Sunday, 27 January 2013

"Coming up after this break.." The story and art of Continuity Announcing from those who have done it themselves

For all of its changes in presentation, style and even with new channels launching all the time, there is one thing that stays the same and has done since day one of television itself and that is the continuity announcer. But these people are lot more then just informing viewers of what may be coming up on any given channel at one time, the actual art of continuity is something to behold itself.

The earliest days of television saw the announcers themselves become celebrities themselves, but the idea of continuity announcing was seen as continuation of what people would have been used to say at a music hall or a theatre where a compère would announce the next act. Where as television was an extension of this theory, announcers were used to announced what act was coming next, a procession of items rather then programmes meaning there could be a singer with a cookery item in the next bit. Their job would be to sometimes to list the whole evening's programming in one slot, so that viewers knew what would be coming up during the evening, sticking rigidly watching the little box in the corner bringing themselves entertainment.

With the constant appearances in-between the programming, the faces doing the announcements became more and more recognisable, the first voice being Leslie Mitchell announcing on the 2nd November 1936 debut of the BBC's television and uniquely as well he was the first ever voice heard on Independent Television in September 1955 launching Associated-Rediffusion. Mitchell himself had been a trainee stockbroker and because of his good looks and rich voice started to get him parts in stage productions. As we'll see later, certain things can have a way of making a strange fate for people and how they became continuity announcers.

Carrying on with Leslie Mitchell, he started appearing on BBC Radio in 1932 and joined the staff at the corporation in 1934 starring as a announcer and producer on variety shows. Come 1936 though he was picked as one of the faces for the new BBC television service, though as war broke out, his voice was used by the Movietone News for their newsreels informing people what was happening during this turbulent time even with this fame appearing in a Will Hay film, The Black Sheep of Whitehall as himself. By the end of the war he sensed that commercial television would eventually come to these shores, Mitchell travelled to the United States to see how commercial television worked over there and particularly the style of promotion used for the programmes and the networks themselves.

All of this came in handy when he moved to Associated-Rediffusion in 1955 becoming their senior announcer and appearing on screen chairing discussions and also having input over the 'talks' department with his previous experience of this coming from being the compere of Picture Page for the BBC. By 1958 he had taken the decision to go freelance allowing him to jointly narrate the BBC's 25th anniversary of television in 1961 and also presenting Tyne Tees' 'Those Wonderful TV Times' between 1976 and 1978.

Along with Mitchell in the first three announcers on the new BBC television service were Elizabeth Cowell and the woman who at the outbreak of the Second World War made the final announcement that the service would be closing down for the duration and also the opening announcement in 1946, which was "Good afternoon everybody. How are you? Do you remember me, Jasmine Bligh?" where the last programme before the close the cartoon Mickey's Gala Premiere which had been the last programme before the service had been suspended in 1939.

Such was Bligh fame she would be see somewhat as a daredevil, having been filmed racing around in a motorbike's sidecar and even getting a fireman's lift! These things endured herself to the public and the fan mail came flooded in, even with Cowell the press described them at the time as 'Twin Paragons', Bligh's career much like Mitchell's stretched into the 1970's but in the 1950's she was the presenter of Television for Deaf Children seen as a forerunner to Vision On and was also a presenter on Thames Television's Good Afternoon as well, similarly moving across to the London ITV company much like Leslie Mitchell had back in the mid-1950's.

The early days has established continuity as a key factor in television's make up with some many names coming through it to become presenters in their own right such as Michael Aspel and Anne Greig as well, both starting announcing the programmes eventually becoming the ones who presented them. Memorably Sylvia Peters is another name who became a familiar face to the public during post war times, the BBC themselves had their announcers in-vision at the time allowing the public to see a familiar face night in, night out. The sense by the mid 1950's that ITV was using more voices out of shot over their each companies branding meant the BBC had to change and slowly by 1963 when one of the last recorded in-vision announcements at that time leading into that year's Eurovision Song Contest.

Though there was still in-vision announcing on ITV but out of vision continuity on BBC and ITV were becoming prevalent as the battle for viewers was hotting up, for example some ITV companies making a conscious decision to have only out of vision announcements with presentation consisting of slides and identities. BBC 1 and 2 had disappeared behind their identities with announcers being in voice only, however with ITV being made up of a regional system, each company went for a different approach to this. Here it was that the regional faces became celebrities in their own right as former LWT and Channel 4 continuity announcer Trish Bertram explains “I started at a time when working in-vision was about to change. Back then, my senior colleagues had a modicum of fame, were invited to open fetes, etc. and received a lot of fan mail. Such is the power of television.”

