People behind programmes – 7 

19 October 2017 tbs.pm/13722


“We do not see Thames as a provider of circuses to accompany the BBC’s bread.”


Brian Tesler, Thames Television’s Director of Programmes, began his television career as a trainee BBC producer immediately after leaving Oxford. He remained with the BBC for four years and then joined ITV in London, continuing to produce a wide variety of programmes and series until he became Director of Programmes for ABC Television in 1965. He joined the Board of Thames Television on the company’s foundation in 1968.

Recently a leading television critic wrote an article which set out, more fully than before, one of the many current proposals for the re-organisation of British broadcasting. (So many, now, that the question of why such drastic change should be necessary is hardly ever asked.) This particular proposal suggested amalgamating ITV and BBC into a vast State-run broadcasting monopoly with four channels, separate from each other but centrally controlled. I happen to believe that this idea is neither practical nor in the public interest. But what amazed and, frankly, angered me and many of my colleagues was the author’s offhand assumption that ITV’s role in such a partnership was simply ‘to be entertaining and popular’ and to be ‘freed from the obligation to produce programmes against their commercial instincts’.

I can speak only as the Programme Director of one ITV company, Thames Television, which produces about a quarter of ITV’s programmes. But we do not see Thames as a provider of circuses to accompany the BBC’s bread.

In recent weeks our Programme Controllers have been writing about their work in a series of advertisements, of which this is the last. Anyone who has read their varied contributions must surely have recognised three things. First, that here is a group of professional programme makers who are deeply concerned about the service they give to the public. Secondly that, far from being obliged by ‘commercial instincts’ to produce programmes they would not otherwise make, they plan their output on merit alone. And, thirdly, that the range of that output is so wide as to deny in itself that to be ‘entertaining and popular’ is the dominant aim of an ITV company.

Brian Tester, Director of Programmes

Six programme controllers wrote about their work for Thames and of those only Philip Jones – whose Light Entertainment Department is undoubtedly the most successful in Britain – can be said to have dealt largely with popular entertainment. Lloyd Shirley told how his Drama Department has among its forthcoming productions a £1 million series of television films, a cycle of Restoration drama, a life of Napoleon and a de Quincey serialisation. Jeremy Isaacs’ Features Department, producers of This Week, Today, Good Afternoon and Something To Say, are now making ITV’s biggest-ever documentary series, on The Second World War. The Children’s Department under Lewis Rudd, who already produce the leading children’s magazine programme magpie, are developing a new education and entertainment programme for under-fives.

Guthrie Moir’s team, apart from making awardwinning schools programmes, are working on a 13-part series on National Trust houses to follow their British Museum programmes. And Grahame Turner’s Outside Broadcast Department, who could so easily remain recorders of sport, are planning how to bring more of London’s arts and events to Londoners, now that afternoon broadcasting is with us.

Those are only a few of the programmes they mentioned. But implicit in everything they wrote, and indeed in the existence within Thames of six such varied departments of equal importance, is one simple fact: that ITV in general and Thames in particular are achieving the difficult reconciliation between single-channel commercial operation and public service broadcasting.

No-one should doubt that it is difficult. Our challenge is to obtain, with no licence fee or government support, sufficient financial stability to invest in studios and equipment, capitalise new productions, and give security of employment – all without compromising programme quality. We have to do it with only one channel, so we can never give our viewers a simultaneous choice between the product of one programme department and another. We have to share our transmission hours with the other ITV companies, so that less than half the hours are filled by our own productions. And in any case, we have only 4½ days a week in which to broadcast. So the programmes are there, but not always the airtime to transmit them.

My job as Director of Programmes, therefore, is to carry out in those limited hours the policy laid down with my colleagues on the Board: to produce and schedule programmes which range across information, education and entertainment as widely as possible. Our programme controllers have already written about these programmes and their variety. But a range of excellent programmes is not sufficient cause for satisfaction if it is weighted too heavily, as our critic would have it, towards popular entertainment. So I think it worth mentioning that even excluding schools programmes and children’s educational series, four out of every ten Thames productions are in the areas of information, education and current affairs. I might mention too that Thames was the only station to mark this month’s UN Conference on the Human Environment with a special week of programmes on pollution and conservation. They included our own productions and other films from around the world, and they were neither ‘popular’ nor ‘entertaining’. But we felt it important to show them.

By ‘we’ I mean the people behind Thames programmes: people who make this week and magpie and the benny hill show and today and the rivals of sherlock holmes and callan and sooty and writer’s workshop and father, dear father and treasures of the british museum and six days of justice and hundreds more programmes of distinctive quality and variety. It is those people who would all be consigned, in that nightmare of a State-controlled television service, to be producers of an endless and mindless flow of mass merry-making. But happily it is only a nightmare. Instead they will go on producing and directing programmes for Thames in an atmosphere where their varied talents and ideas can flourish. Not with enough transmission time, although a second channel would help give them that. Not with enough money, for no producer (and I include myself) was ever satisfied with his budget.

But with enough scope and resources and backing to make, in the words of one of our Controllers earlier in this series, ‘the programmes we want to make and which we think viewers will want to watch’. We hope and expect to be judged by those programmes, now and in the future.

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