Tonight’s London Weekend… in 1968 

2 August 2018

For a first night, and counter to the popular opinion of London Weekend’s early days, this is a strong schedule, offering something for everybody.

Friday nights would be a strong night for London Weekend even through its problems, mainly because it’s a good day for advertising sales, with the advertisers keen to reach people for their weekly shop tomorrow. Saturday was one of the worst days of the week for this, as nothing opened on a Sunday in the UK at the time, so there was little point advertising consumables for immediate sale. Sunday should’ve been a good night for advertising sales, but it was a bad one for viewers – with church, bath night, non-standard eating times, homework and early nights in store, it was very hard to target people effectively.

Thus Friday is the place for London Weekend to make its money. But the system has a built-in flaw: Thames has control of the airwaves in the capital until 7pm. The sales force at Thames was pushy, especially compared to the Rediffusion salesmen who had decamped to London Weekend wholesale and preferred to make handshake deals in their clubs over a nice glass of brandy. It was fairly easy for Thames to divert Friday’s advertising money to earlier in the evening.

London Weekend’s plans had been based on making the same amount of money ATV London had been making, but spending more on higher quality programmes. They were suddenly faced with not doing either, causing shareholders in what was basically David Frost’s vanity project to get very scared very quickly. This loss of confidence from the moneymen was probably more the cause of London Weekend’s problems over the next few years than the incompetence of its management.

Michael Peacock, London Weekend’s managing director, has historically carried the can for the company’s financial woes; that opinion has then been backdated to say he was always a failure at controlling channels – just look at the minuscule viewing figures for BBC-2, launch by him in 1964. What that misses is that BBC-2 was actually a success and got the viewing figures the BBC wanted from the programmes the BBC wanted to show – the tiny viewing figures were because it was very slow to spread across the country, not reaching Manchester for 18 months, and required a new television set and aerial. Peacock knew what he was doing with television, make no mistake. He perhaps was not as good on the finance side as he should’ve been, but if London Weekend’s backers had had more guts, he could’ve ridden the early storm, as could’ve his heads of department, who nearly all fell, jumped, or were pushed out in the first year.

But back to 2 August 1968, and the weekend starts here… a slogan neatly pinched from Rediffusion’s Ready, Steady, Go! pop programme that had ended two years earlier.

London Weekend comes on air after the first ever direct handover between two companies on the ITV network. Thames go off by running their ident in reverse, accidentally drowning London (they soon stopped this practice); London Weekend came on with an authority announcement, although no formal start-up sequence – even the Post Office, who mandated how television was to start its day, knew that a 4-minute piece of music over a tuning signal was ludicrous at this point in the day.

The first programme is We Have Ways of Making You Laugh, with a stellar cast and crew behind it. Frank Muir, co-writer of the huge radio success Take It From Here in the 1950s, was at the top of his game as ever; Kenneth Cope was a big star and light on his feet in a live revue format; Dick Vosburgh had written comedy for all the big names and was an accomplished lyricist to boot. With Bill Turner directing and the incomparable Humphrey Barclay producing, this was a show with good prospects.

At least, it would’ve been… but as the production assistant counted down, the camera crew and the technicians dropped everything and went for a union meeting. Muir and co on stage knew immediately that the programme wasn’t happening, but carried on anyway for the benefit of the studio audience.

London Weekend comes on air again at 7.30pm with Thingumybob. Another tremendous cast and crew here. Kenneth Cope, (un)seen half an hour ago writes. Paul McCartney did the theme tune. Stanley Holloway was a true star, having made his name in the 1930s in the Music Halls with his funny monologues, which translated to best selling 78rpm discs, then a movie star in the 1940s and 1950s in such classics as Brief Encounter, Passport to Pimlico, The Lavender Hill Mob and The Titfield Thunderbolt. By the 1960s he was back on stage, with the role of Alfred Doolittle in My Fair Lady written for him – this musical version of George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion was a smash on Broadway and in the West End, cementing his stardom forever along with that of his co-star Julie Andrews.

The best thing I can liken Thingumybob to in comedy terms is the BBC’s Last of the Summer Wine – it was a gentle comedy with a very subversive streak, striped through with poignancy, ideal weekend viewing. Sadly, all 8 episodes are lost.

