A personal and informative account of Thames at Euston

On the afternoon of Tuesday 30th July 1968, unlike most 14 year olds out enjoying the last few days of the summer holidays, I was indoors excitedly waiting for the first opening of my new weekday ITV station in London, Thames Television.

I was growing more interested in the world around me, watching TV news and reading the papers. I had been aware for some time that big changes were afoot within Independent Television. I knew that in Wales and the West for example, Harlech Television was the new incumbent, with glamorous stars like Richard Burton, Geraint Evans, Stanley Baker and Wynford Vaughn-Thomas on board, as part of the reshuffle of ITV companies announced the year before.

I had become particularly interested in television presentation and I switched on each day to see the ITA caption and hear the inspiring music leading the late afternoon start of Rediffusion.

I had enjoyed many of its youth programmes like ‘Five O’clock Club’, ‘Tuesday Rendezvous’, and ‘Ready Steady Go’, but new arrival Thames was promising programmes “specially for Londoners” and I became very excited about it all. I had no idea then that Thames came about when the ITA forced ITV stalwarts ABC and Rediffusion to jointly create a new company for the weekday franchise.

For the ‘Friday evening to Sunday’ franchise, a new company called London Weekend replaced the former Saturday-Sunday ATV operation. I knew that David Frost, who had presented several series on Rediffusion, was to be a key figure in the new weekend set up.

Rediffusion had not given a high priority to regional news. Their nightly show ‘Three After Six’ though only shown locally, concerned itself rather more with matters of national interest. The ITA was unhappy with this.

Thames however were promising magazine shows and feature specials. They also planned more late night social affairs programmes, continuing a long standing Rediffusion tradition.

So it was with a great fanfare that Thames came on air that Tuesday afternoon with an opening lunch from the Mansion House where the Lord Mayor was welcoming “London’s new Television Service”. This was perhaps rather a fraudulent description as it was really a fresh contractor newly providing an existing service, but the press office allowed itself some licence on the matter!

The public banquet was attended by Councillors, Aldermen, leading city figures and journalists, ITA board members, Directors of the Rediffusion company, the Associated-British Picture Corporation, the new Thames executives, the Postmaster General and Post Office board. It is a measure of the perceived public service role of Independent Television in those days that the bill for the whole celebration was met without question by the ratepayers of the City! “A new television service for London” was assumed then to have major significance for the life of the whole nation.

The banquet was televised live, with recorded highlights repeated at 11pm. Clips were included on the National News for viewers in the other regions (who had not carried the live broadcast). This indicated a degree of viewer interest that would be unthinkable today. There was even a live commentary by Andrew Gardiner who described the scene, interviewed the dignitaries between courses and presumably gave commentary on the guests eating!

After the Lord Mayor’s dinner there was horse racing from Redcar networked from Tyne Tees Television but this was affected by a technicians’ industrial dispute for some of the programme. This was a precursor to a major strike that was to take ITV off air later in the week.

Thames had inherited two main programme production bases. The former ABC studios at Teddington Lock in Middlesex, was to be used for drama, light entertainment and children’s shows. Television House in Kingsway, the principle London ITV facility remained in Rediffusion’s company ownership but was provided for Thames’ use as part of Rediffusion’s dowry to the new company. The Rediffusion signwork on the building itself remained in position for many more years. ITN and some of the TV Times offices were also housed in this complex.

Television House concentrated on live feature and topical programmes such as the new daily ‘Today’ magazine with Eamonn Andrews and ‘This Week’, the networked political magazine. Current Affairs and Schools programme departments continued to be based here, the staff largely unchanged from the Rediffusion payroll.

New central London studios were being built with the approach of colour television in mind and gradually the various departments would move to the new purpose built studios on the Euston Road in NW1. The new facility was to be called “Thames Television House” and was due to open by 1970.

The company maintained an outside broadcast base at Hanwell in Middlesex, inherited from ABC Television, garaging the fleet of mobile broadcasting vans for sporting or other events, such as regularly covered Theatre Awards and Royal Film and Theatre Performances. It was the production base for Thames’s motoring programme ‘Drive In’. Steve Minchin, Bob Service and Grahame Turner ran a well-remembered and efficient Outside Broadcast Operation, which was regarded, from ABC days as amongst the best in the network.

‘Today’ was presented every weekday from Rediffusion’s Television House in Kingsway and passers-by could stand and peer through the ground floor pavement window of the studio as Eamonn Andrews and the team put out the show. The crowd outside the window were often seen on the show in the lighter summer months when cameras panned in the direction of the street.

The ITA had long thought Rediffusion’s local programming too national in scope, seemingly having little regard to what was going on in London itself. Thames opted to better this record with a range of programme improvements for the metropolis.

From the former ABC Northern and Midland weekend operation they imported a team of highly polished continuity announcers linking programmes “in-vision” with a lighter and wittier touch than Rediffusion had permitted.

