Save Elstree! 

17 October 2010 tbs.pm/2265

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When the Independent Broadcasting Authority reawarded the Midlands ITV franchise to ATV in 1980, they did so with some stern terms and conditions. Gone was the name ATV, replaced by ‘Central’. Gone was whole ownership by holding company Associated Communications Corporation (ACC), reduced to just over half, which it would divest over the coming years anyway. And gone was ATV’s production powerhouse in Elstree, to be replaced by building up the ATV Centre in Birmingham and building, literally, a new studio centre in the East Midlands.

ACC had high hopes or remaining in the television business and keeping Elstree running. They bid for the National Breakfast franchise as Daybreak Television Limited, planning to operate it from Elstree. Then there was the forthcoming Channel 4. A publisher rather than a producer, the new channel’s suppliers would need studio space and facilities; the channel itself would need transmission facilities. With Daybreak TV, independent production companies and facilities hire to the BBC, international broadcasters and other ITV companies, ACC hoped to keep Elstree viable.

It was not to be. The IBA said that provision for Channel 4 operations had been already dealt with, including additional transmission facilities at the regional ITV stations. The new independent producers didn’t need the overheads that went with a big studio set-up, costs that they would pay for using Elstree but not for using the new, small and purpose-built studios that would start to spring up.

Finding other production work internationally (even with Elstree’s track record) proved even less fruitful, as did interest from the other ITV stations and the BBC, who had their own facilities and studios.

Worst of all, the ACC application for the National Breakfast franchise was unsuccessful, and winner TV-am announced it would be opening its own studios at Camden Lock in London.

With nothing left to try, ACC announced it would close Elstree. Staff could find places in the enlarged Birmingham studios or at the smaller East Midlands site-to-be, or they could take the redundancy money and move on.

Instead of taking that decision on the chin, staff at the Elstree site began a campaign during the spring of 1981 to convince the IBA to look at its decision again and thus keep Elstree going.

Initially a daily (later weekly) newsletter Elstree Action Report (EAR) was available to all staff and covered events in relation to the campaign as well as local and national press coverage.

By the summer of 1981, support had been received from fellow staff in most of the ITV contractors, along with most quarters of the BBC, local councils, film studios and a large number of Hertfordshire residents. Staff from both Yorkshire and Granada Television regularly travelled to London to support demonstrations held by ATV staff.



In true ATV style, the campaign was a ‘song and dance’ affair, leaving no stone unturned; but the likes of ACC and ATV management had to take a back seat (for obvious reasons). That didn’t stop producers, programme directors and local MPs from lobbying the IBA.

During July 1981, all ATV staff were urged to lobby their local MP, with a view that if enough letters were received by MPs, the subject would be raised in the House of Commons.

The first reply came from Powellite St Albans Tory MP Sir Victor Goodhew (1919-2006), who wrote to incoming IBA Chairman Lord Thomson on the matter.

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Campaign stalls with a petition to sign were a regular site in Borehamwood High Street during each Saturday, catching the local shoppers. Over the first two weeks of campaigning, the petition had acquired just over 2000 names.

On 10 July 1981, the Royal Television Society (RTS) hosted a buffet at the Ivory House in London, ironically with a talk on Television Studios: Past, Present and Future. In attendance was Lady Plowden, outgoing Chairman of the IBA. Representatives of the ATV campaign gate crashed the event, but acquired only 150 signatures for their petitions, amongst much (possibly unsurprising) snobbery from IBA representatives and rude remarks from other delegates.

Despite this, the campaign team staged their first rally at the TUC headquarters on 15 July. Over 100 members of staff attended the rally, setting off from Congress House to Downing Street to hand in petitions, followed by a trip to Westminster to speak to interested MPs. Another trip to Downing Street was planned, to hand in further petitions, and just over a week later, a grand total of 14,449 names had been handed in.

Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher responded to the Save Elstree campaign by pointing out that the IBA decision was nothing to do with the government, and that she did not wish to interfere with the decision anyway.

Local MPs who strongly supported the campaign arranged a meeting with the regulator to see if the IBA could be swayed in its decision. This meeting lasted no more than 30 minutes; and a prepared statement was issued by the IBA only 5 minutes after the meeting had ended.

