Saturday 27 August 2022

News at Twelve

Most children, at some point, pretend to put on their own TV show from within the junk-filled confines of their bedroom. At least, that's what they did in the pre-internet age. These days, all they have to do is jump in front of a webcam and, before they know it, they're broadcasting to millions and putting my lifetime earnings to shame by the time they're seven. As you can tell, I'm not remotely bitter.

Anyway, back in the late-1980s, there was, in fact, a minuscule chance of a bedroom broadcaster succeeding. Well, as long as it was based within the realms of fiction. And that's exactly what News at Twelve is. Wait a minute, News at Twelve? What on EARTH is that? Are you sure you're not thinking of News at Ten? You know, on at 10pm, the iconic bongs of Big Ben and Trevor McDonald's cooler-than-a-cucumber charm? Nope, I genuinely and ABSOLUTELY mean News at Twelve.

But I wouldn't blame you for thinking I was cracking up, for News at Twelve is perhaps one of the most obscure programmes this blog has covered (and, boy, have we covered a few). It's yet another programme where footage is hard absolutely impossible to find online, but, yet again, I've gone the extra mile for you and watched a few episodes at the BFI.

And, better yet, I've even tracked down the star of the show to dig up some deliciously insightful insights regarding News at Twelve.

The host of News at Twelve is Kevin Doyle (Ewan Phillips), a 12-year old who... well, it's never quite explained how, but somehow he's set up his own news programme. Using his bedroom as a makeshift studio, Kevin reports on all the goings-on in his hometown of Biddlecombe and his school - which is run by the authoritarian Mr Starkey (Patrick Malahide) - with a series of despatches. Choice stories covered include: a look at the appalling breakdown in classroom discipline, a report on the sales fever gripping a local newsagents, an emotional tribute to Eric the goldfish following his death and, over at Kevin's school, there's a scandal when two pupils are expelled for leaking exam results.

A number of the reports also focus on life at 13 Tindale Close, where Kevin and his family live. The house is often referred to in the parliamentary sense e.g. a headline of "Angry exchanges in the house during a debate on televised football" where Mrs Doyle (Julia Foster) claims that it's completely unreasonable to have Match of the Day on whilst The Sound of Music is on the other side. The house also acts as a location for various newsworthy squabbles between Kevin's sister Sharon (Rebecca Lacey) and her boyfriend Wayne (Mark Billingham). Mr Doyle (Jackie McDee), meanwhile, utters not a single word throughout the series and his face is always obscured by a newspaper or under a car.

Central Television produced six 25-minute episodes of News at Twelve, with the series going out on Monday afternoons at 4.45pm as part of the late afternoon Children's ITV schedule. These six episodes were written by Francis Sinclair but, as Ewan Phillips reveals, this was an example of fake news:

"The scripts were very clever and news literate, which is no surprise when you know where they came from. On the credits, the writer is ‘Francis Sinclair’, but this was a pseudonym for two men called Jeremy Sinclair and Cliff Francis, both very high-ranking advertising executives at Saatchi & Saatchi. As far as I know they hadn’t written for TV before, they had just come up with an idea and knocked up six episodes for a bit of fun, which meant the tone was very different to the sort of thing you’d usually get on CITV from people who were accustomed to writing for children"

Whilst the scripts were a central part of News at Twelve, so was the series' frontman. But how did Ewan Phillips come to find himself starring front and centre? Luckily, he was on hand to provide me with the full story:

"It was all slightly surreal looking back. My grandfather had randomly seen an article in The Sunday Express saying that Central TV were looking for a 12-year-old to star in a new children’s series in which a schoolboy records news bulletins about his life from his bedroom. I hadn’t done much acting apart from small bits in school plays, but I was a bit of an odd 12-year-old in that I was very into current affairs and news programmes, and I actually did spend a lot of my spare time recording spoof news reports on a tape recorder. My dad sent a letter off to Central and we all assumed that would be the last we’d hear about it but, incredibly, they invited me to audition at their office in Portman Square in London.

I’d never been to London before, so I was just excited to visit for a day out and the audition was almost a secondary thing. I was told there would be hundreds of auditionees over a few days, so I was sure I had no chance. I remember waiting my turn with no idea what to expect and there were a few other boys preparing to go in, all of whom seemed to know each other from drama schools and were talking loudly about their recent TV and theatre work, so I reconciled myself to just enjoying a novel experience and going home. I was eventually called in, had a chat with the casting director and the show’s writers, read some lines from a script and was sent on my way.

