All change at the board of Thames and at the top of the Authority

One of the most satisfying days of my career was when Sir John Spencer Wills arranged a luncheon at the Ritz and asked me to invite as his guests the senior staff of Thames. After lunch he made a simple but moving speech in which he confessed that he had been hurt and upset by Lord Hill’s decision and the way it was delivered. On this day long after the painful events, he wanted to say to the staff that he was well satisfied with the results achieved by Thames Television, both in terms of programmes and finance. He nurtured no further ambitions for Rediffusion Television as a separate entity and he was content for his company to be a partner in Thames Television. This tribute from a proud and honest man had a lasting impact on our executives. Thames ceased to be the uneasy offspring of two very different companies, and became a single-minded organisation dedicated to its own success. From that day I was in total accord with Sir John Spencer Wills.

It is hard to assess what mergers do to people. After the machinations of boards of directors, merchant bankers, lawyers, financial wizards; after the battle has been lost and won, there remain the staff, the workers, the executives, and all their families, who have suffered so much worry, apprehension and, sometimes, sorrow. EMI could not have been more thoughtful and helpful in their care of the thousands of men and women who had worked so loyally for the old firm. Yet, as in any other merger, the middle-aged executives suffered most. The very qualities of devotion to a company and its bosses, often at the expense of rejecting other job offers, becomes a handicap when new, younger executives cast a cold eye upon the comfortably established men in their forties and fifties who have, perhaps, begun to take things a little too easily.

A merger certainly hurts. This one was too much for the ascetic Sir Philip Warter. Besides the feeling of inadequacy in that he had allowed his father-in-law’s business to succumb, he had the additional agony of losing his only daughter Shirley after a painful illness. When the merger became inevitable Sir Philip refused to remain on the Board and chose to retire to the West Country. He did not live for very long.

Even the sturdy, resolute Scotsman, Robert Clark, was disconsolate after the take-over, and probably felt secretly that his old master, John Maxwell, would somehow have saved the situation and held on to control. A tremendous worker, dedicated to his company in spite of disheartening experiences, Robert Clark took a year or two to recover and then began to enjoy the pleasures of getting closer to his family. Some day a sympathetic writer will have to analyse the effect of mergers – and there are hundreds of them – and the impact they have upon the people concerned.

At Thames Television our immediate assignment was to find a new and ‘independent’ Chairman.

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Lord (Hartley) Shawcross

On the EMI Board were several distinguished non-executive sectors and it seemed to us that the quest could begin there. One possibility was Lord Shawcross, a controversial and undoubtedly independent figure. When the Authority asked my opinion I said I considered he would make a prestigious Chairman of Thames. Thereupon Sir Robert Fraser said that I had better go around to Lord Shawcross and invite him to become Chairman of our Board of Directors. I had never met Lord Shawcross until I faced him across the desk of his small office in the Morgan Guaranty Trust in Lombard Street. Stern, lined, handsome, he sat like a judge before me and when he asked, unsmilingly, why I thought he should become Chairman of Thames Television, I decided to tell him the disadvantages. As a director of a commercial television company he would not be allowed to appear on ITV; for the same reason the BBC would be unlikely to ask him to appear on their television programmes; as a constant contributor to The Times letter page he would be seen to be writing more as a chairman of a television company than as a vigorous independent.

Lord Shawcross accepted the invitation, additional to his other directorships, and we began a five-year association from which I was to learn a great deal. Not an easy man to get to know, his personal swing from left to right had made him extremely critical of the political element which he was convinced would disrupt Britain. Lord Shawcross was also on very friendly terms with another cross-bencher, Aidan Crawley, Chairman of our rival, LWT, and the two Chairmen often found themselves in the same club comparing the very different performances of the two companies. At first they tried to find ways of working harmoniously together, but as London Weekend’s audiences and revenue slumped there began talks of a possible working collaboration. As the LWT situation deteriorated discussions between the companies ended, for there was doubt whether the week-end company could survive its internal and external troubles. There was indeed a point where I began to prepare for an emergency situation and plan a weekend programme service if requested by the Authority.

By this time Sir Robert Fraser had retired and Brian Young been appointed Director-General. 1970 was a difficult year to enter Independent Television and Brian Young, coming from the directorship of the Nuffield Foundation and the Headmastership of Charterhouse, soon found at the SCC meetings that he had inherited an awkward squad of prefects. He supported the principle of limited collaboration between the two London companies but he was opposed to any kind of merger or take-over. With Lord Aylestone he battled on through the firings and mass resignations of London Weekend executives, resisted the onslaught of Rupert Murdoch in his bid to popularise week-end programmes in the Australian pattern, and was relieved to support the appointment of John Freeman to stabilise the company.

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Colin Welland

Brian Young’s first experience of this turbulent industry was not confined to company survival. A Director-General has the final voice on whether or not a controversial programme should be transmitted. When his staff found themselves unable to reach agreement on, for example, the script of a play, the last stage would be a confrontation between the Director-General and the Managing Director of the company concerned. Outstanding playwrights were in short supply and Thames had been delighted to commission a play from an actor who had become increasingly successful as a dramatist, Colin Welland.

TVTimes listing from Tuesday 27 October 1970

Say Goodnight to Your Grandma, was a modern North Country play about an independent young wife determined to hold on to her weak husband against a possessive mother and the pals of his bachelor days. When one of the friends, Ray, had banteringly propositioned her, Jean had flabbergasted him by suggesting they should adjourn to his car outside. As Ray retreated in embarrassment the husband asked Jean whether his friend had said anything to upset her. She replied: ‘No! Just asked if he could screw me!’ The writer and director argued that such a dramatic line was only a modern successor to Bernard Shaw’s ‘not bloody likely’ for Eliza Doolittle. The author wanted to use a more Anglo-Saxon four-letter word than the American ‘screw’ and the producer informed us that the two different versions had been recorded.

I believe it was the first such decision Brian Young had to take, and he wisely sought further opinions from the Authority. There was no question about the dramatic value of the line but the final decision on the actual verb to be used rested with the Authority. Brian Young telephoned me to say that if we used the word ‘screw’ there would be no objection and the play could go on at normal time, 9 p.m. On the other hand, if the company felt very strongly that the four-letter word was essential to the play then it could be used, but at a later hour; that was, at 10.30 p.m. following the ITN news. I settled for the normal time and the word less likely to offend viewers. The play eventually reached the West End stage unexpurgated and had a profitable run.

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