The folk at Havelock House 

8 May 2023 tbs.pm/77850

Watching Ulster Television: Day One

 

The battle for the UTV franchise is on and some big caps are in the ring. Today KEITH BAKER, our television critic, gives his view of the commercial station since it began beaming programmes into homes in the province twenty years ago. Tomorrow Mr. Brum Henderson, the deputy chairman and managing director, talks to Alf McCreary.

 

Belfast Telegraph masthead

From the Belfast Telegraph for 22 November 1979

BEHIND the reception desk at UTV there used to be a mural by Rowel Friers. It was fairly typically folksy, full of Friers’ familiar wee Ulster people. The mural has long since gone but the folksiness of UTV is still there.

Somehow, in 20 years, UTV has not changed all that much. While the imported programmes it transmits have come a long way – Charlie’s Angels, for example, while a lousy show, is still a lot slicker and more expensive than, say, 77 Sunset Strip ever could, have been you still get the feeling that UTV is talking to the small farmer at Dervock or the woman in the wee kitchen house in that maze of streets between Havelock House and Botanic Avenue, if any of them are still inhabited.

And what, they will probably say, is wrong with that. Answer: nothing, except that it does not go far enough.

There is a cosiness about UTV’s output that makes it look always like amateur night, however gifted the amateur might be. However slick Gloria Hunniford may be, her communication with an audience is still in the nature of a chat over the garden fence. And this rural feel is now reinforced by Charles Witherspoon doing the weather on Good Evening, Ulster. Any night now he will prop his bike against the studio wall and take off his bicycle clips before giving us the bad news.

 

Photomontage of Adrienne McGuill, Ernest Strathdee, Jimmy Green, Brian Durkin and Ivor Mills

Once they were familiar faces on UTV screens – Adrienne McGuill, Ernest Strathdee, Jimmy Green, Brian Durkin, Ivor Mills

 

MIMED

What seems to be missing is a sense of adventure but that is something which viewers have lost as well. How else could you explain the interminable and slavish devotion to Crossroads?

When UTV began in 1959, there had never been anything like it. It was appropriate that it should have gone on the air at Hallowe’en for the sparks were to fly for a long time. There were transmitting problems, particularly west of the Bann where about a quarter of a million people yours truly included – had to wait for a new transmitter to be built before we could savour the delights of No Hiding Place and Robin Hood.

But television could grab the headlines then in a way which would not raise an eyebrow now. In 1960 Ottilie Patterson mimed on Roundabout. “There’ll be a hot time in the old town tonight,” she mouthed. She was right. There was hell to pay, with UTV having to issue official statements about how miming was accepted practice in television when there was not a band available to back her. Nowadays she would have to mime in the nude before it would rate a mention.

Roundabout itself was a rare and merited success. It was the first ITV regional news programme in the British Isles. In UTV, they patted themselves on the back at its success. Of course, what helped to get the station off the ground was its array of new faces. There was Jimmy Greene, an actor, who has long since gone back to acting and now turns up as everything from a police inspector to an RAF type.

There was the lugubrious Brian Durkin, a schoolteacher, not the world’s greatest pronouncer of words, as I recall, who went to Scotland. There was Ivor Mills, whom the handouts described as a teacher and concert pianist, who went on to national fame as an ITN newsreader, but who now works for the Post Office.

There was the darling little Anne Gregg, barely out of school when she became an announcer, who eventually was to become a top executive with Good Housekeeping magazine. And there was Adrienne McGuill, now Mrs. Catherwood, who still turns up from time to time at weekends. It is like turning the clock back when she does and perhaps it is this sort of moment which makes you wonder at how little things have changed.

PRIDE

Adrienne’s big moments came with the children’s programme Romper Room, a title which was to lose its infant innocence years later and come to mean something altogether more sinister.

The list of programmes in UTV’s 20 years is, well, not quite endless, but pretty long. Parade, Seven Degrees West, Hullo There, What’s It All About, Flashpoint, Zoom In, From Glen to Glen, With A Fiddle and a Flute, Your Turn Ladies, a knock-out quiz competition for Women’s Institute branches, and could anyone who ever witnessed a final of the Miss TV Post contest forget that?

Musical programmes usually involved the limited talents of the late Tommy James somewhere along the line. Teatime with Tommy, Tommy’s Tavern or just Tommy. There was an early abortive attempt at what was known as a “beat” programme but it was hastily scrapped when the Musicians’ Union objected to the groups being paid 5 guineas not for each man but for the entire group.

In the intervening years we have moved to showy productions like the St. Patrick’s Night specials, greatly expensive at about £50,000 [about £358,000 in today’s money, allowing for inflation –Ed], but largely uninteresting. UTV’s real successes were in the earlier years when there was a chance to pioneer and not to ape your average variety show. The adult education programmes Midnight Oil were a high achievement and are still looked back on with pride.

 

A man sits at a piano

MIDNIGHT OIL. Philip Cranmer, Professor of Music at Queen’s University, Belfast, in “All that Music!”. [from ITV 1963]

 

RARE

Proposed NIIT logo

Logo used on NIIT’s application to the IBA

There was even, believe it or not, drama. Now the thought of a drama production being staged in UTV would give executives rickets. Yet drama productions did exist. There was, for example, Boatman Do Not Tarry by John D. Stewart. I recall nothing of the merits or otherwise of the play, but dammit, they did it.

They did it under the direction of Derek Bailey, the most talented of all the UTV exports, who went on to make his name in London Weekend with the renowned arts programme Aquarius. If Mr. Bailey and the consortium with which he is associated were to win the IBA franchise would we see drama again or have soaring costs ruled out expensive productions of that nature for all time?

Would we then, perhaps, see the purchase of an outside broadcast unit? I once asked an executive at UTV why they had not got an outside broadcast unit after all these years and he replied: “What do we need one for?” There was, I suppose, no answer to that.

(For a Lord Mayor’s Show in 1960, they had a sort of outside broadcast. They mounted the cameras on a platform on the Ormeau Road and ran long leads back into Havelock House. This is a rare case of the mountain going to Mohammed.)

But as the battle for the ITV franchise gets hotter, with the ring now full of caps, the central issue for the IBA will not entirely be what does Ulster Television offer Ulster? There will also be the question – What does Ulster Television offer the rest of the network?

For this is one weak spot which can put the future of all the smaller television stations in jeopardy. It is, however, not universal. Anglia TV, for instance, is synonymous with wildlife programmes – “Survival” is famous – but it also has the success of Sale Of The Century.

Even a small firm like Southern Television has always been linked with children’s programmes, like How, which ran for years. UTV is not linked with anything and this could spell trouble.

SKILL

The UTV building itself is a rabbit warren. It is possible to walk around there for days, up this corridor, down that, without making your way out again. Throughout the building, there is an air of enthusiastic confusion which has probably never changed from the day and hour the station went on the air.

What has changed in the past ten of UTV’s 20 years is a development of a finely-honed journalistic skill that is reflected in the expertise of its news team and the development of current affairs programmes from Flashpoint up to Counterpoint and beyond.

What has changed, too, is the ability, seemingly at the drop of a hat, to put on programmes of the style and quality of the late lamented Spectrum, an arts programme of vigour and constant interest. It was followed, briefly, by the short-lived Review although I do not know if there are any plans to revive it.

It is when programmes like this appear that you realise how surprisingly good, and unparochial, some of the output can be. It is possible to be a provincial programme without resorting to an interview with the parish pump.

But the parish pump will always be around the corner at UTV and I see the shadow of Charlie Witherspoon lumbering up towards it on his bike.

 

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