Liquid gold 

1 January 2002

Jonathan Bufton looks at the origins of the BBC’s Liquid News

Liquid News began on 30 May 2000 on BBC Choice, but its origins lie far deeper than that Tuesday. Over the last two years it has become a cult success, bringing much needed credibility to Choice and the BBC itself. Much of this came from the presenter, Christopher Price, although his sad death on 22 April 2002 raises questions about the future of the programme.

When Liquid News began, reading the description in the schedules made the programme seem a not exactly original premise. Entertainment news was nothing new – MTV had been covering it for years in their Daily Edition programmes, Channel 5’s Exclusive and Live and Kicking’s Electric Circus were also veterans and ITV’s Celebrity was just around the corner. However, there was due reason to be excited about the addition of Liquid News to the BBC Choice schedules.

It had evolved out a twenty-five minute programme called Zero 30, screened aptly enough at half past midnight on BBC News 24. Again presented by Christopher Price, the strand announced itself rather pompously as “the only daily roundup of arts and entertainment news on British television”.

This being the early era of digital television, the show’s look was rather less glamorous than it promised. Presented from a cramped set in the corner of the standard News 24 studio, reports were often very low budget, and simply consisted of stock footage of the celebrities in question with the news being read out by a reporter over the top of it. This didn’t matter though – the real star was the presenter, Christopher Price.

Whilst many would later tune into Liquid News specifically to see Chris’ style, it came as a complete shock to many to see the ego-centric world of celebrity mocked by a smartly dressed newsreader on an otherwise serious news channel.

The stories were gently satirised by Chris and his guest, usually an industry insider, and consequently Zero 30 became appointment viewing for a small number of people. The show clearly had potential and was duly “stolen” by a re-launched BBC Choice. The last edition in April 2000 promised that the show was going onto “bigger and better things”, which was perhaps an understatement.

Liquid News began at 8:30pm on 30 May 2000. The show was a brilliant addition to the channel for two reasons – one, already outlined, the attitude was entirely different to anything that had gone before. Two, since it’s relaunch a couple of months earlier, BBC Choice had relied on filling its schedules with fifteen minute programmes billed as Micro TV. Whilst this had some novelty value at first, it soon became clear that not many had been made, and there was a rather limited number to go around the schedules. A totally original (and live) half-hour was a valuable gain.

The show had an entirely different attitude to everything that had gone before, even down to the title. Will Smith once remarked at a film premiere, looking bemused at the microphone thrust into his face, “Liquid News? Ah, is that news you can drink?” The programme would pull no punches, and often showed remarkable honesty on screen about the production of the programme.

When reporting small stories of the day where no relevant footage was available, the programme would simply improvise for something to put on the screen whilst Christopher read the story. For example, for a piece about the fiftieth anniversary of The Archers was illustrated by a shot of a radio playing the theme tune of the show, a mention of the planned axing of the BBC One balloon ident was coupled with a shot of a red party balloon being knocked around the Blue Peter garden and, perhaps most memorably, news of the sacking of Sky News’s Frank Partridge was accompanied by stock footage of the presenter’s namesakes wandering around a field, because Sky had refused permission to use a picture. Well, they asked for it.

Each programme would be presented from a minimalist studio with a desk the centre stage. After the first item Price would be joined on the sofa next to his desk by two people to discuss the day’s news. Comedians, magazine editors, pop stars and television presenters all featured on the “banquette” taking part in the show.

The discussion between Price and the guests was central the programme’s format, and once certain people, such as Jenny Eclair, Julia Morris and Joe Mace started becoming regulars the talk became more compulsive viewing that the reports themselves.

Liquid News also had a slightly different agenda than most entertainment news roundups. The programme also included media news of the day, reporting events such as the reinstatement of ITV News at Ten and the deaths of people such as Harry Secombe and Spike Milligan that Choice’s audience might not otherwise be interested in. The Liquid News approach coupled with Price’s informal, witty and friendly approach made these stories sit neatly within the programme.

The programme became a cult hit on BBC Choice. Even though the viewing figures were still, even by Choice’s standards, not very large, the critical reaction to the show was excellent, and Liquid News quickly became the flagship programme of the channel.

In April 2001 the programme was given a new, larger studio with many large screens surrounding the set allowing the programme’s sublime liquid graphics to be played as a background to the presenter. In July 2001 the programme was moved to a new time of 7pm, making the “flagship” subtitle seem even more appropriate. After the September 11 terrorist attacks, Christopher Price made it clear to viewers that the news he was reporting on was in no way the most important of the day, which was admirable.

And then it all appeared to end. At 10pm on 22 April 2002, it was announced that Christopher Price had been found dead in his London flat. Whilst the news was tragic in itself, it also raised questions about the future of the programme.

Whilst some shows (most notably SM:TV Live and This Morning) have become entirely associated with their original hosts and are struggling after their departure, Liquid News has had regular stand-hosts such as Iain Lee, Max Flint and Joe Mace ever since its inception. Whilst these editions may not have been as brilliant as those hosted by Christopher, they certainly weren’t disasters. And it has to be remembered that Liquid News has a large reporting team that cannot simply be dispersed of when they are doing such a good job.

As for the future, many are of the opinion that the show should end immediately as a mark of respect for Christopher. In my opinion this would be a huge waste of talent and an enormous step backwards for BBC Choice.

There is, however, one man who could go further into filling Christopher’s (rather large) chair better than anyone else. He is Robert Nisbet, reporter on Zero 30 and Liquid News. He shares the same sense of humour as Christopher, and was a close person friend. He already has already hosted some editions in Christopher’s absence, and his talent has already been recognised by the BBC who promoted him to entertainment correspondent of the Six O’Clock News.

But a move to presenting Liquid News would surely be a further promotion, continue the programme’s proud tradition of pouring boiling water of cynicism on the ants that are celebrities, and give the programme a chance of surviving the future.

A Transdiffusion Presentation

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Liverpool, Sunday 14 April 2024