About Britain 

1 January 2003 tbs.pm/1869

ITV1 is now to all intents and purposes a national channel, with very little regional variation. Its regional outlets make fewer programmes than previously and soon any notional regional branding and logos will be seen only before the local news.

Television has changed a great deal since fledgling ITV was launched in London, 47 years ago on 22nd September 1955. The loss of regional centres of excellence providing programmes for the national network and the consequent homogenisation of output is a national tragedy in cultural terms.

At the start of ITV, Associated-Rediffusion and ATV in London were soon joined by a second variant of ATV in the midlands, as well as ABC Weekend and Granada Television. These founding companies, split in different ways over four ‘central’ regions, were the nucleus of what was to become an ITV network of initially 14, and then, post-1968, 15 companies.

Enter the Big Four

A-R, ABC, both ATVs and Granada made the bulk of the shows seen on ITV and were known as “the Big Four”. Post-1968 Yorkshire Television was added as to become the new kid on the block. Thames Television was created as a new joint subsidiary of Rediffusion London and ABC Weekend on a 49/51% basis respectively; there were now five “majors”.

These contractors, as they were known in those days, were located in Manchester, Birmingham, London and Leeds. The main reason they supplied most of ITV’s programmes over the years was that their higher population regions generated sufficient advertising revenue to cover the necessary costs of programmes of network quality.

The “larger of the smaller” companies, including Anglia and Southern due to their income, had some additional capacity to contribute to the network, and the companies for Scotland, Wales and Ulster were expected to reflect the “National Concerns” for their areas.

All of the Independent Television Authority (ITA) – later Independent Broadcasting Authority (IBA) – contractors had regional responsibilities, in that they were required to produce news, sports, arts, religious, children’s and often schools’ programmes or adult educational material in and for their own areas. At various times across the years, contracts to provide regional ITV services were re-advertised and re-awarded. In some cases the sitting programme provider in a region was retained and on rare occasions some lost out to new applicants.

Income and rental

The companies paid an annual rental to the ITA/IBA, which was graded according to the audience size of the area that they served, and thus took account of potential income from advertising. The regions occupied by the Big Four and the later Big Five stations generated sufficient income to make the majority of programmes for ITV. Under this system companies like ATV would pay millions of pounds to the ITA, while the smaller stations like Ulster forwarded a few thousand pounds, and the smallest of all, Channel Television, was considered a special case and paid a rental that many of us could afford from our salary.

The regional stations within ITV, especially the middle ranking ones, all dreamed of making and contributing programmes to the ITV network. However, the way the system operated generally gave them few opportunities to do so. They had to work hard at establishing good ideas and hope they might have a chance that their programmes would be seen outside of the region – at least part-networked – or even taken by the full national network.

There were extremely limited opportunities for the regional ITV stations to get programmes out nationally – and many of their eventual slots came about as a result of filling in gaps in ITV’s service. In the early days, British television used to closedown for over an hour in the early evening, so as to allow mothers to get children to bed on weekdays and not damage church attendance on Sundays. It was decided that this “closed” period could become useful on Sundays for religious programmes at least – and it was in this type of show that set many regional ITV stations to carving a niche.

Tree House Family - Jean Morton and friends

The formerly blank TV screens on Sundays from 6pm to 7.25 began to be filled with programmes. While many, such as “Sunday Break”, a youth club of the air, came from ABC Weekend TV, or the religious version of “Tingha and Tucker”, about two koala bears featuring Auntie Jean Morton as host, came from ATV – new shows such as ‘A Hymn for Britain’ were produced by Southern. Programmes such as “The Big Question” or “Who Were The British” came from Anglia and even the small stations like Ulster were able to present short films such as one on the famous manuscript ‘The Book of Kells’.

Education for all

ITV started to screen adult educational programmes from 10am on Sundays in early 1963, in addition to the church services at 11am, closing down again at about midday until afternoon programmes began around 2pm.

Regional ITV stations provided some of these Sunday services, in addition to the fixed number per year for the network agreed between ABC and ATV.

Often at Christmastime there would be a special networked Christmas Eve or Christmas Day service. One such service due to be transmitted live by Southern from Winchester Cathedral one Christmas morning in the late 70s never made it owing to a technicians strike and a handy recorded standby was used from another ITV company.

