LWT as BBC3
1 Feb 2006 0 comments. tbs.pm/2093
London Weekend Television aimed high and hoped to poach viewers from BBC2, not BBC1. It had a hard lesson to learn about the weekend viewing that audiences demanded.
The common perception of LWT from the seventies until its effective demise was of an ITV weekend contractor noted for brash and sometimes terrible light entertainment, mass appeal sitcoms such as Please Sir! and World of Sport, a light weight alternative to Grandstand which featured wrestling as its main attraction. Unlike Thames and Granada, LWT never enjoyed the intellectual kudos bestowed on these contractors. The station, until the eighties, was also noted for being the unluckiest big ITV franchise, as its Saturday night schedule was routinely thrashed by BBC1 in the ratings, though critics were quick to point out The Crowther Collection was no match for Doctor Who.
However, the late sixties LWT was a very different beast to the populist and often downmarket station that viewers came to know in the seventies and eighties. Until July 1968, the ITV London weekend contractor was ATV London, founded by Lew Grade, with the main emphasis on entertainment, Sunday Night At The London Palladium being its most popular programme. However, among the establishment, and even some other ITV contractors, ATV London was classed as too downmarket and trivial, and the growing strength of BBC1’s Saturday schedule, which had become unashamedly populist by the mid sixties, majoring on Doctor Who, feature films and variety shows featuring entertainers like Val Doonican, had led the ITA to wonder if the next ITV franchise for London weekends should be a little more highbrow than that offered by ATV London and maybe rival that of the minority BBC2. Indeed an ITA report had criticised ITV’s mass audience programming at weekends as “tasteless and witless.”
The London Television Consortium was set up when the franchise round began in 1967 for the London weekend franchise. LTC was led by one of the most successful television presenters of the era: David Frost, who had become known nationally on the controversial satire show, That Was The Week That Was, in 1962 and whose reputation was currently high due to The Frost Report. Frost had assembled a group of respected names in the LTC; he was joined by journalist Clive Irving, who had told Frost that the ITA was beginning to find the programmes offered by the two London contractors, ATV London and Rediffusion-London on weekdays, to be stale and there was a chance one of the franchises could be offered to a new contractor. When the bids for one of the London franchises – Frost had tried for the new Yorkshire franchise, but was told he would stand a better chance trying for a London franchise – were opened up in the spring of 1967, Frost had signed up a team that included Irving; former BBC1 controller Michael Peacock; Cyril Bennett, Rediffusion’s Director of Programmes; and Guy Paine, Rediffusion’s Commercial Director; while Frank Muir would become the new contractor’s Head of Entertainment. While some at the ITA, and understandably at Rediffusion, regarded Bennett’s and Paine’s behaviour as devious when Rediffusion was fighting to save its London contract, the ITA was impressed with LTC’s bid for a London franchise, and it seemed the writing was on the wall for Rediffusion.
However, the ITA decided to award the contract for London weekends to LTC – much to the disgust of Lew Grade, who despised Frost for this. Rediffusion would go into partnership with ABC, then the weekend contractor for the North and Midlands, for the London weekday contract. On June 12th 1967, the ITA announced that LTC, which almost immediately afterwards christened itself London Weekend Television, had been awarded the London weekend contract over ATV, which had promised a more of the same type of service for the capital. On awarding the London weekend contract to LWT, the ITA defended its decision by stating the consortium was “perhaps the greatest concentration of talent in one company ever seen in British television.” LWT declared on winning the London weekend franchise, “Independent television has the capacity to be as complete a public service as the BBC.” The ITA had been impressed with LWT’s prospectus which seemed to offer a far greater emphasis on serious programming and quality drama than the light entertainment-oriented programmes ATV London was offering, and which would attract viewers from BBC2. Lord Hill, chairman of the ITA, wrote, “Here was a group which would bring new thinking, fresh ideas and lively impetus to weekend broadcasting.”
Unlike the slightly downmarket station viewers remember from the seventies and eighties, the early LWT was to be totally the opposite. LWT declared that it wanted “a quality of mass entertainment” and to be totally different from ATV. In fact it had more in common with the socialist/puritan ‘BBC of the North’, Granada, which had shunned variety since its inception in favour of BBC-style programmes, than with ATV London and Rediffusion. The new contractor was soon to be christened BBC3 by the press, but the self-righteous and holier than thou attitude of the incoming LWT caused resentment at other ITV contractors, particularly when Frost, writing in The Times, more or less accused other contractors in of making downmarket rubbish.
