Eastern Promise 

26 June 2006 tbs.pm/2108

Anglia was never the region of country bumpkins that many believed

Anglia Presents caption

In our own time the phenomenon of Tony Martin – that great cultural hero of a wing of the Right feeling lost and disenfranchised in the Blair era – revived the age-old image of East Anglia as overwhelmingly rural and ultra-conservative. For three decades, much of this impression came from Anglia Television and its start-up of Vaughan Williams’ “Sea Songs”, its familiar ident of a rotating knight accompanied by Handel’s “Water Music”, and its much-parodied (notably in a brilliant sketch for LWT’s “End Of Part One” in 1979) slow-paced regional programmes and presentation style, which was only abandoned in the late 1980s.

But the reality of East Anglia since the company went on air in 1959 is that it has changed more radically than any other ITV region in that relatively short time. In July 1959, The Times unwittingly anticipated the shift by devoting its back page to a photo of the newly-completed VHF mast, then the tallest structure in Britain, which had been built at Mendlesham in Suffolk for Anglia transmissions to begin on Tuesday 27th October that year. The paper may still occasionally hark back to its old romantic Toryism in the 21st Century, allowing Philip Howard to write an article praising the supposedly ethnically and culturally homogenous Englishness of the Suffolk village of Long Melford, but the reality is that most of East Anglia, apart from perhaps a few very isolated parts of the Fen country, had moved on from that model before most other rural areas.

One interesting thing about the Anglia region is that, other than in Northamptonshire and Essex (which are both borderline territory) none of its counties have ever played the “rural game” of cricket at the top level. In the company’s early years the “urban game” of football made great advances into the region – even before the company went on air, Norwich City had been the great giant-killers of the 1958-59 FA Cup, achieving a hold on the national imagination not often repeated since. In the 1959-60 season Peterborough United had a remarkable FA Cup run, after which they were admitted into the Football League for the first time, promptly achieving a record total of both points and goals in the First Division during the 1960-61 season.

In August 1961 top-flight football arrived in East Anglia for the first time; Ipswich Town, historically a lower-division side in a league dominated by clubs from London and the industrial Midlands and North, were not expected to achieve much, but by the end of April 1962 they were league champions, and this success inspired Anglia to broadcast a weekly football highlights programme in the 1962-63 season – the first ITV company ever to do this.

As time went by, clubs from the Anglia region would achieve substantially greater success than they had before ITV arrived in the area. In 1972 Norwich City entered the First Division for the first time and would become top-flight regulars for the next two decades, while Ipswich would become a consistently successful side both domestically and in the European competitions throughout the 1970s and early 1980s, and Cambridge United would enter the league in 1970 and establish themselves in the lower divisions (although they lost their league status in 2005). Interestingly, the clubs that declined in that era were mainly from declining industrial areas in the North; the likes of Gateshead, Southport, Workington and Barrow would drop out of the league, while old powers like Wolves, Bolton and Burnley would sink to the lower divisions. This could be seen as an analogy for a wider transfer of power in many different fields of British life; the Premiership era would see a resurgence of some of the Northern clubs (most obviously Blackburn and, later, Bolton) and a relative decline of Norwich and Ipswich, but the modernisation of East Anglia would not be reversed.

Anglia colour caption card

Compared to the area where Westward Television was preparing to launch the following year, much of East Anglia was already a pretty modernised environment in 1960. In that year Norwich had an experimental postcode system – the basis for the one now used throughout the UK. There were many American servicemen based in Suffolk, bringing with them a self-confident consumer culture, and a 12-year-old Brian Eno, later to become a hugely important figure in many forms of music, was living in the county deeply inspired by the music played on locally-broadcast US services radio – not something he would have been exposed to in Devon or Herefordshire. Lonnie Donegan, the most significant figure in the embrace of black American music in post-war, pre-Beatles Britain, recorded one of his lesser hits, “Sal’s Got A Sugar Lip”, live on stage in Great Yarmouth in 1959, and had part of his summer show in that Norfolk resort televised live by the BBC in 1960, while Tim Westwood, an equally iconic figure in the embrace of black American music in Britain in our own time, was a toddler living in a vicarage in nearby Lowestoft when Anglia TV made their first broadcast.