The only concession the “big four” made, in terms of granting a regional ITV station some time on the ITV network was when new ITV stations were rolling out during the late 195’s and into the 60s. As a new regional station was launched, on their opening night there would be a presentation from the new company, or at least a networked recording of a show they had filmed screened some time later.

In the case of Anglia Television, born on 27 October 1959, this was a live networked television drama, ‘The Violent Years’, with Hildegard Neff, Laurence Harvey and Margaret Leighton, and directed by Peter Graham-Scott. Then in December 1959, Anglia presented another live drama, called ‘Sweet Poison’, with John Ireland and Dawn Adams. It got fourth place in the ITV top twenty and a further drama from Anglia named ‘Carrington VC’ with Richard Todd and Dorothy Tutin was a big ratings success.

Making an impact

Anglia knew it had to make an immediate impact if it was to compete against the Big Four. It was fortunate in having Sir John Woolf of Romulus Films as founder member of its board and George More O’Farrell, who had directed the world’s first TV play, back in 1936, as its first head of drama. Anglia’s instant success at producing drama for ITV was courtesy of one of the Big Four, Associated-Rediffusion, who entered into an agreement to provide screening time for up to eight Anglia plays a year.

Therefore Anglia’s opening night network drama was credited as “An Anglia Television production networked by Associated-Rediffusion”. Anglia was keen to use its own resources and proved it could do so with its second networked outing, ‘Sweet Poison’. Some plays from Anglia continued to be networked by A-R until 1962, by which time Anglia’s excellent reputation was so established it was able to present networked ITV plays in its own right.

‘Saturday Night Theatre’ and ‘Armchair Theatre’ were two weekly strands on ITV in the 60s and early 70s, providing outlets for single plays of 60 or 90 minutes duration. The popularity of the single play, as forwarded by ABC’s Armchair Theatre, led to the regionals encouraging established and new writers to produce made-for-TV plays for themselves. The smaller stations like Ulster thus managed to gain the occasional network drama slots. UTV themselves did this with their film, ‘Boatman Do Not Tarry’. Constantly looking for new outlets to air their wares, the regional stations later turned their collective attention to children’s programming, and this was to provide them with a wealth of opportunities.

Southern became a major provider of children’s programmes in short order. Southern was not, unusually, a publicly quoted company – being entirely privately owned by the Rank Organisation, DC Thompson of Dundee and Associated Newspapers, owners of the Daily Mail newspaper.

Programmes for children

Southern managed to produce many excellent series. ‘How?’, a children’s factual series, became a national favourite, with Jon Miller, Fred Dinenage, Bunty James, and Southern’s Deputy Controller of Programmes, Jack Hargreaves, presenting the show.

Freewheelers, from Southern Independent Television

Jack took many young viewers with him as they followed his part-networked country series from Southern called ‘Out Of Town’. ‘Freewheelers’, ‘Runaround’, ‘Oliver in the Overworld’ and ‘The Black Arrow’ all came from the Southern stable.

‘Freewheelers’ provided ample opportunity to film around the seawaters of Southampton where Southern’s own boat, called The Southerner, came into its own.

Life was no bed of roses between the regionals and the Big Four/Five. At times, even established children’s programme makers like Southern faced insurmountable difficulties in getting excellent programmes accepted by the national network.

Once such battle developed over a network place for a pioneering series of youth information dramas named ‘Going Out’, made by Southern and written by the expert in teenaged angst, Phil Redmond. This series followed a group of teenagers as they tried to cope with the change from the shelter of the classroom to the harsh realities of the outside world. It was a six-parter produced and directed for Southern by Colin Nutley.

In spite of excellent scripts and the programme being modern and forward thinking, Southern encountered great difficulty getting a uniform ITV network slot for this series, even though their record in making programmes for children and young people went before them. The series was screened in October and November of 1981, but its transmission was split across the ITV network so each region saw it at different times.

Regional fragmentation

Needless to say this wide variation of screening times meant that the show did not get the national press coverage that it really deserved, as the viewing times were too fragmented for the features and listings pages of the national and regional press. Southern had to be grateful that this series, made under the auspices of it Head of Children’s Programmes Lewis Rudd, got a national screening of any sort at all.