Trish had an unusual route in becoming a continuity announcer, she takes up the story herself “I blagged my way in! No radio or acting background and only a small awareness of television. I was a theatre struck teenager. I went to the Central School of Speech and Drama to study stage management and technical theatre and embarked on a career as a stage manager, finishing up at the National Theatre. The job included having to make the backstage and front of house calls ("The curtain will rise in .....3 minutes" ). A lot of actors would remark on my deep tones and suggest that I 'did something' with my voice. I knew I didn't want to be an actress - I saw too many talented ones struggle to earn a living. Then my fellow student and flatmate from my course at Central wrote to me and said she'd got a job as a continuity announcer at Westward Television . 'You were the one with the unusual voice' she said, 'why don't you have a go'? That friend was Fern Britton and she put the idea into my head.”

She continues “After that, I started paying more attention to television and the people who linked the programmes. I made a cassette tape at home and sent it to the BBC and around the ITV network. ( There were no satellite and digital channels in those days - no Channel 4 or 5 ) I still have my rejection letter file to this day!”

But for Tony Currie, the former Scottish Television and current BBC Scotland announcer had a more conventional route into the job himself “I started in radio – running my own attic radio station at the age of eleven, and having produced and presented a weekly show on KPFK in Los Angeles, I was first voice on radio Clyde when it opened in 1973. STV literally poached me from Clyde in 1976.”The route of radio and acting seemed an obvious route to go when thinking about becoming a continuity announcer, though for current STV announcer Derek Smith his ambition had shown from an early age “I grew up with Grampian and STV and wanted to be a Continuity Announcer for either station from about the age of fourteen. Both stations were very different in styles of presentation.
I wrote to Kennedy Thomson in 1982 who was the Senior Announcer at Grampian and he Invited me to the studios to have a look round and I met him and fellow announcer Lesley Macleod she was on duty that evening .I was so excited about my visit to Grampian and I have to admit it was everything and more that I dreamed of. Meeting Kennedy and Lesley and seeing the continuity studio was just the most amazing experience. I was quite shocked at the size of the studio though I didn’t realise it would be so small.
I had also written to STV’s Senior Announcer Tony Currie at the same time and he very kindly Invited me into STV to spend the whole day with him again it was a great experience that would shape my future. Tony bought me lunch took me on a tour of the whole studio complex at STV and he also let me sit in the hot seat it was just a dream come true for me I remember seeing the STV clock and being shocked that the STV logo in the continuity studio was attached to a piece of fishing gut! Another highlight was meeting Paul Coia who was the late shift announcer. I remember Tony escorting me out of the studio and I just didn’t want to go! It was overwhelming to walk back into Studio E at Cowcaddens twenty three years later to start announcing for STV.
Tony advised me to get some experience in Hospital Radio which I did at Stracathro Hospital near Brechin. I only went there twice though as I lived in Perth and it was quite a distance to travel. I had no aspirations to be a DJ or an Actor and the announcers that were at Grampian and STV all came from those backgrounds.” But Derek's route was just like Trish's one unsual, he continues “So I went off in another direction I joined British Airways as Cabin Crew I still had my continuity dream though. To cut a long story short and moving on a decade. I found out Grampian were looking for a Continutiy Announcer in 1995. I applied got all the way through to the second set of auditions and down to the last three but sadly It wasn’t to be.
However I did get some good feedback from Grampian and the experience drove me forward and put me back on track. I was lucky to gain experience Presenting for BA TV I also did some voluntary news reading at QFM in Glasgow to gain live experience. That lead to me getting my first Continuity job at The Travel Channel in 1999. I was then selected to be on the first team of announcers on The Biography Channel when it launched in the UK in 2000.The same year I joined Radio Forth as a freelance Newsreader .(Whilst still travelling the world for BA as Cabin Crew) For me though the goal was always STV that was my dream.”
Being a continuity announcer can be tough at times, it may seem to the untrained as just a person talking into a microphone but they are there at a moment's notice ready to go live when there is a fault in a programme, the pace and tone of an announcement is always important. Introducing any serious news bulletin or newsflash is sacrosanct, the ability of the announcer to come maybe from an entertainment programme into a news bulletin which may contain news which might be harrowing is one which is important. During significant times the announcer is called on at moment's notice when schedules may need to be changed at the last minute to do live announcing. Trish Bertram remembers one such occasion in August 1997 “1997 - the hardest shift of my life. I'd been on duty late the night before. The news had broken that Diana, Princess of Wales had been in a car crash in Paris. I'd stayed up watching news bulletins when I got home as I knew that this was going to seriously affect work the next day. Went to bed about 0200 after news updates saying she'd been taken to hospital.
The next day my morning lie in was interrupted at 0800 by my boss calling to say that I had to get in straight away. Diana had died. That day I was on air from 0925 until midnight or so and was networked for most of the day until the early evening when everyone went local again with their own announcers. There was no schedule and we didn't know from one hour to the next what we were going to do. Decisions were being made on high as we went from hour to hour .As we were the nominated contractor for the network for the weekend it was up to us to lead the rest of the network and transmit nationally. One of our promo producers and I made up menus slides on the transmission caption generator.

