Another chance to see… And it’s goodbye from us 

30 September 2021 tbs.pm/73624


Southern

Southern, 31 December 1981

Possibly the most bizarre and morbid New Year’s show you will ever see.

ITV would cease to exist in 1982, or so the management at Southern Television would have had you believe as ‘The Station That Serves The South’ prepared to sound its own death knell in public at the end of 1981. The company had effectively been consigned to history twelve months previously when in the 1980 ITV franchise round it was announced that a new company, South and South-East Communications Ltd, trading as Television South with an on screen presence as TVS, would be running television in the region from 1 January 1982. Southern’s franchise was not to be renewed.

For the benefit of our younger readers, prior to 2002 the TV station we know today as ITV was a federal network of fifteen individual companies serving fourteen regions (London had two), each running their own schedule and sharing each others programmes as well as making some for their own regions. These companies were appointed on a franchise basis by the Independent Broadcasting Authority (IBA), an early form of OfCom if you like, who kept an eye on the companies’ output as well as owning the network of transmitters through which they would broadcast. Those franchises were by no means permanent, and periodically they would come up for review – renewal was never guaranteed. The appointment of a new company into a region meant the disappointment of an existing company. On 28 December 1980 Southern Television found themselves as one of those disappointed, being given twelve months notice to serve out their franchise before handing over to their successors.

Usually when ITV franchises change hands the process is handled in a gentlemanly fashion, in the public view at least. Some resentment from the outgoing company is inevitable but is normally kept out of public view as witnessed on the most recent and controversial franchise round in 1992, when the mighty Thames Television quietly handed over the keys for the London transmitter to the much loathed Carlton TV. But in 1981 Southern were having none of this cordiality, they believed themselves to be untouchable, that the South of England belonged to them and them alone, handing over nicely to a bunch of newcomers – headed by a Labour Peer (Lord Boston of Faversham) of all things – was out of the question. During their final week on air it was business as usual except there would be little or no mention of the new programmes happening the following week, no trailers for “New Year on ITV” or “Coming to you in ’82” or suchlike. As the week went by it became apparent that as far as Southern were concerned, 1982 didn’t exist and come New Year’s Day there would be no more ITV in the South.

 

 

So at 9.30am on 31 December 1981 Southern came on air as it always had done every day since opening in 1958 with its start-up music Southern Rhapsody, a wonderfully heraldic piece by Richard Addinsell. Announcer Verity Martindill was on hand to welcome viewers to New Year’s Eve on Southern with no mention that this really was the last time. The first real acknowledgement came in the station’s regional teatime news magazine Day By Day (retitled for its final edition as Day By Yesterday). Thereafter every continuity link featured that night’s duty announcer Christopher Robbie sitting in front of a large circular motif SOUTHERN TELEVISION 1958-1981. This really was it.

At 11.45pm as the rest of the ITV network went up to Edinburgh for the customary Hogmanay festivities, Southern skulked into its final programme And It’s Goodbye From Us, cited by some as the most bitterly undignified exit for such a proud company. As one would expect from such a show there were plenty of clips from the archives but these were mainly from the many one-off prestige productions rather than their more fondly remembered day to day programmes, although the much loved Out Of Town did get a specially recorded insert from Jack Hargreaves.

Midnight loomed at which point it became clear that anyone expecting a jolly new year’s show was in for a bit of a shock, it would be anything but. Presenter Christopher Robbie popped open a bottle of bubbly to toast in 1982, wishing everyone a happy new year and stating that it would be nice to think it would be a prosperous one too. After an archive clip of Cleo Laine singing Auld Lang Syne, Christopher was back, holding up his hand apparently telling the boys from TVS “Not yet!” and that the Southern ‘star’ hadn’t quite set. It was now 1982, the show still had another forty-five minutes to run and the gloves were coming off, it was time for the viewers to feel Southern’s pain and share the bitterness of their situation and the indignation at their successors.

 

 

Firstly we were treated to a piece of film taken at the company’s annual dinner, with chairman David Wilson giving a no-holds barred account of his feelings towards the IBA. There really was no grey area here. This is followed by an acidic song from Richard Stilgoe entitled Portakabin TV, a dig at TVS who had spent much of 1981 preparing for their launch in a bunch of portakabins in Southern’s staff car park.

Then just before 12.45am came the moment. The great and good from Southern’s programmes and presentation had lined up as the camera slowly panned across them, the accompanying music “Southern Fantasia” which had opened the programme now being played as a death knell as the station gasped its last breaths. As the camera pulled back for a final group shot, the lights dimmed before going to total blackout and ending with the SOUTHERN COLOUR PRODUCTION caption (or ‘endcap’).

