The above photograph sums up the allure of John F. Kennedy to us Brits in 1963. You can see the youthful, handsome U.S. President with our old and very straight-laced recently retired Prime-Minister, Harold MacMillan.
Britain had just come out of the postwar period of austerity, with rationing of clothes and many food items. We had begun to make tracks in the direction of personal affluence that would really get going in the 60’s. There were T.V.’s in most people’s houses, though at this stage just two main channels, B.B.C. and I.T.V. and only black and white.
The MacMillan government had been going from one crisis to another in the year 1963. The most famous incident being “The Profumo Affair” as it became known. MacMillan finally decided that he had had enough and resigned on 18th October.
With the charismatic JFK as President in the United States, the ruling Conservative Party elected the Upper Class Sir Alec Douglas-Home as their new leader and he subsequently became the next Prime-Minister.
MacMillan and Home represented the stuffy “ruling elite” that had been accepted for so many years in a Britain that still looked back to days when much of the world map was coloured pink as the Sun famously never set on the British Empire.
It was in an atmosphere of a country that has lost this empire and not yet found any replacement, that Britain found itself, led by Sir Alec, in November of 1963.
On the evening of Friday 22nd November, my family sat in our lounge in our old, somewhat decaying, large house in Stoke-Newington in North London. We were watching our T.V. In Dallas, Texas, at 12.30 p.m. the first shot was fired that would lead to the eventual death of J.F.K.
We were almost certainly watching the B.B.C. because my family always had a preference for that channel as against the I.T.V. I have managed to get the revised schedule of the B.B.C. programmes that evening.
18.34 Trailer: Here’s Harry
18.35 Look: Fish Families
19.00 Trailer: Britten At Fifty
19.01 Points Of View
19.04 News Flash – President Kennedy Wounded (John Roberts)
19.26 News Flash – Death of President Kennedy (John Roberts)
19.28 BBC Graphic/Silence
19.32 News Flash – Death of President Kennedy (John Roberts)
19.41.04 News Flash (John Roberts)
19.47 News Flash (John Roberts). Live Washington insert by Leonard Parkin
19.50 Here’s Harry: The Musician
20.14 Graphic/Special Announcement
20.15 News Flash (John Roberts). Live Washington insert by Leonard Parkin
20.19 Dr. Finlay’s Casebook: The Face Saver
20.59 Graphic/Special Announcement
21.00 Dr. Finlay’s Casebook (cont.)
21.09 News (John Roberts) Leonard Parkin Washington Report and Joseph Harsch on what death means to Americans
21.27 Special announcement
21.27 Filler – Recital – Andor foldes
21.34.39 Blank screen
21.34.42 clock announcement
21.35 Britten At Fifty
22.43 Clock/Special announcement
22.44 Filler: Vienna Soloists
23.00 Tribute to President Kennedy. Intro and links by Ian Threthowan and included tributes by Sir Alec Douglas-Home, Harold Wilson and Joe Grimmond
23.31 News Extra (John Roberts)
23.55.21 Epilogue read by Father Agnellus Andrew
23.59 H.M Queen caption and National Anthem
00.00.38 Close down
At 7.04 p.m. came the first newsflash that President Kennedy had been wounded. Se were amazed, frightened and gripped by events. We did what so many people would have done for so many horrible events that were to follow in the next decades, we waited and watched.
In the pre-Twitter days news travelled slowly and the radio and T.V. were our only real chances to keep up to date. At 7.26 p.m. came the newsflash that Kennedy had died. It was like a hammerblow. I can remember tears and utter disbelief. I can also remember that my brothers and I (I was 10, my brothers 9 and 5) were allowed to stay up longer as we all followed the unfolding events.
Now I am aware that the reputation of JFK has very much suffered as facts about his private life and his administration’s shortcomings have reached the public arena in the years following his death. But you have to remember that on that fated evening, as we sat watching television, just an ordinary family in a London home, we knew only the young and handsome man who had so much charisma and charm, who had a beautiful wife and beautiful children whose life had been cut short by an assassin’s bullet. (Whoever that may have been, there have of course been many different culprits highlighted over the ensuing years).
So, as we reach the many documentaries that will commemorate JFK’s death, let us remember that the event was a trauma for so many, made all the more dramatic by the fact that we all seemed to have T.V.’s by then and that T.V. was our main source of entertainment and information about world events.
It was a night that those of us who lived through it, will never forget.