For many, this prepared statement was nothing more than that issued by the Authority to all ATV staff at the start of the campaign some months earlier – albeit worded slightly differently – which left ACC and ATV both thinking that the IBA had made its mind up before the meeting had even taken place.

It seemed to campaigners that the IBA had changed its reasons for making its decision on the ATV franchise. In the original Contract C specifications, issued in January 1980, the IBA laid out its proposals and requirements for splitting the Midlands into an East and West ‘dual region’, stating:

  • the new franchise holder be ‘more Midlands orientated’
  • be based in the Midlands
  • produce its programmes in the Midlands
  • at least 49% of the company be held by Midlands interests

Following the meeting, the IBA stated that the decision to close Elstree was a decision that should only be made by ACC and not a decision of the IBA. In a letter to the Save Esltree campaign, the Authority stated that “under no terms did we insist that ATV move its entire operation to the Midlands”.

This left staff wondering if the IBA were embarrassed by the interest their decision had made and were reluctant to reverse it in fear of further embarrassment, thus giving in to the unions and workforce; something the then-new Conservative government was already saying it would take a dim view of.

By late July, the fate of ATV and the campaign had become a major talking point within the media; the BBC had covered the story on numerous occasions and the issue was even brought up during Question Time, while on ITV it all became a major talking point for LWT’s Weekend World. That particular episode was followed (perhaps ironically) the next week by an edition covering ‘Unemployment in the Midlands’. In Fleet Street, the Financial Times was more concerned that the 49% of the new company hadn’t yet still been divested, and that a prospectus for the new company had yet to be issued by Warburg’s.

By the end of July the campaign had collected a staggering 23,336 names in support of the Elstree studios. As part of the ‘song and dance’ policy, the names were handed in to Downing Street by actors John Barron, William Franklyn, Megs Jenkins and Madge Wicke and presenter Bob Monkhouse.

Producer (and later presenter) William G Stewart supported the campaign by writing a strong letter to the IBA, questioning the reasons behind their decision; at the same time Lord Thomson was invited to Elstree to hear the employees views on the proposed closure of the site, an offer that Lord Thomson was quick to turn down as he was “…unavailable for the foreseeable future as the IBA were currently in the process of moving to Winchester,” and “he had to be readily available to discuss any issues with any of the Franchise applicants…” – all excepting ATV, it seemed. The reply again seemed to be more or less a word for word copy of the previous month’s IBA press releases, although the Chairman went on to add that the IBA decision was made with all the staff in mind.

Media journals Broadcast and The Stage were also carrying the Save Elstree campaign story and began to ask questions of the IBA, which the IBA declined to answer.

On 31 July the campaign received a letter from junior Trade Minister and Thatcher confidant Cecil Parkinson, a long standing supporter of the fight to save the Elstree site:

“We had a well attended meeting in the House last night with about 14 members present. A number of others also confirmed their interest and support but simply weren’t available. However they have authorized me to speak in their name. Members of both the Labour and Conservative Party were present.

“It was agreed that I should seek an urgent meeting with Lord Thomson who has been ill and away from his office this week. It is hoped that a meeting will be arranged during the early part of next week. I will be accompanied by a representative cross-section of members.

“There was a unanimous agreement amongst all Members present that we should do our utmost to persuade the IBA and Lord Grade to reverse what all agreed was a bad decision and to press in every way open to us for the retention Elstree as a major studio.”

So much for the Government wanting to take a backseat!

Eventually, a meeting was arranged for 6 August 1981, after which an official press statement from the House of Commons was released:

“On Thursday, 6th August 1981, at 3.30pm, a meeting took place at the Independent Broadcasting Authority between the Rt Hon Lord Thomson, Sir Brian Young, Mr J Marriot and a delegation of Members of Parliament. These included Mr Hugh Dykes MP, Mr Victor Goodhew MP, Mr John Gorst MP, Mr Hal Miller MP and Mr Cecil Parkinson MP.

“The following statement was issued jointly by the Members or Parliament:

“We pressed Lord Thomson very strongly the case for retaining Elstree. We pointed out that there had been a change in circumstances since the licenses for the Midland area were issued. At the time it had been envisaged that Elstree would continue making programmes for the Fourth Channel and would continue its brilliant record of productions for markets overseas.

