3 September 2005 tbs.pm/3457

One of the paradoxical truths of ITV’s evolution is that the channel’s early years – before the increase in regulatory structures which followed the Pilkington Report – anticipate what we have today more than some would like to admit.

Regulations prevented ITV from using a format that anticipates today’s digital shopping channels in 1970, 1980 and even in 1990, but it was happily using just such a format in 1960, in the days of the advertising magazine or “admag”.

The prize limit on game shows which remained in place until 1994 – ensuring that ITV in the 1980s was unable to give away such vast sums as were offered in bingo contests by the tabloid newspapers many of its viewers read – did not exist in the channel’s early days.

This enabled a contestant on “Twenty One” (Granada’s version of the rigged American show) to win £5,580 in 1958 – enough at the time to buy a house and a car – while another contestant also won over £5,000. Even without adjustment for inflation, these are still greater sums than a contestant could win on an ITV game show 30 years later, and in real terms they must be far, far greater.

Granada, for all its high-mindedness, was making shows like this – on another Granada show, “Criss Cross Quiz”, a contestant won £2,360, which still would have been a very respectable sum to win on a game show 30 years later – rather than its much later (1977-95) series “The Krypton Factor”, a tough test of intellectual and physical prowess which did not give away cash prizes and ran in contrast to the whole ethos of a purely commercially-driven society and broadcasting structure.

Granada - from the North

And just as it does today – but just as it didn’t do for most of its life – Granada made many of its most popular shows in London. As generally tended to happen in Britain before the Thatcher Revolution, attempts to fully convert the culture to pure, unbridled American-style commercialism were consistently scuppered by the old establishment. This was done generally in the form of the post-Pilkington 1963/4 Television Acts, or specifically in the case of, say, Crossroads episodes-per-week being reduced (thus undermining Lew Grade’s aim to recreate the daily American daytime soaps in the UK). The moneymen have only had the full run of the place in very recent years, but they would almost certainly have gone much further in the past had they been allowed to.

But the British society into which commercial television was born, 50 years ago, was so wildly different from that which exists today that a strategy of entryism – toning down the overt commercialism to become acceptable to the tastemakers and judges of “standards” who then had an influence that we can scarcely now imagine – seemed for many like the only possible option.

The influence of Captain Tom Brownrigg – with his talk of “balanced documentaries of the Right” – on Associated-Rediffusion can be exaggerated; the company was responsible for the unashamedly populist game shows “Take Your Pick” and “Double Your Money”, as well as the ground-breaking Daniel Farson documentaries which gave groups within society who were often swept under the carpet a chance to express themselves and put forward their position.

But the company’s determination to become respectable, to bring those who feared a mass degradation of public taste and morals on side, was evident in most of its activities, not least the staunchly militaristic start-up music it tended to use until its timely reinvention for a new era in 1964.

Tonight on Rediffusion

Some of the smaller companies followed A-R’s lead culturally, especially those like Southern and Anglia which broadcast to the more conservative (in all senses) areas of the UK.

Granada, on the other hand, tried its hardest to win the sympathies of the other group of people who instinctively opposed ITV, centred largely in the North: the idealistic socialists who believed that the British working classes should be raised “above” American and commercial influences.

The most prominent exponent of this movement at the time, Richard Hoggart, was a member of the Pilkington Committee, and as such had a strong influence on what many saw as the anti-ITV slant of the Pilkington Report in 1962.

But then there was ATV, which had little time for entryism or deference, and was always – especially in its London weekends incarnation – orientated towards pure entertainment.

That said, an early attempt to break through protocol associated with the establishment was scuppered. For the first two years that the Royal Variety Show was televised, in 1960 and 1961, ATV had exclusive rights, but at the insistence of Bernard Delfont a rotation system was then adopted where the BBC and ATV would broadcast the event in alternate years, much to Lew Grade’s chagrin.

