Emergency measures 

1 June 2001 tbs.pm/1973

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Andrew Hesford-Booth remembers what happened when ITV went on strike

Summer 1968 was a time of tumultuous change in British broadcasting. ABC and Rediffusion would soon disappear, to be reincarnated as Thames. Granada would no longer come “From the North”. New companies like London Weekend, Yorkshire and Harlech would be taking their early steps, coming out blinking into the sunlight.

As a seven year old, I didn’t want anything to change, but the novelty of seeing new idents and programmes was soon replaced by confusion and disappointment at first, and, later, a sense of excitement. And all because there was a strike on.

It began around the last full week of Granada in the North, when my mother complained vociferously (and rather profanely) that “Coronation Street” had been blanked out for nearly half the episode. I thought it was a breakdown, not uncommon in those days, but it was mentioned in the papers that an industrial dispute had taken place at Granada’s studios in Manchester.

At the time, technical staff belonging to the Association of Cinematograph, Television and Allied Technicians (ACTT) were staging a number of “guerrilla strikes” in some ITV regions, as previous agreements on their pay and working conditions were due to run out on July 29th, 1968, and there had been no further talks with the either the existing incumbents or new franchisees.

According to the Independent Television Companies Association, the union’s demands included an increase in pay of seven per cent (above what was referred to as “automatic cost of living provision”), a reduction in working week from 40 to 35 hours, and four weeks paid holiday a year.

Alan Sapper, the deputy general secretary of ACTT, said that the ITCA statement did not give the complete picture, as many of his members worked a 37-hour week, and many members in London already received four weeks holiday.

But I did not know all this at the time. All I knew was that the odd advertisement didn’t go out, and was sometimes replaced by captions like “this programme continues in a few minutes” or, as I recall, a blank screen.

Gaps between the programmes became longer and longer and I recall that to fill some of the pauses, one or two cartoons were shown, mainly “Road Runner”, and my dad was pleased to see “Saber Of London”.

Eventually, the wider effects started to become apparent.

Thames Television’s first night was ruined by the strike, with their peaktime contribution to the network being the first part of “Cooper- King Size” but not the second. No documentary, and no “News At Ten”, just captions and music.

Through that week, it seemed that there were still no commercials, although at least the programmes went out, and for a few days all appeared to be well.

However, I remember the ITN bulletin, which said that if the ACTT did not stop their industrial action, they would be classed as “dismissed”.

Alan Sapper was on record as saying that this threat was being taken seriously, and “day-to-day” decisions were taken on industrial action.

A slight diversion here, from my recollection as a viewer, to the account of a participant. Frank Muir recalled (in his book “A Kentish Lad”) that he presented the very first programme live from London Weekend Television studios in Wembley, “We Have Ways of Making You Laugh”.

The show went very well, and as Muir relaxed apres-show, leaning on a camera, producer Humphrey Barclay told him that the show hadn’t gone out, but he had kept everyone performing in case they had been switched back on.

At this bombshell, the cameraman threw his headphones on the floor in temper, Muir mollified him by saying “Never mind, we’ll do it again next week”.

An indefinite strike had been called, following action taken at Tyne Tees where six ACTT members were sent home for refusing to transmit a replacement for the lost LWT programme, and two technicians were sent home from Thames after “Today” had been blacked out.

It was a war of nerves between ACTT and the ITV companies, neither of whom were willing to compromise. In each region, the effects of the dispute varied, but the executives were now operating studio equipment, and everything, for the moment, seemed to be near normal.

Back to my reminiscences. I was watching the telly when I saw David Hamilton announcing once more. I assumed that as the “new ITV” couldn’t cut it, ABC was back. What had happened was that all ITV output was now coming from the old ATV facilities in Foley Street, London, and I saw a not-very inviting caption saying “Independent Television National Service” which seemed to explain it all.

Sure, children’s programmes went out okay for a few days, but there were advertisements for things we’d never heard of (one was a Wall’s Ice Cream product, not available in the area).

Programmes were pulled off the shelf to fill time. A lot of material was transmitted in what appeared to be rough-cut form (my dad says, to this day, that “Never A Cross Word” went out with a number of blips in the editing, like fluffed lines, but I can’t confirm this).

It was noted that American programmes and feature films were more plentiful, and there was certainly a limited news service. One clear memory is that of Ted Ray and Kenneth Williams on David Frost, who were asked by the host to ad-lib, because the sets could not be used, and the “World Of Sport” background was still up in the studio.

As regards sport and outside broadcasts, everything was cancelled. The Liverpool Echo valiantly tried to keep up with the scheduling, but more often than not items were changed.

One Monday in August, “Scrooge” was shown in lieu of another film, and after the 10pm news, an Abbott and Costello movie was shown. Another unscheduled feature was introduced – the Gremlins – and, believe me, they were a regular mainstay of that short period.

One commercial break occurred where all of the advertisements ran backwards at high speed, with no sound (which had a rather comic effect when a short spot for McDougall’s Flour showed the cake fall instead of rise).

The Gremlins struck again when the duty announcer would announce a programme, and then interrupted by a ringing phone or a hastily passed scrap of paper saying that there was a last-minute change. I loved watching this all unfold before my very eyes – an ITV station with a human touch!

Interestingly, Channel Television was the only company not to lose money during this period. A special agreement between themselves and ACTT enabled them to keep the service running, with their own local programmes and advertisements between the programmes taken from the National Network.

This was because ACTT realised that industrial action would actually damage and close Channel TV’s operations for good.

After about two weeks, an agreement was finally reached between the unions and the Independent Television companies. Not before time, either as the advertisements were fewer, revenue was lost, the programme supply was drying up, and the viewing nation’s patience was wearing thin.

By this time, £500,000 had been lost in advertising revenue, but an important point had been proved on both sides. The unions managed to negotiate their employment rights, and the executives had managed to keep the service on the air, despite a number of efforts to prevent them from doing so.

There have been strikes since, most famously the ITV strike of August-October 1979, which saw the whole network off the air for ten weeks, and the TV-am dispute of 1987 which once again saw a management-maintained service take on the unions, who this time lost.

But somehow, that brief period of elegant chaos brought a truly national ITV channel to every home in the country, with a certain air of unpredictability and verve. When Granada eventually came back on the air, I was so bored that I went out and played football in the garden. Even when it rained.

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Liverpool, Thursday 25 April 2024