Television fans and historians Greg Halpin, Lee Bannister, Mark Bridgewater, Peter Raven, Stephen Thwaites and Peter Thomas, who collectively make up the ATVLand.net team, produced this DVD tribute to the Birmingham based ITV franchise in collaboration with ITV Studios Ltd and The Media Archive for Central England (MACE), the screen archive for the Midlands in the UK that holds a searchable 70,000 strong collection of film, tape and digital material. The DVD runs for five hours across two discs and tells the story, chronologically, of how the ATV Centre was built and operated with a focus on local programmes rather than the bigger budget television being made by its sister studio ATV Elstree and Lew Grade's international television arm, ITC.
'Auntie Jean' Morton introduces 'Uncle' Cliff Richard by rubbing a boomerangPart 1, An Exciting New Facility, explores the origins of ATV through a mix of new video interviews with former employees, producers, actors and presenters and colour and black and white archive footage. Narrator Lee Bannister, holding all five hours of the retrospective together with a very personable and detailed commentary, begins with ATV's arrival, as one of the first ITV franchises to get on air in September 1955, providing both the London weekend service and the Monday–Friday contract for the Midlands. The Midlands service commenced on 17th February 1956 and introduced viewers to that now iconic 'double eye' symbol.
Technical services and production was shared in Aston between ATV and ABC and, as Shaw Taylor, director Peter Harris and producer Barbara Bradbury explain, there were difficulties sharing facilities and crew, including the inequalities of bonus payments. Live broadcasting was the norm and everything went out from a converted cinema in Aston Cross. "It was quite an odd place," recalls Crossroads actor Jane Rossington, combining both an office block and the converted cinema with producer Harris remarking on Lew Grade's penny pinching by piggy backing onto the telephone lines coming into the post office next door.
The Aston studios were responsible for Lunchbox with Noele Gordon, quiz shows Tell the Truth, Dotto and Pencil and Paper (all with Shaw Taylor) and, for those of you of a certain age, the children's show featuring two koala bears, Tingha and Tucker (there's a lovely clip of this as the presenter 'Auntie Jean' Morton introduces 'Uncle' Cliff Richard by rubbing a boomerang... ahem).
Of course, soap opera Crossroads was its most high profile programme at the time and the early episodes were all made at Aston from November 1964. Rossington provides plenty of anecdotes about the early days of the serial, including an honest admission that the sets would shake if you leaned against them and pointing out the extra time required in lighting for monochrome cameras and the on-the-hoof editing requirements of live television.
Appropriately, Part 1 also initiates a look at the production of local news that is then refreshed and developed throughout the five parts of the documentary. Presenter of ATV Today Reg Harcourt explains how local news gathering was achieved in the early days of television and that he often made frantic dashes through rush hour traffic to get filmed reports back to ATV Aston to go on air by 6pm. ATV Today provided a then innovative magazine format with a news bulletin at the top of the programme and with Harcourt covering crime and, later, politics.
By 1966 the advent of colour and the 625-line PAL system also meant that studios would have to be re-equipped and the regional transmitters upgraded. In 1967 the new broadcasting licences were awarded with regulations stipulating that the Midlands broadcasting area would become a single contract. This led to the reorganisation of ATV, losing its weekend share of the London region to London Weekend and Thames, but then being awarded the full week's contract for the Midlands. These changes also instigated the planning and construction of ATV Centre, a purpose built, state of the art television facility on Broad Street, bringing all the disparate parts of ATV production spread across Birmingham under one roof. As Jane Rossington points out the Aston studios were also showing their age with the sound of water dripping from the roof and into buckets causing the production of Crossroads some amusing disruptions.
"The bar! The bar! The ATV bar. I spent my life in there"There's a fascinating dip into the past, using lots of archive footage, as the documentary takes time out to look at the proposed site of ATV Centre and the area's former role as an industrial and entertainment hub. It also goes into great detail about the specifications of the new centre, showing how the complex was planned and equipped. However, that probably didn't include the rodent problem as, according to Peter Harris and Barbara Bradbury, it was infested with rats from the nearby canals when it first opened.