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Mainstays of the former ABC team, Philip Elsmore, David Hamilton, Sheila Kennedy and John Benson spent the Autumn of 1968 bedding down the new Thames image with considerable success, and using the long standing ABC flair for corporate identity to stamp the new company on London viewers minds. Tom Edwards and Peter Marshall later joined the team.

Thames’s first networked programme for children and successor to Rediffusion’s ‘Five O’clock Club’ was ‘Magpie’, a racier version of BBC’s ‘Blue Peter’. Presented by Susan Stranks, Tony Bastable and Canadian ex pirate radio deejay Pete Brady, it was to revolutionise children’s magazine programming. Gone were the mildly condescending middle class uncle and aunt figures and in came groovy young presenters who did not patronise.

Other shows that first night included Cooper King Size with Tommy Cooper who proved to be a huge star for Thames over the years, his contract inherited from ABC, though part of his first networked Thames show was also lost to industrial action.

Traditionally around the ITV network (though never on Granada in the North) it fell to an ageing cleric in a dog collar to present a mildly religious “Epilogue” programme before transmission ceased each night around twelve. Thames chose to pursue and develop Rediffusion’s long standing interest in social affairs content and chose to develop Rediffusion’s existing series ‘The Last Programme’ to a rather more ‘activist’ social affairs agenda.

Presented by regulars Llew Gardener, Joan Shenton and Ivor Mills , the show ran across the week at closedown and was curiously the only Thames programme shown on London Weekend to give it seven day continuity.

Three producers each took a week at a time on the show. Jon Woods, Mavis Airey and Anthony Stancombe subsequently forged notable careers in “issues” television. ABC stalwart Margery Baker produced some editions including a prize-winning series on the Russian Orthodox Church and its icons, arts and musical specials, a special performance of Bach’s St Nicholas Cantata and a presentation of The London Contemporary Dance Company in ‘Kontakion’. It is unimaginable that these programmes would be seen on ITV today.

For almost two more years Thames used Rediffusion’s Television House in Kingsway for its schools, religious, adult education and current affairs departments.

From 1970 Thames Television House in Euston was the company’s new headquarters and within that office and studio complex the sales teams planned and rehearsed their presentations to London businessmen and potential advertisers.

Inherited from ABC, this sales group was long regarded as one of the most successful in the industry and quickly established Thames as the most profitable of the major new ITV contracts. This was as much due to inspired hard work as any marketing secrets. The ITA had expected ATV’s new seven day contract in the Midlands to be the most lucrative of the major regions but the ex ABC salesmen at Thames proved the Authority wrong.

Head of Commercial Sales was the late Paul Cheffins, one of the most respected figures in the industry. He worked closely with Muir Sutherland the Programme Coordinator at Thames Television International, selling Thames programmes worldwide.

The last departments to transfer to Thames Television House in 1971 were Current Affairs and Schools Television. The schools department under Edwin Whitely continued the pioneering work established by Rediffusion’s Enid Love who took up the newly created post of Head of Education at Yorkshire Television.

Thames presented many schools programmes at both junior and senior levels, including ‘Seeing and Doing’, ‘Finding Out’, ‘The World Around Us’, ‘Viewpoint’, and ‘King Lear’, in a ‘Shakespeare for Schools’ initiative. Thames full time education officer, Fernau Hall, developed direct relationships with schools in the London area and appointed Community Education Officers, fulfilling a long standing Rediffusion ambition.

Thames screened a wide range of adult education programmes, including the visually stunning ‘Treasures of the British Museum’. The Educational series ‘A Place in the Country’ and ‘Water Wise’ were successful enough to be repeated for mainstream viewers.

As part of Thames’s commitment to ‘social action television’ the company set up a programme called ‘Help’, highlighting various social problems of the day and continuing a tradition started by the former North and Midland weekend contractor ABC, in their “ABC at Large” series of the mid sixties.

These new Thames programmes often appealed for volunteers to assist in social projects of various kinds. Presented by Joan Shenton and Viv Taylor-Gee, short spots were backed with leaflets and booklets that could be written or phoned for and viewers with specific problems were referred to appropriate agencies for support. With the advent of independent production companies Shenton later opted to form her own medical and social based television company, Meditel.

‘Help’ covered many topics from adoption to birth control, drugs and the skills needed for looking after homeless teenagers. Advice programmes on taxation, home finance and debt made in association with London Citizens Advice Bureau were particularly popular.

As London’s own magazine programme, ‘Today’ went from strength to strength. In the summer of 1976 my own youth group had featured in the London Evening News and thus we were invited to appear live on the ‘Today’ show that evening. Sandra Harris met us in reception and we were ushered into the studio without any time for rehearsal and found ourselves live on air. For me it was a wonderful experience to see the inner workings of Thames at first hand, something I was privileged to do on more than one occasion.

