Joan Bakewell &
The New Priesthood:
British Television Today, 1970
1. BBC Television Begins
Cecil Madden Interview
Dr R. D. A. Maurice and G. G. Goriot
Dr R. D. A. Maurice and G. G. Goriot
3. Foundation of ITV
Sir Lew Grade
5. Light Entertainment
Billy Cotton, Jr
Dennis Main Wilson
Producers and Directors
Sir Geoffrey Cox
Philip Whitehead, M.P.
9. BBC Executives
10. ITV Executives
Sir Lew Grade
Sir Robert Fraser
We did the interviews for this book between October 1969 and April
1970. Particular programme and policy issues will therefore refer to that
period of time. However, apart from such specifics, we do not feel that
the style and content of British television will have changed
fundamentally by the time this book is published.
We have shared the interviews throughout the book: we do not always
share the same point of view. Hence the comments at the opening of each
chapter are individually credited. The interviews within each chapter are
the work of us both.
J. B. / N. G.
The members were to be distributed throughout the country, so as not to
leave even the smallest integral part or division without a resident
guide, guardian and instructor: the objects and final intention of the
whole order being these - to preserve the stores and to guard the
treasures of past civilization, and thus to bind the present with the
past; to perfect and add to the same and thus to connect the present with
the future; but especially to diffuse through the whole community and to
every native entitled to its laws and rights, that quantity and quality of
knowledge which was indispensable, both for the understanding of these
rights and for the performance of the duties correspondent.
Thus Coleridge described the function of the Clerisy, the members of his
National Church. It is this noble concept that stands like a shadow behind
the idea of public service broadcasting in Britain and still influences
the debate about the proper function of television. Lord Reith was able to
mould the BBC in the way he did and British broadcasting took on its own
individual moral tone, because it responded to a deep current in the
intellectual life of this country. The BBC was created as the embodiment
of a long-standing cultural tradition that stemmed from the reaction of
Burke, Cobbett and Coleridge to the industrialization of Britain. Raymond
Williams, who delineated this tradition in Culture and Society,
described it as:
the emergence of culture as an abstraction and an absolute: an emergence
which, in a very complex way, merges two general responses - first, the
recognition of the practical separation of certain moral and intellectual
activities from the driven impetus of a new kind of society; second, the
emphasis of these activities, as a court of human appeal, to be set over
the processes of practical social judgement and yet to offer itself as a
mitigating and rallying alternative.
These are noble ideals, but they depend for their fulfilment upon
accepting, if only temporarily, an intellectual and artistic élite,
a nobility of culture rather than of birth. This our society is no longer
prepared to do, which accounts in part for the period of stress through
which the idea of public service broadcasting is passing. The tradition
that underlay the original Reithian concept has died and a new society is
in the process of giving birth to a new and more egalitarian tradition, a
new definition of the role of cultural priesthood.
But the growth of this new tradition is hampered by a fashionable
helplessness. One of the most significant characteristics of modern
thought has been the rejection of the romantic notion of individuality and
the steady devaluation of the concept of individual will and individual
responsibilities. An increasing stress has been laid upon the conditioning
structures within which individuals operate; for Marx the structure was
economic, for Darwin biological, for Freud psychological. These are all,
in their different ways, valuable methods for assessing our experiences,
but they have themselves become conditioning factors, reintroducing a
debilitating feeling of helplessness before a predetermined fate. The old
gods have risen again. Our unhappiness is now caused, not by an angry Jove
or a spiteful Apollo, but by market forces or an unhappy childhood.
It is this conditioning that accounts for Marshall McLuhan's widespread
influence. He appeals in the field of communications to just that
fashionable helplessness. His most celebrated epigram, 'the medium is the
message', is very close in tone to the gnomic utterances of Old Testament
prophets. It is an invitation, not to thought or argument, but to worship:
'In the beginning was the word', 'I am the Alpha and the Omega'. Now
television is erected as a new golden calf to be worshipped or reviled to
taste. But neither the worshipping nor the reviling will discriminate.
