This is Elstree, part 2
4 Oct 2010 0 comments. tbs.pm/2255
The year 1980 is one many ITV contractors will never forget. Even 30 years later it can still be a hot-topic with those members (or even ex-members) of staff and viewers who it all affected. In particular, the IBA decision, in late 1980, affected ATV from boardroom to shop floor level.
All ITV stations were at the time granted licences by the Independent Broadcasting Authority, as the ITA had been renamed in 1972. The licences lasted for around 6 years, though this period was later extended to cover 10 years. In each shakeup of the ITV system, the IBA added further requirements and contractual obligations for any new licence holder.
Along with all other ITV contractors (plus a handful of newcomers) ATV Network re-applied for their licence, but under the name of ‘ATV Midlands’.
More on this logo in Ident’s Nevermind section
One of the many requirements included in ‘Contract C’ (the IBA contract for the Midlands) was that the region be split into a dual East and West news operation, and most of the major production work carried out at Elstree be moved to a new studio complex located somewhere in the East Midlands, which eventually turned out to be a site at Nottingham, and something the IBA was later to claim was never a requirement.
Included in the requirements was that the licence holder be more ‘Midlands orientated and themed’. In the ATV Midlands application (received by the IBA during the spring of 1980), the company offered to open a small studio complex in the East Midlands and keep Elstree as a major production centre; it would also make the facility available to other ITV companies, the new breakfast TV contractor (not yet awarded) and also the planned fourth channel, thus making the site financially viable.
It wasn’t until late December 1980 that the IBA announced its final decision on the ATV contract and application. It agreed to grant a new licence, only if certain conditions could be met.
Amongst the requirements, the IBA insisted that the ATV company was restructured, with many of its shares being divested into local Midlands businesses, and the parent of the group, Associated Communications Corporation (ACC), taking less control in the company.
The IBA also insisted that ATV should produce their programming in the Midlands and change their name to something that didn’t include the name ‘ATV’ or include the ‘double eye’ logo: something that would reflect a change to viewers. The IBA felt that this was particularly important to Midlands viewers.
This decision appeared not only to spell the end for ATV, but also the end for Elstree; and with it the possibility of nearly 1000 employees at the site being made redundant.
ATV Midlands agreed to these changes and ACC began to divest its shares in the company. At the same time, ACC announced that it intended to keep the Elstree studios operating as a separate independent production facility under ACC ownership, if there was enough work available.
Lew (now Lord) Grade approached other ITV companies, international producers and then the IBA with a view to hiring out facilities at Elstree for use by both the new fourth and breakfast channels in a bid to secure the future of the site and its staff.
Elstree – the End – not just yet!
The first blow to Elstree came in early 1981; the IBA announced that the new breakfast contractor (due to start in May 1983) had been awarded to a consortium formed by Peter Jay and David Frost, called ‘TV-am’. TV-am announced that they would be building their own studios at Camden Lock in London.
ATV Midlands had applied for the breakfast contract that TV-am won, under the name of Daybreak Television – whose registered office was at 17 Great Cumberland Place, London, perhaps better known as ATV House. The intention was that Daybreak TV would be relatively cheap to set up and at the same time secure jobs and the site at Elstree.
On 5 March 1981, ATV’s Managing Director, Lord Windlesham, issued a statement to all staff at Elstree. In the statement, Windlesham hinted at future expansion in Birmingham; staff at Elstree would be offered new posts at both sites in the Midlands.
A share prospectus in the new ITV company (yet to be named) had not been issued and there was great uncertainty as to if both Birmingham and Elstree sites had been included in the share deal; would ACC carry through its plan to retain ownership of the ATV studio stock and lease them to the new company?
By July 1981, with no scheduled work for the studio site post 1982, Grade was forced to issue a statement to staff, informing them of their future at Elstree in the new contract period.