A few days later, we were informed that I’d been called back to London for a second audition and it was down to, I think, five boys at that stage. I had a longer session this time and along with the writers and casting director there was also now the producer, the late, legendary Pamela Lonsdale and the director, Alex Kirby. They said I had been the best out of everyone at nailing the “newsreader” style, but my lack of acting experience was a major concern. A few days later, they told me they were prepared to risk it, I’d got the part and I was going to spend the summer of 1987 in Birmingham filming"

I didn't watch News at Twelve when it aired - a quick look at the TV schedules shows that I was probably watching the Star Wars spin-off Droids on Children's BBC at the time - and I only discovered it had even existed earlier this year. There was barely an mention of the series online and the concept sounded highly innovative, so I resolved to breathe some digital life into its story. Fortunately, the BFI held viewing copies of the series and, rather fortuitously, Ewan Phillips already followed me on Twitter. All I had to do was roll up my sleeves and write an article.

The concept dreamed up by 'Francis Sinclair' is fantastic, and it's one which the series launches into with no time wasted on setting up a backstory, Kevin runs News at Twelve and that's all you need to know. There's a deadpan, almost surreal, feel to News at Twelve and the way in which it inflates seemingly mundane items - such as the sale of a painting at the school fete - into dramatic, newsworthy stories calls to mind the delights of This is David Lander. I was interested as to what the young Phillips had made of the ingenious scripts being handed to him, and he relished the opportunity to expand:

"Even from reading a handful of pages in my audition, I was aware that this was something different, it didn’t feel like anything else on kids TV. Bearing in mind it ended up going out at 4.45pm on Mondays on Children’s ITV it was really quite “adult”, satirical almost, in terms of its references and jokes and looking back, I wonder if it might have been better suited to a different slot-maybe Sunday teatimes where things like Supergran used to play-and it might have picked up more of a crossover audience.

In terms of the overall concept, I guess a deeper human than me would have had all sorts of questions about the set up: Is this all in his imagination? Why are all the adults from the headmaster to mother to local newsagent instantly playing along with the news report schtick? He has a microphone, so do we assume there is also a camera operator? Why do some people seem to acknowledge they are being filmed and act accordingly and others not? Who is the intended “viewer” and how will they see it

However, I was 12 years old and absolutely none of this occurred to me at the time, I just resolved to play it all completely straight as if I were a serious presenter on a real evening news programme, learned my lines and did it. I was so versed in the style of news programmes and I knew that was why I had got the part, so I just stayed in news reporter/reader mode for every minute in every scene without thinking existentially beyond that!"

The series looks amazing as well, the majority of the action taking place on location and filmed on 16mm to give it a professional sheen. The production team were also keen on embracing technology and ambition to differentiate the programme as Phillips explains:

"In post-production they added a lot of state of the art (for 1987) graphics using a new thing called Paintbox (I think) so that for instance, a news report I had presented on location could screw itself up into a ball and throw itself into the wastepaper basket in my bedroom studio or turn into a paper aeroplane and float in front of my face. Having not watched the show for 34 years, I imagine these might now look somewhat dated in the CGI era but at the time it was cutting edge.

Commercial TV had clearly got money to burn in the 1980s, the show’s budget must have been fairly hefty. I recall the director decided we should have some inflatables in my bedroom studio and so the production designer, a very suave man called Giovanni Guarino - who had recently sourced a full-size military tank for the Michael Heseltine Spitting Image dummy - went away to get some and came back with an array of at least 50 covering a whole section of the studio including a 6ft killer whale. I was allowed to keep as many as I wanted after we finished filming and, yes, I did take the 6ft killer whale but it developed a puncture the first time it was inflated at home (I think I sat on it wearing a pair of jeans with sharp zip pockets!)"

