From The South (part 1)
3 Sep 2005 0 comments. tbs.pm/2083
As enthusiastic cinema goers filed into the newly-built Plaza cinema for its opening film on 11 October 1932, Gracie Fields in “Looking On The Bright Side”, who would then have imagined that 26 years later, the same building on the banks of Southampton’s River Itchen would play host to the same star as television’s new regional studios opened.
By now named ‘The Odeon’, it was closed as a cinema by The Rank Organisation on 30 November 1957. The building and later the site then served as an Independent Television studio complex from 1958 to 2004, through all three generations of ITV in the South – Southern Television, Television South (TVS) and Meridian .
So it was fitting that that very same star of stage, screen and television, Gracie Fields, was invited to be lead artist on Saturday 30 August 1958, the opening night of Southern Television, England’s newest ITV company and the seventh contractor to launch on the network.
The studios became known locally as ‘The Dream Factory’. From this venue Southern Television provided regional news, sport, religious and children’s programmes, arts, music and features, for up to two and a half million local viewers and more on the national network.
Back in the months leading up to that dazzling opening night, the station’s first Programme Controller, Roy Rich, formerly of the BBC, assembled over 200 crew, office staff, reporters and presenters. They were to be the pioneers who brought “The Station that serves the South” from the coast to its hinterland, on Channel 11 from the new ITA transmitter at Chillerton Down on the Isle of Wight .
The big programme for the first night was a variety show scripted by Alan Melville and produced by Albert Locke, who would later produce Val Parnell’s Palladium shows for ATV London.
For the big night viewers joined Gracie Fields, Joyce and Lionel Blair and an all-star cast, live at 8pm with what was to be the first of many contributions from Southampton’s TV ‘dream factory’ to the national network. A new ITV region appearing was a newsworthy enough event in the fifties for the regional opening show to be seen elsewhere in the country as a novelty item on the theme “Our new network spreads…”
Meryl O’Keefe was the first on-screen presenter at 5.30pm, after the station theme was heard for the first time. “Southern Rhapsody” was specially composed for the company by Richard Addinsell, the final verse accompanying a black and white montage of scenes from southern England , transforming finally into the station’s symbol, “The Southern Star”.
Meryl was followed by live input from reporter Julian Pettifer aboard a ship in the Solent , then Martin Muncaster and Ian Trethowan (later a BBC Director General) put the first regional news on air.
Southern was not built in a day. The station served the region by developing a unique range of news, farming, children’s and women’s programming, with outside broadcasts of Show Jumping from Hickstead and Opera from Glyndebourne. In later years, network drama series were created.
The Jack Hargreaves programmes ‘Out of Town’, ‘How’ (which he co-hosted with Bunty James, Jon Miller and Fred Dinenage) and ‘Houseparty’, an early innovation for women, were so successful that Jack was promoted to Deputy Controller of Programmes.
By 1961 the company had acquired ‘Winola’, a 25-ton motorised yacht. This was used as a marine outside broadcast unit, having been rechristened ‘Southerner’.
Rich developed ‘Day by Day’, presented by Barry Westwood, as a regional news magazine and after the second regional transmitter opened above Dover cliffs, Southern broadcast a twice-weekly ‘Scene South East’ from a new small studio in the town. ‘Day by Day’ grew from strength to strength and won many regional news awards, and at one stage in the 1970 made the area top ten on 86 occasions in 30 weeks.
By 1965 Southern had provided over 135 hours of programmes to the national network. These included the fondly remembered light entertainment series ‘The Ladybirds’ with Cilla Black and Dusty Springfield and a number of special series for children and housewives.
‘Out of Town’ was sold to parts of the network, as was the six-part children’s drama serial ‘The Master’. Later a national hymn writing competition ‘A Hymn for Easter’ was networked from the South to the rest of the country.
In the seventies, the long running local afternoon chat programme for housewives, ‘Houseparty’, rose to part-network status, under a programme sharing arrangement with the giant Thames Television, when Southern in return screened Thames ‘Tea Break’ show with Michael and Mary Parkinson from London .
Southern also created ‘Freewheelers’ – another children’s drama that ran for some time on the national network, ‘Little Big Time’ and ‘Oliver in the Overworld’ with Freddie Garrity of ‘The Dreamers’. Later the classic serial ‘The Black Arrow’ met with similar network success.
