‘ITV was the start of the Coca-colonisation of Britain’ 

29 October 2018 tbs.pm/67762

From ‘The Listener’ for 18 September 1980

A mere 188,000 television sets were equipped to receive the image of a black cross on a white ground which preceded the long-anticipated words, ‘Opening Night, Independent Television Service, Channel Nine’ boldly printed on a caption card. The date was 22 September 1955, and the familiar tones of Leslie Mitchell confidently assured the comparatively small band of waiting viewers: ‘This is London’. If anyone doubted the veracity of this statement, a parade of the capital’s historic landmarks was duly conducted across the screens by a suitably auspicious commentary from Mr Mitchell.

Independent Television was on the air: and despite a shrill warning in the House of Lords that its advent would prove as lethally contagious as ‘smallpox, bubonic plague and the Black Death, the walls of the ancient Guildhall had not crumbled. The cameras showed they stood firm and splendidly impassive while history was manufactured rather than made around them.

A distinctly innocuous quality was deliberately injected into the hushed self-importance of the events at the Guildhall. The founding fathers of commercial television were uncomfortably aware of the implacable enemies ranged against them. The Labour Party had pledged themselves to kill off the infant channel the moment they were returned to office, while Churchill himself (only just out of office as Prime Minister) was said to regard television as a whole as nothing better than ‘a tin penny Punch and Judy Show’.

So the accent was very much on all that was safe and solid in British life. To this end the cameras, after nodding briefly in the direction of such protected tenants of the Guildhall as Pitt the Younger, Gog and Magog, settled down to gaze on the gathering of contemporary dignitaries assembled to welcome in the new, if tentative, era in British broadcasting with a traditional celebratory banquet. The sight of so many people eating, drinking and making speeches may not have been the stuff of revolutionary or even innovatory television, but neither was it likely to convince any fair-minded person that here was the end of civilisation as he knew it.

The Lord Mayor of London speaking at the Guildhall. On his left is Sir Kenneth Clark.

The success of this strategy may be gleaned from the verdict in the following morning’s Daily Mirror (voice of the very people whom it was feared commercial television would prey upon unscrupulously). ‘ITV opened with a yawn and then woke up,’ grumbled the Mirror at the sight and sound of the Lord Mayor and Lady Mayoress of London ranged alongside such as Sir Kenneth (later Lord) Clark, Dr Charles (later Lord) Hill, the then Bishop of Southwark and a host of unknown men and women with a vested interest in the success of the enterprise.

Postmaster-General Charles Hill was typically robust in his clarion call from the top table. Television was a powerful and ever-growing medium, he assured his audience, leaving them in little doubt that this was part of its growth he wished well, as he was later to prove by becoming Chairman of the ITA. Sir Kenneth Clark, on the other hand, used the occasion to remind everyone that the medium also held awesome power ‘for good or evil’. Exactly which of these ITV intended to be, the viewers had yet to discover.

While these truisms were being relayed to them through their 188,000 specially adapted sets, eight million faithful fans of The Archers were already in deep shock, and so were the news editors of Fleet Street. A clamorous competitor was vying for the morning headlines: Grace Archer, the golden heroine of the BBC’s marathon radio soap opera, was dead. The wily planners of BBC Radio had offered up their star attraction as a sort of ritual sacrifice. The night before, she had been left heroically trying to rescue her horse from her blazing riding-stables; by the time her legions of anxious admirers next tuned in to The Archers, she had been barbecued.

Perhaps the crackling sound effects which clouded the popular consciousness of the nation to any topic other than Grace Archer’s death was, in fact, the last flicker of mass influence that steam radio ever managed to exert. Yet it was enough to steal a march, if not to win the race. What was being offered on the new ITV channel was hardly calculated to grab any headlines except by the sheer novelty of being there. Jack Jackson introduced Hughie Green, who, in turn, introduced the British public to its first ‘give-away’ quiz show. But it was not until ten minutes past eight that the initial sighting of a commercial break was recorded. The honour went to Young and Rubicam’s clients, Gibbs SR. By modern standards — or even the prevailing ones — it was a circumspect affair, calculated not to frighten the horses or anything else which might happen upon it unexpectedly. A young woman brushed a perfect set of molars and smiled sweetly, while a young man told us what a lot of good Gibbs SR did them. Nevertheless, it was the effective start of the Coca-colonisation of Britain, though few of us realised it at the time. For, over the years since then, Independent Television has provided the most single powerful influence in Americanising the British way of life, with its quiz games, transatlantic imports and commercials.

A variety show was considered the most appropriate vehicle to carry commercial advertising into the homes of the first-night viewers (no one wanted to lead with his chin so early in the proceedings). Clearly still striving to establish its claim to respectability after all the mud that had been slung its way, ITV followed this brief, spangled tribute to the showbusiness expertise of such participating founding fathers as Prince Littler, Val Parnell and Lew Grade with a slice of impeccable popular culture. Robert Morley, that raconteur for all seasons, was selected to usher on to the screen Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest. Not the whole play — the entire evening lasted only three hours — but the famous interrogation scene starring Sir John Gielgud, Margaret Leighton and, of course, Dame Edith Evans, who fairly rattled the cathode-ray tubes with Lady Bracknell’s whooping battle-cry ‘A Handbag!’