Television is television is television. It is hardly surprising that
Madison Avenue should have clasped McLuhan to its lush bosom, for it is in
their best interest that a critical examination of media content should be
We would not wish to deny the importance of much of McLuhan's work. No one
can now write about television uninfluenced by what he has written. Of
course it is true and important that the
forms we use to communicate condition what is communicated. But to say
that 'the medium is the message' is like saying 'you should not drink and
drive' without specifying what it is you should not drink. To regard all
television as of equal value is like failing to discriminate between milk,
sulphuric acid or alcohol. And yet even those who have never heard of
McLuhan talk in his terms. Television, they say, trivializes or
(alternatively) television has been a great educator; television
reinforces social attitudes, television has encouraged permissiveness,
television should be less violent, television should be impartial,
television should be this or that. Such statements are neither right nor
wrong. They are not even self-contradictory. They are simply meaningless,
for television is not a single entity, but a multiplicity of programmes,
each with a different function. Television is, at one time or another,
newspaper, magazine, cinema, theatre, music-hall, cabaret, sports arena,
concert hall and even lecture room.
It is often forgotten that this multiplicity of programmes is produced not
by some mysterious body known as the BBC or Granada or Thames, but by
individual writers, producers and directors. This book looks at British
television from the point of view of those people who make it what it is:
the programme.makers themselves, and also the engineers, the
administrators and financiers whose decisions shape the context in which
the programmes are created. It is based upon the proposition of personal
responsibility and activism, that is to say, as television is created by
individual human beings, they can change it if they so desire.
There is no doubt that the Annan Inquiry - regrettably now cancelled - was
set up in response to a growing weight of opinion that all is not well in
broadcasting and that we need to think very seriously about what functions
we want television to fulfil and how best it can fulfil them. Before we
decide on any change of direction let us try to find out how and why
television has developed in the way it has, from those in the best
position to know, those who are responsible for the way it is. In previous
inquiries the opinion of those, who, day after day, actually make
television programmes was the last to be sought. This mistake must not be
repeated, nor that of assuming that the ideas of the official
representatives of the present system coincide with the ideas of those
The range of opinion in this book is neither exhaustive nor is it
a perfect cross-section, but it is, we think, representative. There are
important areas that we haven't dealt with at all, such as educational and
children's television. This is not because we are not aware of their
importance, but because, for reasons of space, we had to keep to what we
saw as the mainstream. The aim of the book, as a contribution to the
debate on the future of British television, could not be better expressed
than in this extract from an interview with Tony Smith, the Editor of
There is quite properly and fascinatingly this huge discussion going on at
the moment about the ethics of television - about its role in society and
about how it should be organized in the future. In this discussion there
are two voices to be heard, that of government and that of the
broadcasting authorities. The practitioners do not have a voice and are
not allowed to have a voice. The Board of Governors of the BBC and the
senior members of the BBC accept on our behalf all the moral, spiritual
and intellectual responsibilities for the craft which we perform. It's
like no other profession that I can think of. Now what I happen to feel
quite strongly is that the broadcasters have an enormous contribution to
make to this discussion in the light of their professional experience.
It's most important that the point of view of the broadcaster is
expressed, because it is so different from what it is imagined to be, even
by people occupying positions of authority within the world of television
who themselves used to be producers.
Once you move into being an administrator over an institution your
interests (in both senses of the word) alter, and so do your attitudes on
the whole range of questions that are currently under discussion. Everyone
should take part in this discussion. The last thing I'm trying to do is
put forward an elitist argument, but I am saying that the one group that
isn't being allowed to participate is the very group of people who fill
the screen with the very thing that's being discussed.
BBC Television Begins
In 1936, when rumours were current that Sir John Reith was contemplating
leaving his position as Director-General of the BBC, he received a letter
from Sir Ernest Benn: 'You hold the biggest job ever since the days of the
creation, and in my humble view it is your duty to continue to hold it. If
you relinquish control then the BBC will become a full-blown government
department.' Such exaggeration and pessimism were unjustified. Sir John
Reith did resign from the BBC which did not subsequently go under to
government control. Nevertheless the apprehension was perhaps called for.
Sir John Reith spent the late 1920s and much of the 1930s defending the
independence of the BBC.
It was often under attack from politicians of both right and left.
Chamberlain complained to Reith that the BBC gave undue prominence to
political attacks on him. Attlee complained in the Ullswater Report of
1936 that in the economic crisis of 1931 the BBC allowed a series of talks
all in support of the then government. In 1937 Tory MPs were up in arms
complaining that, in the news bulletins about the Spanish Civil War, the
BBC was biased in favour of the Republican cause. Nothing, it seems is new
- but the emphasis has shifted. Throughout his autobiography, in which he
records in detail his successful struggle to keep the BBC free of
government influence, Lord Reith makes almost no reference to a new
development which was taking place at that very time. Throughout the late
1920s and the early 1930s television was gathering strength. Today it
bears the brunt of that same public criticism and political attack.
