There’s a man whose influence on British television is only equalled by Sir Hugh Carleton Green. A man who dominated the commercial television scene from its foundation until his management style and strange views went out of fashion. A man who, had he not existed, it would have been necessary to create. A man who held a firm hand on the rudder whilst the good ship ITV was busy mounting sandbanks and getting into troubled waters. That man also died bitter and angry. David L Wilde profiles him.
Captain Thomas Marcus Brownrigg CBE OBE DSO RN (Retired) was born on 8 July 1902 and died 9 October 1967. In between those two dates, he experienced one terrible war from a distance and one very close up, rose through the ranks of the Navy and was unceremoniously dumped, married Joyce Chiesman and had a son and a daughter, managed the creation of a town and then of commercial television – before being unceremoniously dumped again.
In the navy
Brownrigg began his naval career as a Midshipman in 1919. He progressed through the ranks in a classic manner, neither a fast riser nor condemned to remain below decks. By 1923 he was a Lieutenant; by 1942 a Captain and one of the architects of the Allied invasion of occupied Europe. He saw service on numerous ships, including pre-war stints on the flotilla leader HMS Montrose, the aircraft carrier HMS Furious, and the light cruiser HMS Cairo.
When the Second World War broke out, Brownrigg served on the battleship HMS Warspite as Navigating Officer before taking a staff position under Admiral Sir Andrew Cunningham in the planning department of the Naval Expeditionary Force, preparing for D-Day. He then became commanding officer of HMS Scylla for D-Day itself, whilst also serving as Flag Captain for the Eastern Task Force during the landings, putting himself in the position of being in charge of a whole section of the naval front and also in the direct line of fire – a lesson that military leaders of the past and the future should perhaps take to heart. He finished the war in command of the Royal Navy Air Station at Rattray in Scotland, monitoring communications for the former war zone and pioneering the expansion of the navy back into the RAF’s territory.
After the war, Brownrigg served briefly on HMS Theseus before taking a series of land-based naval positions. He served as Director of Plans for the Admiralty, Chief of Staff to the Commander-in-Chief for the Mediterranean and finally, in 1952, being briefly Naval Aide de Camp to Queen Elizabeth II, the very top of the tree for someone with the rank of Captain. He had made enemies within the Admiralty due to his idiosyncratic nature, if nothing else, and failed to progress beyond that rank. Despite his experience and thoroughly naval demeanour, he was placed on the retired list in July 1952 and shown the door.
The government was well aware of Brownrigg’s talents, as well as his idiosyncrasies. As a correspondent of Churchill, now returned to Number 10 following the dizzying and productive rapid switch to socialism following the war, he had friends in enough high places to ensure he would not be unemployed. Thus it was that Brownrigg became General Manager of the Bracknell New Town Development Corporation.
With his experience in planning for Operation Overlord, he was considered the ideal choice for implementing the development of a New Town as envisaged by Patrick Abercrombie and Lord Reith in their eponymous reports that created the ring of often soulless and concrete-bound perpetual building sites surrounding London. By all accounts he was a successful general manager, certainly avoiding the public showdowns Beveridge had to cope with in Stevenage. But his tenure at Bracknell was limited – in less than two years, commerce came calling.
The experience of managing Bracknell was put to use in Brownrigg’s next post, the one where he would, war service notwithstanding, gain the most fame. The Television Act of 1954 had created the framework for commercial broadcasting in the United Kingdom. British Electric Traction’s Broadcast Relay Services subsidiary, trading as Rediffusion, and Associated Newspapers formed a joint company, Associated-Rediffusion (A-R), to bid for a commercial television contract.
