When Howard Thomas left the BBC on bad terms in 1944, he expected to either be called up for National Service or unemployed for a long period of time. Instead, the Associated British Picture Corporation came knocking on his door. Their newsreel, Pathé, had had a sudden and alarming fall off in popularity. The audiences thought it dull, the cameramen were leaving for competing services, and the whole thing was reducing bums on seats in the Corporation’s ABC cinema chain. Could the producer of wildly popular radio shows like Sincerely Yours, Vera Lynn and The Brains Trust repair the damage?
The answer was yes. To get an overview of his new, unexpected empire, Howard Thomas made a trip to Pathé’s headquarters in Soho. There he found piles of tins of film in no order; there was no preservation or filing in operation; the film was decaying in the rusting tins and nobody cared.
His first order to his new workforce was to reverse this. The film, all millions of miles of it, was to be index and preserved. Rushes, too, would be kept from now on. There would be no throwing things away: someday, film going back to the wars in South Africa it would be of use to ABPC, and, if not, then at least to historians.
This is why we now have the huge and wonderful resource that is the British Pathé archives. In that resource are two tins of rushes from the opening of ABC Weekend TV in Didsbury in Manchester on 5 May 1956.
They’re a mix of rehearsals and live output; they’re mostly silent, but what was captured in sound is fascinating.
Here’s what you’re watching.
- 0:01 Guests arriving at the Didsbury studios
- 0:17 The outside of the converted Capitol cinema with its new, illuminated ABC Television sign
- 0:32 ABC Television camera inside, filming the stage from the gods
- 0:45 Rehearsals for the ensemble finale of the opening variety show
- 0:58 The sophisticated lighting control grid
- 1:15 Jerry Desmonde and Thora Hird rehearsing
- 1:20 Continuity announcer?
- 1:25 The lighting rig in operation
- 1:34 Betty Driver and Jerry Desmonde feeding a dog chocolate. Please don’t do this
- 1:48 Floor manager or director in action
- 1:58 Guests arriving at the Didsbury studios
- 2:02 Howard Thomas of ABC and Sir Philip Warter of parent ABPC arrive
- 2:13 More shots of the outside of the studios and more guests arriving
- 2:27 The Lord Mayors of Lancashire towns ABC North serves
- 2:37 More shots of the outside of the studios and more guests arriving
- 2:47 Rehearsals continue in Studio 1
- 3:39 Betty Driver singing
- 3:45 More rehearsals
- 4:08 Jerry Desmonde and Thora Hird rehearse their skit
- 4:23 An outside broadcasting van
- 4:42 Pretending to repair a camera for the cameras
- 4:57 Camera rehearsals while the scenery is constructed
- 5:05 Sound boom operator and an electrician playing with his inky-dink
- 5:24 Ready Camera 1
- 5:37 Scenery assembled, rehearsals starting
- 5:45 The actual event – dancers amongst the diners in the studio
- 6:15 Jerry Desmonde comperes
- 6:22 SOUND! Derived from the television output itself
- 8:12 The first ABC ident chimes! And the start of some title music
- 8:18 Dancing for the guests in the studio. ABC’s actual output is likely to have moved on by now
- 0:01 Camera rehearsals; wildtrack of sound
- 0:42 Jerry Desmonde and Thora Hird rehearsing
- 1:14 ABC’s “casual” symbol
- 1:21 Camera rehearsals
- 1:34 Wildtrack of sound; no vision
- 1:53 Choreography rehearsals
- 2:46 Launch programme underway, filmed from off to one side
- 3:44 Jerry Desmonde pauses. Commercial break?
- 3:48 Back to the show
- 4:20 Sound boom operator and cameraman
- 4:28 Conducting the music
- 4:35 Live output: the town cryer makes an announcement; meanwhile, “station host” Edward Ward can be heard in the background – his voice is going out live on the ABC Network
- 5:27 The film camera keeps running in the studio as Edward Ward sends the televiewers over to an OB in Liverpool. The hand-painted background ABC logo is… wrong
- 5:36 OB welcome is over, back to the studio and APBC starlet Susan Stephen
- 5:45 The big announcement from Edward Ward
- 6:09 Cue Susan Stephen!
- 6:58 The opening variety show starts with an exciting ABC-based jingle
- 8:26 The show continues
- 9:37 The show ends