Sports enthusiasts were treated to a spirited boxing-bout, expertly covered, and also, following smartly on its heels, the sight of Christopher Chataway reading the news, in a sober suit and an expression to match. The 24-year-old Chataway was more accustomed then to appear on TV in less formal and more heroic guise, on the running-track, so his debut as a talking head was of immense novelty value in those early impressionable years of television.

Leslie Mitchell

Finally, it was the turn of Leslie Mitchell to wind up the transmission for the evening from the May Fair Hotel (how those early audiences loved to look in on the swells). There were many relieved, not to say smug, faces to be glimpsed as fade-out approached. Yet, all in all, the event was memorable more for why it was than what it was. As an exercise in impact entertainment it could not hold a candle to the artificial incineration of poor Grace Archer in her cultural Siberia of Ambridge. What led up to the advent of Hughie Green, his soundproof box et al., was altogether a more gripping long-run soap opera, played out for the highest stakes. When Dr Hill, in his capacity as Postmaster-General, told the assembly at that portentous Guildhall celebration that: ‘Television is here and an immensely powerful, ever-growing medium it is,’ he spoke no more truth than everyone knew or guessed. Within one year those 188,000 sets, adapted to receive Channel Nine, had swollen to number 1,550,000. The estimated regular viewing figures for ITV had risen from 658,000 to over five million. Soon, despite initial financial panic among investors in the first year, independent television had captured all but 25 per cent of the viewing public.

Not until the Pilkington Report’s puritan ethic came home to roost in Charles Hill’s 1968 shake-up of the franchises did the Big Four network companies feel much need to alter the initial, bland, audience-pleasing format they had established with such low-key discretion 25 years ago next week. Until then the ITA had been left holding a baby so laboriously conceived and of such mixed parentage that few people any longer had any clear notion as to who begat it or why. The Television Bill, which was introduced in the House of Commons on 4 March 1954, was designed finally to break the BBC’s monopoly on broadcasting. But it was a motley thing. The emotive issues of monopoly versus vested interest caused the strangest couplings; on both sides of the fence lions laid down with lambs.

Even in the Labour Party, when Clement Attlee denounced the prospect of an independent channel as ‘allowing television to pass into the hands of private profiteers’ he found himself faced with one solitary dissenting voice: that of Mr Anthony Wedgwood Benn. Mr Benn was as genuinely troubled by the BBC’s sometimes highhanded use of its monopoly as by any horror of allowing so potent a force ‘for good or evil’ to descend to the market-place. Among the old guard High Tories only the party Chairman, Lord Woolton, could summon up sufficient spirit of free enterprise, on which his party was founded, to weld together a formidable campaign for change. He had discovered a new ‘practical’ breed of Conservative among the fresh faces elected to the Commons in 1950, and he set about ensuring that when the time came they would be well drilled for the battle.

Clement Attlee

The time came, however, more by default and unhappy accident than any bold thrust of Woolton’s making. Initially, things had looked extremely bleak for those who, for all their diverse reasons, wanted to establish commercial television in this country. The Beveridge Committee on Broadcasting, appointed by Attlee, had set its face resolutely against such a move — largely, it must be admitted, because with the resources available it could foresee no improvement in the service to the viewer if it did sanction an alternative channel. Ironically, almost 30 years on, Lord Annan’s successor Committee was to complain that even with the means available, the present duopoly ‘merely provides the public with more of the same’ and this time the blame was firmly put on Parliament for setting the BBC and the IBA such similar tasks.

The roots of this confusion are to be found buried in the mists of those bewildering months which brought the 1945 to 1951 Labour Government down to its knees and distracted its attention from the business of putting the British broadcasting system to rights. Beveridge had recommended a hundred ways to break ‘the brute force’ of the BBC without endangering its functions. Many leading figures in the world of entertainment had endorsed this course of action, the most vociferous of whom were later to emerge as the chiefs of at least three of the five consortia which finally bid for those original ITA franchises.

The General Election of 1950 — the year Beveridge’s Committee came into being — saw the Labour Party’s massive majority reduced to five. Ill-health joined hands with bad luck (even the weather wasn’t voting Labour that year) as the government limped through strikes and Cabinet revolts in their bleak mid-winter. All of which had as far-reaching an effect on the future of British television as they did on the short-term life of the Attlee administration.

Herbert Morrison, who had been in charge of broadcasting since the war, declared himself to be, on balance, in favour of perpetuating the BBC’s monopoly, but was hastily switched to the Foreign Office because of Ernest Bevin’s failing health. Bevin nominally swapped responsibilities with Morrison but was far too ill to make his presence felt on the urgent broadcasting issues of the day. He had one significant meeting with Lord Simon, Chairman of the Board of Governors at the BBC, and with Sir William Haley, its Director-General, to discuss broadcasting’s future. Four days later he died. Further sickness, not least his own (and another election), robbed Mr Attlee of any opportunity to settle the issue one way or the other. Indeed, between the presentation of the Beveridge Report, with its overwhelming support for continuing the BBC monopoly with drastic modifications, and the advent of a new Conservative Government, there was not even enough time to review the BBC’s Charter. The Conservatives extended it for only a further six months while the whole question was tossed back into the melting-pot. Lord Woolton’s time had come.

