Getting it right

By Kif Bowden-Smith

In May 1955, Associated-Rediffusion moved into Adastral House in Holborn, central London. They renamed it Television House, and began work on creating the first commercial television company in the UK even as contractors began demolishing the building's interior.

It is hard now to think back to the very different broadcasting environment in which Rediffusion operated. Not only was it a different ITV, it was almost a different country.

When ITV had started in 1955, one of the first imperatives was thought to be the need to gain respectability. The advocates of commercial television during the early fifties had been shocked at the vehemence and strength of the anti-ITA campaign that had been waged in the House of Commons as the enabling legislation went through.

The Television Act 1954 was painted by its' opponents as being a Trojan horse that would let brash American vulgarity, and, worse still, rampant commerce into what was still a very collectivist, rationing conditioned and conservative Britain.

Memories of World War II, only nine years in the past, were dominant in the culture, and pluralism and commercial freedoms were still regarded with suspicion. In the fifties, the attribute feared above all was perhaps "spontaneity". As John Gielgud said, in the Alan Bennett nostalgia play "Forty Years On" in 1968, "I am all in favour of spontaneity, providing it is carefully planned and ruthlessly controlled".

It would be an exaggeration to say that we lived in a controlled society in the fifties, but we did live in a society in which excessive self-control was seen as a virtue. The fifties were free and easy if you endorsed the status quo, but repressive and suffocating if you did not.

It was into this heady mixture of conformity and post war economic expansion that Associated-Rediffusion and ATV London were born.

Oddly, this was less of a problem for ATV London, as their weekend contract allowed them to ignore prevailing societal mores with a flurry of variety, films and adventure series. Escapism was the name of ATV's game. If this was vulgar, ATV didn't care. They got the audience figures, so why worry?

For Associated-Rediffusion, from Monday to Friday, it was a more difficult pitch. They were determined from the outset, to demonstrate that the concept of commercial television was not synonymous with vulgarity.

In an early briefing to the creative staff, a senior executive used the phrase "like the BBC with adverts", and this quickly became the Rediffusion mantra. This did not stop them doing the money-making quiz shows for which they later became (in)famous, but there is no doubt that these paid for a greater amount of heavyweight programming than the ITA required, and thus the Rediffusion management felt they could look The Establishment in the face.

Indeed, within ten years of launch, the Rediffusion management was as much a part of the British establishment as the BBC was. Only the London weekday company was in a position to do this, and Rediffusion were not going to be caught out.

They might even have overdone it. When ABC-Thames came to replace Rediffusion in July 1968, there was a feeling that Thames would be 'more fun' than Rediffusion had been. This was unfair. Rediffusion had laid the foundations for ITV to be respectable, and for the BBC to take them seriously.

On Rediffusion's closing night, Monday July 29th 1968, they went out as they came in, with a good heavyweight evening. A documentary on Cerebral Palsy in children, immediately after "News at Ten", was the statement that commercial television was indeed respectable, and that the Labour Party of 1954 had been wrong.

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Opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and not necessarily those of the Transdiffusion Broadcasting System in general.

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Article ©2001 Kif Bowden-Smith

Compilation ©2001 Transdiffusion Broadcasting System

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