What goes around comes around 

19 October 2006 tbs.pm/2116

With the planned move to Manchester of many London based staff, an increased commitment of the BBC to national programme making at regional centres is in the news again. David Brockman looks back at the seventies and the then-massive BBC commitment to Network Production Centres outside London.

The current talk is of the BBC shifting more programmes, staff and resources to its regions, with a major focus on Manchester – or maybe not, in the continuing game of one-upmanship that characterises modern BBC/Government relations. But there is nothing new in this: the Corporation had always had strong regional production bases. In the 70’s when the present writer was associated with BBC Television Programme Planning, part of my role was attending a regular meeting with regional studio heads that was called ‘Hook Up’.

The relationship between BBC regions and Network Controllers at that time was a complex one. The larger English regions – South West, Midlands and North – along with the ‘National Regions’ of Wales, Northern Ireland and Scotland had their own programme input to the network and also separately ‘hosted’ productions and series for London based programme departments.

In those days the situation was vastly different from today, as there was no statutory requirement for the BBC to commission programmes from independent makers, though a few were commissioned from a small group of specialist providers. The Children’s ‘series section’ for example commissioned Oliver Postgate and Peter Firmin to provide ‘Ivor the Engine’, ‘Noggin the Nog’ and ‘Bagpuss’. BBC money supported Jan and Vlasta Dalibor with ‘Pinky and Perky’ and Harry Corbett’s ‘Sooty’ in the days before both switched to ITV through Thames Television.

In the English regions, major responsibility for sourcing BBC programmes for the network fell on Bristol, Birmingham and Manchester where the studios held the status of ‘Network Production Centres’.

The studios in Belfast, Glasgow and Cardiff were part of the BBC’s ‘Nations’ remit. These so-called ‘National Regions’ had further responsibilities, often for additional programmes in Welsh or Gaelic. Assisting in overall output were also smaller BBC regions based in Newcastle, Leeds (then managed via Manchester), Plymouth, Norwich and Southampton. On Tuesdays at 6.40pm and Fridays at 10.15pm there were regional opt-outs in all nations and regions.

In the seventies, London and Kent were less well-served and when these opt-outs were in progress BBC London had nothing to offer regionally – instead, it tended to run comedy repeats such as ‘Dad’s Army’ or ‘Sykes’. This was seen by some in London and the South East as somewhat blind to the needs of the region and even to suggest that the area was not seen by controllers as having regional needs at all.

This ‘South East blindness’ also caused some annoyance among regional controllers as listing summaries in the national press tended to show the London output and gave scant attention to regional variations. There were at that time fewer editions of national papers than we have today, and provincial managers were often upset that media focus on the London programming served to dilute publicity for regional films and series.

Regional programming in those days meant a great deal more than the mere ‘local news and topics’ of today. It was not unusual to find drama, documentaries, variety and local comedy at that time, much of it never seen in London. Local artistes were given their big break and acting or singing talent tested on a regional basis could often develop into national standards. These arrangements still exist today in Wales and Scotland but have largely died out in the English Regions.

This is as much as anything due to a failure to realise at London management level that even in England, regional programming should mean more than local news.

As a result of inadequate listings of regional ‘opt outs’ in the newspapers, viewers in the seventies typically rang BBC duty offices in Cardiff complaining that they were expecting to see ‘Dad’s Army’ or similar, without realising that BBC Cymru had scheduled an entirely different offering, perhaps in Welsh. Regional controllers made their concerns on these issues known when they came up to London at least once a year to make what were known as ‘offers’. These were programme propositions from the regions put to the London controllers of BBC1 and or BBC2. The ideas were carefully considered and either ‘green lit’ or rejected.

Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, as so-called ‘national regions’ spent time and resources making regular programmes for their own audiences. These were mainly sport, current affairs and light entertainment, though soaps and drama, some in Welsh, figured strongly in the Cardiff schedules.

Each national region had a degree of autonomy and, as a BBC1 schedule was confirmed, they had to place their own programmes within and around it, opting out of network items as required.

The experience could be complex for the viewer. Thirty, sixty or even ninety minutes after an ‘opt out’, viewers would return to the London schedule and some of the the missing network programmes would then follow, often running an hour or so later than the English timings. If for example at 10.45pm Northern Ireland ran a Hurling (sports) programme for an hour the knock on effect would be evident. If London had a concert at 10.45pm and a film at 11.45pm with weather and closedown at 01.15am, Northern Ireland might show the proms at 11.45pm, start the film at 12.45am and do their own weather at 02.15am. All BBC regions had announcers and presentation staff, so from the start of the opt out to the weather and closedown they created their own presentation to ‘surround’ the differences from London. In Wales and Scotland, presentation inserts differed even when programming was uniform with London.