The newest regional in 1968, Harlech Television, with both its West and Wales divisions, came along with a host of star names, including Stanley Baker, Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton, Geraint Evans, Harry Secombe and Wynford Vaughan-Thomas. Although Baker starred in ‘Fade Out’, a play screened in a Saturday Night Theatre slot in 1969 with Geoffrey Bayldon, and The Burtons later did two films, ‘Divorce His’ and ‘Divorce Hers’, these star names proved to be of little long term sustenance to Harlech and caused eyebrows to be raised about the system of obtaining ITV contracts by making promises alone. This was a controversy that was even greater in the case of the new ‘London Weekend’, whose litany of broken promises was to continue for the best part of three years into its contract.

It was in the field of children’s programmes that Harlech Television much later excelled and gained network commissions. ‘Arthur of the Britons’, ‘Sky’, and a series called ‘Smuggler’ – later joined by ‘Robin of Sherwood’ – were all produced by HTV West under Executive Producer Patrick Dromgoole.

Anglia Television also managed to have a share of the children’s market, when they networked a quiz series for children based on the similarly named natural history series, ‘The Survival Game’. They gained much more publicity for their networked 18-part serialisation of Kenneth Graham’s ‘Wind in the Willows’, set to the pictures of John Worsley, with words adapted and voice provided by producer/director Paul Honeyman.

Weavers Green

Anglia, in spite of its established reputation for successful drama production, encountered difficulties and opposition from the larger ITV network companies over the years. It was stubbornness and the key lack of interest of the bigger stations that effectively killed Anglia’s only ever attempt at a soap – the legendary ‘Weavers Green’.

Weavers Green in the north edition of the TVTimes

‘Weavers Green’ was launched in 1966 and ran twice weekly on Thursdays and Saturday or Sunday, depending on your region. It was a soap set in the countryside among animals, farmers and vets.

The weekday edition of ‘Weavers Green’ was popular, but the weekend one less so. In regions with split-week contracting, this lead to the unusual sight of a series split between the contractors. In the north, for example, Weavers Green was shown by Granada on Thursdays but by ABC on Sundays. This was a most unusual arrangement at the time.

Shot on location, using a mobile videotape unit, the drama featured Wendy Richard and Kate O’Mara. Unable to reach an accommodation over the less popular weekend edition with the Big Four, in defeat Anglia cancelled the show after little more than a year.

Ironically, history reveals that some years later ITV launched a very similar twice weekly networked countryside soap in ‘Emmerdale Farm’ from Yorkshire TV!

In 1975 Anglia encountered similar difficulties getting a simultaneous ITV network slot for its “mums army” World War Two comedy – ‘Backs To The Land’ Three women from wartime London were set to work as part of the Women’s Land Army on a Norfolk farm. Production was affected by a union dispute about sound dubbing and when it finally was ready for transmission the Big Five ITV stations could not agree an exact time slot. LWT and Anglia screened it on Friday nights, other regions on Saturday and Sunday and the giant ATV refused to screen it at all at first.

A sign of the times

‘Backs To The Land’ therefore did not get the exposure normally afforded to a national TV show. Nine ITV stations screened a second series on Friday evenings in 1977, but two of the Big Five stations, Granada and Yorkshire, went their separate ways with a similar pattern in 1978 when the third and final series was screened. The politicking of the big ITV stations against the regionals did not go unnoticed in the national press, when The Times commented, “‘Backs To The Land’ deserves to succeed but so did Weavers Green – the soap that similarly failed to get fully networked”

Even the smallest of the ITV stations at times tried hard to get an airing for some of the special programmes that they had made. Channel TV being the very smallest had probably one of the biggest tussles of the lot with the its giant brothers in ITV. In 1969, Channel had made a documentary called ‘The Bitter Years’, based on the Nazi occupation of the islands during World War Two. Amateurs had shot much of the film footage in secret at the time using 8mm and 16mm – and it had been stored in attics for 25 years.

Once the film was ready for transmission – the four of the Big Five with weekday contracts – Thames, ATV, Granada and Yorkshire – refused to screen it, on the pretext that they did not have the technical capacity to screen a 16mm film. This coming from Granada who had previously used much 16mm footage for its networked series with Brian Inglis, ‘All Our Yesterdays’. Thames later relented and screened the programme six months later at 6.30pm in the dead time of mid-summer.

