Cinema for television 

8 January 2008

Throughout the early years of television, programmes tended to consist of Music Hall style variety/Light Entertainment, or perhaps a drama that tended to be an adaptation of a popular theatrical play.

In September 1955, ITV opened in London, the first competitor to the BBC. Amongst the original ITV franchise applications was a consortium named Independent Television Programme Company Limited (ITPC), headed by Lew Grade. ITPC was unsuccessful with its application as the ITA then felt it had ‘too much of a monopoly on entertainment’ – the Grade Organization managing the interests of just about every major British film and theatre star, large orchestra, numerous bands and various pop stars of the day.

However, the winner of one of the contracts, the Associated Broadcasting Development Company, had insufficient funds to start broadcasting, so ITPC was asked by the ITA to join the consortium and concentrate on production only. The company was renamed ‘Incorporated Television Programme Company’ (ITP) and operated under this name for several years. The ATV series Robin Hood was the first to be made under the new name.

ITP was to operate as a subsidiary of the new company – originally entitled the Associated Broadcasting Company but soon renamed Associated TeleVision (ATV) after threats of legal action from fellow ITV company ABC Weekend.

The company also distributed ATV material outside of the UK. The ‘Incorporated Television Company’ or ITC as it was known on screen rapidly became known for quality entertainment, in a style that hadn’t up until then been seen on British television screens – giving the ‘starchy’ style of the BBC a good run for its money.

In fact, for tax reasons, ITC, under the name of Incorporated Television Company Ltd, distributed its material to all overseas territories except the USA. Material was distributed to the USA under the name Independent Television Corporation.

The separate arrangements for the U.S.A. were amended again in 1967, when new subsidiary ‘Associated TeleVision (Overseas) Limited’ took over responsibility for the pre-funding of various new Gerry Anderson productions for ITC

From Day One, ITC specialised in bringing together fresh and established writers, with talented directors, technical crews and actors – up until then, their only experience had only been working on production for cinema release – this creating ‘Big Screen’ style entertainment for the small screen.

It is perhaps hard to understand today that budgeting and the famous “How much is it going to cost?” was virtually unheard of during those days, giving freedom to directors and writers to produce something they wanted to without any interference from above.

Many of the ITC programmes used a combination of new fresh stars combined with film stars, and were produced using cinematic style action shot totally on 35mm film. Producing such programmes on film was considerably more expensive than shooting on to videotape – which was initially impossible anyway. Lew Grade discovered that ITC material would appeal to television companies abroad if it was shot directly onto film. As a result, in 1968 ATV (which by then had full control of ITC) had won a Queen’s Award to Industry for its success in export sales.

It is also interesting to note that ITC was perhaps the first UK television production company to produce material entirely in colour – there are episodes of The Saint from 1967/8 and also early episodes of The Champions produced totally in colour. This again was another selling point, as the USA had been broadcasting in colour for a number of years before the UK – not forgetting the UK was only a couple of years away from converting to a full colour service on all mainstream channels.

The first ITC export lead series planned at the outset for wholly colour production was the Gerry Anderson APF series Stingray which was filmed in 1964 and premièred in 1965. This success was followed by Thunderbirds in 1965-6 and Captain Scarlet in 1967 which were both seen in colour by overseas audiences while the British networks were still limited to transmission in monochrome. 43 episodes of the ‘knights in armour’ series Ivanhoe had been filmed experimentally in colour in the early sixties but this had followed on from 71 episodes in black and white.

What made ITC produced material stand out was the fact it had the financial backing; in addition, writers & directors were trusted and given a free hand to do as they pretty much pleased – which gave them the freedom to further their craft. Even today programmes such was The Saint, The Persuaders, The Protectors, The Prisoner, Department S and Dangerman have gathered a cult following among older and younger viewers alike and are still shown on digital channels around the world.

During the 1970s, ITC ventured into cinema production, which sadly wasn’t as much a success as its earlier television days. Films such as On Golden Pond and the Muppet series of movies did well the box office, but it was Raise the Titanic – perhaps one of the most expensive British produced films – which nearly bankrupted ITC, failing miserably at the box office and costing the company millions. Lew Grade was quoted as saying, “It would have been cheaper to lower the Atlantic”.

ITC continued with production for international television up until the late 1980s, and then concentrated on releasing its large back catalogue on video. The ITC catalogue was then taken over by Polygram Entertainment, and then later sold to Carlton in the late 1990s. Today, the ITC catalogue is owned by Granada International, with theatrical release rights owned by MGM (Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer).

Cost cutting

During the late 1960s and early 1970s, things were difficult for ITV.

The introduction of colour broadcasting in 1969 had increased technical expenditure, and drama production was hit quite hard. ITV did not receive any contributions from the licence fee and so had to make new colour programmes for the same price as the monochrome ones until new advertising rates could be agreed.

At Thames Television, things were not that much better than at any of the other ITV companies. Their advertising revenue had fallen, and also the government imposed high levies in its annual budget. The IBA did get these rates reduced, which helped, but rising costs in production were not helping matters.

