So began a frustrating and arduous year, building a new company whilst keeping alive a dying enterprise. ABC Television had to maintain its service on the air for another twelve months, with the Didsbury staff deeply concerned about their own personal futures, and the Teddington studios working overtime stockpiling programmes for the new company’s first year. Meanwhile Rediffusion was being run down whilst still producing programmes.
This brought incessant problems of morale and money. The ABC staff, trained in Manchester, were facing upheaval from their comfortable homes to start afresh in a ‘foreign’ city. Studio staffs had their loyalties split down the middle and were uncertain whether they would be working for LWT or for the new and unnamed company arising from the demise of ABC and Rediffusion.
ABC paid out half a million [£9 million now allowing for inflation] in redundancy settlements, and Rediffusion almost twice as much. There was also the question of pensions, and transfer of rights. Since Rediffusion’s pension funds had been invested with typical business acumen there were handsome benefits for those whose careers had developed with the growth of their company. Somehow we managed to keep ABC Television going and by the end of our last financial year (March 1968) we had a turnover of £11,753,000 [£203,000,000] and showed a trading profit of £2,159,000 [£37,350,000]. The parent Corporation could have no complaint about the return on its original investment.
When we came to giving the company its name I was resolutely opposed to any more initials. I had always envied the solidity and sturdiness of a single word like Granada or Rediffusion. I believe in descriptive titles for companies and products and I would have liked to include the magic word ‘London’ but already this belonged to London Weekend Television. (I had no regrets when they began to use the initials LWT for in the process they lost some of the impact of the word ‘London’.)
As well, I wanted a name that would lend itself to a graphic symbol. My first thought was Tower Television, combining the symbols of the old and the new, Tower Bridge and the General Post Office tower. In the end we settled for the name of Thames, influenced partly because our Teddington studios were alongside the river, near the ancient lock. It was also a name of international recognisability and our future expansion lay in world-wide sales. Above all, Thames was a romantic name, for many have come to London as I did, to stand on the bridges and gaze on the breath-taking skylines. My own favourite skyline was the rooftops of Whitehall, as seen from the bridge over the lake in Green Park, and it was this that led to the London skyline which became the symbol of Thames Television. We did take artistic liberties with our spires and somehow the Post Office tower popped up from behind St Paul’s Cathedral. The London Evening News calmly ‘lifted’ the skyline idea, turned it into a silhouette and used the result as their own symbol. We could hardly object, because London belongs to all of us who live and work there.
The signature music came to me when I saw a gypsy woman selling lavender in a Chelsea street. She was singing ‘Who’ll buy my sweet lavender?’ The street cries of London were the very first singing ‘commercials’. When the day came to launch Thames officially with a rather pompous opening ceremony at Mansion House, Lord Mayor and all, a pretty girl strolled into the gold-plated hall with a trayful of sprigs of lavender, singing ‘our song’. She happened to be a soprano from Sadler’s Wells, but the simple melody was a refreshing change from the customary fanfares. Some fortunate composer was commissioned to ‘orchestrate’ the tune, almost to the point of unrecognisability I regret to say, and it probably provided him with a pension for life.
But it was not all harmony in Television House when we began to move in to the former Rediffusion headquarters. I took a corner office in the building, from where I sighted Ivor Novello’s former roof-top flat, and Thames’ occupation began whilst the remaining staff of Rediffusion were still struggling loyally to complete the advertised programme schedule. Brian Tesler was already planning our new ‘mix’ for London weekdays. We decided on which ABC series to retain, and which of Rediffusion’s. Beyond that we planned new series like Frontier, a vigorous North West India episodic tale of war and love. For economy reasons this had to be filmed in the mountains of North Wales, which surprisingly were not all that different from the authentic Himalayas.
Rediffusion’s venerable current affairs programme This Week, was an inevitable choice, but we decided to drop the two quiz programmes which had overstayed their welcome and possibly had handicapped Rediffusion in their application, Take Your Pick and Double Your Money. We also decided to discontinue ATV’s Crossroads because of the poor quality of scripts and acting compared with Coronation Street. This turned out to be a mistake and the series had to be brought back by sheer public insistence. For this reason Crossroads episodes transmitted in the London area always languished six months behind the Birmingham sequences. Only years later were the episodes synchronised, with Noelle Gordon interpreting to the London audience in a special ‘what-happened-then’ edition the missing strands of the endless saga.
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.