Come Back Lew 

1 September 2001

I have just finished watching a video from ATV from 1969, and after it was finished, I started to think, oh dear, here I go again…

The show was “This is Tom Jones”, an ATV spectacular with a real superstar and all round entertainer. As the video started, interlocking circles of three colours appeared and then, as if by magic, formed into the ATV logo. That was onlythe first thing I noticed

Fast forward to today and there is no opening logo, no official start to a programme as such. Rewind to the golden age amd the star of the show was a superstar. Fast forward back to today and learn there are really no superstars on TV anymore.

So I started to compare then and now and how times have changed. That ATV opening logo was designed, like all ITV idents, with hours of work with paintbrushes and little bits of coloured paper to form some amazing images.

Today we don’t bother with opening logos and all idents computer generated and are not on a par with the past. Original and imaginative idents are out the door today.

In the international TV spectacular show, the giant Elstree studios were used. Today, very little variety is produced, and thus there is no need for studios like Elstree. In the programme’s opening credits, a cameraman on a large pulley produced a brilliant camera angle.

The pulley was high in the roof of the studio, and dropped to the floor, panning in on the star in one single shot. It was an amazing camera shot, brilliant direction, and I have not seen a camera angle like that for nearly 30 years. And you won’t in today’s downmarket productions.

As the star of the show performed, behind him was a full 40-piece orchestra with Jack Parnell conducting brilliant arrangements. It was television at its very best. Then I remembered that today’s television does not have full orchestras.

Instead only a six piece ensemble of drums, electric guitar, trumpet, trombone, keyboard (electronic, of course) and a saxophone to give the band, “a brassy fuller sound”. Of course a six-piece ensemble can not replicate a full orchestra. How cheap we have let our productions become.

Another ATV video I found was a Reg Varney 30-minute weekly show. The star of LWT’s On The Buses had a variety show on ATV, where he sang, danced and played piano. What backbone this star had, whilst today, some TV stars can hardly speak English, let alone entertain.

Then I found a tape of 30 minutes of stand up comedy in ‘The Comedians’, with some of the UK’s top club circuit entertainers. It was bellyachingly funny, and the audience in the Granada studios were wiping the tears from their eyes with their handkerchiefs, as I was at home. I realised I was actually being entertained.

Today you don’t see studio audiences crying with real laughter? It was feelgood entertainment, with high production values.

As I archived these special productions away, I researched the variety shows of ITV and BBC of the mid- to late 1980s. The great TV stars were starting to die and television had nothing to replace them with. London Weekend Television changed direction and created shows such as ‘Hale and Pace’.

The BBC had an alternative in ‘Smith & Jones’. These were specially created TV celebs, designed to replace the ailing stars of yesteryear. The style of TV entertainers was changing forever.

With very little new talent to look forward too, the stations looked to those remaining stars to create one-off specials, rather that weekly variety shows. London Weekend Television producing ‘An Audience With…’ was the occasional special variety contribution to the network. ‘An Audience with… Ken Dodd’ was a sad reminder of television past.

The star performed some of his best sidesplitting gags television’s golden years. A new generation watched and found it was funny, but that generation had to rely on television material thirty years old. To Ken Dodd’s credit, it was funny stuff and entertaining, but for London Weekend it was hardly imaginative or inspirational.

There was nothing special about the set or production. What London Weekend relied on was the talent and wit of Ken Dodd himself to make the show a success, which he did with aplomb.

The same can be said about television presentation. Sitting in the audience for the Ken Dodd special was David Hamilton, and his golden voice was a reminder of the on-screen announcements that this polished performer used to make. Those continuity announcers have also died with the stars of yesteryear.

Granada nowadays, for example, will have an person out of vision announcing across its network covering Granada, Anglia, Border, Meridian, Tyne Tees, Yorkshire and LWT. This saves money but makes the stations a harder, generic brand. No longer the warm and fuzzy feeling David Hamilton personalised.

As a 10-year-old I use to write to the TV stations to get a copy of their current logo. I have a letter from a manager at Windows Media Clip ATV, begging me not to write any more letters to him, as “just as I go to answer your letter, another one arrives”. What I was after was the ITV for Schools and Colleges caption, with the three circles interlocking in a similar fashion to ATV’s logo.

To shut me up he sent me a caption in which the painstaking hours of work were clearly visible. A paintbrush and Letraset had visibly transferred an idea onto a board – another reminder of the efforts going into presentation, even for schools.

As television productions go more downmarket and the stars of yesteryear are no more, and as continuity has changed for the worse, we have very little in the way of entertainment to look forward to, both from superstars and high quality productions of the type few of us can remember.

Perhaps television today needs a new Lew Grade, prepared to take risks, to use great imagination, to be someone who will put programmes and presentation first and profits second, and let audiences once more look forward to sitting down around the box about to be entertained. Is there a TV mogul in the house?

A Transdiffusion Presentation

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