own. If it wasn't for this series and its techniques which set the industry standard and also Survival the world would have not been seen in the same way again. Through the next eleven years over two more series, The Living Planet and The Trials of Life brought the whole Life trilogy to a close. Life in the Freeze in 1993 focussed on Antarctica, the first-ever television series to focus on that region's own natural history. The Trials of Life, looked at the behaviour of animal throughout their lives, though this was not without out complaints from viewers on scenes of what they saw violent and gory, although this was natural behaviour in the animal kingdom.

As the new millennium approached, the Survival series was struggling. For many years, the flagship since 1989, the Survival unit had moved back to Norwich from its previous London base and with Anglia brought by MAI who owned Meridian Television, the emphasis changed to presenter led wildlife documentaries with new to television experts Steve Irwin and Nigel Marvin being two of them, the specials kept on being made and shown but they were shifting around the schedules pretty much like quicksand and the programme was seemingly losing its footing. When in 1995, a series called Predators presented by Gaby Roslin was commissioned, it gained to good viewing figures in a early Sunday evening slot though a second series was not commissioned at all. Over at the BBC, David Attenborough had a new series looking at The Private Life of Plants and with time lapse photography, he was able to show the plants in their true form, growing and also procreating as well.

So natural history have been a key part of the schedules for sixty years now on the BBC, ITV even revived the Survival brand with Ray Mears as a presenter, but it has been the new technology which has come in to show our world like never before, such as in High Definition television and also 3D to bring the world closer to us. The world seemingly has got smaller, but with the likes of David Attenborough to guides though the undiscovered parts, there is still much to learn.

Friday, 4 January 2013

Someone to Watch It over us... The story of ITV's Children's Television Presentation

On the 3rd of January 2013, CITV or by its full title Children's ITV will be thirty years old. Following the documentary broadcast on ITV over the Christmas and New Year period, which concentrated on that period and shown that the service itself was the first to offer national continuity for the children's slot, although not live at first and not the first to do it at all. The programme did try and maybe to set out its own history, but the history of children's television and its programmes on ITV stretches back to the origin of Independent Television itself.

With the launch of Independent Television in 1955, they set out to offer an alternative to the BBC and part of that service was to offer something different from the BBC's Children's
hour. The BBC had started to produce a strand for children called 'For the Children' in 1930's at the dawn of television itself, the first broadcast was ten minutes long on Saturday 24th April 1937. With a mixture of different presenters, performers, story-telling and songs, the programme seemed more like a miniature theatre show and with a regular slot on Saturday afternoons until September 1939, when the programme was brought off the air by the one thing which would dominate the lives of everyone and more so children for the next seven years, World War Two. The suspension of the television service meant children relied on the radio service where Children's Hours was broadcasting and had been since 1922 and became a vital companion for children everywhere, many of them evacuees away from their own families.

When fighting ceased and the television service returned in 1946, the strand doubled in length to twenty minutes and moved to Sunday afternoons, the first broadcast after the war was on July 7th 1946. Though during this time, it would see Muffin the Mule make his debut with his “friend” Annette Mills. But by 1952, the 'For the Children' would be dropped with the strand for younger viewers falling under the Watch with Mother strand and the other programmes introduced by continuity announcers. This settled the pattern for the BBC for nearly thirty-five years, but with the launch of the Independent Television service would see children's television change.

Independent Television launched on the 22nd of September 1955 with Associated-Rediffusion on weekdays and ATV at weekend to start broadcasting, followed by services in the Midlands in February 1956 with ATV during weekdays and ABC at weekends plus Granada launching on weekdays in the North and ABC at weekends during May of 1956. With these new companies came, new ideas for the making and broadcasting of children's
television. One of these was Small Time, the daily 15 minute slot for the under five's produced by Associated-Rediffusion and eventually picked up by Southern and Anglia Television plus also some others as well. The slot started on 23rd of September 1955 at 12.15pm with Johnny and Flonny, a series which had glove puppets as their performers as well as their assistant Paul Hansard, the next had one of Britain's biggest entertainers making one of their first appearances. Rolf Harris appeared in the The Big Black Crayon alongside Jean Ford, then on the Wednesday saw Toybox with Susan Spear. But Small Time also started careers in children's television of presenters and programme creators which would go onto bigger things and helped shape ITV's output during the sixties, seventies and beyond.