The first 625-line transmissions from the Centre were continuity announcements in July 1969 and by November 1969 colour transmissions began from Studio 3 with ATV Today. Studio 1, the biggest of the production areas, went on to become the home of shows like Crossroads, The Golden Shot, New Faces and Bullseye. An interesting view again comes from Jane Rossington who saw the canteen at ATV as a brilliant way to do business: "the wonderful thing there was a feeling that if you had a brilliant idea for a show, you'd be sitting next to somebody who could probably make that happen. Almost within a day you could go from having this brilliant idea to it starting to happen." The canteen was also complimented by a bar. "The bar! The bar! God, heaven. The ATV bar. I spent my life in there," admits Tiswas presenter and producer Chris Tarrant who goes on to explain that many of the Tiswas scripts were cobbled together, much the worse for drink, on a Friday night spent in the bar.
There's a great promotional film at the end of Part 1 'Announcing the new ATV colour area' with news footage of the 'ATV Colour' girls, a be-sashed group of ladies sent out to local events to promote the service, and a very enthusiastic listing of the areas covered by the new Oxford transmitter. The new Centre officially opened on 19th March 1970 in the presence of Princess Alexandra and various ATV and Birmingham Council bigwigs. Some of the footage from the opening, the dinner and her visit to the set of Crossroads is present.
Parts 2 and 3, The Dawn of Colour and The Colour Hey Day take up the story and show how colour programmes were produced at the new Centre. In much the same vein, using new interviews on video interspersed with rare colour and black and white archive footage, the documentary specifically looks at the development of Crossroads, for example. Here, Jane Rossington introduces the main cast, including Noele Gordon ('Nolly') and Roger Tonge, and the original premise of two feuding sisters as well as a brief breakdown of the adrenaline charged working day at the new studios. She recalls having to improvise a scene with her fellow actors Sue Hanson and Zeph Gladstone when one episode was under running. This entailed them all ad-libbing like mad while trying on wigs for nearly two minutes in Vera Downend's hair dressing salon at the motel.
There's also some ATV Today news footage of Noele telling the viewers how thrilled she was to win the ITV Personality of the Year Award in 1972 and footage from 1975 of the wedding that featured her character, Meg, and actor John Bentley playing Hugh Mortimer. Peter Harris and Chris Tarrant also share some very amusing stories about actor Ann George, who played the legendary Amy Turtle. Tarrant refers to her as "the queen of Birmingham", continually mobbed in the streets, and goes on to discuss a scene featuring Amy, Meg and a hoover that will have you chuckling away. Also look out for Noele chatting about the programme's anti-smoking campaign. Think Acorn Antiques's soap diva Bo Beaumont (aka Mrs Overall) and you'll see where Victoria Wood got her inspiration from.
Part 3 covers, with copious amounts of footage from ATV Today, the public reaction to Paul Henry's Benny character, the death of Roger Tonge, the fire that destroys the motel and the eventual sacking of Noele Gordon. There's a great clip featuring 'Nolly' from current affairs show Format V to which I'll return to later and footage of the protest at her sacking by novice reporter Bill Buckley (later of That's Life) and his 'Meg Is Magic' musical tribute outside the doors of ATV. Sadly, it wasn't quite magic enough to bring her back.
"keep 'em peeled"Presenters Bob Warman and Wendy Nelson introduce an extended look at all the productions coming out of the Centre, now buzzing with activity, and its commitment to providing a local service to the Midlands. ATV Today, commencing at the Aston studios in 1964, was seen as a flagship local news programme, connecting ATV to local community interest stories. Part 2, with input from Reg Harcourt and Bob Warman, covers the development of ATV Today, from using one sound film camera to cover the whole of the Midlands with an office run by 3 people to the establishing of a hive of news coverage run by a crew of 30 reporters and staff, including future New Faces presenter Derek Hobson, Gwyn Richards, Sue Jay, Anne Diamond and the aforementioned Chris Tarrant.
