A Thames Special
A personal account of what made Thames special
Just what exactly is it that makes Thames Television so special in the eyes of many people? Even those who don’t have a strong interest in the world of television can often still recall the famous Thames mirror ident despite it not being seen regularly in the UK for over 15 years. This ident has ‘survived’ long after it was dropped in the UK both in the minds of people and in terms of still being seen before programmes shown abroad; that in itself must signify something rather special.
Out of all of the ITV franchises that have existed, the names of Thames and Granada have proved to be the most enduring throughout the history of ITV, despite Thames only existing from 1968 onwards.
Whilst Granada still hangs on to its ITV franchise in the North West of England as well as acquiring all the other English ITV franchises (plus Wales) through a succession of takeovers and mergers, the reputation of Thames Television as an ITV franchise seems to have survived both the test of time and the arguably diminished status of its modern incarnation, Talkback Thames.
It is strongly arguable that given hindsight it was probably a good thing that Thames lost its franchise when it did, meaning that its reputation for good quality programming lived on intact without having to suffer the fate of a forced takeover/sell off or decline through neglect as a result of a lack of regulation. Thames was a product of a ‘shotgun marriage’ between the UK ABC and Rediffusion’s television production divisions, with their respective parent companies remaining separate from the newly created entity.
In theory this would create the ‘best of both worlds’ for the London weekday franchise, though ABC being the ‘dominant’ partner with a 51% share of Thames (compared with 49% for Rediffusion) got to make all the most important decisions during the early days of Thames’ operations, and inevitably picked the best bits from the Rediffusion division whilst discarding the rest as unwanted leftovers.
This created a fair deal of resentment amongst some staff and seemed rather harsh at the time, but the end result was a fearsomely talented powerhouse of an ITV franchise that continued the good work that ABC (and Rediffusion) had started and went on to perhaps eclipse both of these franchises in terms of public recognition. At the time of the 1968 franchise changes, the loss of ABC in particular (as well as Rediffusion) from the ITV network was probably almost as traumatic as the loss of Thames from the network in 1993, but whilst Carlton had an unproven track record, Thames by contrast at least had a previous track record as ABC and Rediffusion, although of course the loss of Rediffusion was to be compensated for in part by the introduction of Yorkshire Television.
Thames launched with a mixture of programming inherited from its ABC predecessor plus some new ideas of its own. Thames may have innovated but it wasn’t afraid to copy either, and this was especially apparent in the field of children’s programming: Once Upon A Time (produced in 1968) was a copy of the BBC’s Jackanory, and the famous Magpie series was a blatant copy of Blue Peter (the title alone illustrates the intent!) except of course it was ‘trendier’. Blue Peter was (wrongly) perceived by some as being solely for “middle-class mother’s boys” whilst Magpie was its hipper and socially aware equivalent. Of course, Blue Peter had the last laugh in terms of its longevity and enduring popularity.
Before the age of computer graphics, television producers had to be creative in order to produce the type of special effects that are sometimes required for a particular programme, therefore a much greater technical knowledge of the workings of television was required in order to produce the effects in the first place, and their production was often also labour-intensive.
Indeed Thames almost ‘cornered the market’ in terms of the use of special effects at one point, though other ITV franchises such as Granada had used chromakey effects (superimposing one image upon another one) plus ATV (and others) used similar effects in productions such as Sapphire and Steel.
Notable Thames productions that were produced during the 1970s and 80s featuring an extensive use of special effects included The Kenny Everett Video Show and The Benny Hill Show, as well as one-off special productions such as Quincy’s Quest. Thames was in many respects the cosmopolitan ‘city-dweller’ both in terms of its programming and its presentation, with the long-running and popular London skyline ident in particular illustrating the values that Thames stood for.
This however might have made it slightly unpopular with viewers who lived on the fringes of the coverage area; in particular the parts of Kent that were served by the Bluebell Hill UHF transmitter up to 1982 when it was belatedly reallocated to the new enhanced regional service supplied by newcomer TVS. (Southern’s VHF coverage from the Dover transmitter had also included the Bluebell Hill UHF coverage area.)
And of course there were more than a few ITV viewers who wished that they could have had Thames as their local ITV contractor instead of the one that they were ‘lumbered’ with, which was especially the case if you lived in the city and had no interest in yachting or farming (which seemed to be Southern Television’s speciality), though it’s also arguable that there was a touch of “the grass is greener the other side of the fence” about this rationale.
