Saturday 5 November 2022

Greenwich Cablevision: Britain's First Local Television Station

If there’s one thing which strikes fear into the heart of an audience, it’s local television. Blighted by budgets which make shoestrings look positively affluent, local television channels spend their time wading through treacle-like amateurishness and technological limitations. But there must surely be something intriguing within this package of mediocrity for the readers of Curious British Telly. And there is: Greenwich Cablevision.

Britain’s first local television channel came about, in part, thanks to the appalling television reception on offer in Greenwich in the 1960s. Despite being located only five miles from London’s main television transmitter in Crystal Palace, Greenwich was blighted by geography. In between Crystal Palace and Greenwich are the elevated plains of Shooters Hill – one of London’s highest points – which disrupted the television signal. Greenwich Cablevision, however, had a solution. By installing an aerial on a high-rise building, Greenwich Cablevision could capture the signal from Crystal Palace and pipe it into a cable network supplying Greenwich homes.

An unnamed Greenwich Cablevision presenter

The residents of Greenwich finally had a decent television picture, but Greenwich Cablevision – led by managing director Maurice Townsend – wanted to offer even more. As luck would have it, Christopher Chataway – the Minister for Posts and Telecommunication – had announced he was willing to licence six local television channels. The stipulations were brief and simple: programmes were to be geared towards local residents, no old movies were to be shown and there was to be no advertising or sponsorship. The closing date for applications was set as the 1st June 1972 and, little over a month later, on 3rd July 1972, Greenwich Cablevision was launched in Woolwich Town Hall by Sir John Eden.

The Greenwich Cablevision service was now carrying six channels: BBC1, BBC2, ITV (Thames), ITV (Anglia), ITV (Southern) and their self-titled channel. Not bad for 15 pence a week. But what exactly could the service’s 13,000 viewers expect to find on their homegrown channel? Well, the team at Greenwich Cablevision’s headquarters – based in Plumstead’s High Street – were open to almost anything. Maurice Townsend, with a twinkle in his eye, told Television Mail in February 1972 the service would be akin to a night down the pub: “You can do what you like, but if you drink meths you will be thrown out.”

At work in the Greenwich Cablevision studio

The channel debuted with Cabletown, an introductory affair which outlined Cablevision’s service and lasted for 40 minutes. Going forwards, Greenwich Cablevision would carry around an hour’s worth of programming every evening. Local matters were at the heart of the channel; its earliest weekday features focused on local news, council events and the very first week included a feature on the local hydrofoil service. Weekends were more entertainment based with programmes such as the nostalgia show Before Your Time, programming for children and an arts programme on offer.

Greenwich Cablevision’s schedule, as time went on, ventured down increasingly innovative avenues. News programmes entirely in Hindustani reflected the diversity of the local community, and global matters were covered when a local affairs programme visited a North Vietnam public meeting in March 1973. Ravensbourne College produced a Christmas musical for the station in December 1972 and a collection of Greenwich teenagers brought Fridaynite to the screen, a programme which promised to liven up existing television shows such as Monty Python. And there was also room for religion, with clerical matters being covered by Sunday Magazine and Godspot.

Blackheath poet Molly Monckton reading her poem
'Ode to Blackheath' on Greenwich Cablevision

Creativity may have been abundant in the Greenwich Cablevision schedules, but the channel was struggling financially. Christopher Chataway’s experiment with local television had been set to run to 1976 and, as such, meant several years without any advertising income. It was a state of affairs which would prove to be unsustainable for Greenwich Cablevision. Maurice Townsend was unable to justify the £30,000 a year running costs and the station’s final transmission came on 29th December 1974. Townsend was adamant, however, that Greenwich Cablevision had demonstrated a demand for local television. Rather than cluttering the schedules with re-runs of I Love Lucy, Townsend argued it was more progressive for television to provide local communities with a platform. But it was critical that these ventures were allowed to generate income to secure a future.

Out of the five community stations which were part of Chataway’s experiment – Greenwich Cablevision, Sheffield Cablevision, The Bristol Channel, Swindon Viewpoint and Wellingborough Cablevision – only Swindon Viewpoint succeeded in broadcasting for the rest of the 1970s. But this was not the end of local broadcasting in Greenwich. Maurice Townsend ensured that Greenwich Cablevision retained their Home Office broadcasting licence and turned the facility over to the community. The channel’s budget was slashed to just £3,000 a year, but it would allow local groups such as The Greenwich Television Society to continue producing programmes. And, in May 1981, Greenwich AM was launched as British television’s first regular breakfast service.

The Greenwich Cablevision service would morph into Greenwich Cablescene in the mid-1980s, where it would again take the initiative by pursuing the subscription TV model. The service’s new lineup would offer channels such as Sky Channel, Screen Sport, Music Box and The Children’s Channel as a basic package for £8 a month. Local broadcasting in Greenwich had, by this point, ceased due to dated equipment and a lack of funds, but its rich, innovative history would secure it a notable footnote in the history of British broadcasting.

Footage of Greenwich Cablevision has mostly been lost to the Greenwich Refuse Service, but some footage is available on the BBC’s website.

This article originally appeared in issue five of the Curious British Telly fanzine.

1 comment:

  1. Hi, I worked at Greenwich Cablevision 1983-85, initially on the Screentown movie service, but from August 1984 moved to the new studio to work on news and current affairs material. I actually have some news stories and features we made for Cablevision, plus a bunch of photographs from the time. Contact me if you are interested