‘Today’ hit the national news on 1st December 1976, when use of the then dreaded “F” word live on television, shocked the region during a now famous altercation between programme presenter Bill Grundy, and the alternative punk band The Sex Pistols, led by Johnny Rotten. The incident inadvertently promoted the emerging punk phenomenon, but truncated Grundy’s long ITV career.

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Thames had a first-rate documentary department, inherited wholesale from Rediffusion, which continued to supply ITV with award winning material. One memorable example was ‘Beauty, Bonnie, Daisy, Violet, Grace and Geoffrey Morton’. Directed by Frank Cvitanovich and produced by Jolyon Wimhurst, Yorkshireman Morton was shown farming 40 acres using his eponymous shire horses to deploy old fashioned farming methods long since generally abandoned. In 1974 Thames collected the British Academy (BAFTA) award for Best Documentary.

Jeremy Isaacs, formerly of Rediffusion, long standing producer of This Week, after many years at the helm was asked to take charge of another mammoth project which brought Thames more awards and kudos than anything else in its 25 years as an ITV contractor, the 26 part history series The World At War. So much material was amassed that the video sold in shops later had 32 episodes – more than had been transmitted originally!

From late 1972 the long-standing Post Office broadcasting hours restrictions were relaxed by the Ministry of Posts and Telecommunications. ITV and later the BBC developed afternoon programmes and extended children’s programmes to Saturday mornings for the first time. ITV’s new weekday afternoon schedule had a lunchtime bulletin from ITN at 1240 (which the BBC had been doing at 1.25 for over 15 years) and a new breed of rather cheap and cheerful daytime programming made its debut. Schools programmes were newly restricted to mornings only and general programming now began at noon.

Thames paid much attention to new look programmes for housewives, still then a clearly designated group within society. By today’s standards, male unemployment was low during the early seventies and so daytime strands could be specifically targeted at women and the retired.

One innovation featured Michael and Mary Parkinson in ‘Tea-Break’. The programme was an unusual mix of features and entertainment and was later relaunched as ‘Afternoon Plus’ with Mavis Nicholson and Elaine Grand. These series launched the television careers of a range of new presenters like Mary Berry, Anna Raeburn and Jill Tweedie. The shows were produced by Catherine Freeman and Mary McAnnally.

Thames presented a range of current affairs and specials, most notably continuing Rediffusion’s long standing ‘This Week’, which ran side by side with Granada’s equally famous ‘World in Action’. ‘TV Eye’ was a brief revamp of ‘This Week’. One edition, ‘Death on the Rock’, produced by Roger Bolton, caused a major row with the Conservative government and is widely alleged to bear part of the blame for Thames losing its ITV contract to Carlton in 1992.

Feature programmes included the long running ‘Wish You Were Here’, with Judith Chalmers and ‘This Is Your Life’ presented by Eamonn Andrews and later Michael Aspel.

Thames proved that it was able to respond to unexpected events with the death of Elvis Presley in Memphis on 16th August 1977. At short notice ITV cleared its evening schedules and Thames’ ‘This Is You Life’ team mounted a live tribute show at 7pm the same day.

By the early eighties, Thames daily regional magazine had become more news orientated, and was renamed Thames News. Regional news bulletins were provided for the London Weekend company to use.

In 1986 after an LWT ‘London Programme’ special about the drug problem in South London, I organised a public conference in my then role as community worker, to discuss the issue. Interest escalated and Thames asked to cover the event live. Reporter Paul Greene presented the coverage. That night Robin Houston relayed the decisions from the conference on the Thames ‘Late News’.

In the single most unhappy event in the company history of ITV, the public was genuinely shocked when Thames lost its London franchise to Carlton at the end of 1992. This was a result of a new ‘sealed bids’ franchise auction system, inspired by the growing free market orientation of the government. This may have been a suitable paradigm for the sale of washing powder but had detrimental consequences for the unique mixture of commercial and public service broadcasting that ITV represented.

This was the end of the line for Thames as an ITV programme contractor but subsequently it did plenty more production work as an independent, continuing to supply ‘Wish You Were Here’ and ‘The Bill’ to ITV, ‘This Is You Life’ to the BBC, and the ‘Family Affairs’ soap to the last ‘new’ terrestrial channel, Five.

Thames no longer needed the Euston Road premises and focused on Teddington. In the mid 90’s Thames Television House was partly demolished to make way for a new public sector building project. Only the centre ground floor facade of Thames’ former reception area survived and was incorporated into the new building. The revolving doors that once admitted so many stars to the old reception area, now admit only civil servants to their new offices.

The building that for 25 years played a key part in making Thames’ skyline logo a herald of quality network programmes from London is now just a memory. One thing that will not be forgotten however is that Thames, as it once proudly told us, truly had a talent for television.

Categories: History

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