John Mead: Part III – Telly Welly 

12 October 2011 tbs.pm/72564

John Mead

John Mead in the early 2000s

I LEARNT ABOUT this time that Television Wales and the West, TWW, which had opened in January 1958, were now looking for more presenters. So in 1959 I came down to Cardiff for an audition. After the first session I was told I looked rather homosexual (illegal at the time) and a very kind lady called Barbara, the head of make up, stuck a monkey beard on my face. It did the macho trick and I got the job.

The well known broadcaster and friend of mine, Brian Trueman, also from Granada, had actually come first in the TWW audition. Brian went back to Granada and told them he was leaving unless he got a raise. Granada gave him the raise and so it was me who joined TWW in Cardiff, in December 1959. I started broadcasting from TWW’s Pontcanna Studios in January 1960. I was continuity announcing, news reading, reporting, opening fetes and more. It was a very busy little studio running almost entirely under its own steam with a management team mostly living in a huge office in Baker Street, London.

The lone Cardiff management studio boss was one Colonel Peter Bartholomew MD, who had a large family interest in the media via the Daily Mirror. Col. Peter had been in the bow of a landing craft on 6 June 1944, D-Day, standing in the front of the ship, baton under one arm, shouting, “Where are they? Where are the bloody Bosch, show me where they are! I’ll fix ’em!”. He used, roughly speaking, the same technique to deal with a famously recalcitrant continuity announcer shortly after he took charge in Cardiff. Peter had a flat in the studio building in Pontcanna. This Saturday night he rang master control and ordered the announcer in question to come up to his sitting room immediately.

 

 

Peter poured him a scotch, informed him that he was dismissed, gave him another scotch, and sent him back down the stairs to master control where he was still working his shift as continuity announcer. It was shortly before six o’clock. The next programme to come up on air was a new pop programme from ABC called “Oh Boy!”. A continuity introduction was required. The programme was announced with the following words by a slightly glassy-eyed announcer:”Next on TWW tonight is, for my money, one of the worst programmes ever seen on our screens here at TWW or anywhere else — it’s called ‘Oh Boy!'”. Bartholomew erupted and bellowed instructions, security arrived in Master Control and the announcer was carried out to the front door. A taxi was called. He was bundled into the taxi and was never seen again in Cardiff. He did however go on to have a highly successful, if controversial, career as a media writer and reporter.

WHINES FROM THE WEST COUNTRY

I had some success in infuriating the official powers that ran the coastal local authorities who tried to pretend that a bit of West Country coast (the bit between Severn Beach and Weston-Super-Mare) had resorts which rivalled those in the South of France. I had always disagreed with the West Country PR image which used pictures of bright blue sea which could only be seen on vivid travel posters of the area. The water was (and still is) a dirty muddy brown colour.

I had organised a coach load of pensioners who were filmed arriving on the promenade in Weston, filing off the coach and then (apparently) filing back into the coach again, my commentary over this read, “They came, they saw, they were devastated.” At the other end of the programme we visited Severn Beach. I talked to the owner of the funfair there, to whom I posed the question, “What sort of a resort is Severn Beach?” to which he replied, “The last resort”. I for one thought it to be a very funny and justified programme.

 

Map of the TWW region

Map of the TWW region after it bought out Wales (West and North) Television

 

Bryan Michie was the TWW programme controller in London. Sometime after that show went out the phone rang on my desk in Cardiff and a mournful voice said, “John, oh John, what have you done? Oh dear, oh dear, oh dear. John, I have had so many complaints about your programmes on Severn Beach and Weston-Super-Mare, what on earth did you do? What did you say?” I told him the programme was about a so-called holiday coast which I knew very well was not what it claimed to be. He said again, “Oh dear, oh dear, I’ve had complaints about ‘In The News’ too, you know, please don’t make any more of those kinds of programmes — I really must try and see them sometime”. For the first three years of TWW’s existence the programme controller had never seen any of the programmes I had worked on. Not even one edition of our flagship current affairs programme “In The News”.

Perhaps the fate of TWW was even then being sealed by this lack of interest and control of the programmes that were being made and transmitted from Cardiff and Bristol, with a management that lived and worked in London. The ITA (later the Independent Broadcasting Authority, IBA) put pressure on TWW to make more programmes about the West Country, to which the company, under its contracts with the ITA, had to give at least the impression that we were covering the whole of the West Country for current affairs and news. And so it was that Guy Thomas and I started alternating, in an absurd charade designed to make it look as if we had a newsroom in Bristol.

 

 

Every day either Guy or I got on a train in Cardiff, travelled to Temple Meads in Bristol, took a taxi to the site of new studios in Brislington and switched on the lights and a single camera, set up in a garage. We collected the news copy that was sent over from Cardiff by telex. We read the news in the garage on the one camera, with no one else there at all. Then we switched everything off, got into a taxi, went back to Temple Meads station and on to Cardiff.

A couple of years later, at last, we did open that new studio in Bristol. I was also directing a new daily programme called “Here Today”, introduced by the mercurial and sometimes difficult to work with pianist Joe Cooper. Joe eventually went on to do “My Music” on network TV. He had a lovely long suffering wife who eventually passed away, legend had it, carrying Joe’s bags into yet another hotel. Again, each week, Joe and the production team would travel over to the Bristol studios. I think we used to record two programmes and do a third one live. Then once again we got back on the train to Cardiff. The production team was led by Ron Evans who later rose to great heights as the first programme controller in the new Bristol studio.