But we haven’t quite finished yet, the power of clever graphics is about to unleash the final punch and what followed is rumoured to have given many viewers an unsettled night and even the odd nightmare as the blue ‘endcap’ fades leaving just the Southern ‘star’ logo alone in a night sky. The star begins a slow, almost unnerving rotation, building up speed before spinning off to join the other stars in a place of rest, a heavily echoed version of the Southern ident jingle playing out one final time in a dead sky which now slowly fades to black, an operation on the vision faders allegedly carried out by Southern chairman David Wilson. No closedown announcement, no ‘Epilogue’ programme, no reminder to switch off your set, nothing. Viewers waiting expectantly for a welcome into 1982 did so in vain as a few minutes later the transmitters were switched off and the sound of static filled the air.

The graphic trick may look corny and tame now, but it’s worth considering that back in the day regional TV stations and their presenters were a constant in the daily lives for a lot of people. The sombre proceedings made sure that they were watching their regional TV station dying, the spinning star marking the actual moment of passing. For those watching alone this was not a ‘Happy New Year’. The Station That Served The South had perished before their very eyes, there would be no more ITV in the south ever again.

There was, of course, more ITV in the south as TVS came on air at 9.30am with their multi-coloured station logo and their first programme Bring In The New, featuring many of the faces who had been seen standing in Southern’s final line up only a few hours previous. The new company had only been granted access to the studios once Southern had closed down so that first show had more than a touch of ‘make do and mend’ about it. Even the TVS station clock at the opening looked as though it had been cobbled together from left overs of a Blue Peter project.

Speculation still abounds as to why Southern’s ITV franchise was not renewed. Much was made of its regional news bias towards the west of its region and its Southampton-centric coverage leaving Kent and East Sussex somewhat left out, in fact an article in Television and Home Video magazine at the time suggested that Southern’s fate was more or less sealed at an IBA public meeting held in Canterbury in 1980, where there were several voices of complaint about the company’s lack of coverage in the south-east.

However, Southern had produced some of the finest regional programmes to date, some of them finding their way on to other ITV regions (Out Of Town, Houseparty, Junkin) while others had made it on to the national network, especially the children’s output for which the company had developed a real niche (How!, Freewheelers, Noah’s Castle, Rogues Rock, Worzel Gummidge). It must also be remembered that it was Southern who brought the Glyndebourne operas to network ITV (yes really, a night of opera on ITV!).

Maybe Southern hadn’t done anything wrong, maybe it was just that the IBA believed that TVS could do a better job. We will never know. Legend has it that when the then-PM Margaret Thatcher asked Lady Plowden, the outgoing chairwoman of the IBA, why Southern had lost its franchise the reply came “I can’t possibly tell you that.”

Ironically eleven years later on 31 December 1992 it would be TVS in the same boat, but now we were in the era of twenty-four hour tv and TVS would have to hand over directly to their successors, Meridian Broadcasting, at the stroke of midnight. No on screen bitterness this time, all done with dignity… or so we’re led to believe.

 

You Say

5 responses to this article

Eddie Hutchinson 30 September 2021 at 6:14 pm

It’s disappeared from YouTube, but the 1958-1981 ‘tombstone’ logo was there in New Year’s Eve afternoon, when Verity Martindill sat in front of it as she mentioned Southern’s final day before announcing “the very last [edition of] “Houseparty” “.

Tim Mischka 30 September 2021 at 9:16 pm

This was basically Southern’s management throwing a tantrum — they’d gotten complacent and hadn’t really been doing anything new until the 1980 franchise round began. Evidently the IBA must’ve realized that TVS would be a breath of fresh air so to speak — colorful, dynamic and eventually much more of a network contributor than Southern had been, though this would ultimately become a factor in their demise as they sought grander aspirations.

Jesse J. Tripp 3 October 2021 at 11:34 am

I really need to see the real whole thing, but Southern were real sore losers.

Barrie Howells 20 October 2021 at 11:14 pm

What a sad and bitter ending for such a great ITV region.The depiction of the Southern ident slowly fading reminded me of a scary dream I had when I was a little kid of five in the mid sixties.I dreamt of a very scary closedown at my local region TWW.A black studio clock disappeared into nothingneess as one of the female continuity announcers closed down the station.I felt that the station and tv itself was disappearing forever.Prophetic as TWW lost its franchise in 1967 and genuinely did disappear from the airways.

Jesse J. Tripp 22 October 2021 at 5:02 am

This sounds like a cool idea for a film. The whole debacle involving Southern Television.

Your comment

Enter it below

A member of the Transdiffusion Broadcasting System
Liverpool, Friday 22 October 2021