Kenneth Kendall was the face and voice of BBC News for more than 25 years. But somewhat surprisingly, in the initial years while he was bringing television viewers all the latest stories from around the world he had to remain totally anonymous.
He sat behind his desk in a small studio at the BBC, becoming the first newscaster back in 1955 to appear in vision to deliver the news of the day. But he was not allowed to say who he was, and his name did not appear on the screen – simply because the BBC did not want Kenneth and his fellow newsreaders in those early days to become stars of the small screen.
“My, how times have changed,” smiled Kenneth, who celebrated his 87th birthday at the beginning of August, and has been living on the Island with partner Mark Fear for the past 21 years. “When I first started on television in 1955 we were not allowed to mention our names and the viewers were not allowed to know who we were.
“We had people ringing up all the time, asking what my name was, but the editor of news didn’t want us to become personalities. We were there just to read the news and nothing else, so we were not to be named. That lasted at least a couple of years, but it just became so ridiculous. People could be told if they were asked, and I was asked quite a lot.”
He laughed: “I was once looking in a shop window in London’s Regent Street, and two women were standing close by. Suddenly one said ‘he looks a lot older than he does on television’. I felt like bashing them!”
Kenneth was born in India, where his father worked as a metallurgist, and he remained there until the age of 10 when he came to England to attend Felsted School in Essex. He recalls: “My parents stayed in India, so I had to stay with relatives during school holidays because this was before the Second World War when it wasn’t really possible to fly easily between England and India. So quite often I didn’t see my parents for two or three years at a time.
“But those were interesting years for me. I went to junior school in 1935 and then senior school in 1938. Two years later, during the war, the army took over the school and we were all evacuated to Herefordshire. It was a great upheaval, but at the same time it gave us all something different to do and see. I quite enjoyed it, because it wasn’t as if I had been living with my parents, so it was something of an adventure.”
Kenneth later attended Corpus Christi College at the University of Oxford, but was there only one year before being called up for Army duty. He served in the Coldstream Guards in Normandy, saying: “My battalion went over there 10 days after the Normandy landings, but after only a month I was wounded and had to come home. So I didn’t see too much of the war, but it was still plenty!
“I stayed in the Army another two years, and just after the war went to Palestine at a time when the Jews and the Arabs hated us because we had promised the Jews a country of their own and the Arabs didn’t like that. So we were stuck in the middle trying to keep the peace.
“It was difficult and uncomfortable because we were surrounded by people who didn’t like us. It was virtually a war after the war. We didn’t have to shoot anyone, but it could easily have come to that.”
After leaving the Army, Kenneth returned to University to complete his Modern Language studies, and was hoping to go into the Foreign Service, but was not one of the five per cent of many who wanted to go down the same route.
“I wasn’t quite sure what I was going to do and someone suggested trying the BBC, which I did. I didn’t think I would get a job because it was only radio in those days. But I was given a job as an announcer on what was the Home Service.”
But Kenneth accepts that when he transferred from radio to television in 1955 it was a very different media to what we know now. He said: “These were very early days of television and it was difficult to get the feeling right, because with radio all you had to do was read it out and no one could see you.
“But on television you were very aware that there were perhaps two to three million people watching you, which made it very nerve-racking. Editors were very strict in as much that they didn’t allow you on the news until you had served ‘an apprenticeship’ as a general announcer. We had to go through a bulletin, have it recorded, and then someone would go through it with us to point out what we had done wrong. Actually, that served me in good stead for all my time in broadcasting, and nothing like that is done these days. I hate to say it, but it shows sometimes.”
He continued: “When I became the first person in vision to read the news I was absolutely terrified because it had never been done in this country before, and I didn’t know how to sit or behave. So I just went ahead and did it. There was no autocue in those days; I had to read from a script, and reading with my head down was not popular with the viewers.
“So after a time the BBC had to work out a way for us to look at the camera, so they came up with a Pini-prompter after a Mr Pinfold who invented it. There was a pedal under the desk which we had to press with a foot to bring the words up. But if you forgot to press it nothing happened.”
In the cramped studio there was just Kenneth and the cameraman, and just occasionally a floor manager, as he read the 10-minute bulletin just once a day. He would read radio news first, and then jump in a car to travel to the Alexandra Palace studios for the TV version.
He admits he has been asked many times which piece of news stands out most in his memory. He reckons: “I perhaps didn’t think it at the time, but I believe the most important thing was the announcement of the first space ship – sputnik – which went around the world with a dog inside, before the first spaceman Yuri Gagarin went into space.
“When you think what has happened as a result of that, it was an earth-shattering achievement. But other than that the main things you tend to remember are the dreadful air or train crashes, and similar tragedies.”
Whatever news he was reading, Kenneth was trained not to show any emotion, but he did let it slip a couple of times. He said: “We had reported on a case in court of child cruelty and the Judge had given a very lenient sentence. Apparently on my face as I read the story I showed my disgust and horror. Shortly afterwards, just by chance, I met the Lord Chief Justice. His wife said she saw how upset I was, told her husband, and he called in the Judge in question. So in a small way it showed the power of television, but also taught me a lesson not to show any emotion when reading the news.
“We were not allowed to laugh or smile, but on one occasion at the end of a bulletin there was a funny story. I started laughing and the editor was absolutely furious. He later insisted no one be given a story that made us laugh or smile!”
Before autocue, typists typed out the bulletins and they were projected over the camera. Kenneth recalls: “The girl who had typed it sat on a stool next to the screen to help smooth running. But on one occasion a girl had been out rather late to a party the night before, and during the bulletin she fell off the stool with a crash. It was very hard not to laugh!”
Kenneth left the BBC in 1961, and for eight years worked as a freelance, even popping up occasionally on rival channel ITN, showing he was much more than just the man reading the 9 o’clock news. He recalls: “I wanted to get more experience in other aspects of television because I felt very limited only reading the news.”
As a result he also appeared in cameo roles as himself or as ‘a reporter’ in popular TV programmes ‘Adam Adamant’ and ‘Dr. Who’ and was even in ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’, of which he is enormously proud.
He later returned to the BBC where he last read the news on television in 1981. He later became the studio anchorman for seven years for Channel Four’s ‘Treasure Hunt’, in which Anneka Rice flew around the country with couples trying to solve clues to win money.
“The programme once came to the Isle of Wight and by chance the couple on it on that occasion had been here on holiday only the week before. Needless to say they won,” smiled Kenneth, who first came to the Island himself as a visitor in the 1960s and moved here permanently in 1990, after realising his native Cornwall was too far away for regular commuting to London.
He last appeared on TV in the 2001 series ‘The Young Ones’, in which he was one of several celebrities in their 70s and 80s who attempted to overcome some of the problems of ageing by returning to a 1970s environment.
Unfortunately during filming he fell and broke two bones in his back, so didn’t particularly enjoy the show. But having virtually made a full recovery, the man who brought us the news for so many years can still often be seen working in his highly successful Kendall’s Fine Art Gallery in Cowes.
“We use the internet quite a bit to sell paintings. I couldn’t have imagined things like internet or even the mobile phone would be around when I first read the news on television back in 1955,” he concluded. “When I look at some of the people around that are my age, I have to say I have been awfully lucky. There are a lot worse off than I am.
“I sometimes think ‘surely I can’t be 87’, but then I realise I am. During that time a lot has happened – to me and to the world. But I wouldn’t change much.”