Watching London

By David Brockman

In October 2002, Independent Television (ITV1) relaunched its on-screen image, and further downgraded the status of its once constituent 15 regional companies. The more so ironic, then, that entertainer Michael Barrymore - one of the highest paid stars of London Weekend Television - has gained more column inches in the national press and more space on radio and TV news programmes in the same month than would have been in the wildest dreams of their public relations team. Though in this instance it is almost certainly publicity they could well have done without.

London Weekend Television was launched on a summer evening at 7pm on Friday 2nd August 1968, using what were formerly the Rediffusion London studios in Wembley. It was one of three entirely new kids on the ITV block that year, alongside Yorkshire Television and Harlech Television in Wales and the west.

The company was created originally as the London Television Consortium (LTC), a group including former BBC and Rediffusion executives put together by David Frost.

Others came on board, several from Rediffusion, notably Cyril Bennett as Programme Controller. Their aim was to replace ATV's entertainment-led service at the weekends in London to offer a diet of more upmarket programmes.

The ITA were easily, and in retrospect overly, impressed with LTC's application, wanting ITV to move more upmarket.

ATV were not expecting to get a renewal of their weekend in London contract, and so concentrated their efforts on retaining the expanded seven day Midlands franchise. LTC was planning a seismic shift away from populist television to a more highbrow public service schedule.

In the event, LTC got the contract they sought, but their own lack of judgement effectively shifted the goalposts, and all was set for a dreadful baptism of fire.

London Weekend Television, as they became, had assumed their weekday opposition was to be the equally heavyweight Rediffusion company, which was also steeped in the public service ethos. But to accommodate London Weekend the ITA were obliged to create Thames Television to fill that gap.

Thames would be a joint venture of Rediffusion and ABC Television. This was done to avoid losing completely the talents of the existing weekday contract, but also find a place for the weekend applicants ABC, the former North and Midlands Weekend contractor. ABC in the North and Midlands had impressed viewers and the Authority alike in the previous twelve years.

ABC had the controlling 51% on the Thames board and thus had the upper hand. ABC was distinctly more cosmopolitan and dynamic than the rather sombre and heavyweight Rediffusion. The bulk of ABC's aggressive and successful sales force moved to London, selling air time for Thames, and made a serious dent in London Weekend's new efforts to sell advertising space. London Weekend and Yorkshire joined ATV Network, Thames and Granada as one of now five major contractors in ITV, who together had the responsibility of supplying the bulk of ITV's network programmes.

The London Weekend launch was ill fated with staff walkouts taking the station down seconds after the first authority announcement. Trouble spread and shortly after the whole of ITV went dark in a period of industrial action. There was an emergency ITV service provided by ABC staff, using ATV facilities, but this all eclipsed London Weekend's launch period. By the time ITV programmes returned to normal, the new high brow arts and documentary schedule was struggling and many punters had switched to BBC-1.

The London Weekend board was forced to think the unthinkable - abandoning their prized arts shows to off-peak slots and switching emphasis to populist programmes that were an anathema to their founders.

This lead to terrible infighting and it reached a peak when the board attempted to fire the Managing Director - Michael Peacock, the former controller of BBC 2.

Thirteen senior executives, including Cyril Bennett, Jimmy Hill (Head of Sport) and Frank Muir (Light Entertainment) threatened to resign en masse if Peacock was dismissed. The board dithered for a period, facing press condemnation.

The company continued to lose money and viewers and on 18th September Peacock was dismissed. Out of the original 13 executives, six left immediately. David Frost, who had put the LTC consortium together, stayed, as did one who had threatened to go, Jimmy Hill. Company morale plummeted and by 1971 it was in a weak financial state.

A saviour came knocking at the door in the form of Rupert Murdoch, who won a seat on the LWT board who for his half a million pound investment.

Although the ITA later eased Murdoch out - due to his conflicting newspaper interests - his new schedule largely survived and prospered.

In TV presentation terms, LWT made a quiet entrance, as its first unanimated logo, which had no musical accompaniment, simply said 'From London Weekend Television' and visually was disappointing. It was early 1969 before they finally came up with a 'proper' musical station ident and official on screen company symbol. It had an impressive and portentous fanfare and a 3 beat drumroll with the words 'London Weekend' appearing slowly in the middle of a sideways forming white oval on a grey background that resolved into a wreath shape. It was technically filmed in blue but radiated in grey as colour transmissions had not yet started. A fourth drum beat was added to the fanfare when the same symbol was later remade in orange, for colour programmes after November 1969. This later became known as The London Weekend 'Ovoid'.

Over two years later, a white orange and blue logo using the letters 'LW' appeared with a new
and less portentous musical sting. This was, many years later, said in retrospect by some enthusiasts to be based on the River Thames - as depicted by Harry Beck in his legendary London Underground Diagram but this idea is disputed and certainly had not been alluded to at all when the symbol was launched with a fanfare of press releases in 1971. Some of these press releases are held in the Transdiffusion archive.