Books of colour photos from the final years of steam haulage on British Railways – often effectively a code for the final years of a hazily-recalled rural England – tend to feature East Anglia less than any other corner of the rail network. This is not surprising; by the early 1960s the region had either closed its steam-hauled lines or converted them to diesel operation, while its farms were rapidly converting to intensive agribusiness methods based around arable farming, the latter at the behest of successive post-war governments who were desperate to increase productivity but realised that much of the farmland in Britain was too rough and hilly, and not sufficiently fertile, and decided to draw as much as they could from the flattest and most fertile farmland in the UK. This flatness in the landscape would also ensure that the signal would always be transmitted even to the most isolated parts of the Anglia region – very few villages or farms would receive poor pictures or no pictures at all, whereas in the West Country and Wales such reception blackspots would be numerous, even in the early 1990s, leading perhaps to a greater sense of cultural isolation in the geographically isolated parts of those regions.

The result of this was that smaller farms of the sort owned by Tony Martin would decline in number far more quickly than in, say, the Westward, HTV Wales or Border regions, and the mythical rural landscape mockingly alluded to by the harsh suburban realist Edward Heath in 1973 when he was Prime Minister – the image of steam trains puffing through mixed farmland – would not survive into the commercial TV era in East Anglia in the way it did in, say, Dorset, where there were a remarkable number of steam trains still running on the national network in 1965. It is no surprise that Anglia produced an ITV networked documentary about factory farming in the late 1960s (“Switch On The Chickens, Put The Cows on The Roundabout”). By comparison, well into the 1970s Yorkshire and Westward were still producing documentaries about small moorland subsistence farmers whose methods had hardly changed in decades – most famously Barry Cockcroft’s 1973 YTV film “Too Long A Winter” about Hannah Hauxwell, who became a national celebrity, and whose world had absolutely nothing to do with East Anglian farming as it had developed.

Farming methods in the region changed very quickly in Anglia TV’s early years, forcing rural working-class farm workers (the countryside residents most likely to vote Labour) to move to urban areas to find jobs. Partially because of this, rural East Anglian seats which had been Labour in the 1950s actually started to lean more towards the Tories by 1964 and 1966 – the complete opposite of the national trend. Even in the Tories’ disastrous elections of 1997 and 2001, rural East Anglian seats which were held by Labour during the Eden and Macmillan governments remained Tory, while rural West Country seats were gained by the Liberal Democrats and, occasionally, Labour. This apparent inconsistency is fully explained by the demographic shifts in the Anglia region.

Not content with changes in the area served by Mendlesham, Anglia moved on well beyond East Anglia itself with the opening of the Sandy Heath and Belmont transmitters in the mid-1960s, and asserted its extra-territorial ambitions. The Sandy Heath transmitter took in Bedford where Harold Macmillan had made the 1957 “never had it so good” speech which really fired the starting gun on the ITV era – what an irony that such a speech was made in a town which received inadequate reception of the commercial channel until as late as 1965. By 1967, the company’s promotions were stressing the extent of its coverage area and pointing out the technological changes that were altering the fabric and atmosphere of East Anglia itself. Seen today, such promotional material inevitably makes one think of the designation of Peterborough and Northampton as new towns in 1968, and the existence of a considerable black population in Ipswich, recalled by a friend of this writer from when he lived there in the late 60s and early 70s, at a time when many areas which now have a good many people of ethnic minorities were exclusively Caucasian.

Somewhat in contradiction to these changes, though, Anglia’s network output still tended to conform to the rural image. They found themselves frustrated by their status as a “minor” company (although they had already clearly emerged as a much more prolific provider of network programmes than, say, Grampian or Ulster) when their rural-based soap “Weavers’ Green” – the first attempt at some kind of notional TV equivalent of “The Archers” – was nipped in the bud because of a lack of support from the major companies, when many thought it had the potential to be a long-running peak-time series.

It might well have seemed particularly cruel to Anglia that, out of all the major companies, it was Yorkshire Television who succeeded with a similarly rural-based soap when they took the original “Emmerdale Farm”, as it then was, from afternoon obscurity to peak-time success. Anglia had had a curious relationship with YTV since the Northern company was given the Belmont transmitter in 1974, pruning Anglia’s ambitions to be “the sixth major” and to possibly even overtake Yorkshire in status; at that time Anglia was originally intended to form the Trident grouping with Yorkshire and Tyne Tees (who had been given the Bilsdale transmitter previously held by YTV) but this fell through, and Trident Television would be comprised only of Yorkshire and Tyne Tees.