Going back to Southern, its general on-screen presentation was actually not bad at all, and it’s arguable that viewers of Southern Television weren’t missing that much since all the worthwhile Thames programming ended up being networked anyway. Southern’s successor, TVS, was an interesting case in itself since TVS decided that it wanted to be taken seriously as a producer of networked programmes, and for a brief period during the late 1980s onward it more or less met its objectives with programmes such as Catchphrase and the Brian Conley Show being shown peak time on the ITV network.
This period however coincided with perhaps one of the weakest points in the history of Thames (which was primarily caused by financial turmoil) and there was perhaps a degree of interaction between the two events that TVS took advantage of for its own gain, though of course TVS was to ultimately suffer the same fate as Thames (if for perhaps more understandable reasons).
But of course with Thames Television there was an unmistakable ‘glamour’ factor about its programmes, even though Thames was more than capable of providing gritty and down-to-earth offerings if the case demanded it; don’t forget that it was the controversial Death On The Rock that may have been partly responsible for Thames’ demise even if it wasn’t the sole reason for this happening.
The quality of Thames’ output went hand in hand with the showbiz glamour that London as a capital city usually signified, and it is arguable that this may have given Thames a slight edge over Granada when it came to overseas sales; indeed the Thames name was chosen with overseas markets in mind, since the old ABC name could easily be confused with both the unrelated US ABC network and the Australian ABC. (ABC was spelt out as “Associated British Corporation” at the end of The Avengers, for example, since that series was sold abroad.)
Ultimately it was only the BBC that could ever directly take on Thames in the comedy and light entertainment departments, and it’s also arguable that even ATV and Granada couldn’t entirely match the depth and breadth of Thames’ entire output throughout its existence; Granada may have been strong in some areas but its light entertainment output never reached the heights of the Morecambe and Wise Show and ATV’s current affairs programming was weaker by comparison.
Maybe if LWT also had another franchise it could have become a closer equivalent to Thames, though of course this is in the realms of speculation, but a hint as to this potential was obtained when TVS increased its networked programming towards the end of its franchise period courtesy of a deal with LWT. And it may be easy to scoff at some of the sitcoms that Thames came up with – two that spring to mind include Robin’s Nest and George and Mildred – but they were very well produced and probably better than anything that the ITV network has produced in terms of sitcoms since 1990.
By way of comparison, the only ITV sitcom to have even been considered to be of any worth during the last fifteen years is probably Holding the Baby (starring Nick Hancock and later on Hugh Bonneville).
Unfortunately, all good things inevitably come to an end, and the demise of Thames at the start of 1993 seemed to leave a large hole in the epicentre of the ITV network that Carlton had no hope of filling even with the best of intentions; there was just too much in the way of established production heritage embedded within Thames as a broadcaster, and Carlton would have had to devoted an insane quantity of resources in both money and manpower in order to even come close to matching this.
On top of this there seemed to be a degree of apathy in Carlton’s networked output that was present for the first five or so years that didn’t help either. So is it possible to legitimately claim that Thames Television was the best ITV franchise in the history of the universe? The answer to that highly contentious question is probably “Yes”; other ITV franchises may have survived longer (Granada) or produced long running light entertainment spectaculars (ATV) but ATV’s serious output didn’t match that of Thames or Granada – ATV never produced anything current affairs-related on a regular basis that was a match for This Week or World in Action.
And Granada may have been reasonably strong in light entertainment but it never produced anything of the calibre of The Morecambe and Wise Show. Indeed the only genre that Thames didn’t quite succeed in making its own was that of the soap opera; Granada had Coronation Street, Yorkshire had Emmerdale Farm and ATV produced Crossroads, although ironically The Bill was effectively transformed into a soap years after Thames lost its franchise.
And others may have arguably matched Thames in the quality of presentation, but often fell down in other areas such as programme quality; Thames may have made some ‘bad’ programming from time to time but even the mediocre was often more watchable than the majority of today’s schedule filler material.
We will probably never see another UK commercial TV company that will ever be as widely respected or as competent as Thames Television was, and UK television as a whole has become poorer as a result after the demise of Thames; the critics’ reports of early Carlton programming really hammered home the message about the resulting loss of quality, and despite the resilience of the ITV network as a whole, this and the subsequent decline in standards caused by a weakening regulatory framework meant the beginning of the end for quality television which just happens to be funded by commercials, as opposed to just being a slave to advertisers and shareholders’ demands.
About the author
David Hastongs runs the Historical Television Website and is a senior editor at Transdiffusion