Something of a myth about ABC’s news has grown up over the years. Because ABC was a ‘national company’ with a metropolitan feel and its main studios were in the London area, it was somehow not really committed to regional concerns. This actually misreads ABC entirely and rewrites the true history of the station.
The ITA did not specify the same level of local news coverage for ABC as for Granada and ATV Midlands. But this was more due to the UK broadcasting tradition, dating back to the pre-war BBC Regional Service on the radio. The tradition had it that there was no local news at weekends other than sports. It was assumed that a good Friday evening local bulletin would take care of the subject until the Monday.
Late afternoon in the newsroom of ABC At Large, ABC’s weekly round-up of the region’s news and affairs. The news staff are preparing bulletins for the evening’s programme while David Mahlowe, who introduces it, rehearses in front of the cameras.
The newsroom at ABC’s Manchester Studios is the nerve centre of this programme. Into it are fed pictures from the studio, film from telecine or live outside broadcast coverage of stories in the North and Midlands.
ABC At Large has been the first to highlight many problems in these areas, and has won a large audience for its liveliness and integrity.
The weekend ITV companies, ABC and ATV London could easily cover sports results, weather and traffic information as part of their continuity effort. This was okay as far as it went, but ABC in particular did not want to be seen as “less substantial” than ATV Midlands or Granada. ABC, of its own accord, chose to produce a level of regional news coverage in excess of the ITA’s weekend requirements.
Another choice was the type of regional ‘news’ that would be covered by ABC. It would not be local in the sense that we use today, but would look at issues of concern to the region as a whole. It had a proto-northern and -midland ‘cultural’ slant, in a time before devolution was thought of. It was more ‘middle class’ in tone than Granada ever managed – the sort of local news provided by Granada, with warehouses on fire in Salford, was not of interest to ABC.
It would not be economical to set up an ABC northern or midland newsroom, just to duplicate Granada’s five-day effort for ABC’s two days. Taking news from an “off the air” Granada or ATV Midlands, like LWT with Thames in the 1980s, or even paying their rival newsrooms to provide copy at weekends was unthinkable. ABC took the decision to go for stories on ‘northern and midland life’ in terms of lifestyle, music, culture, ‘events’ and sports. This had the effect of showcasing the north and midlands for their ‘non-London’ strengths.
With programmes at best two days a week, a review format was the obvious choice and making use of ABC’s luxurious outside broadcast fleet, the largest in the network, was a must. Apart from a Saturday evening roundup of sports results, and coverage of any major regional stories, ABC would concentrate on ‘looking over their area’ at the end of the week.
An early programmes developed for this purpose was ABC at Large, the programme title after which this website is named. The weekly show, initially late on Saturday evenings, though later moved to Sunday afternoons, had filmed reports as a staple. The programme was introduced for several years by David Mahlowe, who was later to become one of the ‘stalwart’ voices reading the clips on Granada’s What the Papers Say. He was also known for presenting ABC’s upmarket arts magazine Tempo, which was the South Bank Show of its time. Tim Brinton, and the young and relatively unknown Desmond Wilcox, ably assisted him.
The show would open with a roundup of local news, read by one of the continuity announcers brought specially to a main studio in Didsbury. It was a joint programme for north and midlands, although it came from Manchester, and no attempt was ever made at separate editions for ABC’s two regions.
What this meant in effect was that for the weekend only, these two Independent Television regions became one, and a tall map on the wall behind the ‘newsreader’ showed the ABC ‘region’ as white within a shaded England, the north and midlands ‘as one’. This gave the surreal impression that the part of the country that mattered was that part north of Watford, and south of that point was some rather parochial place called ‘London’ that “need not concern us at ABC”.
This extraordinary state of affairs struck one as surreal, even as a child. After a few minutes of carefully selected regional stories (upbeat, cultural, pan regional and never a warehouse fire in sight) the announcer would hand back to the main presenter, who would introduce a series of filmed features, usually prepared earlier in the week about aspects of northern and midland life.
If anything the show was a topical magazine, with a strong regional perspective, rather than a news bulletin. The programme won awards, including one for an edition in which Tim Brinton lived with a pensioner, on that pensioner’s normal budget, for a week – a new idea then. Desmond Wilcox got his first taste for social issues on the show. ABC at Large was seasonal, and ran from March to October each year from the late fifties to the mid-sixties. By then the formula required refreshing, and in 1964 ABC at Large was supplemented by ABC Weekend, taking over the vacated Saturday night slot.
This programme was more discussion orientated, but specialised in ‘provocative’ studio debate, reports and occasional controversies. In an era before ‘vox pops’, it was the journalists participating who said the provocative things to each other, then a new idea. The programme was introduced by Barry Westwood, Gillian Reynolds and Mary Griffiths, but as before the show opened with a regional news round-up, usually read by John Benson or John Edmunds in front of the surreal map of an alternative England without the south-east.
Desmond Wilcox was in evidence again, and interviewed Harold Wilson at some length on the show in 1966, with Wilson appearing in his alternative capacity as a ‘northern constituency MP’ rather than Prime Minister. Again the show was seasonal and typically ran for six or seven months of the year, though the winter months as opposed to ABC at Large in the summer. ABC Weekend ran from 1964 to 1968, but was dropped about six months before ABC closed, the team going off to London to adapt the poor Rediffusion local output into the exemplary Thames Today.
Another controversial series, The National Stakes, ran late at nights for several years in the mid-sixties. Again it specialised in strong debate, and tackled subjects then in the news and thought to be controversial, like divorce, abortion and capital punishment. It is remarkable how ABC at Large, ABC Weekend, The National Stakes and Fighting Talk are forgotten today when they were popular and award winning in their time. They were seen as topical magazines dealing in ‘issues’ rather than parochial incidents and were the direct ancestors of the ‘issue’ shows that make up much of Channel Four’s topical output today.
One early edition of ABC at Large was censured by the ITA for ‘a reckless lack of restraint’ on a social campaigning issue of the time. Howard Thomas, the MD of ABC was said to be delighted. It showed that ABC was lively, attention seeking, and dynamic – as always, a trailblazer. It was always company policy to stand out from the dour Granada or the lighter ATV Midlands. “Be as daring as you wish,” he told the producers, “it all gets us noticed.”