A is for Alpha 

15 August 2010 tbs.pm/2243

During the latter part of the 1950s, the UK cinema industry suffered its first major slump of attendance figures – blamed on the popularity of television. The forthcoming ITV service also pushed those without television sets to invest in the new medium.

A result of this was ABC, the cinema chain, carrying out an assessment of its national cinema portfolio, resulting in the closure of the under performing picture houses.

People forget that many of the older UK cinemas were purposed built and, due to the awkward layout of the buildings, were hard to convert into something more useful. Many of the properties remained derelict until demolition during the 1970s and 1980s, while others were offered brief new leases of life by becoming bingo halls, bowling alleys and even privately run art, foreign film and ‘specialist’ (adult) cinemas.

One of the buildings offered a new lease of life was the former Astoria Cinema, located on Aston Road North in Birmingham. The building was constructed during 1892 and 1893 as a live theatre, costing builders George and Robert Hall a sum of £6500 (about £389,285 in today’s money). It opened its doors as the New Theatre Royal on 7 August 1893. In 1894, the theatre was sold to Charles Barnard, who fully refurbished the entire building; and again carried out further refurbishment and extension work costing £7000 (about £148,470 today) in 1921, giving the theatre a seating capacity of nearly 2000.

The theatre closed in 1926 and re-opened on 12 December 1927 as the Astoria Cinema with a reduced seating capacity of 1,194. The site continued to operate under the ABC chain of cinemas for a further 29 years until it finally closed its doors on 26 November 1955.

The advent of ITV

By this time, ITV had been on air for 2 months in the London area, and plans were well advanced to expand the commercial TV service beyond the capital city – first stop, the Midlands. ITV in the Midlands was to be a split operation, with ATV looking after Mondays to Fridays, and ABC, making a foray out of the cinemas business, taking care of programmes at the weekend.

In a bid to reduce operational costs and conflicts with working agreements for staff, it was suggested that the two companies share the same studio, technical facilities and technicians. A company, Alpha Television Services (Birmingham) Ltd, was formed as a joint operation to handle the building, facilities and staff. Today, it is common practice for many studio complexes to house a number of different production companies and facilities, but back then it was a move considered unusual.

The Alpha Television Studios, also known as the Channel 8 Television Theatre, were taken over in November 1955 for conversion to television facilities. Architects Satchwell and Roberts had their work cut out, to effectively convert the interior of a large city centre cinema into production and transmission facilities suitable to use for by a television station – and one that was due to go on air in just under 3 months.

Original Aston facilities

Upon opening, the facilities at Aston were quite limited; the design and setup however were based on the US system of broadcasting, introducing a ‘dummy’ studio or Master Control Room (MCR) where all TV sources within the studio building (telecine, slides, VTR, studio output, OBs, announcer and feeds to and from the network) were connected, switched and fed to the local transmitter at Litchfield or into the network for national transmission.

This system was designed to be flexible, so programmes could be fed in from other regions, with the appropriate spaces for commercial breaks, and then advertisements could be played in locally via telecine.

The MCR was part of the Central Apparatus Room (CAR), which provided telecine, slide and later VTR facilities (videotape was in its infancy; various systems and formats were being trialled by broadcasters, before a decision of a ‘standard format’ was agreed upon) not only for transmission but also the studios themselves.

One production studio was available originally, without its own control room, but with control facilities provided by the use of an old ATV Outside Broadcast van, with equipment situated in a small outbuilding. Also available was a presentation studio, used by the station announcer and other small single-camera productions.

At Alpha, much of the material broadcast simply went out live, or was sourced from film. Alpha had two telecine machines, providing 16mm and 35mm film transmission. Like videotape, telecine technology was in its infancy during the 1950s and the equipment was nothing more than converted cinema projectors.

Like the cinema projector, the film would be threaded in the usual way, but the difference was the light source would be much lower wattage, literally a few hundred watts, in contrast to the high-pressure 2000w xenon arc lamps that were then being introduced to replace the carbon arc rods which would burn away in the projectors lamp house.

The projector would shine into a multiplexer, a large box with a series of silvered mirrors and optics with a number of apertures to enable slide projectors and other telecine machines to be projected in. It was this box that converted the projected ‘aerial’ image within the box into a video signal.

