Slick – that is the new TV 

12 April 2021


Daily Herald masthead

From the Daily Herald for 23 September 1955

LAST night, London belonged to Independent TV. And, like it or not, it did Londoners proud.

They reckon 3million viewers saw the opening of Britain’s first commercial television service.

If you were one of them, comfortable in front of your own set or crammed into somebody else’s living room, I bet you sensed you were watching a bit of history as well as a lot of first-class entertainment.

I was one of the millions who did NOT see rival TV’s debut.

TV and Radio listings

TV and radio listings for 22 September 1955, from the Daily Mirror

Not because I’m pro-BBC. But I had a job to do – sitting in the busy Herald office, with its endless incidental music from clacking teleprinters, handling reports on the new TV as they came in.

7.10 – the start

Like round-by-round flashes on a big fight, the news came from Herald TV experts Alan Hodgson and Philip Phillips.

And I caught some of the excitement. I sensed some of the feeling that this was new ground for all of us… some of the enthusiasm the rival TV boys put across by the carefree way they staged their shows.

So to 7.10 p.m. last night – Thursday, September 22, 1955 – as 600,000 screens in London and the Home Counties glow into life.

At 7.15 Leslie Mitchell makes the first announcement – urbane Leslie who looks like a St. Bernard who has been to the right schools.

Philip Phillips says you heard him but didn’t see him. That seems hard on an old friend like Leslie, who opened the world’s very first regular TV services for the BBC almost 20 years ago.

History made

In comes Alan Hodgson with a comment on the opening ceremony at London’s Guildhall. “Dull,” he says. “Pompous.”

Well, it will take more than the ITA to make politicians into TV stars. The BBC couldn’t.

8 p.m. and the variety show “Channel Nine.” Zippy, bright and star-studded, says Phillips.

I wonder when he said that of a BBC show.

But this is a gala night. Even the rival TV may find it hard to get Shirley Abicair, Leslie Randall, Elizabeth Allen, Harry Secombe, Derek Roy, Billy Cotton, Reg Dixon and others into one ordinary show.

Then it happens. 8.10 p.m. is the time. And both Phillips and Hodgson agree it is an historic moment – THE FIRST “COMMERCIAL”.

It is a three-tier effort – for toothpaste, drinking chocolate and margarine. It comes suddenly and Phillips reckons it must have shaken many viewers.

Margarine after Shirley Abicair would shake anyone.


A TV camera points at formally dressed men at a long dining table

The Lord Mayor of London is speaking at the Guildhall. On his left is Sir Kenneth Clark



More variety, more commercials, play excerpts, commercials, professional boxing, commercials, news, cabaret, commercials. The pattern begins to emerge.

Says Hodgson: Commercials in the boxing irritate. And they are so quick that it is never quite certain what we are being asked to buy.

Says Phillips: Commercials suit the boxing but irritate between variety turns.

A clash here – but Hodgson is a fight fan and Phillips isn’t – so perhaps the truth is commercials will irritate all of us in a programme we like.


Courtesy of Unilever


What is BBC television doing on this night of nights? Andrew Smith reports: A horror play, for strong-nerved adults only, with the blind old villain burned to death in a realistic inferno. Good old BBC – no playing to the gallery here.

But the final credit mark must go to Independent TV. From start to finish – not a single BBC-style technical hitch.

– Geoffrey Pinnington



Stop laughing, lady, you’re dead

Harry Oakes, Ysanne Churchman and a BBC mic

GRACE ARCHER (played by Ysanne Churchman) has just “died” in the BBC serial, and is seen here after last night’s broadcast, saying good-bye to her radio father-in-law, Dan Archer (Harry Oakes).


Millions mourn Grace Archer


A GIRL rescued a horse from a blazing barn last night… and died. Horrified millions heard it happen on the radio. And the BBC was in the thick of one of the biggest rows ever.

The girl was Grace Archer, of the radio farming family, and a very real person to many of its 11million fans.

They heard her dying whisper to her “husband” Phil Archer, “Phil, I love you.” And then, by the hundred, they reached for their phones.

Just normal

Half an hour after the programme ended the BBC switchboard was still jammed. Four hours later the calls were still coming in.

Many of the callers, said a BBC spokesman, protested at the horrible way Grace fied. Many were distressed because her voice would no longer be heard. Some asked if the real Grace was dead.

Said the spokesman: “This is the story of a normal family, and life isn’t all roses. What happened is the kind of thing you read every day in the papers.”

Listeners had known Grace for three years. First as Grace Fairbrother. Last Easter the BBC staged her “wedding” to Phil in the village church in Hanbury, near Droitwich, Worcs.

Hundreds of Archer fans crowded the church. There were protests from religious leaders at what they called “a stunt.”

‘Bit of a tie’

The part has been played by Ysanne Churchman, wife of a BBC Midland television engineer, since February, 1952.

She said: “The Archers were a bit of a tie. Now I shall be free for other engagements.”

The rest of the Archers are a trifle uneasy. Who knows where disaster will strike next in a normal family?

– Philip Phillips


The following section is commentary from Transdiffusion's expert writers

Russ J Graham writes: The idea of getting someone who didn’t watch the start of ITV to write the article about it is eccentric to the point of oddness, but Geoffrey Pinnington makes a very good stab at it.

Most newspapers were anti-ITV, as it was a rival for advertising spend, and also because evening newspapers feared a drop in readership as people got their news from ITN rather than a paper published at 3pm. But not, at this point at least, the Daily Herald. Its main rival, the Daily Mirror, had spent the last couple of years trying to strangle the life out of the upstart channel. The Herald, meanwhile is happier with ITV than it is with the BBC, which gets very unfairly maligned in these two pieces: “BBC-style technical hitch[es]” were simply not the norm as the paper implies; the BBC was not “in the thick of one of the biggest rows ever” by any stretch of the imagination. And, it should go without saying, switchboards were not “jammed”. They almost never were. This is just lazy journalese and a cliché to boot.

But as spoilers go, killing off young Grace Archer was a masterstroke from the BBC Light Programme. It left enough listeners shocked and upset that they didn’t think to turn on the television for the new ITV. The Independent Television Authority were surprised when they got the viewing figures for the night: barely a third of households with sets capable of receiving Band-III ITV bothered to tune in. Launch night was a flop. Of course, that’s not because the majority of viewers were sobbing over Mrs Archer’s demise. After all the hype, all the acres of newsprint, all the billboard and press advertising… people didn’t seem to be that fussed.

It didn’t help when The Archers stole the headlines the next day. Of course ITV was reported, but the pictures were of Ysanne Churchman and the greater space and bigger type (in the tabloids) was given over to her and her character. Day two of ITV turned out to be a flop as well.

By day three, that early on, advertisers were retrenching and looking to put their spend elsewhere. ITV would be in a complete financial hole for the next few years.

You Say

2 responses to this article

Harold Tilsen 15 April 2021 at 7:59 pm

“If you were on of them”

An “e” (missing from “one”) has been dropped in the transcription of the article.

In other news, a descendant of Independent Television (not of AR or ATV lineage though) ITVBe +1 passed away quietly the other day (April 13, 2021) and nobody noticed or even cared.

Russ J Graham 17 April 2021 at 11:31 am

Corrected, with thanks!

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