Tarrant was shifted onto the more lighter items, or "the upside down beer drinkers" as he refers to them. He amusingly remembers "the bloke who shared his house with a Shetland pony" and another "who went to bed with a pigeon on his head." Following on in this style there's the legendary reporter John Swallow and I'm sure his item on an entire family's addiction to Planet of the Apes will certainly crack a smile. Mother of said family describes them as "little monkeys" as we see them walking down the streets in an early example of cos-play gone terribly wrong.
There's more of Swallow too when he later brings us the vicar who specialises in sound effects, not only producing from the pulpit the sounds of a train pulling into a station but also a motorbike. Swallow is, much to his own bemusement, asked by the vicar to "hold tight" as he sits behind him for the imaginary bike ride.
Warman reminds us that they covered all the big stories too - the Birmingham pub bombings, the disappearance of John Stonehouse, the Lesley Whittle kidnapping and the strikes out at Longbridge - and reflected the changing times with two presenters, one male and one female, on the programme. Wendy Nelson also takes some time to reflect that even though the programme was put together in a mad scramble, it was a highly regarded and award winning one. Another celebrated programme from ATV was Police 5 with Shaw Taylor. From its origins as a five minute filler in ATV's London schedules in 1962, only intended to run six weeks, it transferred to the Midlands and developed into a programme that the police saw as a valuable way of reaching out to witnesses of crimes and ran for 30 years, even spinning off into a children's version, Junior Police 5. Taylor is a delightful interviewee and recalls various cases that the programme solved, with Taylor even sending a thief a signed photograph after he'd been caught via Police 5, and the origin of his famous catchphrase, "keep 'em peeled."
The next programme that Parts 2 and 3 focus on is Tiswas, devised in 1973 by announcer Peter Tomlinson as a filler between programmes on Saturday mornings, which would develop into a full length programme helmed by Chris Tarrant and John Asher, later joined by Saturday Scene's Sally James when Asher left, and featuring Trevor East, Peter Tomlinson, Bob Carolgees, Lenny Henry and John Gorman amongst others. Tarrant would eventually become its producer by the sixth series. As original producer Peter Harris notes, it started out with a budget of £300 per show, sharing the same studios as ATV Today, and provided a slot for bought in cartoons and serials. Again, the documentary provides lots of anecdotes from Tarrant, Tomlinson, Harris and Carolgees on how the series progressed, the beg, borrow or steal manner of production, accusations of the programme setting a bad example to kids with its custard pie throwing and hurling of water mayhem, and how it gradually became a networked programme and triumphantly returned after the ITV strike of 1979.
Tarrant also recalls his narration duties, often double entendre in style, on a documentary series called Stop Look Listen, produced as part of ATV's commitment to programmes for schools and colleges which also included Good Health, Alive and Kicking and Over to You. ATV's regional output also included Farming Today (a clip features a vibrating cultivator), the networked Angling Today, political programme Left, Right and Centre and Gardening Today with Bob Price and the fruity voiced Cyril Fletcher. As Warman notes, the lack of such regional programming today reduces the opportunities for reporters to gather experience in other areas of interest. Part 3 also focuses briefly on Format V, a current affairs programme that devoted more time to subject matters that ATV Today couldn't give space to, and Miss ATV, a regional variation of the Miss World beauty contest which Warman attempts to defend against today's political correctness. One edition of Format V, called 'Nolly', features Noele Gordon talking to Wendy Jones, defending Crossroads against... shock... horror... unprofessional standards. "It's a terrifying business to be in Crossroads," she unwittingly admits. Probably something Paul Henry and Jane Rossington would still agree with, presumably.
