Shoestring splendours 

2 April 2019

TED WILLIS digs below the current controversy over the new ITV companies with a tour of some of the smaller regional studios

From the Sunday Times for 17 August 1969

IN A DEBATE on the future of broadcasting in the House of Lords some weeks ago, I expressed the view that there was no real future for the smaller independent television companies, and that we might get a better service if the country were divided up between seven or eight major contractors. There was a good deal of support for this proposal in the debate, and among television people.

I must admit though, that since then I have begun to doubt whether this solution is as desirable as it at first appears. These doubts have largely arisen as a result of a visit to Westward, one of the smaller ITV stations, and to Scottish Television, which is a bigger, national operation, but still small in comparison with, say, Granada or ATV. What I saw convinced me that there is a great deal that is worthwhile about real regional television, and it would be a mistake to reorganise it out of existence.

The smaller companies are almost entirely dependent on the network material provided by the Big Five companies (Granada, ATV, Thames, London Weekend and Yorkshire), and their financial position makes it impossible for them to attempt anything but occasional forays into the field of drama, or series.

As a result they concentrate almost entirely on the production of local programmes, in the form of news, news-magazines and features with a regional flavour. They take an immense pride in the quality and range of this service and rightly so. I found in Westward, under the guidance of Bill Cheevers and Programme Controller John Oxley, an enthusiasm and morale which it is rare find in the bigger companies.

It is one of the ironies of the resent ITV set-up that a little company like Westward enjoys a much closer relationship with the people of its region and produces more truly local programmes than big companies like Thames, or London Weekend. These two companies are supposed to serve London. Allowing for the fact that they also have a national responsibility, what do they produce which has any specific relevance to the Londoner, what sense of identity do they have with the city and its people? Take a look through the programme magazines, Thames or London Weekend, despite their local labels might just as well be based in Budleigh Salterton or Bradford or even Boston, Mass., for all the metropolitan programmes they provide.

The smaller companies have, of necessity, to work on a shoestring, and while there is an obvious limit to what can be produced with very little money, one can only admire the way in which some of them have looked upon this as a challenge. “Westward Diary,” the nightly news-magazine programme has become part of West Country life, and does truly reflect the activities of the region. And I saw two first-class documentaries, “The Loss of the SS Schiller” (written by Graham Danton and directed by John Bartlett) and “The Staghunters” (written and produced by John Pett) both of which were produced on budgets which would send most London-based producers out on to the picket line.

I sensed a similar spirit at STV in Glasgow: a genuine feeling that the station could and should play an important part in Scottish life, and identify with the nation it was contracted to serve. This attitude has been slow in coming perhaps: but there have been changes in the past two or three years, changes for the better, and more are to be expected with the appointment of Tony Firth, a young and purposeful producer-director as Programme Controller.

It is infuriating that much of this fine regional work is going to suffer as a result of the increased levy on advertising revenue imposed by the Chancellor last April. The first thing to to hit is the programmes: almost all the companies are making savage cutbacks in production budgets to compensate for the additional levy and increased costs. It is bad enough when it happens inside one of the Big Five: when it happens in a small regional company which has a limited output at the best of times, it comes as a shattering blow to the morale of the production staff.

Lord (Charles) Hill

Their situation has not been made any easier by the ITA shake-up of last year: in fact, it has been made a good deal worse. I am not the only one who is beginning to wonder whether Lord Hill had any conception at all of the longterm effects of his reorganisation. We all know that there has been no significant improvement in the quality of the programmes, and I will not labour that point again.

But surely the ITA must have foreseen that the four original major companies would be left with considerable spare capacity? They’d geared themselves to produce sufficient programmes to satisfy the national network, sharing the task between them. Now we have five majors squeezing themselves into the same amount of transmission time as was previously occupied by four. As a result, the regional companies are finding it even more difficult to get a showing on the network, and the four original majors have expensive equipment and valuable studio space lying idle for long periods. This is non-planning at its brightest.