But this proved, that with one company making making such a slot, that other ITV franchise holders would take their the best of others programmes to be broadcast by themselves. Though this would be a problem, with some regions picking and choosing their programmes and sometimes placing programmes which may have been on family viewing instead.

Come 1957, The Adventures of Twizzle brought the fist ever television project by Gerry Anderson and his production company AP Films to the screens, shortly afterwards in 1958 by Torchy the Battery Boy. Anderson, so synonymously linked with Lord Lew Grade's ATV, had The Adventures of Twizzle distributed by Associated-Rediffusion, Four Feather Falls by Granada. But with APF in financial trouble and following Anderson's direction of low budge feature film Crossroads to Crime for Anglo-Amalgamated Studios, he was struggling to find a buyer for his new project. But if it wasn't for a fortuitous meeting with Lew Grade, who offered to buy the show. With the international success of Supercar meant that Grade finance for Anderson to produce Fireball XL5. With the success of Anderson's next project of Thunderbirds produced between September 1965 and December 1966 going stratospheric, meant that the output from AP Films was significant part of ITV's children's schedules leading to in the mid sixties. As well as the success of the programme being sold all around the world, proving that home based production could be popular both in the United Kingdom but able to bring profit back so money could be spending on making new programmes for children.

But with this, it proved that ITV could compete with the BBC over children's programming. In the early 60's, the BBC had downsized and merged their children's department into one Family Programmes department which meant that all of the children's programming including Blue Peter would be included under this department. With ITV and the federal system that they offered, meant that other regions were still buying in programmes from each other and also material from abroad as well. The powerhouses such as Rediffusion, Granada and ATV would produce programmes with other smaller regions having a contribution to make such as Southern, Anglia and Tyne Tees. Rediffusion brought comedy in the traditional style with Sooty and Harry Corbett moving over from the BBC plus new comedy with Humphrey Barclay overseeing new talents to performing Terry Jones, Michael Palin and also Eric Idle later to go onto merge with with John Cleese and Graham Chapman from Rediffusion's other new comedy show later in the evening, At Last the 1948 Show to form Monty Python. Plus with comic actors Denise Coffey and David Jason as well, they became the performers in Do Not Adjust Your Set from 1967 and such was the success of the programme that it led to it being repeated later in the evening when people got in from work or whatever they were doing during the afternoon so that more people could see this children's programme which had became a cult hit with viewers.

Southern Television had launched How in 1966, as a way to teach children about different aspects of their world around themselves and how it worked. Proving that what seemed like dry facts could be made interesting if they were presented in an entertaining way. Though one man who started on the programme in 1966, would go like the programme for the next 15 years to become one of the best known children's presenters in the country and even going beyond that to become a household name.

Rediffusion, ATV and Granada was proving that the Independent network could make quality programmes that had appeal, but by the late 1960's both the BBC and ITV were to get ready for the decade to come with programme which would a reflection of the world outside the front living room.

Though in 1967, the Independent Television Authority advertised their ITV franchises to start broadcasting in 1968, but with so much rumour and counter-rumour in the air. What was to happen, was to maybe shock and surprise people. But it was to have an effect on children's broadcasting overall, with the franchise round most regions seemed straightforward or were they? The creation of a new Yorkshire region saw applications from all over, but with the Telefusion rentals and pipe-tv group winning the franchise though with the stipulation that they had to take on the management and talent of rival bid Yorkshire Independent Television to form Yorkshire Television. ATV had lost their weekend franchise in London to David Frost's London Weekend but had gained the new seven day Midlands franchise and then came the London Weekday franchise, two companies, Rediffusion London and ABC TV, who provided great service for ITV individually since the inception of commercial television. Though with London Weekend getting the franchise for broadcasting at weekends in London, the new formed Yorkshire Television taking up the area on the east side of the Pennines, so neither could go their either with Lew Grade settled even more so in the Midlands now. Lord Charles Hill had a problem, both franchises had the talent and the management to make one company, more important to our story though was that Rediffusion had a very strong children's department which would be a huge part of ITV in the years to come competing against the BBC.

The small matter of this occurring between Rediffusion and ABC to form a new company taking on the responsibility of broadcasting to London on weekdays, though not a merger of the two companies but it was not quite to have winners either way. From Rediffusion being top banana of ITV, but their investment meant they were now part of a new company called Thames Television. Meaning the children's department at Rediffusion which had been so successful, took one the responsibility of making programmes for itself, but also making programmes to be distributed to the rest of the ITV network.