Alpha’s facilities at this time consisted of:

2 x 4½ inch image Orthicon cameras

3 x stand microphones

1 x boom microphone

3 x small floor microphones

The opening

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“This Independent Television Service to the Midlands is now open…” were the words spoken by the Lord Mayor of Birmingham on 17 February 1956 which signified the opening of the new ITV station. Although the opening ceremony was carried out at the Birmingham Town Hall, ATV provided an all-star bill of entertainment from the new Alpha Television Studios.

Upon going on air, it was estimated that around 650,000 viewers in the Midlands could receive the new ITV service. Extensive research was later carried out by ATV’s sales department, which estimated that by the autumn of 1959, 1.25million out of the 1.65million Midland homes had television receivers capable of receiving the new ITV service. It was believed that out of those 1.25million homes, an average of 3 out of 4 people tuned to the new ITV service.

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Further research was carried out again during 1960, estimating that a further million viewers would tune to ATV by the end of 1961.

Expansion

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Philip Dorte with the Lord Mayor of Birmingham

During December 1960, the Lord Mayor of Birmingham, Alderman Garnet Boughton, cut a large length of video tape across the entrance of a new office space acquired by ATV. The opening ceremony was attended by leading figures of ATV, including Lew Grade, Norman Collins, Val Parnell, Prince Littler and Midlands Controller Philip Dorte.

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The new Birmingham offices were part of a multi-story office block constructed on Edmund Street in the City Centre. Internally, the offices were designed to be open plan, to match the design that proved so successful at ATV House in London.

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In addition to this new office space, the ATV Sales department also moved into offices at Cornwall Street in Birmingham city centre, establishing a facility for heads of local businesses to ‘walk-in’ and discuss their advertising requirements in the Midlands. Sales advisors were on hand, armed with a battery of research and viewer information. ATV was the first to introduce separate advertising rates for small local businesses.

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Expansion work also began at the Alpha studios during 1960, with the construction of an additional five storey building to accommodate new technical facilities, a much larger staff canteen and additional studio floor space.

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The new facilities came into operation during August 1961 with an official opening by the Lord Mayor of Birmingham in the new lavish foyer looking out onto Aston Road.

New and improved technical areas were installed, with the fifth floor being the home of the Central Technical Area, housing two more telecine machines, a Master Control room and a new 360 sq ft (33.5m²) announcers studio fitted with a small remote controlled Vidicon Camera.

Studio floor space was increased; two studios were now available, one at 2000 sq ft (186m²) and another of 1,100 sq ft (102m²).

Double the presentation – what’s in a name?

The viewing public wouldn’t really notice that the people that brought them ATV each weekday were in fact the same people that brought them programmes from ABC at the weekend. On screen, the fact that there were two totally different companies providing programmes had to be reflected in the presentation and style of the station.

The original presentation studio at Alpha was a sound-only affair, little more larger than your average walk-in closet. It wasn’t until 1961 that a new ‘in-vision’ presentation studio came into use, also shared with programmes such as Thought for the Day and the Epilogue (the only programme billed as an “Alpha Television Production” as it ran all week in the Midlands and on weekends in the North).

After closedown of ATV on a Friday evening, the presentation studio had to be re-dressed to reopen as ABC Television for the weekends. The process of reverting the studio back to ATV began after closedown of ABC on a Sunday evening.

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The Epilogue, from Alpha’s presentation studio

Since the BBC had began regular television broadcasts in the 1930s, in-vision announcing was the norm, a habit that spread throughout Europe but was rarely seen in America. ATV was no exception, appointing in-vision announcers, and the company ensured that they didn’t just pop up between the programmes but also starred in and presented them too. There was no book of television etiquette, or even university courses dictating how it should be done, so most on-screen announcers came from an acting background, many having even studied at RADA, LAMDA, the Guildhall and the Central School of Speech and Drama.

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The Midlands announcers very quickly became local celebrities, often said to be more popular than the programmes they introduced, and for many years the mailrooms at many ITV stations would be swamped with large sacks of fan mail. The announcers themselves were constantly out and about around the Midlands, appearing at charity events, openings and dinners as a way of promoting both themselves and the company.

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Jean Morton

The first announcer employed by ATV in the Midlands was Jean Morton, who trained at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama. She entered television after a spell in repertory theatre before joining the BBC in Wales.

