Had it not been for the lack of foresight displayed by an old-school newspaper proprietor and the greed of his extended family, ABC as we know it – the provider of programmes in the Midlands and the North at weekends from 1956 to 1968 and a mighty force within the national ITV network - might well never have existed.
With cinema attendance having dropped from 1635 million in 1946 to 1182 million in 1955, it seemed to make sound business sense for a company dealing in film production and exhibition, such as the Associated-British Picture Corporation, to move into the fledgling world of commercial television. Granada, with a much smaller circuit and no film studios, certainly thought so, and was rewarded with the franchise for weekdays in the North.
However, some members of the ABPC board were less sure that it was a good idea for the company to take such a bold step, and so initial overtures from the ITA were rebuffed. ABPC only became a contender in February 1955, when the Kemsley-Winnick consortium – backed by Sunday Times proprietor Lord Kemsley, former bandleader Maurice Winnick and Sir Isaac Wolfson of Great Universal Stores – fell apart.
The putative franchisee would have had studios in London, Birmingham and Manchester, the latter location decided by the presence of the massive Kemsley plant at Withy Grove, then the largest newspaper office and print works in Europe. Wolfson was the first to get cold feet and withdraw financial backing, followed by Kemsley, who was forced into the decision by his wife, their children and his stepsons.
In the words of Denis Hamilton, one of Kemsley’s senior journalists, the main advocate of investment in television within the Kemsley group and later an acclaimed editor of the Sunday Times, the heirs saw "their inheritance at risk to Kemsley-Winnick’s gargantuan debts".
That Kemsley should have had a loss of nerve was not really a surprise. The brother of William Berry, who became Lord Camrose after buying and revitalising the Daily Telegraph in the 1920s, Kemsley (as former Swansea department store floor-walker Gomer Berry had become) rose very much on his cleverer sibling’s coat-tails and maintained his position only by employing talented young men like Hamilton, Godfrey Smith (who later described Kemsley gleefully as a "twit") and Ian Fleming (yes, one and the same) to make up for his own lack of nous.
It was this absence of vision that did for Kemsley, coupled with a misplaced loyalty to his feckless offspring. "By providing his sons with their guaranteed jobs for life, their Rolls-Royces, and even their Scotch beef conveniently supplied from Aberdeen, Kemsley had signed his own commercial death warrant," wrote Hamilton in his autobiography Editor-in-Chief: Fleet Street Memoirs (Hamish Hamilton, London, 1989).
Without the riches that television would surely bring in the long run, Hamilton was sure that Kemsley’s "ramshackle empire was doomed", and by 1966, the Kemsley papers – from the Sunday Times down to the various locals and regionals owned by the group – were sold to Lord Thomson, the Canadian proprietor of Scottish Television. Ironically enough, it was Thomson who described having an ITV franchise as a "licence to print money", words which will have rung in the ears of the foolish Kemsley and his family.
The exit of Wolfson and Kemsley meant that Winnick had to return to the ITA and inform them that the consortium would be unable to take the franchise after all. The £30,000 in damages that he was paid by Kemsley was cold comfort for having missed out on something that he knew would make him a real fortune. With time running out before the Midlands and North weekend franchises were due on air, the ITA had to find a replacement for Kemsley-Winnick and fast.
The ITA decided to ask ABPC again, and this time, Howard Thomas – MD of ABPC’s distribution joint venture with Pathé - was able to persuade enough of his fellow board members that television was a good move. So it was that ABPC took up the weekend franchises in the Midlands and the North, buying a considerable amount of the broadcasting equipment that had been ordered by Kemsley-Winnick before its implosion. The ‘on-air’ name chosen was ABC, and the first logo was recognisably a variant of the sign used by the company’s cinemas of the same name.
The board in question included several representatives from the US company Warner Brothers, which had become the largest single shareholder in ABPC in August 1945, having owned shares in the British company since the death of its founder John Maxwell in October 1940.
