A Post Office genre 

1 January 2002 tbs.pm/1718

BBC Television Service 'Bats Wings' symbol by Abram Games

In the days of two channel, black and white television in the UK, and well before colour or BBC2 complicated the picture, all broadcasting was regulated in the name of ‘good government’.

The powers that were, generally under the thumb of the upper middle class establishment, still took the view that television, though a good thing in principle, should be rationed. It was thought that ‘too much television’ would probably sap the moral fibre of the nation, not to mention affecting factory productivity.

There was also the view when Independent Television arrived in 1955, that it needed to be restrained, to prevent the incursion into the UK of too much ‘American style’ commercial vulgarity. Britain had recently emerged from the second world war, a corporatist state, nominally capitalist, but psychologically socialist. Rationing of food and clothes had only recently ended, and the free market, such as it was, appeared limited. Above all, the famous British sense of ‘fair play’ dictated that the BBC should be protected from an assault that it might be unable to counter financially.

This last view was a fair one, as the BBC was cash limited by licence fee income – while Independent Television might potentially be rolling in enough cash to be on the air all day – which the BBC could not have afforded to match.

BBC 'Angels Wings' tuning signal by Abram Games

The GPO, in the person of the Postmaster General, being the ‘sponsoring Ministry’ for broadcasting, thus specified a maximum number of hours that television might broadcast each day. Which hours were used was up to the companies themselves, but with the exception of a short unsuccessful period of morning television for London housewives in 1955, weekday hours pretty soon settled down to being ‘evenings only’ based on an average of about seven hours per day.

The weekend arrangements varied, as sports, outside broadcasts, religious services and (later) adult education programmes did not count towards the totals. These received a waiver from the GPO, which amounted to a ‘nod and a wink’ to the broadcasting authorities, allowing longer hours at the weekend, and to a limited extent on certain weekday afternoons, where schools broadcasting later filled some additional space.

Britain was a paternalistic country in those days, with a rigid class structure, in which those in power decided what was ‘good for’ the masses. Although we hear similar complaints now, the extent of the paternalism was far greater at that time, and in broadcasting, was based on the Reithian ethos that the BBC had built up over its first thirty years.

The stage was set for transmissions to be construed, not as a full service like today, but as a ‘bundled package’ of entertainment, aimed at the whole family, who would watch television as a group in the evening, almost within a notion of ‘an evening out, at home’.

The Perfect Television Family - 1950s style

The curtain would rise at teatime, and fall at bedtime. The experience had more in common with the theatre, than with broadcasting.

The original Independent Television companies took a very prominent responsibility for what they were broadcasting, and they promoted themselves every bit as much the BBC, as being ‘full broadcasting companies’, expecting to exist in perpetuity, rather than the mere ‘channels’ of today.

In this setting, the personalities of the individual companies were paramount. Whether dour and northern like the original Granada, cultured and paternalistic like Associated-Rediffusion, light and showbizzy like Lew Grade’s ATV, or cosmopolitan and sophisticated like ABC, all had an image to portray, and a corporate identity to promote.

With limited transmission hours, and a teatime start that most viewers would see daily, the stage was set for the promotion of company identity on a grand scale. When regional companies were added to the mix, with their own particularly territorial concerns, the formula was complete.

Into this scene comes the GPO, instructing the fledgling ITA on matters of licensing, regulation and definition of territory. The British civil service mentality came into play, and specified in the first set of ITA regulations, that each company would require a unique signature tune for the commencement of daily transmission.

The BBC Lion - a symbol of The Establishment

To some extent this built on the BBC move of 1946, who had commissioned the composer Eric Coates to write a ‘BBC Television March’ for daily transmission. Once in the hands of GPO civil servants however, writing the first rules for the ITA in 1955, this pleasant habit was turned into a requirement for each contractor to ‘register’ an official piece of company identity music.

Looked at from today’s political perspective this may all seem very state corporatist, and even Orwellian. At the time, it seemed a natural form of regulation for what was expected by some to be a source of down market vulgarity.

Far from turning out to be a tiresome formality however, the British flair for compromise ensured that daily transmissions from ITA companies soon became noted among the viewing public for the daily flourish with which they burst onto the screen. Impressive filmed graphics, usually involving the respective companies trade marks rotating, pulsating or merely offering a ‘brooding presence’ filled the screen in iconic fashion, as dramatic themes were heard.

Proud new broadcasting companies, in a two channel environment, all began to regard themselves as being as much a part of the establishment as the BBC, and engaged composers of repute to provide exclusive pieces for their daily use – to promote the corporate identity of the companies concerned every bit as much as to satisfy the whims of GPO civil servants.

What was achieved was beyond the wildest dreams of the companies. A complete new genre, building on the back of film, radio signature tunes, marches and British light melody – to create a specialist canon of work, to serve a corporate purpose, combined with often moving graphics, the effect was mesmeric, and worked in causing viewers to recognise ‘their company’.

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