Half-forgotten great 

1 March 2007 tbs.pm/2138

Often forgotten today, Sir Ian Trethowan’s period of Director Generalship of the BBC was a distinguished one.

When pressed in media circles about who they regard as the greatest BBC Director General of all time, three names tend to crop up: John Reith, Hugh Carleton-Greene and Alasdair Milne – regarded as the last great DG – while for the worst, predictably, John Birt’s name appears with monotonous regularity.

However, one figure – who helped to establish ITN as a respected news broadcaster before he joined the BBC in 1963 as a political journalist and scaling the BBC hierarchy to reach the position of Director of Radio – is rarely mentioned, but ranks as one of the most successful DGs of all time, who ran the BBC excellently during a period of industrial disputes and financial troubles. Sir Ian Trethowan, who was DG from September 1977 to July 1982, ranks alongside Reith and Carleton-Greene as one of the BBC’s greatest chief executives, and certainly did not leave the Corporation under a dark cloud, like Milne, and then go around making pompous statements like, “I was the last real Director General of the BBC” (as Milne said on a BBC documentary in 1996 about BBC Television’s sixtieth anniversary).

Unlike many other BBC Directors General, Trethowan did not spend his whole working life at the Corporation: he worked in print journalism and commercial television beforehand. Born in 1922, Trethowan started work at sixteen as an office boy at the Daily Sketch and worked his way up to become a respected print journalist. In 1955 he joined the newly-created Independent Television News as a political journalist and covered the 1959 election, before moving to the BBC in 1963, where he became famous for covering the Kennedy assassination. A long spell as a political correspondent followed, Trethowan often appearing on Panorama, before he was offered the powerful job of Managing Director of Radio.

One of his first actions in the new post was to sack Kenny Everett from Radio 1 over the “she slipped the driving examiner a fiver” incident where Cuddly Ken accused the wife of the Transport Secretary of paying a bribe to pass her driving test and Everett referring to Trethowan as one of the” pinstripe princes who know nothing about pop music”. As Managing Director of Radio, a post he was to hold for six years, Trethowan marked the more conservative path the BBC was taking after the liberalisation of the sixties, which saw Radio 1 created. Certainly Radio 1 listeners had little to thank Trethowan for, as the station saw its hours cut during a financial crisis in 1975, and Radio 2 listeners were less than happy when a Radio 1 afternoon show was foisted on them from 1975 to 1977, while the less-popular Radios 3 and 4 were left largely unaffected.

However, Trethowan did press ahead with the expansion of stereo FM broadcasting, which benefited listeners to all the BBC’s networks after 1973. BBC local radio was moved to both medium wave and FM from FM-only from April 1973, which greatly expanded its listenership as the majority of radios did not have FM at the time. Also, Radio Ulster was created in February 1975. Nevertheless, Trethowan’s spell at BBC Radio could be regarded as a time of caution, in line with the Director Generalship of Charles Curran at the time, which saw the BBC become less willing to take risks and become more conservative after the changes of the Carleton-Greene era that destroyed the stuffy ‘Auntie’ image the BBC had in the fifties.

Despite the conservatism (possibly ‘big C’ as well, as Labour regarded DG Charles Curran as a Tory and the BBC as having a right-wing bias) of the seventies BBC, where BBC English was prevalent and the Corporation had a distinct bias to the middle class (Trethowan once telling a young Liz Forgan when he heard a Birmingham accent on Radio 4,” What is that sound doing on BBC radio? Get it off”), the BBC was going through a golden era when Trethowan took over as DG. This was an era when BBC comedies such as Porridge and The Good Life attracted huge ratings, BBC1’s Saturday night schedule was at its best and regularly flattened the weak ITV offerings in the ratings, and 1977 was to see a Morecambe and Wise Christmas special, regarded as their best, attract a record 29 million viewers.

In the fields of sport, coverage of national events such as the Queen’s Silver Jubilee, minority programming and documentaries, though ITV did try hard here as well, BBC coverage was regarded as the finest in the world. The present writer had relatives from Canada who visited England in the late seventies and the first thing they commented on was how great the BBC was, and how BBC programmes were held in high esteem in Canada, compared with the hopeless, advert-ridden shows made in Canada. Trethowan had inherited a BBC that, despite being short of funds, was very highly regarded and whose morale was high. With the legendary Bill Cotton as Controller of BBC1 and Alasdair Milne as Director of Television, this was an exciting time for the BBC and ratings matched ITV 50:50, with the balance going to the BBC on Thursday and Saturday nights and public holidays.