With the new companies producing new programming such as Magpie from Thames to rival Blue Peter, LWT moving into children's comedy and drama with Catweazle, Yorkshire with Junior Showtime, along with ATV with Captain Scarlet, the latest production from Gerry Anderson's AP Films. But what about the presentation? Because of the federal system of ITV, all the franchises had their own ways of presentation. Usually a normal continuity announcers just being a bit more jovial then usual in their usual suit or dress announcing programmes. Back in the early seventies, plans were mooted to do networked children's continuity in between the programmes. Though each region themselves had a strong sense of its own identity by putting their idents on the front of the programmes, meaning something broadcast by Southern would have the ident at the beginning before the programme even started to show it was from Thames. So the idea of networked children's continuity didn't even leave the ground, though the schedules having fully networked programmes with itself like How and Magpie, would sit alongside Anglia's Survival films and even repeats of family dramas which had been brought in by the various companies.

Over at the BBC, without this problem they were starting to move ahead in the schedules and something needed to be done for at least ITV to get a brand for their children's programming, that it could be identifiable from the other programmes surrounding it, making children feel that the programmes were for themselves like they did on the BBC. The BBC may have had the BBC1 globe before all the programmes, but their menus and captions looked like they were for children's programming. ITV regions had done it, but only the children in each region saw their own identities, leading to puppet characters such as Gus Honeybun and BC becoming such a success in the Westward/TSW and Anglia regions respectively.

Watch It presentation from the early 80's

The change in style came in 1980 when finally the idea of the Watch It branding was formed, the programmes were distributed in the same way that schools programmes were via ATV and it was little surprise that it was conceived there too by the promotions department under Jim Stokoe, who oversaw the style of presentation for schools and colleges. Though not a wholly networked brand at all, ATV supplied animation and stings for each franchise to use at their will and when the seasons changed new one were sent out for companies to use if they wanted. But the continuity announcers stayed meaning that Southern or later TVS and Granada would have their own doing it, but with the logo itself, the animation would have the exclamation mark in the animation osculating to make it look like it was saying 'Watch ITV', subliminal maybe. But the initial idea of Children's ITV came from Lewis Rudd, Rudd had been involved in Children's television since the mid 60's firstly with Rediffusion, through Thames being involved with Magpie, Rainbow and The Sooty Show as a producer later on becoming the Head of the Children's department at Southern and then at the newly formed Central Television in 1982. He suggested a new method of presentation and it was the Central presentation department again with Jim Stokoe which came up with the concept of Children's ITV. An all networked service with regular presentation and presenters which would appear as a united brand to rival the BBC, beating them to the punch.

The way the system for broadcasting the service was itself like the system used for supplying the presentation for ITV's School and Colleges service from Central, whilst the individual companies played out their own programmes and supplied them around the rest of the network. Presentation itself was recorded, featuring faces from the programmes which were being broadcast meaning that the first ever presentation face was Matthew Kelly, already famous for Game for a Laugh, but also presenting the Madabout series for Tyne Tees. Plus taking their turns were Isla St Clair, from The Saturday Show, Mick Robertson formerly of Magpie, now with his new programme Freetime, Tommy Boyd also from Magpie and St. Clair's co-host on The Saturday Show with lots more faces over time. Meaning it had made its mark and the BBC had to fight back with the launch of the Broom Cupboard and Philip Schofield in 1985.

So contrary to ITV's documentary, Children's ITV may have started in 1983 but children's programmes on the independent channel stretched even nearly thirty-years before that. The history of children's television is a long one and also varied in the style, programmes and presentation, but it is an important one to both for continuity and also the way television came to be in the latter part of the 20th century. But 1983 was not only famous for the launch of united ITV children's service, the BBC's Children's Department also celebrated an anniversary as well, more of which soon.

Whichever way you look at Children's ITV is 30 years old and now has its own channel instead of a strand, giant leaps in 30 years. But if it was not for people like Lewis Rudd and Jim Stokoe, it would have just been a continuity announcer in front of a plain background announcing the children's presentation much like any other time of the day, Watch It and Children's ITV brought colour to the screen and also whole wave of programmes with it as well.