In the new era, under Head of Presentation Warren Breach, a strengthened announcing team was seen in full vision. This included stalwarts Jill Bechley from ABC, and Alec Taylor as senior announcer. The company later introduced Peter Lewis, Barri Haynes and Pam Rhodes to London viewers. They were used effectively to voice trailers and mount programme awareness campaigns, and were a popular, competent in-vision team.

In presentation terms, London Weekend had a strong Rediffusion flavour. Not only were all of its programmes made at the former Rediffusion Wembley studios, but also its staff were largely the same people as Rediffusion had employed.

Early programmes from LWT included a 26-part drama series set among the French resistance in World War II called "Manhunt" with Peter Barkworth, Alfred Lynch and Cyd Hayman, screened Fridays at 9pm. One Rediffusion staff member who came across to London Weekend was drama executive Rex Firkin. After ‘Manhunt', he went on to make one of ITV's successful dramas ever – ‘Upstairs Downstairs', based on an idea supplied by actresses Eileen Atkins and Jean Marsh.

David Frost presented shows on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays, across the weekend, featuring Cambridge Footlights-style comedy, national controversy and very "heated debates". One such programme on a Friday was extended to over two hours, and came live from the Ulster Television studios, at Havelock House on Belfast's Ormeau Road in 1969. Frost had Catholics in one studio and Protestants in the other and flitted between the two. However, the audience was not happy about being separated, and demanded that Frost unite them as one, which by the end of the programme they agreed to.

David Frost stayed with London Weekend for many years and his show would move to new purpose built TV studios being planned on the South Bank of the River Thames near the National Theatre and Royal Festival Hall, opening for business in 1972.

London Weekend put Wembley to good use with variety shows for Saturday nights with stars like Rolf Harris, Maggie Fitzgibbon and Ronnie Barker, who, with Josephine Tewson, filmed six comedies shows called "Hark at Barker". Earlier LWT comedies also included "Doctor in the House" from the Richard Gordon novels, "On The Buses" with Reg Varney, and "Please Sir", introducing a young John Alderton as rookie teacher Mr Hedges into a gang of cockney school kids.

A major problem for LWT in its earliest times was the strength of BBC TV programming on Saturdays, against its own schedule. Rex Firkin was now well in control of drama, and on top of ‘Manhunt' and ‘Upstairs Downstairs', he brought series like ‘The Guardians', set in the UK in a totalitarian future.

London Weekend ventured into the realms of children's TV with ‘Catweazle', about a middle-aged wizard surfacing in modern times, and their own adaptation of ‘Just William'.

LWT continued the tradition of presenting a programme to help crack crime, and its programme, had the same title of its ATV London predecessor, 'Police 5', with the same presenter in Shaw Taylor.

There was no requirement on the weekend company to provide regional news in 1968, so, apart from Police 5, local material consisted of arts, religious and educational programmes. Later on London Weekend launched Saturday Scene, a morning show for children, and actress Nannette Newman shared her culinary skills with young viewers in The Fun Food Factory.

From the early nineteen sixties one of the central planks of Saturday afternoon had been World of Sport. ITV was competing head-on with the BBC-1's more established Grandstand. ABC Weekend Television had for many years co-ordinated Saturday sports for ITV, and Eamonn Andrews was contracted to present it. After 1968, London Weekend developed World of Sport for ITV, though for a while the Thames studios continued to be used for part of the programme, due to their size. Dickie Davies took over the show with Fred Dinenage as his deputy. London Weekend's Head of Sport John Bromley succeeded Jimmy Hill and produced the show. Patricia Mordecai, a young talented BBC vision-mixer being trained to direct Blue Peter, was later snatched by LWT to direct World of Sport, and she did so for many years.

By the late summer of 1972, London Weekend was fully installed in its new television studios, named Kent House after the HRH the Duke of Kent who opened them. They were located close to Waterloo in the heart of the South Bank arts complex

London Weekend was by now very much the establishment ITV company, chaired as it was by John Freeman, and it still an air of aspiring to be rather like the BBC about it, no doubt part of its Rediffusion staff heritage.

Regional programmes were given a fillip with The London Programme, a weekly current affairs series, presented by Godfrey Hodgson. It was shown late on Sunday nights, consisting of two or three filmed reports, with a public access slot at the end. I filmed one such access slot for this programme, on the Roundshaw estate in Sutton in 1976. London Weekend were trying out the new mini-cams which are commonplace today, but under the then-manning agreements there were still about twenty-two people to film a four minute item taking the best part of a day.

Over time, London Weekend gradually built up a reputation for producing good arts series for ITV, including Aquarius with by Humphrey Burton. On Burton's return to head up the BBC's combined music and arts department, The South Bank Show emerged, and has always been edited and fronted by Melvyn Bragg, a London Weekend stalwart.

Naturally, London Weekend developed a relationship with Thames Television, its weekday competitor. The Independent Television Authority had defined the need to have two ITV companies in London, so that the large amount of advertising revenue raised would not enable one metropolitan ITV company to dominate the network.

In the early days, the "live" handover from Thames to London Weekend took place at 7pm on Fridays. The GPO handled the studio line switching at the Post Office Tower just off Warren Street, and at Museum Telephone Exchange where the high quality transmission lines converged. Normally a Thames announcer such as David Hamilton, John Benson or Sheila Kennedy would say something along the lines of "Thames Television is now closing down until Monday morning and we hand over to our colleagues at London Weekend".

