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The ten most iconic live TV moments in British broadcasting history

Benjie Goodhart / 17 February 2022

Looking back at some of the most memorable moments to be broadcast on live TV.

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What are the moments of television that stick out the most in your mind? The times when the world stopped and held its breath? Sure, we all loved Del Boy falling through the bar, or David Attenborough getting up close and personal with the gorillas. But the moments that really stand out are, more often than not, live broadcasts. Whether great affairs of state, astonishing sporting spectacles, or shocking news feeds, live TV gives us the truly epoch-defining memories.

This list, inevitably subjective as it is, is an attempt to encapsulate these moments. Some historic events, such as the Kennedy assassination, the Challenger disaster, the man in front of the tanks at Tiananmen Square, and the fall of the Berlin Wall, do not make the cut, simply because their most significant moments were not broadcast on live TV in this country.

The ten moments I have chosen are in date order. Please address all complaints and counter-arguments to your cat.

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The World Cup Final, July 30th 1966

Well, duh! Of course it’s in here. Citizens of the UK’s non-English countries have long been bored witless by our national obsession with 1966, but after 56 years of hurt, it’s all we have. It remains the most-watched programme on British television, with 32.3 million viewers tuning in. Chiefly remembered for Hurst’s hat-trick, including the ‘phantom’ goal awarded by the ‘Russian’ linesman (he was actually from Azerbaijan), and the legendary commentary from Kenneth Wolstenholme. “Some people are on the pitch… they think it’s all over. It is now!” And still the wait goes on…

Man Walks on the Moon, July 20th, 1969

The Apollo 11 mission could be seen as the most remarkable achievement in human history. As such, the BBC gave it sufficient gravitas, dedicating 27 hours to it over ten days. The actual night of the landing saw live broadcasts on the BBC and ITV, both of which broadcast throughout the night for the first time. The BBC’s coverage was fronted by Cliff Michelmore, with assistance from science correspondent James Burke and Patrick Moore.

ITV went for a somewhat less formal approach, and had a programme that included appearances by Lulu, Cilla Black, Sammy Davis Jr and Peter Cook. At 3:56am UK time, Neil Armstrong set foot on the moon and uttered his famous words, heard live by a staggering 20% of the world’s population. John Godson, who was directing the news that night remembered: “When Neil Armstrong stepped onto the Moon's surface, the whole BBC control room, with the canteen ladies and security guards standing beside the vision control desk, exploded into cheering and clapping.”

The Sex Pistols vs Bill Grundy, December 1st 1976

This genuinely watershed moment in British television almost never happened. The Sex Pistols were only booked to go on the early evening show after Queen pulled out because Freddie Mercury needed emergency dental treatment. The Pistols and their entourage turned up drunk, and were faced with a rather belligerent Grundy, who was clearly not a fan of their oeuvre.

As he asked them some goading questions, they responded with profanities, which prompted a clearly angry Grundy to make his fatal mistake: he asked them to “say something outrageous,” leading to Steve Jones calling him a “dirty f***er”. “What a clever boy,” responded Grundy. “What a f***ing rotter,” responded Jones. (Rotter? Really? Was this The Beano?) Although the programme was only shown in London, it made national headlines. Grundy’s career was never the same again, and two months later, Today was cancelled.

The wedding of Prince Charles and Lady Diana Spencer, July 29th 1981

On a glorious summer’s day 41 years ago, the nation enjoyed a rare Wednesday national holiday. But 28.4 million of us spent it glued to the TV set, as the ‘fairytale’ wedding took place at St Paul’s Cathedral in front of 3,500 guests. The event had a global audience of 750 million in 74 countries, and an estimated million people lined the streets of London to get a glimpse of the pageantry.

Chief among the memories of that day is Diana’s extraordinary dress, featuring 10,000 pearls and a train that was longer than most actual trains. Coverage began at 7:45am, and in my house we watched all of it, with my mum shouting at my dad to make sure the whole thing was recorded on our brand new VHS. For years afterwards, there was a tape marked “Royal wedding – DO NOT TAPE OVER”.

Funeral of Diana, Princess of Wales, September 6th 1997

Just 16 years after that glorious July day, the nation gathered again in front of TV sets to watch a far more sombre occasion. Diana had died aged just 36 in a Parisian tunnel, and was being laid to rest in front of a heartbroken nation. The outpouring of national grief – manifested in a jaw-dropping sea of flowers in front of Kensington Palace – reached its apogee with over a million people taking to the streets to watch the funeral cortege pass – with the unforgettable sight of Prince Philip, Prince Charles, Earl Spencer, and Diana’s two young sons walking behind their mother’s flag-draped coffin.

In Westminster Abbey, Elton John sang, and Charles Spencer gave the eulogy, including withering rebukes to the press and the royal family. Afterwards, Diana’s body was driven to Althorp, in Northamptonshire, with people throwing flowers as the hearse passed them.