Sadly, tapes of many of the legendary children’s programmes were not kept and series like ‘Oliver in the Overworld’ are now lost to the nation. Southern were not alone in wiping and re-using master videotapes in the early decades of television as both the BBC and ITV companies regularly deleted material to save space and money, not thinking that what they had made might interest future generations.
‘Freewheelers’, a sea going drama, enabled the company to make full use of its mobile OB yacht. The yacht took on an unexpected national network role in 1967, as Sir Alec Rose returned to Southampton from his record-breaking solo ’round the world’ voyage. London ITV was planning national network coverage, to be provided by Rediffusion – but an engineer died in an accident while rigging equipment and their plans were halted for investigations.
So Southern raced to the scene, coming to Rediffusion’s aid by filming Sir Alec’s triumphant return to port for the network. Such was the national excitement generated by the climax of this round the world solo voyage, that ITV executives cancelled the normally sacrosanct ATV London ‘Palladium Show’ to stay with continued coverage of Sir Alec’s return.
Southern’s ‘Day by Day’ had provided stiff competition in the 60s for the BBC’s ‘Tonight’ magazine presented by Cliff Michelmore. When ‘Nationwide’ replaced ‘Tonight’, Michelmore joined the board of Southern and presented programmes from Southampton . Berkeley Smith replaced Roy Rich as Programme Controller and he in turn was later succeeded by Tony Preston, also formerly of the BBC. Southern’s dream factory continued providing national ITV viewers with more drama in the form of ‘Miss Nightingale’ about the nurse in the Crimea, with Janet Suzman.
In an impressive heavyweight move, Southern came to an exclusive arrangement with the Glyndebourne Opera to transmit two full-length operas a year and ITV with its public service commitment agreed network slots in peak time for these programmes. When Mozart’s ‘Marriage of Figaro’ was screened across ITV in May 1974, 4.5 million viewers, a phenomenal number for highbrow music, tuned in for at least the first part of a three-hour production sung entirely in German. Fortunately, English subtitles were provided.
Southern also ran an operation, on behalf of ITV, for the regional distribution of episodes of imported foreign TV series across the network, though the Big ITV companies largely made the actual ‘buying in’ choices, often lead by ATV. This Southern operation was organised from the company’s London offices at Glenn House near Victoria .
Southern was an unusual ITV company in that it was privately co-owned by Associated Newspapers and the J. Arthur Rank Organisation, with further shares owned by DC Thompson, the Dundee-based publishers. It was the Rank connection that led to Southern launching from the former Odeon Cinema. The building was demolished in the late 1960s as brand new purpose built studios were erected on the site ready for the switch to colour transmission.
New Southern children’s programmes proved ever popular with the network, including ‘Runaround’, with Mike Reid and a new show for children ‘Saturday Banana’. This was ITV’s response to the new live BBC Saturday morning programming for children ‘Multi-Coloured Swap Shop’.
Southern created a film making division, Southern Pictures, its most successful venture being ‘Winston Churchill – The Wilderness Years’, a series starring Robert Hardy as the eponymous politician, set during the years before the Second World War. It was networked to ITV as a prime time drama in the traditional Sunday night ‘theatre’ slot.
In children’s programming the company achieved wide acclaim in dramatising Enid Blyton’s ‘Famous Five’ stories. All was not success, however, as in 15-minute slots on Saturdays and Sundays, Southern tried to repeat the success of the BBC radio serial ‘Dick Barton Special Agent’. Put partly up against ‘Doctor Who’ on the BBC, the TV version of the famous drama failed to catch on.
Time was approaching by 1980 for the ITV contract renewal round, and unlike 1964 and 1968 when Southern faced little competition, there were a few contenders knocking on the Independent Broadcasting Authority’s door.
Criticism of Southern supposedly deteriorating performance in the late seventies emerged; mainly it must be said from rival applicants. Southern opted to largely ignore this, as it felt sure the company would retain its ITV licence, on the quality of its past programmes. However on Sunday 28 December 1980 , Southern Chairman David Wilson, his board, the company and the entire media industry were shocked when the IBA told them that Southern (and also regional ITV station Westward) would not have their contracts renewed after the end of 1981.
The prize went to James Gatward, who had until recently been producing Southern’s most successful children’s programme ever, ‘Worzel Gummidge’ starring Jon Pertwee. Gatward’s ‘Television South’ (TVS) had seized the Southern crown. (Westward had lost out to other newcomer ‘Television South West’ (TSW) but the other 13 ITV companies remained virtually unchanged, save for a name and shareholding change at ATV in the Midlands .)
