Lew Grade Part 4: embracing the 1950s 

1 December 2004 tbs.pm/2287

When the first ITV franchise announcements were made, Lew Grade’s ITC was appalled – but not altogether surprised – to have been turned down flat.

The main factor in ITC’s rejection appears to have been the concern that awarding a television contract would give it too much control of talent, thus creating an unhealthy show-business monopoly that would be in danger of dominating Independent Television from the outset.

Speaking on “ATV Night”, Lew accepted this explanation, although in his autobiography he had suggested that Suzanne Warner had done her job too well and that ITC’s hold on talent had been somewhat exaggerated.

Exaggerated or not, the talent behind ITC was too strong for the ITA to ignore completely. It wasn’t prepared to make it a programme contractor, but it still offered it a role in commercial television.

ITC would become a “sub-contractor”, making programmes for the companies holding the broadcasting licences, a position similar to that of a modern-day independent production company.

Lew soon set about commissioning his first programme. An American producer, Hannah Weinstein, had suggested a series of “The Adventures of Robin Hood”, and Lew agreed to fund a season of 39 episodes at a cost of 10,000 per episode.

A few days later he thought that he’d better inform ITC’s board of his decision. Many were aghast – the company only had a programme budget of 500,000 and Lew had just committed 75% of it on a single series.

But support for the decision came from the top. “Gentlemen,” Prince Littler told the board, “if Lew Grade’s given his OK, that’s as good as a contract and we’ll support him.”

Littler’s backing of Lew was proved correct, as “Robin Hood” became one of Independent Television’s earliest hits, launching a genre that would later be known as the ITC swashbuckler.

But even before commercial television launched, the ITA was forced to turn to ITC after all.

ITC had wanted a London contract, but the region had been split between the weekday contractor Associated-Rediffusion and the Associated Broadcasting Development Company at weekends. In addition, ABDC also had the weekday contract in the midlands, the smallest of the three main regions.

ABDC had been established in 1952 by Norman Collins, Robert Renwick and C O Stanley, to push for the establishment of commercial television in the UK. It seemed a shoo-in for a contract – not least by the ITA – and perhaps because of this it had been awarded a contract without the Authority ensuring that it had secured sufficient financial backing.

With Associated Newspapers (publishers of the “Daily Mail”) and Kemsley Newspapers (who owned the “Sunday Times”) already involved in other contractors, the Authority was unwilling to allow any Conservative newspapers to invest in ABDC.

Instead it turned to ITC and asked it to join forces with the ABDC consortium, and on 11 March 1955, ABDC and ITC formed the Associated Broadcasting Company (ABC), with Prince Littler as chairman and Val Parnell as managing director. ITC would also remain a separate production company.

Heralded by Elgar’s “Cockaigne”, Independent Television launched in London on 22 September, with Associated-Rediffusion and ABC both providing programmes on the first night. Two days later, ABC went on-air in its own right, but within three weeks it had been forced to change its name to Associated TeleVision (ATV) to avoid a clash with the last minute replacement contractor in the midlands and north, ABC Television.

For five long months, A-R and ATV stood alone, racking up huge losses. Both had hoped that the opening of the midlands transmitter in February 1956 would see an upturn in their fortunes, but this didn’t happen until later in the year.

By this time, ATV had secured additional investment from Cecil King’s IPC, publishers of the “Daily Mirror”. Ironically, at the same time, King’s cousin Esmond Rothermere was in the process of selling the majority of Associated Newspapers’ stake in A-R to Rediffusion.

By this time, Lew was Deputy Managing Director of ATV and within a few months television was taking up so much of his time that he sold Lew & Leslie Grade Inc. in the USA. ATV was concerned that ITC’s interests conflicted with its own, and so Val Parnell, Prince Littler and Lew agreed that ATV would buy the company, making it a wholly owned subsidiary.

The ITA had initially intended that the four network contractors – ABC, A-R, ATV and Granada – would each produce a significant proportion of their own programmes, so that the smaller regional companies would have a choice of schedules.

The cash crisis of 1955-56 demonstrated that the companies were overstaffed, while the realities of competing with the BBC meant that a system of networking rather than syndication was adopted.

Lew claimed that scheduling was simply a case of arranging meetings with his rivals – Cecil Bernstein of Granada, A-R’s John McMillan and ABC’s Howard Thomas. However, things weren’t quite that simple.

Lew was at a disadvantage on weekdays. He was at his best in one-to-one negotiations, but there were three weekday contractors and A-R and Granada had entered into a secret deal that guaranteed the latter an outlet for its programmes in London in exchange for a share of its profits.

Consequently, the weekday schedule was often largely networked, with the three contributing programmes roughly in relation to their transmitter coverage – 20% by ATV, with the remainder divided equally between A-R and Granada.

However, things were different at weekends. Despite the fact that ABC and ATV shared studios in the midlands, Lew and Howard Thomas were constantly finding something wrong with the other’s programmes. They were too expensive, badly made or contained too much bad language.

These disagreements meant that viewers in one part of the country were deprived of seeing the best of Independent Television’s programmes. ATV was able to contribute plays to the network during the week, but still wanted to alternate its offerings with ABC’s “Armchair Theatre” on Sunday night.

Thomas even went so far as to accuse Lew of “sabotaging” the series by depriving it of the London outlet it needed in order to secure the best writers and directors. ATV London was also one of the final stations to pick up “The Avengers”, while the filmed seasons starring Diana Rigg and Linda Thorson weren’t even shown by ATV at all – Rediffusion showed them in the capital.

If programming was the cause of these rows between the pair, money was the cause of many others. Lew was particularly fond of keeping a stack of invoices in his desk to demonstrate how much programmes had cost to produce, but never gave his rival an opportunity to see his figures.

On one particular occasion, he and Thomas spent half of a four-hour meeting arguing over 50 per episode of “Sunday Night at the London Palladium.” Lew got his 50 since ABC couldn’t do without the show, but Thomas eventually tired of constantly criticising the show for being trite or repetitive and launched ABC’s own variety show from the Blackpool Hippodrome.

However, on another occasion when negotiations hadn’t gone Lew’s way, he wrote out a cheque to ABC Television for one penny, claiming that Thomas had squeezed him down to his last cent!

Despite these disagreements, for the most part, relations between the various companies were cordial and Lew would often ring one of the other bosses to discuss a particular programme they were watching.

The second half of 1956 saw the upturn that the companies had been waiting for and the ITA was able to resume the rollout of stations. The first regional company was to be Scottish Television, and Lew was responsible for negotiating with the station’s owner, Roy Thomson. Thomson must have caught Lew in a particular generous mood, as he secured a deal that gave him all of ATV’s output at a bargain cost of 900,000 for the first year, and 1 million for the next eight. A few years later, STV’s share of the programming costs would have been closer to 10 million a year.

While commercial television was still expanding in the UK, ATV was already producing programmes with an eye on the export market. The success of “Robin Hood” lead to other series, based on the adventures of William Tell, Sir Lancelot and Sir Francis Drake, with some episodes even made in colour in the hope of selling to US stations.

Not all of Lew’s rivals approved of this Trans-Atlantic aspect to its programming. Howard Thomas told him that he should concentrate on Birmingham, England rather than Birmingham, Alabama. This neglect of its midlands operations didn’t go unnoticed by the ITA either, and eventually the company would pay the price. But for now, Lew was one of the UK’s first TV moguls, running a company that literally had “a licence to print money”.

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