...The launch of independent television in Britain in September 1955, though widely reported in the national press, was not actually a national phenomenon. London was the only region capable of receiving the service at that stage, and it took several years before the availability of programmes spread through the entirety of the country.
Even at the start of the 1960s there were still outlying regions, including North Scotland and South-West England, that weren’t covered, and it wasn’t until 1962 that the Channel Islands and North Wales were finally included in the exciting new world of two-channel television. After a slightly hesitant few months, however, the experience everywhere was the same; in every new region that it reached, ITV had an enormous and virtually instantaneous impact.
By 1957 the new channel was attracting a 79 per cent share of the viewing audience in those areas where it could be seen, and was claiming that in London, of the 542 programmes that made the top ten that year, the BBC was responsible for just three. The experience was strongly reminiscent of Radio Luxembourg’s success in the 1930s, when the BBC had been similarly eclipsed by an upstart rival.
The public’s enthusiastic embrace of the alternative offered to them was evidently a response to ITV’s populist stance, its deliberate departure from the paternalism that still pervaded the BBC twenty years on from John Reith’s ‘I do not pretend to give the public what it wants’. The commercial channel, receiving no money from the sale of radio and television licences, could afford no such lofty disdain for the taste of its viewers; its task was to deliver the largest possible audience so that advertisers would wish to invest their money, thus ensuring the survival of the service. ‘This is free television in a free country,’ insisted Sir Robert Fraser, director general of the Independent Television Authority, ‘and people will get the television they want, as they get the press and government they want.’
Inevitably there was, in the circles of the great and the good, much criticism of allegedly low standards, particularly when the report of the Pilkington Committee on broadcasting was published in 1962; too heavy a reliance, it was said, on game shows, variety entertainment, American westerns and cheap and cheerful swashbuckling dramas.
In pursuit of an audience, however, ITV also demonstrated in its early days a willingness to take risks that the BBC conspicuously shunned. It had the best rock and roll shows in Jack Good’s Oh Boy! and later in Ready Steady Go, it commissioned avant-garde comedy such as The Idiot’s Weekly, Price 2d, and it took a chance on oddities like Gerry Anderson’s puppet science fiction shows. It also ended the BBC’s deferential – sometimes even craven – handling of politicians, setting new standards for political coverage.
Even when it came to highbrow programming, it had a record to be proud of, giving Sir Kenneth Clark free rein to produce arts documentaries, long before he made the celebrated series Civilisation for the BBC, and introducing the brilliant history lectures of A.J.P. Taylor (again subsequently to be poached by the BBC). And, perhaps most significant of all, the independent franchise company ABC recruited to head its drama department Sydney Newman, a man who – amongst all his other achievements – was also to play a crucial role in Terry Nation’s career...
published by Aurum Press
© Alwyn W Turner 2011