Camelot Falls 

1 February 2001

EDITOR’S NOTE: This article is more than 20 years old. The formatting may be strange, links broken and/or images missing. The text may have been superseded by subsequent events or later research.

Like virtually everybody who heard about the Kennedy assassination, I remember exactly what I was doing and where I was. It’s not just a famous cliché – it’s also true. I have never met anyone alive then (other than toddlers and small children) who do not remember it in stark detail.

No US president had been murdered on camera before (though the Zabruder colour film we now know was not published at the time, and we had to make do with far inferior, bouncy black and white footage).

On the evening concerned, Friday 22 November 1963, I arrived home from Kingsmead School in Hoylake, Wirral, where the Transdiffusion organisation was to be founded six months later.

I did my homework, or some of it, had some tea and turned the telly on. I was eleven years of age, and was lying on the carpet in front of the coal fire, still with my uniform on – it wasn’t until years later that people changed clothing on getting home.

My mother was in hospital being treated for cancer and Granny was in charge. As some grandmothers always seem to be doing, she was in the kitchen washing up.

Dad was still at work, as he tended to work late building his own business. He came in soon after, and walked the dog for a bit. I was watching “Tonight” on BBC-tv, when Cliff Michelmore was telephoned on set, stopped suddenly and immediately passed over to the newsroom, mid-programme. A newsflash was read by a newsreader called “John Roberts” who seemed to disappear from television soon after.

Early flashes were about the shooting, and only a little later was the death announced. 1230 Dallas time was of course 1830 GMT and I recall the moment of the death announcement very clearly.

The bulletin, about the third in 20 minutes, in vision, lasted no more than ten seconds. John Roberts said simply, “The Voice of America has just announced that President Kennedy is dead”. The newsreader bowed his head, and did not look up again.

The picture faded. It was the most dramatic announcement on television that I have ever witnessed. I ran into the kitchen and told Granny, who burst into tears.

As a child, I did not know that the “Voice of America” was a radio network and the nearest US equivalent of the BBC World Service. I naturally assumed it was some sort of loudspeaker riveted to the side of the White House.

My Auntie Doris later said that the phrase “is dead” was too stark and should have been softened to “has passed away”. It was indicative of the complete shock at the time that no one thought to moderate the phrase in any way and that such a stark wording was ‘blurted out’.

It may be hard to understand in these cynical days, but Kennedy was greatly admired and a real hero to most people in the UK and Ireland. He represented a younger generation of politician and was not, for the first time in years, the “man in his sixties” that other presidents had seemed to be.

I switched intermittently between Granada and WWN’s Teledu Cymru. Already I knew it was an earth-shattering moment that I would never forget.

Granada were covering the events as part of their “Scene at 6.30” local news. There were only library pictures available at that point and much of the “coverage” on all news services was of commentators talking over stills.

Granada were first to report it on Independent Television simply because their local news show ran from 1830 to 1900 daily and was on the air at the time the story broke.

Sadly for the other regions, every other ITV company had their local news show earlier and had finished their bulletins when the story broke after 1830.

Some regions took an ITN newsflash at 1900, which Granada also transmitted, and some regions may have broken into their programme before 1900. WWN certainly didn’t.

They announced the news of the shooting just before 1900 and Teledu Cymru then went to ITN in London.

ITV cancelled their programmes for the rest of the evening and some regions actually closed down.

This is forgotten now, and seems incredible by today’s standards but television then, especially ITV, was still seen as a theatrical event and it was not thought “proper” to stay on the air.

I was taken aback to see the test card on Granada by 1940. They did re-open again about 2000, for further bulletins but without a start-up theme, showing the Granada symbol in silence for 5 minutes as a form of tuning signal, up to 2000.

It was as if no one knew quite what to do and the Granada March may have been inappropriate and triumphalist, so the silence was apt. I think Associated-Rediffusion stayed on the air, but only with sad music over a still until current affairs strands could take over at about 2000.

On the BBC, after the death announcement, we were treated to the BBC globe revolving, while the U.S. national anthem was played, quickly followed by “God Save the Queen”, the latter played in case any “Blimps” among the audience objected to the former.