“It was now clear that the move to Nottingham would involve the closure of Elstree and destruction of one of Britain’s best known studios to no apparent purpose other than having the work done in Nottingham instead of Elstree by people who had been forced from Elstree to do it.

“The Chairman confirmed that the matter had been reconsidered by the Authority which was of the Unanimous view that it could not change its position because of the fact that the contract had been awarded as a result of public tender but he confirmed that even had they been able to change, they would not have wished to.

“His view was that they could not and would not change their position.

“We ended the meeting by expressing our view that this was a wrong-headed attitude and a poor decision we deplored the fact that the Authority refused to consider it.”

So it seemed that the IBA would not reconsider under any circumstances, even with pressure from MPs.

Prior to this meeting, the head of promotions at Elstree, Kirsten Hanson, drafted very long letter to the Authority outlining questions that should still be answered; and on 10 August, around the same time that the parliamentary statement was issued, a reply from the IBA was at last received at Elstree.

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The campaign team saw this reply as a total waste of time and paper; nevertheless, they did acknowledge that the authority had at least replied. But again it seemed that the letter was no more than a slightly reworded version of their standard issue press statement.

The EAR made the IBA’s letter public along with its ill-tempered response:

“…on the face of it, the letter doesn’t actually say anything at all. It is, however, this very ‘nothing less’ about the letter which says and awful lot! The fact that the Authority has (again) cleverly avoided answering any of the questions put to them is very revealing (and actually not very clever at all).

“Note to Lord T.: You might as well get on with it Sir, and answer the questions; they will be asked again – and again – and again, until it becomes embarrassing (perhaps it already is) Let’s face it, as you are the authority overseeing the Independent Television Network, no questions have been put to you, which you should not be able to answer.”

It seemed now, that things were getting bitter between campaigners and the IBA; however those MPs who were supporting the campaign did try to meet in the middle and offer both the IBA and ATV staff an alternative plan of action that could have saved Elstree.

Former Conservative Prime Minster Sir Edward Heath wished to offer his support to the campaign, and drafted an alternative plan to the IBA in a bid to at least get some constructive talks in progress.

In a press release, Mr Heath stated “…I have raised the matter first with Lord Grade, who confirms that if the IBA would allow ATV to use Elstree as well as having small studios in the East Midlands for local news and current affairs, the problems would be solved. I have therefore taken this up with the Chairman of the IBA, and await his comments.”

So it seemed, some hope was offered, even with the start of the new franchises only just over four months away.

On 25 August, the BBC’s Newsnight covered the campaign with a package and a short debate about the future of ATV. The press were still speculating on the future of both ATV and the Elstree site; Broadcast published a special feature during the summer of 1981, asking whether Elstree could be used as a production house for the new ‘ITV-2’, as Channel 4 was still often dubbed.

With the introduction of Channel 4 being set for the autumn of 1982, questions were raised as to where ITV companies would find the additional floor space required to fuel the new Channel 4 requirements, while also keeping up with production work for the ITV network. This had been suggested early on, even in the ATV Midlands Limited application in April 1980, that while ATV intended to build production facilities in Nottingham, at the same time it would retain the use of the Elstree site. Elstree would stay part of ACC, as a separate entity from ATV Midlands Ltd, and offer the site as a facilities house for worldwide production companies, while at the same time providing facilities for the new Channel 4 and Breakfast TV contract.

If the IBA had accepted that application, there wouldn’t have been a problem at Elstree. This idea was in some ways similar to the proposals submitted by Edward Heath, the main difference being ATV Midlands Ltd planned to construct a major facility in Nottingham as well as retain Elstree, while Mr Heaths proposals suggested that ATV only build a news and current affairs facility in the East of the new dual region.

Time passed with no response from the IBA to Heath or Broadcast’s proposals, and by September 1981 Cecil Parkinson contacted the IBA to ask for a reply.

Lord Thomson’s response, shorn of the pleasantries, was to the point:

“….I have issued this memorandum as I think you should know immediately the outcome of today’s Authority meeting. When we know you have received this, we shall inform the press.

“The memorandum was circulated to Members, as I had promised, and was given lengthy and very careful consideration. I have to say, however, that while acknowledging the nature of the problems which would in a number of cases result from the eventual closure of Elstree, and expressing genuine sympathy with them, Members unanimously concluded that they should not alter their long-standing requirements about the programme provision to be made by the company which will serve the new dual region of the East and West midlands from 1st January 1982.

