At 7.55pm on January 11 1954, George Cowling fronted a BBC programme called Weather Chart, the first TV forecast with a presenter.
Before then, television forecasts had used simple charts and captions, with only a disembodied, Monty Python-esque hand coming in from one side to point at the relevant bits. Cowling would draw weather symbols on cardboard charts with felt tip, then roll up the charts and take them by tube train from the London Weather Centre in Kingsway to the BBC’s Shepherd’s Bush studios. During the bulletin itself, he scribbled over the charts with a charcoal stick to show how the weather was changing.
Like all subsequent BBC Met Office forecasters, Cowling was a career civil servant with a corresponding rank in the RAF, employed mainly for his professional expertise. But he and his later colleagues became well-known in their own right, simply because they entered people’s living rooms for a few minutes every day. Along with the onscreen continuity announcers, weather forecasters were some of the first TV personalities.
This eventually made it easier to accept newsreaders too as public figures – a significant shift from Lord Reith’s decree that they should be “shadowy personalities … aloof and mysterious, who must forgo the desire for notoriety and recognition”. When the first in-vision newsreaders appeared in 1955, they kept their heads down and remained expressionless. But eventually, producers realised that it was incongruous to strive for complete impersonality when the weather forecasters who followed the news were becoming celebrities.
When Cowling once mentioned in a forecast that the following day would be good for drying the washing, he received a reproving phone call from his superior at the Met Office. Nowadays such casual asides are an almost compulsory element of the forecast, which has become part of what American TV executives call “weather-tainment”.