The Lost TV Footage from Britain’s BBC and ITN of the 1969 Moon Landing

Now that we’re approaching in July the 40th anniversary of the first astronauts to walk on the moon, there probably won’t be a dearth of retro American TV footage in upcoming retrospectives or around the net to help those of us not around then place ourselves into civilization’s greatest moment. Back in 1969, of course, every TV in the nation was only able to tune into either ABC, CBS, NBC, likely one or two independent stations, or the early days of a fledgling network called NET (later to become PBS). When Neil Armstrong first walked on the moon on July 21 of that year, though, it was the big three networks covering it exclusively. With that came major news anchor personalities adding emotion and drama to civilization’s highest achievement to date. If you haven’t seen the awe in Walter Cronkite’s face in clips showcasing CBS’s coverage that evening, then perhaps you need more old footage to tap into how the world felt.
In that regard, Britain’s coverage of the event that night certainly would help on putting profound history in better perspective. Unfortunately, much of the live to tape footage done of the moon landing on the BBC and the independent ITN was erased years ago as a cost-cutting measure. It’s perhaps the most tragic media loss in the history of television considering the unique slant Britain provided their populace. Yes, the coverage was, as you might say, very British.

We can forgive Britain for erasing the taped footage, because America once had a major track record of re-using color videotapes containing future classic shows during the earliest years of videotape use. Johnny Carson’s first ten years of his “Tonight Show” reign were infamously all erased along with dozens of other classic specials and TV variety shows from the early 60’s. The cost of color videotape was just too much for both American and European networks then to place into storage each and every episode or special.

For the BBC and ITN, their coverage of the moon landing was akin to covering a super telethon…without the plea for donations. One can only wonder how many videotapes were used to cover their coverage that (famously and infamously) ran for nearly 16 hours straight. Mind you, for ITN, it was all one program hosted by none other than future Nixon griller David Frost himself. And this 16-hour extravaganza was in the unusual vein of a comedy-variety-talk show.

In comparison to the lengthy coverage on BBC, it was buttoned-down vs. a controversially insouciant attitude. On the BBC, you had legendary British news anchor James Burke at the helm and who brought the real science of the moon mission to vivid life. While scant footage still exists of BBC’s coverage (mostly kinescopes), there is some evidence that the network’s coverage wasn’t all that buttoned down and had the usual British wit attached to the scientific demonstrations. What made it entertaining were the demonstrations by Burke who was willing to put himself through all the trials and G-force tribulations in order to bring what the astronauts experienced into every British citizen’s living room.

But it was the ITN coverage that was more than a little unconventional in how to cover the most meaningful event in humankind’s history. Having David Frost hosting a “Moon Party” the night of the landing seemed so much the essence of freewheeling 1969 and subsequently managed to give a mind-blowing event a slight dose of British satire…

At the time, ITN was Britain’s sole independent network, so it seemed appropriate they’d go their own way. What happened that night, though, would make an excellent movie to recreate the events and give a different spin on how one part of European media covered the profound without showing any quiver of emotion or awe. It shouldn’t be surprising to have a major news story get a wink of an eye from someone like Frost who was already known for being a brilliant news satirist on the popular British show “That Was the Week That Was.” Frost only became serious once while on that show: During the coverage of JFK’s assassination.

Well, we all know Frost eventually became a serious interviewer. On the day and night of the moon landing, however, either Frost or someone else brilliant concocted the idea of doing a 16-hour lightweight variety/talk show with comedic bits. Everybody from Peter Cook to Sammy Davis, Jr. was on this show to wax poetic or just shoot the breeze. Nothing says surreal than seeing Cook and Davis, Jr. expounding on the moon landing with Frost and then cutting to someone such as Engelbert Humperdinck or Lulu for a song.

Amid all this psychedelic madness and tales of performers passing out from the emotion and marathon length, legendary Sci-Fi author Ray Bradbury was reportedly sitting backstage with mouth agape at the lack of respect for mankind’s most profound event. The story goes that he walked out of the studio before Frost could bring him out to be interviewed. Had Bradbury been out there, it would have brought the craziness of the ITN set to a standstill to remind everybody of what was really happening.

Outside of the party-like atmosphere, most of the mix of British and American entertainers there that night say to this day that when Neil Armstrong stepped foot on the moon at 3 a.m. Britain time, it was like nothing else they’ve ever experienced.

If only we had footage available to see the juxtaposition of British zaniness and occasional serious interviews. Let that imaginary movie about this event commence and run wild with cinematic speculation on who said what and what happened behind the scenes.

Now that every network saves tapes of every show or special, it wouldn’t hurt to do something like this in America should the proposed “return to the moon” mission goes forth at the end of this coming decade. Considering enough seriousness will be taking place before then in America over disturbingly profound events, the awe-inspiring event of going back to the moon would be worthy of showing every possible emotion on a marathon network “Moon Party” special with notable people…

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