Breakfast Time 

31 October 2022 tbs.pm/75916

 

Cover of Inside BBC Television

From ‘Inside BBC Television: A Year Behind the Camera’, published in 1983

Frank Bough describes the first few weeks establishing Breakfast Time as like having jet lag without going anywhere,’ but adds, ‘it’s not half as tiring when you are winning.’

At 6.30 am on Monday 17 January 1983 in the depths of the snowy, sleep-inducing midwinter, Bough, Selina Scott and Nick Ross made television history as the presenters of the first networked breakfast show in Europe. Pullover power had arrived.

The BBC in the person of Editor Ron Neil would appear to have got the breakfast formula right virtually from day one. ‘I didn’t want any desks,’ he says, ‘I wanted a relaxed feel to the show. People see the style of the programme now and they deliberately choose to wear a jumper or cardigan. It makes them feel relaxed too.’ Neil who came to Breakfast Time from running Newsnight competed for the job at a BBC Board, one of those occasions when applicants are grilled by members of top management. They must seem like a court martial to the unsuccessful.

‘It’s the last new thing in television. There’s nowhere else, from now on it’s downhill,’ jests 40-year-old Neil. The next highlight is the silver watch; no, it’s the coronary.’

Neil, a tall, amiable Scot is not just well-liked by his team, he is much admired and respected by them. When Breakfast Time finished its first programme, a spontaneous burst of applause greeted his entry into the canteen.

He started work on May 11 which gave him just under eight months to assemble his forces. He whisked Selina away from ITN and placed her alongside Frank Bough, that steady old warhorse of live television’s Nationwide and Grandstand. ‘I thought Frank and Selina would be a combination which would not be an intrusion into your home but one which you would genuinely welcome,’ he says. The mix was so successful they have become a sort of Burns and Allen double act of current affairs.

Others in the winning team include Nick Ross, the third presenter whose boyish smile belies his years of television experience and sharp brain. Francis Wilson has achieved the impossible and made talking about the weather sexy. David Icke’s appealing face draws as many women as men to his sports slot, and Debbie Rix’s approach to newscasting is authoritative rather than authoritarian. Astrologer Russell Grant enjoys being one of the stars as much as talking about them.

 

Frank Bough and Selina Scott on the Breakfast Time red sofa

 

The other big advantage enjoyed by Breakfast Time is the BBC’s huge news operation on which the team can draw.

But if the style and content of the show are as gentle and relaxing as the sprawling sofa they all recline on — even the lights are lower first thing in the morning — the technology which supports them is anything but lax. Breakfast Time is a 24-hour operation where one set of people has to hand over to another team. It thus demanded a different set of solutions from other live news and current affairs programmes.

Even before Ron Neil was appointed Editor, senior producer Tam Fry had been made special assistant and his job was to choose the high technology which would complement the low profile on screen. A Government grant of £25,000 provided the resources to purchase the Hewlett Packard computer equipment and some software which enabled the BBC Television Computer Services to develop a computerised newsroom system. ‘It would have been extremely laborious to administer breakfast television in the usual fashion,’ he explains. The computer takes away 25-30 per cent of the drudge.’

 

 

The computers are programmed with the running order, which consists of 100 items and means 120 pages of script, now typed by the computer. When a story is written it is automatically slotted into its place in the schedule. The computer also puts the script straight on to Autocue, which Neil claims happens nowhere else in the world. ‘Normally it would take the director three hours to work out his running order in the traditional manner,’ says Fry. ‘This way takes 35 minutes and allows the human being more time.’

There are a hundred people working on Breakfast Time in London in a complicated series of shifts, which change every three days, to give a 24-hour coverage. It was essential, therefore, that the method of handing over from one team to another was as precise as possible.

When the presenters come in around 3.30 each morning they need only press a button on their visual display units to summon up all the information, placed in the computer by the overnight crew: all they need to know about the guests they are to interview that morning.

 

 

There are 40 terminals in the Newsroom but instead of the usual cheerful pandemonium and clattering of typewriters, the place hums quietly like a well-organised electronic-beehive. ‘The lack of noise is an unexpected boon,’ says Fry. ‘The extent to which it creates a peaceful environment has been amazing. Sometimes we just have the angle-poise lights on and the overhead ones off and it’s like the reading room of a library.’

The other piece of technology of which they are particularly proud is an electronic paint-box which can do on the screen all the things an artist can do on canvas.

‘Ron has scored a bullseye,’ says Frank Bough. ‘This is a very happy lot of people.’

 

 

Text: Rosalie Horner
Editing: Ruth Rosenthal
Pictures: John Timbers

 

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