When we knew when we were opting in and out of ITN ( decided as we went along in tandem with ITN) - we just made up 'ITV' slides and found appropriate music to fill the gaps, with me talking over them.

For me it was not only about thinking on my feet but also about finding the 'right tone' . But everyone I worked with that day was brilliant and our presentation management back up were amazing - it was a real team effort. That was certainly the day when I really earned my money.”
For Tony Currie it was another significant moment in history that he will remember “I was on duty on 9/11 – in fact expecting a quiet afternoon shift, a group of announcers were with me and I was filming a private video for the farewell party for an colleague who was leaving. The filming was cancelled and I went straight into the pres suite for the rest of the evening.”
It was both of their professionalism and thinking on their feet at times when the mood of the nation was sombre which saw the viewers through those very hard days, showing that continuity announcing was most key part of broadcasting right to the present day, their skills were able to pull this off at a time when others needed reassurance from a friendly voice as to what was going on.
Though over the years there has always been the choice of if a channel should use in-vision continuity or out of vision, when in the later 1980's most stations decided to use out of vision continuity, it was commonly thought apart from a few ITV stations and other channels that the days on the in-vision announcement had gone into the past. With Channel 4 launching in 1982, out of vision announcing was there from day one when Paul Coia launched the station nearly fifty years to the day when the BBC television launched. From the days of Leslie Mitchell, this was something new, this was the future.
At around the same time Trish Bertram applied to one of the most sort after jobs in television which was to find herself at the start of launch of Channel 4 breaking new ground in the process as she explains “Around that time (1982) Esther Rantzen decided to audition for a new That's Life presenting team and hold nationwide auditions. Anyone could apply - no experience required. She was certainly ahead of the X factor with that idea. So I applied. I must have written a good letter as I found myself on a short list of 100 out of thousands of applicants.”
She continues “Then I went through a lengthy audition process at the BBC's Lime Grove studios as the numbers were whittled down. Finally I was down to the last 3 girls for the one female place on the team. In the end I was runner up to Joanna Monroe. It was the right decision as I was beginning to feel I had bitten off more than I could chew. But Esther was brilliant, very encouraging and said I could use her name as a reference in case she could help.
After that I took Esther at her word and wrote back to everyone I had originally contacted, shamelessly using her name. Doors began to open - thank you Esther! One of the companies who replied was LWT. Channel 4 was about to launch in November that year and the ITV network were going to sell their advertising and transmit their commercial breaks in return for their investment into it.
LWT decided that live announcer cover for their C4 breaks would be a wise thing. They were the only company to do this - but they also viewed it as a way to train up announcers for their own output in what would be a relatively low key environment. The job required only 2 or 3 A/Vs ( alternative viewing announcements) per shift, plus the announcer would have to dive in and rabbit on about the TV times to fill the holes if the acr machines playing the comms broke down ( which they did – often!).”

But the announcers are back up by people who know their jobs and help the announcers themselves when things go wrong, they are the Transmission Controllers. These people operate the presentation suite who are responsible for continuity and punctual play out of scheduled programmes. With out of vision announcing, as Tony Currie says “I liked in-vision announcing but although it allowed transmission controllers some flexibility when things went awry, it required slapping on make up, making sure you were impeccably dressed, and knew your script inside out. It’s a lot easier to sit in a pair of old jeans at a desk and talk while you’re in control of the faders!”

