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How the Kennedy assassination caught the BBC on the hop

When JFK was shot, 40 years ago this week, the BBC's Washington correspondent was stranded down a coal mine and, in London, the top brass were on their way to a black tie ball. Mark Lewisohn pieces together a bizarre picture of broadcasters caught on the hop

In Britain and America, the assassination of John F Kennedy established a new pattern for crisis news stories. Instead of the radio or newspapers, people looked to television to establish the facts and see the pictures. As it happens, though, the story caught everyone on the hop. On the evening of Friday 22 November 1963, the cream of British broadcasters hit the late 20th century with a bump.

President Kennedy was shot at 12.31pm Dallas time, 6.31pm in London. On BBC television, the Six o'Clock News had finished on schedule at 6.10pm. It had been a quiet day: the results of the Dundee West by-election, the architect for the new National Theatre, the departure from our shores of the new Miss World. At Alexandra Palace, where television news was based, staff gathered in the editor's room and raised a glass to a departing colleague.

Other senior BBC personnel, along with their ITN counterparts, and all the familiar television newsreaders, were on their way to the Dorchester hotel. The annual dinner and ball of the Guild of Television Producers and Directors was taking place. On the east coast of America, it was lunchtime. In New York, the BBC's UN correspondent was out, while the chief Washington correspondent, Douglas Stuart, was, of all places, down a coal mine in Illinois. Stuart's deputy, Leonard Parkin, was about to go to lunch.

Technically, too, all was quiet. The first telecoms satellite, Telstar, launched in July 1962, was in downtime; putting it to use entailed complicated procedures far beyond flicking a switch. The daily New York-Washington-London "circuit", a Post Office-enabled landline that provided good-quality voice reporting, had been signed off for the day.

Then the tickertape machines burst into life. It was 6.42pm, 11 minutes after the shooting.

"President Kennedy was shot at today while riding in a motor convoy. A photographer reported seeing blood on the President's head." - Reuters

In Manchester, in a coup that it would rightly crow about for years, Granada became the first broadcaster in Britain to break the story. Its local news magazine Scene at 6.30, screened only in the north of England, was on air until 7pm; a few minutes before its end, the presenter Mike Scott made the sensational announcement, citing wire sources.

At the same time, Tannoy speakers were spreading the news all around the BBC. At the Alexandra Palace leaving- party, glasses were downed. In the radio newsroom at Broadcasting House, the chief sub typed the newsflash for the three national radio networks, the Home, the Light and the Third:

"News has just come in that President Kennedy has been shot. There's no news yet of his condition. It happened as the President was riding with his wife in an open car through the streets of Dallas, Texas. Several shots rang out and the President collapsed into the arms of his wife. One eye witness said he saw blood on the President's head. The Governor of Texas, Mr John Connally, who was with him, was also shot down. The President was rushed to hospital, where there's still no word of his condition."

On the Light Programme, that announcement kicked off the scheduled half-hour Radio Newsreel. Then Leonard Parkin, later to become an ITN newsreader, was on the phone from Washington with his first dispatch. There were three such calls during the half-hour; news was worsening. Courtesy of the Post Office, the Washington-London "circuit" came back up. The ultimate news climax then came at 7.30pm. For 2.7 million listeners up and down the country, the entire tragedy - from the first announcement of the shooting to the bitter end - had been recounted in a single 30-minute radio broadcast.

Things were different on the BBC's television service. At 7.05pm, between Points of View and current-affairs programme Tonight, the schedule was briefly interrupted for a newsflash. The camera showed a man, looking solemn.

But who was he? No one recognised him. Richard Baker, Robert Dougall, Kenneth Kendall were at the ball. In their stead, fate had pointed its finger at a man junior to the task. This was John Roberts. He was on a staff contract, but little else is known about him; for once, the BBC's voluminous files yield nothing on his background or present-day whereabouts.

After the first newsflash, Tonight came on, but it was to be a distracted edition. Set to end at 7.45pm it was yanked at 7.26pm. The unfamiliar newsreader was back with more: Kennedy had been shot in the head. His condition was critical. And then the phone by Roberts's side started to ring. Out at Caversham in Berkshire, the BBC's Monitoring Service had picked up a decisive bulletin on the Voice of America. An observer would write how John Roberts's countenance visibly altered as he took the news and then relayed it to a mass TV audience:

"We regret to announce that President Kennedy is dead."

And with that, Roberts bowed his head and did not look up again.

The news imparted, the BBC had to decide what to do next. What viewers got was the BBC television ident, a revolving globe, for 19 minutes. It was punctuated by three brief bulletins read by John Roberts.

At 7.45pm, Rex Moorfoot, head of presentation, finally got through by phone to the Dorchester, to Kenneth Adam, director of television. Between them, they agreed that the BBC should return to its normal Friday-night schedule, subject to interruption as necessary. So the schedule proceeded with Here's Harry, a sitcom starring the inept ditherer Harry Worth, the man who did the arms and legs illusion in a shop doorway. After this came an episode of the cheery Highlands serial Dr Finlay's Casebook. If the decision was an attempt to lift morale it was ill-judged. A confidential report circulated among senior BBC staff made stark reading. "Well over 2,000 phone calls" of criticism poured in that night, followed by almost 500 letters and telegrams.

Meanwhile, what was happening on ITV? Although Granada had scooped everyone, breaking the news in the north at about 6.50pm, viewers in other areas remained unaware of the dramatic events. The network came together at 7pm for the raucous game-show Take Your Pick; 10 minutes in, it was interrupted for ITN's first newsflash. Take Your Pick then came back, and the hospital soap Emergency - Ward 10 began as scheduled at 7.30pm. Then this was abruptly pulled at 7.40pm with confirmation that Kennedy was dead.

ITV ran no commercials for the next 90 minutes. For 20 minutes, like the BBC, the regions held their "Interlude" cards, punctuated by newsflashes. Then at 8pm the network ran a recorded programme of solemn music performed by the Hallé Orchestra. After a news bulletin at 8.55pm ITV also returned to its advertised schedule, screening a Jack Rosenthal play.

By 11pm, four hours after the news broke, the BBC broadcast Tribute to President Kennedy, featuring all three political leaders. Jo Grimond, Liberal, was in the Lime Grove studio, driven there from Oxford by undergraduates. Harold Wilson, Leader of the Opposition, had been sped from North Wales to the BBC's Manchester studio. And Sir Alec Douglas-Home, recently installed as Prime Minister in succession to Macmillan, was pressed into a tiny television booth at Broadcasting House. Viewers saw the PM talk of "this young, gay and brave statesman... killed in the full vigour of his manhood."

The satellites were up by Saturday and both BBC and ITV beamed Telstar pictures into British homes. Here was Dallas, and here a wrecked people. Radio could not compete with television moments like this. Though there were extra news bulletins and special programmes, both channels returned to normal schedules. The BBC unveiled a new sci-fi serial, Dr Who, and its day closed with an inspired edition of That Was the Week That Was. Dedicated solely to Kennedy, it was issued as an album in America and rose to number five in the charts. On Monday afternoon both the BBC and ITV screened Kennedy's funeral live via Telstar, bringing to an end the first period of the post-Kennedy era.

The hunger for imagery could only grow from here. Anthony Burgess, writing in The Listener magazine, prophesied the future when he declared of the assassination television coverage: "We have seen everything now; that impartial eye has looked on murder; from now on there will always be the stain of a corpse on the living-room hearthrug."

Mark Lewisohn wishes to acknowledge the BBC Written Archives Centre for providing information