Part 3 also takes some time to discuss the relationship with ATV Elstree and the feeling that the Birmingham centre was "second best" to the studio handling glossy, all film action series, amusingly highlights the artistes rates at the adjoining Holiday Inn enjoyed by those working at ATV (Tarrant tells an hilarious story about Frank Carson sharing his hotel room with The Bachelors and Jim Bowen recalls Stevie Wonder's surreal appearance in the hotel bar), and the various union disputes that affected production and transmisison of programmes. This includes the strike by EETPU (Electrical, Electronic, Telecommunications and Plumbing Union who handled electronics in the studios), NATTKE (National Association of Theatrical, Television and Kine Employees) and the ACTT (Association of Cinematograph Television and Allied Technicians) that kept ITV screens dark for eleven weeks in 1979. The roots of this dispute lay in the demarcation of roles between technical staff and on-screen talent as Reg Harcourt, Bob Warman and Diana Mather recall.
As Part 3 concludes, the fortunes of Noele Gordon and Crossroads are also connected with the IBA review of the ITV broadcasting licences at the end of 1980, for contracts beginning on 1st January 1982. The programme was often regarded by the IBA itself as substandard and some would argue that the shake up at Crossroads was an attempt to try and raise its production values in light of the renewal of the franchise contracts. ATV was successful but the IBA ordered then to reorganise their facilities, including ATV Elstree, so that they would concentrate them more within the region. As part of this process, they were told to rename themselves. The newly-named Central Independent Television took over from ATV on 1st January 1982.
"a Betamax recorder and an iron wi' no plug on it"
With the parent company Associated Communications Corporation having to divest nearly 50% of its share holdings, the new ethos extended to the renaming of ATV Centre to Central House and the new owners of the company commencing construction on new studio facilities at Lenton Lane in Nottingham. After it opened, large scale television production gradually shifted to this new studio and away from Broad Street. Lenton Lane was initially beset with problems when its production of an East Midlands news programme was halted for a time by industrial action. This stemmed from disgruntled ex-ATV Elstree employees registering their unhappiness about their enforced relocation to Nottingham.
While the larger television productions did eventually gravitate towards Nottingham in the late 1980s and early 1990s, Central did reorganise much of the original ATV Centre on Broad Street and invested in new equipment and control rooms, lighter cameras and 1 inch tape machines as was standard for the time. Both Bob Warman and Wendy Nelson reflect on how news gathering changed as digital services arrived and Nelson's role shifted from reporter to editor. This eventually led to the company's new owners, Carlton, one of the winners in the 1991 ITV franchise round, building a state of the art digital news gathering centre on Gas Street, Birmingham, and from which the region's news, of both the Midland's West and East areas of the franchise, would be transmitted.
The final episodes of the documentary trace these developments through the changes in the way many programmes were commissioned and made. These changes not only affected how the news was produced for the region but were also reflected in programmes like Bullseye, itself eventually transferring from Broad Street to the Lenton Lane facility. Host Jim Bowen regales us with some hilarious stories about how he got the compere's job (apparently by default when Norman Vaughan was rejected), of contestants passing out, Bullseye's infamous prizes ("a Betamax recorder and an iron wi' no plug on it") and having to magnetise the 'bendy Bully' giveaway to prevent it from falling over.
The eventual demise of Tiswas in 1982 is featured and interviews with Chris Tarrant and incoming presenter Gordon Astley suggest that perhaps the final series was one series too far. When Tarrant moved on from Tiswas he went on to the production of Saturday night adult show O.T.T. He still believes it had its good points but it was cancelled when the Central management deemed it politically wise to capitulate to complaints about the show. According to Wendy Nelson this originated from the chairman's wife who disapproved of the nudity in the show.
Part 5 also covers the slow death of Crossroads which, according to Jane Rossington, Central chairman Leslie Hill later regretted. Rossington believes that Central really didn't like the programme but couldn't get rid of it because it brought in money, presumably through advertising, that the new company wouldn't be able to survive without. She covers the retirement of producer Jack Barton, the various shake-ups by producer Phillip Bowman in 1985, his replacement by William Smethurst and the programme's metamorphosis into Crossroads Kings Oak.
