From Alexandra Palace to Elstree via satellite from Tokyo 

10 May 2016

Television is young enough for some people’s careers to have spanned its whole history.

On reflection, it seems to me that the second 21 years in British television have passed more quickly than the first 21. Looking back to September 1955 almost automatically makes me go further back to 1936 and the beginning (if 30 line transmissions to Radiolympia are discounted) of any form of television service in this country.

Bill Ward

Bill Ward joined the BBC Television Service in 1936, and apart from war service, stayed with the BBC until 1955 when he joined ATV as head of light entertainment. He produced ITV’s first OB, the first completely VTR production, the first live programme from the USSR. He is deputy MD and Director of Programmes of ATV Network, and chairman of the ITV Network Sports Committee.

Cameras without visual viewfinders, a crosswire type of picture framing with a separate focus control guided over headphones by an engineer watching a picture monitor in the control room, were the order of the day. Admittedly it didn’t last for long, but in the beginning there was the word, a lot of hope and very little else.

But what has happened over the years, and how was television then compared with now? I suppose the greatest difference to the professional is in the technique employed in making the final programme. In the early days, either 40 or 21 years ago, all television with the exception of those programmes made totally on film, were live. By live, I mean LIVE live, as distinct from recorded live, the expression used today to differentiate between techniques employing massive tape editing and techniques employing little tape editing, but recorded in a studio complex on a continuous action basis.

Planning and scheduling of all productions was geared totally by the need to allow sufficient rehearsal time for eventual continuous performance. The allocation of studios was planned in such a way that when the programme was due to be transmitted, the studio was alerted and the programme went on the air. Recording was virtually non-existent, except in an elaborate method of photographing the picture at the end of the cathode ray that was inevitably of poor quality and very expensive. Inserts into programmes were always handled on film, and fed in on transmission from telecine as another picture source.

Television life was both simpler and more complex at one and the same time. Simpler in that the rules were such that breaks in a programme that had not been properly or carefully enough planned and rehearsed were transmitted in an unplanned, unrehearsed way that showed. Mistakes were fewer because there was no opportunity to hide them. If an actor fluffed a line or a camera went down, then in the first case the actors reputation suffered and in the second place the director had to improvise other camera shots until such time as the vision crews could repair the camera and get it back into action.

Getting things off the ground at the start of ITV 21 years ago was an enormous nightmare, but also a time of so much fun and enthusiasm. There was an attitude of total pioneering, which I enjoyed and with which I identified myself because I had experienced it down in Plymouth as a young engineer certain that TV would work and become big although many of those around me disagreed. I experienced it again at Alexandra Palace when I helped in the start of experimental transmissions in 1936, and I had no doubt that ITV would work. It had to work and be a success. Lew Grade and Val Parnell were tough, hard show businessmen who didn’t know the meaning of the word failure.

Early days at ATV: Lady Isobel Barnett being interviewed by NBC personality Jack Paar at ATV's Wood Green studios. Marconi Mk IV I.O. cameras - 7 April 1960

Early days at ATV: Lady Isobel Barnett being interviewed by NBC personality Jack Paar at ATV’s Wood Green studios. Marconi Mk IV I.O. cameras – 7 April 1960

Of course, the BBC were totally opposed to the idea. I believe there was only one man at the BBC who thought it would succeed and actively tried to make our life as difficult as possible in a perfectly legitimate way, and that was Peter Dimmock, who was in charge of sport on BBC TV. He tied up as many sports contracts on a long-term basis as he possibly could, and he did make our life difficult in the sporting area.

I went across to ATV from the BBC with Keith Rogers, who was Dimmock’s No 2 in sport, and Frank Beale. They started about a month before me, and I used to meet them in a pub most nights to find out what was going on.

They were in an office in the Grade Organisation building in Regent Street initially, and Lew came in one day while Keith was on the ‘phone. He was talking to the ABA (Amateur Boxing Association) and then immediately dialled the AAA (Amateur Athletics Association), and Lew asked Frank whom he was talking to. When Frank explained, Lew looked stern and made it clear that we didn’t want any dealings with amateurs – only professionals.

The main thing l remember about the opening weekend was the number of shows we were all involved in and the short amount of time there was to get everything ready. ATV was supplying about six hours of programmes to Associated-Rediffusion for weekday transmission as well as doing the entire weekend on ITV.

