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Vivid: Sunny side up - Weather reporting in the UK turns 60

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Vivid: Sunny side up - Weather reporting in the UK turns 60

While the Arctic blast put the American weatherman underground, there was some warm news from the British weather stations. The British Broadcasting Council (BBC) celebrated 60 years since the first weather forecast appeared on the nation’s screens, moving it from the barometer to the realm of the sciences.

The British are known for their obsession with the weather, with majority of the people planning their days and weekends relying on weather reports from different sources. The obsession is not a current fad, but has been handed down since generations, beginning the time the first weather forecast was played on the television. Since then, the men and women who read weather reports have become some of the best and well-known faces in Britain. They are watched by millions not just for the weather, but for their attire, mannerisms as well as authority and warmth. It is not surprising then that some of the presenters, even from the 1950s and ’60s, are still household names in Britain.

It is said that some people still tune in to the BBC everyday just for one thing – the weather forecast. And as far as experts’ opinions go, this is not just to see if the presenter’s forecast is right or wrong. This has been corroborated by a research carried out by psychologist Peter Aten from East Anglia Polytechnic on the British public’s great obsession with weather forecasts. It is interesting to note that although many people claimed in the study that they actually watch the weather, over 70 per cent of viewers could not remember what was actually said.

The early years of the BBC, weather forecast was marked with uncertainty and anonymity. That was also a format nobody would recognise or be interested in watching. In the form of a chart, the first weather forecast was shown from the BBC’s studios on November 3, 1936. An anonymous hand drew isobars onto the map, whilst a disembodied voice read the forecast. That would have been easily dismissed by today’s viewers.

After three years, the whole television service had to close because of World War II. Even if it had remained open, no weather information would have been given as it was classified during the time of the War.

After the War, the service was restarted, but it only became a regular, daily affair in June 1949, when maps and captions were introduced to the viewers without much oral explanation. Even then, it was far from becoming an obsession that it is today. It was on Sunday, January 10, 1954 that even the uninitiated was forced to sit up and take notice. That day, notes the BBC, its announcer Mary Malcolm introduced Dr Sutton of the Meteorological Office, who informed the small amount of viewers watching a new style of presentation of weather charts that was being introduced. The “Radio Times” recorded this event as follows: “From Monday onwards, the television weather report and forecast will be presented by a Meteorological Office forecaster, who will explain and comment on the charts shown. The change is designed to stress the continuity of the reports provided; the forecaster will show, for example, how the weather expected tomorrow is conditioned by the weather experienced today. Two Forecast Officers will for the time being share the job. They are: George Cowling, a 32-year old Yorkshire man, married and father of a five-year old son; and TH Clifton, a 42-year old Londoner, married and father of four girls and one boy.”

And things were never the same again. The forecast was still dull and static as the charts were hand-drawn, but Cowling and Clifton became famous for their styles and articulation of the forecast. The technical and dry language of the early presenters was replaced with language common man could understand. Weather forecast suddenly became human.

Incidentally, none of these forecasts were recorded and were always played live.

The public obsession with weather took such heights that BBC weather presenters came to be employed by the Meteorological Office, which is part of the Ministry of Defence. They were chosen for their friendly manner and their ability to relay highly technical information in a way the public could easily understand.

The ability to give personalised touch made later forecasters such as Ian McCaskill and Michael Fish well-known personalities in Britain. Innovation was the key and by late 1960s, new forms of charts were introduced though they were still very different from today’s high tech standards. With the advent of colour TV in late-1967, the BBC brought in a new range of weather symbols, which were based on international standards – triangles for showers and round dots for rain along with the famous black metallic strips used for the isobars.

The BBC also started special weather programmes to engage with wide range of audience, including farmers and gardeners.

The popular favourites, meanwhile, grew in numbers. These were: Graham Parker and Bert Foord, who worked from the mid-1960s to the mid-1970s; they were later replaced by new favourites Jack Scott, Michael Fish and Bill Giles in the mid- to late-1970s. It was in 1974 that the BBC introduced a female to the team – Barbara Edwards. Edwards, in an interview recently, remembered that most viewers tuned in to see what she was wearing, rather than to listen to the forecast.

By the time 25 years of personalised weather forecasts were reached, 25 famous personalities had been made out of the five-minute show. During 1979, satellite pictures were introduced by BBC Television to help give viewers a better understanding of weather patterns. With the advent of the computer age, on February 18, 1985, the BBC introduced new computer graphics to replace the old charts. This was followed with the introduction of a colourful new batch of displays, including the strength and direction of both wind and rainfall.

These had so captured the imagination of the British that in 1988, when the weather forecast time was shrunk due to launch of a new series, the BBC received thousands of letters in protest, forcing it to re-instate the full weather forecast much to the delight of the viewers. By 1991, the BBC became a full-fledged weather centre. On January 11, 1994 the BBC Weather team celebrated its 40th anniversary, with all forecasters doing a live reunion show.

The latest re-launch of BBC Weather came in May 2005, with the introduction of a new graphics system. The new package makes extensive use of 3D graphics and does real time forecasting. Things have also changed today with numerous weather presenters instead of a few famous. Challenges have also come in the form of introduction of web and mobile apps weather forecasts, where information is available at the word go.

However, that personal forecasts still have an audience was evident from the fact that when the above-mentioned changes were made in 2005, the BBC received 16,000 emails criticising it. Some complained of colour, some of design, some of the technology itself. But they never stopped watching.

A perfect reason to celebrate the 60th birthday.

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