Battle of the Alphas 

1 February 2007

ABC and ATV logos overlaid on each other

In chronicling the story of ITV franchise holders down the years, accounts usually centre on the home-grown productions of the companies concerned and the networking and scheduling arrangements that accompanied them.

Media historians seem to conspire to forget that for the ordinary viewer, one of the staples of the service down the years was imported American and ‘bought in’ British film series.

As the sixties wore on, the regulator imposed greater limitations on the percentage of non-British material that could be used to fill the evening’s viewing. Historical accounts fail to give this element of television output the place it deserves in assessing ‘viewing pleasure’, preferring sociologically inclined expressions of regret at the prominence of such material in the schedules. This is probably a mixture of intellectual snobbery and a fear of American cultural imperialism, as the programmes concerned were consistently enjoyed by the public.

Although fifties and sixties television viewers in the U.K. were evidently clear as to what was American and what was British, they were probably unaware that more imported shows meant less indigenous programming in a system where cash and daily broadcasting hours were limited.

The production quality of these film-based imports was very high for the time and in many instances undoubtedly superior to home-grown creations.

American and British film series drew on Hollywood and Pinewood expertise, and the resulting gloss made sixties home-grown video production often seem visually dowdy by comparison, however good the writing and acting.

To the fury of the critics, for many viewers the value and appreciation of any channel went up in proportion to the number of imported film series deployed. Such programmes were not seen by the audience as ‘filling an import quota’ so much as ‘filling an enjoyment quota’. The companies believed themselves to be serving the interests of the viewer with such purchases. They probably were.

In the fifties and sixties the two Midlands contractors, ATV from Monday to Friday and ABC at weekends, were locked in a titanic struggle for regional supremacy. ‘Bought in’ series, both American and British, were a significant weapon in their armoury.

Midlands baby boomer Alan Keeling remembers a childhood with just such regular treats.

When I was eight years old, Winter Saturday mornings meant hours of test card and music interspersed with periodic still pictures and engineers tone from our local ITA transmitter at Lichfield, or ‘Channel Eight’ as it was sometimes promoted. This was an era where many television sets still had a form of rotary ‘tuning dial’. On would go our fourteen inch screen just in time for ‘Test Card C’ and tone, followed a few minutes later by the unmistakable Chris Barber and his Jazz Band. It was an eclectic musical mix. Halfway through the morning there would often be an appearance by Mozart’s ‘Eine Kleine Nachtmusik’. What you never had, you never miss and in the absence of morning programming we thought it quite normal to watch the test card and listen to the music that accompanied it.

ABC programmes commenced around 1pm with ‘something for adults’. Lunch would be served and out I would go with my wooden sledge until tea time, thus avoiding the hours of sports coverage which were de rigeur for Saturday afternoons at the time. Compared with a rather predictable weekday ATV, the weekend programmes on ABC in the sixties seemed exciting and varied.

In media histories we read a lot about the legendary fifties and sixties rivalry between the two Northern ITV stations Granada and ABC Weekend. Less has been written about that other titanic regional struggle, as between ATV and ABC Weekend in the Midlands.

I remember it well…

Those ABC teatime slots at 5.15, after a seemingly never ending afternoon of sport, included cartoon series such as ‘Bugs Bunny’ or an animated ‘Wizard of Oz’. There were British and U.S. adventure series like ‘The Buccaneers’, ‘Sir Francis Drake’, ‘Jungle Boy’ or ‘Tomahawk’ and occasional ‘Disneyland’ specials.

The British element in these film series was largely financed by Lew Grade and made by ITC (‘Incorporated Television’) the ATV export arm, unconnected with the later regulator of the same name. ITC often used studio facilities at Boreham Wood on the Associated-British film lot. ABPC was, ironically, the parent company of ABC Weekend Television but these were indisputably ATV programmes.

British talent was well represented in weekend ITV viewing. We laughed at ‘The Arthur Haynes Show’, ‘The Charlie Drake Show’ and Morecambe and Wise in ‘Two of a Kind’ all made by ATV’s own weekend operation in London and networked to ‘our’ ABC ‘weekend in the Midlands’. ABC would schedule a mixture of brand new American film series like ’77 Sunset Strip’, ‘Hawaiian Eye’ and ‘Bourbon Street Beat’ and home produced ATV London series on like ‘Man of the World’, ‘Ghost Squad’ and it’s sequel ‘G.S.5.’ These ATV London programmes were made available to ABC Weekend in the Midlands as part of the ATV contribution to network fare.

This was the one way in which the weekend / weekday struggle in the Midlands differed from the Northern equivalent. ABC Weekend showed some ATV London programmes as ATV had another franchise from which ‘to despatch’ networked fare. There was no equivalent scheduling paradox between Granada and ABC Weekend in their Northern franchises.

On the Sunday morning I would often switch on towards the end of the Morning Service outside broadcast from church or cathedral to see if ‘Test Card C’ would appear after the closedown. I usually found (could it be for religious reasons I wondered?) just test tone or blank screen until the afternoon startup sequence soon after two o’clock. Things swung back into action with the usual tuning signal caption followed by the classic pulsating triangular symbol of ABC Weekend and stunning forty-five second fanfare.

The very British ‘Sunday Night at the London Palladium’ enabled me to forget the looming Monday morning arithmetic lessons but I never saw the last half of the show as it was said to be “well past bedtime”.

Returning home from school on weekday afternoons would find me switching on to hear (typically) the last few bars of Beethoven’s ‘Emperor’ Concerto followed by more engineers’ tone accompanying ITA ‘Test Card C’. This was held for a solid fifteen minutes before a period of blank screen. After a few minutes blank screen Eric Coates ‘Sound and Vision’ march was heard over the local ‘Picasso style’ tuning caption and that was in turn followed three minutes later by an animated ‘retro’ ATV symbol, the startup version always at design variance with the one seen between and before programmes.

A rather formal announcement always followed, to herald the start of the weekday contractor’s output but compared to ABC Weekend, I found ATV Midlands not quite so exciting. There were some good programmes however. The station seemed to deploy many American imports, like Cannonball (actually part filmed in Canada), Rawhide, Bonanza and Gunsmoke.

There was plenty to see but somehow it lacked the zing and attractive packaging of weekend ABC schedules.

In July 1968 appalled Midland and Northern viewers bade a very reluctant farewell to ABC Weekend Television with the regulator inspired move of the ABC company to pastures new as Thames Television in London, leaving aghast Midland viewers faced with what initially seemed a dull weekend of viewing from the new ‘seven day’ ATV.

This feeling faded over time but with no weekday/weekend comparisons now possible we learned to enjoy what we were given. I suspect that Northern viewers would have had the same reaction, moving from a ‘split week’ Granada/ABC franchise into a permanent seven day ‘stint’ with Granada.

Judging by the latter day descriptions of all this by the ‘Northern school’ of Transdiffusion baby boomers this was indeed so.

Whatever the region, the American made ‘imports’ and the ‘bought in’ British film series still prevailed and remained a staple of ITV for many more years.

Later this year Alan begins a series for Transdiffusion where he recalls the scheduling of many long-forgotten or well-remembered American imports and British film series in the history of Independent Television.

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Liverpool, Friday 19 July 2024