The adventure of colour had not diverted our engineering department from its more urgent assignment of converting the vast Studio One into the newest and most technically advanced television studio in Britain. The electronic lighting system, the control room devices for sound and picture, together with the light and airy rehearsal rooms adjoining the studios had provided Sydney Newman and his producers and designers with technical flawlessness for Armchair Theatre to supplement their creative achievements. Offspring (or “spin-offs’ as they were called) from individual plays began to generate drama series. The play, A Magnum for Schneider, fathered the Callan series.
So that our drama producers would not forget the North and Midlands audience at our base, I provided their offices with Lowry prints. When we first opened ABC in Manchester I had commissioned a ‘local’ artist to paint a typical Manchester scene for us every year, and my choice was L.S. Lowry whose price then was between £150 and £200 a picture. One day he came to see his Salford painting hanging in my London office in Hanover Square. I told him that all I missed was the television aerials on the houses. At once, he took a brush from his inside pocket and painted an ITV aerial on one of the houses! It was exhibited in the Lowry exhibition at the Royal Academy in 1976.
Brian Tesler had been able to attract into ABC a new school of entertainment producers and directors, and to produce variety shows and situation comedies to match anything the BBC or ATV could offer. That rarest of all the species, writers of comedy, had also been drawn into ABC and we had more of them under contract than anyone except the BBC. With Brian Tesler’s personal reputation and his constellation of directors and writers, it became less difficult to entice the cream of that most nervous and uncertain group of all, the comedians. To move to other spheres of entertainment they needed to have exceptional confidence in the programme makers and their immediate bosses. With ABC programmes now offering a vigorous challenge to ATV’s domination of entertainment we began to bill such stars as Benny Hill, Tommy Cooper, Frankie Howerd, Max Bygraves, Bob Monkhouse, Mike and Bernie Winters, and Sid James.
At last ABC Television had accumulated the strength to reject and replace ATV programmes which did not reach up to our requirements. The day came when Val Parnell and Lew Grade once again threatened to withhold the London Palladium show and I called their bluff by refreshing the Sunday night peak hour with our own variety shows from the Blackpool Hippodrome. We retained the television audience, pleased the critics, and started a new relationship, based on equality, with ATV. Nevertheless, there were times when the inter-company battles grew bitter. The heaviest blow inflicted on ABC was when ATV deliberately undermined the success of Armchair Theatre by demanding alternation on Sunday nights with a play series from their own drama department, which was already contributing plays to the weekday network. As a London contractor ATV had the power not to transmit Armchair Theatre in London, a severe hardship for us, because we could never hold on to our distinguished writers and directors if their work was to be limited to the provinces and not displayed in the great shop window which is London. Also, ABC had now created an original new drama series, in advance of its time, which ATV again refused to network to London, objecting to our incursion into the field of the drama series. For a long time The Avengers remained unnetworked but its reputation and its ratings became so compulsive that ATV was eventually forced to give in.
I criticise the weakness of the Independent Television Authority at that time for their failure to intervene, and to insist that ATV give a fair showing to network programmes of national quality. On weekdays, Granada’s deal with Rediffusion had guaranteed them a London showing for most of their programmes, though even then it took a long time to promote Coronation Street (a local programme) from Granadaland to London and the national network. I have always supported Sir Robert Fraser as the true architect of ITV and the man most responsible for its eventual success, but there were moments of weakness when he faced the London contractors. Perhaps he was too susceptible to the strong-arm tactics of Val Parnell and the beguiling persuasion of Lew Grade. He should not have permitted them to sabotage the most respected play series in Britain, Armchair Theatre, and thus reduce the power and prestige of ITV’s Sunday night.
Possibly Bob Fraser was susceptible to a change because some of the more provocative Armchair Theatre plays aroused protests in the press, at the Authority and indeed in my own boardroom. At that time the favourite derogatory phrase about Armchair Theatre was ‘kitchen sink drama’. Many of the plays I personally found unsatisfactory, irritating or unjustifiable but I have always tried to give producers the freedom they wanted. I had an arrangement with Sydney Newman that one out of every four plays should be experimental – which in effect probably meant losing audiences in the process. Often Sir Philip Warter would telephone me at home to complain about the themes and attitudes of Armchair Theatre plays, but I was usually able to claim that his opinions were directly opposite to those of the public; for the plays he liked earned poor ratings and the ones he condemned were generally our best successes.
Many times I clashed with the Authority in defence of some of the plays before they were broadcast, because we had to submit a synopsis of every play and, if required, let the Authority’s representative read a synopsis and attend rehearsals of a play. Whenever I read the script of a controversial play, I insisted on knowing the name of the director for I was well aware that if, for instance, it included a lesbian scene Director A would treat it delicately whilst Director B would emphasise the sexual overtones.
It was not surprising that some of the way-out plays did not measure up to the West End box office standards of the ATV management. Val Parnell was tolerant and made few critical strictures but Lew Grade, who watched every play, would ring me up afterwards with his own forthright comments. His expletives about bad language were usually colourful. In return, I spared no blushes about the triteness and repetitiveness of the Palladium shows. Our disputes were short-lived and when we met on the following day the rows were forgotten and we resumed our normal cheerful relationship, interrupted only by the endless arguments about how much ABC paid ATV.
When Val Parnell retired from ATV, in his seventies, there was some speculation about his successor, but Lew Grade was elected managing director with the full backing of the theatre interests and of the Mirror group. There was a further decline in Norman Collins’ influence and his role became little more than that of a highly placed public relations director. It seemed a waste of a brilliant executive who could have established a much-needed reputation for ATV in current affairs programmes, but instead the company concentrated all the more on sheer entertainment.
One course Norman Collins and I did pursue together was the steering of ITV into adult education. Already ITV had led the way in schools television, with Rediffusion’s Managing Director Paul Adorian pioneering this new development in the use of television. The week-end contracts eliminated ABC from schools television but Norman Collins and I waged a tireless campaign to introduce adult education on Sunday mornings, when church services provided the only broadcasts. It took us many years until, with the aid of Lord Eccles, and with the support of the WEA, we won through and were granted government permission to have extra hours on Sunday mornings. I invited Asa Briggs to be ABCs advisor on adult education, but before long the Authority asked if he could take over a similar role for them on a national basis.
When we began the broadcasts, in January 1963, our first two ABC series were very basic: how to speak good English and how to write a letter, with popular titles such as You Don’t Say, and Pen to Paper. ATV’s efforts in this field took the form of elementary lessons in French. ABC went on to Clear Thinking, explaining logic, and eventually First Steps in Physics, for which we produced not only a text book but an introductory science kit. Over the years we covered many subjects and co-operated with different publishers in the issue of paperback books related to our subjects. These grew broader in their range, varying from The Law is Yours and A Plain Man’s Guide to his Money to Psychology for Everyman and Anatomy of First Aid. Some of these became bestsellers, especially Philip Harben’s The Grammar of Cookery, published by Penguin, which sold 250,000 copies.
Article source: With an Independent Air by Howard Thomas (Weidenfeld and Nicholson, 1977)
About the author
Howard Thomas (1909-1986) was a writer, producer and television executive. He was managing director of ABC Television throughout its existence and held the same post at Thames Television until the early 1980s. His autobiography, 'With an Independent Air: Encounters during a lifetime of broadcasting' was published by Weidenfeld and Nicolson in 1977.