Never on a Sunday 

17 January 2019





The companies providing programmes for the Independent Television Authority (I.T.A.) at its first three stations (in London, the Midlands and South Lancashire) are being granted contracts to operate, some from Monday to Friday, others on Saturday and Sunday. An important problem under discussion with the “week-end” companies is the period during which they should be allowed to broadcast on Sunday.

2. The present proposal is that they should be on the air from 2 p.m. to 11 p.m., with a break between 6 and 7 p.m. — a total of eight hours broadcasting (apart from any religious services they may broadcast). The question has arisen, however, whether Sunday television should be permitted between 3 and 4 p.m., the normal Sunday School period. It is strongly urged by the companies that Sunday afternoon is one of the most attractive periods for viewing in the ordinary household and they feel it would be quite wrong to deprive the adult population of this benefit from 3 to 4 p.m. merely because a limited number of parents may be unable to persuade their children to go to Sunday School. Moreover, the companies have undertaken to provide programmes from 3 to 4p.m. which will not be attractive to the normal child, e.g., half an hour “In the News” (a political discussion on the lines of that given on Friday evenings by the B.B.C.) and half an hour orchestral music.

3. The B.B.C. also would much prefer their Sunday television period to start at 3 p.m., instead of 4 p.m. as at present.

4. I have not consulted the Sunday School organisations or the B.B.C. Churches Advisory Committee, because it seems clear that their views must be against any counter-attraction to Sunday School; once they have committed themselves against, our position would become more difficult. Nevertheless, viewing the problem as a whole, I think it right to authorise television service from 2 to 6 p.m. without a compulsory “Sunday School” break, but with the condition that, between 3 and 4 p.m., there must be “adult” programmes unlikely to attract children. As however this decision may give rise to some controversy, I think my colleagues should know of it before I notify the I.T.A.

(Earl De La Warr)

Post Office Headquarters, E.C.1,
16th February, 1955.

This is something of a textbook example of how a single government policy knocks on to other government policies, creating a chain reaction that leads to the cabinet of the United Kingdom having to discuss the minutiae of what type of television programme should be broadcast at 3pm on a Sunday.

In this case, the initial policy is quite a big one: that the Church of England should be given a loud voice in the affairs of the country. As the Established church (in England, at least), the CofE was then and is now represented in parliament. Its leader, the Archbishop of Canterbury, has the ear of the Prime Minister, at least notionally, and the force of his boss – HM the Queen – behind every word he speaks.

The Church of England was unsure about the coming of ‘competitive’ television. On the one hand, the regional nature of the proposed system meant that local churches and local vicars would get a more visible role. On the other, they were clearly in competition for the same audience as television. Whilst the BBC, seeing itself also as the Established broadcaster, worked closely with the church in order to not compete directly, the new commercial broadcasters, coming from the cinemas and theatres, were much less likely to cooperate and much more likely to want to divert the bums-on-seats from the pew to the settee.

Part of this issue was solved simply by shutting television down when it wasn’t convenient: between 6pm and 7pm on Sundays, peak church time; and at the same time on weekdays, ostensibly to let mothers put their children to bed, but also to protect Evensong. No television happened during the morning anyway, so that protected the particularly pious who attended daily morning Mass in their local church – not, one would’ve thought, that those people needed such protection from the temptation to stay in and watch I Love Lucy.

But the church had a further problem: pastoral care was a big part of how the church impressed itself upon the ordinary lives of the public. This included vicars doing regular rounds of the old, infirm and stressed in their village. Would they now not be offered a cup of tea and a half hour chat, instead being invited to partake of Sixpenny Corner, or simply sent away because The Lone Ranger was a better pick-me-up than Rev Jones?

Herbrand Edward Dundonald Brassey Sackville, 9th Earl De La Warr, GBE, PC, JP, DL, pictured in 1937

That battle had been lost with the coming of radio in the 1920s, of course, but rearguard action was needed to protect other such pastoral services – mother and baby clubs, the Women’s Institute, youth clubs and Sunday schools.

The Sunday schools were particularly important. Get ’em young if you’re going to get anyone to stick with you for the rest of their lives, of course. But the church saw Sunday schools as part of the modern, dynamic Welfare State: comprehensive welfare, from cradle to grave, in sickness and in health, was less than ten years old and was the number one most important thing to the vast majority of the public, who remembered all too well what life was like before it existed. The church, it was argued, provided part of the Welfare State, looking after the spiritual needs of the population, of course, but also providing eyes and ears into the home lives of the young. Attendees of Sunday schools – and they were often almost 100% of the local children in many areas – could be assessed gently by the vicar. Were they prospering? Were they hungry? Were they bruised? A word to the local authorities or to the Ministry of Health could follow, and social workers and the NHS engaged.

Few children would voluntarily go to Sunday school if they could spend the afternoon in the warm embrace of the television set and the thrilling Adventures of Robin Hood. Sunday schools would quickly be deserted, and part of the Welfare State – the cheapest part! – would wither and die.

The recently passed Television Act, which set up the new competitive system, gave a swathe of powers to the Postmaster General, allowing him to act as a backstop against the Independent Television Authority going rogue and suddenly filling the air with sponsored filth. Each Postmaster General was very reluctant to use these powers directly – a politician interfering in the output of television would be greeted with scorn and a near riot in the Commons – so indirect methods had to be used. The 9th Earl De La Warr, Winston Churchill’s PMG, knows this, but also knows he’s very very close to crossing that imaginary line, as his final paragraph suggests.

In the end, he didn’t have to use his legal powers. Instead, his pressure on the Independent Television Authority through ‘the usual channels’ – a glass of whiskey with Sir Kenneth Clark after hours in the inner office at St. Martin’s Le Grand – saw the ITA itself decide to enforce his suggested rule. And whilst the closed period with no television on Sundays between 6pm and 7pm wouldn’t last much more than another 3 years, the ‘reserved’ period with no programmes aimed at ‘a general audience’ before 3pm would continue to influence British television schedules into the 1980s.

Your comment

Enter it below

A member of the Transdiffusion Broadcasting System
Liverpool, Saturday 20 July 2024