The ITV Story

From the TVTimes for 25 September – 1 October 1965

THE small group of top executives sat numb and horrified. With only 24 hours to go before Independent Television opened on the night of September 22, 1955, they faced disaster.

At Television House, Kingsway and in the studios at Wembley where they crouched behind the computer-like machines which control the transmission of programmes, they stared white-faced at the monitor screens in front of them.

All were — catastrophically — blank. The final run-through before ITV went on the air had failed.

This was the situation: Five Outside Broadcast cameras had been set up in London to transmit the opening night’s programme.

Early in the afternoon of September 21, the two men in charge of the master control units — Cyril Francis at Wembley and Neil Bramson in Television House — took their seats at their “space-age” desks.

The Lord Mayor of London is speaking at the Guildhall. On his left is Sir Kenneth Clark

They exchanged light hearted banter with the assistants and technicians around them which did nothing to relieve the underlying tension.

At approximately 3 p.m. they started the procedure for bringing all the OB points under their control.

“Cue Wood Green!”

Dutifully sound and vision ‘mixers’ threw their switches. On the bank of monitor screens, a picture from the Wood Green Empire should have come in loud and clear. Instead, nothing!

“Cue Shoreditch!”

Still nothing! Phone calls, frantic messages flashed out. Nobody could find out what was wrong. Then, after two hours of tense, sweating anxiety and frustration, the Programme Controller called off the rehearsal. “Not to worry, we’ll try again later.” At 6 p.m. they tried again. Once more Francis and Bramson sat tense and sweating in front of their monitor screens. Behind them, chiefs of the new service smoked incessantly and made little jokes and remarks.

“How are things going?” asked one of the top brass. “Ruddy awful!” replied Francis.

For a second it looked as if the earlier disaster was about to be repeated. Sound and vision had come in loud and clear from four OB points but the fifth still showed blank. Panic! But a swift phone call and suddenly the screen came alive.

Twenty-four hours before the new service was due to open, secretaries and technicians acted as ‘stand-ins’ for the distinguished people and well-known artists who would be seen the following evening.

On the big night, nerves were stretched as the 7.15 deadline neared. At 6.55 p.m. Cyril Francis took a deep breath, glanced round his tiny control room filled with anxious, straining faces, and checked his monitor screens. In Television House, 10 miles away, Bramson followed the same procedure.

Relief! — the pictures came through beautifully clear. Sound, too, was OK. Everybody kept their fingers crossed hoping that the gremlins had been locked out of the works. The Control Engineer felt a sense of marvellous relief. Then suddenly he stiffened. With less than five minutes to go, a monitor screen went blank!

With a feeling of panic, the Control Engineer lifted a phone and rang the G.P.O.’s Museum Exchange, through which all the TV lines are fed to the transmitters. “Has anybody touched anything?” he yelled.

A confused scramble at the other end, then a voice said: “We just pulled out a plug to check that it was OK.”

“Well, put the ruddy thing back at once!” yelled the irate Control Engineer. The blank screen flashed to life.

The first thing seen by viewers, watching 600,000 converted sets in the London area and waiting tensely for the big switch-on, was a black cross on a white ground, accompanied by a high pitched scream. For a moment many must have thought things had gone wrong.

Leslie Mitchell spoke the first words on ITV

Then the legend “Opening Night Independent Television Service Channel 9” flashed on the screen and the voice of Leslie Mitchell, the veteran broadcaster, declared: “This is London!”

A brief snatch of film, with the commentator saying: “Wish us Godspeed. Over to Guildhall. Take it away, master control!” And suddenly viewers were with the 450 distinguished guests — who included the Postmaster General, Dr. Charles (now Lord) Hill, now chairman of the ITA, Sir Kenneth Clark, then ITA chairman, and the Director-General, Sir Robert Fraser — listening to the Hallé Orchestra at ITV’s inaugural banquet in the historic Guildhall. Independent Television was born!

It was 8.13 p.m. before viewers saw what they had been waiting for — the little items that were entirely new to British audiences. The commercials.

The first commercial in British history was for Gibbs SR and showed a toothbrush and a block of ice. The second was for Cadbury’s drinking chocolate, and the third for Summer County margarine.