She topped a newspaper poll choosing the most popular out of eleven announcers regularly seen on TV in the Midlands, and became well known as the hostess to ATV’s late night Rainbow Room, and introducing Tingha and Tucker to Midlands children and later the network.

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Pat Astley

Pat Astley joined the team in January 1958, being appointed from 823 applicants for the post. He joined television from a background of writing, directing and performing in amateur dramatics. His son, Gordon Astley, was later a presenter of ATV’s riotous Saturday morning programme Tiswas.

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Mike Prince

Mike Prince is perhaps the best known of all ATV announcers, joining in 1963 to work on programmes such as Look Around and Midland Montage. In October 1964 he became programme assistant on ATV Today whilst also taking on the job of auditioning prospective new announcers. It was only after the final batch of auditions that ATV Midlands controller Len Matthews offered Mike the post of announcer himself. Mike remained with ATV full time until 1973; thereafter he worked freelance, although still appearing regularly on ATV and its successor Central until the late 1980s.

Other announcers making their name included:

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Jill Betchley

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Caroline Lloyd

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Anne Taylor

Going into production… humble beginnings

The original Alpha Studios only offered one studio with audience capability, the studio located in the former stalls and audience seating located up in the former cinema circle. This didn’t offer much flexibility, so lighting and sets had to be kept simple for ease of changing between productions.

Following the refurbishment and expansion during 1961, Alpha Studios offered greater potential and flexibility for programme productions. As well as new presentation facilities, the building now offered two production studios of differing sizes. Studio 1 was the largest and offered facilities for audiences. Studio 2 was much smaller, resulting in programmes having to be designed to fit easily inside either studio at very short notice.

One of the first major programmes to be broadcast from Alpha was Lunchbox, broadcast live daily with a light mix of music and entertainment. The idea of an afternoon programme had been suggested early on in ATV’s life but it was assumed that a lunchtime slot wouldn’t command large audiences. However, the prevalence of shift working in the factories of the Midlands meant that there actually was a much larger audience than first assumed.

At the time, there was no way of easily discovering what response a programme at this time of day would have, so it was decided that the programme would only be shown for a limited time with a tiny budget for each programme.

Lunchbox was described by ATV as a ‘little continental café’ type setting, with music supplied by the Jerry Allen Trio.

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Viewers were encouraged to send in requests for music to be played on birthdays and anniversaries, intermingled with small sketches and interviews with visiting celebrities. Even local amateur talent was given the chance to show their skills, long before the days of New Faces and X-Factor. The immediate response from the ATV audience proved to its producer, a young Reg Watson, that they had indeed struck the right note.

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Much of the Lunchbox success is perhaps owed to its presenter, ATV’s advisor on women’s programmes, Noele Gordon.

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From a technical point of view, Lunchbox had to be quickly adaptable, so it could be broadcast from either the smaller or larger studio as circumstances required.

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In the space of 12 months, Lunchbox became such a hit with the Midlands audience the show taken on the road to various locations.

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Another unlikely hit was Tinga and Tucker. They first appeared on screen as a joke by floor manager, Dave Simmonds, who hid behind announcer Jean Morton’s seat with the glove puppets. But the puppets became a huge hit with children in their own right and eventually the show was taken on by some members of the ITV network and opened a fan club, sporting 13,000 members.

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In 1964, on the back of a regionalism campaign initiated by the Independent Television Authority at the hands of the Pilkington Report, ATV announced the introduction of a new serial set in the Midlands. ‘The Midland Road’ was to be be set at a motel in the fictional Birmingham suburb of King’s Oak. The serial hit the air in November 1964 with a different title: Crossroads. Noele Gordon (of Lunchbox fame) took the starring role as the motel owner Meg Richardson, a role that would eclipse all of her other work for ATV in the minds of viewers.

Crossroads was originally planned to run as a short series rather than a serial, and to be shown in the Midlands area only. It soon spread across the ITV network and, after a myriad of controversies, fires, bombs, sackings, disputes with other ITV companies and the Independent Broadcasting Authority (who demanded cuts in the number of episodes per week in a futile effort to drive up the quality), Crossroads only eventually closed its doors in 1988 after nearly 4500 episodes.