Sports Preview

Now let’s turn to TWW’s “Sports Preview”, a half-hour weekly sports programme, with Lloyd Lewis as editor — a legendary and extraordinary character who covered the regional sporting scene for the News of the World and indeed continued to do that for the newspaper while he was working for TWW. I had worked on the sports programme in Granada, edited by Gerry Loftus, so I knew this scene a little bit — but Lloyd, as an editor, was always entirely on his own. He used to ring Tudor James of The People regularly each week. The conversations usually went like this: “Oh, I’ve transferred Stan to Aston Villa, oh, I see — OK then I’ll transfer him to Spurs, that’s best isn’t it, no it’s alright Tudor I’ll deny that next week — great”.

Once, though, Lloyd came horribly unstuck. Borough United, a soccer club from Llandudno Junction, were playing in a Cup competition the coming Saturday. Their opponents were a team in Malta. Borough United were flying out that that Thursday (Lloyd was going off to a rugby match in Scotland instead) so there and then he wrote a piece for the News of the World before he went to Edinburgh — Lloyds article recorded that Borough United had all arrived safely in Malta on the Friday. They had trained vigorously, Lloyd said, after arrival, and then did a bit of sunbathing in Valetta — and spent the rest of the day visiting the sights and looking at what was on offer in the infamous street known as “the gut” in Valletta. In reality the plane couldn’t land at Valetta and was redirected to Southern France, then flew in late to Malta, on the Saturday night. The team was exhausted and two of them had gone down with a stomach bug. Do you know, I don’t think anyone noticed that Lloyd appeared to have an exclusive about something that didn’t actually happen. I’m afraid sports writers got away with that sort of thing in those days. Have times changed? To be honest I’m not sure.

 

The DC-10 that crashed in France

The Turkish Airlines DC-10 that crashed in France. Photograph by Steve Fitzgerald, released under the GFDL 1.2 licence.

 

I remember Lloyd was always terrified of flying and consumed vast amounts of alcohol to quell his fears every time he flew. I hope he did the same when, a few years later, after covering a rugby international, he boarded a Turkish Airlines DC-10 in Paris, on which he had proudly got a last minute spare seat and which he thought would get him back to Heathrow ahead of all his other sporting journalist colleagues.

That was the jet that crashed in Fontaine-Chaalis minutes into the flight — there were no survivors. I pray Lloyd didn’t know too much about it. I’m sure Lloyd would like a story about him to end with laughter. Here’s something we both laughed about for years after it happened. It was our very first Christmas show on “Sports Preview” way back in 1960. We had Danny Blanchflower, then the captain of Spurs, as our regular presenter and this Christmas edition also included Cardiff boxing manager and promoter Benny Jacobs, who assisted us with the vast amounts of reporting we undertook on boxing.

Looking back I realise that Lloyd’s connection with the News of the World was probably what led us to do this, our infamous first (and last) “Sports Preview” Christmas edition, an edition that included Mosambulu (a wrestler who lived in Streatham), dressed only in a loin cloth, in a cage. Danny Blanchflower, wearing a white hunter’s outfit complete with helmet, attempted to interview Mosambulu from outside the cage, as it was clearly too dangerous for him to go in. According to our PR handout, this wrestler had just been captured in the jungle and couldn’t speak English or indeed any language. So Mosambulu was instructed to only grunt — one grunt for no, two grunts for yes. In the meantime boxing promoter Benny Jacobs (who, because of his Jewish ancestry wasn’t much of an expert on Christmas) was standing in an alcove on the set, dressed as a fairy, with a ballerina’s tutu above his short hairy legs and a sparkling wand in his left hand.

TWW (and later Harlech)’s Television Weekly

Throughout the show, Benny occasionally snorted and made insulting remarks to anyone who appeared to be listening, or when he noticed a camera on him. Frankly looking back now, some fifty years later, the show itself was beyond belief and these days would probably have resulted in me, Lloyd Lewis and maybe Danny too being dragged into appearances in front of every organisation responsible for race relations, equal opportunities and good taste on the box. But this was 1960, TWW was not quite 2 years old and still in its infancy.

We were live as usual, I was directing and producing, with Lloyd Lewis as sports editor with me in the box. In the commercial break the phone rang. It was the newly appointed programme controller Mike Towers. To say that he was angry was something of an understatement. I don’t know why he used the phone because he was shouting so loudly I might have heard him through the walls. It was a long time ago but I remember his words as if it were yesterday. I answered Mike’s call and it went like this: “This show is the worst show I’ve ever seen on our channel or on any other bloody channel in Britain since television was bloody well invented by John Logie Baird! Anyone and everyone who has had anything to do with this bloody ludicrous show is bloody well fired, you’re bloody fired, Lloyd’s bloody fired, everyone with any connection to this show is fired! Do you understand? Do you understand? Do you understand what I’m staying?”

To which I replied, “You haven’t seen Part Two yet” and put the phone down.

◀︎ PART TWO


Book cover

Excerpted from “Funny things that happen in television” by John Mead, available for £8.54 plus P&P (paperback) or £3.99 (ebook) from Northstar Books.

 

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