One incident sticks very much in my mind from the opening night. Everyone was naturally very intrigued by the commercials and paying special attention to them. Keith Rogers was directing a boxing match transmission about 10 that evening, and getting away a 30 or 45 second commercial during the interval between the rounds. He cut to a boxer sitting on his stool taking a big swig out of a bottle and then a beer commercial was shown. Immediately afterwards the same boxer appeared in vision spitting out his big swig into a bucket, and the pressmen watching the first night in a London hotel fell about.

Early days at ATV: Bruce Forsyth comperes "Beat the Clock" from the Palladium show in 1961

Early days at ATV: Bruce Forsyth comperes “Beat the Clock” from the Palladium show in 1961

Commercial breaks at the start of independent television were not so much a means of earning revenue to the television creative personnel as an opportunity to increase the flexibility of production. Change the set, move the camera complex (without the concern of making too much noise) from one area in a studio to another in order to restart the action somewhere else.

An anecdote that illustrates the use or misuse of the commercial break at the start of ITV all those years ago refers to that most well-known of early variety shows, ‘Sunday Night at the London Palladium’.

We carried out a full-scale dress rehearsal on the Sunday prior to the first Sunday of independent television, and those who have memories that stretch back that far will recall the format of the show. An opening section involved dancers, sight acts, compere, second top then through a 2½ minute commercial break to a middle section – the game show Beat the Clock – a further 2½ minute commercial break, then the end section which usually started with a dance routine and the top of the bill or a second supporting act into the top of the bill, and then the end of the show.

The 2½ minute commercial break was used both into and out of Beat the Clock to strike the stage, set the Beat the Clock set-up and vice versa. On the first dress rehearsal day and on the first occasion that the stage staff had of conducting the manoeuvre of the strike and set of Beat the Clock, it took 12 minutes. On the second attempt this time scale was reduced to 8½ minutes, on the third to 6 minutes, on the fourth to 5 minutes, but even 5 minutes after the fourth attempt was still twice the amount of time available.

Lew, now Lord, Grade was watching in the stalls, and by the time that four attempts had been made without successfully containing it within the 2½ minutes available, he was convinced that we would never achieve success, and that the first ‘Sunday Night at the London Palladium’ that went on the air was doomed to miserable failure. This he expressed to me in no uncertain terms when I came in from the control area of the scanner van to talk to my right-hand man Frank Beale to enquire about what the real problems were and whether we were going to solve them.

1965, and ATV captures the nation's dramatic imagination with Patrick Wymark and Barbara Murray in "The Power Game"

1965, and ATV captures the nation’s dramatic imagination with Patrick Wymark and Barbara Murray in “The Power Game”

Nothing I could do could persuade Lew that on the night all would be well, so the on-the-spot solution was to place the success or failure of the stage staff in doing the change in time in the land of local Ladbroke’s – that is, to bet on it. A rather one-sided bet, as it happened. A weekend in Paris for Frank and myself with all the trimmings at Lew’s expense. In the end, of course, the stage crew under Frank and Jack Mathews, then stage director at the Palladium, made the change in time as they did for several years to follow, and true to his word (as he always is) Lew laid on the most wonderful weekend in Paris.

The going was hard for the first three years. I worked close to Lew and Val in Kingsway, where we had the fifth and sixth floors above Associated-Rediffusion, and I know that ATV had many long heart-searching discussions at board level. Money was running out, and they had to find additional support by bringing in the Mirror Group. Ironically, if they had waited another month they wouldn’t have needed the additional support because the breakthrough came, and led to Lord Thomson’s famous remark about an ITV station licence being a licence to print money. The advertisers were slow and reluctant at first, because the audiences were smaller than they hoped for, and of course the press were fighting grimly to stop advertising being switched from them to ITV, but when the breakthrough came it was colossal.

I’ve been fortunate enough to score several firsts in television. One was the first OB in Britain (and, I think, the world) for the Coronation of King George VI, and I was the first to get TV pictures out of Russia. It was during the British Trade Fair in Moscow in 1961, and we took a mobile VTR with us, and recorded some material in Moscow using Russian cameras. Steve Wade was the producer, Billy Glaze the production manager and Pam Matthews (who still works with me) and Doreen Ayres were the production assistants.