A few years further forward in 1972, the extension of broadcasting hours opened up new opportunities for the regional ITV stations. On Mondays to Fridays at lunchtime a range of new programmes came on screen.

Over the years, Scottish TV presented ‘Scotch Corner’ with Andy Stewart, Anglia had ‘Country Hoedown’, and HTV and Border TV mixed their own brands of ‘Mr and Mrs’, a contest testing husbands and wives knowledge of each other. HTV’s version was presented by Alan Taylor, whilst at Border, the Assistant Controller of Programmes Derek Batey was the host. Batey also got his ‘Look Who’s Talking’ chat show from Border networked.

Regional soap brands

Southern TV got a look in edgeways with a trial soap called ‘Together’ set in a block of flats, and HTV Wales enjoyed a few seasons of another soap with a Welsh flavour ‘Taff Acre’. Tyne Tees beamed in during the early afternoons with Norman Vaughan in ‘Those Wonderful TV Times’, a nostalgic TV quiz.

‘About Britain’ became a new afternoon weekday slot and gave different regional ITV companies a chance to air half-hour documentaries which ranged from Jersey’s ‘Battle Of Flowers’ parade from Channel to films on Hadrian’s Wall from Tyne Tees. The idea of companies sharing programmes was not new, as Tyne Tees had entered an arrangement with Border, Yorkshire and Ulster to screen Farming Diary each Sunday in those regions at about 1.30pm.

Tyne Tees also made a current affairs series called ‘Face The Press’, for several weeks of each year. Mary Holland, George Ffitch and Peregrine Worsthorne would question live a key figure in the news at Tyne Tees studios. The first seasons were shown on Fridays at 10.30pm and the all-important London Weekend screened this Tyne Tees show, thus giving it vital London media exposure. Sound bites from ‘Face The Press’ ‘ made it to the national press headlines. When ITV rested Weekend World on Sundays in the summer, ‘Face the Press’ took its place as a natural filler.

Look Westward offers Prince Phillip on Face The Press

London Weekend was always very fair to the smaller regional stations. It screened most of ‘The Brian Connell Interviews’ from Anglia on Sunday afternoons. Connell was Anglia’s Programme Advisor and had earlier been a reporter on Associated-Rediffusion’s ‘This Week’ current affairs series.

London Weekend also screened ‘Look Up To The Stars’, a space exploration series from Ulster Television, produced by Andrew Crockheart. LWT provided generous time slots for Southern’s ‘Out Of Town’ country programme, presented by Deputy Programme Controller Jack Hargreaves – perhaps better known as the bearded pipe smoking regular on Southern’s ‘How?’.

Sex in the Highlands

When Grampian launched its sex education series for ITV schools, ‘Living and Growing’, London Weekend co-operated by screening an edition of the following week’s school programme, for London parents, at midnight on Sundays.

Another method of sharing programmes within a series, spawned by ‘About Britain’, was to found in religious programmes on a Sunday night, such as ‘Highway’, presented by Sir Harry Secombe. Launched in 1983, ‘Highway’ was officially a co-production between Grampian, HTV, Scottish, Ulster and Tyne Tees and co-ordinated initially under Rev Maxwell Deas, religious programme head at TTT’s Newcastle studios. Anglia, who presented the first and last of the hundreds of ‘Highway’ shows took over the running of the show under programme executive Malcolm Allsop.

Throughout the 60s, 70s and into the 80s under the ITA/IBA contract system, companies occasionally were replaced.

It was ironic that on Sunday, 28th December 1980, when Westward Television was screening a most rare two hour drama film about Sir Francis Drake with guest star John Thaw on the whole network from 3 until 5pm, another drama was unravelling behind the scenes. ITN broke into a commercial break to announce that “that large ATV and two ITV regionals Southern and Westward had not had their licences renewed by the IBA”. Restructured versions or new applicants had won licences in those areas.

Down the long ladder

This was the dawn of another era for British television, which would see daily start-ups, elongated idents and nightly closedowns coming to a gradual end thanks to breakfast television and, later, 24 hour broadcasting. All too soon ITV had a national directorate, to commission and plan programmes for primetime and commission trailers for the network.

