"The Death of Kennedy" (BBC, TX 29th January 1967)

In the spring of 2004, myself and my fiance Carly Spreadborough visited the British Film Insititute to view a recording of the 1967 BBC-2 documentary "The Death of Kennedy", loaned from the BBC Archives. The cost of viewing the tape was not inconsiderable; at a cost of £10 per hour, plus VAT, the total fee was £47!

We are perhaps fortunate that the documentary survives: in the 1970s, many old BBC programmes were wiped, or were shovelled into furnaces or land-fill rubbish sites: this afflicted many shows, such as Hancock, Z-Cars, Doctor Who etc. (of course the BBC are now seeking recordings of these shows since there is a huge market for vintage TV shows). One casualty seems to be a show broadcast on November 22, 1973 with the intriguing title, "Did 3 Assassins Kill Kennedy?" Nothing of this programme, not a script, not even researcher's notes survive; it has been suggested that the show was junked because it featured a lot of bought-in footage (from Davidson Dalling Associates). Apart from this one example, the archival situation with regard to JFK Assassination programmes is rather good.

The documentary was a live discussion of issues surrounding the Warren Report and the death of JFK and includes the British premiere of the "Rush to Judgement" film, split into sections with guests debating what they had just seen. Kenneth Harris was the presenter, studio guests were Mark Lane, David Belin (introduced by Harris as "Felix Belin"!) , Arlen Specter and two law experts, Lord Develyn and Yale Professor Alexander Bickle. Cliff Michelmore presented video taped and filmed location inserts. The producer and director was Richard Francis.

The show was spilt into two segments, with a news update separating the sections; the first segment was nearly 3 hours and 8 minutes long, the second segment being an hour and a half.

Apart from "Rush to Judgement", the documentary is visually bland. The show opens with footage of the funeral of John Kennedy, and includes a very brief excerpt from the Muchmore film (as Clint Hill leaps from the SS car); of course, there is no moving footage from the Zapruder Film, due to copyright reasons - a point mentioned in the film. Stills from the Warren Report Volumes are shown on screen though. The majority of the programme is simply one of "talking heads", though one highlight is a perfect scale model of Dealey Plaza, created by BBC Visual Effects legends Bernard Wilkie and Jack Kine. Michelmore describes the various areas of the plaza and shows where the shots are alledged to have hit their mark with the help of a miniature model of the Presidential limousine. At one point, the Hertz "rent-a-car" sign is removed from the top of the model TSBD and a rather portly Royal Marine with a Mannlicher Carcano (which Specter pronounces "Carsano") fires blanks at the model car on Elm Street over the top of the TSBD model. Obviously, no attempt was made to reproduce aiming problems, just to illustrate how fast the rifle could be fired. The Marine managed to fire the rifle suprisingly fast, but on the second attempt, the rifle misfired and as he lost his hold on the bolt, muttering a very audible "S**t!" Strangely, this whole section was pre-recorded so why this blunder was left in is a mystery!

Also in abundance in the studio were copies of the Warren Report itself and the accompanying volumes, often been seen hurridely searched by Specter and Belin in the brief sections were Mark Lane was allowed to speak.

There was only one filmed interview, despite a fair amount of Dallas location footage, between Michelmore and Jack Ruby's lawyer, Phil Burleson who describes Oswald's slayer as a poor choice for a conspiracy's hit-man due to his mental state etc. A second interview was filmed but never used (see below).

The programme is frustrating to watch, as it seems to be biased towards the Warren Commission; Mark Lane barely managed to conceal his frustration as he is barely allowed to speak and looks bored most of the time; as Harris reminds him sternly on many occasions, Lane is simply there to defend himself, as his film is supposed to make a case against the Warren Report; Specter and Belin are to refute the evidence in the "Rush to Judgement" film. On the one occasion that Lane corrects Belin regarding the origin of the puff of smoke seen on the Knoll, the programme actually stops while Harris receives a telephone call from the production gallery. What was said is not audible to the viewer but when the call is over, Harris continues with his frosty attitude towards Lane. Earlier in the show, even Arlen Specter briefly walks off, for reasons unknown (toilet break?).

