Howard Thomas Part 1: Getting Started 

1 April 2005 tbs.pm/2281

Part 1 of a major new series on the truly ‘independent’ broadcast producer and founder of ABC Weekend Television Howard Thomas, in which we go back to the beginning…

Howard Thomas sat at a desk

Howard Thomas always wanted to work in what we now call ‘the media’. He had the drive, the ambition and the talent to make it big.

But there was a flaw in this aspiration. Being born in 1909 made it difficult to get into ‘the media’: because there were so few.

The BBC had started in 1922; there were newspapers and films; but there wasn’t the profusion of ‘media’ at the start of the century that would mark its end.

So how to begin? His first job was to get out of depressed and poor Wales, a job accomplished by his parents by 1918. That took him to Manchester, the place he would think of as ‘home’ for the rest of his life.

Manchester might have seemed a poor place to start if you wanted to be “in the media”, but a great place to be if you had talent as a writer. The rain-soaked city has a long tradition of journalism and printing, boasting several morning and evening newspapers before the war, as well as a famous national – The Manchester Guardian (later relocated to London and renamed simply The Guardian).

But even then, getting a toe in the door wasn’t easy. A city with a lot of journals has a lot of journalists. A lot of journalists means a lot of competition. And a lot of competition means getting an article accepted, let alone a staff job, is difficult.

So Howard started work at a firm of wiredrawers, not on the shop floor, but typing invoices. At the very least, this gave him the chance to learn to type, and very possibly to borrow a typewriter.

The result of a boring day job and a proficiency in typing was a flood of articles, short stories and playlets, all despatched to the local newspapers and all, with a dull thump, landing back on the doormat of the 21-year-old’s house.

Clearly, Howard needed a Plan B. And Manchester was again the right place to be. A city built of cotton, wire and rails, and just like Leeds and Liverpool, Manchester itself was ambitious. And that ambition was for the next generation to have something better than the current one’s lot.

The Central Library welcomed and encouraged the city’s young to come in and read. The University gave scholarships and sponsored a fair and practical examinations system that was the forerunner of today’s GCSEs. The city corporation offered workers as many opportunities as possible for betterment – concerts, plays, night classes in all subjects.

The latter was of most use to Howard. Classes in copywriting got him awards, qualifications and a promotion from the accounting department to the advertising department. That springboard got him away from the wire adverts and to F John Roe, advertising agents.

This tiny organisation also sought better things, for itself and for its staff, and the new recruit was plunged into the hard world of selling advertising and keeping clients. The agency required publicity, for itself and for the customers, and that required stunts. The stunts – beauty contests, competitions, celebrity appearances – attracted the newspapers, which provided the free publicity.

More importantly for Howard, it got his name known amongst the editors, and from them, into the headquarters of the BBC’s Northern Region.

This region was dynamic but small. London was then, as it is now, the true home of the BBC. The autonomy of regions allowed them to splash out on original compositions – Howard Thomas’s play The Beauty Queen amongst them – but that autonomy also prevented such things getting nationwide exposure.

Howard now had his eyes set firmly on the BBC. That meant moving to London. But a few sales to the Northern Region weren’t enough to open the door to Broadcasting House.

An advertising job in London would be required, paying a wage whilst Howard kept hammering at the doors of Portland Place. But, whilst in Manchester Howard was a big fish in a small pond, in London it would be the other way around.

Therefore, Howard and his new bride Hilda made the move to London in 1934 and took a pay cut – from the very good £600 a year of Manchester to a poor £300 in London – in the offices of FC Prichard Wood and Partners. There was no choice in the matter: Prichard’s were the only company interested in his talents.

These reduced circumstances led to a massive increase in Howard’s creative output. To make up the shortfall, and to relieve the monotony of being, again, a lowly copywriter, evenings and weekends were given up to hurriedly bashing out articles and features, whilst Hilda kept up a supply of tea and sympathy.

The dangerous strategy the Thomases had chosen began to pay off. The Evening Chronicle in Manchester bought entertainment-related articles from their “man in London” at £3 for each half page. The London Press Exchange headhunted Howard and his wage went up. A play, Blackout, went out on the BBC’s Empire Service.

But there was still no opening at the BBC as a staffer; and no one from the Corporation was chasing him for more contributions. But the job at the LPE had a side benefit. Because of his ‘experience’ writing for the BBC, he was seen as perfect for their Commercial Radio department.

The BBC’s total monopoly on broadcasting was a well-promoted myth. But whilst the Corporation had a monopoly on broadcasts made within the UK, it had no powers to prevent other countries broadcasting to the UK. Radio Luxembourg, Radio Normandy and others all did this enthusiastically – and all took advertising and played out sponsored shows, made by the advertisers for the stations.

Howard’s success with shows on Luxembourg – for Cadbury’s amongst many others – got the BBC to pay more attention. A virtuous circle began to develop: the more good shows he made for commercial radio, the more the BBC took an interest; the more the BBC took an interest, the more the sponsors wanted Howard Thomas to make their shows.

The BBC’s interest was most useful; it paid the least but had the biggest audiences. Howard’s ideas began to be taken up and, through productions like Ivor Novello Looks Back, started to make his name.

By 1939 he was obviously on his way in to the Corporation and had already started to think about moving from radio to the new Television Service, beaming out of Alexandra Palace but obviously soon to be a national sensation.

Then, on the last night of August 1939, Nazi tanks rolled into Poland. Within days, Europe was at the start of the biggest war it had yet seen.

The London Press Exchange hurriedly began to repurpose itself and closed the Commercial Radio department. Radio Luxembourg went off air, its records hurriedly buried in the grounds of the Villa Louvigny (it became one of the ‘Reichsenders’ used to broadcast Lord Haw-Haw’s German propaganda to Britain). The Television Service closed down, its technical staff taken away to develop radar. The BBC’s two networks and the regional scheme collapsed down into one Home Service.

The market for Howard Thomas’s creative output evaporated in less than 3 days. His job gone and his future prospects bleak, he could only wait until he was called up for service in the armed forces – in a total war, 30 wasn’t too old.

It seemed clear that the war had broken both Howard Thomas and the BBC.

In fact, it was to be the making of both of them.

A Transdiffusion Presentation

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