The smallness of Thames compared with the BBC gave us the chance to work interdepartmentally and to spark off ideas and suggestions. One of the first outcomes of this cross-fertilisation was when the Controller of Current Affairs, Jeremy Isaacs, suggested to Philip Jones, Controller of Light Entertainment, the comedy possibilities of a black family living next to a white family, from which sprang Love Thy Neighbour. The controller of children’s programmes was able to collar stars like Edward Woodward for appearances in children’s programmes which were being recorded in adjoining studios at Teddington.
My other objective was of course to break down those barriers created by any merger when it brings together executives from rival companies of totally different philosophies. This was only the beginning of a long and tortuous process, for the loyalties of Rediffusion staff were deep and it took several years to overcome their natural resentment of ABC control being forced upon them. I knew that total integration of the two companies could only be attained by joint achievements, when everyone would be proud to work under the banner of the new company, Thames. Therefore this was a further inducement (if any were needed) for Thames to emerge as the leader in current affairs and informational programmes, in addition to its acknowledged strength in entertainment and drama.
The highspot, I decided, would be The Life and Times of Lord Mountbatten which had been a Rediffusion creation. Once having decided to play this as a trump card and break away from the ITV network practice of putting on documentary series at off-peak time I tried to induce ATV, Granada and Yorkshire to follow Thames’ lead and run the series at 9 p.m. This proposal was gently supported by the Authority (although not made a ‘requirement’) but it was not found acceptable, and others slotted the programmes for 10.30 p.m. directly after News at Ten, athough eventually one or two of the regions did follow our lead.
In a despairing effort to coax the two most powerful executives, Cedi Bernstein and Lew Grade, into nine o’clock networking with us I harnessed the driving force of the dauntless Lord Mountbatten. During one of the social events we cornered Lew and Cecil, and Lord Mountbatten went straight into the attack. Lew was immovable: ‘Howard must be mad, putting on your programme against the BBC at nine! That’s when the BBC put on all those sexy plays with bad language. You’ll get slaughtered. Now when I put on the programmes, after the news at 10.30, there’ll be no opposition.’ (No opposition, I thought, only football matches and feature films.) Lord Mountbatten did not withdraw from his attack until Lew Grade told him: ‘I guarantee, Lord Mountbatten, that ATV will get better ratings than Thames. In fact, I’m so sure I’ll bet on it. If Thames get higher ratings than ATV I’ll pay you five hundred pounds.’ In fact, Thames did achieve higher ratings at 9 p.m. than ATV at 10.30 p.m. and I reminded Lew Grade of this bet. ‘I know, I’ve already sent Mountbatten my cheque.’ He lit a new cigar and added ‘Cheap at the price, wasn’t it?’
Thus when Thames next offered a series of equal importance – The World at War – the companies all agreed to follow our lead and network this at 9 p.m. The programmes were rarely out of the top ten. For once, we did bring out the brass band to launch The Life and Times of Lord Mountbatten with a flourish of trumpets and drums, for this series clearly had the stamp of success. We decided to have three ‘premieres’ at the Imperial War Museum, which had been such a valuable source of material for us. The first showing was for Lord Mountbatten’s military colleagues, the other for the Queen and her family, and the third for the press. The premiere for Her Majesty was probably more royal than any previous occasion, attracting the entire royal family with the exception of the Duke of Gloucester who was ill.
I found with Lord Mountbatten that in spite of his forceful personality he was susceptible to reasoned resistance, and there were several occasions when he gave in to determined argument. Our opinions differed about the values of various episodes depicting his career. For the press screening he wanted to show the episode he had selected for the Queen, his magnificent days in India. I agreed that nothing could be better for the Royal screening but it was not the right episode for the press. I wanted the second of the series, The Kings Depart, which told the story of his marriage to Edwina Ashley and their honeymoon in Hollywood, where they had made a picture which was preserved in his astonishing collection of Mountbatten films. The honeymooners had stayed at the home of Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford and taken part in a film Nice and Friendly, with Charlie Chaplin and the ‘Kid’, Jackie Coogan. It was funny and touching and was inevitably a hit with the newspaper men. Lord Mountbatten agreed afterwards that it was the correct decision. Our sales organisation went on to distribute the series on behalf of his Trust throughout the world.
For the first time we were able to break into French television. Only Mountbatten could have gone direct to De Gaulle to have the series shown in France. He then proceeded to re-record the commentaries in French, and indefatigably went through the same process to record a German version when German television also took the programmes. Our only failure was in the United States, where in spite of all the pressures and efforts the networks once again refused to find time for a series of British documentaries. Lord Mountbatten had Henry Ford as his house guest at Broadlands, for what I anticipated would be the most expensive outing of Mr Ford’s life, to sponsor the series in America. Although Mr Ford was willing, the American network concerned would not accept the programmes because they thought it would be disadvantageous to their ratings.
This series helped to consolidate the network, as well as Thames. Weekdays were now firmly established, partly because of the variable performance of the week-end schedules. The unpredictability and unreliability of Friday evening and week-end programmes disturbed the advertisers, who always wanted to be sure that their commercials would reach a known and countable audience. This could be guaranteed only on weekday television.
Thames could now claim leadership of the network, for the most effective programmes were concentrated from Monday to Thursday, based on Thames’ formula of the best of ABC and Rediffusion, plus new programmes, reinforced by the cream of the output of the three major regional companies. All this we celebrated at our first staff dance in January 1969, symbolising the union of the two companies. We had to take the huge Lyceum ballroom in the Strand to accommodate the staff of 1,600 plus their wives, husbands and friends, jubilant and secure after two years of doubts and hazards. All this gave me some satisfaction – not least that after twelve years of journeying from London to Manchester and Birmingham it was a joy to have my travels limited to Teddington.
Thames had moved into its new building on the Euston Road, which had been designed for the next phase of television, and we went forward with confidence into the world of colour. Now we set ourselves new sights with large-scale programmes which would take two or three years to mature.
Yet all was not well in the pastures of Golden Square. For years there had been trepidation about the inevitable sale of Warner Brothers’ share interest in ABPC; with Jack Warner’s advancing years speculation and rumour had opened up all sorts of possibilities. Then came a stranger at the door. At the end of January 1968 Electric & Musical Industries Ltd, had informed the Associated British Picture Corporation that they had agreed to purchase from Warner Brothers four million Ordinary Stock Units and thus acquired twenty-five per cent of the issued Ordinary Capital of the Corporation. Sir Philip Warter announced that the two companies had agreed to co-operate in the ‘full development of their combined resources in the field of entertainment at home and overseas. To this end the Board of the Corporation has invited EMI to nominate two directors for the Board of the Corporation.’ The two directors were John Read and Bernard Delfont.
Now the solid Associated British Picture Corporation began to feel the tremors of changes ahead. But Thames Television was consolidating its position in the television industry.
About the author
Howard Thomas (1909-1986) was an advertising copyrighter, a producer at the BBC, the head of Pathé and the founding Managing Director of ABC Weekend TV and its successor Thames Television.