An ATV Production

The company’s role – largely self-allocated and self-defined – was to ease the transition from the earlier British mass working-class culture, rooted in the music hall and variety traditions, to the more individualistic, US-based mass consumer culture which was to replace it. It was as if ATV, with one foot in the past and another in the future, wanted to make the change as easy as possible: it saw itself, so to speak, playing midwife to the transition.

Right from the start, “Sunday Night at the London Palladium” was the core of ATV’s strategy. It began with ITV itself in 1955, at a time when the overall air of austerity and scarcity had still not fully lifted; what was the skiffle boom of 1956/7, after all, but the last expression of that mood, with its washboards deputising for proper instruments? By the same token, skiffle’s rapid decline was down largely to the increased affluence, which had already set in by 1958, making it seem outmoded and primitive almost overnight.

And its original host represented ATV’s debt to mass entertainment past, in the person of Tommy Trinder, a major star since the war years. At this time, the music hall and variety traditions were just about stumbling on, with a number of well-known theatres going through their final years of existence; Roy Hudd, who was born as late as 1936, certainly caught the end in his early years as a performer.

It was in September 1958, as the consumer boom took hold, that Bruce Forsyth became the show’s new host. Indeed, the most-watched Palladium show ever, in January 1960, brought together the two most enduring people in the field of British popular entertainment, Bruce Forsyth and headliner Cliff Richard: the only figures in their respective territories to have had major successes in each of the six decades from the 1950s to the 2000s.

Forsyth himself hosted the most recent of several revivals of the Palladium format as recently as 2000. The show still looms large as a presence in television history echoing into the present.

Yet even as it anticipated the future in some senses, and featured the top pop acts of the day, the Palladium of the late 50s and early 60s was still full of old- school variety and showbiz elements which are rooted in a bygone tradition and have dated so badly that they are virtually unwatchable for many viewers today. This fact is crucial to ATV’s dynamic.

The period around 1960 remains a pivotal moment in terms of the relationship between Britain and the United States, the nature of British popular culture, and the wider fabric of British culture itself.

Concurrently with the cancellation of the Blue Streak missile (soon to be replaced by the US-developed Polaris defence system, which many believe convinced Charles de Gaulle that Britain did not belong in the Common Market), a whole generation of very distinctively British radio shows all seemed to come to an end at almost exactly the same time, including “The Goon Show”, “Ray’s A Laugh”, “Take It From Here” and “Educating Archie”, while the long-standing print comic “Radio Fun” creaked to a halt, forced to reprint American “Superman” strips as a desperate last-gasp measure.

Moss Empires closed all their theatres, effectively bringing the music hall and variety traditions to a close. Import tariffs had already been lifted, early in the glorious summer of 1959, bringing cheap consumer goods and cheaper still American films and records on to the market.

Towards the end of that heatstroked period, which must have seemed wonderfully untypical of the time, President Eisenhower visited the UK and broke into the TV schedules for live conversations with Harold Macmillan at 10 Downing Street; such was the success of this visit that Macmillan immediately called an election, which was won with a landslide during one of Britain’s warmest and sunniest autumns in history.

It was at this turning point that ATV’s success became apparent – it was making the drift from the old culture to the new appear seamless and much less of a dramatic turn that it would have seemed otherwise.

The one image that best sums the company up is the two fonts used on stage for the “Beat the Clock” competition, saved for all time on the famous Bruce Forsyth/Norman Wisdom two-hander Palladium show broadcast on 3rd December 1961. The backdrop to the set has the look of an old-time British variety theatre, as does the font that appears on it, while the font on the front of the stage has a look of classically seductive American ease and affluence about it (notably, it is written entirely in lower case).

In this piece of symbolism we find a mirror not only for the cultural position of one company, but also for the cultural position of Britain itself at the time.

ABC, meanwhile, represented a sort of halfway house between ATV and Granada, making a point of reflecting working-class life and social conditions in its “Armchair Theatre” series (initially the powers at ATV were very resentful that they had to show “Armchair Theatre”, and they only really accepted it when it became a fixture in the Top 10 ratings during the 1959-60 season), while presenting a more cosmopolitan picture of the North than Granada did, much less concerned to appease residual socialist Puritanism.