Although Trethowan was of the same conservative mould as Charles Curran, and his membership of the Conservative Party was well known, giving rise to continuing accusations from the Labour government of Conservative bias (Jim Callaghan once losing his temper and stating” you people are all the same” after a hostile interview with Sue Lawley on Nationwide), Trethowan was from the ‘One Nation’ mould of Conservatism, which would later make him suspicious in the eyes of Margaret Thatcher. This meant that his reign as DG would be characterised by a progressive form of conservatism: despite his comments on Birmingham accents, he knew he could not turn the clock back at the BBC and he was willing to embrace change at the Corporation, but unlike Alistair Milne, he did not want to embrace radical programming that would put him on a collision course with the government.

If 1977 had seen Trethowan start well at the BBC, the Corporation was badly jolted by two events in 1978. One came down to the fact that the hard-pressed BBC paid its entertainers far less than ITV, and the other was a common problem in industry in the late seventies. Morecambe and Wise, since they had joined the BBC in 1968, had been the country’s most popular entertainers. Their shows regularly attracted over 20 million viewers, and the cream of the acting and entertainment worlds clamoured to appear with them. But they had complained they were being underpaid at the BBC compared with rival entertainers on ITV, and when they were offered three times as much by Thames, they decided to leave the Corporation. Shortly after Morecambe and Wise left the BBC, the Corporation’s most successful solo entertainer, Bruce Forsyth of the Generation Game, announced he was defecting to LWT, where Michael Grade offered him a huge contract and a budget of £ 250,000 a week, then unheard of, for a variety show.

Alasdair Milne angrily referred to ITV as” the mafia with a cheque book” as the commercial broadcaster had nabbed the BBC’s biggest stars. However, although this looked potentially damaging for the BBC, the BBC had the last laugh when the first Morecambe and Wise Christmas show on ITV was far less amusing than their BBC shows, and their career went into decline and when Bruce’s Big Night rapidly became known as “Bruce’s Big Flop” due to low ratings, and was ironically hammered in the ratings by The Generation Game, now hosted by Larry Grayson.

The BBC’s other main problem in the late seventies was union-based, although the Corporation did not suffer the kind of disruption ITV would face in 1979. Here again, BBC salaries lagged behind those of ITV staff. Alasdair Milne in his autobiography stated that the BBC had even considered giving cars to staff who could not afford them and, in addition to celebrity defectors, the Corporation was also losing valuable staff like make up artists.

The unions decided to behave in a manner that would scare Trethowan into acting quickly. A series of lightning strikes and a work to rule had been causing disruption to the BBC since November 1978, but on the 22nd and 23rd December BBC technicians staged a two- day strike that closed down BBC Television, and threatened a blackout over Christmas. Faced with the prospect of blank screens over Christmas, the Corporation indeed acted immediately and, in common with workers at Ford and in the public sector, breached the government’s five per cent pay policy by offering a 15 per cent rise to technicians. The lightning strikes continued throughout 1979 over the issue of pay, causing A Song for Europe and Miss World to be cancelled while on air, while in the summer of 1980 the Musicians Union told its members to strike over the disbanding of BBC orchestras which saw programmes like Top of the Pops taken off air for three months.

Yet these were not massive problems to the BBC, and certainly the Corporation recovered from losing Morecambe and Wise and its disputes with the unions, which were mild compared with the ten-week strike that closed down ITV. Unlike Milne, who tended to be remote and had the strange habit of calling senior staff ” boy”, Trethowan was approachable and seemed down to earth, which aided his relations with staff during the fraught late seventies. Ian Jones, in a feature on BBC director generals on the Off The Telly website, commented on Trethowan that “strolling around Television Centre or Broadcasting House, anyone from senior managers to technical engineers seemed able to approach him in amiable chit chat, earnest debate or a bit of gossip.” Trethowan was generally well liked at the BBC and Terry Wogan’s jokes about “the DG is putting in his dentures” were not taken seriously – he admired Wogan for humanising what could be seen as a remote job.

