From preparation in 1955, through to its afterlife as Thames Television in the seventies, the ABC company strived above all to be distinctive, and to keep a high profile in the media and style world. “The Media” was not a term in use in those days, but to be a leading broadcasting company on the British scene was of itself a likely guarantee that ‘style’ wasn’t far away.
ABC was operating in a challenging environment. The post war world had spawned a younger generation, with for the first time money to spend and aspirations to fulfil. A growing national wealth in the fifties reached its apogee in the swinging England of the mid-sixties, and ABC rode the crest of a wave of cultural freedom such as the British people had not known before. It is hard now to convey the optimism of those times. In an odd way, it is the nearest the British ever came to having an equivalent of “The American Dream”. The idea that with enough effort and dedication anyone could achieve anything was very strong.
Britain at the time was of course far from being a Utopia. These impressions were more apparent than real and hardship and poverty still lurked in inner city pockets. Compared with the recessions and growing wealth gap of later years though, this was a period of real growth in disposable incomes, and an ever-higher standard of living for most. Trying to ‘better yourself’, whether by enterprise or education was a shared ambition, and young people almost for the first time, strongly identified with each other as a contemporary group. Shared TV and record buying experience were the staple of young conversation. Staying in, ‘watching the telly’ had not yet become an activity for the older generation, and even family viewing was still regarded as ‘cool’ in a way that would not be accepted today.
President Kennedy, The Beatles, Harold Wilson, Cinema films in colour, pirate radio ships like Radio Caroline and Wonderful Radio London breaking the BBC’s radio near-monopoly, mini skirts, long hair for men – these were the symbols and icons of an age that felt itself the very cutting edge of modernity. Scientific developments abounded. The space race, the dash to the moon, the first heart transplants, nuclear power, and the early uses of mainframe computer power in the private sector – these all created a “can do” culture, which had not been as strong before or since. The ‘scientist’ as expert, was the priest of a more secular age and the citizen sat at home enthralled.
The Open University was debated and planned (though not yet launched). Popular science programmes allowed the public a ‘stake’ in scientific research for the first time, and even such trivia as “Green Shield (trading) Stamps” created a feeling of sharing in mutual prosperity. With cheap package holidays, working men could travel abroad, often for the first time since D-Day in 1944. The whole ethos of the sixties, was of course an escape from the privations of the Second World War, and the conformity of the mid-fifties. People wanted, and needed a release. The very creation of ITV in 1955 was the key in the door for that release. Even in serious subjects, big change was underway. Abortions, divorce, family planning, sexual law reform, even an end to hanging – these were the touchstone issues for a new generation of politically aware youth. It was the first time that politics had broadened out from the traditional emphasis on economic issues, to take in the more social (and socialistic) concerns of the youthful idealists.
True, much of the political change was lead by politicians a generation older than the youth culture referred to, but for the first time there was a feeling that the ideas were feeding up from the governed to the governing – and being acted upon. The four major ITV companies were a power in the land. Though all four concerned themselves with all programming genres (except for Granada, which solidly refused for years, to do networked variety shows) there was nevertheless a specialisation. Rediffusion, though with a weakness for the quiz show, tended to concern itself, in the later evening anyway with remarkably heavyweight programming. ATV brought the showbusiness to ITV. Granada brought the gritty realism and good documentaries.
ABC, as the smallest of the “big four” (though ironically, with a parent corporation that was bigger than ATV or Granada enjoyed at the time) set out to bring cosmopolitan taste, and a touch of real style, to its regional and provincial franchises. Whether it was in the companies extraordinarily vivid selection of programme signature tunes, the invariably startling design of programme title graphics, the widespread use of outside broadcast facilities or the very familiarity of the station hosts – it was always a company that stood out, felt different, and achieved magic in what it set out to do.