Picture Box 

11 January 2001 tbs.pm/3374

Had it not been for the lack of foresight displayed by an old-school newspaper proprietor and the greed of his extended family, ABC as we know it – the provider of programmes in the Midlands and the North at weekends from 1956 to 1968 and a mighty force within the national ITV network – might well never have existed. With cinema attendance having dropped from 1635 million in 1946 to 1182 million in 1955, it seemed to make sound business sense for a company dealing in film production and exhibition, such as the Associated-British Picture Corporation, to move into the fledgling world of commercial television. Granada, with a much smaller circuit and no film studios, certainly thought so, and was rewarded with the franchise for weekdays in the North.

However, some members of the ABPC board were less sure that it was a good idea for the company to take such a bold step, and so initial overtures from the ITA were rebuffed. ABPC only became a contender in February 1955, when the Kemsley-Winnick consortium – backed by Sunday Times proprietor Lord Kemsley, former bandleader Maurice Winnick and Sir Isaac Wolfson of Great Universal Stores – fell apart. The putative franchisee would have had studios in London, Birmingham and Manchester, the latter location decided by the presence of the massive Kemsley plant at Withy Grove, then the largest newspaper office and print works in Europe. Wolfson was the first to get cold feet and withdraw financial backing, followed by Kemsley, who was forced into the decision by his wife, their children and his stepsons. In the words of Denis Hamilton, one of Kemsley’s senior journalists, the main advocate of investment in television within the Kemsley group and later an acclaimed editor of the Sunday Times, the heirs saw “their inheritance at risk to Kemsley-Winnick’s gargantuan debts”.

That Kemsley should have had a loss of nerve was not really a surprise. The brother of William Berry, who became Lord Camrose after buying and revitalising the Daily Telegraph in the 1920s, Kemsley (as former Swansea department store floor-walker Gomer Berry had become) rose very much on his cleverer sibling’s coat-tails and maintained his position only by employing talented young men like Hamilton, Godfrey Smith (who later described Kemsley gleefully as a “twit”) and Ian Fleming (yes, one and the same) to make up for his own lack of nous.

It was this absence of vision that did for Kemsley, coupled with a misplaced loyalty to his feckless offspring. “By providing his sons with their guaranteed jobs for life, their Rolls-Royces, and even their Scotch beef conveniently supplied from Aberdeen, Kemsley had signed his own commercial death warrant,” wrote Hamilton in his autobiography Editor-in-Chief: Fleet Street Memoirs (Hamish Hamilton, London, 1989). Without the riches that television would surely bring in the long run, Hamilton was sure that Kemsley’s “ramshackle empire was doomed”, and by 1966, the Kemsley papers – from the Sunday Times down to the various locals and regionals owned by the group – were sold to Lord Thomson, the Canadian proprietor of Scottish Television. Ironically enough, it was Thomson who described having an ITV franchise as a “licence to print money”, words which will have rung in the ears of the foolish Kemsley and his family.

The exit of Wolfson and Kemsley meant that Winnick had to return to the ITA and inform them that the consortium would be unable to take the franchise after all. The £30,000 in damages that he was paid by Kemsley was cold comfort for having missed out on something that he knew would make him a real fortune. With time running out before the Midlands and North weekend franchises were due on air, the ITA had to find a replacement for Kemsley-Winnick and fast. The ITA decided to ask ABPC again, and this time, Howard Thomas – MD of ABPC’s distribution joint venture with Pathé – was able to persuade enough of his fellow board members that television was a good move. So it was that ABPC took up the weekend franchises in the Midlands and the North, buying a considerable amount of the broadcasting equipment that had been ordered by Kemsley-Winnick before its implosion. The ‘on-air’ name chosen was ABC, and the first logo was recognisably a variant of the sign used by the company’s cinemas of the same name.

