Rockalong with Thames 

23 November 2015 tbs.pm/8061

THAMES TELEVISION

Notional Date: 23 NOVEMBER 1969
Announcer: Phillip Elsmore
Music: Pizzicato Rockalong (Johnny Hawksworth); Salute To Thames (Hawksworth)
Puntillas (Raymond Guiot/Luis Pena)
Running With The Wind (Roger Roger)

 

In remembering 1960s television presentation and continuity traditions, it is probably the daily start-up routines of the Independent Television companies which are now revered the most by those older viewers who took an interest in the framing of the TV output – though a surprising number of young people today, who cannot themselves remember these daily ceremonials, have taken an interest in the archive recordings of those events.

These signing on routines were beloved in their day and probably represent the holy grail of television presentation, showing as they do not just the development of graphics, continuity and theme music, but also changes in the priorities of television as each decade passed. This reflected changes in society and the slow decline of paternalism as a broadcasting style.

The original chroniclers and archivists of this phenomenon were as unlikely a group of people as you would expect to find studying media policy.

Groups of boys from boarding schools in the 1960s took an interest in an aspect of broadcasting that many adults of the day regarded as ephemeral. Middle class boys – for it was almost always boys – were often given reel-to-reel tape recorders as presents in the late 1950s and early 1960s. These were brought into school and tape recording clubs sprang up; a number of such groups across the country got together and formed the National Radiotape Network (NRN) for the exchange of audio recordings.

At that time, an upsurge of youth interest in the broadcasting industry had been caused by the phenomenal success of offshore (somewhat incorrectly also known as ‘pirate’) radio stations based on ships at sea. These were anchored off the British coastline to avoid the radio licensing laws that maintained a BBC radio monopoly of the time and it became cool for teenagers throughout the UK to exchange audio tapes of different regional offshore stations.

This activity soon spread to recording the output of local television transmitters and thus the first permanent records of presentation and continuity – never more than accidentally saved by the broadcasters themselves – were made. Continuity – the bits before, between and after the actual programmes – reflected the ethos and priorities of the television companies of the day, which in turn gave a snapshot of media style in Britain at the time.

The first thirty years of Independent Television from 1955 to 1985 saw a period of diversity, plurality and variety in station names, branding styles and regional commitment that faded rapidly when 24-hour television and looser regulation later appeared in the late eighties and early nineties. The archive put together by these pioneering British school children – kept going for many years after they became adults – now forms the basis of a unique historical resource, a major website and social media output on several platforms.

Transdiffusion runs a series of these historic daily screen routines as both a tribute to the unsung TV staff of the day in television presentation departments, solid British music library composers, and of the initiative of a group of 1960s boarding school children – and the teachers who encouraged them – without whom this part of television history would be unchronicled in any depth and without any detail on the periodic variations of practice that occurred. The archive audio recordings are paired with tele-snaps of the on-screen output and the two then combined by one of Britain’s best graphic designers to reproduce best-practice start-up sequences that have been lost completely or only exist as ropey 405-line telecine or early reel-to-reel video.

Colour, contrast, brightness

It is easy to take colour television for granted today, when all output – except for the occasional old film – is in colour and taken as the norm.

But by the late sixties post war television had accumulated over 20 years of monochrome output. Consequently, after many delays at the hands of politicians and civil servants, and technical debates about the system to be used, the launch of colour television on ITV & BBC-1 in late 1969 was seen as a very big deal indeed by the broadcasters, the journalists and even quite a few of the viewers.

Massive publicity surrounded these events and the slow regional introduction of colour transmissions from the major to the minor regions was like a slow motion horserace that all the commentators kept coming back to. The television manufacturing industry took a great interest, licking corporate lips at the fresh money to be made from the new sets that every viewer (it was assumed) would want to buy or rent. In the event, it was 1976 before the number of colour TV licences crept past the number of monochrome only households.

Into this scene came the BBC and the ITV companies, each wishing (as was still the priority in those days) to promote their corporate identity and company trade mark in this new chimera of the television age: colour. Most presentation departments recreated their on-screen material from scratch – with a preponderance of yellow on blue as many black and white idents were originally filmed in those colours anyway to prevent stark contrasts blowing the viewers’ tubes – though those companies that represented the old order (Granada, ATV, Southern and so forth) hung onto the musical pieces they were already using.

Thames Television, as the flagship company of the network, decided to make an event of the colour launch with a beautiful compromise – choosing a new first daily start-up theme for their station, to replace the venerable Perpetual Mobile that ABC and Thames had used in the black and white era, but keeping the Hawksworth Salute to Thames theme for the second regular item in the daily sign-on slots. With schools programmes and outside broadcasts, the piece could be expected to be heard up to three times a day in term time.

The sound track we use here today was supplied on tape, direct to the original NRN organisation in 1970 by the Head of Presentation at Thames – the late Geoffrey Lugg – who had agreed to become lifetime Honorary President of Transdiffusion. He explained that the motive in dropping Michael Roberts’ much loved “Perpetual Mobile” was to emphasise that this was a time of change and to underline the excitement of the new.