At Thames it was decided that that action was required to recover the companies programming, mainly in Drama. Radical new strategies were required, and one of the most far reaching, still having consequences that are being felt in the television industry today, was the creation of a small subsidiary company focused on making cinema style films for television – essentially a more economical version of ITC.

The idea dates back to the mid 1960s, when ABC Television employees Jim Goddard, Terry Green and Trevor Preston had suggested setting up a small experimental production team, working economically on 16mm, called ABC Nucleus. This idea was first inspired by the success of Lew Grade’s ITC. It was regarded as daring in its production standards, as 16mm hadn’t been used for production of major drama before. That particular gauge had only been used on television for news and documentary production.

Trevor Preston wrote Suspect, totally produced on 16mm and directed by Mike Hodges. It was featured as part of Thames’s first night of colour on 17th November 1969. Following on from its success, it was decided that a small 16mm film unit could be made economically viable through the employment of freelance writers, directors, crew and by hiring all equipment on a daily basis.

Daytime broadcasting was about to begin, so companies realized that it was much cheaper to make low-cost studio-based programmes than produce some lavish drama. It was virtually impossible to make any film for television on 35mm cheaply, so ITV had to find alternative methods.

In March 1971, Euston Films was formed, named after the road the where Thames London studio base was located.

Euston Films was formed by Brian Tesler (Director of Programmes at Thames), Lloyd Shirley (Thames Controller of Drama) and George Taylor (Thames head of film facilities). All three had held similar posts at ABC Television and were involved in the production of Suspect. The idea was given the green light by Thames managing director Howard Thomas, who believed in it from day one, having already had success switching the production of The Avengers from videotape to film and as a result scoring a huge success with the series internationally.

Euston Films moved into its first office complete with separate cutting rooms at Redham Place in London, until it was decided larger premises were required. One of the first projects Euston was handed was to re-invent the Special Branch series – at the same time the subsidiary had moved to Colet Court in Hammersmith, the previous home of St Paul’s School.

Conditions and facilities at Colet Court were not as lavish as those at the Thames offices on Euston Road and studios at Teddington Lock – staff and actors ‘roughed it’, using a derelict Grade 1 listed building as offices, cutting rooms and a production base which would also double as locations. Another story from that era is that a producer at Euston wrote out a cheque for £50.00 and sent a stage-hand to buy furniture for the offices. The Red Cow pub opposite served as the crew canteen until it was demolished in 1981 to be replaced by The Latimer, another public house still open today.

As a result of these conditions, it wasn’t too long before the unions became involved and on a number of occasions tried to shut down the Euston setup. Another area where Euston fell out with unions was the way it contracted its crew and technicians.

At that time most ITV staff were working to terms and conditions of a contract between management and unions entitled the Independent Television Companies Association (ITCA) agreement. Under this contract, many restrictive practices had built up, including giving at least 96 hours notice when changing working hours and also having to pay out large amounts of overtime if productions over-ran unexpectedly.

For companies such as ITC and their filmed series, a slightly different arrangement, the British Film and Television Producers Association (BFTPA), held sway, using feature films as a model. This contract was a bit more flexible – in particular when altering staff working hours at very short notice. Another advantage of this agreement was that you could do buy outs up front with Equity, the Writers Guild and the Musicians Union, which meant not having to pay out repeat fees each time their productions were sold or shown.

The BFTPA agreement was in effect designed to maximize company profits, and Euston films used it as the basis of their production work.

Under this agreement, the writer and actors would get paid a fee, and then got 100% extra on top of that as a buy out. And nothing else afterwards. This meant that companies such as ITC and Euston could sell their product anywhere around the world for whatever they wanted without issues with rights. At the time, Euston was the first being founded on a television labour force that was working on short, fixed term contracts.

Industrial relations between Euston and the main union, the ACTT (Association of Cinema and Television Technicians), became bitter, also due to its contracting of staff, and its introduction of totally location-based style of production.

The ACTT was a studio-based union, with membership on the decline after the great slump in the British Film Industry during the 1970s. The location-based style of production, where you would find a suitable building and take out lightweight cameras and lighting was very cheap in comparison.

In late 1973 the ACTT had informed Euston that it was being ‘blacklisted’. The reason they had given was ‘unhygienic and unsafe conditions’ at Colet Court and so attempted to move the company to Elstree Studios – which at the time EMI was about to close down.

The view of the crew at Euston was different to that of the ACTT- they were not concerned about the conditions, they were given a ‘free-hand’ and could do what they liked and enjoyed the freedom of working with Euston films. Thus this ‘blacklisting’ was greeted with fury from the Euston crew, who later held a demonstration outside ACTT headquarters in Soho Square stating that the union should preserve the employment prospects of its members, not totally destroy them.

The film branch of the union also acquired enough signatures to get the ACTT to call a general meeting, which took place in Camden Town Hall in late 1973. The film branch had decided that if members of the television branch started to dictate to them how they should work, then they would leave the union. This was the last thing that the ACTT wanted, so a compromise was reached. Eventually, the ACTT union representatives were persuaded that Euston did not offer any threat to job security in the Thames studios by using the BFTPA agreement.