The board in question included several representatives from the US company Warner Brothers, which had become the largest single shareholder in ABPC in August 1945, having owned shares in the British company since the death of its founder John Maxwell in October 1940. Associated British Cinemas had been established by Scottish cinema magnate Maxwell in 1928 as a consolidation of his three circuits: Scottish Cinema and Variety Theatres, Savoy Cinemas and Favourite Cinemas. At the start, ABC had 43 properties plus five sites in development. Originally a solicitor, Maxwell had been in the cinema business since 1912, and had been in film distribution since the early 1920s, through two companies: Waverley Films and Wardour Films. His move into film production came in January 1927, when he joined British National, which had been formed in 1925 by US movie pioneer JD Williams and W Schlesinger with the help of Herbert Wilcox. After a disagreement between Williams and Schlesinger, Maxwell was able to provide enough capital to take control of the company, renaming it British International Pictures and making it the umbrella company for his empire, including the cinemas. With the deal came the British National’s 40-acre studio site at Shenley Road, Borehamwood – a complex now known universally, if erroneously, as Elstree Studios.

Throughout the 1930s, BIP’s studio output grew. Although film critic and historian Allen Eyles, in his book ABC – the First Name in Entertainment (CTA/BFI, London, 1993), suggests that the company’s products were “more notable for their number…than for their quality”, being intended primarily to help ABC fulfil its quota requirements for the exhibition of British films. In 1937, the BIP name was dropped in favour of a new company title – Associated-British Picture Corporation, or ABPC for short. At the same time as the film production was growing, the cinema chain was also going from strength to strength, with staff architect William R Glen and his team of designers working on a nationwide chain of new movie palaces going under names such as Regal, Savoy and Ritz. In addition to the building programme, the ABC circuit grew through acquisition – one of the most notable being the October 1937 purchase of David Bernhard’s Union Cinemas outfit, which had foundered as a result of its own regrettably over-ambitious construction schedule. A 1936 attempt to take over the Gaumont-British circuit from the Ostrer brothers proved abortive, the cinemas eventually becoming part of the Rank Organisation. In all, by 1945, ABC had 415 cinemas in operation.

Maxwell’s death saw his widow Catherine receiving several offers for the 4,050,000 shares that she had inherited, of which Warner Brothers’ was the most generous. In the event, Mrs Maxwell sold only 2 million of her shares to WB at a cost of £900,000, but although the Maxwell family remained marginally the larger stockholder, the new investor was able to insist on the installation of its own man Max Milder as joint MD of ABPC alongside Maxwell’s long-serving lieutenant Eric Lightfoot. Warner eventually took control of ABPC in August 1945 with the acquisition of a further million ordinary shares from the Maxwell estate for £1,125,000, giving it 37.5% of the issued share capital. Now that it had control, Warner Brothers had secured its own productions a guaranteed outlet in the British exhibition market, and taken over the massive Elstree studio complex. With post-war building restrictions meaning that no new cinemas were being constructed, William Glen’s office was free to prepare plans for the studios’ return to film use, after their war years under requisition by the Royal Army Ordnance Corps. The Elstree development rendered Warner’s British studio at Teddington, which it had controlled since 1931, almost redundant when it reopened in 1948, having been extensively reconstructed after it was hit by a flying bomb in 1944. Teddington was dark by 1951, reopening briefly in 1952 for the making of The Crimson Pirate starring Burt Reynolds.

By 1955, the dominant Warner Brothers man on the ABPC board was the MD CJ Latta, who, along with Chairman Sir Phillip Warter, backed Thomas in his enthusiasm for television. Latta had a flair for backing winners, even when he wasn’t quite sure of their form himself. The Canadian producer Sydney Newman had joined ABC and gave it an enviable reputation for realist drama through the Armchair Theatre plays such as Alun Owen’s No Tram to Lime Street. Latta allowed Newman to carry on, despite admitting that neither he nor his English chauffeur could understand a word of the dialects used in many of the productions. The final agreement to take up the Midland and North weekend franchises was only signed on 21 September 1955, the day before Associated-Rediffusion began broadcasting in London, leaving ABC only five months to set up its first studio centre in Birmingham and a further three months before Manchester went live.

In London, ATV had access to the Hackney and Wood Green Empires, both Frank Matcham-designed former variety houses, while Granada had the Chelsea Palace in the King’s Road (known internally as ‘studio 10’ – studios 2, 4, 6 and 8 were in Manchester, the use of even numbers having been decreed in the very early days by Sidney Bernstein in order to make visitors think that the company had twice as many studios as it actually did) and, very briefly, the Metropolitan (better known as ‘the Met’) in Edgware Road.

In time, ABC would itself use Hackney for some of its London-based programmes, most famously Jack Good’s Oh Boy!, but for its regional centres, it was able to convert two of its worst-performing picture houses.