Because of the extensive planning and construction involved, they approached Brownrigg to become their General Manager. He accepted and put his imprint across the entire structure and output of the company – Associated-Rediffusion was Captain Brownrigg, in the same way that ATV was Lew Grade. Yet whilst Grade came to the industry with a cap full of knowledge, Brownrigg came to the very idea of capitalism with no experience whatsoever. Contemporaries reported that he commanded A-R as though it were a battleship. His “Official Office Memoranda”, giving instructions and setting rules for everything down to the frequency of filing and the decoration on the walls, became a legend throughout ITV.
Under his leadership, the company went from having one employee (himself) to becoming Europe’s first and largest commercial television broadcaster in under a year. In that time, he supervised the conversion of the former headquarters of the Air Ministry, Adastral House, into Television House, A-R’s studios and administration headquarters, which also served as the headquarters for ITN, the TV Times and, at first, Associated TeleVision, A-R’s main rival.
At the same time, he was also actively involved in defining the station’s identity, formulating the programme plans, creating an advertising market for television, chairing ITN and negotiating industrial relations with the film and broadcasting unions. Many stories are told by old ITV hands about Brownrigg’s idiosyncrasies, especially his dominant – or domineering – manner, his name-dropping, his willingness to outrageously generalise on any subject and his requirement for very junior staff to salute him and his fellow directors. However, personal friends also point out that he had a great sense of humour and an ability to laugh at himself – many of the anecdotes about him may therefore have derived from him in the first place.
Certainly, in contemporary photographs he always has a smile playing at his lips as if half suppressed, and generally a large cigar or a glass of something strong in one hand. If a man can be judged by his photographs, then the man in those photographs is not the man that secretaries hid from in the corridors and from whom producers dreaded getting phone calls. Brownrigg’s A-R pitched itself as a formal, rigid broadcaster. In order to avoid comparison between A-R and the American networks, especially following the J Fred Muggs chimpanzee-and-Coronation footage debacle that had put the fear of vulgarity into even the most hard-hearted Tory capitalist before the Television Act was passed, Brownrigg ensured that A-R was more “British” and “Empire” in its attitudes and identity than even the BBC.
This had the desired effect; removing the accusation the commercial television would be “vulgar” or too light by being pompously and directly, even militaristically, British. Whilst the station was less so when speaking to “the housewives”, and backed away noticeably in the aftermath of the Suez disaster, it remained a company that put stuffy formality before anything else. Continuity announcers didn’t refrain from barking orders at the viewers (“At 8pm tonight, you will be watching…”) whilst other stations were being cosmopolitan or creepily friendly.
However, by the 1960s increased competition and a change in spending-power demographics were evident in the United Kingdom. With the planned launch of BBC-2, aimed at the young and the upper middle-class, the new pirate offshore radio stations and a rejuvenated Radio Luxembourg, the senior management of the company felt that the future lay in younger viewers. To counter the competition, they decided to relaunch the station as ‘Rediffusion, London’ and introduce new programming aimed at younger people, with a new identity designed to be less “stuffy” and more able to compete with BBC-2.
The process began with Ready Steady Go in 1963. In this new environment there was no place for Brownrigg, and he retired to Finchampstead in Berkshire at the end of 1963, although he took on a directorship of the TV Times, from which position he surveyed – and disliked – ITV’s subsequent progress. One of his last acts before his death was to condemn the Independent Television Authority for forcing Rediffusion into a (minority) partnership with ABC Weekend TV to create the new Thames Television. His letter to The Times complaining indignantly about the changes doesn’t mention Rediffusion London once – he stuck to calling the company he created ‘Associated-Rediffusion’ until the end. He didn’t live to see the birth of Thames Television.
This article is based on material from the English-language Wikipedia entry on Thomas Brownrigg and is therefore licensed under the GNU Free Documentation Licence. Copyright ©2006 David L Wilde. Permission is granted to copy, distribute and/or modify this document under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation Licence, Version 1.2 or any later version published by the Free Software Foundation; with no Invariant Sections, no Front-Cover Texts, and no Back-Cover Texts. A copy of the licence is included in the section entitled “GNU Free Documentation Licence”.