By this time, Euston Films had settled into its Colet Court premises, with production mainly centering around Special Branch, which by now was in what would turn out to be its final series. At the same time there were discussions as to what should be a suitable replacement as it was felt that the series was reaching a dead end.

It was during this period that ideas were drawn up for what could be best described as the definitive Euston Films production – The Sweeney – which began life as a 90-minute pilot entitled Regan as part of the Armchair Cinema series on shown ITV in June 1974. This episode alone cost around £85,000 to make, which in 1974 was quite expensive for television production, and it was also a good indication of the confidence that both Thames and Euston had in the idea.

The whole idea of shooting as much material as possible on location, on 16mm film, saved on studio time and at the same time added an authentic atmosphere to the programmes, thanks to the clever and accurate use of locations.

Producers and crews at Euston worked hard to get a ‘cinematic’ feel to their productions, by using long range shots, moody lighting, recording sound as it happened (nothing being overdubbed later) and completing daring 4-minute takes (something quite unheard of at that time).

In addition the producers encouraged directors and crews to take artistic control over each production, which gave them the opportunity to attempt new fresh ideas and break away from traditional styles used on television prior to this point.

The Sweeney became Euston Films biggest seller worldwide, having sold to 52 countries, and it was one of the highest rated ITV programmes between 1975 and 1978 when it was decided to ‘go out on a high’ – as its stars had fears of becoming typecast.

It is also perhaps interesting to note that two cinema releases of The Sweeney – again shot by Euston Films – were released in 1976 and 1978 and also became box office successes.

From this Euston moved on to its next huge success, Minder, which again used pretty much the same style and crew as its predecessor. This series was slow starting, but in the end ran until around 1994 – long after Euston Films had been disbanded. Production of Minder in its latter years was by Central.

In 1988, a new broadcasting bill was passed through Parliament, which deregulated ITV, resulting in the abolition of the IBA, and a new system for awarding ITV franchises was introduced, whereby companies had to bid, auction-like, for a franchise, thus forgetting the previous IBA criteria that had proven their ability to keep the ITV companies in line.

In October 1991, the results of the auction were announced: Thames had (controversially) lost its franchise to broadcast to London during weekdays, to be replaced by newcomer Carlton. As a result of this, Euston Films was disbanded though Thames continued on for a few more years as a production company.

All the politics aside, television today should be proud of the contribution both ITC and Euston Films made to British (and worldwide) television, with their often daring, low budget but pioneering methods – unique and unheard of at the time, but standard practice today – giving that sense of grittiness and reality to their programmes.

Spin offs…

In 1983, Central setup Central Films and also worked very closely with FilmFair (famous for producing Paddington Bear).

Again this idea was for Central Films to produce films for television that would also appeal internationally, FilmFair producing children’s programming.

In what could be regarded as a clever idea, Central also opened offices in London, New York (of which ATV announcer Kevin Morrison later became a director) and in Sydney Australia. These offices would handle programme sales of all Central, Central Films and FilmFair productions abroad.

Pioneering Euston Films producer Ted Childs was also a managing director of Central Films. In all, Central Films produced around 50 films, which were sold abroad that included Kennedy and Gone to the Dogs. In addition, many Central programmes were also sold abroad: Boon, Auf Weidersehen Pet, Press Gang and Peak Practice became popular in both Australia and the USA.

Central Films, once again, thrived on the same format as Euston Films, employing freelance crew, and hiring equipment and facilities on an as-and-when basis, from a main office in Birmingham.

And like Euston Films, Central Films wasn’t far away from yet more industrial unrest. The 1980s once again had their share of disputes in the television industry. In 1982, the Electricians union pulled the plug on the first edition of Central News – East, and in the mid 1980s the Electricians Union (EETPU) struck again, hitting the second series of Auf Weidersehen Pet. The union was locked in a dispute with management at Central over working and pay conditions that had been running since 1982.

At one time there was an unwritten rule that if the Electricians went out on strike, other unions would join them. This could have in effect crippled Central, so management was very wary of upsetting the electricians for fear of major industrial action.

Eventually things came to bursting point as Central management tried to tempt staff from the Borehamwood studio (soon to be closed) to re-locate to Nottingham – and the EETPU called a strike, halting all major production work at Central.

While on location in Spain for the second Auf Weidersehen Pet series, shooting days were restricted to a 6pm finish, as Electricians wouldn’t work a second longer. Eventually the dispute was resolved.

In 1994 Carlton took full control of Central, and production resources were amalgamated to form Carlton Productions. Cost cutting was once again the name of the game, and many major productions were lost, Peak Practice being one of the first to vanish – Inspector Morse came next.

And today…

Independent production companies, using methods first pioneered by ITC in the 1950s and Euston Films in the 1970s, today provide most drama production.

Most crews today are freelance, working on short-term contracts, with equipment hired in on a daily basis.

One downside for today’s television drama, however, is that directors and technicians are not given the trust and freedom to break new ground – there is always the inevitable “How much will it cost?”

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