To describe the whole programme would take too long. I managed to track down an audio recording and, even with "Rush to Judgement" removed, the programme is still approximately 2 and a half hours long. My attempts or purchase a recording of the show from the BBC, and even to interest the British Film Institute in a potential VHS or DVD release came to nothing - in fact, I didn't even receive a reply. I will be depositing an CD copy of "The Death of Kennedy" with the Dealey Plaza UK research group.

In an attempt to learn more about the behind the scenes aspect of the documentary, I visited the BBC Written Archives in Caversham Park, Reading. With the exception of a copy of a 1960s article from Esquire magazine listing the major conspiracy theories of the day, the file contains details of correspondence and audience reaction. In many ways, this is more fascinating than the show itself.

I should point out that the file that I viewed was incomplete: I was told that by my guide that, if there were any missing files, they had probably been thrown out or taken home by staff members: the same goes for other programmes; for instance, the background notes on Anthony Summers late 1970s show on the HSCA and the Kennedy Assassination are no longer at the BBC.

Also, in accordance with BBC regulations, all of the personal correspondence (for instance, between the Corporation and Belin, Specter et al.) had been removed for confidentiality reasons, though I found this "rule" was applied quite inconsistently as some letters remained in the file whilst others had gone.

The genesis of "The Death of Kennedy" was on September 7th, 1966; six days earlier, David J.Webster Deputy Editor of the BBC political review programme "Panorama" had seen a 200 minute rough cut of the "Rush to Judgement" film, and in a letter to him, Emile de Antonio says that "We have tried to be honest, but not objective. This is the case for the defence of Oswald". Webster has the idea of a whole evening's programme based around the film, perhaps on November 22nd itself and even tentatively calling it "A Rush to Judgement", although he was not impressed by some aspects of the film. Webster's colleague Jeremy Isacs also mentioned that he would like Paranorma to deal with the issues raised by the film as well.

On November 1st, Paul Fox, the Head of the Current Affairs Group at the BBC, remarked that he had seen "Rush to Judgement" and notes that "one is left with the strong feeling that the Warren Commission be reconvened". However, Fox feels that De Antonio's film cannot be broadcast on its own, as there are times when "it fudges over the issues, when it leaves out things". David Webster replied that "from a subjective and person point of view, finds Kennedy/Oswald/Ruby story slightly repellant," and that he "just doesn't want to know".

By December 23rd, Richard Francis, appointed as the producer and director of the show noted "The more I work on the project, the more I realise how impossible it is to get the ball past Lane by shooting from outside the penalty area. He must be countered and cross examined on the weak details (underlined in his note - Paul) in his "defence of Oswald" ". Francis also remarks in his memo to "include vital witnesses briefly on film - Humes and Boswell to talk about X-rays".

The idea of guests to be interviewed on camera had clearly been enticing. Obviously, Humes and Boswell declined to appear. On January 1st, 1967, Paul Fox had heard that..."Lee Rankin (General Counsel) suggests that the people most likely to be sympathetic to the reasoning that the reputation of the United States is at stake are Rusk and Chief Justice Warren". Fox was thinking about sending invitation letters to these people. In further correspondence, Rankin agreed to a brief filmed interview but not to any involvement in the controversy, and that "a verdict has been reached and accepted and until the whole proceedings are officially reopened there is no ground for people such as himself to call it into question." Ultimately, Rankin did not appear. On the same day, Arlen Specter remarked that "Warren was even less available than the President". Specter was agreeable to appearing on the BBC show, but was keen that his appearance be blessed by the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court himself. Specter was less keen on "a direct confrontation with Lane".