Tingling fresh! The first commercial on ITV

Altogether viewers saw 24 advertising ’spots’ during the evening and found them fascinating. Within a week, people all over London were whistling TV jingles instead of the latest popular tune.

A variety show, starring Harry Secombe and Hughie Green among others; drama excerpts introduced by Robert Morley; a professional boxing match; a visit to the gala opening night with cabaret at the May Fair Hotel; the news (read by champion runner Chris Chataway) and ITV closed down its first night’s programmes.

The Press next day was kind if not over-enthusiastic. But on one thing they were all agreed — all the prophecies and warnings that it would take two years at least to mount a new television service had been wrong. It had been done successfully in ten months and technically everything had been perfect.

Mishap for the Hallé – trapped on their rostrum (background) in the hall

Yet although everything appeared to go off without a hitch, there were at least four ‘mishaps’ during the evening. Viewers saw two of them but missed the other two.

The first one they didn’t see took place in the Guildhall. The Hallé Orchestra, having finished Elgar’s ’Cockaigne’ suite, rose from their seats and attempted to leave the rostrum only to find that they were trapped.

So hemmed in were they by tables, guests and TV equipment that they had to sit where they were until the banquet and the speeches had finished.

The second took place in the offices and studio of ITN. Minutes before the news at 10 p.m., Chris Chataway snatched up the prepared bulletin and raced out to the lift that would take him up seven floors to the ITN studio on top of TV House. He found the lift jammed!

“It was a terrible moment,” says Chataway today. “We were all in a desperate state of anxiety and excitement — and then this. Fortunately my limbs were still in a sound state in those days and I raced up the stairs two at a time, followed by the whole production staff, puffing and blowing for all they were worth.”

Another hitch — which viewers actually did see — also involved Chataway. He had begun his first newscast and everything was going fine when he found that the teleprompter on which his script was revolving was going too slowly. It was being operated by a secretary who could control its speed with a gentle pressure of her foot.

Chataway began slowing down to keep pace with the machine — only to find to his horror that the slower he went, the slower the teleprompter revolved!

Finally, in desperation, he risked glancing away from the camera to look round at the girl who was standing a little behind him and out of vision. She realised her mistake immediately and at once speeded up.

But next day a critic wrote: “Mr. Chataway did fine except for one moment when he glanced over his shoulder, apparently to see where the rest of the field were.”

The second hitch which viewers saw was certainly far more hilarious. At the end of each round of the professional boxing match from Shoreditch, there was a break for commercials.

At the end of one round, the director cut away from the ringside to show a half-minute of advertising.

The last of these ‘spots’ was for a well-known beer. Viewers saw the bottle of beer, watched it being poured into a glass and finally saw a man drinking it with obvious satisfaction. Just at that moment the director cut back to the boxing. The boxer, on whom the camera focused, having rinsed out his mouth, spat the water into a bucket. The impression given was that he was spitting out the beer!

The ITV Story

From the TVTimes for 9-15 October 1965

HE was large, fat and jolly. He shook with laughter as he stood beside the microphone. Then quizmaster Hughie Green asked him: “What’s your job?” “You’ll never believe me,” said the fat man.

“Go on,” said Hughie Green. “I’m a morgue attendant,” said the fat man and roared with laughter. The audience couldn’t help itself and roared too.

Then there was the girl who when asked: “Are you married?” answered “No — I live at home with two sisters and a b— of a brother.” “A piece,” says Hughie Green, “that ended up on the cutting room floor.”

The same girl, asked what questions she wanted to take, replied: “On cooking.”

“Well,” asked Hughie, “what kind of sauce do you put on the following meats — chicken?” “Mint sauce,” she replied “No, I’m sorry that’s wrong,” said Hughie. “What about pork chops?”

“Mint sauce,” she said.

“But you don’t put mint sauce on pork chops,” protested Hughie.

“Well, we do on our b— pork chops,” she said.

Ten years ago and Hughie Green and assistant Vic Hallam set the mood for Double Your Money in the warm-up before the show

It was the summer of 1955 and Hughie Green was telerecording the first of his famous Double Your Money quiz shows—one of the longest running shows on television.

The search for programmes by the new Independent Television companies was well under way four months before the service opened on September 22, 1955.

