Southwest blues 

24 May 2004

Distorted TSW logo

The last day of December 1992 is a day that will live in infamy in broadcasting.

It saw the end of TV-am, it saw Thames being consigned to the realm of independent productions, and it saw the last day of the second ITV licencee to have served South West England and the last day of broadcasting from Derry’s Cross, in the centre of Plymouth.

The building is now home to a firm of solicitors, although there is a sign of the building’s past. A plant room towards the back of the building bears a sign that says “TELEVISION SOUTH WEST”. Incidentally, in the same area is a cinema that carries the ABC Cinemas brand and uses a full colour ABC shield logo, a reminder of the fourth contractor to come on air back in 1956.

On that December night, 31 years of broadcasting from Derry’s Cross was being wrapped up as a new company, Westcountry Television, was about to take over the franchise that it had won back in 1991. It had come as a big surprise to the people at TSW, but having read the proposal documents, I knew Westcountry had the better proposals and they won with a higher bid. TSW had tried to challenge it through the courts, but ended up losing out and were now facing their final curtain.

Nobody quite knew what to expect from the newcomer. TSW had started out as brash and bold and had slowly changed to become what many called “Son of Westward”, what most people felt Westward Television would have become anyway, had it not been replaced by TSW.

TSW had taken over almost everything Westward had held dear, except for the Galleon and Peter Cadbury. But Westcountry were not originally planning to take over anything TSW had, although some of the presenters did transfer over with different roles, such as Ron Bendell, TSW’s farming presenter, who oddly became Westcountry TV’s weatherman.

The transfer was supposed to take place at midnight, but things didn’t quite go according to plan as during one of the programmes during the evening before the switch was due to happen, a quick burst of Westcountry suddenly came through, about three and a bit hours too early.

If memory serves correctly, it was their first ident that was to be used for the introduction to the film that would follow their introduction at midnight. It was on screen for several seconds, just long enough for the jingle to be played through, and, horror of horrors, we got a sneak preview of the first Westcountry continuity announcement. This sneak didn’t like it at all. It was pre-recorded.

At that moment, I felt my heart sink. I had hoped that this fairly momentous occasion would befit a live announcement and a live welcome. Unfortunately, I had a bad feeling that I was going to be sorely disappointed. This unexpected early development had left me with a very bad taste in the mouth.

The ident itself was not the main source of my worry. In fact, the ident looked promising. It looked like an upper case W had been cut of a sheet of glass, and behind the sheet was a scene that is quite familiar to those of us who live in the southwest – waves crashing out to sea. These were fair size waves crashing, so it wasn’t a quiet scene. There was definite potential in this ident style.

What didn’t agree with me was: if this announcement was recorded, what was to stop other announcements being recorded?

What would happen if something went wrong? Would there be a set of recorded announcements waiting to cover the gap? What about if a programme failed to show? What kind of announcements could be recorded to cover that kind of gap?

It would be easy for a live announcer to start talking about programmes on later that day or maybe the following day. But that would be something difficult to replicate in a recorded announcement, not least because it is a fixed length.

A live announcer could bring an announcement to an appropriate close at the right moment, when the show re-appears, something very difficult to achieve with recorded announcements.

Of course, even at this early stage, prior to the first official announcement, there was room for things to change. Not a lot of room, just a couple of hours, but still, it had to be a minor source of embarrassment, for your first announcement to appear on screen hours before your official launch. Not exactly something to be proud of.

Still, I filed the incident into my memory and made preparations for midnight. I was hoping that the launch of the new station would be properly marked.

Certainly, in my mind, there was very much an air of poignancy about the final announcement from TSW. Ian Stirling, who had started at Westward many years previously and Ruth Langsford, who had only come to public attention during the TSW years, sat there side by side on the sofa. That item of furniture had been very much a symbol of how continuity at TSW had evolved over the years.

The pair said their goodbyes with the grace and professionalism, and the warmth and friendliness that we had come to expect from TSW and their predecessor, Westward. Indeed, the whole episode where TSW tried to get the ITC’s decision overturned had seemed very out of character for a station that was very proud of its professionalism and public service credentials.

As Big Ben tolled midnight, most of the southwest – an area with a strange, historical affinity with local television – held a collective breath, wondering what would replace TSW.

What we got was interesting – to say the least. A videotape sequence of fireworks and promotion for the new station, Westcountry. In life, first impressions count. It was obvious what Westcountry wanted their first impression to be from the launch promotion, a slick, professional, technological operation that was a whole world apart from what we were alleged to be used to from TSW.

Unfortunately, my first impressions came not from their scheduled launch, which incidentally went without a hiccup, but from their unintentional preview a few hours earlier, which told me more about the station than I really wanted to know.

There was no sense of the station being a service, merely a broadcaster. The station itself was only handling their own news and sports coverage, everything else was being offered out to independents, so it only truly felt like half a station to me, much in a sense like Channel 4 did and still does feel like today.

In a sense, it felt like someone wanted to emulate Channel 4, without thinking what that truly meant, and had obviously not prepared for what might happen if they couldn’t. They did seem truly unprepared for the realities of broadcasting.

Over the years, Westcountry did improve, but it took time, and changes were already being planned that would remove the Westcountry name, and eventually lead to the entire network being known as ITV1. But that’s another story. The abiding memory of the early days of Westcountry was a station full of wondrous new ideas, unprepared to face the reality of broadcasting.

You Say

1 response to this article

Mark Gresham 26 May 2017 at 10:52 am

Westcountry’s bid was lower than TSW’s bid. TSW were, in fact, rejected because the ITC felt the bid was too high and unsustainable.

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