In Birmingham, the chosen building was the Astoria at Aston, which had been open as a cinema since December 1927. Previously, it had been the Theatre Royal, dating from the late 19th century, but the cinema conversion involved an entirely new interior by architects Satchwell and Roberts. Part of the ABC circuit since January 1929, it had long been a problematic venue, having been farmed out to the company’s second-string Regent chain between 1933 and 1935.

It closed as a cinema on 26 November 1955, less than three months before it reopened as Alpha Television Studios – shared by ABC and weekday contractors Associated TeleVision – on 17 February 1956. The first programmes to come from Aston were made by ATV, with the first ABC shows going out from the studios on the following day.

The cinema chosen at Manchester was a much more modern affair – the Capitol in Parrs Wood Road, Didsbury, dating internally from 1933 with the exterior dating from 1931. Why the difference? The 1900-seat picture house had opened on 21 May 1931 to the designs of Peter Cummings, but it had been gutted by fire on 25 April 1932, leaving only the walls and entrance standing. Cummings was re-enlisted to rebuild the stricken cinema, and it re-opened on 16 August 1933.

It became part of the Union circuit in February 1936, which in turn was absorbed into ABC in October 1937. It had seen some limited use as a live theatre in 1948/1949, but it soon reverted to cinema usage, in which form it did a disappointing trade. The final closure as a cinema came on 14 January 1956, and the work of converting it into ABC’s northern studios began, ready for the first broadcasts on 5 May. Later in the year, it was borrowed by Granada, which felt its own largest studio at the time was too small to accommodate its production of Look Back in Anger by John Osborne. The exact attribution of the conversion plans at Didsbury is unknown, but in the opinion of this writer – based on a site visit in the former Capitol’s last week as an outbuilding of Manchester Metropolitan University – stylistic details indicated that it was probably the work of C J Foster, Glen’s successor as ABC staff architect.

The studios at Aston and Didsbury are so much brickdust now, both having been demolished. However, a third building converted by ABC, is, happily, still in studio use today – being the former Warner Brothers studio complex by the River Thames at Teddington, Middlesex. The exact date on which ABC began broadcasting from Teddington is uncertain, but it is likely to have been around 1958/1959.

When the weekday/weekend split was abolished for the Midlands and North regions, ABC found itself being forced by the ITA into a ‘shotgun marriage’ with Rediffusion to create a company that would take over the London weekday contract. The resulting operation, called Thames, was 51% owned by ABC, and 49% owned by Rediffusion, with Teddington becoming the new company’s main studio base for light entertainment and drama programming. Teddington Studios were owned by Thames until the mid-1990s, when they were sold by the company’s current owner Pearson to Barnes Trust Media, which continues to run the complex as an independent studio facility.

Warner Brothers’ involvement in ABPC ended at about the same time as the TV holdings were metamorphosing into Thames. According to Allen Eyles, ABPC had long feared the withdrawal of the Americans. In the early 1950s, the founding brothers had almost sold their company to a San Francisco financier called Louis Lurie. While there was relief when the deal failed to materialise, the consternation was redoubled in 1956, when Jack, Harry and Albert Warner finally did sell out, this time to a group headed by Serge Semenenko. An approach from Granada with a view to buying the Warner holding in ABPC was rebuffed by Semenenko.

The final, long-feared break came after WB was bought by independent producer Seven Arts in 1967, with the new owner selling what was now a 25% holding in ABPC to Britain’s EMI group. Later, at the end of 1968, EMI announced its intention to make an offer for the remaining shares, to which 90% of shareholders responded positively. As a result, EMI took control of what had been John Maxwell’s former empire and Warner Brothers’ colonial outpost – the cinemas, the film studios and the latterly-added television venture – on 27 February 1969, renaming ABPC the EMI Film and Theatre Corporation.

You Say

1 response to this article

tony tyrer 25 April 2013 at 12:08 am

Teddington is now owned by Pinewood Studios Group.

Since their takeover they have reequiped both their Pinewood and Shepperton sites to provide major television studios, and Teddington has seemingly been run down somewhat. Together with the sale/lease? to Haymarket Publishing of large parts of Thames’s production office space, this leads many to think they will try to sell the site for redevelopment. Since the whole Teddington Lock area has listed status, the fate that befell Didsbury may not be possible.

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