It was still possible into the 1990s for the bigger regionals to sell their wares, including Scottish TV’s ‘Taggart’ series, Tyne Tees’s Catherine Cookson dramas, TVS’s Wexford thrillers, HTV’s ‘Wycliffe’ mysteries, and Anglia’s PD James thrillers and ‘Where The Heart Is’. The selection of programmes was, for a time, even made wider.

The power of the bigger companies had been watered down but the new centralised commissioning process and the fact that ITV was soon competing with former fellow-traveller Channel 4, followed by the new Channel 5 as well as a vibrant and active BBC, shifted the balance of power in programme-making from quality to quantity in audience terms. The Sky satellite network and cable providers became more of a force to be reckoned with and the audiences of twenty million for one play or series once regularly seen were rarely to be found again. The audiences, once so loyal, were now much more thinly spread across many niche channels.

The title of Channel 4 quiz ‘Fifteen To One’ has turned out prophetic in terms of ITV. Once 15 separate companies offered unique programmes and bartered for airtime and slots. Now this has virtually been whittled down to two groups, Carlton and Granada, both of whom are expected to merge in the foreseeable future, probably swallowing up the third segment of ITV, the Scottish Media Group (STV and Grampian) – with Ulster and Channel the last remaining independents.

ITV audiences fall ever lower as it strips the channel with lowbrow quiz formats such as ‘Who Wants To Be A Millionaire’, various “…from Hell” series and ‘Coronation Street’ almost nightly.

The centres of programme excellence in Norwich, Bristol, Cardiff, Southampton, Glasgow and Newcastle are gradually fading away under the relentless cost cutting and “shareholder value” imperatives of a new, younger management with no personal memories or knowledge of earlier years.

The friendly tensions and arguments of founding ITV barons – figures like Sir Lew Grade at ATV, Tommy Brownrigg and John McMillan at A-R, Sidney and Cecil Bernstein at Granada, Howard Thomas at ABC and Thames, Ward Thomas at Grampian and Yorkshire, and John Freeman at the revamped London Weekend are the magical essence now missing from Independent Television, in an era much more governed by ‘the bottom line’ than even Lew Grade would have required.

The smaller barons – Sir John Davis at Southern, Lord Buxton at Anglia, Lord Thompson at STV and Brum Henderson at Ulster – knocking on their bigger brother’s doors demanding a national platform for their programmes and fighting to get them – are now consigned to history.

Independent Television was unique in the world from the fifties to the early nineties, in combining regulated public service television with commercial profit. But now the magic formula is lost forever in the new free-market multichannel onslaught and it is the viewers who, ultimately, have paid for it.

You Say

3 responses to this article

Arthur Vasey 27 November 2014 at 1:25 am

Tyne-Tees’s Sunday afternoon farming programme was actually called Farming Outlook – hard to think of Tyne-Tees making programmes about farming, as there is little countryside to speak of, outside of Northumberland, as it was called..

As for Taff Acre, it only ran for one short season – part of a trial daytime soap experiment – Southern Television offered Together, set in a block of flats (interesting to note that a second season was commissioned – and broadcast live), HTV put Taff Acre in that slot (only lasted one season) – the only one that ITV kept was Take The High Road – and even that was, by the 1990s, pared down to one episode per week and some regions just discontinued it with no warning – the only region, apart from its makers, STV, to stick with it to the end, was Westcountry – having started on Westward, TSW continued to show it and Westcountry concluded it.

As to the About Britain strand – most of the smaller regions made programmes – they were often little more than travelogues, made in the regions largely for their own audience – but it was not uncommon to see people like Clive Gunnell walking round Devon and Cornwall in Walking Westward or something about The Great Little Trains Of Wales getting a network outing, without making them sound too parochial!

Harold Wilson 11 September 2017 at 4:18 pm


Tyne Tees TV broadcast a current affairs series called ‘Face the Press’ where politicians were grilled by journalists.

In March 1969 Enoch Powell MP was questioned by three journalists in a televised programme. One of the three journalists was the socialist firebrand and Shelly biographer, Paul Foot.

Whatever happened to the series? I do hope it’s in safe keeping somewhere. But wheere? I would like to know.

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