ATV Today – a Midland Montage
11 May 2008 4 comments. tbs.pm/2196
In September 1955 ITV first began broadcasting in London. An era of regionally based broadcasting had begun. On February 17th 1956, ATV (one of the first companies on air in London) brought an ITV weekday service to the Midlands from the newly commissioned Lichfield Transmitter. Further transmitters opened over the next seven years. The last companies to launch were Channel TV and Wales (West & North) TV in 1962, a year that saw the final completion of a ‘federal’ ITV Network.
Part of the traditional appeal of ITV was that it divided the country up into separate regions, each having its own broadcaster that could opt-out of network transmission and show programmes that were designed to appeal to the more local viewers.
The first regional news on ITV was a bulletin of only 5 minutes, following the national news, 5 nights a week. Called ATV Midlands News the first edition was transmitted on May 7th 1956, only three months after ATV had gone on air in the Midlands.
Stories were delivered by motorcycle to the ATV studio at Aston from the Birmingham Evening Despatch, a local newspaper, and they were read out just as they were printed by station newsreader Patricia Cox.
The news events themselves were shot for ATV by Birmingham Commercial Films, who specialised in coverage of weddings and newsreel stock-shots, using hand held, clockwork 16mm cameras with no facility for recording live sound.
Things were primitive to begin with. The canisters were then processed in a stills lab, using deep tanks and then dried using a circle of around 20 or so people holding the film-strip in front of a gas fire.
At first the news items were broadcast in silence, with a commentary from the newsreader, as ATV news bosses thought that by adding dubbed sound effects they were perhaps faking the event. By the early 1960s, attitudes had changed and ATV began using such enhancements on a majority of news items.
By 1958, the technology had improved and reports were beginning to feature live sound and location interviews. It is interesting to note that the first local news reporter Reg Harcourt (below) remained with ATV, Central and Carlton well into the next century, by which time he was regional Political editor for Central News at 6.
Midland Montage began in 1958 as a weekly magazine showing light hearted stories, events and eccentric characters from around the region. It introduced local viewers to one of the first roving reporters, Jenny Martin (who was never seen without a hat) and presented odd and humorous stories with an accent as if she had just stepped out of an upper-class boarding school – perhaps parodying the rival BBC style.
Due to the technical limitations of 16mm film and limited crew numbers, ATV found it hard to cover all potential stories around the Midlands so news tended to focus on the West-Midlands area, with some pre-organised features recorded further afield.
In October 1964 ATV Today was introduced after pressure from the ITA for the company to commit itself more keenly to matters regional. The show was a daily 15 minute magazine programme and was shown just after the early evening ITN national bulletin, continuing where Midland Montage had left off, bringing in features, characters and light hearted stories from the area.
ATV Today began introducing viewers to a type of journalist not seen on TV at that time; the often quirky, less serious sort who never seemed to take life or news too seriously. The ironic reporters and news hounds with a sardonic turn of phrase – as pioneered by Granada in their ‘gritty’ Northern region.
John Swallow joined the ATV Today team in 1964, bringing his very individual take on characters and events – some light and some serious but all from the Midlands. He made news interesting to watch.
Peter Green joined during the late 1960s. At the time he was also editor of the Midlands ITV listings magazine TV World. His first television experience came when Midlands journalists were invited each week onto ABC Weekend’s 5-minute bedtime slot Personal Column which was aired just after midnight on a Saturday, giving their own views on the weeks news; a sort of ‘Television Editorial of The Air’ – a new concept on British Television at the time and another piece of pioneering work by the famous weekend ITV contractor for the Midlands. Peter became known for his special features on culture, industry, traditions and history from around the area.
By 1969 ITV companies were switching to colour broadcasting and ABC had latterly moved regions – to become Thames – ATV was one of the first to broadcast their local news programme in colour. ATV, now with a monopoly 7-day contract for the Midlands, was relocating from the old Alpha Studios in Aston Cross, to a new purpose built studio complex in the Birmingham City Centre, designed for the age of colour and 625 line pictures. It became fully operational in 1970.
This new facility would bring all aspects of Midland ATV production under one roof. This in particular would help ATV Today as it’s newsroom, film editing facility and studio had been based over time in different parts of Birmingham. By this point ATV Midlands News had been incorporated into the main ATV Today programme.
The show was at its heyday in the 1970s, achieving daily audiences of around 3 million for it’s regional half hour slot at 6pm.
As well as providing a serious element to news, the programme was known for its knockabout, quirky style and an emphasis on providing entertainment – as opposed to the supposedly starchy style of the alternative BBC local news.
Stories tended to be more tilted towards the West Midlands rather than the region as a whole. This was mainly due to a reliance on 16mm film for most items. It wasn’t until the latter part of the 1970s that ATV Today began using the newer U-Matic tape and thus gained more flexibility.
During the late 1970s, ATV began to use regionally-based reporters. In 1978 John Mitchell became the first East Midlands based voice, quickly followed by Terry Lloyd, who later moved to ITN. Terry had begun his career working for Raymonds news agency based in Derby and knew the supposedly neglected East Midlands area well. In an attempt to keep both the IBA and the East Midlands viewers happy, ATV rented space at the Theatre Royal in Nottingham, which provided them with a small studio for interviews and land lines direct to Birmingham.
