When, on 4 September 1955, Kenneth Kendall became the first newscaster to appear on a British television screen in the flesh, it was the culmination of years of debate at the BBC – at first over whether it was right to broadcast news on television at all, and then whether images of any kind might distort the message.
TV broadcasts had begun in Britain in 1936, with only a few thousand sets in operation; but it was then regarded purely as an entertainment medium, with no news content at all.
The service was suspended for the duration of the Second World War, when BBC radio filled the vital role of keeping the nation informed. When TV resumed, the all-powerful news division was keen that radio should maintain this monopoly. In 1948 Television Newsreel was introduced, but it was designed to compete with the cinema’s filmed newsreels and had no live content.
That, too, was the year when the 24-year-old Kenneth Kendall, who has died after suffering a stroke a few weeks ago, joined BBC Radio as one of its small team of newsreaders. His disembodied voice was frequently heard on television over the next few years, when a round-up of the news was relayed, in sound only, at the end of the day’s programming, accompanied by a blank screen or a montage of clock faces.
Then in 1954 it was decided to risk some relevant images, such as charts, maps and photographs. Kendall and the other readers would be driven from the news division’s headquarters opposite Broadcasting House to Alexandra Palace in north London, from where the programmes were transmitted; but still their faces were not to be seen. The critic of the Star, a London evening newspaper, described TV news as “about as impressive visually as the fatstock prices”.
It was not until the following year, with the imminent arrival of commercial television and its promise of much livelier news bulletins, that the veil was lifted from Kendall and his two colleagues, Richard Baker and Robert Dougall. They were allowed to be seen but, in the beginning, not named. The dangerous cult of personality was still regarded by the BBC as a threat to objective reporting.
Born in 1924 in India, Kendall spent his first 10 years there until his family moved to Cornwall. After Felsted School in Essex he read modern languages at Corpus Christi, Oxford, before he gained a commission in the Coldstream Guards and was wounded in the Normandy landings of 1944.
On his demobilisation in 1946 he briefly became a schoolteacher and an actor in a repertory company in Crewe until, with his mellifluous and authoritative voice, he convinced the BBC that he would make an ideal reader of radio news bulletins. In the years following his initial on-screen appearance, his calm demeanour and elegant appearance made him a familiar and popular presence in Britain’s living rooms; but he found the role of newscaster unfulfilling and in 1961 he left to try his luck as a freelance.
For a time he became well known in the south of England as the presenter of Southern Television’s current affairs programme, Day by Day. He also hosted occasional game shows and made guest appearances in BBC drama series, as well as playing cameo roles in films including 2001: A Space Odyssey, usually as a newscaster.
All this did not, however, provide a steady source of income and in 1969 he rejoined the BBC, slipping back easily into newscasting. This second stint lasted for 12 years. One memorable moment, frequently reprised in programmes that hark back to television’s golden age, was an appearance with other newscasters and presenters on the Morecambe and Wise Christmas Show in 1977, where they dressed in sailor suits and gave a rousing and energetic rendition of “There is Nothing Like a Dame”. Two years later Kendall was voted the nation’s favourite newscaster in a poll conducted by the Daily Mirror.
In 1982, soon after leaving the BBC for the second time, he began a surprising second career as host of the game show Treasure Hunt, one of the most popular programmes on the newly launched Channel 4. His role was to keep order while two contestants in the studio yelled frenetic instructions to Anneka Rice in a helicopter seeking clues for the location of the £1,000 “treasure”, which they had to track down within 45 minutes. It demanded different qualities from the buttoned-up persona he had been forced to adopt as a newscaster; but he adapted with flair, staying with the programme throughout its initial seven-year run.
During this time he did a variety of other work, including the occasional presentation of the BBC’s Sunday stalwart, Songs of Praise.
After establishing an art gallery in Cornwall, Kendall set up home with Mark Fear in Cowes, Isle of Wight, where they opened a restaurant. It did not thrive and they converted it into another art gallery, which is still in business, specialising in depictions of the sea. The two men entered into a civil partnership in 2006.
An enthusiastic campaigner for Aids charities and other good causes, Kendall caused a stir during the 1992 Cowes regatta by going out in a boat and handing the sailors free condoms and T-shirts advocating safe sex. At his 80th birthday party in 2004, organised by his partner in the gallery, he declared that the campaign was still relevant: “I dare say I would hand them out again were I to be asked.”
In 2010 he took part in The Young Ones, a BBC series in which six elderly celebrities went to live in a house decorated and fitted as it would have been in the mid-1970s, when they were in their prime. The object was to see whether going back in time would restore some of their former vigour, and to an extent it worked. Kendall, who had previously had some serious falls, said he felt a lot better after the experiment.
Kenneth Kendall, television newscaster and presenter: born India 7 August 1924; 2006 civil partnership with Mark Fear; died Cowes 14 December 2012.