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The Sunday Post: Weather

Andrew Martin

BBC Genome

'Earlier on today, apparently, a woman rang the BBC and said she heard there was a hurricane on the way… well, if you’re watching, don’t worry, there isn’t' (Michael Fish, 1987)

The British are obsessed with the weather, probably because we have so much of it.  Ever since the BBC began, it has been broadcasting weather reports, generally supplied by the Met Office, although it was announced in 2015 that the contract to supply weather news will transfer to MeteoGroup from next year.

So what form has the BBC’s weather coverage taken? In the main, it is straightforward: the basic bulletins on radio are either brief short-term summaries, or the more in-depth, longer-term forecasts (although these are naturally less accurate due to the hugely complicated mathematics involved in predicting weather).

Television forecasts are of course basically visual, with a map of the UK the usual basic element, but a map of Europe is often included for slightly longer range forecasts, to include weather fronts coming in from various directions, showing isobars, etc.

Indicating weather conditions nowadays takes the form of fairly obvious graphic symbols for sun, rain, cloud, etc.  However until the mid-1970s the symbols used were standard meteorological ones, which were not easy for the layperson to understand, although the trusty forecaster was usually on hand to explain. Some short summaries did not have a presenter in vision, but a voice-over, by an announcer or newsreader, gave the forecast in simple terms.

Weather forecasts can also be aimed at particular sections of the community, such as farmers, or at certain times of year holidaymakers in general, or skiers in particular. Weather forecasts are also provided for local areas, as part of the BBC’s regional opt-out news bulletins.

Like sport, the weather is a programme item that is not quite the same as hard news, but it associated with and usually broadcast after it. One exception to that is the weather broadcast as part of the closedown routine on television up till 1997, when the start of 24-hour broadcasting on BBC1 saw the end of closedowns.

Another exception is the weather for farmers, as that was generally part of the programme Farming, and later Countryfile. This bulletin was slightly longer, as it contained a lot of detailed technical information, and looked to the longer term, as obviously in farming planning ahead is vital.

George Cowling, the first meteorologist from the Met Office to present a television weather forecast, in 1954. Here he is seen drawing a face on Cardiff

One other specialist weather service, which is very technical and almost unrecognisable as a weather report in normal terms, is the Shipping Forecast. It's one of those things that is meaningful to the initiated but a purely aesthetic pleasure in its obscurity to others, and it has a wide audience beyond those who it is intended for. It has a hypnotic quality, with its litany of sea areas and mysterious incantations about windspeed and so on.

Unlike other weather forecasts the Shipping Forecast also has a kind of theme tune, Sailing By. Like many features of Radio 4, it has acquired a kind of National Treasure status, and any attempt to even slightly alter its position in the schedule is met with cries of horror from the chattering classes.

But how did the weather forecast as we know it come about?  The Meteorological Office was established in 1854 as part of the Board of Trade, and was mainly concerned with weather forecasting to aid shipping.  It was headed by Vice-Admiral Robert FitzRoy, who had captained HMS Beagle when Charles Darwin made his famous voyage, and had later been Governor of New Zealand.

In 1919 the Met Office became part of the Air Ministry, though the Royal Navy began its own equivalent department in the 1930s, and the early BBC weather reports were credited as being by permission of the Air Ministry. The Met Office itself became part of the Ministry of Defence in due course, until 2011, when it transferred to the Department of Business, Innovation and Skills. As a consequence, weather forecasters appearing on the BBC have tended to be civil servants, not BBC employees.

Television adopted the weather forecast early on, with reports read by the television announcers from the start of the service proper in November 1936, although they were discontinued in March 1938. These were just read by the announcer, as with those on radio, not by trained meteorologists as would be the case later on.  

A 1960s forecast given by Bert Foord, whose look at the weekend weather on 15 November 1969 was the first programme officially on BBC1 in colour

Weather forecasts were ended during the Second World War, as the information in them would be useful to the enemy. As recalled in the programme Science at Your Service in 1943, the last weather bulletin was a 11pm on 31 August 1939 – the next day the BBC was put on a war footing with the National and Regional programmes being replaced by the Home Service.

Weather reports returned to the airwaves on 3 June 1945, when the war in Europe was finally over, and included reports for farmers and shipping.

Forecasts returned to television in 1949, but again just as a summary read over a map by an announcer.  The weather forecast programme we know it now was born in 1954, when Met Office presenters began to appear and guide the viewer through the weather prospects. The first forecast was presented by George Cowling, the first of a long line of familiar faces that have appeared on screen.