Smaller regional centres like Norwich and Southampton were provided with occasional opportunities for some of their material, typically half hour documentaries, to have a network screening. These were chosen on merit and became a feature of BBC2 in the early evening. ‘Network’ was the most well remembered series of this type; programmes made specially for audiences in the regions and now seen for the first time countrywide.

Some of the BBC Network Production Centres tended to specialise in what they offered and produced for network showing. Bristol was home to the Natural History Unit and many of its local programmes eventually went out nationally. The unit provided about of third of the films in the BBC2 documentary series ‘The World About Us’.

Bristol also provided several BBC children’s shows. ‘Animal Magic’ with the much loved Johnny Morris ran for very many years and ‘Why Don’t You?’, a school holiday children’s series was pioneered by Bristol producer Patrick Dowling, veteran of the legendary ‘Vision On’ programmes with Tony Hart and Pat Keysel. These shows had one of the (then) very rare examples of signing for children who were hard of hearing. Other Bristol-based programmes for the network included the antiques show ‘Going for a Song’ presented by the late Arthur Negus and pre-dating ‘The Antiques Roadshow’.

The aforementioned ‘hook up’ meetings were critical in planning this ‘offer and opt out’ system. Every Thursday, people from London management took part in a live closed circuit television conference with regional and national programme staff. This was probably the first regular British example of teleconferencing in a business planning environment. At about 9.55am we would trek upstairs from TV planning on the 6th floor of the Television Centre to a small 7th floor inter-regional communications office that engineers had provided for the purpose.

The ‘Outside Broadcast Planning’, ‘Studios Planning’ and ‘Lines Bookings’ sections all participated. Programme Planning officer for Wales, Elfair Davies was present alongside his opposite number in Bristol, Doreen Pomeroy, her equivalent in Pebble Mill at Birmingham, Marjorie Bailey and in Manchester at Oxford Road, Ann Rowlinson. The main focus was the exchange of details of planned and newly scheduled productions in the nations and regions, some perhaps to be seen across the network.

BBC Birmingham produced a huge range of programmes at Pebble Mill. From its inception, the Asian Programme Unit had been based there and provided for many years a Sunday morning programme in Urdu, ‘Make Yourself At Home’. Produced by Ashok Rampal and directed by Mahendra Kaul the show was later renamed ‘New Life’. (English translations of the titles).

Birmingham was the home of BBC Television’s original regular programme for farmers, simply called ‘Farming’. It was edited by John Kenyon. The show was later renamed ‘Countryfile’ and provided a suitable vehicle for John Craven after he had left his pioneering ‘Newsround’ series for children’s television. Even Jackanory and Play School were periodically recorded at Pebble Mill.

Much drama was produced in Birmingham. ‘In their own right’ under David Rose, the former ‘Z Cars’ producer and a series called ‘Gangsters’. Assistant head of drama Tara Prem conceived ‘Second City Firsts’, screenings of plays by new writers.

‘Empire Road’ was the first soap set within the growing multi-cultural community and focussed on a fictional road in Birmingham. It was produced by Peter Ansorge. BBC drama had a three-way departmental split between plays, series and serials. Many distinguished series originated in Birmingham including both ‘The Brothers’, produced by Ken Riddington and several seventies seasons of Doctor Who, produced of course by John Nathan-Turner.

BBC television in Birmingham under Phil Siddey provided a lot of entertainment and magazine shows. ‘Pot Black’ the snooker programme, produced by Jim Dumighan, entertained millions and the two Roys, Norton and Ronnie, as producer and director respectively were behind ‘Pebble Mill at One’, BBC1’s famous live daytime magazine. The show was actually presented from the studios’ foyer area. This spawned a light entertainment spin off ‘Saturday Night at the Mill’ with live music and guests. It often followed ‘Match of the Day’.

John Ecclestone spent much of the seventies as head of Manchester’s Network Production Centre. What a thriving setup were the Oxford Road studios! Who can forget, for example, ‘Screen Test’ hosted by Michael Rodd, one of many pioneering children’s shows from the North-West? Manchester also provided finance and management for the Leeds offices where BBC veteran Barney Colehan, produced ‘Its A Knockout’ alongside his long standing entertainment hit ‘The Good Old Days’ an outside broadcast from The City Varieties in Leeds. Dorothy Bickerdike was Colehan’s long standing Production Assistant.

Producer Don Howarth turned northern steeplejack Fred Dibnah into a national institution and Howarth’s assistant, Jean Thompson, went on to direct some of the other films that Fred later made. ‘Brass Tacks’ was a studio based current affairs show from Manchester and was edited by Mike Stephenson. It achieved national prominence and a high reputation.

