Focus on a crisis 

2 May 2022


Television & Radio 1981 cover

From ‘Television & Radio 1981’, published by the Independent Broadcasting Authority

At about 12.15 p.m. on Wednesday 30th April, a brief message reached the ITN newsroom. All it indicated was that a policeman had been overpowered at the Iranian Embassy in London’s Princes Gate and taken inside the building.

On that information alone the duty news editor, Nigel Hancock, despatched ITN’s outside broadcast unit, housed in a Range Rover, and two film crews. The unit secured a premier position for what turned out to be a six-day siege which was watched, tensely, by a world-wide audience.

News at One was the first ITN programme to report the start of the siege. After his customary introduction, presenter Peter Sissons said: ‘Armed police surround the Iranian Embassy after three men with a submachine gun force their way in. There are reports of shots, and of a policeman being taken hostage. We have a reporter on the scene.’

The reporter was Sarah Cullen. Calling from a public telephone box she said: ‘It was at 11.30 when a policeman who was on routine diplomatic protection duty outside the Embassy was held up at gunpoint and taken inside.’

For News at 5.45 both Sarah Cullen and Anthony Carthew reported from the outside broadcast unit.

With the experience of the IRA siege in Balcombe Street behind them, the police quickly built up the massive operation of men and machines which these dangerous and difficult operations require. ITN, too, had learned from Balcombe Street and reporter Anthony Carthew, and the OB director, David A Goldsmith, began to deploy their resources.



ITN prepared for a long news vigil. A caravan was parked near the Embassy to provide food and drink for the personnel throughout a continuous watch.

The key to successful coverage was to have a camera in a high position so that there could be a general view of the police control points in the main road and the Embassy front door which was in a slip road behind a clump of trees. Accordingly, ITN brought in a Simon Tower, known in the trade as a ‘Cherrypicker’. One film camera was focused on the front door of the Iranian Embassy and the other was given a roving assignment to concentrate on police activity.

It then became a question of deploying as many cameras as was practicable in the best positions. By the second day of the siege ITN had an OB camera with a 40 to 1 lens on the Cherrypicker. Among the film cameras, one had a 600m lens, another a 400m lens. In addition, by using a special process in the studio, ITN was able to ‘squeeze’ the OB pictures to produce even larger close-ups. A particularly memorable picture produced by this system was of a gunman collecting food from the front doorstep with a now famous ‘freeze-frame’ showing the terrorist with a tray in one hand and his gun in the other.


The 'cherrypicker' crane


ITN coverage of the siege was operated on a round-the-clock basis, with teams of crews and reporters working in relays. As a result, for six days there was not a moment when at least two cameras were not focused on the Embassy. But while this was going on, ITN’s thoughts were focused on the back of the Embassy building. It was known that the most crucial part of the police’s surveillance operation was concentrated on the Embassy garden and in one of the blocks of flats at the rear of the Embassy. ITN decided it was essential to have a camera focused on this activity, particularly for the moment when the siege ended. Carthew and Goldsmith started negotiations for a suitable viewpoint and agreement was reached. The obvious difficulty was how to get the camera into place without anyone knowing. This was quietly achieved.

The camera at the rear was microwave linked to the Outside Broadcast Unit just three hours before the siege ended, although no one could have known that the dramatic events were to be captured by this camera. The control telephone between the OB’s director and ITN’s news editor began to hum as activity picked up around the Embassy. In the newsroom the Editor monitored the pictures from all three OB cameras to determine exactly when it would be safe to transmit the rear view of the SAS dropping down the ropes from the Embassy roof and storming the back of the building.

An understanding had been reached with the Home Office from the outset not to show pictures of police activity for fear of the gunmen having access to a television and thus being forewarned of, for example, a break-in. As it was, the actual pictures were not transmitted live, but were recorded and transmitted five minutes later when it was clearly safe to do so. The material ITN’s exclusive camera had captured was then beamed around the world by satellite.



So, at the moment of the SAS attack ITN had seven cameras in operation: three OB cameras, and four film cameras. Every single one of them played its part, for just as Coronation Street was ending on that Bank Holiday Monday evening, ITN went live into the network with what has now become known as the longest newsflash in television history. It ran for 41 minutes. At the beginning there was an understandable confusion, not least because there was no way of telling that what the viewers were seeing live would end in triumph or tragedy. There was no way of telling, for instance, whether or not the gunmen had set off the grenades they were known to have wired up in the Embassy. In addition, there was a great deal of shooting going on for at least the first twenty minutes, most of it wild and some of it nowhere near the Embassy. It was not possible to discern in the circumstances whether the bullets had a friendly intention or not. So, all around the OB vehicles as ITN was on the air, there were people running, ducking, diving for cover – and managing to keep the ‘newsflash’ going out to the viewer.


The first explosion


On their own initiative, all the journalists and all the technicians not immediately involved in the live broadcast set out to gather information on the situation in the Embassy. And, one by one, they returned to queue up and whisper their news into the right ear of Anthony Carthew, who was describing the scene. Their help, in a situation changing from moment to moment, was invaluable to ITN’s coverage.

ITN’s 41-minute ‘newsflash’, the longest in British television history, created another ‘first’. It was rated the 20th most viewed programme on television that week. With an audience of 11,050,000 viewers, it was the first newsflash ever to reach the Top Twenty.


Courtesy of Thames News


You Say

2 responses to this article

Arthur Vasey 3 May 2022 at 12:21 pm

I remember this really well – the schedule should have been Coronation Street at 7:30, followed by a film called Detour To Terror, an American made-for-television film about – oddly enough – a siege on a school bus – Coronation Street finished somewhat abruptly, then cut to this, which ran for nearly 40 minutes without commercial breaks – unlike American television, ITV know better than to interrupt important footage like this, regardless of how distressing it may be – with adverts!

Once it was all over, they ended it – then showed the scheduled film!

Nigel Stapley 14 May 2022 at 8:42 pm

The ‘event’ was the cause of the famous graffito which said:

“The SAS smoke more Embassies than Hurrican Higgins”

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