Drowning Flipper 

1 September 2001 tbs.pm/1786

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Britain was once a highly unionised country. The Trades Unions Congress was shown live on national television. All newspapers had Industrial Relations correspondents. No directive was issued from Downing Street without at least the T&GWU being consulted or at least informed. The unions were an ex-officio branch of the UK government.

In the television industry, the end of this status was long and drawn out. Like all related industries, the unions of the past held broadcasting in a rigidly demarcated grasp, and the sudden change in the nature of society and industry took them by surprise.

At TV-am, the textbook definition of union-busting raised its head as soon as the previously loss-making company began to turn a profit.

For reasons too complex to go into now, industrial unrest was followed by a management lock-out and the eventual redundancy of most of the workforce.

On-screen, a masterful display of unusual happening paraded before the eyes of this primary school-aged early morning television watcher. For a start, the management took over from camera crews, vision mixers, VTR operators and a host of other technical positions.

If nothing else, it proved how good the technicians were. Badly-framed shots from the wrong cameras flashed up on screen. The previously unseen world of colour bars, VT clocks, IBA emergency captions and long, excruciating pauses that would have shocked Pinter were all on display. TV-am was falling apart in front of my eyes, and mine eyes had seen the glory.

For reasons I was only dimly aware of, TV-am started late, finished early and was suddenly chock-full of American filmed series and filler material. The live inserts were conducted with presenters unaware of cues, correct captions eluding them, lights mysteriously failing, celebrity guests absent and the air of rising panic always noticeable below the still-professional exterior of our morning hosts.

I was delighted, seeing an emergency service in full swing and getting as much crappy entertainment fillers as they could shovel into me. The combination of the two, with tapes suddenly running backwards, drowning the ever-annoying Flipper, or falling off air completely leaving a confused presenter to desperately fill in with little or no feedback from a panicking gallery, was nothing more than manna to a budding television enthusiast.

When the lock-out ended and staff returned to run the station on lower wages with worse terms and conditions, the fun went out of it all. Normal programming was dull in comparison, never more so than on an ordinary morning on TV-am. I was soon drawn into watching BBC Breakfast News and later the Channel 4 Daily, both now also gone.

It strikes me now that you can still see VT clocks and the like cropping up on ITV. Only now it is the result of incompetence, or of underpaid and undervalued staff behaving as you would expected them to. The magic of a good emergency strike service has now gone, forever.

You Say

2 responses to this article

Alan Keeling 29 August 2014 at 8:55 pm

As well as poor reddish 16mm prints of Flipper, there was also Batman & Nanny and the Professor.

Joanne Gray 19 October 2015 at 9:15 pm

Nanny and the Professor? I remember watching the strike affected tvam output, but that’s one filler I must have missed.

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