Why ITV Matters 1 

1 December 2005 tbs.pm/3485

Part 1 of a personal overview of fifty years of independent television, by ITV’s former Director of Programmes.

The late Jack Rosenthal started at Granada as a graduate trainee in 1955, when it was still a hut on a Manchester bombsite. He was there as the Quay Street studios went up and everyone was busy preparing for the launch of the service – first in the North West, then a few months later in Yorkshire. In 2003 he wrote of those earliest days of ITV:

Over the next few months, I began to think Granada was the most exciting place on earth. It probably was. The corridors bustled with Bright Young Things, clipboards in hand and stopwatches bouncing on bosoms. The air clanged in a Babel of colliding accents – Cambridge, Cockney, Canadian, Kensington, with the odd bit of Ardwick thrown in. The canteen shimmered with legendary, yellow-corduroyed whizzkids of West End stage and Silver Screen. Phones rang everywhere. Typewriters clattered. And the excitement went on well after home time. The New Theatre pub across the road throbbed, bulged and crackled with passions and ideas and anecdotes. But mostly with passions. Like a sort of Mancunian Club Med with clothes on.

Only a talent like Rosenthal’s can convey the special excitement of being part of something – as it seemed at the time – so momentous, involving, and full of promise. It’s the excitement that has motivated and energised generations of television workers since, but there was something else that characterised the upstart commercial challenger to the BBC’s monopoly. It was a different kind of experience. And a different kind of television.

Looking back, it’s hard to believe now that ITV had been going less than twenty years when I joined Granada as a humble promotions scriptwriter in 1975, starting on the bottom rung, doing a job that Jack Rosenthal and Tony Warren had done before me. Yorkshire had its own ITV company by then of course, establishing its own distinctive character with productions like Emmerdale Farm, Rising Damp and South Riding.

So it’s a special pleasure and honour for me, a Huddersfield lad and Granada graduate, to be asked to open this day in Bradford* to celebrate 50 years of what the policy-makers – in their desire to distance the newcomer from the taint of commercialism – called Independent Television.

It is a celebration because ITV’s achievements are many – and they are not all in the past. PR has never been one of ITV’s strengths and its influential friends in high places are few, so it gets more brickbats than bouquets. Catherine Johnson and Rob Turnock, authors of ITV Cultures: Independent Television Over Fifty Years are right when they refer to ITV as the ‘ugly sister of British broadcasting history’. The music hall to the BBC’s legitimate theatre, and always somehow a less respectable place to be. So it is for the people like you who have worked in and with it, or studied it at close quarters, to try and redress the deficit a little. Thanks to the National Museum of Photography, Film & Television, today’s reflection, discussion and viewing is an opportunity to do just that.

Fortunately, ITV’s rich and sometimes troubled history doesn’t easily lend itself to hagiography. This is just as well because the bad times are just as instructive – and sometimes as productive – as the good. The infelicities of its federal structure, the battles between the florid personalities who ran it over the years, have shaped its output and its legacy. I think it would be a mistake to assume that today’s ITV is wholly the product of the market, or the 2003 Communications Act. Or even the notorious 1990 Broadcasting Act. It owes more to an earlier past than we might think.

ITV made a difference that changed British television – I believe for the better – forever. But can it still make a difference in a time of media plenty? And can it still claim to be ‘People’s Television’, when our ideas of who people are, and what they want to watch, have changed so much since 1955?

To get to an answer, we need to start at the beginning.

Perhaps the most formative influence on the development of ITV’s distinctive character was its culture. Because it didn’t have one. It had several. It was never a single institution, like the BBC, but a motley assortment of warring fiefdoms whose leaders behaved like absolute rulers in their own dominions, and who often indulged their whims and fancies and exercised patronage through their schedules. ITV didn’t exist as a body corporate until ITV plc was forged from Carlton and Granada in 2003. For years people didn’t even call it ITV. It was ‘Channel 9’, or 13, or whatever number the TV man tuned your set to, to get it. Later, it was Border, or Southern, your local station. They may all have shown Coronation Street and Criss Cross Quiz, but they all had their own distinctive character, and their own on-screen personalities.

