George joined the Met Office in 1939 as a met assistant with No 4 Bomber Group at FAF Yorkshire. From 1942 until 1953, he worked as an RAF forecaster in the UK, Normandy, Belguim, Holland and Germany. He was based at the London Weather Centre when he was selected to be the very first BBC TV forecaster, appearing on air from 11th January 1954 until March 1957, from the Lime Grove Studios. He recalled the origins of the TV forecast in a 1994 BBC Weather Centre press release: “In November 1953, the Met Office and the BBC agreed that a live presentation on television of the weather forecast would be a ‘good thing’. The BBC only wanted one man whom they could build into a personality but the idea of a civil servant becoming a personality was anathema to them and argued the job could not been done seven-days-a-week by one man. About 20 of us were called up. We were given a weather map and about half-an-hour to prepare a mock briefing, television style.
“We were judged by Clive Rawes (producer, BBC Presentation), Dr Farquharson (assistant director public services, Met Office) and Bill Hanson (head of what became the London Weather Centre). Of the 20, Tom Clifton, who had been a very successful broadcaster on the then defunct Airmet service, was virtually an automatic choice and greatly to my surprise I was also chosen. Rawes and Hanson devised the method of presentation and the organisational details. A large press conference was held in Broadcasting House on the 4th January when Tom and I were introduced to the national and regional newspapers. Each afternoon we produced charts of today’s 12 o’clock and tomorrow’s forecast at 12 o’clock with isobars and fronts drawn with thick felt-tip pens with a small ‘caption chart’ summarising the forecast in words to be shown at the end of the forecast.
“We then packed everything up and travelled on the tube to Lime Grove. There was a mock-up of Big Ben and a double blackboard on which we pinned our charts. Today’s chart was on the front and could be lowered like a sash window to reveal tomorrow’s chart. No amount of ingenuity could get rid of this terrible rumbling noise. The solution was to turn off the microphone temporarily and avoid speaking at the same time! The studio was very hot due to the lighting and cameras used at the time and we used charcoal sticks to demonstrate wind directions, rain area etc on the map and the charcoal dust covered our sweaty hands and clothes. Because of this we were given a 10 shilling (50p) clothing and laundry allowance!
“The Met Office had known all along that two men could not carry on for long without reinforcement. In the spring of 1954, we were joined by Philip McAllen and John Parry. During my three years I remember only one innovation. A weather radar was installed on the Air Ministry roof and Mike Hunt (late of Anglia TV) was posted in to operate the radar. He developed a facility for recording interesting sequences on film and I was able to show one of these during my TV broadcast. It illustrated intense thundery activity which had moved north eastwards across London during the day. It was a particular novelty to see the radar images of aircraft spiralling into and out of Heathrow between the cumulonimbus clouds.”
He recalled a visit by Princess Margaret to the studios. After accidently leaving black footprints all along the specially laid red carpet, he was later introduced to the Princess who said: “Oh! I always switch off when you come on – but mother likes you and switches back on.” George replied: “I had bad news for the viewers this evening – the severe frost is returning tomorrow.” To which the Princess replied: “That’s good news – I love the cold weather.” Stumped for something to say, George finally came up with: “Perhaps Ma’am, you don’t suffer from frozen pipes like the rest of us.”
George was promoted in 1957 to RAF Bomber Command and later was posted in Singapore, Malta, Bahrain and Germany. He was a senior instructor at the Met Office College and a principle forecaster at Heathrow Airport. He retired in 1981. He joined past colleagues on Nationwide to celebrate the 25th anniversary of BBC TV Weather in January 1979, in which Bob Wellings interviewed past and present weather forecasters. He also joined a get-together for its 40th anniversary in January 1994 and a photoshoot of weather presenters for its 50th anniversary in January 2004 – both at BBC Television Centre. He was a member of RMetS for 63 years and in retirement, for many years, he played golf each week with fellow ex-TV weathermen Bert Foord and Jack Scott.
Paul R. Jackson corresponded with George in January 1987 about his career: “During the war, I spent most of my time with photographic reconnaissance. Before my television days, I was a forecaster at the Air Traffic Control Regional Centre in Gloucester and before that I was in Germany from 1945 – 1950. I am afraid nobody ever told me why I was chosen to do the first two television broadcasts! Tom Clifton was my original partner. Parry and McAllen joined us after the first month or so. David Dean replaced Parry who left on promotion. I don’t know the precise date of my last television presentation but I left London on promotion in late-February 1957 to go to Bomber Command at High Wycombe. In my time on TV we only appeared once per day. Presentation comprised a British Isles isobaric chart: one for 12pm today and another for 12pm tomorrow. On this we had to sketch rain area, wind direction etc with charcoal – very messy.
“From there I went to Singapore in August 1959. From there I went as senior instructor at the Met Office Training School at Stanmore in April 1963, then to Malta in May 1965. From there on promotion to principal met officer at Bahrain in May 1966. Then as a principal forecaster at Heathrow in September 1968. Then Malta, from November 1971 – April 1972 and RAF Germany, May 1972 – May 1975. Then to Bracknell as in charge of services to military aviation (i.e., RAF and army). Retired from the Met Office in March 1981 and then spent five years with Noble Denton in London doing meteorological and climatological studies for large ocean voyages and oil platform placements and finally retired in March 1986.”
Video Clips on the Internet
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George Cowling features in Sunny Intervals: 40 Years of the Weather on BBC One.
Includes excerpts from a 1994 BBC press release.
PICTURED: George Cowling. SUPPLIED BY: Paul R. Jackson. COPYRIGHT: BBC.