Despite doing little for popular radio when he was Director of Radio in the early seventies, Trethowan took an opposite course as DG and decided to bolster Radios 1 and 2, which had lost listeners in the major cities to Independent Local Radio. The wavelength changes of November 23rd 1978 had given Radios 1 and 2 far better wavelengths, especially Radio 1 which had been moved from the troublesome 247 metres to 275/285 metres. Radio 2 was the first to benefit by losing Radio 1 programmes like the Top 40 in November 1978 and then went over to 24 hour broadcasting in January 1979. Radio 1 was at last freed from having to take programmes like Listen to the Band when dual broadcasting with Radio 2 finally ended in February 1979 and the station went 18 hours a day. Radio 1, which had been badly treated by BBC management in the past, also gained home rule from Radio 2 by obtaining its own controller. The impression gained was that Trethowan took the network seriously, after suspicions that Radio 1 had been the BBC’s least favoured network as it played music BBC executives did not understand or like.

Meanwhile, Radio 4 Scotland and Wales, where the national regions had had to take Radio 4 programmes for a large part of the day, were replaced by autonomous national stations and Radio 4, now on 1500m LW, could broadcast uninterrupted in the national regions as Radio 4 UK, useful if a Welsh or Scottish listener wanted to hear a Radio 4 programme that had previously been interrupted by a regional one and vice versa. There was also a large expansion in BBC local radio stations in the early eighties.

The BBC also gained massively from the ten-week strike at ITV in 1979. Heavy ITV viewers were obviously upset at losing their favourite station – my paternal grandfather who watched ITV 95 per cent of the time was furious – but the strike helped the BBC as the seventies drew to a close. When ITV returned in October 1979, viewers had become so used to watching the BBC that it took a long time for them to adjust to the fact ITV had returned. The song “Welcome Home to ITV”, which reopened the network on October 23rd 1979, proved to be overly optimistic: the strike had shattered the network, which now for three weeks relied on national continuity – strange as viewers expected their local announcers back – and had a dearth of programmes to show. The ITV Christmas schedule in 1979 was one of the worst ever: the 1979 Morecambe and Wise Christmas show was diabolical, even a huge Morecambe and Wise fan like myself had to switch over as it was so bad, and the BBC flattened ITV for several months in the ratings.

However, the BBC had come in for criticism earlier in the year over the game show Blankety Blank on BBC1. This show, with its flashing lights and gimmicks, would have been more suited to ITV and was disliked by BBC executives who stated in a report that the show had trivialised the whole network. Even host Terry Wogan said “this was the kind of thing ITV usually did”, but the show’s huge popularity ensured it survived for ten years, and it became a ratings banker for the BBC throughout the eighties. No doubt Wogan, who was a permanent feature on radio and television in the Trethowan years, had much to be grateful for.

Yet the BBC, for all its ratings success at the end of the seventies and the general goodwill towards it, was struggling financially. In the wake of the 1979 oil crisis and a wages free-for-all as the Winter of Discontent destroyed the Labour government, when workers such as civil servants and teachers were given 25 per cent pay rises, and inflation soared to 20 per cent by the spring of 1980. As Alisdair Milne had pointed out, ITV could simply increase its advertising rates, but the BBC relied solely on the fixed income of the licence fee. Trethowan complained in 1980, “We have the highest inflation and the lowest licence fee in Europe.” A 20 per cent rise in the licence fee in 1980 only kept up with inflation.

The BBC was forced to make economies – though, to Trethowan’s credit, these were largely cosmetic and did not cause any real damage to the BBC’s services. The BBC’s multitude of regional orchestras, which dated back to the Reith years, was slashed, leading to a long dispute with the Musicians Union. Radio 1 lost an hour of programmes each day, a floodlit rugby league tournament was scrapped, English regional continuity on BBC 1 was scrapped and local radio broadcasting hours were reduced. Yet, unless you were a devotee of the Northern Radio Orchestra, or liked hearing Tom Kilgour introduce the Nine O Clock News, this was small beer. Most viewers and listeners barely noticed the difference.

The BBC also found itself in trouble with the new Thatcher government, even though Trethowan was a Conservative and had received a rough ride under the previous Labour government for alleged bias. A friend of Edward Heath, Thatcher’s arch-enemy, Trethowan, a liberal ‘wet’, was simply “not one of us” and was regarded as suspicious. Never mind that the BBC tended to be far more popular with Conservative voters than ITV: Thatcher tended to regard the BBC as a kind of nationalised industry that was thus by definition wasteful and rooted in the past.