Indeed, there was also friction within LWT as the station awarded the top jobs. Peacock was infuriated to learn that Frost earned ten times as much as him and the station seemed to be split between ex-BBC staff and ex-Rediffusion, who tended to group around Frost. However, despite the personality clashes, LWT was keen to get on the air and staff were willing to go the extra mile to make the BBC3 concept work. Frank Muir, who was the first head of entertainment, recalled, ” We were a hectically busy band of brothers and sisters during those first few months of getting a station on air.”
LWT opened to an expectant public on August 1st 1968 with a populist offering, We Have Ways of Making You Laugh. However, the station was to be hit by a disaster not of its making almost immediately. In common with other ITV contractors, LWT was hit by a dispute with the ACTT over contracts and pay rates which saw programming severely disrupted for three weeks. We Have Ways of Making You Laugh did not go out, as the technicians walked out as soon as the opening credits rolled. David Frost recalled of the dispute, “The ACTT had struck. Recorded programmes were still getting on air, but live programmes such as We Have Ways of Making You Laugh were not.” Eventually, the dispute was settled after three weeks, and things returned to normal, but LWT had been damaged as soon as it opened and the company took months to recover financially.
Whilst the three week dispute with the ACTT had proved damaging for LWT as well as other ITV contractors, once things had settled down, the station started to attract huge criticism from other franchise-holders and the press for trying to be like BBC2. Viewers used to seeing Double Your Money now had a serious drama in its place. Rather like the BBC ten years earlier, LWT was seen as too highbrow, while the audience who watched BBC2 mainly stayed with BBC2, believing ITV could not deliver serious programming.
The big winner in this was BBC1, which, under Bill Cotton, was developing the all-conquering schedule that would dominate Saturday nights for the next 13 years. Faced with a heavy-going David Frost interview, viewers switched over in droves to BBC1’s mixture of feature films, light entertainment and comedy. The BBC3-type schedule offered by LWT had seen ITV ratings fall to a record low of 39 per cent in August 1968, although some of this could be attributed to the technicians strike.
Lew Grade called an emergency meeting of ITV contractors to discuss the network’s falling ratings, which were blamed on LWT and its “Brecht and Britten” schedule. Grade had never forgiven Frost for taking the London weekend franchise from him and seemed delighted LWT was failing badly. He declared, “I got where I am by knowing what I hate, and I know I hate David Frost.” Apart from somewhat like-minded Granada, other contractors were hostile to LWT, blaming it for falling ratings, and hence advertising revenue, and for its high-minded outlook. At the meeting Southern, Westward and ATV, whose Midlands franchise was the biggest population-wise, declared they would refuse to take Frost on Saturday, a more serious version of the lighter Frost on Friday/ Sunday, and the Sunday play as ratings were too low. Seemingly ideas such as Frank Muir’s visit to Moscow for an “Anglo- Russian exchange of comedy plays” were classed as too highbrow for a populist network and the station was asked to lighten its output as other contractors threatened to show their own mass appeal schedules instead of LWT’s offerings.
LWT had to act fast. A controversial play about the drinking habits of former minister George Brown was pulled as it was regarded as libellous, and a left-wing satire about the awarding of the ITV franchises, The Franchise Trail, which would have achieved a tiny audience, was rescheduled to a late night slot. Frank Muir’s Anglo- Russian comedy plays idea was scrapped as it could not guarantee a decent audience, while Parkinson’s Sport Arena, a sports pundit show unsuited to peak time viewing, was moved to a Sunday afternoon. In January 1969 LWT launched a populist Saturday night schedule of variety shows and light entertainment, headed by Ronnie Corbett, which it hoped would beat the mighty BBC1 schedule and end criticism from other contractors. On The Buses and Please Sir, which were to attract over 20 million viewers at their peak, were populist sitcoms that differed greatly from the BBC3 manifesto presented to the ITA.
However, ratings did not immediately improve significantly despite this move to more popular programming. Viewers were not switching over in significant numbers on Saturday nights from BBC1, a problem that would dog LWT throughout the seventies, and senior managers and the ITA were becoming restless. The station had to face the real world: they were not BBC2 and viewers on Saturday nights did not want serious drama and heavy going interviews. LWT had now to follow a course moving it into the mainstream at full speed. As the BBC3 era was drawing to a close, Cyril Bennett declared, “The first duty of a television company is to survive. ”
The board of LWT was also becoming annoyed by reports in the press about low ratings, poor financial performance and a confused identity at the station, which seemed not to know whether it was a highbrow or mass audience station. A damning report in The Times in August 1969 criticised LWT for not delivering the type of programmes it had promised, although to be fair other ITV contractors were criticised in this respect. Throughout the late sixties, ITV was to become regarded as a more staid and unadventurous broadcaster than the BBC, which had shaken off its Auntie image in favour of showing daring sitcoms and challenging one off dramas, which contrasted with the safe and conservative programming on ITV.