“This will, I know, come as a disappointment to those whom you have represented, as well as to yourself, but I am sure, as I have said before, that it would be wrong to raise false expectations which can only lead to a keener disappointment later.”

It seemed that was that: the IBA would not under any circumstances move on the decision; lobbying from staff, unions, MPs and junior ministers would not sway them.

This didn’t stop the campaign there and then. Cecil Parkinson continued to offer his support to reopen any channels of communication between the IBA and campaign members; and petitions were still being signed and forwarded to the Prime Minister in the hope that higher members of the government would intervene.

But it was now became clear to many people within the TV industry that the Authority itself is far from happy with the effect of the franchise affair. Lord Thomson in particular is adamant that “…it would never happen again, there must be a better way…”.

Many ITV employees at the time assumed that the IBA as a body was hanging on by its fingertips, an impression not helped by Lew Grade’s much-reported statement that “…with the introduction of satellite and cable television, it would be impossible to control broadcasting. This in turn would spell the end for the IBA.” As we are now aware, Lord Grade wasn’t wrong; in 1988, the government published a White Paper entitled “Broadcasting in the 1990s: Competition, Choice and Quality” that proposed the abolition of the IBA. The White Paper because 1989’s Broadcasting Bill. That Bill became 1990’s Broadcasting Act. And the IBA became history in 1991.

Meanwhile, ATV’s fellow ITV contractors Yorkshire, Tyne Tees, STV, Thames and LWT had all been back to the IBA during the early part of 1981 complaining that certain conditions were considered as unworkable, while Southern began its own, ill-fated, campaign to reverse the decision to replace it with Television South.

Although the new contractor for the Midlands was facing the biggest upheaval of all the ‘continuing’ franchises – a change of identity, 49% share of the capital removed and the closure of their largest studio complex – they didn’t approach the Authority at all, so they didn’t consider their situation unworkable at all, according to the IBA. Had the IBA totally ignored the ‘song and dance’ campaign and nearly 35,000 names on a petition?

Despite the turmoil and the IBA’s refusal to give an inch, the Save Elstree campaign continued, but its efforts began to dilute. It began monitoring events in the East Midlands, where many of the staff were now likely to end up when Elstree closed, and also the details of the new company structure in Birmingham, again where some staff would move.

The last Elstree Action Report was produced on 8 December 1981.

In nine months of campaigning began, over 35,000 people had signed a petition in support of keeping the Elstree site open.

Even now, at the thirtieth anniversary of that decision by the Authority, it is still believed that the decision was politically motivated; whether it was or not, it’s also regarded as a sorry episode in broadcasting history.

The Authority maintained that their decision was based around audience research and public consultations held during 1979. It acknowledged ATV’s contribution to ITV, but put the Midlands under review; maybe this was because of pressure from Birmingham-based Labour politicians who wanted ATV out or because of pressure from the Tory east of the region who wanted greater representation.

Whatever the reasons for its demise, ATV produced a very strong catalogue of programmes from all corners of the Midlands region, many that were broadcast across the ITV network, many of just local interest. To this day, ATV’s huge news archive contains material covering the entire Midlands area, now publicly available from the Media Archive for Central England.

For all the big push for regionalism that saw the end of ATV, the MACE archive proves that ATV was very much a Midlands regional contractor. And for all the big push for regionalism that saw the end of ATV, it’s ironic that the majority of ITV’s output now comes from London.

You Say

2 responses to this article

Glenn Aylett 1 February 2017 at 12:26 pm

On the other hand, after Auf Wiedersehen Pet’s building site was pulled down and the last ATV/Central staff moved out at the end of 1983, Elstree had a new lease of life under the BBC. Also keen eyed people who watched Grange Hill in the late eighties, when it was moved to Elstree, will notice the large block of flats that was next to Pet’s building site appeared in a few Grange Hill episodes.
Actually, by the start of the nineties, BBC Elstree was nearly as busy as the site was in its ATV heyday. Apart from the huge Eastenders set, the studios were producing regional news and local programming for the London region, Grange Hill, Allo Allo and Mastermind.

Glenn Aylett 1 February 2017 at 12:26 pm

Forgot to add, Top of the Pops moved to a purpose built set in Elstree in 1991.

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