The loss of Belmont would rankle for years to come. Anglia Television would establish itself as a reliable supplier of popular programmes – “Sale of the Century” was the biggest ITV game show of the 1970s, with prizes that seemed remarkably lavish at the time, while “Survival” and “Tales of the Unexpected” added prestige, and the company’s Knight symbol was so distinctive that a 1979 poll suggested that it was the second most widely-recognised ITV ident after that of Thames, despite several other symbols appearing on screen substantially more often in most regions. But still there was a sense of frustrated ambition in the company, a sense that it was not being allowed to expand as it had wished.

By the mid-1980s Anglia Television, like much of the region itself, had become effectively merged with London and the South East, in the sense that it was a strong ally of LWT and TVS – and therefore of future BBC Directors-General John Birt and Greg Dyke – campaigning for TVS to become a major company in place of Yorkshire, and for a general prioritising of programmes produced in the South over those produced in the Midlands and North, particularly at weekends. The aim of this grand plan was to refocus ITV on a new kind of middle class (who, unlike the middle class of ITV’s early years, had no loyalty to the concept of the BBC and no inherent cultural resistance to “commercialism”) and move it away from the Northern, socially conservative Old Labour working classes who had made up ITV’s core audience since the 1950s.

You can see why Anglia were on the south-east companies’ side. The region’s farmers were doing exceedingly well out of the “agribusiness boom” of the 1980s, and the railway lines from Peterborough, Huntingdon, Cambridge, Norwich and Ipswich to London were all electrified around 1986/87, speeding up the journeys and making daily commuting to London much more practical. Peterborough had already grown massively as a commuter centre during the first half of the 1980s because of its diesel Inter-City 125 services to London, some of which also conveniently stopped at Huntingdon, which they would not normally do, during the peak commuter periods. The Bedfordshire commuter town of Luton, part of the London region during the VHF era and with its UHF relay once earmarked for Thames and LWT and supposedly given to Anglia because they gave better coverage to its football team, was strategically important for the Norwich-based company, giving it a foothold in the area of south-east England which was booming as Britain’s economy shifted more and more towards technological and service industries.

South Essex, which had similarly moved from London to Anglia when UHF came and which would be the source of that great buzzword of the new era, “Estuary English”, was a similar sign of Anglia’s shifting loyalties. Most significantly of all, Anglia had been gifted the epicentre of Service Industry Britain, the most radical force changing the aesthetics of the country since the Industrial Revolution – the new town of Milton Keynes, which was not founded until 1967, eight years after the company began broadcasting.

The growth of the M11 corridor up the motorway from London through Essex and Hertfordshire to Cambridge, the continuing prestige of Cambridge University (and, perhaps equally importantly, the fact that academics and students there had largely dropped their old disdain for commercialism), the early growth of the “Silicon Fen” IT industry around Cambridge, the development of Stansted as London’s third airport and the growth of the corridor around it on the border of the London and Anglia regions … no wonder the Anglia area is full of Barrett homes, the ultimate sign that an area boomed in the 80s and has stayed strong ever since (Lawrie Barrett of that company being a major donor to the Tory party in the Thatcher era).

This boom in the south-east contrasted with a massive recession in the old industrial North, as it lost its industry and with it most of its source of employment, and struggled to find a new role. The rural West Country, with its less profitable farming methods and distance from London leaving the Anglia region’s share of the south-east boom beyond it, was not doing that well – certainly TSW stayed pretty much on Westward’s level, never pretending that it could even come close to challenging Yorkshire in the way TVS and Anglia thought they could.

You suspect privately that around 1986/87 there was a deep antipathy to Yorkshire Television – the region of the old economy, mainly heavy industrial but also moorland subsistence farming – holding back Anglia and TVS, the regions of the new, technological and service economy. Anglia continued to show “Emmerdale Farm” at 5.15 pm until the end of 1987, some years after most other regions had moved it to 6.30 or 7.00 pm, and there are many possible bitternesses and grudges within Anglia which might explain this; the lingering antipathy to YTV taking Anglia territory in 1974, the sense that YTV’s region represented Britain’s economic past while the redefined Anglia region represented its future, and maybe even a deep-rooted anger at the network having knocked back “Weavers’ Green” 20 years before. What better way for Anglia to show all these things than to downgrade the rural soap produced by what they, along with LWT and TVS, considered to be the “undeserving major”, especially when they felt that their own rural soap could have been just as popular and long-running if they had been the major company they felt they deserved to be two decades later?

