Sunday 5 May 2024

The Birth of Thames Television in 1968

Boasting productions such as The Bill, Minder, Man about the House, Rainbow and The Sooty Show, Thames Television produced some of my favourite television programmes of all time. And then there’s that iconic Thames Television ident, featuring the London skyline against Johnny Hawksworth’s classic Thames theme. Yes, there’s a lot to love about Thames Television. But you know what? I know barely anything about how it came to enrich our lives, so let’s head back to the late 1960s to find out.

From 1955 to 1968, Rediffusion London - originally known as Associated-Rediffusion -- had provided the weekday programming for ITV in the London area. Meanwhile, up in the Midlands and the North of England, ABC Television took care of the weekend broadcasts for ITV. However, due to the ITA insisting that the Midlands and the North franchises became seven-day operations in 1967, ABC found themselves suddenly unable to provide a service.

So, with one eye on preserving ABC and enhancing the programme quality in London, the ITA - under the leadership of Lord Hill - forced Rediffusion to merge with ABC. The result was Thames Television, with a capital of around £6 million (in old money) with these funds being divided equally between ABC and Rediffusion. However, this merger was far from straightforward.

Rediffusion’s heckles were slightly raised by the original proposal, by the ITA, that ABC would hold a slight majority in both shares and seats on the board. There was also the rather pressing issue of which studios would be used and where the Thames headquarters would be located. These issues would rear their head almost as soon as the merger announced, and would lead to months of negotiation between Rediffusion and ABC.

In October 1967, a deal was struck which would see Rediffusion leasing their Wembley studios to London Weekend Television, the newly formed ITV franchise. This swiftly led, in November 1967, to an announcement that Thames’ production team would take up residence at ABC’s Teddington Studios, with further studios and offices being based at Television House in Kingsway, London. Still, though, there appeared to be rankles between Rediffusion and ABC.

Numerous staff at Rediffusion took to the pages of Fusion - Rediffusion’s in-house magazine - to voice their ire at the start of 1968. Morale was low at Rediffusion, with staff in the dark over what would happen to them when the merger was complete. All of this was coming off the back of industrial action, and the merger with ABC had fermented a complex situation where staff had no idea if they would be heading to Thames, LWT or Yorkshire as a result.

Also thrown into the mix was a feeling of disappointment that the initial round of appointments at Thames were 11 - 6 in the favour of ABC staff. Would the final set of staff also be skewed towards those currently working at ABC? Perhaps, Fusion postulated, the whole situation was simply endemic of society’s modern inability to communicate. Clearly, the staff at Rediffusion were struggling, and it was a struggle which Fusion believed had been going on for too long.

Meanwhile, Warner Brothers’ Seven Arts, a newly formed entertainment company, were making moves to purchase ABC’s parent company AB Pictures. However, the ITA were adamant that, under the terms of the Thames contract, there was to be no foreign interest invested in the broadcaster. This stipulation was in place to protect the characteristics of Thames, and prevent an unfair landscape where Thames could have an advantage in purchasing overseas programmes.

Just a few months later, AB Pictures were subject to another takeover bid from EMI, who already had a 25% share in the company. EMI argued that they had no interest in taking over the newly formed Thames, but these proposals fell on deaf ears with the ITA remaining firm: AB Pictures would not be taken over.

In amongst all this discord, however, Thames was moving ahead. May 1968 saw Thames’ director of programmes Brian Telsler announcing “We don’t think think television as a whole has enough surprises, no programme is sacred” alongside a new roster of programmes coming from Thames such as The Sex Game, Horne A’Plenty, Father, Dear Father, Applause! Applause! and Magpie.

Thames were confident that every programme airing in its first week would be a new one, but industry magazine Television Mail took a swipe at this by claiming most of the programmes were merely a rehash of elderly radio programmes. A rather harsh opinion, but you have to remember this was an era when the presence of repeats in the schedules caused the British public to become apoplectic with rage.

Nonetheless, the launch of Thames wouldn’t be held back by low-level grousing and, on the 30th July 1968, they finally began broadcasting. Just two weeks before, it was announced that following a request to some of the country’s leading composers, that Johnny Hawksworth’s theme had been chosen for Thames’ opening march and their ident. Thames was now a fully fledged ITV franchise. It was, in fact, a busy week for ITV franchises, with both Yorkshire and LWT also launching.

The Thames launch night, with members of the board meeting the Lord Mayor of London

Back to the Thames launch night and, well, it was an interesting evening. The ceremony was held at Mansion House, with the Lord Mayor of London and ITA chairman Lord Aylestone. The opening evening’s broadcast, however, was disastrous. A last-minute strike by technicians, which affected most of the independent franchises, ensured that Thames suffered numerous blackouts during their programmes, which led to Tommy Cooper’s Cooper King Size being cancelled and moved to the end of August.

It was also reported, again by Television Mail, that the Rediffusion employees at the launch night were wearing brave rather than happy smiles as Thames chairman, Sir Philip Warter, previously of ABC, looked forward to an exciting future broadcasting to the capital. Whilst those staff may have felt aggrieved by the situation, for the viewers it was start of a wonderful 24 year run, where Thames Television would produce and broadcast an iconic stream of programmes which continue to delight viewers to this very day.

No comments:

Post a Comment