It was towards the end of May that an Associated-Rediffusion talent scout called at the Baker Street studios in London where Hughie Green was recording the radio version of his show for Radio Luxembourg.

“Would you like to try it for TV?” asked the talent scout.

“Would I?” said Hughie. “The answer’s ‘yes’.”

“I realised,” he says today, “what wonderful opportunities ITV was opening up for everybody in the entertainment and allied fields and I knew I’d have to be in it. We telerecorded a show and in less than a month Associated-Rediffusion had made up their minds to buy it.

“It was pretty tough doing them in those early days. Sometimes we were stuck for an audience. I remember one night only a handful of people turned up for some reason or other. So, even though we had makeup on our faces, all of us, including myself, went out into the streets and knocked on people’s doors and asked them if they would like to take part in a TV show. And that way we got a very good mob.

“Telerecording was fairly primitive in those days. The cameras could only shoot 10 minutes or so of the show at a time. You’d have got everybody warmed up and somebody would be about to say something funny, or somebody’s trousers would be about to fall off, when the cameraman would call out: ’The film’s run out.’

“So you’d swear at him, hate him and shout how you loathed the system and so on — and wait until he had re-loaded.”

Elsewhere, staff training was carried out at a furious pace.

Ex-BBC men like Stephen MacCormack and Barry Baker, men who had just started in television like ex-navy man Commander Robert Everett, were flown to New York to study how American commercial TV dealt with the tricky technical job of timing programmes and commercials.

At the small Viking Studios off Kensington High Street, two training courses with cameras and equipment were run for all the programme staff.

Directors, secretaries, sound mixers, vision mixers, lighting experts, cameramen — all listened to lectures and then tried out in practice what they had been taught. Alongside them, auditions for announcers, “personalities,” actors and actresses, were conducted on closed circuit television.

“I had to audition the announcers,” says Leslie Mitchell. “Anybody and everybody thought they could do it. Some were very nearly right: some were terrible. I think I must have auditioned about 300 people altogether — but it seemed like 3,000.”

Chris Chataway interviewed the Deputy Governor of Cyprus, Mr. John Sinclair, in October 1955, as one of his first jobs for ITV

In ITN, Chris Chataway and Robin Day stumblingly learned to read news bulletins. “My most vivid memory,” says Chataway, “is of this wooden board which was put up to simulate a TV camera, into which we solemnly delivered these news bulletins. We would crane forward and talk into this wooden framework while everybody stood around and watched.

“Then we were taught how to conduct an interview. People forgot that the standard BBC interview in those days consisted of a reporter almost on his knees at the bottom of airport steps, saying: “How do you view the current situation, sir?” and taking the answer without once interrupting.

“I remember when the editor told me to interview Field Marshal Harding. ‘What will you say to him?’ he asked me.

“I thought I’d ask ‘how do you think things are developing in Cyprus, sir?’ ‘Whatever you ask him,’ said the editor, ‘don’t say: sir’.”

By this time Television House had become known affectionately as “The Hellpit.” Pneumatic drills chattered all day long. Carpenters and bricklayers worked alongside producers and directors. There were hazards and mysterious happenings.

“I had a desk at a window overlooking the well of Television House,” says drama director Cyril Coke. “One day I lifted my telephone to make a call. But the phone had gone dead. I rattled it once or twice but it stayed dead. So I crossed the office to another desk and began to dial from the extension there.

Suddenly, an enormous piece of steel girder came crashing down from the top of the building. It bounced off some projections, shot through the window on to the desk which I had just left.

“If I’d still been sitting there, almost certainly I’d have been killed. But the really extraordinary thing was when the phone people checked my extension, there was nothing wrong with it — it ought to have worked perfectly!”

The chaos and difficulties of working in Television House in those days is described by Eric Linden, features editor of TVTimes who remembers: “I used to go along there from the offices of TVTimes, then in Gough Square, to find out who people were and where they were. I remember checking with security man Glyn Davies to try to put names to people but he was just as baffled as anybody.

“It was quite easy in those days for anybody to walk in and out the place, in fact, one day he discovered two men occupying an office in Television House and using the phones to carry on a business. Neither had the slightest right to be there — they were just two strangers who had availed themselves of the conditions.”