ATV London

By David Brockman

David Brockman reminds us that ATV had a London franchise too.

When Independent Television began in the UK, the fledgling regulator, the Independent Television Authority, decided that the London region was too populous to be handled by one commercial TV company alone, and decided to split it between two contractors: one (Associated-Rediffusion) broadcasting on weekdays and the other at weekends. Associated TeleVision (initially the Associated Broadcasting Company, but Associated-British Pictures, owners of ABC Weekend Television, complained) was awarded the London weekend franchise along with weekdays in the Midlands, and held this unusual dual contract from 1955 to 1968.

‘Copy of ABC's opening night schedule
‘ABC's opening night schedule, September 24, 1955

ABC Weekend Television, serving the North and Midlands, was also producing major shows for the network and as both ATV and ABC were for many years the two principal weekend programme suppliers, some rivalries and jealousy between the two stations arose.

ABC, under Howard Thomas, and ATV, headed by impresario Lew Grade, argued continuously over programme prices, scheduling and costs. The result of these arguments was that shows made by ABC and screened nationally at weekends were not always taken by ATV in London, the latter being more inclined to ‘do its own thing' and opt out of some network fare.

ATV presents

Due to two regions being served by ATV at different times of the week, the company was effectively a 7-day operator, unique amongst the major contractors of the time. Whereas Granada, Rediffusion and ABC each transmitted for part of the week only, ATV was in the unusual position of being able to use its own material twice - once in each region it served.

This, too, created problems for the network. ATV Midlands had less material to offer to Rediffusion on weekdays and to ABC at weekends. Although this gave them real strength of production, it left them oddly weaker in network offerings in the sixties.

Indeed, as an indicator of ATV's curious self-sufficiency in national terms, Rediffusion and Granada accounted for about 80% of the programming appearing in the weekday ITV schedules of the time in both London and the North, while only about 20% came from ATV. This situation also gave headaches to the smaller regional companies at the weekend, as they sometimes had to choose between ATV and ABC fare.

ATV London logo Trevor Lucas

Of all the ITV companies of the 50's and 60's, ATV London made a marked impression on me. The ATV ‘shadowed eye' logo (above left) was enduring, seeming to appear often and everywhere. I recall the rousing Eric Coates march Sound & Vision used for start-ups at the weekend, and the familiar cosy armchair image of its announcers like Trevor Lucas (above right), Pat Astley, Jim Lloyd and Shaw Taylor.

ATV also had its logo stamped firmly at the end of ITC productions. ITC was ATV's ‘programmes on film' export arm, ‘The Incorporated Television Company'. The symbol regularly appeared amongst the ITV logos in the listings section of the children's TV magazine Look-in. Admiring the logos each week was apparently a key reason some children enjoyed the magazine so much.

Even buying a vinyl single at the time, such as the title music from Rupert Bear, Fireball XL5 or Thunderbirds gave sight of the familiar logo. ATV owned Pye records and marketed many theme tunes on their own label.

Simultaneous Saturday afternoon sports coverage on both BBC and ITV in the sixties was a turn-off for many, but a national institution. Perhaps oddly, however, it was not ATV London who presented the major networked Saturday afternoon ITV sports show. ABC Weekend produced World of Sport with Eamonn Andrews for the national network from their Teddington base. ABC's extensive outside broadcast fleet, the largest in the network, gave ITV a unique facility and allowed regular cost savings, as the same equipment could also be used for the networked Sunday church service, mysteriously coming from the same town as had the football the day before.

ATV's Lew Grade was a reluctant payer to ABC Weekend for his company's share of the sports costs, but the ITA made networking of the show obligatory. With Post Office restrictions on broadcasting hours channelling major programming to the evenings, sports coverage was really all that was available for Saturday afternoon transmissions. The basic quota of then-permitted hours of television broadcasting excluded sport, religion, adult education and schools. Outside broadcasts had their own additional quota, so sport it had to be! Howard Thomas, Managing Director of ABC, refers to this Saturday programming problem in his marvellous autobiography and ABC inside story With an Independent Air, in which he asserts that ATV always underpaid ABC for their share of sports O.B. costs.

Saturday evenings in London often saw ITC filmed series such as The Saint, The Baron or Man in a Suitcase; and later in the evening, ATV home grown comedy from company regulars like Arthur Haynes or Charlie Drake.

By 9pm ATV's in-house crime dramas took over in the shape of Sergeant Cork the Victorian police detective or G.S.5, a saga of secret service life. ATV financed, and ITC produced, a host of London-centred police or spy dramas such as Gideon's Way, Danger Man and Ghost Squad. Ever-popular with the public, these programmes gave ATV consistently high ratings.

On Sunday mornings, ATV contributed many ‘Sunday Session' networked adult education programmes, including French lessons, first steps in science and technology, and programmes about history and politics. From January 1963 onwards, Adult Education became a major Sunday morning feature of ITV. No adverts were permitted during or between these programmes, but the ITA allowed costs to be covered from additional advertising revenue raised by marginally increasing the number of adverts allowed per hour in the evenings.