Other programmes to come from Alpha included Cover Girl, Hit the Limit, The Golden Shot and Rainbow Room, the latter of which also featured experimental ‘subjective colour’ trials. ABC’s output from the studios included Thank Your Lucky Stars.

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By 1967, there were loud demands for ATV to produce more large scale programming from the Midlands, made all the more louder with the looming ITA contract renewal round. Added to that, the introduction of colour broadcasting on BBC-1 and ITV had been authorised and the ITA stipulated that contractors’ facilities had to be equipped for the introduction of 625-line PAL colour broadcasting, provisionally set for 1969. ATV therefore had to consider the future of the Alpha Studios.

The ITA had decided that, from the beginning of the next contract period, the Midlands had to served by one company for the full 7 days; no company would ‘straddle’ regions in future as ATV and ABC had done; and ATV were quietly tipped off that the London weekend contract wouldn’t be available to them.

With a 7-day Midlands-only contract in prospect, ATV found an alternative location in Birmingham City Centre, with many incentives offered by the city council for ATV to keep its Midlands operation in Birmingham.

Plans were drawn up to build the new studio complex at Broad Street, while at the same time production had to continue from Alpha until the new Paradise Centre complex was complete. It was hoped that production would cease from the now-crumbling Aston Studios by 1969, before the introduction of colour, and transmission ceased from Alpha during the summer of 1969, although production work such as Golden Shot and Crossroads continued for a short while after until the new production studios were brought into commission.

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Edmund Street, which included the film library, newsroom and production offices, remained in operation until late 1971 when it was finally moved over to the new ATV Centre.

Amongst all of this ABC Television appeared to just “plod on” through its weekend franchise requirement; however it arguably didn’t get off as lightly as ATV during the 1968 franchise renewals. ABC were forced by the ITA to merge operations with the London area weekday franchise holder, Rediffusion; a new company founded by the two but dominated by ABC, Thames Television, operated the London weekday franchise from 1968 until 1992.

A Transdiffusion Presentation

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8 responses to this article

Winifred Watt 14 August 2013 at 2:49 pm

I was Kit Plant’s PA at ATV Birmingham (Alpha) from 1957-1959 and am pictured in the control room sitting to Kit’s left in the montage of scenes above. I can also recognise Philip Garston-Jones, Raymond Roden and Pat Astley. Happy days!

Charles fowler 11 May 2014 at 12:25 am

I am charles fowler born on 13th june 1951. I remember watching emergency ward 10, lunchbox, espionage, striker of the yard, no hiding place, all our yesterdays, interpol calling, edgar lusgarten, midlands parade, william tell, robin hood, armchair theatreand many other programmes.

betty fox 27 July 2014 at 11:23 am

Hello there.
I was a Vision Mixer at Alpha Birmingham from 1957-1961. I was Betty Rawson then.
Also,I was the first face and voice transmitted from the Hints transmitter as a test transmission. Wonderful days. Betty.

Emma Sandiford 23 December 2014 at 10:40 pm

I am the granddaughter of Philip Dorte – who worked for a long time in television – sadly he died the year I was born, but would love to hear any memories of people he worked with to pass on to my children, mother and siblings!!

Lyn Jones 19 April 2015 at 2:46 pm

I wonder if anyone remembers a small Welsh man from mid Wales called Eryl Jones? I think he had been an electrician at GEC before being recruited as a cameraman. He later went on to do camera work in news and Light Entertainment until the mid-late 60’s, based in Birmingham but travelling all over the world. Sadly he died in 1986 aged only 56. I’m his daughter.

Ken Hartill 23 October 2015 at 10:47 pm

My dad was Sid Hartill and worked in properties from 1959 till he retired in 1982 ,also my uncle Archie Hartill also worked with dad. both have now died. Dads hand was seen putting the plates into lunchbox at the end of the show. He used to complain about his men having to clean up after Chris Tarrant’s show Tiswas. I still have a coloured photo of all the cast and crew of the show.

Clive Collins 1 March 2017 at 4:55 pm

Generally a correct assessment of what went on in Alpha but with glaring errors contained in the text sadly by someone who didnt do the research and the details would only be known to the former staff in Master Control.
Otherwise however, an intresting read

Former member of Master Staff.

Clive Collins 1 March 2017 at 4:57 pm

please do and I will happily offer corrections accordingly before you publish.
Regards

Clive

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