ITV Makes Its Bow

The Manchester Guardian makes its judgement

Reading Time: 5 minutes

The Manchester Guardian, on Friday, September 23, 1955, gave its first, thoughtful analysis of the fledgling ITV in general, and Associated-Rediffusion in particular, as their unnamed commentator (probably Bernard Levin) summarised and commented upon the events of the previous evening.

One thing must be said immediately. In 365 days’ time, Independent Television – if all goes well – will have been with us for a year. So far, it has been with us for a bare hand-count of hours, and although the conclusions are crying to be jumped to, the temptation to jump must be resisted. The broader judgment must wait until the end of the year – or, say, until the middle of next week.

Speaking empirically, then, what wonders did we see last night? The first was a black cross on a white ground which, accompanied by a high-pitched scream, persisted for some minutes. This vanished and was followed by a card bearing the legend. “Opening Night Independent Television Service Channel 9.” Then the familiar tones of Mr. Leslie Mitchell, who nineteen years ago spoke the very same words at the inauguration of the B.B.C. Television Service, declared: “This is London.”

It was indeed. Historic scene succeeded historic scene as Mr. Mitchell, [A mistake here: it was actually Cecil Lewis, A-R’s deputy controller – Ed.] with scarcely a tremor in his voice, intoned a commentary which appeared at times to be in verse (“A new city would have been built, had Wren but had his way”). With a last quick word about the history so far and future of the Independent Television Service, Mr. Mitchell passed us over to Guildhall, where Mr. John Connell was waiting to introduce the guests at the inaugural banquet.

The first guest was Pitt the Younger, looking down from his niche in unmixed astonishment. Pitt was followed by Gog and Magog, and these by the Lord Mayor and Lady Mayoress, Lord and Lady Kilmuir, Dr. Charles Hill (Mr. Connell’s voice sank to a reverent whisper), the Bishop of London, Sir Kenneth Clark, and Mr. Norman Collins, looking as if London did indeed, this night, belong to him.

When the guests were met it was the turn of Sir John Barbirolli and the Hallé Orchestra. Sir John, who looked so composed that he could hardly have heard of Sir Thomas Beecham’s exclusive agreement with the Manchester programme contractor, led the Hallé through Elgar’s “Cockaigne” Overture.

Then came the speeches. The Lord Mayor, in admirably clear close-up, looked nervous, spoke up, and sat down within four minutes. Dr. Hill followed him, looking and sounding, as one would expect, pugnacious. “An immensely powerful and ever-growing medium” was what he called television, and insisted that it was here to stay. Adding that man was many-sided, he wished the I.T.A. well and came to an end.

Then it was the turn of Sir Kenneth Clark (his were the first eyes of the evening to look directly into the camera). For Sir Kenneth, too, the picture was wonderfully clear, as he told us that television had a terrifying power for good and evil, paid tribute to Lord De La Warr, and came to a graceful close exactly at the advertised time.

Over now to “Channel 9” for variety, opening with a huge smile from Mr. Jack Jackson, who proceeded to shut Mr. Hughie Green into a soundproof box. On the whole, the variety show which followed was well up (or some would say down) to B.B.C. standards. But the producers clearly believed in stimulating appetites rather than satisfying them. “A smile, a song, and a cigar” was about all some of the artists had time for.

At ten minutes past eight came – and it came as a surprise – the first advertisement of the new service. A charming young lady brushed her teeth, while a charming young gentleman told us of the benefits of the toothpaste with which she was doing it.

Variety came to an end, and it was drama’s turn. Mr. Robert Morley, his startled-goldfish expression well to the fore and his magnificent eyebrows semaphoring vigorously, told us in a few homely words how surprised he was that Independent Television had ever appeared at all. But now it was here he was clearly going to make the best of it. And the best, for this evening at any rate, was to be the proposal and interrogation scenes from The Importance of Being Earnest. (This of course had already been recorded on film, and one watched with interest to see how it compared with the “live” broadcasts we had already watched. It compared very well.)

Sir John Gielgud proposed very charmingly to his Gwendoline (Miss Margaret Leighton), but it was Dame Edith Evans as Lady Bracknell that he was clearly waiting for – and so, indeed, were we. Nor were we disappointed. It is many years since Dame Edith played Lady Bracknell (that film hardly counts), and she was clearly determined to make up for loss of time. She roared her battle-cry – “A handbag?” – like an indignant foghorn telling its mate that it had just been insulted, and the rest of her magnificent performance was pitched in the same key. The film around her, in so far as one was conscious of it, was admirably, indeed beautifully, composed.

It was the boxing that showed us for the first time in the evening the I.T.A. avoiding a major B.B.C. fault. How often we have been infuriated by a description of something we could perfectly well see for ourselves. There is no need to mention names here, except that of Mr. Richard Dimbleby, but anybody who has ever watched, say, a sporting programme on B.B.C. television will be able to add half a dozen. But Mr. Len Harvey and Mr. Tony Van den Bergh confined themselves almost entirely to inter-round summaries – Mr. Harvey sounding infinitely wistful at finding himself outside a boxing ring – and let the cameramen tell the story for us.

With the hair-trigger timing that characterised all the programmes of the evening, the boxing finished (not, alas, for those who must have drama in everything, with a knock-out), and it was time, after some more advertisements, for the news. I surely cannot be the first to have made a joke about Mr. Christopher Chataway and a running commentary? But for Mr. Chataway it was clearly no joke. Sitting in a dark lounge suit, and obviously too worried to smile, he followed Mr. Aidan Crawley’s introduction with four and a half minutes of news.

After the labouring in the field, came the feast. The cameras, to end the evening, looked in at the party in the May Fair Hotel, where appropriately enough our compere was Mr. Leslie Mitchell, whose voice had ushered in the new era all those hours ago. (Only three? Impossible!) Everybody looked happy, calm, and carefree. And on the whole, and with reservations, and other things being equal, well they might be.

So far, then, what we have seen of Independent Television has certainly not confirmed the worst fears (or hopes?) of its enemies. Television, Sir Kenneth Clark reminded us earlier in the evening, has a terrifying power for good or evil; speaking subjectively, I feel neither uplifted nor depraved by what I have seen. But perhaps the deeper moral effects will make themselves felt only over a period of years.

About the author

Historian Russ J Graham is Editor-in-Chief of the Transdiffusion Broadcasting System

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