Thames had style and grace, says Andrew Hesford
ITV contract changes, announced on 11 June 1967, brought a few shocks and some elation to some of the companies.
TWW lost their contract to Harlech; Telefusion Yorkshire gained a foothold and half of Granada’s service area: ATV was to end their Midlands weekday/London weekend split and entrench themselves solely in the Midlands.
The most significant of the changes was that there would be no weekend contracts in either the North or Midlands, and ABC – undoubtedly the most distinctive of all ITV incumbents – had put their bid in for the weekends at London, a move they had been well-prepared for over a long period of time, and the award of which appeared to be merely a formality.
However, two events changed the course of ABC’s fate.
The David Frost-Aidan Crawley London Television Consortium (later London Weekend) was bright, intelligent, cultured, and promised much for the future, and under the ITA’s ethos that the system had to be open to newcomers, the LTC were awarded the weekend contract for the capital that had been ABC’s by right.
Secondly, Rediffusion had, for a long time, appeared to be creating a number of problems between themselves and the ITA, culminating in an interview that was disastrous for them.
The Authority then decided to suggest that a joint company to provide London with a weekday service could be devised from the resources of Rediffusion and ABC.
This was Thames Television.
New ITV contractors needed to sign up the best talent they can find, as well as devising ratings-winning programmes, so as to establish a reputation for quality.
Thames had an advantage over all the new companies, as well as many of the older ones, in that they could develop new programme strands as well as incorporate elements from the outputs of both ABC (showbusiness, drama) and Rediffusion (current affairs, children’s and schools programmes).
They also had a number of artists on contract, ensuring that they had access to creative talent, and technical expertise and experience.
Added to this, they had Teddington Studios, a riverside location that they would use to the full in years to come.
The share split in Thames – ABC 51%, Rediffusion 49% – inevitably effected a number of decisions made in the company to the point at which Thames was, effectively, ABC in disguise.
From the first day, Thames was attempting to establish a loyal audience by scheduling a brand-new magazine programme “Magpie”, guaranteeing that viewers would tune in by incorporating episodes of the “Captain Fantastic” serial into it – itself previously a feature of Rediffusion’s “Do Not Adjust Your Set”, soon to be revived by Thames.
Eamonn Andrews would now be the anchor of “Today”, from Monday-Thursday. “This Week” would continue. There were a few sitcoms, like “Never Mind the Quality, Feel The Width” that had begun in the ABC era, and “The Avengers”, “Callan” and “Public Eye” would be mainstays of Thames drama.
However, there was one disadvantage for the new company. The previous London weekday contract was for Monday-Friday, morning to closedown.
Now LWT had extra hours from Friday, 7pm to close, which meant that Thames had, at best, four evenings a week in which to build an audience and to gain vital advertising revenue.
This led to some oddities in scheduling: “Opportunity Knocks”, an ABC Saturday night talent show, was to be slotted into a 6.45 slot on Monday evenings.
Eamonn Andrews’ chat show, on which he had previously interviewed “Sunday Night People”, was scheduled for Thursday evenings.
“Just Jimmy” with the Clitheroe Kid himself had been moved from Saturday teatime, where it had been a family show, to Friday teatime, as a children’s show.
Over time, Thames planning staff worked out the best network slots for many of their programmes and out of the three mentioned, only “Opportunity Knocks” survived in its original Thames timeslot.
8pm Wednesday became the slot for variety specials and one-offs, drama was featured at 9pm, and 7pm became a time for sitcoms.
“Armchair Theatre” was moved into various places throughout the week, but never quite fitted, and never really regained its hard-won reputation: there were, however, attempts to update it, notably “Armchair Cinema”.
In June 1974, “Regan” was shown in this strand, to unanimous praise, and this film led to commissions for “The Sweeney”. “Armchair Cinema” later became “Armchair Thriller”, and was allowed to disappear from the screen forever.
One thing that should never be overlooked is that Thames, with roots in ABC and connections to EMI could make use of those relationships to the full. Thames were able to reap rewards from cinema films of “Callan”, “Sweeney!” and “Sweeney 2” and, most lucratively, “The Best of Benny Hill” – made for very little, using video-to-film transfer of the best of the early Thames series.
The best years of Thames were probably from its inception to 1979, when there was still a great deal of the ABC staffing on board and when production values were maintained at a high level.
They had signed most of the major talent, such as Morecambe and Wise, Tommy Cooper, Mike Yarwood and Kenny Everett, and had won a number of international awards.
The company was also about to make significant inroads into the US, thanks to Don Tuffnell’s sales of “The Benny Hill Show” and an entire week of programmes shown in the USA in September 1976. It might also be true to say that Thames lost their way in trying to establish themselves as world players.
What a pity that at yet another ITV franchise round, the company lost its contract to Carlton.
The legacy of Thames lives on now in both the name of an independent production company and an archive of programmes that has continued to be shown, frequently, on satellite and terrestrial television.
These programmes show, to both those who saw them first time around and to younger viewers just discovering them, that Thames had plenty of grace and style – qualities that both ABC and Rediffusion had in endless supply.
Not at all a bad thing.