On a positive note the documentary notes the increased commitment to news, to computer themed children's programmes like Magic Micro Mission and Broad Street's role in Children's ITV, with presenters providing live links to regional programmes across the ITV network. It aso looks at documentary programming offering perspectives on Midlands heritage and Asian and Rastafarian culture such as England, Their England, Here and Now and Contrasts. There is also some substantial coverage of the production of Spitting Image with interviewees Peter Harris and Barbara Bradbury and they tell of last minute panics when management thought they might have to veto sketches featuring the Royals when the Duke of Edinburgh was due to turn up and open the new Lenton Lane studios. Again, the documentary covers this with plenty of archive material, some off-air recordings and new interviews with presenters Jo Wheeler, Gary Terzza and Debbie Shore.
As Part 5 indicates, new Central chairman Hill also oversaw a period of downsizing with less and less large scale production booked into Broad Street's studios. Much of this branch and root reorganisation stemmed from the 1990 Broadcasting Act introduced by the Conservative government and designed to deregulate the industry, abolish and replace the IBA, and relax the rules surrounding franchise ownership and thus allow many of the mergers to take place between ITV companies that followed between 1992 and 2004. Times and technology were changing and the demise of Broad Street certainly reflects that period of Central's adoption of a new business model, including the building of the Central Court, Gas Street studios in Birmingham. By 1997, Central auctioned off most of the fixtures and fittings at Broad Street and closed the studios. Sadly, the end of an era in British television broadcasting.
This five part documentary is clearly a labour of love and is well written by Roddy Buxton, Peter Raven and Peter Thomas and brilliantly held together by producer Lee Bannister's narration. Although the new video interviews do tend to be of inconsistent quality, with some better lit and recorded than others, it's still remarkable what the makers, ATVLand.net, Tiswas Online and MACE have achieved and the sheer amount of material they've gathered to celebrate 'ATVLand'. There was obviously no budget to get their talking heads over to a decent location/studio and film them together and much of the material looks like it was acquired on-the-hoof over a long period of time. People are interviewed in gardens, restaurants, their offices and their homes but it is edited together well considering they had eleven hours of new material to plough through. They incorporate the archive material from ITV and MACE very well indeed and there is obviously a limited amount of material covering the capabilities of the centre as they have had to find creative ways of reusing some of it. However, I only detected a few obvious reuses of footage and it's inevitable, I think, that what exists would be used in this manner. Some of the little items produced for ATV Today are great time capsules, are often very funny and capture the spirit of local television news perfectly.
I think they've done a remarkable job with the resources they had available and have produced a vital, necessary and valuable document of the golden age of ITV regional production and any deficiencies in quality are more than made up for with the sheer amount and variety of information, anecdotes, rare archive footage and enthusiasm for the subject matter. Essential.
You can see many archive clips used in the documentary and purchase the DVD directly from MACE
If all this archive material has whetted your appetite and you have a particular interest in Midlands heritage and history then why not take a look at MACE's previous DVD release The Black Country 1969 which features a number of ATV programmes. There's an excellent review of the DVD by Anthony Nield at The Digital Fix.
The DVD set contains a PDF of the 1974-75 ATV Yearbook, basically a promotional document that records the regional broadcaster's output - drama, children's, news, light entertainment, local programming - over the year and the network's other activities such as Lew Grade's ITC subsidiary, theatres, music publishing and er... ten pin bowling and telephone answering machines. A second PDF, This is ATV, originates from about 1980 and again is a comprehensive review of the programming that the network provides as well as a good background to how ATV developed.
'ATVLand' in Colour
The History of ATV Centre, Birmingham - The Most Advanced Colour TV Studio Of Its Time
ATVLAND.productions for MACE (Media Archive for Central England)
ScreenWM / EM Media / BFI / ITV Studios / Universaity of Lincoln
Released: 3rd October 2011 / Running time: 245 mins / Colour and Monochrome / 16:9 (archive footage 4:3) / Optional subtitles for the hard of hearing / Cert E