Watching Ewan Phillip's slick mastery of news presentation and cheeky brand of wink-to-the-camera charm, you would think that News at Twelve was simply his latest in a long string of acting gigs. But, as we now know, it was his first. It's a remarkable debut for a young actor, especially in an era when MDF child acting was commonplace in British television. Phillips casts his mind back to 1987 to tell us more about the filming process for News at Twelve:

"First and foremost, my memory is that it was an incredible experience and that the shoot was just a happy and fun time from beginning to end, which having subsequently worked in TV as an adult, I can vouch is not always the case! Maybe I was just kept away from all the stresses.

In terms of the nuts and bolts of it, we shot mainly on location in Birmingham. Any school stuff was done at a school called Smethwick Hall and the family home scenes were shot at a house on Mavis Road, Northfield. I can’t remember any of the other various locations but they were all in Brum or surrounding areas. I think we did about six weeks of location and then we did a week in the studio at Central which was just me on my own reading all the links off autocue.

I was put up in the Holiday Inn in central Birmingham, next door to the Central studios and stayed through the week with chaperones, I went home on a Friday night and returned on a Sunday. I only missed about two weeks of school time so fortunately work with an on-set tutor was fairly minimal. My daily routine was: picked up at hotel in the morning, driven to location, brief hair and make-up and then straight into filming.

We had on-set catering and there was a small Winnebago where I would go for tutoring with the other school age actors, at the end of the day I would be driven back to the Holiday Inn, I’d go to Central’s canteen for my dinner and then back to my room to learn lines for the next day. After the first week or so, I convinced the director to allow me to go with him to watch the end of the day rushes in an edit at Central, so I used to do that before going back to my room and learning lines for the next day.

I think there were restrictions on how many hours I could do because of my age but I was always determined to just do as much as was needed because I loved it and any thoughts of feeling tired or overworked seemed ridiculous to me.  As I was on set pretty much all day every day, and after the first week I had no schoolwork to do, I got to know everyone in every department and was fascinated by what they all did, it was a great crash course in TV production. I got on very well with the sound department in particular and I liked messing around with them in between shots, sometimes filming little skits about other crew members etc. despite my age, I was desperate to be “one of the lads” and looking back, I was probably quite irritating!"

Clearly, his penchant for fictional news reports paid dividends in News at Twelve, but it would have been interesting to see him in further comedic roles. Sadly, for the viewers, there would be no second series and Phillips' career in the front of camera would be a short one:

"I guess the fact that the writers were both very high-flyers in another demanding and lucrative field meant there was no incentive, or indeed time, for them to write a second series. Although I’m sure if the series had been a monster hit they would have done it. I remember a conversation at one of the press screenings where there was some suggestion of doing a one off special in Spain based around the marriage of my sister and her fiancĂ©, but I think this may have been a combination of people pulling my leg and wishful thinking. 

Interestingly, I was flicking through a TV encyclopaedia in a bookshop a few years ago and was not only surprised to find an entry for News at Twelve but also by the nugget of information that NBC had recorded a pilot for an American version in 1991 which was never broadcast and didn’t go to series. That’s a shame as I think it could have worked really well in America.

In terms of acting, things fizzled out pretty quickly; Lewis Rudd, who was head of children’s TV at Central wanted me to go into their kids’ sketch show Your Mother Wouldn’t Like It and arranged an audition for me for that, but it didn’t work out. I recorded another Central pilot for a 'kids doing impressions' panel show where I was one of the team captains but that never made it to series.

I did a very short stint on a daytime talk show for Central called Gas Street with the unlikely presenting duo of Suzi Quatro and Vince Hill in the summer of 1988 and later that year, the BBC asked me to audition for the part of a 13-year-old boy in a gritty Screen Two drama so I went down to TV Centre to try out for that but, despite actually being 13, I was by that stage at least 5’11” or maybe 6’0” so I looked more like a 16/17 year old and I would have towered over the actor playing my father, Ralph ‘Dear John’ Bates, so that was a no go.

I wasn’t all that bothered about continuing with acting, I think I probably knew I’d been lucky to get a perfect role that felt like it could have been specifically written for me and wasn’t sure I had the versatility to do much else. I’m sure if someone had offered me something amazing, I would have done it, but with News at Twelve soon being forgotten, I was very happy to just get back to normal school life. 

The experience clearly sowed seeds however as I have spent the least twenty-three years working in TV as a comedy producer here and in the USA. I have done every episode of the soon to be axed Mock the Week since it began in 2005, nearly 200 episodes of the American version of improv show Whose Line is it Anyway? and numerous other formats here and across the pond including They Think It’s All Over, Big Fat Quiz of the Year and even a short but memorable stint on How Clean is Your House?"