On January 20th, 1967, Specter agreed to take part in the broadcast. He asked for no fee, but asked that his expenses be paid, and that his wife Joan come with him. He also said that "The only rights granted are for the BBC to show the programme on one transmission. Otherwise there may be no later showing or any printed transcript released of my part in the programme without my prior consent." Fox agreed to this, and called Specter "the star contributor" in his internal memos. An invitation letter to Belin was sent on January 16th, and a fee of $500 was offered. Presumably, this was accepted.

Amusingly, the BBC file includes a letter from Paul Fox to a Mr.Brown of Birmingham, who had sent a record of a song by the Renegades which was a tribute to the late President and apparently very popular in Italy (!) Fox thanked Mr.Brown noting that "unfortunately it is not suitable for inclusion in the programme".

The only sour note in the correspondence is between Fox and De Antonio. The BBC had sent a $25,000 cheque for the rights to use the film of "Rush to Judgement", but De Antonio alledges that the Corporation was late with the payment. De Antonio said that the BBC could keep the film print unless he wanted it back, and, provided that the returned film was complete and in good condition; the print cost would then be deducted from the overall payment. In further correspondence, De Antonio remarks that he was unhappy with the way "Rush to Judgement" was split into 4 sections and with the use of models in the BBC documentary. The BBC replied that the use of the film was as contractually agreed, and that the use of the models was to improve the film. Finally, Paul Fox notes that "Despite pressure from you and your associates, the programme went as planned".

The documentary's ratings shares were respectable, and are broken down as following:
Time intervalBBC-2BBC-1ITV

The appreciation indices are as following, with A+ being a highly favourable rating:

A+ : 43%
A : 39%
B : 15%
C : 5%
C- : -

Overall, the show's reaction was 81%, indicating that the show was highly regarded by those who saw it. The BBC's Duty Officer, in charge of logging phone calls to the Corporation and recording viewers comments were varied: one housewife said this was "television at its best". Some "found the programme rather long and over weighted with technical details that were of relatively little interest to the average viewer, but most were evidently held for most, if not all, the 4.5 hours". Of the contributors to the show, Arlen Specter left the most favourable impression, Belin was perceived to "waffle" and was thought to have a "rather irritating voice" by some people. A handful of people didn't like Mark Lane's personality, but felt that he gave a good defence against his opponents. There was a strong body of opinion that Mark Lane has been unfairly treated by Kenneth Harris; indeed, the Duty Office logged 80 calls between 11.30pm and 1.30am on this matter, summarising him as "rude, discourteous, biased and insufferable". One of the callers was an off-duty Duty Officer worker who called to complain! Later on, a further 550 calls were made complaining about Harris' attitude towards Mark Lane. Overall, the programme left many with "grave doubts" as to the accuracy of the Warren Commission's findings.

The tone of the programme didn't seem to upset the BBC hierarchy. The (then) BBC2 controller David Attenborough sent a memo to the show's production team on February 1st, saying that <"The Death of Kennedy">" has certainly stirred up interest one way and another". On January 30th, the BBC Board of Management commended the documentary, and supported Kenneth Harris' performance as presenter.

The internal BBC documentation shows that Paul Fox confirmed that Belin and Specter's responses were not scripted or rehearsed. They were told the area of discussion the day before transmission and given a script of the "Rush to Judgement" film. Mark Lane was given an outline of the programme on the telephone before he had left Los Angeles.

The only other items of interest were transcripts of interviews held by Michelmore; the first was a complete version of the interview with Ruby's Lawyer. The second interview, which never made it into the documentary was with Hugh Aynsworth. For those of you familiar with Aynsworth's attitude towards Lane (in, for instance "No More Silence"), it is understandable why this interview ended up on the cutting room floor. As far as I am aware, the complete film prints of these interviews were junked years ago.

Overall, a very interesting programme, although its length does try the patience. From an assassination researcher's point of view, it doesn't really add much, but its interesting to hear the Warren Commission's attitude from people who actually served under it.

Mark Lane's own summary of his treatment by the BBC.

Back up my JFK page

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