How time flies by for the night owls 

21 December 2023 tbs.pm/80220

Editor’s note: Earlier this year, we were lucky to have newscaster David Cass write for us about his experiences at ITN in the 1980s, including launching the overnight bulletin service and its companion programme ITN Morning News.

Here is a piece he wrote for ITN’s house magazine, The Lens, in August 1988 to celebrate six months of the new news service.

 

 

The Lens masthead

From ‘The Lens’, ITN’s house magazine, for August 1988

Was that first champagne breakfast REALLY six months ago? My, how time flies when you’re enjoying yourself!

Since then we’ve had two more … to celebrate 100 editions of Morning News and to inaugurate the TVE service for British holidaymakers in Spain. They soon worked out how to keep us happy!

Seriously though, it’s almost incredible to reflect that Into The Night has been going so long. In simple programme terms that means 200 editions of the Morning News, roughly a thousand bulletins and fast approaching 50 editions of TVE News, for British holidaymakers in Spain. That’s 250 hours of television in total, or ten hours a week … all with a team of only 17 people per shift.

It’s been a remarkable six months for all of us — even those who, like me, had never worked nights before. We were breaking new ground in British television: trying to do more, with fewer people and fewer resources than anyone could remember: trying to find a new audience: a single team producing headline bulletins as well as building an hour-long, serious news programme.

And in the middle of it all the shock of the Management Review. I’m still not sure whether the review itself, or its exposure of our team’s depth of character — even though that team might still be decimated by it — is the most significant factor of these past six months … but more of that later.

What’s it like to be an “OWL”?

I have to chuckle when people who used to regard me as, well, more-or-less human, now greet me as something just in from outer space. There seems to be an almost universal belief that we should look, if not BE, permanently ill. But why, just because I now work nights should I NOT still look healthy? We have DAYS off … and on the odd occasion that the sun shines, we can sleep out in it! We also have a seven-day off duty period, which we all find is more than enough to recharge batteries.

In fact the change from four on/four off to the seven/seven pattern was one of the major changes of these first six months. Few voices were raised against the change. One was Kim Maxwell, from sound, who still believes that you’re fresher throughout a four day shift and who says: “I feel that over a period of time the long turnaround will get to people.” But even he admits: “The only good thing about seven days on, is the seven days off!”

 

“There seems to be an almost universal belief that we should look, if not be, permanently ill”

 

But most of us find that we ARE fresher throughout a seven night shift, and that our social lives (a source of worry for most) suffer less. PA Katrina Millar: “With a 4/4 shift you were tired all the time. Now you spend a week when you can do nothing more than work, eat and sleep. Then you have a full week to catch up on friends, go away… or do whatever you like.” Most of us concur. And believe me, that’s LUXURY, not hardship!

Into The Night, a drawing of an owl, and the ITN logo

Most of us who’ve worked elsewhere within ITN and other news organisations agree that we’ve seldom worked harder, or with a tighter team. According to programme Editor, Nigel Baker: “We have up to 11 transmissions a night, and the first is usually only 90 minutes after we start work. So, unlike any other part of the company, it’s pressure from the start.”

But it’s pressure which has its positive side. Cameraman Chris Cotton: “I have a real sense of identity here. We’re all pulling in the same direction. In some other parts of ITN the technical staff and journalists hardly even speak to each other. Here we all have a sense of involvement.” Pity that we’re losing Chris in the Review! All credit to him — and those others who, it seems certain, will now be leaving us. Hopefully they’ll only be going as far as other parts of ITN. Their loyalty and continued commitment has been remarkable. Katrina Millar again: “It was all very upsetting. But even after the worst possibilities had sunk in I couldn’t find it in me to feel negative about the team or the programmes.”

 

Three photographs of ITN staff

Flashback to some of the early days for the team

 

All those of us who will remain, hope most fervently that extra work and multiskilling will ensure that we can keep the numbers close to the original complement. We’ve already had some fun putting together multi-skilled bulletins. Hopefully the practice will pay off fully if and when we have some sickness. Says John Hollands [vision mixer]: “It helps you to work as a team. You have an insight to other people’s problems.” Stephanie Norvill [floor manager]: “It puts an end to time-wasting. You can get on and do things yourself without waiting for someone to do them for you.” And, with a smile, “… it means I can spend half an hour in graphics listening to Dennis Richards warning me against men and marriage.”

And manager Mike Raycroft: “What impressed me was the enthusiasm. Here was a group of people who’d just worked through the night, ending with an hour of live television. They could have been simply looking forward to going home, and yet here they were getting thoroughly involved in learning new skills.”

The first six months haven’t been without upset. The disgusting, cold, “fast” food which received universal condemnation (countered by our delight at the fare produced once Kenny the chef was appointed); the lack of technical and library support; the isolation from the rest of the building. And the Management Review.

 

“The first six months haven’t been without upset: the disgusting cold ‘fast’ food and the isolation from the rest of the building”

 

But most of all it’s been a period of learning … about each other; how to cope with new sleep/work patterns, how to adapt to new working practices. I hope the company’s learning too. In these six months we’ve had the first broadcast of (in no particular order) two prison riots, Denzil Davies quitting, an air miss, several Gulf incidents, Primary election results, at least two major Ulster bombings, the Downing Street suicide, the M50 murder and the Piper Alpha tragedy. According to News Editor Chris Hampson: “ITN is now a 24-hour operation. We are discovering opportunities for breaking stories and getting moving on them. We news editors are setting up the next day (how many of the list above were still the lead in News at Ten?) and not just working for the night shift. It’s a pity that other parts of the company seem to find it difficult to understand that the night-time programmes need a proper service too.”

Perhaps in the NEXT six months …

 

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