With David Frost now largely based in America, the Board placed the blame for LWT’s failings on Michael Peacock. Peacock, who had worked for the BBC previously, had still wanted to keep to the BBC3 blueprint and, along with Frank Muir, had little enthusiasm for the commercially-vital move downmarket. On September 5th 1969 LWT’s heads of department were called to a meeting at the home of LWT’s chairman, Aidan Crawley, who announced that Michael Peacock was being dismissed as managing director.
Frank Muir declared, ” We were dumbfounded. What on earth did the board have against Michael Peacock?” Muir tried to defend Peacock, stating that the station’s ratings were improving, but Day was determined to get rid of him. Most of the programming executives, except Cyril Bennett, resigned in protest, marking the end of the BBC3 era at LWT, which under new managing director Tom Margerison axed any of the station’s remaining highbrow pretensions.
Of those who resigned, Frost developed an excellent reputation as an interviewer in America before returning home to Britain and helping to launch TV-AM, which ironically suffered badly in its early months, just like LWT, due to misjudging the viewers’ tastes. Frank Muir went on to make seventeen films before becoming a panellist on Call My Bluff, and Peacock became a successful media executive in America.
LWT in its early days had misjudged the ITV viewing public’s tastes. Viewers are not fools: badly made, adamantly downmarket programmes tend to fail quickly (as the seventies LWT was also to find), but neither do viewers expect their Saturday nights, when entertainment is the order of the day, to be dominated by intellectual programming totally out of place on a mainstream channel. The move towards the LWT familiar to viewers in the seventies, and the jettisoning of some of Frank Muir’s more abstract ideas, also raised criticisms that LWT had lied to gain its franchise. Consequently the station had a severe image problem that took years to disappear: one week it wanted to show left wing satire, the next Please Sir.
However, rotten luck also led to the demise of the BBC3 era LWT. Certainly the technicians strike could not have come at a worse time. The station was crippled for three weeks at the start by the industrial action, and the strong BBC1 schedule on a Saturday night, which would continue to hurt LWT in the seventies, proved difficult to beat.
While the BBC3 era at LWT was effectively over by September 1969, its ghosts returned in the seventies, and not to its detriment, as the station tried to prove to its Fleet Street critics that it was more than a vehicle for second-rate light entertainment and professional wrestling. In 1971 LWT stunned the critics by launching one of the best-loved period dramas of the seventies, the previously shelved Upstairs Downstairs, which ran for six years and attracted 20 million viewers, drawing viewers normally hostile to the station. Similarly LWT broke the rules of Saturday night broadcasting in 1973 by showing a tough police drama, New Scotland Yard, in place of entertainment: though little remembered now, except by this author, who always thought it was underrated, New Scotland Yard performed well in its slot and was an inspiration for The Sweeney. Also, LWT set up the public service-oriented Minorities Unit in the seventies and ran the daring series Gay Life for London’s gay community, considered very controversial at the time as homosexuality was a taboo subject.
Yet for the first ten years of its existence LWT was certainly not the critics’, and often not the viewers’, favourite ITV station. Again, in another twist of irony, it would take a member of the Grade family, this time Michael, to improve the fortunes of the station which had killed off the Grades’ London franchise in 1968. Michael Grade, seeing LWT as the least successful of the big five ITV contractors, decided, in the words of the BBC’s Alisdair Milne, “to act like the Mafia with a chequebook” and spend heavily to improve the station’s fortunes. In the space of three years, LWT had poached Bruce Forsyth from the BBC, outbid the BBC for Saturday football highlights, and had built up a range of shows that were now beating the BBC’s dominance of Saturday nights. With fears growing in the late seventies that LWT could lose its franchise due to its relatively poor performance, the station went on the offensive to gain viewers.
When the franchise for London weekends was decided in 1981, in complete contrast with the previous franchise round, LWT won because it had a proven track record in popular programming. Not surprisingly the station made no mention of being BBC3 second time round.