Before the Saturday teatime news, another ATV ‘face', Shaw Taylor, presented Police Five: ATV's five-minute public service forerunner of Crimewatch, with policemen in the studio asking for help from viewers. This was a sensational new idea in the sixties and the series ran for many years, until the BBC took over the idea and extended the format to an hour or more. The weekend Police Five was London-centric and not networked, and ATV ran a separate Midlands edition on weekdays. Many other regions copied this format with their own local shows, Granada's taking the name Police File.

Shaw Taylor was probably the one ATV London face to transfer in 1968 to its successor, London Weekend Television, where he continued to present and produce Police Five for many years, working alongside his long time studio director Bimbi Harris.

In those far-off fifties days in a very different Britain, ITV and BBC television closed down for an hour and a half on Sundays from 6pm to 7.25pm. This was part of the broadcasting hours restrictions imposed on the television industry by the Post Office, (then a state ministry) on behalf of the government. It was done in order to prevent television from luring audiences away from attending church services, traditionally held at about 6pm. It was considered a priority in the post-war years to bolster church attendance.

Jean Morton

One of ATV London's Sunday religious shows, The Tree House Family, was a variant of ATV Midlands' Tingha and Tucker Club children's programme, screened Monday to Fridays at 4.45. ATV London produced a networked Sunday version of the show, which was presented by another familiar face of ATV, announcer Jean Morton (above). Aided by her toy Koala bears (later to become puppets), the Sunday edition had added ‘religious' content not seen in the weekday version, primarily Jean Morton reading Bible stories to the Koalas.

Sunday was a key night for TV entertainment, and ATV London provided ITV's longest-lasting variety shows, usually produced by Val Parnell and Bernard Delfont. The most famous, Sunday Night at the London Palladium, had a string of key presenters over the years, including Tommy Trinder, Bruce Forsyth, Norman Vaughan and Jimmy Tarbuck.

The show regularly included long lines of Tiller Girls dancing with sparkling feathers, variety acts such as Topo Gigio, the puppet mouse from Italy who went on to have his own show, a game with audience participation, ‘Beat the Clock' and ending with top-of-the-bill performers like Eartha Kitt, Arthur Askey, and The Beatles.

The legendary finale to each Palladium show had the entire company - dancers, variety artists and top of the bill - climbing on to an inner circular stage bearing the words ‘Sunday Night at the London Palladium', the stars waving as the stage revolved to the famous closing theme music, until the curtains were pulled as the credits rolled, in time for viewers to see the closing caption: ‘An ATV Production' (below).

ATV Palladium endcap

This sequence became one of the iconic television images of the era and was sneered at by the chattering classes as the epitome of down-market television vulgarity. It was said to typify ‘everything Lew Grade's ATV stood for'. This was arguably a cruel judgement on ATV's popular and populist policy, giving the public what (part of it) wanted: with an average of 26,000,000 viewers each week, ATV's Palladium show was a national institution.
In fact, ATV was equally capable of producing highbrow material when required: one of the famous ATV Sunday Night Theatre productions was a version of Shakespeare's ‘Twelfth Night' with South London lad Tommy Steele in a star role. (It should be pointed out that the more widely known ITV single drama strand was ABC Weekend's Armchair Theatre, a totally separate series.)

ATV London closed in 1968, when the weekend contract for London was passed to the supposedly ‘more highbrow' London Weekend Television. ATV concentrated thereafter on the Midlands, where their contract was extended from weekdays to a full seven days a week.

I have enduring memories of ATV's time in London, the main claimant of true ‘show business' blood for ITV. It is an ITV franchise now probably forgotten by many, as the name ATV was for years afterwards associated with the Midlands region. ATV gave ITV its early glamour and made it popular with the 'masses'. This was essential if ITV was to succeed financially, prosper and survive. This survival was not a foregone conclusion in the early days - ITV in London made heavy losses for some time after launch and was only solved by the deep pockets of weekday Rediffusion parent company and ATV's populist panache at weekends.

Media history has a lot to thank Lew Grade and his colleagues for.

The author would like to thank Kif-Bowden Smith, Glen Aylett and Robin Carmody for providing useful information and suggestions. Images courtesy of Jason Robertson and the TBS Archive.

Points from the Post

The Television Act 1954 had a clause/loop-hole permitting broadcasts in Welsh to be transmitted in the Sunday evening slot when, otherwise, the network had to carry religious programmes or go off-air.

That's why ITV networked TWW's four-weekly Gwlad y Gan ('Land of Song') with Ivor Emmanuel. It carried no commercials but, in the days pre-remote-controls, it kept viewers in their armchairs and the channel switch on ITV. The following, commercial, programmes inherited an audience. The BBC was off-air or doing churchy stuff. Land of Song got audiences of up to 10 million.

Hector Hill

Posted 8:13 PM, 15 March 2013

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Article ©2004 David Brockman

Compilation ©2004 Transdiffusion Broadcasting System

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