1972, and Lord Aylestone renames the ITA The Independent Broadcasting Authority. (Well, actually, the Sound Broadcasting Act renames it, but you know what we mean)

1972, and Lord Aylestone renames the ITA The Independent Broadcasting Authority. (Well, actually, the Sound Broadcasting Act renames it, but you know what we mean)

The mobile VTR went by road and rail to Russia, and disappeared completely for four whole days. We reckon they shunted it into a siding, stripped it down to find out exactly how it was made and worked, and then reassembled it before letting it through to us.

Anyway, the Russians were very cooperative, and we covered the Fair and a performance of the Bolshoi Ballet. I stayed on and did a documentary on tape about Moscow itself, including the GUM store, the university and the football stadium. Pam Matthews had the only hard time of the visit when one of the university students lectured her in the canteen about working for capitalists and being exploited.

Another first for ATV/ITV was the use of a satellite for the Tokyo Olympics in 1964. Len Matthews was involved in space communications with Lord Renwick at the time, and mentioned the Pacific satellite and its possibilities. We had originally planned to install a camera studio and VTR machine in a plane, picking up tapes from scheduled flights landing at Anchorage in Alaska and putting programmes together in the plane as it flew down to Prestwick.

Len said there was a US Navy ground station on the Californian coast which could be used for vision pictures without sound, and we got the Japanese to agree to the installation of a ground station on their side. We went to the EBU (although the BBC tried to block the idea), and the EBU said they would use the satellite method as a back-up operation. The pictures went via satellite and were flown over the Atlantic, and the sound went through undersea cables recorded on two 10-way tape recording machines and synchronised with the pictures.

The polar route failed three times, but the satellite was 100% successful with the vision circuits never failing. Unfortunately a fishing trawl went through the undersea cable off Honolulu, and the Japanese had to send out a cable ship to find and repair it.

An early (1959) ATV OB truck. Note NBC logo on windscreen; ATV was quick to take advantage of the overseas facilities market.

An early (1959) ATV OB truck. Note NBC logo on windscreen; ATV was quick to take advantage of the overseas facilities market.

In the meantime the sound circuits were shortwaves to Australia and put back on to cable there, but the quality was awful. So I sent commentators to cover the major events, and then they caught a scheduled flight to Honolulu, where a station sent the sound to Foley Street for Graham Turner to link it up with vision coming through Hamburg. Each commentator went to Honolulu, did his piece and then went on home, and we had only one left in Tokyo by the time the cable was repaired.

I used to ring Turner each night and tell him what was coming on the tape. We used the starters pistol each time as the synch-up for sound and vision, and I told Graham one night to ignore the first two starter shots for the 200 metres race as they were false ones. What I didn’t know was that the two false starts had been edited out! I don’t think Graham has forgiven me to this day.

Next February I take charge of EBU preparations for the World Cup in June 1978. It’s a two-year assignment, and lm looking forward to it very much. I also want to examine the possibilities and submit proposals for a centralised sports group representing ITV to handle all negotiations and contracts with the various sporting bodies and organisations.

I think ‘World of Sport’ is really meaningful now in terms of coverage and expertise, but the BBC has always scored by being able to make a single approach to the sports organisations whereas ITV’s approaches are plural and fragmented. I hope to co-ordinate all the ITV sports sections over the next two years with perhaps a second ITV channel very much in mind round about 1980.

Maybe then I’ll think about semi-retirement and working two days a week, but in the meantime there’s more pioneering to be done!

Bill Ward talked to NIGEL HUNTER for the souvenir edition of ‘Broadcast’ magazine dated 20 September 1976 entitled “Twenty One Years of Independent Television 1955-1976”. The souvenir edition was edited by Rod Allen with Julian Graff assisting. Preethi Hillary was production co-ordinator and picture research co-ordinator. Carole Perks was art director with typesetting by Shirley Divers. Mike Reynolds was sales manager with Fiona de Carvalho in sales and Ursula Smith in circulation. Originally published by Communications Software Limited, London, and printed by Arrowhead Publishers, Bordon.

Bill Ward was born 19 January 1916 in Plymouth. He joined the BBC as a radio engineer in 1932, then moved over to the new ATV in 1955. He was married three times. He died on 21 October 1999 at his home in Devon.

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