Tuning in with the winners 

22 September 2022 tbs.pm/76497

Elkan Allan examines the promises and plans that persuaded Lady Plowden to make changes



NOW! magazine cover

From NOW! for 1 January 1981

Father Christmas was handing out presents in Harrods across the Brompton Road when the Independent Broadcasting Authority announced the ITV franchises for the 1980s. But his gifts could not match those of Mother Christmas, Lady Bridget Horatia Plowden, DBE, Chairman of the IBA.

To the 13 good children who lived in her shoe she gave again what one long ago had called “a licence to print money,” though most of them got a few whacks on the bottom to go with it. The bad children, Southern and Westward, lost their licences. Three new ones were invited in. Television South and South-East Communications Ltd (TVS) and Television South West Ltd (TSW) were popped into Southern and Westward’s beds. And Peter Jay and his TV-AM were given the chance to wake everybody up in the morning.

Lovely for them — but what about us? What presents are TVS and TSW and TV-AM going to give you and me?

TVS has enormous expertise in two areas of programming: Michael Blakstad, who produced Tomorrow’s World and The Risk Business for the BBC, is in charge of programmes and James Gatward, producer of Elephant Boy and recent director of Minder for Thames, is the managing director.

“I walked out of the BBC in anger at their neglect of industry and science,” Blakstad told me among the popping champagne corks at their celebrations at the nearby Hyde Park Hotel, after the announcement last Sunday. “And I’m jolly well going to make sure that we produce good enough series on those subjects to make the network.”

The Real World is his working title for a weekly magazine programme about technology. “I think one reason we won the franchise is that the IBA realise that the real weakness of the system is that no industrial series has ever been fully networked.” Gatward took the broader view: “We see the IBA’s decision as a tremendous vote of confidence.” He said: “We will now gear ourselves up to deliver to the viewers of our region the quality and range of programmes we have promised them.”

TVS hit the spot, too, when they proposed a new protected hour for children’s programmes between 4.35 pm and 5.35 pm every day. Lady Plowden is known to have been upset at the way the present Big Five have neglected children, pushing their programmes back to an early start at 4.15 pm, so that they can sell more lucrative adult advertising earlier in the evening.

Among TVS’s other proposals are a serial about a family with a school-leaver who can’t find work, taking the ideas of Grange Hill a step further. And on Saturday mornings they want to leaven the lunacy of TISWAS with a series run by the children themselves, proving what children can do and are doing when they have the chance to show initiative. Relics of Southern’s regime they will continue include Worzel Gummidge and Glyndebourne operas.

While TSW, Westward’s ouster, is necessarily a smaller company, their very impressive application includes a reference to the BBC’s Penmarric, which was filmed in their area, and which they would like to match with one Cornish adventure-thriller serial a year.


James Gatward and Brian Bailey

LEFT: James Gatward, TVS – ‘Tremendous vote of confidence.’ RIGHT: Brian Bailey, TSW – ‘No-one need fear’


Brian Bailey, 57-year-old Somerset county councillor who heads the group, has used Westward’s current employees. “No one under department head need fear for his job,” he said.

Locally, they teem with ideas that I should like to see picked up by other regional companies — and, I suspect, so would the IBA. These include swapping films with stations in countries to which local people have emigrated, showing their old home and new; a weekly consumer desk; A Day in the Life of … a local doctor, monk, footballer and so on; How to Speak Cornish; local ghost stories; Secrets of the Coast; What Would You Do If? (moral philosophy); How Not to Cook, Not to Birdwatch, Not to Go Camping and so on; an art competition and documentaries on many local subjects.

But the most intriguing question to emerge is: Why choose TV-AM as the breakfast-time company?

I asked Lady Plowden. Her answer: “It was their philosophy, what they wanted, and how they wanted it to work.”

Peter Jay, formerly our ambassador in Washington now executive chairman of the consortium, explained.

“There is one phrase I used time and again at our interview with the IBA,” Jay told me. “It is A Mission to Explain. I think I’ll put it up in 360-point type all over our studios, when we get them. You know the feeling when you see a kid’s face dawning with understanding when you have explained something particularly tricky to him? That’s what we are all imbued with. We want to tell the news quickly and graphically, but we want to make people understand it, as well. And we’ll never forget that 25 per cent of our audience in the morning are children.”

I recalled that, at the public meeting, he had confessed that his own son, aged nine, would like an all-cartoon breakfast show, as you can see in America. And I remembered, too, how this persuasive and fluent former journalist had, with John Birt, who now controls current affairs at LWT, coined the phrase “a bias against understanding”, as a highbrow smear against existing television news-bulletins.


Lady Plowden in a blue dress stands next to Lord Thomson in a suit

Lady Plowden with Lord Thomson, to whom she has handed over as IBA chairman


Lady Plowden quoted it approvingly, and I marvelled at the oak from which this little acorn of a phrase had grown. “But it wasn’t just the philosophy, it was the impressive people associated with it,” she added. Indeed they are impressive: Anna Ford, Angela Rippon, Esther Rantzen, David Frost, Michael Parkinson, Robert Kee, all contracted exclusively for the first two years of transmission.

Equally impressive to credit-watchers are the two creative founders behind the cameras: Michael Deakin from Yorkshire Television, was responsible for Johnny Go Home and a string of other award-winners. Nick Elliot ran Weekend World.

Watching “Biddy” Plowden play Mother Christmas, I was astonished at the power vested in her. This was her last act as chairman: this week she handed over to the former EEC Commissioner, Lord Thomson, the running of this all-powerful body of 11 men and women whom the Home Secretary has appointed to control all advertising-financed television and radio.

That it has had to make two major changes in the companies it licenses and tell the others to put their houses in order is, in fact, an admission of its own inefficiency. It is supposed to exercise daily control of the companies in its gift.

In bold display type in its year-book, Television and Radio, the Authority boasts “The IBA Supervises the Programme Planning … The IBA Controls the Advertising … The IBA Transmits the Programmes.”

Then why should things have got to such a pretty pass that a house-cleaning as drastic as this has become necessary?


Functions of the IBA explained


You Say

1 response to this article

Paul Wheeler 23 September 2022 at 4:46 pm

How many of those programmes TVS and TSW promised actually saw the kight of day?

Did TVS ever make the promised industry and science programmes?

A cornish adventure series every year? Don’t remember it.

Like London Weekend before them, I reckon they knew once in situ it would be pretty much impossible to remove them, so ‘promises’ didn’t have to be kept.

Amoebas to zebra’s and That’s my dog, were TSW’s contribution to the network, and not much else!

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