Whatever the many different faces of the new federal network, it definitely wasn’t the BBC. Oppositional, independent of the apparatus of the State, anti-metropolitan, suspicious of authority, ITV sprang not from the spoken word tradition and the well-ordered worlds of Reith and Wyndham Goldie, but from showbusiness – the rough and tumble of music hall, variety and popular cinema. Though there was very soon a two-way street of talent moving between the two broadcasters, and many times over the past 50 years when you could put hardly a hair’s breadth between the output of BBC1 and ITV, the commercial service never really lost its street image. If the BBC was for the people, ITV was of the people.

For the impresarios like Lew Grade who were ITV’s founding fathers, television was at first just another stage to book acts onto. In the early days, this meant a weird mix of high and low culture appearing cheek by jowl in the schedule and in the variety show line-ups that were the signature of the new commercial network. Gracie Fields alongside Maria Callas, Tommy Trinder billed with Daniel Barenboim (making his first television appearance as a 15 year-old on Granada’s Chelsea at Nine). And the mix was apparent in other genres too: Take Your Pick and University Challenge; The Army Game and Look Back in Anger.

ITV was full of other contradictions. Anti-metropolitan and anti-centrist it may have been, but ‘the majors’ were always run from London and the South East, with ATV not relinquishing its Elstree base until the IBA forced a change of name to Central and booted it up the M1 in the 1980s.

Though the strategic and commercial decisions may have been made in the capital, editorial decisions were made locally. This was absolutely critical to ITV’s developing personality because it bred an independent spirit and provided a rich seam of regional talent – two qualities at that time antipathetic to everything the BBC stood for.

The northern companies took full advantage of the opportunity to stamp their own distinctive mark on the network. Regional news programmes produced local reporters like Bill Grundy, Richard Whiteley and Michael Parkinson who soon became household names well beyond their own back yards. At Granada, drama producers like Peter Eckersley nurtured a new cadre of young northern writers who reflected the realities of post-War urban life for the first time. The work of John Finch, Colin Welland, Alun Owen and Arthur Hopcraft had an intimacy and immediacy that hooked viewers. The Stables Theatre and The Younger Generation rep company gave actors like John Thaw their first television exposure. And Sydney Newman’s Armchair Theatre for ABC showcased northern pieces like Owen’s landmark Lena, O My Lena.

They were all to make television drama younger, sharper and closer to the experience of the mass audience. BBC drama took note and followed suit, poaching Newman in 1963 in the first high-profile transfer from, rather than to, the commercial network.

If ITV’s culture came from the independent and entrepreneurial spirits who built up the original companies from a standing start and led from the front, it also came from the regionalism that underpinned its structure. ITV’s federal structure was its glory, its inspiration, and the cause of many of its most intractable problems. Originally a piece of inspired intervention to create something resembling an internal market within a monopoly, it became key to ITV’s character and its success. Only later when ITV found itself operating in quite a different kind of market, did the cracks in a system born of monopoly really start to show. More of that anon.

But for the first 30 years or so, it worked a treat. The scale and purpose of such a massive public policy intervention is hard for us to grasp now that governments shrink from interfering in the market. But in the post-War optimism of the 1950s anything seemed possible. The biggest public policy intervention of them all – the National Health Service – was up and running, and the prevailing ideology was One Nation Toryism. Why shouldn’t a money-spinning business be harnessed to ‘the public good’? The carefully-calibrated federal structure, and the stiff regulation that went with it, were installed to assure critics that commercial television wouldn’t be allowed, as they feared, to destroy the BBC, ruin their children’s eyesight, or desecrate the moral fabric of the nation.

As we now acknowledge, far from destroying the Corporation, the introduction of ITV saved it from complacent, middlebrow atrophy, forcing it for the first time to compete for popularity, quality and innovation. Not only drama, but news, current affairs and entertainment all got a vital shot in the arm. ITN first realised the full potential of television news, This Week and World in Action created a popular current affairs agenda for a mass audience, and Coronation Street set the standard for serial drama back in 1960 that in my view hasn’t been bettered since. These and many more had an energising effect on BBC programmes. I don’t believe Hugh Carleton Green’s extraordinary 1960s regime – the flowering of one of BBC television’s most creative periods – could have happened without the first decade of competition from ITV.