It was the first time I had heard the “Star Spangled Banner” as a child, and was impressed. Granny was weeping copiously, but, in a surreal move, handed out toffees to my father and I to “keep our spirits up”. You could tell she had been an assistant air raid warden in World War Two! After the two anthems, there was silence for almost half an hour, with the globe revolving silently, in vision.

In those days, the letters ‘BBC-tv’ in italics within non-italic blocks were normally superimposed over the front of the globe. On this occasion, the superimposition was not done, and the globe was seen without lettering overlaid. It was the first and last time I saw the BBC do that.

Of course, it’s a myth that the BBC globe started with BBC-1 in 1964. That was the second globe design, within a box. This first globe, within a tight white rim and with no box, appeared in early 1963, and so was a relatively new symbol that autumn.

After half an hour of silence, there was more news. An edition of the Harry Worth show was also transmitted that evening on BBC-tv as some sort of “morale booster”. The BBC was still looked on as the “National Broadcaster” in times of emergency and was assumed to be “turned to by all”, which is why it did not seem odd for Granada and Teledu Cymru to close down. ITV almost “handed over” to the BBC, metaphorically.

The following day was to be the first episode ever of the new BBC-tv science fiction series “Doctor Who”, which we were looking forward to. Children concentrated but adults did not and it was repeated in full a week later to be followed at once by episode two.

The BBC announced that it was being repeated due to “exceptional interest” and I believed this at the time, but later I found out that it had been due to the premiere being spoiled by the assassination the day before and adults being supposedly “too upset” to appreciate it.

There were no power cuts or interruptions to supply, that being a myth based on the real power loss that scuppered the London BBC-2 launch almost five months later. The myth appeared in a Doctor Who book, and took root. Power cuts were generally a seventies thing and were not experienced that much in the sixties.

The following day was an ‘ABC day’ for us, being a Saturday. Our blissful weekend release from dour Granada was not to be, however. ABC cancelled their “light” content programmes and we had a dour, Granada-style weekend of heavier and more sober material than ABC normally went in for.

It felt very odd. ABC opened in silence that Saturday morning, with just the distant ‘pop’ of atmospherics where Perpetuum Mobile would normally have been. The ABC fanfare was replaced by a silent static ABC ident caption for ten seconds and chief announcer John Benson appeared wearing a black tie.

The world lost its innocence that weekend in November 1963. But through the shock and distress that echoed around the world, British television handled the situation with a style that is still used in an emergency today.

You Say

2 responses to this article

Claire Elizabeth Roth-Newman 27 January 2013 at 7:08 pm

On this same evening 22nd Nov. 1963, I had just turned

ten years of age on the tenth and to remember coming home from school. Still wearing school uniform and watching telly

lying on the carpet in front of the fire either a coke/cole or was it a gas? and recall seeing Harry Worth or Here’s Harry. The shock of a news flash was very distressing and mummy who was in the kitchen preparing supper was also very sad.

I later remember an aunt coming from America, I think Chicago where she lived in Marina City, there was much talk

Of Lee Harvey Oswald and events seemed to overtake each other another assassination of or by a Jack Ruby. All quite frustrating for a ten year old to fathom.

Also I clearly remember seeing Doctor Who, ” an Unearthly Child”. Also a great fascination both of Susan the grand-daughter and the music from the now cult tv series.

Later at the ripe age of nineteen or twenty I read a book by Frederick Forsyth mabe titled ” the Day of the Jackall” and there was an opening paragraph which gripped me,because

It said, or words to that effect, “Everyone remembers what

they were doing when President Kennedy was shot/assassinated on 22nd November in Dallas Texas.

These are my thoughts regarding that cold autumnal evening in November 1963.

Derek Elder 22 November 2013 at 8:46 am

My experience mirrors yours almost exactly: ten years old, early evening, home from school on a Friday, messing around on the floor in front of the TV and be told, sharply by my father to move and keep quiet. For years I had the memory of Robert Dougall being the announcer, but I know now that he and most of the other news announcer types were at some black-tie do in London. Solemn-faced man says Kennedy is dead and the whole atmosphere changed. I had completely forgotten the bit about Dr Who on the Saturday, but I do recall being sent to the nearest newsagent for a paper on the Saturday morning and having to go on to the next, because the first was sold out. The naive child I was thought that the picture of the secret service man climbing on to the back of the Lincoln was a picture of the assassin and I ran home to tell my father about it.

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