This statement was written on 30 June 1981, but not released to Elstree staff for another 24 hours. With the contents of the statement being likely to have staff and unions asking questions, ATV’s public relations advisor and the IBA head of information met for a meeting to discuss tactics on handling the situation.
Internally, ATV issued a memorandum on 30 June to all of its board members outlining the questions that were likely to arise, accompanied by a suggested ‘company’ reply:
Q: You say the new company will require the facilities of Elstree Studios for at least one year after 1/1/82 – but as the new studios in Nottingham cannot be in operation by that date – what will happen to Elstree after the 1 year guarantee expires?
A: The new company has an option from the 1/1/1983 to continue using Elstree Studios. This option can be renewed every three months thereafter, but will last no longer than one year.
Q: Why has ACC decided that when the Midlands franchise holder no longer requires Elstree, ACC envisages no other other use for the studios?
A: The board of ACC has made every effort to find alternative television work for Elstree. We had hoped that it would be a base for Breakfast Television, but this proved impossible. We had also hoped to make programmes for export there, mainly to the USA, but there was not sufficient work available to justify Elstree’s high running costs.
Q: What will ACC do with Elstree?
A: We shall sell it or if this proves impossible, redevelop it. At this stage it is too early to discuss any specific plans.
The ATV Action Group
Formed by employees at Elstree, during the summer of 1981, the ATV Action Group was a bid to generate enough interest and support to sway the IBA to change their decision.
The group produced a newsletter of events, ‘Elstree Action Report’, or ‘EAR’ as it became known. It was, at first, a daily publication but then changed to weekly, and was issued to all concerned.
The action group managed to gain support from staff at most of the ITV network, with colleagues travelling south from the farthest regions (Grampian, Scottish and Tyne Tees), as well as Granada, YTV, HTV, LWT and Thames also taking part in the large rallies and collection of petition names. As the campaign took hold, even BBC staff offered full support.
But the strongest support came from local MPs and Cecil Parkinson, who wrote to the IBA to arrange a meeting between Elstree representatives and the IBA in an attempt to reach a resolution.
The EAR even ran a competition for staff, later opened up to members of the public to design campaign badges, car stickers and T-shirts. However, though some did slip through the net, use of the familiar ATV ‘double eye’ logo was forbidden!
ATV – the end
As 1981 rolled on, the campaign to save the Elstree site did also, with petitions containing nearly 33,000 signatures handed in to Downing Street.
By mid 1981, details on “the new company” began to emerge, along with a name, brands and a share prospectus. It was apparent that the proposed new site in Nottingham would not be completed by the start of the new contract period.
More on this logo in Ident’s Nevermind section
Luckily enough, as part of the ATV Midlands franchise application in 1980, ATV had made arrangements for a small news studio in Nottingham which was proposed to come into operation during the summer, providing a small East Midlands news “opt out” in the middle of the nightly ATV Today programme. This had materialised, using a temporary base at Giltbrook in Nottingham. The IBA accepted that the new company, now named Central Independent Television, could operate from Elstree on a temporary basis.
At the same time, further expansion was carried out at the Birmingham studio site to provide additional office space, and later accommodate facilities moving from Elstree. It was still then unknown if the entire £15million site in the West Midlands would be part of the share deal for the new company, or if ACC would still own the site via Bentray Investments and lease it to Central.
All this was of little concern to staff at Elstree, many of which were forced to consider relocating to the West Midlands or sitting around for a few years before either losing their jobs or taking up a new post in the East Midlands.
In a last ditch attempt to secure jobs at the site for a further four years, Lew Grade offered the site and facilities to US television producers at reduced rates. This couldn’t fill the diary, even with the high standard and back catalogue of material produced at Elstree, as the television industry had changed hugely since ATV opened the site in 1961, with the market becoming more competitive, an advertising slump, production costs increasing and technology advancing so far that huge technical crews and studio centres were no longer required.
As 1981 ended, Central announced that it would require the use of Elstree until at least December 1982, with an option to remain there for a further 18 months if so required.
