mesmileHave you ever noticed how, at the end of every news bulletin outside the news-only channels, the ding-dang-dong-diddle-dum music drowns all sound….and – as the camera pulls away – the anchor sits there tidying up sheets of A4 paper?

The anchors pick them up, tap them on the table, and lay them neatly to one side as if they’d actually been using the things. We all know they’ve been reading off an autocue, but they still go through the ritual. (It’s very much a male newsreader thing: I’ve rarely if ever seen a woman do it)

As the final countdown to the bulletin gets under way, the studio staff check that all the vital elements are in place.

“Right loves, final dust for Brad’s forehead,” chirrups Toby the director, “can we see the Poppy? Lovelee. Has Brad got his papers to shuffle….excellent. Alright, counting down at nine, eight, seven…”

I suspect the idea is to try and make themselves look like multifunctional, serious human beings, as opposed to the rampant piss artists we know they are really.

When I worked in Fitzrovia – in those days an ill-kempt, bohemian little media colony off Tottenham Court Road – one of the main decisions of the day was where to have lunch. But if one wanted to observe ITN newscasters at play, the best venue by far was Schmidt’s…a wurst/sauerkraut and spuds emporium at the bottom end of Charlotte Street.

There, one could watch – at disturbingly close quarters – the big newsreaders of the day falling forward into their noodle soup after a few steins too many of Dortmunder bier. Later, following an afternoon spent explaining to clients why their ad was upside down in the Tatler as opposed to the right way up in GQ, we all drove back to the suburbs to catch these same faces on the 7.30 news struggling with autocue phrases like “the latest Board of Trade statistics”, “with special emphasis on public sector borrowing requirements” and “her Majesty’s corgis thoroughly enjoyed the proceedings”.

It was all enunciated with careful gravity by a face which only three hours earlier had collapsed onto a plateful of sausage gravy. Ever afterwards, I found it impossible to take them seriously.


But twenty years earlier, over on the BBC, things really were a lot more real. Back then, there were chaps like Kenneth Kendall. Kendall never did the “and finally” human interest dog-saves-tree nonsense that later became de rigueur. By his side there was a large white telephone, and it wasn’t there just for show. Oh no. It actually rang, and Kenneth would answer it.

Occasionally, having put the phone down, he’d say, “I understand that during that last item, a three-horned Devil ran onto the set and pulled silly faces behind me, so I should like to assure all BBC viewers that he has been apprehended by BBC staff and the Dock Green police are on their way. There is no cause for concern.”

Kenneth Kendall was a model of emotionless objectivity, a dignified monotone in the age of black and white telly. “And news is just coming in that, in a most regrettable incident, the fourth Moon of Neptune has broken free and collided with Mars. The debris appears to be heading in the general direction of Earth, and we will be giving you any further news we have on that when our science correspondent Sir Allenby Jodrell-Frenchletter returns from annual leave next week”.

Happy that the situation was under control, the nation would sit down on its three-piece suite to watch Hancock’s Half Hour, starring the lad isself, with help from Sid James, Hattie Jacques and John Le Mesurier.

I have no doubt that the world was every bit as much on tilt then as now. But with no satellites, no mobile phone images of bloody disaster, no Islamists and no tabloids, we weren’t aware of it. Perhaps we should’ve been. But now we are aware of it, I am at a loss to explain why it is of any help to us.