Thatcher was determined to bring the BBC under control, and blocked the appointment of the liberal Mark Bonham-Carter as chairman in 1980 in favour of the Conservative aristocrat Lord Howard. Trethowan, who tended to avoid conflict with governments of either type, acquiesced. However, unlike the Milne years, there was no vendetta against the BBC at the time as, at least, Trethowan did confess to Conservative Party membership: Milne was more opaque in his views – more a kind of SDP Alliance figure than some dangerous left winger – and was left alone until the Falklands War, of which more later. (On the other hand, Harold Wilson, who had a strong dislike of the Corporation when Prime Minister, made amends in 1979 and was offered a chat show on Saturday nights.)

The BBC had a good 1980 under Trethowan, even with the Musicians Union dispute and financial problems. Its programmes remained popular and, in the case of Dallas, became a huge national talking point, the ‘Who Shot JR?’ plotline becoming a very hot potato during the summer of 1980, the unveiling of the would-be assassin in October 1980 attracting a viewing figure of 27 million and even becoming a news item on the Nine O Clock News. While some viewers moaned about the BBC wasting licence-payers’ money on what could be uncharitably classed as American rubbish – to which BBC1 Controller Bill Cotton retorted,”it’s very mealy-mouthed for people to talk about American rubbish” – the show was one of a long and popular tradition of showing popular and well-made American shows on the BBC, shows like Starsky and Hutch, had done excellently for the Corporation in the seventies and Dallas, with its tales of American billionaires, contrasted with the depressed Britain of the time. Anti-American viewers who did not want to watch Dallas always had the more intellectual option of Call My Bluff on BBC2, so the BBC could appeal to both the populist and the elitist viewer at the same time.

Trethowan’s last 18 months or so at the Corporation were marked by one serious error and a fall-out with the Thatcher government that tarnished his otherwise excellent period as DG. Bill Cotton, who had done so much to make BBC1 a success in the sixties and seventies, was shunted off to become Deputy Director of Television, effectively a deputy to Alasdair Milne but with little day-to-day power over the running of the Corporation’s two television stations, to be replaced by the vastly inferior Alan Hart, regarded as one of weakest BBC1 controllers ever.

The BBC’s dominance of Saturday nights was coming to an end in 1981, as ITV, and especially LWT, was starting to fight back, Game for A Laugh doing the unthinkable and killing off The Generation Game in the ratings, while the transfer of another much loved BBC comedy act, The Goodies, to ITV dug into the BBC’s previously massive lead in the ratings on Saturday nights. Under Alan Hart, the BBC further damaged their previously invincible Saturday night schedule by moving Doctor Who to Monday and Tuesday nights, which enraged the fans, and allowing two other stalwarts from the Saturday line up, Mike Yarwood and Michael Parkinson, to be lured to ITV. Although BBC ratings remained around 50 per cent in the later Trethowan period, the useless Hart controllership, which saw the much-loved Nationwide turn into a serious news programme and then get replaced by the incompetent 60 Minutes, would lead to the biggest ratings slump at the BBC since the fifties.

Fortunately Trethowan had left by the time that BBC-bashing was turned into a kind of sport, but the appointment of Hart, and – just after Trethowan resigned – Aubrey Singer to replace Milne in the top television job marked a decline in the Corporation’s fortunes. Surely appointing Bill Cotton as Director of Television and even coaxing Michael Grade, who announced he was leaving LWT, over to become controller of BBC1 – which worked so well after 1984 – would have saved the BBC from an embarrassing period of falling ratings and constant press criticism.

Yet these were problems that would come to a head in the troubled Milne era. BBC Television was still highly regarded and BBC Radio was acquitting itself well against the growing number of ILR stations. Although he was conservative in many ways, Trethowan was quite prepared to allow the more alternative side of comedy, which had a left-wing viewpoint often at odds with his, to grow at the BBC and even allowed an old enemy back at the Corporation. Shows such as Boom Boom Out Go The Lights, which showcased the alternative side of comedy and probably had a tiny audience compared with something like The Two Ronnies, were allowed to be shown and the careers of people like Alexei Sayle and Ben Elton started on these programmes. Similarly Not The Nine O’ Clock News, the bête noire of religious groups – who once asked for the programme to be withdrawn for blasphemy – politicians of all stripes, pop musicians and Mary Whitehouse, broadcast opposite the real news, ran for four series and in 1982 attracted a record 10 million viewers on BBC2 for a comedy show. Kenny Everett, whom Trethowan had dismissed in 1970 over the Mrs John Peyton incident, was welcomed back after a dispute with Thames and became even more successful on BBC1, as well as hosting a hilarious show on Radio 2. Everett joked, “I wonder how long it will be before they sack me”: in fact he was to survive longer on the BBC second time round than he imagined, hosting shows as late as 1992.

