Obituary: Barbara Mandell

AS THE first woman to present the news on a national television service in Britain, Barbara Mandell secured a place in history during ITN's early, pioneering days in the mid-Fifties.

Although the fledgling Independent Television was not screened across the entire country until more than five years later, her appearances on its midday news when the commercial channel began in 1955 made her a forerunner to the BBC's Nan Winton, who presented bulletins regularly in 1960, and Angela Rippon 15 years after that.

However, by the time Anna Ford teamed up with the irrepressible Reginald Bosanquet on News at Ten in 1978, many of those who accepted ITN's widely accepted dominance in the field of television news had forgotten the woman who had preceded her two decades earlier when the organisation was launched as a direct competitor to the BBC's news service.

Mandell was picked for the job by ITN's first editor, Aidan Crawley, shortly before ITV's launch on 22 September 1955. In an attempt to steal a march on the BBC, whose news programmes had for years been little more than radio bulletins illustrated with pictures and presented by announcers who were not seen in vision, Crawley declared: "News is human and alive, and we intend to present it in that manner."

ITN had newscasters who not only presented the stories but wrote some of them - as opposed to the BBC's newsreaders, who were essentially announcers reading other people's words - and the new organisation could boast lightweight 16mm cameras with more flexibility and impact than the newsreel companies' bulky, 35mm equipment, as well as natural sound broadcast with the film. Its effect, bringing news stories such as strikes to life, was dramatic.

From among 150 candidates, Crawley chose the first three newscasters: the former Olympic runner Christopher Chataway presented the main programme at 10pm, the barrister Robin Day, who had some experience as a BBC radio talks producer, fronted the 7pm bulletin, and Mandell was seen at noon.

The London-born broadcaster, whose family moved to South Africa in 1924, had followed her late father into journalism by joining the Rand Daily Mail, where he had been deputy editor. She then worked as a radio news editor for the South African Broadcasting Company, where she met Alan Mandell, who became her husband and later found fame on BBC radio as Alan Dell. However, the marriage lasted little more than 10 years. After a short trip to America at the beginning of the Fifties, the couple moved to Britain and Mandell worked as a freelance scriptwriter for the BBC's Television Newsreel before joining ITN.

Like the rest of ITN's enthusiastic but small staff, Mandell was thrown in at the deep end. Once, she was not helped by Reginald Bosanquet, who also joined the television news organisation at its inception. "As a scriptwriter very much with my L-plates on," he recalled in his 1980 autobiography, Let's Get Through Wednesday: my 25 years with ITN, "I landed Barbara in the cart when I had her telling the viewers that 6,000 troops had been despatched from Northolt to Cyprus when in fact it was 600 from Blackbushe."

In those early days, everyone at ITN contributed wherever needed. With Lynne Reid Banks, who went on to become an acclaimed writer, Mandell was one of the company's first two female reporters. With their male counterparts, they were the first broadcasters to conduct vox pops - interviews with ordinary people in the street.

At the time, it was controversial for a woman to approach a male stranger in public, but Mandell was helped by the presence of a film cameraman and sound recordist. She also reported on a Paris fashion show, something that had never been seen in BBC news bulletins.

However, following her first broadcast a day after ITV's launch, Mandell's time as a newscaster was short. By January 1956, ITV was losing money, slashed ITN's budget and dropped the midday news, causing Aidan Crawley and Christopher Chataway to resign. In the event, the former national newspaper journalist Geoffrey Cox took over as editor and built on the reputation that Crawley had gained for ITN, and Ludovic Kennedy replaced Chataway.

Mandell continued at ITN as a scriptwriter and reporter, and returned to newscasting briefly to present Sunday-evening bulletins, although she eventually disappeared from screens to work behind the scenes, serving out her days as chief copytaster on News at 5.45 until her retirement in 1980.

Then, she lived in Luxembourg with her partner of more than 20 years, Martin Gray, an ITN film cameraman who distinguished himself with coverage of news stories such as the Hungarian uprising in 1956 but left after losing a leg through gangrene. The couple made travel films and Mandell wrote books, most notably about France, Spain and Portugal. In 1992, they moved to Devon and Gray died four years later.

Allada Barbara Grenville-Wells (Barbara Mandell), television newscaster and reporter, and travel writer: born London 15 July 1920; married 1945 Alan Dell (marriage dissolved); died Holsworthy, Devon 25 August 1998.

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