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Joan Bakewell & Nicholas Garnham:
The New Priesthood:
British Television Today, 1970

Contents,
Introduction
BBC Television Begins & Cecil Madden Interview
 

The New Priesthood: British 
    Television Today, 1970 Cover
 

 

Contents

Preface & Introduction
 
1. BBC Television Begins
Cecil Madden Interview
 
2. Engineering
Howard Bridgewater
Dr R. D. A. Maurice and G. G. Goriot
Howard Bridgewater
Neville Watson
Dr R. D. A. Maurice and G. G. Goriot
 
3. Foundation of ITV
Norman Collins
Mark Chapman-Walker
Sir Lew Grade
 
4. Servicing
Richard Levin
Tony Abbott
Robin Wade
Renée Goddard
Dennis Scuse
 
5. Light Entertainment
Billy Cotton, Jr
Dennis Main Wilson
Ned Sherrin
Barry Took
Eamonn Andrews
Frank Muir
David Frost
 
6. Drama
Writers
John Hopkins
Dennis Potter
David Mercer
 
Producers and Directors
Irene Shubik
Philip Saville
Peter Hammond
Alan Bridges
 
Drama Executives
Peter Willes
Shaun Sutton
Lloyd Shirley
Cecil Clarke
Humphrey Burton
Melvyn Bragg
John Cutshaw
John Drummond
Jonathan Miller
Stephen Hearst
Ken Russell
Tony Palmer
 
8. Information
News
Sir Geoffrey Cox
Nigel Ryan
Gerald Priestland
 
Current Affairs
Rowan Ayers
Ian Martin
David Webster
Jeremy Isaacs
Philip Whitehead, M.P.
Desmond Wilcox
Anthony Jay
Alistair Milne
Malcolm Muggeridge
Anthony Smith
Brian Connell
Malcolm Muggeridge
Philip Whitehead
David Webster
 
Documentaries
Richard Cawston
Tony Essex
Dennis Mitchell
Tony Essex
Stephen Peet
Peter Bartlett
Ian Martin
Hugh Burnett
Jo Durden-Smith
Peter Batty
 
9. BBC Executives
Lord Hill
Charles Curran
Huw Wheldon
Paul Fox
Robin Scott
David Attenborough
 
10. ITV Executives
Aled Vaughan
Wynford Vaughan-Thomas
Anthony Firth
James Bredin
Berkeley Smith
Peter Cadbury
Brian Tesler
Howard Thomas
Stella Richman
Tom Margerison
Sir Lew Grade
Francis Essex
Sir Robert Fraser
 
11. Conclusions
Nicholas Garnham
Joan Bakewell
 

 

 

Preface

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.

Introduction

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 avoided.

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 they employ.

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 24 Hours.

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 discarded.


 

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 November.

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 success.

Did anyone conceive at that time that television would take over from radio?

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 interest.

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 everywhere.

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.

 

Duckworth Overlook
 
 




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