BBC News was modernised under Trethowan. The ageing set of newscasters who had little real journalistic experience were steadily replaced by trained journalists: people like Richard Baker, whose real interest in life was classical music rather than journalism, made way for trained journalists like Nicholas Witchell. BBC2 also introduced Newsnight in 1980, a news analysis programme that flourishes to this day, although early versions were not as earnest and featured reports on the Olympics.

However, the last few months of Trethowan’s reign were to prove problematic with the Thatcher government. The Falklands War, the first major military operation since Suez, began in April 1982. While Thatcher’s popularity was to receive a huge boost with the war, and the press weighed in patriotically, the BBC, as it was required to do, took a more impartial line. I was fourteen when this war broke out, and we often used to bring a radio into school to see how the war was going: as there was no independent alternative, our news would usually come from the Radio 1 12.30 Newsbeat, or for a few more serious pupils, The World At One. Obviously the BBC was not going to come out with comments like “another Argie plane was shot down today, well done”, or “our boys beat the Argies”, as The Sun might, and had a duty to report the war impartially and without excitable language.

This irked the one Ben Elton called ‘Thatch’. While she praised the courage of reporters like Brian Hanrahan, she found the coverage too neutral and expected the Corporation to use expressions like “our” and “enemy” forces instead of “British” and “Argentinian.” Norman Tebbit referred to the BBC as “the Stateless Person’s Broadcasting Corporation” over its even-handed reporting of the war and The Sun weighed in by referring to the coverage as “penknife stabs against our forces by the BBC.” Few viewers and listeners complained, but it did sow the seeds of a long period of crisis between the BBC and the Conservatives, especially the more Thatcherite ones.

Ian Trethowan stepped down as Director General in July 1982. The BBC was generally in good health, despite the looming ratings crisis and the antagonism between Milne and Thatcher, and the Corporation was optimistic as it had been given the go ahead to launch breakfast television in January 1983. Trethowan commented on his time as Director General, “I defy anyone not to sit in the chair of Director General and not be moved by a sense of history. Even the cheerfully mischievous comments of Terry Wogan underline how special a position it is.” On Wikipedia, the article on Trethowan states that, “He was committed to political impartiality despite being a member of the Conservative Party.” Although a Conservative, rather like Greg Dyke, who was a Labour supporter but stated that the BBC must remain impartial, Trethowan understood that the BBC must never reflect his own prejudices and even fell out with the government over the Corporation’s balanced coverage of the Falklands, although fortunately he was not to be driven from office by his chairman like his successor was to be in 1987, or forced out of power by his former political allies like Greg Dyke.

Trethowan left the media for five years, working as chairman of the Tote, before being offered the position of chairman of Thames Television in 1987. Trethowan, whose health was beginning to fail by then, did cross swords with Margaret Thatcher again the following year over the Death on the Rock documentary, which was withdrawn by the IBA, but tended to take a limited role at this prestigious ITV company before he was forced to step down due to declining health in 1990. He died shortly afterwards.

Yet, for all he is often overlooked – and by the Birt era had become regarded as hopelessly old-fashioned – Off The Telly rated Trethowan nine out of ten in their review of Director Generals, and he really was the last great DG of the BBC. Alasdair Milne might not agree with achieving only seven out of ten, but he was a more remote figure than Milne, whose early years in office were fraught with failure and bad decisions, (although his latter years saw the BBC fight back against the odds and the Corporation regaining some of its old excellence). Had Trethowan stayed a few more years, I am sure the BBC would not have been put through the mill in the way it was under Milne, and his contacts with Conservatives like Willie Whitelaw, the Home Secretary, would have seen a far less bruising period than that which followed under Milne.

In Trethowan’s reign, the BBC retained its excellent reputation and he built on the successes of the sixties and seventies. At the end of it, he handed over a Corporation that, unlike the wreckage of the Birt years, had high morale and was a popular national institution.

A Transdiffusion Presentation

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Applemask 27 April 2018 at 4:00 pm

John Birt’s appearances on that list might be monotonous, but there’s a reason for that.

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