TV Presenter Chris Tarrant began his career on ATV Today, having written a short letter to ATV in 1972. His interview consisted of two questions. “Do you have a driving licence?” and “Can you use a typewriter?”
His first assignments were to report the more serious side of the local news but it was quickly decided he was better suited to lighter hearted stories and along with fellow reporters John Swallow and Tony Maycock, he brought anarchic twists to early evening stories. Tarrant moved to present Tiswas in the late 1970s and then on to TV-am during the 1980s.
John Swallow (above) continued to bring humorous items from around the Midlands, into the late eighties. His final work with Central was in 1989 for a pilot programme Swallow This, a retrospective looking at stories from the ATV and Central News archive.
It is interesting to note that Tony Maycock filed the last known report from ATV Centre on its closure in October 1997. He continued as a reporter for Central News until he passed away in early 2002.
The ATV Today format also produced various ‘spin-offs’. Farming Today ran for just under 10 years during the 1970s and was a regional predecessor to the BBCs current Countryfile. It brought news in magazine format for the region’s agricultural community. Its major scoop came in October 1971 while shooting on location in Oxfordshire, when the film crew captured footage of a supposed UFO above them. This made the national bulletins and later the world news.
Angling Today presented by keen fisherman Terry Thomas (not the actor!), sometimes alongside fellow angler/reporter Chris Tarrant (below), brought fishing tips, rules, regulations and news to the local fishermen from a variety of Midlands locations, from perch at Tipton Canal to carp at Rutland Water.
The sports desk featured presenters like former Wolves star Billy Wright CBE and Derby County supremo Trevor East. Jimmy Greaves and Gary Newbon (below) had their first commentating breaks here. They were later joined by jockey Terry Biddlecom and reporter Nick Owen later of ITN.
ATV also introduced Police 5 into ATV Today, hosted by continuity announcer and former quizmaster Shaw Taylor (below).
Police 5 began life in the 1960s as a short weekly feature appealing for witnesses to unsolved crimes, a regional forerunner to the BBC’s Crimewatch. The programme interviewed victims and detectives and was a huge success from the outset.
An ATV London version of Police 5 continued into the late 1980s but transferred to London Weekend on the franchise changes of 1968.
By the late 1970s ATV Today had made familiar faces of presenters Bob Warman (above, who is still presenting Central News West) and Wendy Nelson who later became controller of West Midlands news for Central and can still be seen presenting occasional regional programmes today.
It wasn’t all singing and dancing. Viewers in the north and east of the region felt that they were left out of news coverage and that items only really tended to be from the West Midlands.
Local MPs and councils from Derbyshire, Nottinghamshire and Leicestershire had lobbied both ATV and the IBA for a separate ITV East Midlands region to be set up using the main East Midlands transmitter at Waltham near Melton Mowbray.
ATV baulked at the expense involved and was quoted in the Derby Evening Telegraph as saying among other things “The region is not viable to set up, it would involve great expense” and “that is the end of the matter…”
In 1980 all ITV franchises were due for renewal. The IBA invited new applicants and existing contractors to apply for a 10 year licence which would commence in January 1982.
The IBA accepted the application made by ATV and granted another 10-year franchise to them but under certain conditions.
They had to concentrate more on the region than on overseas programming sales, relocate their London production facility to the Midlands and be ‘more Midlands orientated’.
The applicant’s corporate title ‘ATV Network’ was changed to ‘ATV Midlands’ but the IBA was still not happy with the name. The regulator felt that viewers wouldn’t notice any change without a new station brand. The region was newly split into two sub regions to provide an East and West dual news service, as long advocated.
The final edition of ATV Today was broadcast at 6pm on December 31st 1981 and was presented by Bob Warman, Wendy Nelson (below) and John Swallow. It gave a retrospective on items from the ATV regional archive.
A rebranded ATV, now ‘Central Independent Television’ went on air at 9.25am on January 1st 1982 bringing split region Central News (in East, West and much later, South Midland versions) to the region’s screens.
A final roll call of those who made their way into broadcasting via the ATV regional news and continuity operations in the Midlands…
Anne Diamond, Nick Owen, Geoff Meade, David Foster, Chris Tarrant (all later moved to TV-am in the 1980s); Ivor Jay, Peter Ling, Susan Jay, Gwyn Richards, Peter Plant, Rob Whitehouse, Peter Green, John Mitchell, Terry Lloyd, Tony Maycock, Christine Webber, Wendy Nelson, Bob Warman, Margret Hounsell, Reg Harcourt, Jenny Martin, Terry Thomas, Terry Biddlecombe, Mike Hollingsworth, Gary Newbon, Billy Wright, Trevor East, Jimmy Greaves, Derek Hobson, John Swallow, Shaw Taylor, Patricia Cox, Peter Cockburn, Pat Astley, Jean Morton, Kevin Morrison, Michael Prince, Joan Palmer, Stewart White, Trevor Lucas and Noelle Gordon!
Here’s to ATV Midlands – 1956 to 1981 – may you never be forgotten!