9/11, September 11th 2001

Perhaps no date in human history will be as etched on the global consciousness as 11th September 2001. At 8:46am East Coast Time, American Airlines flight 11 crashed into the North Tower of the World Trade Centre. Just 17 minutes later, United 175 crashed into the South Tower. All over the world, news broadcasts interrupted normal programming, and office workers gathered around TV sets to watch, in horror, as the ensuing events unfolded.

With news anchors struggling to keep pace with events, and reporters encountering panic and wild conjecture on the streets, reports came in of a plane flying into the Pentagon, and another crashing in a Pennsylvania field. Inside two hours, both of the Twin Towers had fallen. As the dust settled over the coming days, it emerged that 3,000 people had been killed. Viewing on our TV sets at home, we were left with the distinct impression that the world would never be the same again. We were not wrong.

The Accidental Interviewee, May 8th 2006

When the history of the last 50 years is written, Guy Goma’s name will not be mentioned. In terms of epoch-defining incidents, this one does not register. But I include it because it is probably my favourite TV moment of all time, and one that encapsulates the risks inherent in live TV. On May 8th 2006, Guy Goma was waiting in the main reception at BBC Television Centre for a job interview to be a data support cleanser – whatever one of them is – for the IT department. At the same moment, in a different reception, technology expert Guy Kewney was waiting to give an interview live on BBC News 24 about the implications of a court case between Apple Computers and the Apple record label.

A BBC news producer was told that Kewney was in the main reception, and went to collect him – but collected the wrong ‘Guy’ for the wrong interview. Goma was given make up, and wired up in front of the cameras, assuming this was just the way the BBC interviewed potential employees. The moment when he was introduced on camera, by news anchor Kate Bowerman, as technology expert Guy Kewney is glorious, as his mouth drops open. What then follows is a joyous interview as Goma gamely blusters his way through the questions. Ten minutes later, he had his real interview. He didn’t get the job. Kewney, meanwhile, watched the whole thing unfold on a TV screen in reception.

The London Olympics Opening Ceremony, July 27th 2012

Bliss it was that dawn to be alive. Before we descended into a nation of squabbling nincompoops, we had it really good for a while. Britain never felt so optimistic and united as during that fabulous three weeks in the summer of 2012 when the world’s eyes turned to the UK and liked what it saw. And the whole thing started with the most glorious, inclusive, big-hearted celebration of Britishness, as Danny Boyle’s opening ceremony showcased our history, culture and humour to the world.

A huge 27 million Britons, and a global audience of almost 1 billion, watched the four-hour ceremony paying tribute to the industrial age, the NHS, and British pop music. The crowning moment was the Queen appearing to ‘skydive’ into the Olympic stadium accompanied by James Bond. Brilliant, unforgettable stuff.

Super Saturday, August 4th 2012

After Boyle’s wonderful opening ceremony, it was the turn of Team GB’s athletes to step up to the plate – something they did to spectacular effect. The nation finished third in the medals table, with 65 medals, 29 of them gold. But the undoubted highlight of the games took place over 46 joyous minutes in the Olympic stadium on the evening of Saturday 4th August. Earlier that day, Britain had won three gold medals, two in rowing and one in cycling. Then attention turned to the athletics.

First, home favourite and London 2012 poster girl Jessica Ennis-Hill smashed her own British record to win gold in the heptathlon. Next, Greg Rutherford launched himself 8.31 metres to claim gold in the long jump. Finally, roared home by a thrilled crowd and a breathless Steve Cram on commentary, Mo Farah took the 10,000m title. It capped the most successful day for Great Britain at the Olympics since 1908.

Boris Johnson addresses the nation, March 23rd 2020

In many ways, the Prime Minister’s address to a fearful nation at the outbreak of Covid seems like several lifetimes ago. An audience of 27.1 million tuned in with understandable apprehension as to what lay ahead. For anyone doubting the magnitude of unfolding events, Johnson’s opening remarks marked a sober realisation. “Good Evening. The coronavirus is the biggest threat this country has faced for decades – and this country is not alone. All over the world we are seeing the devastating impact of this invisible killer. And so tonight I want to update you on the latest steps we are taking to fight the disease and what you can do to help.”

Even the most pessimistic opinions probably didn’t countenance the idea that the pandemic would still be going on two years later, but as we begin to emerge from the spectre of the virus, there is finally a degree hope that we may be able to start talking about the pandemic in the past tense in the not-too-distant future.

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The opinions expressed are those of the author and are not held by Saga unless specifically stated. The material is for general information only and does not constitute investment, tax, legal, medical or other form of advice. You should not rely on this information to make (or refrain from making) any decisions. Always obtain independent, professional advice for your own particular situation.

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