Whole new entertainment genres enriched what before had been a staid and predictable schedule. How those men in tights – Robin Hood, Ivanhoe and William Tell – brightened up spartan 1950s teatimes. How we thrilled to the escapist drama of the 60s: Danger Man, The Avengers, The Saint, The Prisoner. And only a handful of years after Muffin the Mule, Thunderbirds and its ilk were saving the world with unimaginably sophisticated Supermarionation technology (though you could still sometimes see the strings). Meanwhile experimental comedy shows Do Not Adjust Your Set and At Last the 1948 Show were giving the nascent Python team their first television exposure.

ITV’s music shows, starting with Jack Good’s Oh Boy!, went on with Thank Your Lucky Stars and Ready, Steady Go to bottle the essence of the Sixties pop revolution. A tradition that lived on – in Granadaland at least – with Tony Wilson in the 80s and 90s doing as much for the Northern club scene and the rise of the Madchester years on-screen as off.

These programmes connected with audiences and used television in a way we hadn’t seen before. Unselfconscious, imaginative, non-didactic, they had no hidden improving agenda, they were quality mass entertainment as an end in itself.

However, the public service ethic was strongly rooted in the Bernsteins, so Granada’s output always had more than a tinge of improvement about it. But its approach couldn’t have been more different from the BBC’s. It was bolshie, anti-establishment, and a pain in the neck to governments, big business and regulators alike. Its factual programme-makers and senior management liked nothing better than a good row with authority (especially ‘the Authority– the Independent Television Authority, later the IBA). So it overturned the oppressive 14 Day Rule with its political coverage, challenged the Representation of the People Act by televising the Rochdale by-election and used World in Action as an agent to influence public policy and expose corporate and government malfeasance. Meanwhile at ITN, young Turk Robin Day was interviewing public figures as none had been interviewed before, setting a bold new template for the interrogation of politicians that has since given John Humphreys and Jeremy Paxman full rein.

At the time, these were all shocking impertinences the Licence Fee-funded BBC could never risk. But they changed the reporting landscape forever and the public was better served as a result. These early breakthroughs prepared the ground for ITV innovations of the 70s and 80s: the long-term current affairs investigations; the forensic political interview, and one of the most controversial but powerful television genres yet to emerge, the evidence-based drama-documentary.

For those of you who are students of television history, all this is well known, if little celebrated. The programme titles and the people who made them are now becoming part of the fabric of our collective knowledge about television culture. But other, more prosaic forces tempered the creative character of ITV and their ripples are still felt today.

Continued in Part 2

David Liddiment started his career at Granada, where he became Executive Producer of Coronation Street and nurtured a new generation of TV dramatists including Paul Abbott, Kay Mellor and Russell T Davies. In 1997 he was appointed Director of Programmes at ITV, where he brought Who Wants To Be A Millionaire? and Pop Idol to the screen, as well as presiding over a rich period of original drama. He was a governor of West Yorkshire Playhouse (1993-2003), where he directed the world premier of Kay Mellor’s A Passionate Woman. He is currently Creative Director of the independent producer All3Media, Producer of Kevin Spacey’s Old Vic Theatre Company, and a regular columnist for the Guardian.

*This article is based on David Liddiment’s opening address to the ITV50 Conference held at the National Museum of Photography, Film and Television in Bradford on October 22, 2005. Special thanks to the author for making the article available to Transdiffusion for publication, and to Sue Elliott for her invaluable assistance.

You Say

1 response to this article

garry robin simpson 24 October 2015 at 12:16 am

ITV will always go down as the only Regional Commericial service on Terristal Television. In ALL OF EUROPE Commericial Television did not start until the Cable boom of the late 1970″s and 1980″s. A Regional Struture with Network PRIME-TIME Programming. Popular but with Seriousness. Nearly destroyed by lack of money in the 1950″s and The Union”s in the 1970″s with announcers that treated you as friends. ITV as this 50 year old disabled viewer will always be MY CHANNELFRIEND and confident. In memory of my late father and my mother,who at 87 years of age is sadly now in a local care home. ITV gave them and me many happy memories. Regional ITV 22nd SEPTEMBER 1955 to 29th October 2009. Thanks for the memories.

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