There would be a short screen shake as the GPO engineers manually switched off Thames from Television House in Kingsway and pushed a button to connect London Weekend at Wembley. The weekend company's symbol would then be followed by Alec Taylor or Jill Bechley welcoming viewers to the line up of weekend programmes. In the IBA 1982 contracts, the Friday handover from Thames to London Weekend was brought forward to 5.15pm, and the handover eventually became invisible to viewers, taking place during an advertisement break.

Late on Sunday night or early on Monday morning, the London Weekend announcers would put the station to bed saying, "London Weekend will be back next Friday with another weekend of programmes for you but until then we hand over to our colleagues at Thames Television, who begin tomorrow morning at...". As far as programmes were concerned, London Weekend generally never showed any Thames programmes and Thames did not show any London Weekend output.

However, there was one exception. Throughout the years London Weekend continued to screen Thames's "Epilogue" on Fridays, Saturday and Sundays at the close of the night. Thames's religious department made these programmes, featuring Jon Woods, Mavis Airey, Anthony Stancombe and Margery Baker produced by the late Guthrie Moir.

While some of the smaller ITV companies had difficulties getting their programmes screened on the full network it has to be said that London Weekend were very fair to the smaller stations, and often gave them programmes slots in their weekend schedule. Examples of this are Anglia's ‘The Brian Connell Interview' getting a regular Sunday afternoon slot, as did many series of Southern's ‘Out of Town', with Southern's pipe-smoking Deputy Programme Controller, Jack Hargreaves.

They also gave time to Ulster TV's space series, ‘Look Up To The Stars', and entered a special arrangement with Grampian Television. Grampian got a network commission to screen ‘Living and Growing', a sex education series for junior and older children. In an early experiment of interactive-style TV, Grampian offered to screen a preview programme for adults of the following week's school programme, so that parents could be one step ahead of the sex education programme their children were following at school. Generously, London Weekend offered to screen the Grampian TV previews late on a Sunday evening.

In the seventies and eighties, the famous London Weekend current affairs programme for the ITV network "Weekend World" went from strength to strength. Some of the key figures behind this like Jane Hewland, John Birt, Peter Jay and the incisive David Aaranovitch became major media figures in the years that followed.

London Weekend did make an effort to ensure that its programmes reflected the lifestyle of people who make up the increasingly diverse population in London. In the eighties they established the London Minorities Unit (LMU). This unit began producing by weekly programmes for Gay and Asian communities in London. Samir Shah (who moved to the BBC shortly after John Birt) headed the unit and its programmes for Asians were called ‘Skin' and shown on Sundays. These programmes ended with the credit "London Minorities Unit production" using the same colours and lettering as the LWT logo, which by this time had become a mix of blue, white and red. The gay-aimed programmes were made by Michael Attwell, now a senior figure at Channel 5.

The signs that times were a changing within television, especially ITV, came with the advent of breakfast TV in the 1980s, and the associated extension of programme hours, so that TV effectively never closed down. This seminal event had, over several years, a major effect. It began the process that turned ITV from a daily theatrical and educational package of material into a continuous conveyor belt of primarily entertainment-led programming.

TV-am was the first commercial breakfast channel and broadcast from studios of its own at Camden Lock. However, in 1990s, with the new ‘highest bidder' system of selecting TV contractors, TV-am lost out to incomer GMTV in which LWT had a stake. This contract round also produced industry and public surprise at the loss of the popular and successful Thames Television, to a new publisher broadcaster calling itself Carlton Television.

LWT's famous studios on the South Bank had been renamed The London Studios in part to reflect these changes, and the company operated its studios as a separate business unit.

GMTV would be broadcast from these studios seven days a week and Carlton entered an arrangement to share costs for LWT to produce a London regional ITV news service, forming London News Network for this purpose. This meant removing all trace of LWT as a brand, from reception, indoor décor and on the cameras. The ‘merger' with Granada – effectively the first purchase by one ‘major company' of another – also gave a reason for the removal of the LWT brand.

Soon ITV was not only competing with the BBC, but also two terrestrial commercial channels, Channel 4 and Channel 5. Rupert Murdoch, one time director and very influential in his days at LWT, had an empire that had now grown to include The Times, Sunday Times, The Sun and News of The World, various national papers worldwide, and his Sky satellite network.

The LWT relationship with Carlton is entirely different to the one with Thames, as the nature of ITV1 was gradually drifting towards being a single company.

Sadly, the weekly handover from Carlton to LWT no longer seemed meaningful, significant or strategically important. Carlton programmes began to crop up at the weekends and LWT programmes appeared on Carlton midweek. The two companies were sharing production of London's ITV1 regional news and sports service and the distinctions were blurred.

ITV is still committed to regional television but its regional programme company identities are being further forfeited in another effort this autumn to move towards a unified ITV. The logos and images of LWT that we remember will get smaller and smaller and eventually fade away.

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Article ©2002 David Brockman

Compilation ©2002 Transdiffusion Broadcasting System

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