On 1 January 1982 at 12.34am, viewers in the Midlands saw the ATV double-eyed logo fade away for the final time as the station closed down, with little more than a brief look at the weather and a goodbye from in-vision Announcers Mike Prince and Shaw Taylor (both of whom would remain on screen with Central well into the 1980s).
Elstree plods on – amongst yet more industrial unrest
From 1982, major ITV programming continued to be produced at Elstree. Family Fortunes began its life there in 1980, and after 1982 new series such as Blockbusters and Auf Wiedersehen Pet began life at Elstree. All programmes were later moved to the new Nottingham site.
Auf Wiedersehen Pet was perhaps the last major production made by ITV at the Elstree site .The programme utilised the entire back lot which doubled as a Dusseldorf building site, complete with crane, mechanical diggers, half built houses and builders’ huts. That same area is now occupied by EastEnders and Albert Square.
During this period, it was still uncertain as to how long Central would require use of Elstree. Construction work in the East Midlands had begun on the new Lenton Lane site, and it was expected that this would be ready for some departments to move in during the autumn of 1983.
This could have been good news for those at Elstree, as this deadline had secured production and jobs at the site for at least another 18 months. In light of this, unions continued to fight to secure jobs, if not good rates of compensation and severance pay for those staff that would be made redundant.
Part of the problem was that ATV (later Central) in its acceptance of the revised contract terms with the IBA agreed to staff the new East Midlands studio using a large percentage of local applicants; drawing on a population that were inexperienced in the television industry. This would alone cost the company in training, and also take time.
The opening night of the first Central News East, from the temporary studio at Giltbrook, was blacked out minutes before going on air by members of the EETPU shop in a row over relocation fees and salaries – an argument that was to roll on for quite some time after.
By March 1983, the ACTT and NATTKE unions had waded into the row, again with their concerns over redundancy pay, relocation fees and revised salaries. With the Elstree closure date some months away, the unions were anxious to get a package arranged for their members rapidly, but after numerous meetings a common ground still couldn’t be found resulting in all three union shops threatening an all out strike if an agreement wasn’t made very soon.
Central soon issued a statement to staff stating that it “[r]egrets the failure to conclude agreements with all unions and accepts that this will in inevitably mean a delay in the opening of Lenton Lane”. Perhaps this was an attempt by the unions to back Central into a corner. Central, being a new company, could not afford a repeat of the 1979 strike which would lose them a huge amount of advertising revenue. ACC’s bankers, Walberg’s, had forecast that the new company would not be in profit until the end of the 1984-5 financial year at the earliest.
A closure date for the Elstree site was set for 31 July 1983, enabling enough time for those staff who did wish to move to Nottingham to undergo further training at the new site before it was due to begin production during the autumn.
Further talks during March 1983 proved much more fruitful, with agreements being drawn up between the NATTKE and EETPU unions who represented the majority of the 800 Elstree staff. With an agreement between management and the ACTT shop looking unlikely, Central announced that it would implement its alternative course of action by notifying all ACTT members of their entitlements and then by making them redundant with effect from 31 July.
After further talks with the ACTT, management at Central consulted ACAS, who ruled (under the Broadcasting Act 1981) that the issue of severance pay for staff at the Elstree studio be referred to a Central Arbitration Committee.
An agreement was finally drawn up on 29 March between Central and the ACTT, allowing ACTT members to make decisions on job offers and severance terms as determined by the Central Arbitration Committee under the assumption that the ACTT union lifted its ban on recruitment in the Midlands.
Exactly four months later on 29 July, the site produced its final programme for ITV: Family Fortunes again, and from Studio D, the first studio to come into operation some 20 years previous.
Thereafter the site was derelict and empty apart from those staff who remained on site for maintenance purposes while a buyer was sought. It wasn’t until 1984 that the BBC took over the site with plans to reshape BBC-1’s evening output by creating a new ongoing serial: EastEnders.