As we moved inexorably on through the 1960s and then into the colour era, ITV became more and more a fact of life, part of the furniture of British culture and society. This was despite the fact that many parents, most of whom ironically voted for the party that had brought the commercial channel into being, still banned their children from watching it.

In the 1980s Central, born out of ATV when the IBA had finally had enough of the company putting two fingers up to the regulator’s insistence on regionalism, carried on ATV’s spirit as the leader of Americanisation in British TV. Central notably launched “Blockbusters” as the UK’s first daily quiz and gave us the unprecedented brashness of “The Price is Right”, which also pushed right at the edges of the IBA’s prize limits.

But if that lineage endured, poised to become the new mainstream officially approved culture once the Broadcasting Act of 1990 was on the statute books, the old entryism was rapidly dying out – a trend which reflected social and cultural changes in British society as a whole.

The last hurrah of A-R’s lineage of entryism was represented by Southern Television, which throughout its existence remained as determined as ever to render itself acceptable to those who most naturally feared commercialism.

In the intense class-war atmosphere of the late 1970s – typified by the decision of one of the original participants in Granada’s “7 Up” project to leave the series after the 21st-birthday instalment in 1977, because he felt that the questioning was biased against his upper-class background – Southern increased its already strong networked children’s output.

And it is easy to imagine that, after “Grange Hill” had created among much of the middle class a sense that the BBC had betrayed its “own” people, Southern may have intensified the essential traditionalism of much of its work, producing an admittedly theoretically updated version of “The Famous Five” (any Enid Blyton adaptation represented, by definition, two fingers to those – generally on the Left – who were condemning Blyton’s work as a malign, negative, backward and socially reactionary influence) and a reworking of “Worzel Gummidge”, which had been a stalwart of BBC Radio’s Children’s Hour decades before.

See it on Southern

“Brendon Chase”, an adaptation of a New Forest-set novel by B.B., whose real name was Denys Watkins-Pitchford, which began shortly after the announcement in December 1980 that Southern had lost its franchise, was a more sophisticated variant, based around source material of greater literary merit, of essentially the same cultural territory.

It was only at the beginning of 1982 – an appropriate moment, as the early opposition to Thatcherism from within the Tory party was steadily ground down – that this increasingly-outmoded entryism finally came to an end with the arrival of TVS, an ambitious company (despite their bizarre, somewhat parochial and jarring insistence on using the full name “Television South” in regional continuity between 1985 and 1987) whose 80s rise and early 90s fall are almost stereotypically symptomatic of the boom/bust cycle in that period.

In December 2004, the Northam studios in Southampton – opened in 1968, though Southern had been using a converted cinema on the same site since their inception 10 years before that – were finally decommissioned as the remains of what had once been Meridian Broadcasting moved to an archetypal faceless and placeless out-of-town site.

Immediately after this, ITV broadcast its annual Record of the Year poll, in which three out of the top four hits were by acts who had been wholly or partially educated in the private sector: yet further proof that the middle and, increasingly, even the upper classes now have to bow down to the mass-entertainment criteria set out by the likes of Lew Grade if they want any success in terms other than archaic, played- out ones.

The next day, a British Asian won the BBC’s spelling competition for 11 to 14-year-olds and a black Briton won the 2004 series of Mastermind – precisely the sort of cultural territory that is naturally dominated by the white middle classes but which they have sacrificed on the altar of the market economy, and absolute proof, when put in the context of the Record of the Year results, that it is not “immigrants” who have destroyed the old bourgeois culture. The utter success of the ITV Project – if we may call it that – suddenly became clearer than ever.

That is the thing about early ITV; it was socially revolutionary, and we are daily reminded of its victory. And it might just be that the ultra-commercialism of modern ITV, even if it contrasts dramatically with the values that much of the channel’s output aspired to (or, perhaps, was forced to aspire to) for much of its history, is a truer and more logical descendant of ITV’s early years than many of us are prepared to admit.

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