Perhaps aptly, Bonfire Night 1956 saw ITV lighting the blue touchpaper under what was to become a real rocket of a TV series: What The Papers Say. Originally shown on Granada, it has since been screened on Channel 4 and now occupies a regular slot on BBC2. This month sees Granada's 50th anniversary, and to celebrate that fact we present this profile of the company's longest-running TV series, which reaches its own half-century in just a few months' time.
What The Papers Say (WTPS), is today a British television institution. Established by the months-old ITV commercial channel in 1956 at its new northern outpost of Granada TV in Manchester, WTPS has stood the test of time, its production methods changing as modern technology has evolved. Yet its essence and simplicity -a mixed assortment of presenters taking an irreverent look at the week's news as seen through newspapers, periodicals and magazines - remains unchanged. Always produced by Granada, the longest running ITV company, WTPS is today the only remaining programme from Granada's launch year of 1956.
WTPS was one of Granada's earliest programmes to be made in Manchester, brainchild of Denis (now Sir Denis) Forman, who produced that very first programme. Its founding producers went on to become television legends. Jeremy (now Sir Jeremy) Isaacs, who created other landmark series including The World At War, later became programme director at Channel 4; David (now Sir David) Plowright later took the helm at Granada itself. The format consists of actors providing various readings from national and regional papers or magazines, linked by a presenter, these days in a virtual studio - and it is still recorded in Manchester.
Granada, as with its long-lived early slogan "From the North", has itself played a role as an influential, sometimes controversial but stabilising force in ITV, with northern-based soap Coronation Street running side by side with investigative series like World in Action and pioneering documentaries including 7 Up (plus sequels) and Disappearing World.
Initially WTPS ran late mid-week evenings for 25 minutes, dropping to 20; and for the first 26 years it was broadcast on ITV. It now runs for ten minutes nationally on BBC2 on Saturday afternoons, in a twenty-week cycle from October to March. Surprisingly, in its ITV days, it was not given national coverage: WTPS was rarely fully networked. It was shown, of course, on the originating Pan North' Granada, but apart from a very brief spell on ATV Midlands, only Associated-Rediffusion (Rediffusion London from 1964) and Scottish Television took it. Yorkshire viewers, who until their region was created in 1968 received Granada programmes, protested when they lost WTPS on the arrival of Yorkshire Television. YTV appeared unsympathetic to their protests and brought it back only for a very short while.
WTPS's representation on ITV in London was unbroken, as when Rediffusion London joined with ABC Weekend Television in 1968 to form Thames Television, the programme continued to be shown. When ITV cancelled the series in 1982, Jeremy Isaacs was running Channel Four, and Granada was commissioned to make What The Papers Say for the new channel. Its run continued, but now with a much wider audience potential. The show was essentially produced by journalists for journalists, and the public seemed to be a third party at the feast. Indeed, its showing primarily in London, the North and Central Scotland during its ITV days reflected the cluster of journalists to be found living near three great print centres of the national press - Fleet Street, Manchester's Withy Grove and Glasgow.
That first programme in 1956 was presented by Brian Inglis, deputy editor of The Spectator and the following week by Kingsley Martin, editor of The New Statesman, who went on to front the show for six editions. Inglis, also presenter on the later Granada series All Our Yesterdays, hosted some 170 programmes. It is mainly jobbing journalists who present each week, though sometimes politicians like the then-Labour MP Roy Hattersley, or trade union leaders such as Bill Morris of the Transport and General Workers Union wielded the presenter's baton.
For a brief period in 1969, the programme was re-launched as The Papers and Professor Stuart Hall of the Open University was in the chair, but after just ten weeks, the name reverted to the original title and the format we recognise today. Then there was a short period in late 1968 when the show was renamed What the Weeklies Say, looking more at political magazines - but again the format quickly reverted. Some presenters like Michael Parkinson, Nigella Lawson, the late Russell Harty and Sebastian Faulks went on to make their names in other fields.
There were many actors and voice over artistes who read out the press quotations down the years. Some were Granada television continuity announcers like Bill Croasdale, Don Murray Henderson and Ray Moore. Daphne Oxenford, the longest serving actor-reader, spent over 30 years on WTPS from its beginning in 1956 until the early 1990s. She had played Esther Hayes in the early years of Coronation Street and is widely remembered as a regular storyteller on BBC Radio's Listen With Mother. Her favourite presenters were Richard Ingrams, then editor of Private Eye and now editing The Oldie, whom she says was 'a delight' and Michael Parkinson, whom she affectionately refers to as Parkie', adding that one or two presenters were intensely boring - naming no names!
WTPS ran for seven years on Channel 4, in those early days a stunningly innovative channel. Channel 4 relied heavily on commissioning programmes from already-established ITV stations until within a few years a larger group of truly independent programme making companies evolved.
In 1989, when Channel 4 parted company with WTPS , it was given new lease of life from what would at one time have been considered a very strange bedfellow indeed for Granada: the BBC. Times were changing rapidly, and under new arrangements for ITV, legislators decreed that along with ITV having to commission 25% of its programmes from wholly independent' suppliers, so did the BBC.
Granada became the first ITV contractor to be commissioned by the BBC, and the Controller of BBC2 placed 'What The Papers Say' in a Saturday tea-time slot just as it had been on Channel 4. The arrangement proved a success, and in later years Granada and the BBC would become collaborators in Manchester, sharing some studios and resources in a way unthinkable back at the launch of the former in 1956.
At the time of writing, WTPS is on BBC2 for ten minutes most Saturdays from October to March, filmed in a virtual studio at Granada's Quay Street studios on a Friday afternoon. There is also a What The Papers Say Review of the Year in December. New actor-readers Jimmy Hibbert and Martin Oldfield have joined the programme, while Jane Dowell ably fills the shoes vacated by Daphne Oxenford, who is in semi-retirement, occasionally working with ITV on episodes of Midsomer Murders and The Royal.
The programme is currently commissioned by BBC2 Executive Producer Richard Klein, and overall responsibility at Granada is provided by Head of Documentaries, Factual North, Sarah Murch. The programme is produced on weekly basis by Ged Clarke and usually directed by Vernon Antcliff, who also happens to direct some of what remains of ITV's public service religious broadcasts. The record for directing the most editions of WTPS allegedly rests with one-time Granada staff director Peter Mullings, who directed 500 editions.
The programme is still genuinely seen as "presented by journalists for journalists", though no doubt politicians, students and media folk add a tidy number to the viewing figures. What is universally accepted is that Granada's What The Papers Say Awards, decided annually and first established in 1957, are among the most prestigious in the entire world of journalism, somewhat unlike the UK Press Gazette Awards which are generally agreed to have degenerated into something of a bun-fight in recent years. Many viewers will be familiar with the WTPS theme music. Briefly at the start it was The Procession of the Nobles from the opera-ballet Mlada by Rimsky-Korsakov. Since reverting to its original title however in 1969, the programme has resumed use of its previous long standing English Dance No 5 by Malcolm Arnold, which is still used today.
The 50th season of What The Papers Say has just ended on BBC2, and when it returns there are expectations of some well-earned back-patting and celebrations. Granada has pitched a special 50th anniversary documentary to BBC2 for screening in November 2006. Sir Denis Forman, who thought up WTPS at Granada in 1956, is now enjoying his retirement and well into his eighties, with every reason to be extremely pleased that his simple programme is still playing an ongoing role in television journalism fifty years later and firmly part of our national media culture. Little did he realise back then that the small rocket of a programme he launched in 1956 would become such a glowing part of the television night sky for half a century.