As Trish Bertram continues from before about joining the announcing team at LWT “So - I auditioned for LWT and was lucky to be taken on as one of two Channel 4 cover announcers the week Channel 4 launched. I was thrown in at the deep end and learned on the job. Very scary. There were 3 transmission controllers whose brains I picked shamelessly and who gave me a fantastic grounding in television transmission. Malcolm, Jenny and Tony - I owe you a great deal to this day.

Also - as C4's comm breaks were sometimes undersold, the announcer would also be used to read live low budget slide + announcer commercials for local businesses. One I had to read for an Indian restaurant had the tag line : " Ram Parkash Sonderdash - remember the name". And I always have! Another I had to do made a bit of broadcasting history as the first ever 'gay' commercial on tv . It was a 10" slide with live announcer v/o for a London magazine called City Gay.”

This proved that Channel 4 was breaking new ground, in their programming and also their advertisements, the continuity announcer was called on to voice over slides for advertisements, which at the start of Channel 4 was vital to allow the channel to sell some advertising when the Equity union refused their members to appear in advertisements on the channel which similarly happened during the launch of TV-AM during the next year.

But what about moments which the viewers remember the continuity more then the programmes themselves? How does the continuity announcer cope with those moments when it all goes wrong or maybe it goes right and makes unforgettable television? BBC Scotland and former STV announcer Tony Currie recalls one moment of which “Christmas Eve 1984 when a last minute OB link failure meant I had to fill in vision for around half an hour …. Then apologise over hymns as we only had sound …. Then do another six minutes in vision at the end to explain that a gale force wind had blown STV’s microwave dishes off beam. I found the next day that my performance (after I’d read through the TV Times I started singing Christmas Carols and telling jokes) had also been networked. I was told that I’d got three times the ratings they’d expected for the planned Watchnight Service.”

Though for Trish Bertram it was making an unexpected appearance one of the BBC's biggest shows of the year which was most memorable “Well I particularly remember were appearing on Children in Need live from the LWT studio in 1989. In those days television was a bit more relaxed than it is now. I was on late duty that night. We were watching Children in Need on the BBC monitor. ( We always kept an eye on the competition!) The transmission controllers and engineers I was working with had the idea to ring up BBC Elstree and tell them that if they put me in vision, we would have a whip round and send them some money. BBC transmission and the Children in Need production team liked the idea. A bit of furious line repatching and technical jiggery pokery and then I was on - going out on the BBC live from the LWT studio, merrily wishing Children in Need well on behalf of LWT. And yes - we did send them some money! And no, our bosses weren't cross at us arranging this late night stunt!”

Though we should leave the last word to the announcers themselves about what the best thing about being a continuity announcer is, first STV announcer Derek Smith “Xmas day is a big deal for STV with millions of viewers tuning in to see their favourite programmes and it’s great honour to be Invited into peoples homes to introduce some of the biggest shows such as Corrie,The X Factor and Downton Abbey not just on Xmas day though but all year round too and that’s what I love about being a Continuity Announcer.

I also enjoy writing short punchy scripts which reflect each programme I believe creating compelling content is crucial and key in connecting with our viewers. Working in a live situation is also another great aspect of the job as there is nothing else quite like it and there is only the one chance to get it right.”

and finally Trish Bertram “The best experience for me was being part of the transmission and presentation team. It is a collaborative job - you really are part of the jigsaw puzzle - no room for 'egos' or any idea that the announcer is 'the star' of the output. You really aren't! There was always a sense of satisfaction at the end of a shift if things had gone well. Particularly if it had been a tricky one ( eg. an live OB overrun or unexpected events that caused the schedule to change). You really feel as if you have earned your money then and done the job properly. One of my LWT bosses always used to say " I don't pay you for what you say - I pay you for what you do when it goes wrong' ) The other part is that I never stopped feeling lucky that I was, in essence, 'paid to talk' - but, as every announcer knows, there's far more to it than that.”

One thing is certain, they maybe seen to be just talking for money but there is a lot more to the job and lots more people behind the scenes to make sure the programmes get to air safely. Whether its in vision or out of vision, they are the people who link the programmes together and without them the sense of television being just a series of images spliced together gives some humanity to the day's viewing.

1 comment:

  1. Thank you for this! It's so good to see the UK still has these announcers. We used to have them in Germany when I was growing up. Every time I hear them on a UK broadcast, I get all warm and fuzzy. Of course, it doesn't hurt when it's a voice as goosebumps-raising as Trish's. ;-)

    One small thing. You wrote: "one of the most sort after jobs." I believe you mean "one of the most sought after jobs," right?