Ewan Phillips isn't, of course, the only actor in News at Twelve and he's ably assisted by a fine supporting cast. In fact, the full cast list is rather special as Phillips recalls:

"The thing that still stands out for me is the quality of the cast, something I was really aware of at the time. So many great British character actors just turning up for little parts and as a bit of a TV anorak, I loved just being in their company, seeing how they went about their business and hearing their stories.

Julia Foster played my mum for example, Patrick Malahide was my headmaster, two proper film and TV actors who were both in quite a few scenes with me and they did everything they could to make me feel at ease. The list of the others is amazing: Sheila Fearn from Likely Lads, Kevin Lloyd from The Bill, Rebecca Lacey from Home to Roost, Mark Billingham who is of course now a best-selling crime writer and veterans like Frank Mills, Constance Chapman and Walter Sparrow who had worked with everyone in everything in their careers.

Even the cameos were bizarre for a small children’s TV show, there was one scene where we did a school football match scene and Cyrille Regis, the Coventry and England striker turned up to be the referee. Another one, there was a story about a stolen school library book or something and in Crimewatch style I said the line: “We have staged a reconstruction using actors” and the “actors” were Jim Bowen and John Junkin in full Shakespearean garb hamming it up. I’m still not sure how they pulled all that off. Jim Bowen and John Junkin actually came out to the school in Smethwick to record that little bit in its drama theatre.

Also, I should mention Liz May Brice who played my girlfriend, Tina, and went on to become a very successful TV and film actress. I ran into her at the National TV Awards about ten years ago and we had a drink and caught up, jokingly discussing pitching News at 40 to ITV"

And it's a very funny series too, with plenty of gags sprinkled throughout the series - one of my favourites (for some reason) comes when schoolboy Barry Sykes (Richard De Sousa) claims that when he asked to see a solicitor - whilst being accused of leaking exam answers - he was simply shown a picture of Rumpole of the Bailey. Oh and there's all manner of "traffic report" comedy to be mined when there's a pileup at the pasta counter - aka Spaghetti Junction - in the local shop. Also, the report on a 'black hole' in Kevin's street perfectly nails the deadpan absurdism when it debates whether it's down to a build up of galactic matter or just a hole that British Telecom have dugs. See, I told you it was funny.

I've covered many hidden gems of British television on this blog, but News at Twelve is easily at the top of the pile in terms of quality. Its unique approach is something that, for the life of me, I can't recall in any other children's programme and it's been a pleasure covering it. As ever, its frustrating that there's no footage readily available for others to take a look, but Ewan Phillips suspects that, somewhere, he's got a video with all six episodes on. In the meantime, you'll just have to take it from me that it's a fantastic helping of innovation, entertainment and comedy, and what more could you ask for?

Many thanks to Ewan Phillips for his excellent answers and these additional photos of life on set:


  1. I thought I was the only person who remembered this series. I must have read about it before it was broadcast and, intrigued by the synopsis, I set my video machine to record the episodes (I was working at the time, so certainly not among the target audience). Sadly I didn't keep the recordings but I recall enjoying them very much. One thing that has stuck in my mind relates to the 'stolen library book' report which Ewan mentions - while scenes of the location of the theft were shown, a caption appeared, reading 'library footage'. Maybe Network could be persuaded to produce a DVD?

    1. Network have certainly released some obscure programmes, but I suspect this one will sit in the vaults. Until someone decides to fund a Curious British Telly TV channel that is...

  2. I was at central junior tv workshop and a number of us worked on News at 12 I’m not sure if I have it on tape but I’m going to look because I’d almost forgotten about it.

  3. I considered myself a bit too old for 'kids' television when this was shown and a lot of the newer shows passed me by at the time. I do remember this catching my attention and I think I watched every episode.

    The news story I remember the best was when six Gary Linekers got kidnapped. It wasn't the real famous footballer, it was the album stickers of course. They were all the ones known to exist in the school. Still brings a smile thinking of the level of creativity in the writing.

  4. I remember them filming this at my School. I saw Patrick Malahide and thought omg thats Chisem from Minder lol.