Thames tomorrow evening 1968

Thames black and white presentation captions continued to be used into colour

People needed to be encouraged to invest in the new colour sets and so the presentation output was being refreshed to create demand. Another Hawksworth piece was chosen with the idea of picking something completely different – which it delivered in spades – perhaps to match the earlier promise of “Something Absolutely Startling” that had been mentioned by rivals London Weekend.

The new theme Pizzicato Rockalong is a really clever piece. It doubles the violin with a glockenspiel to make the pizzicato sound far more exaggerated than it otherwise would be. Wandering round swinging London in 1969 would give a taste of the prevailing atmosphere (The Beatles still recording, Carnaby Street still groovy). This piece really captures how life in the capital must have felt to the smart set – and the arrival of the erstwhile ABC Weekend presentation department in that city was epitomised with a sophisticated and cosmopolitan theme created for going into colour.

BBC-1, LWT, Granada, Yorkshire and ATV went colour on the weekend, leaving Thames to run a separate advertising campaign for its switch to colour on the Monday. These stickers (about the size of a postage stamp) were for staff to use on envelopes and letters in the run up to the launch of 625-line UHF colour.

BBC-1, LWT, Granada, Yorkshire and ATV went colour on the weekend, leaving Thames to run a separate advertising campaign for its switch to colour on the Monday. These stickers (about the size of a postage stamp) were for staff to use on envelopes and letters in the run up to the launch of 625-line UHF colour.

Sadly, there was uproar from the more conservative viewers, who had grown used to tuning in to hear Rediffusion London’s amazing start-up music and had continued the practice with newcomer Thames, and within six months Perpetuum Mobile was restored by viewer demand. Letters to the broadcasters still had real traction in 1970!


This article is based on other articles by the same author that originally appeared in a slightly different form before 2000. It has been republished with the addition of the animated Thames Television start-up recreation by Dave Jeffery.

You Say

10 responses to this article

Arthur Nibble 23 November 2015 at 10:05 pm

Sorry to ask such a daft question, and I feel a bit awkward asking this, but what’s the (personal) significance of the animal head logo just underneath the Transdiffusion emblem?

Arthur Nibble 24 November 2015 at 9:59 am

Love the size of the shirt’s collar in that 1970 photo!

How long did Thames use that particular announcer’s backdrop for?

Russ J Graham 24 November 2015 at 12:57 pm

It’s the logo of Dave Jeffery, who created the animation, who goes by the Hungarian nickname Kecske Bak – goat.

Russ J Graham 24 November 2015 at 1:01 pm

The backdrop first appeared on ABC on their last weekend, when John Benson explained where they were going next week. It was designed and made in Manchester. Thames used it from 1968 until the early 1970s – not too long after this photo was taken.

Arthur Nibble 24 November 2015 at 1:32 pm

Thanks for the information – much appreciated. I had no idea that backdrop was actually Mancunian in, neither did I know ABC explained to the viewers where they were heading. Intriguing details.

Joseph Holloway 13 December 2015 at 5:10 pm

Well as for the Thames clock used on there wasn’t it first used from it’s 1968 launch! and carried on into colour? How long did Thames used that clock before the more-familiar version came in the mid-1970’s?

Patrick Te Pou 6 February 2016 at 4:08 am

Thames Television started transmission at 11am on Monday 23 November 1970, not 1969 which was Sunday. There were two ITV franchises for London: Thames (from startup on Monday until 7pm on Friday) and LWT (from 7pm on Friday until closedown on Sunday). As a result, Thames did not broadcast at the weekend.

Russ J Graham 6 February 2016 at 10:44 am

We know this (we were there, as the article explains). The date chosen here is an in-joke of sorts, as this is a 1969 start-up but needed to be dated 23 November in order to fit in with a big radio show we were doing on that date in 2015.

In the 12th circle of hell that is running a broadcasting history website, this is only a minor sin.

nhewit 19 November 2016 at 2:10 pm

Very authentic Monday morning schedule, complete with ATV’s Primary French at 11.50, with its 5 minute overlap into the Lunch hour, which irritated the dinner ladies at my North West Cheshire Primary school no end, particularly as we in Junior 3, were supposed to collect the lunches and serve the younger ones: only one snag: November 23, 1969 was actually a Sunday, this is based on my memory Christmas Day: Thursday, Remembrance Day: Tuesday, Confirmation from this piece if November 17 was a Monday then so would be November 24, what had happened to LWT’s Wembley Studios, had they been occupied by disgruntled Bolton Wanderers Football Fans protesting that they never got to Wembley, or worse still: Blackburn!

Russ J Graham 20 November 2016 at 2:09 pm

Yes, we know. As you probably saw on the tweet or status you followed to get to this old article, and in the comment directly above yours, the date was chosen to tie in with a radio show we were doing a year ago, which went out on 23 November.

In the 12th circle of hell that is running a broadcasting history website, this is only a minor sin.

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