For many years the development of television was confused by the emergence
of two systems of transmitting pictures. The first, invented by John Logie
Baird, was successfully demonstrated to
the Royal Institution in January 1926. Post Office engineers, when they
saw similar demonstrations in 1928, were impressed enough to ask the BBC
to allow one of its stations to be used for further experiments. The BBC
engineers, not impressed by the standards of Baird's pictures, dragged
their feet, but under mounting criticism in the press finally made 2L0
available for some transmissions in 1929.
The second system, EMI, was demonstrated to the BBC in 1933 and proved far
more satisfactory. None the less, the Selsdon Committee, reporting in 1935
on the future organization of a television service, recommended that the
BBC should develop the two systems in parallel. The BBC was made
exclusively responsible for the development of television and settled on
Alexandra Palace as its television station. From there, the first regular
BBC television service - the first in the world - began in November 1936.
For three months the Baird and EMI-Marconi systems were used during
alternate weeks, but at the end of that time the Baird system was
Today Lord Reith, Director-General from 1922 to 1938, looks back on the
development of television as partly the reason for his leaving the BBC
when he did. He hated it then, regarding it as inconsequent and trivial:
and today he knows his worst fears were justified. Perhaps, he thinks,
some good might have come of it if it had not been allowed to run away
with itself. For today the BBC is not running television, television is
running the BBC. And, more and more, television will be running the
country. The sheer abundance of it appalls him: had he his way it would
be greatly restricted in hours so that excellence of quality could be
sustained through the competition for the privilege of a few hours. As it
is, he feels television must carry a large part of the blame for what he
calls the decline in our intellectual and ethical standards, which he
regards as absolute tragedy.
None the less, in the 1930s Lord Reith was determined that the BBC should
pioneer television development, if for no other reason than to keep ahead
of America. He was proud to found the first service in the world, while
the Americans held back and waited to learn from the BBC's mistakes.
Despite his loathing of the amount and content of television programmes
today, Lord Reith's allegiance to the BBC structure is still great. Standards declined, he
believed, a year before ITV began, when the BBC was hoping to defend its
monopoly by establishing an undeniable popularity. There was absolutely
no call at all for the BBC monopoly to be broken - apart from the insistent
lobbying of a group of Tory back-benchers, including a number connected
with advertising agencies. He feels that had the BBC mounted a public
relations operation on the same scale as the commercials the monopoly
would have been preserved and the subsequent decline in standards avoided.
Lord Woolton, who was responsible for introducing the ITV Act and
commercial broadcasting, he considers as doing more ethical and
intellectual harm than any other man of his day. He speaks of standards,
taste and value to society - the rigorous principles on which he based
broadcasting and which are still very meaningful within the BBC hierarchy.
As to the size of the BBC, he says that managing 10,000 is no different in
principle from managing 1,000; and he thinks its powers are not excessive.
He dismissed the suggestion of an independent public watchdog as nonsense.
He is still today the dogmatic, highly principled and great man who
founded the world's first and largest broadcasting organization. But he
cannot stand 80 or 85 per cent of present-day television.
Lord Reith's appointee as the first BBC Director of Television was Gerald
Cock - who appointed Cecil Madden to be his pro.gramme organizer. Cecil
Madden remembers the very beginning of television.
Cecil Madden Interview
[ Cecil Madden:
Assistant to three Controllers of Television, from 1937 onwards.]
In August 1936 Gerald Cock sent for all the people who had been engaged to
be the first staff of television. We came from all sorts of worlds - the
theatre, radio, films, current affairs. There was a bit of everything. But
I was really a senior man. Now Cock brought us all into the Council
Chamber in Broadcasting House
and he said to each one, 'This is your title, this is what I expect you to
be.' In my case I was Programme Organizer and Senior Producer. He said,
'You will not have to do any programmes until about November. What I
advise you to do is to get into cars, go out to Alexandra Palace [which is
about half an hour away from Broadcasting House] and see your offices and
just look round.' So we all did just that. We piled into cars and we all
rushed round there in a state of high enthusiasm. My office was a
substantial room, and next to his on the third floor. I walked in. There
was absolutely no furniture in it and the phone was ringing. I went over
to it lifted it up and there was Gerald Cock again. He said, 'Cecil, I've
got something very important to say. The Radio Show at Olympia is going
to be a dead failure. They can't sell the stands. They have appealed to
the BBC to have television there and I have agreed that we will do
television for the Radio Show at Radio Olympia, which opens in ten days'
time.' So I rang up a fellow called Ronnie Hill who was writing songs a
lot at that time and I said I wanted an absolutely brand new song to open
television with. What could he do? He said, 'I'll ring you back,' and a
few minutes later he hummed a song to me over the phone. He said, 'I've
thought of a title for it. I'm going to call it "Here's Looking at You",'
and I said, 'What a marvellous title!' So we called the first show
Here's Looking at You.