London Weekend begins a run of the lavish Desilu series The Untouchables from the start at 8.15pm. This series had been a hit for both ABC in the States and for ITV in the UK, although it ran individually in each area, with different episodes turning up at different times depending on the company concerned. The writing and the music are top notch, and the 1930s setting means the show hasn’t aged too badly today. This is a good banker for London Weekend – a series that, even at 9 years old, would still put bums on seats.

9.15pm sees Frost on Friday… except it didn’t. London Weekend, and much of ITV as a whole, went off air again. Previous wildcat strikes had let the ITN news run out, if only because such bulletins provided a useful mouthpiece for both sides of a dispute. Not tonight, however. Sports Arena at 10.30pm also didn’t go out, but someone at London Weekend managed to scrape up enough non-union staff (management who knew how to operate the machinery) to put a stunted version of the Frost show out on a half built set, which the network gratefully took. The resulting show was so good that the reviewers in several regional papers didn’t even mention the strange circumstances of how it came to air.

Frost on Friday was not a new programme. For a couple of years, David Frost had been presenting three programmes for Rediffusion – on Wednesdays, Thursdays and Fridays. The Friday edition was networked, and was therefore familiar to national viewers, with those outside of London probably amazed to find there were another two episodes a week they were missing. London Weekend kept Frost on Friday and threw the Wednesday and Thursday editions into the weekend, creating Frost on Saturday and Frost on Sunday.

This is why you will see people in the industry getting confused as to what ITV company David Frost was at and when. It’s not unusual to see documentaries crediting Frost editions from 1966 and 1967 to London Weekend; the same programmes will often extend this further and suggest that Rediffusion was replaced by London Weekend rather than by Thames. Frost’s best known Rediffusion edition was his interview with insurance fraudster Emil Savundra on 3 February 1967 – to this day credited to London Weekend despite that company being merely a twinkle in Frost’s eye at that point.

BBC-1 has been running a competing schedule all evening, with programmes of a suspiciously similar genre up against each London Weekend offering, except for starting a few minutes earlier. This reaches its apogee at 10.25pm to 11.15pm, where the BBC runs Dear Mr Gable, a talking heads documentary about film star Clark. London Weekend, at 11pm, and on film so they were able to play it out tonight, has Bogie, a talking heads documentary about film star Humphrey Bogart. London Weekend puts this on as part of a series of Bogart’s films. The BBC have no such excuse for their spoiler operation.

A lot is made of the poor relationship that Thames and London Weekend had in bouts across the 1970s and 1980s. But it’s easy to make too much of this, as if staff were throwing rotten eggs at each other whilst management planned armed raids on their respective studios. In reality, while there was some petty bickering in ITCA meetings – there was petty bickering in ITCA meeting from its inception in 1954 – and the publicity and sales departments of both companies liked to throw shade at each other, there was a lot of co-operation as well. This can be seen at midnight, when London Weekend happily presents the Thames epilogue.

Of course, tonight, there’s nobody at Thames: a union meeting had been called at 6pm, blanking out Today. Thames management then sent the people responsible home. Across the next few days, there would be more wildcat action, more people being sent home and more lock-outs before the technicians across ITV (save for tiny Channel Television) declared a full-blown strike.

A Transdiffusion Presentation

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4 responses to this article

Alan Keeling 2 August 2018 at 3:50 pm

In the Friday evening 8.15 slot is the first showing of The Untouchables, with the first episode of season one (1959/60). The show is nine years old and it looks good for it’s age.

Westy 2 August 2018 at 5:18 pm

Is there going to be more on the strike over the next few days?

Russ J Graham 2 August 2018 at 6:36 pm

That’ll be for us to know and for you to find out.

But, yes.

Mark Jeffries 2 August 2018 at 10:32 pm

“The Untouchables” was the first series to be produced by one Quinn Martin. Within a few years, he had left Desilu to form his own company, which took off running with “The Fugitive” and “The FBI” and continued through the 70s with a dependable series of crime procedurals, most of them introduced with the stentorian tones of announcer Hank Sims.

And George Martin’s theme music for David Frost crossed the ocean with Frosty, providing the theme for his Westinghouse Broadcasting chat series in the late 60s and early 70s from New York, played live by a band led by jazz pianist, broadcaster and historian Billy Taylor. In addition to the chat show, Frost also did a sketch comedy series for Westinghouse called “The David Frost Revue” similar to the sketch series he did in the UK. This series was hurt by not being able to be topical due to long deadlines and being distributed by shipping tapes from one station to the other and only ran for two series from 1971 to 1973.

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