The difference between radio and television bulletins is a good example of the difference between the media in general, because the weather forecast is such a short and simple programme – so short it can in many cases be incorporated into other programmes, such as the news, though it has also featured as part of Pebble Mill at One, and Farming and Countryfile, as mentioned above.

It raises the question of the difference of approach to a subject by the media, and whether there are cases when television adds little to what radio can achieve. In radio the information is purely verbal, but on television the forecast is generally augmented by maps and charts and other visual aids, and the forecaster will give a kind of performance to make the forecast clearer – at least in theory.

The technology that has over time made forecasts more accurate and detailed has been incorporated into bulletins, so now we have become used to seeing satellite images and radar pictures.  Whether these make us better informed, or just make us think we are better informed, is as ever a moot point.

While earlier presenters looked more like the archetype of what they were – civil servants – gradually the television exposure encouraged more outgoing personalities. In the modern era weather presenters are liable to find themselves roped into Children in Need and Strictly Come Dancing.  

Graham Parker presents a pre-1975 weather forecast. The big news is that France has disappeared, while the Shetlands have moved south, and had a wall put round them

There have also been occasions when the weather has become newsworthy.  The 1987 'hurricane' that affected the south of England (while it may not technically have actually been one) drew a large amount of criticism for the weather service, personified by the unfortunate Michael Fish who had given the notorious forecast which discounted rumours of so serious a storm.

Other major weather events which have made the news in past decades have included the winter of 1947, which had a devastating effect with long-lasting snowfall. In the aftermath of the war, shortage of fuel led to BBC Television and the Third Programme being temporarily shut down to help conserve stocks (though the television service at the time still only reached the London area so this was not a huge inconvenience to too many people). Radio Times itself also stopped publication for three weeks, the first time it had missed an issue since the General Strike.

The similarly bad winter of 1963 did not have such severe consequences as that of 1947, but was covered by the more extensive news programmes going out by then, and was the subject of a special programme produced by the Tonight team, The Big Freeze.

The flooding in the east of England in 1953, which caused loss of life in Essex in particular, was naturally reported in the news programmes of the time, though these were limited on television to the BBC Newsreel, consisting of usually slightly old film of events, and the relayed sound news from BBC radio services. 

Despite the growth in technical ability, satellites and computers, it is still not possible to predict the full extent of weather events, or indeed to do much about them – witness the spate of flooding incidents in England in recent years. Meteorology, as has been seen in the climate change debate, is not an end in itself.

The BBC has also broadcast a programme, The Weather Show, from 1996 to 1999, which aimed to give a fuller picture of how weather works, and how it is brought to the screen. Scheduled for a daytime slot on BBC1 it had a populist approach, and at ten minutes long it was not going to over-task anyone's attention span – but then we are used to getting our weather news in short bursts.

It was not the only attempt to explain the science behind weather, with television featuring Weather Story in October 1946. It was followed by such programmes as the schools series Science and the Weather in 1957, and A World of Weather in 1966, taking a slightly more academic approach as part of the BBC's further education output. 

In 1978 there was a one-off special on New Year’s Eve, That Was the Weather That Was, presented by Jack Scott, the then head forecaster, and which looked back at the year’s weather news. Scott was assisted by his colleagues Michael Fish, Barbara Edwards, Bill Giles, Ian McCaskill and Keith Best.  Scott also presented the 1981 six-part series Under the Weather.

Helen Willetts presents a weather forecast using the digital map first seen in 2005. Startling news, it will be raining in Manchester

1985 saw the beginning of computer technology being brought into televised weather forecasts, and the then-chief forecaster Bill Giles presented a special programme to introduce the new technology.  While the symbols introduced in 1975 had made things clearer to viewers, the magnetic graphics sometimes had a tendency to slip or fall off.  The new system also allowed the presenter to stand still as the maps, electronically projected on a blue screen behind them, could be changed at will, rather than have the presenter move to a limited number of physical maps as previously.

As time has gone on, the computing power behind the forecast, both in the meteorology itself and in the graphic presentation itself, has increased and improved in leaps and bounds.

We all rely on weather forecasting, although many of us complain when it is perceived as inaccurate.  It is hard to see how it can be made more so, other than by increasingly sophisticated technology, but there will always be the element of chance involved too.  Perhaps we enjoy that – after all, wouldn’t it be terrible if experts were right all the time?

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