When he had stood up in the House of Lords only a few months earlier and asked his noble colleagues to consider ‘within a reasonable distance of time from now’ creating a station ‘that would permit sponsored programmes’, he was a lone voice. But the tide had turned, even if imperceptibly, in his favour and already the first model commercial consortium was waiting in the wings.

Norman Collins, the spiritual guiding light of commercial television, was the man responsible for bringing together that pioneer commercial company, the Associated Broadcasting Development Company. The company deserves to be remembered if only for the fact that it was the perfect prototype, in all save one respect, for all the consortia which followed — and for the stroke of chance which cruelly robbed Collins of his opportunity to put his individual stamp on the medium he had done so much to create. This, for good or ill, was left to men far less familiar with the infant ‘tin penny Punch and Judy Show’. Because of the last-minute cold feet of Lord Bessborough’s merchant bank, Robert Benson, Lonsdale and Co., Collins lost the golden prize he had been striving for ever since he resigned from the BBC as Head of Television. The ITV franchise, which would have been his for the asking, eventually went to ATV (of which he became the nominal Deputy Chairman).

Hughie Green and Vic Hallam doing a warm-up for Double Your Money.

Yet, in many ways, that night 25 years ago was as much a tribute to Norman Collins as to any other person present at the Guildhall, and certainly nothing about his own beaming presence gave viewers any cause to suspect he was in any way cast down or that he had lost control of what had virtually been his own brain child to such johnnies-come-lately in the TV game as Prince, Lew and Val. For without his dramatic resignation from the BBC in 1950 on a matter of censorship, the final surge to break the BBC’s monopoly might never have carried the ring of valid conviction.

It had all started with a mildly satirical play called Party Manners which poked broad fun at politicians and suggested that socialists, too, could develop itchy palms eager to be scratched. Shaw himself was not above such suggestions. Yet for this heresy Lord Simon, the BBC’s Chairman, inflamed the Conservatives’ suspicion of left-wing bias within the Corporation by banning the live repeat of the play (those were the days when actors had to earn their repeat fees the hard way). The socialist Lord Simon could not have aided Lord Woolton’s campaign more convincingly if he had crossed the floor of the House. In a full-page article in the Sunday Express, in the week of his walk-out, Collins put the final seal of popular respectability on the campaign for a commercial channel by calling for a ‘wholesome, corrective alternative’ to the BBC.

Whether or not the simple diet of Double Your Money, variety, part of a play, boxing and the news were exactly the wholesome, corrective alternative Collins had in mind, at least the opening caption card owed almost everything to his vision. For it was he who gave Independent Television its name. He hit upon it casually in the course of conversation at the Reform Club when it had become clear that the parliamentary debate would revolve as much around what the new channel should be called as to what it should be. It is significant that supporters of the Bill should have fought shy of using the term ‘commercial’ in their title. Opponents of sponsored television, on the other hand, were only too happy to saddle it with a title that could so easily sound pejorative.

Exactly how the new channel was independent and independent of what did not matter. The name was a master-stroke of public relations. It is Collins’s only lasting memorial.

The 25-year history of ITV is dominated by the individual men who have put their own personal stamp on the companies which make up the Network. When eventually the 1955 franchise companies took to the air, ATV, Associated-Rediffusion, ABC and, last of all, Granada, all had their own figureheads; Norman Collins had no real power base from which to operate. And, ironically, the question of a ‘wholesome, corrective alternative’ to the duopoly of BBC and ITV is still being debated as hotly as ever today, a quarter of a century after ITV first came into being.


Jack Tinker (1938-1996) was the much-respected theatre critic for the Daily Mail from 1972 until his death. His book, The Television Barons, a biography of each of the heads of the major ITV companies, was published in October 1980. An excerpt, covering Lew Grade, appears on Transdiffusion’s ATV subsite.

You Say

1 response to this article

Gerald Baton 15 November 2018 at 3:53 am

“while Churchill himself (only just out of office as Prime Minister) was said to regard television as a whole as nothing better than ‘a tin penny Punch and Judy Show’.”

This is a grade A example of dissembling by a journalist relying on the ignorance of his readers.

It was the government led by Winston Spencer Churchill which pushed the Television Act 1954, which enabled the establishment of the ITV system, through parliament.

Winston Spencer Churchill expressed his determination to end the BBC monopoly on TV broadcasting to his personal physician Lord Moran:

“I am against the monopoly enjoyed by the BBC. For eleven years they kept me off the air. They prevented me from expressing views which have proved to be right. Their behaviour has been tyrannical. They are honeycombed with Socialists—probably with Communists”

Source of quote:

Lord Moran
Winston Churchill: The Struggle for Survival, 1940-1965 (London: Sphere, 1968), p. 416.

H. Hubert Wilson (1961)
Pressure group: the campaign for commercial television in England. Rutgers University Press.

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