When autocues go wrong

As the inventor of the broadcasters' friend (and enemy) dies, Rob Sharp recalls the times when technology didn't stick to the script

Since its 1940s creation, the autocue has aided as many actors and politicians as it has caused memorable on-screen gaffes. The invention began by revolutionising broadcasting. It has gone on to plague the short-sighted and ill-prepared. Now news anchors worldwide have cause to stall longer than normal over their scripts. The autocue's founding father, Hubert "Hub" Schlafly, left, has died aged 91 at a Connecticut hospital, it was announced on Tuesday. Schlafly was buried by his family on Tuesday, and today fans are expected to flock to a service in the small town of Greenwich, Connecticut, where he is buried.

In the late 1940s the Broadway actor Fred Barton was struggling to remember his lines. He approached Irving Berlin Kahn, a vice-president at 20th Century Fox, for help. Kahn asked Schlafly, who was his director of television research, for a solution.

In 1950 the gadget made its first TV appearance on the US soap opera The First Hundred Years, before becoming standard fare on news and talk shows. In 1952 Herbert Hoover was the first politician to employ one in a live address. His fellow statesmen and celebrities have employed it with varying success ever since.

Mind gone blank...?

* February's Bafta awards saw Dominic Cooper and Rosamund Pike languishing after their autocue broke. In the confusion actress Pike nearly opened the envelope and read out the winner of Best Original Screenplay before announcing the nominees. The evening's host, Jonathan Ross, dashed to stop her. He joked: "That's the fastest I've moved for years." Mamma Mia star Cooper looked uncomfortable and asked if he could leave the stage. Pike declared: "I've embarrassed him now."

* Last June Lenny Henry said "bollocks" three times after stumbling over an autocued joke while appearing as a guest presenter on Channel 4's Five o'Clock Show. The comedian fluffed his gag twice, before saying: "Oh bollocks to it... Hang on, I said bollocks. But it's live so they can't cut that out." Henry then told a second joke before adding: "Did I make up for the bollocks?" Channel 4 later apologised for any offence caused by the teatime swearing.

* US President Barack Obama's public appearances have almost always been accompanied by two clear-screen teleprompters. In July 2009, while he was giving a speech on the US economy at Washington DC's Eisenhower Executive Office, one of gadgets toppled over and smashed. "Oh goodness!" exclaimed the President. "Sorry about that, guys." The audience laughed. He was ultimately unruffled, however, ad-libbing, employing his notes and then using the remaining device during the rest of his 11-minute address, before janitors swept up the shattered glass.

* In June 2009 Sky News political editor Adam Boulton mistakenly read out an autocue that had not been updated properly. Viewers were told: "Coming up: no more than 12 words or four seconds." Immediately afterwards, Boulton said: "I don't understand that at all." In an interview with political magazine Total Politics last year, the veteran journalist admitted: "Probably the television skill I'm least good at is reading the autocue."

* In April 2009 BBC South presenter Sally Taylor inadvertently gave poet Hilaire Belloc an X-rated surname during an innocent piece about the closure of Shipley Windmill near Horsham, Sussex. She described the building as "the former home of the poet and author Hilaire Bollock", but managed to continue her broadcast straight-faced, without pausing. The news journalist has worked for BBC South for 20 years and in 2005 was awarded an MBE for services to regional broadcasting.

* Dozens of ITV viewers complained to Ofcom about the 2008 Brit Awards, after Sharon Osbourne launched a foul-mouthed tirade against one of the night's presenters, Vic Reeves, barely minutes into the show. Osbourne, who was co-hosting the awards, barged the comedian aside as he attempted to present the gong for Best British Album. She accused him of being drunk, before calling him a "p***head". Reeves had apparently angered Osbourne when he made a quip over the singer Kylie Minogue, who he said "needed work". Reeves later blamed the spat on an autocue malfunction.

* While launching his 2007 campaign for the Labour Party leadership Gordon Brown addressed his audience with an autocue screen obscuring his face. News crews had strict restrictions on where to position their cameras and Brown's speech was broadcast with the obstruction in place. The first of many comparisons with his media-savvy predecessor Tony Blair followed. Other commentators maintained this emphasised how unconcerned Brown was with image.

* While US President, Bill Clinton narrowly averted disaster during a 1993 speech to Congress about healthcare. When he began speaking, his teleprompter was loaded with someone else's speech. It took seven minutes to rectify the mistake, but Clinton spoke from memory, cementing his reputation as one of the most competent public speakers ever to have occupied the Oval Office. Four years later, the mistake was almost repeated, when a last-minute change to another speech caused the entire address to be formatted as a single, endless paragraph. As Clinton mounted the lectern, aides rushed through the text, finishing just as he began speaking.

* The Brit Awards 1989 was the year of the "autocue apocalypse". The evening's hosts Sam Fox and Mick Fleetwood constantly fluffed their lines and misread their autocue. The most memorable gaffe came when the pair were supposed to introduce DJ and singer Boy George. George was announced as "The Four Tops". "Hello, I'm the One Top," he said after walking on. Fox, who was later criticised for her "lack of chemistry" with her co-host, said: "I wanted the floor to swallow me up... it wasn't my fault. All I had to do was learn my script".

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