Kenneth Kendall obituary

First BBC newsreader to appear on TV and co-host of Channel 4 gameshow Treasure Hunt

Kenneth Kendall, who in 1955 became the first person to be seen, as well as heard, reading the news on BBC television, was a survivor from the days when a background in the Coldstream Guards was thought to be an asset for the job. Over 6ft tall, wavy-haired, he became known for his elegant dress sense, and received dozens of proposals of marriage from female viewers.

Kendall, who has died aged 88, emerged as a national personality because of one significant change of BBC policy, and disappeared from newsreading nearly 30 years later because of another. In 1955, the BBC lost its monopoly of the TV airways to the new, brash ITV. While affecting to look down its patrician nose at semi-literate parlour games and bright and breezy presenters, the BBC was determined not to be left behind by its commercial rival in the core activity of presenting the news.

Two years after the birth of ITV, the wavering BBC made a two-pronged decision about its direction. It announced that there would be no more parlour games, panels or quiz shows – the areas in which ITV was thought to be impregnable. This self-denial soon frayed, but the second prong of its future policy – that news presentation should be brighter and more youthful – brought Kendall to the forefront of the BBC and kept him there for more than a generation.

Up to the mid-1950s, the BBC had fielded an experienced team of former radio announcers to read the links on TV news programmes. Professionals such as Alvar Lidell, Frank Phillips and Wallace Greenslade remained unseen, as they had done on radio. When the decision was taken to allow the announcers on screen, Lidell, Phillips and Greenslade, whose voices – rather than their looks – were their fortunes, were gradually dropped and a new team was elevated to star status, reading bulletins every hour on the hour. They were Richard Baker, Robert Dougall and Kendall.

It was Kendall whose face appeared first – in September 1955 – and it went on appearing (with a break in the 1960s) until 1981, when there was another BBC policy shift. The journalist-cum-presenter who could research, write and read his own scripts was in; and the patrician presenter of other people's scripts was out. By this time, in any case, Kendall – once president of the Queen's English Society – was increasingly irritated with the BBC and what he sometimes referred to as the sub-literate scripts he was handed to read.

He took the decision to move to a cottage in Cornwall with his three dogs and large collection of teddy bears, in order to become a freelance. He made a number of lucrative commercials and acted as host of the Channel 4 adventure gameshow Treasure Hunt (1982-89), alongside Anneka Rice. His irritation with the BBC surfaced again when he said that his final salary with the corporation had been just over £16,000 a year, whereas in one year of freelance activity, he had made £80,000.

But Cornwall palled and he moved to Cowes, Isle of Wight, where for a time he owned a restaurant. He said it was the hardest work he had ever undertaken and withdrew after a few years. Later, with his long-term partner, Mark Fear, he ran an art gallery.

Kendall was born in India, where his father was a mining engineer, but he was brought up in Cornwall. He read modern languages at Corpus Christi College, Oxford, was wounded while helping to storm the beaches of Normandy in 1944 and had a brief spell teaching French at a prep school (he said he was too intolerant and impatient for the job).

After toying with two prospects that had the approval of his parents and seemed to suit his elegant voice – the Foreign Office or an overseas bank – he answered a BBC advertisement in the Daily Telegraph for a relief announcer. He got the job, and was taken on to the staff, though he later described reading the news as "fascinating but limiting".

It was also demanding, but he hardly ever failed to meet the demands. He was unflappable in the face of the possible disasters of live television. Even when a false tooth shot out in the middle of a news bulletin, and sat on the desk in front of him, he merely continued with his mouth almost closed, willing viewers to believe that nothing of the sort had happened.

He returned to the BBC in 2010 in The Young Ones, a documentary about whether reliving your youth could make you feel young again. Along with Lionel Blair, Sylvia Syms, Liz Smith, Dickie Bird and Derek Jameson he was transported for a week back to the world of 1975.

Kendall is survived by his civil partner.

• Kenneth Kendall, newsreader, born 7 August 1924; died 14 December 2012


Dennis Barker

The GuardianTramp

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