In addition the regional companies now find themselves faced with a large capital outlay for colour equipment, an outlay which they can ill afford: on the other hand they know that if they don’t get colour they will lose out to the BBC. And they have to scrape up the additional levy somehow.

One can only hope that the ITA and the Government will find some way to help them. Regional television has more than earned its right to exist. Clearly some rationalisation is needed, some sharing of costs and equipment between neighbouring companies, and more joint partnerships in production.

During the first four or five years of Westward’s existence, the only representative of the ITA’s governing board to look in on the area was Lord Hill himself, for one brief and fleeting visit. This was the measure of the ITA interest in its regional offspring! I understand that the situation has improved somewhat recently, but there is still room for a little more active help to the small companies in their fight for survival.

Kif Bowden-Smith writes:

Lord Willis asks what Thames and London Weekend provide that is of special relevance to London and answers himself: nothing. He’s shooting at the wrong target here.

Thames and LWT’s predecessors, Rediffusion and ATV London, did indeed offer very little specifically for Londoners, but the new contractors both had specific remits, written into their ITA agreements, demanding that London was treated as a region and thus got regional programmes aimed specifically at Londoners. On Thames, for instance, there was Today, which had London news and London features, something its Rediffusion predecessor Three After Six did not.

Despite noting STV’s special status, he then treats STV as another ‘regional’ company and sees it punching above its weight, but misses that Scottish Television always saw itself as the National ITV Company for Scotland (notwithstanding being hemmed in either side by Border and Grampian) and acted accordingly. STV’s punch was not because it was a large ‘regional’ company, but because it was a small ‘national’ company, serving a completely different country to most of the rest of ITV.

As an attempt to justify him changing his mind after his impassioned speech in the House of Lords arguing that ITV should be consolidated, Lord Willis’s piece fails to offer any useful reasoning; one can’t help wondering if he believed what he was saying either here in Sunday Times or a few weeks before in the House fo Lords.

Edward Henry Willis (1914-1992) was a television scriptwriter and a Labour party politician. The Guinness Book of Records records him as the most prolific screenwriter for television. He also wrote 39 films and 34 theatre plays. In 1963 he was given a life peerage and became a working peer on the Labour benches in the House of Lords.

His speech on 21 May 1969 to the House of Lords is available in Hansard. The most relevant paragraph is in column 435:

It would be better, in my view, to create a new national structure and to divide the country into eight or nine big companies, all of them with guaranteed access to the network, supervised by the Independent Television Authority. I think that this alone will give us some guarantee of more regionalism. This is more than just a simple reorganisation. It would mean that I.T.V., instead of having only five major sources for programmes, would have more. It would force more ideas into the network; it would help to Five greater opportunities to more people; and it would end what, after all, is a fairly narrow domination.

You Say

2 responses to this article

Aldred Ramsden 7 April 2019 at 4:20 am

According to The Independent (Friday, April 21, 2006) obituary of Peter Cadbury, executive chairman of Westward Television from 1960 through 1980, the playwright (Lord) Ted Willis was in 1970 a founder-shareholder of Westward Television and a defender of Peter Cadbury in the board room rebellion.

Surely Willis’s deliberations in the House Of Lords concerning the reorganisation of the ITV franchises were a clear conflict of personal financial interest and his effusive praise of Westward TV colored by the price of Westward TV on the LSE?

Why does the supposedly authoritative and claimed by its devotees to be even-handed, The Sunday Times not print the disclaimer for the 1969 article that Wills was a shareholder of Westward TV and theefore would benefit financially from the effect the article could have had of raising the profile and share price of Westward Television?

Once again further proof that the media and particularly the press media in the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland suffers from overt corruption and manipulates its readers for the benefit of the powerful and rich.

John Woods 7 May 2019 at 6:56 pm

Added to that, in 1969 the Sunday Times was owned by Lord Thomson, the very same ‘licence-to-print-money’ Lord Thomson who had a reduced but still significant investment in Scottish Television.

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