There was much anger and disquiet at Southern as the company, like the Cardiff- and Bristol-based TWW in an earlier contract round, had been given no prior indication that its franchise was under real threat.
Southern made plans to sell the dream factory at Northam to the new Television South. The new ‘South and South East of England’ ITV region was to be a ‘dual one’ and TVS was to build new studios in Vintners Park, Maidstone to serve the southeast, though in the event initially used another disused cinema in Gillingham .
On its final day, New Year’s Eve 1981, Southern screened its last ever ‘Houseparty’ live in the afternoon, and the last ‘Day by Day’ at 6pm . Its closing show “It’s Goodbye From Us” was a show filled with pride, natural sadness and a script hinting at some remaining bitterness. At about 12.45am (this was before 24 hour TV), the Southern star logo was screened for the very last time and rotated and spun away into a star-filled sky. There was no familiar formal closedown or national anthem, the screen simply went black over an echo of the ident and Southern had gone.
Television South (TVS) heralded in the changes the following day at 9.30am with a 15-minute programme, “Bring in the New” which featured news of its daily magazine show ‘Coast to Coast’. Some of the crew and faces from Southern transferred to TVS, such as legendary local presenter Fred Dinenage.
Later that night, at 8.30pm , Peter Williams (who was to produce features at TVS and Meridian , latterly as an independent producer) presented “Birth of a Station” which told viewers in the South what to expect on the new station. The new last programme, a nightly epilogue, was to be called ‘Company’ and directed by Southern veteran Angus Wright.
TVS inherited a larger region than Southern, as from January 1982 the IBA passed the Bluebell Hill transmitter in Kent from Thames Television to the new TVS, as part of its enhanced ‘south and south east’ remit.
Television South was a new broom with plenty of new faces on and off screen, many from the BBC – including Michael Blakstad and Michael Rodd from ‘Tomorrow’s World’ who would do science and industry programmes. Anna Home was a BBC children’s production stalwart who had produced ‘Jackanory’ and ‘Grange Hill’, headed programmes for younger viewers including a new Saturday live series ‘No 73′ – a mixture of ‘Tiswas’ and ‘Swapshop’.
Scrapping ‘Houseparty’, TVS created “Not For Women Only” a daily show recognising changes in social patterns with more male carers and shift workers at home during the day.
Television South continued with Southern’s arrangement to cover two Glyndebourne operas each year, but with the advent of Channel 4 the TVS operas were shown on Channel 4.
TVS aspired to be the sixth ITV ‘major programme contractor’, but this was never really realised. It did make some successful networked children programmes, like ‘Fraggle Rock’ (with a new generation of Jim Henson’s Muppets) and ‘On Safari’ with Christopher Biggins and Gillian Taylforth.
By the mid 80s changes were afoot behind the cameras as well as on-screen as Greg “Roland Rat” Dyke came on board as Director of Programmes and Fern Britton joined Fred Dinenage on the flagship ‘Coast to Coast’.
‘No 73′ proved a hit, as did the ‘Summertime Special’ Saturday variety shows and a new quiz in ‘Catchphrase’ with Roy Walker. Peter Williams provided network documentaries with ‘The Human Factor’ and TVS drama shaped up in the form of ‘Cat’s Eyes’, and successful adaptations of Ruth Rendell’s ‘Inspector Wexford’ murder mysteries, starring George Baker in the title role.
TVS purchased the American MTM TV company, responsible for many US hit shows like ‘Hill Street Blues’ and ‘Lou Grant’, for £190million.
This purchase initially boosted TVS profits but later became a millstone around the company’s neck. A faltering US economy lead to a downturn in US television fortunes, and stock market anxieties over the high price TVS paid for MTM caused its shares to fall in October 1989. There was also growing staff unease at the failure of TVS to secure more network ITV slots or commissions to Channel 4, though one success on the new fourth channel was ‘The Storyteller’, a filmed drama series with John Hurt in the lead role, introducing unusual world drama stories.
The lack of ITV network commissions eventually lead TVS to axe 200 staff jobs in Southampton and Maidstone , with staff offered up to £50 000 severance pay each. This was a blow to TVS ambitions and marked the slow decline of the company’s fortunes.
Some network slots were gained with ‘Motormouth’, which replaced ‘No 73′. Neil Buchannan, a ‘No 73′ veteran branched out with his own TVS series for older teens ‘Art Attack’.