We had to give twenty performances of it, twice a day from Alexandra
Palace to the Radio Show, but we had to do it on alternate days in the two
studios with different systems. So with differently placed Control Rooms I
had to do it one day in one direction and the next day quite differently.
So a lot of people saw television very quickly. Tremendous numbers went
to the Radio Show and saw it in rooms with sets everywhere. Of course, the
actual viewers who had bought television sets, about 300 stalwarts,
naturally had great crowds in every night drinking them out of house and
home. And that was really how it opened. The official ceremonies came in
I only had £1,000 to make all the programmes for the entire week, so that
I could only put, say, £100 into a top programme and roughly allocate
about £100 a day. Money went a lot further in those days than it does
now, and we somehow managed. Now the next thing we did was we said that we
must be allowed to experiment. I wanted this topical magazine Picture
Page, and we did it twice a week for seven years. So it had a pretty good
Did anyone conceive at that time that television would take over from
Well, I certainly did. But, of course, the difficulty was that
Broadcasting House was not absolutely friendly and they resented having
to pay out money for it. They looked on us as the mad lot out there
getting all the publicity, getting in all the newspapers, getting all the
There were two schools of thought about programmes in those days. There
was the school of thought that said start small and get big, and there was
the other school of thought to which I certainly belonged which was that
although there weren't very many viewers there was the press. We had the
enthusiasm, therefore let us spend all the money that we had and do things
in as big a way as we can, fast, so as to make an impact. The very first
week I was able to put on the first studio ballet, the first studio play
and the first studio opera, together with all the magazines and all the
bits and pieces, so that we really had a stunning opening week by any
standards and people were clawing the ceilings to watch programmes
What was your view of the role of television or what the balance of
programmes should be in those days?
That it should be based on the writer. I created the slogan 'a play a
day', and it was a very good one. Some plays were short, some plays were
very long, but the drama was there right the way through. I felt that the
writer would never let you down, and it was entirely up to you whether you
let him down. So television in these early days was very firmly based on
what we might call show-biz. In those days we were a small staff and had
not enough money, so it was absolutely impossible to organize it any other
way. But we did make an arrangement with the film companies - Paramount,
Gaumont-British, Movietone - and we did have the current cinema newsreels.
After the war television resumed, in June 1946, with the Victory Parade.
Then there was the royal wedding, Prince Philip and Princess Elizabeth.
The next thing was that television up to that point had all been in
London. So we had to go out into the provinces. The Midlands came in 1949.
In 1950 we were able to do a programme from Calais, which was quite a big
technical achievement then. In 1950 we started Children's Television on a
daily basis. In 1951 we had Manchester, 1952 we had Scotland, then came
Wales and the West Country, and in 1953 television was given an enormous
boost by the Coronation. In 1954 another great high spot was Eurovision,
which gave us eight countries. Of course, it is more now but it was
important then. In 1955 we were doing colour tests.
We had not, until 1938, brought Sundays in. We had that one day off. Then
came the great battle with Broadcasting House: what would the programmes
be on Sundays? Broadcasting House was quite adamant that it should be what
they did on Sundays, which was a bit of Palm Court, a bit of religion, and
I take credit for having fought a very hard fight to say that it should be
drama. For years this was established and it was known as the Sunday Night
Play and the Sunday Night Play has not really been licked today. It is
still what you need and in those days we repeated it on Thursday.
What do you think of the standard of television now?
I think it is extremely good. I do not think it is light weight. I
think that when anything really important comes up, such as the death of a
President or the astronauts, all hands go to the helm in all countries and
the artistic standards are really very good.
What did people in the BBC feel when ITV was founded?
They did not like it. They could see that a lot of their staff was going
to go. Those of us who had, shall we say, good reputations had splendid
offers made to us. Some went, and I think the exodus was a very good
thing: it enabled the BBC to take on new people, and it gave the trained
people a chance. The competition was certainly extremely good for the BBC
and I personally decided to stay with the BBC because it was the kind of
organization I liked. It suited me very well. But I think that it was a
tremendously good thing all round, and anybody who said that it would
dilute talent is talking absolute nonsense.