BBC Cymru from its Cardiff studios at Llandaff produced a wide range of series. ‘Heddiw’ the magazine programme and ‘Pobol Y Cwm’ (‘People of the Valley’) a long running ‘soap’ in Welsh, which is is still going strong. In 1981 Cardiff, under its drama head John Heffin, supplied many network offerings among which was the huge hit ‘The Life and Times of David Lloyd George’. The Lloyd George network success gave Cardiff a long tradition of supplying popular drama. Even ‘Terry and June’ was recorded at one time in Cardiff!

Currently the relaunched series ‘Doctor Who’, something of a national institution in the U.K. after 43 years, is now produced there to great technical and artistic acclaim, along with the new ‘Torchwood’ spinoff.

BBC Scotland’s Glasgow studios have a long tradition of supplying entertainment and drama for both national and local consumption. The BBC version of ‘Dr Finlay’s Casebook’ was recorded in Glasgow (see the ‘EMC TV Heroes’ section for the story of Haldane Duncan’s experiences on the team of this production). Roddy McMillan starred in ‘That Lucky Spark’ and ‘That Vital Spark’. Pharic McLaren was a long standing producer in Glasgow and Hogmanay shows at New Year with (then) top entertainers Moira Anderson, Andy Stewart and Kenneth McKellar were an annual staple of the whole network for literally decades. Veteran producer Dorothea Brooking moved to Glasgow to film the famous BBC adaptation of ‘The Secret Garden’ and later recorded another series ‘Didakoi’ there.

The regions back then played a full role in supplying network programmes of their own and ‘outhousing’ further productions for London departments. The BBC today is a different animal and has to commission large amounts of material from independent producers. Most are based in London but some are to be found in the provinces. There is now even an arrangement that once would have been unheard of; a fusion with ITV in Manchester, where the BBC shares some studios with Granada. Mastermind for example has been recorded in the joint facility. The current 2006 BBC series was in fact filmed at the Yorkshire TV studios in Kirkstall Road, Leeds.

There has been a cull of BBC staff across all programme departments and in both the nations and regions. Many London departments face the prospect of being transferred to an enhanced BBC base in Manchester.

BBC Religion did so some years ago and ‘Songs of Praise’, some religious services and the increasingly popular Sunday magazine ‘Heaven and Earth’, hosted by Gloria Hunniford is broadcast live from Manchester.

As evidenced by the programmes from the seventies listed here, a strong regional association in fully networked BBC programming is not really revolutionary or new. What goes around, comes around.

The Corporation has like other broadcasters to rationalise, reorganise and re-enthuse so that its staff and commissioned independents can meet the demanding needs of information, education and entertainment in the multi-channel age. Viewers are now using other platforms, downloading programmes for later viewing and even using mobile phones to catch news and short clips of favourite shows.

The licence fee as it currently stands is yet again under scrutiny – politicians just can’t leave this alone – but for now the BBC retains the respect and has the authority and weight to remain the most significant media provider in the UK for radio, television and internet, both live and in packaged forms. The BBC nations and regions will still play a big and increasing part at a time when ITV is abandoning almost wholesale it’s federal structure and regional commitment.

News clips apart I doubt that programme planners in London today have those simple ‘hook-up’ meetings that we had, with cosy chats down the line to colleagues in the BBC regions.

However with today’s different management system all parts of the BBC in both National and English Regions have a growing and assured part to play in the BBC’s future.

This idea is not new!

The author appreciated help from Richard Jones, Mark Prosser and Rob Horspole in preparation of this article.

You Say

1 response to this article

Arthur Vasey 26 October 2015 at 11:51 pm

I seem to recall throughout most of the 70s and well into the 80s – up until the time EastEnders and Wogan hit the airwaves, all continuity, apart from trailers, from around ten to seven at night (the starting time for prime time television on BBC 1), every announcement was sourced from your own BBC region, even in England – the programmes themselves were networked, for the most part, but the spinning globe had BBC 1, then the relevant regional ident underneath (North East, in my case, at that time).

There were two dedicated slots for regional programmes – Tuesday night at ten to seven, just after Nationwide, and Friday nights at 10:15 pm, after usually some American import, like Starsky & Hutch or Petrocelli or Target (a detective series with Patrick Mower) or The Chinese Detective – the tabloids were very vague about regional variations – in the case of Tuesday, Rolf Harris Cartoon Time was being shown – but only in London and the South East – each individual region got something featuring somebody walking round the region or something – as for Friday, London viewers got some sitcom around that time – Bilko, for ages – your region got some programme again featuring someone walking round your region or something!

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