Despite all this, Anglia’s in-vision continuity around 1987 had not yet caught up with the region itself – it was still largely in the oft-parodied 1970s style, which might have given some inspiration to those who created the character of Alan Partridge. The highly developed and suburbanised areas around Peterborough, Northampton and Milton Keynes (perhaps surprisingly, Northampton livestock market only closed in 2002) were in an overlap area with Central Television, whose highly computerised idents and bright techno-modernist image were the talk of presentation enthusiasts in the mid-1980s and fitted perfectly with the way these areas had changed.

In 1987 Central advertised in this overlap area promoting its broadcasts in the early hours (although not yet fully 24-hour – it would close down around 3am and then show Jobfinder until TV-am) in comparison with Anglia’s 12.30 am closedowns. But in September 1987 Anglia set the tone for a new era and went fully 24-hour along with Thames and LWT, while Central still filled time with Jobfinder for a while, and this set the tone for a new image from Anglia Television, finally acknowledging the suburbanisation, profitability, and increasingly younger demographics of much of its region.

1988 saw Anglia abandon the increasingly old-fashioned Knight and Water Music jingle – and its particularly antiquated clock design – in favour of a corporate late 1980s design from the Lambie-Nairn stable.

Anglia's Lambie-Nairn logo

The abandonment of its cosy in-vision continuity style, and the departure in 1989 of its long-serving avuncular in-vision announcer Michael Speake, showed where the company was heading. Mary Archer’s involvement with Anglia somehow confirmed its connection with the 1980s Tory party – the single greatest proof that modern East Anglia is far more suburban than rural (it has had the fastest population growth for most of the period since the Green Belt was extended to cover most of Hertfordshire in 1971, thus slowing development in that county) may well be the fact that, after the “purge of the wets” in 1983 which effectively ensured that subsequent Tory cabinets would be made up pretty much entirely of suburban MPs with rural interests banished to the backbenches, many East Anglian MPs would continue to sit in the cabinet. These included John MacGregor, Tim Yeo, Gillian Shephard, John Selwyn Gummer, Brian Mawhinney and, of course, Mrs Thatcher’s successor as Prime Minister, the Huntingdon MP John Major. No other area commonly identified as “rural” would return anything like as many prominent Tory ministers between 1983 and 1997, but then other areas commonly identified as “rural” were not so absorbed into the technocratic south-east which is the modern Tory party’s spiritual home.

Late Anglia clock

Anglia Television itself in the 1990s would go the usual way of long-established ITV companies; it was taken over by Clive Hollick’s United News and Media group in 1994, although it retained an on-screen clock until 1999, long after many other ITV companies had abolished theirs, and retained continuity from Norwich until the remarkably late date of January 2000 when continuity moved to the UNM headquarters in Southampton. Absorbed by Granada later in 2000, and now part of ITV plc, the name has only been used before the few remaining regional programmes since October 2002, with national ITV1 continuity coming from London.

The changes in the region have continued much as they were in the 1980s; while agribusiness has been less profitable in later years, its East Anglian exponents have still made more money than the right-wing press might make you think, and the suburbanisation and commuter-belt prosperity has continued to grow. In 2003, The Economist reported that the area in Britain outside the City of London to have recorded the fastest growth in the previous 10 years was Ely in Cambridgeshire, and old cathedral city which has been reborn for a new era since the electrification of its railway line to London in the early 1990s made it seem much more attractive to commuters. Even compared to other ostensibly rural areas, East Anglia has an exceedingly low percentage of its population still working on the land, and because of its farming methods this was true even when British agriculture was doing better financially and employing more people nationally, than it is today. The Anglia region as a whole is as “modern” – in the sense that it is strongly influenced by patterns of living which barely existed a few short decades ago – as any other.

So there you have what used to be the Anglia region in the ITV monoculture of 2006; for the most part, a highly modernised technocratic region effectively merged with the south-east of England in many of the important ways, from speech patterns (increasingly Estuarised among the young) to patterns of employment. It’s increasingly hard to believe just how recently it was the butt of a million “Yokel TV” jibes.

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