Associated British Cinemas had been established by Scottish cinema magnate Maxwell in 1928 as a consolidation of his three circuits: Scottish Cinema and Variety Theatres, Savoy Cinemas and Favourite Cinemas. At the start, ABC had 43 properties plus five sites in development. Originally a solicitor, Maxwell had been in the cinema business since 1912, and had been in film distribution since the early 1920s, through two companies: Waverley Films and Wardour Films. His move into film production came in January 1927, when he joined British National, which had been formed in 1925 by US movie pioneer JD Williams and W Schlesinger with the help of Herbert Wilcox.
After a disagreement between Williams and Schlesinger, Maxwell was able to provide enough capital to take control of the company, renaming it British International Pictures and making it the umbrella company for his empire, including the cinemas. With the deal came the British National’s 40-acre studio site at Shenley Road, Borehamwood – a complex now known universally, if erroneously, as Elstree Studios.
Throughout the 1930s, BIP’s studio output grew. Although film critic and historian Allen Eyles, in his book ABC – the First Name in Entertainment (CTA/BFI, London, 1993), suggests that the company’s products were "more notable for their number…than for their quality", being intended primarily to help ABC fulfil its quota requirements for the exhibition of British films.
In 1937, the BIP name was dropped in favour of a new company title – Associated-British Picture Corporation, or ABPC for short. At the same time as the film production was growing, the cinema chain was also going from strength to strength, with staff architect William R Glen and his team of designers working on a nationwide chain of new movie palaces going under names such as Regal, Savoy and Ritz.
In addition to the building programme, the ABC circuit grew through acquisition – one of the most notable being the October 1937 purchase of David Bernhard’s Union Cinemas outfit, which had foundered as a result of its own regrettably over-ambitious construction schedule. A 1936 attempt to take over the Gaumont-British circuit from the Ostrer brothers proved abortive, the cinemas eventually becoming part of the Rank Organisation. In all, by 1945, ABC had 415 cinemas in operation.
Maxwell’s death saw his widow Catherine receiving several offers for the 4,050,000 shares that she had inherited, of which Warner Brothers’ was the most generous. In the event, Mrs Maxwell sold only 2 million of her shares to WB at a cost of £900,000, but although the Maxwell family remained marginally the larger stockholder, the new investor was able to insist on the installation of its own man Max Milder as joint MD of ABPC alongside Maxwell’s long-serving lieutenant Eric Lightfoot.
Warner eventually took control of ABPC in August 1945 with the acquisition of a further million ordinary shares from the Maxwell estate for £1,125,000, giving it 37.5% of the issued share capital. Now that it had control, Warner Brothers had secured its own productions a guaranteed outlet in the British exhibition market, and taken over the massive Elstree studio complex.
With post-war building restrictions meaning that no new cinemas were being constructed, William Glen’s office was free to prepare plans for the studios’ return to film use, after their war years under requisition by the Royal Army Ordnance Corps. The Elstree development rendered Warner’s British studio at Teddington, which it had controlled since 1931, almost redundant when it reopened in 1948, having been extensively reconstructed after it was hit by a flying bomb in 1944. Teddington was dark by 1951, reopening briefly in 1952 for the making of The Crimson Pirate starring Burt Reynolds.
By 1955, the dominant Warner Brothers man on the ABPC board was the MD CJ Latta, who, along with Chairman Sir Phillip Warter, backed Thomas in his enthusiasm for television. Latta had a flair for backing winners, even when he wasn't quite sure of their form himself.
The Canadian producer Sydney Newman had joined ABC and gave it an enviable reputation for realist drama through the Armchair Theatre plays such as Alun Owen’s No Tram to Lime Street. Latta allowed Newman to carry on, despite admitting that neither he nor his English chauffeur could understand a word of the dialects used in many of the productions.
The final agreement to take up the Midland and North weekend franchises was only signed on 21 September 1955, the day before Associated-Rediffusion began broadcasting in London, leaving ABC only five months to set up its first studio centre in Birmingham and a further three months before Manchester went live.
Continued in part two