Sentenced to death


Rediffusion’s chairman tears the ITA to shreds in his final address to shareholders in December 1967

Rediffusion Television’s chairman, Sir John Spencer Wills, made the following statement to shareholders at the Third Annual General Meeting on 19 December 1967

Sir John Spencer Wills, by Godfrey Argent (1969)

“A result of the developments in Independent Television since we last met is that this will be our last Annual General Meeting as an independent television programme company. In February of this year the Independent Television Authority invited applications for new programme contracts to take effect after the expiry of the existing contracts on 29th July, 1968. The Authority had decided to make certain changes in the general pattern of the contracts for the three major independent television areas known as the London, Midland and Northern areas, each of which has since the beginning been served by two contractors, one on the five weekdays and one at the weekends. Under the new pattern, only the London area will be served by two contractors, with the weekday contractor’s responsibility ending at 7 p.m. on Fridays, when the weekend contractor will take over.

The London weekday contract has been held by your company and its predecessor, Associated-Rediffusion, since the inception of independent television and we confidently applied for renewal. The Authority decided against us, however, and offered the new contract conditionally to a new programme company to be formed jointly by your company and ABC Television Limited, currently the weekend contractor for the Midland and Northern areas. The Authority’s decision not to renew our contract was a great shock and wholly unexpected. It affected not only you as shareholders but some 1,350 of your employees, whose lives and careers were sadly and cruelly upset.

We had assumed that a statement by the Postmaster General, made when the Television Bill, now embodied in the Television Act, 1964, was being debated in the House of Commons, meant what it said. The Postmaster General’s precise words as recorded in Hansard were as follows: —

‘Meanwhile, I hope that the House will remember that the risk of non-renewal of a contract is very slight unless the company has completely failed to make the grade.’

Your Board took the view that we had not ‘completely failed’ and would not ‘completely fail to make the grade’ and I must add that we had not at any time been given any indication that the Authority took a different view; accordingly we proceeded to prepare for the future by increasing the staff and undertaking large scale capital expenditure commitments to convert our operation for colour and the new 625 line standard. As shareholders, however, you will naturally ask the question ‘have we completely failed to make the grade?’ This question is, I think, best answered, not by an expression of my own opinion, but by facts and by tributes from outside the Company.

The facts may be briefly summarised as follows. Rediffusion, in company with Associated Television and with the valued support of Sir Kenneth Clark, the first Chairman of the I.T.A., and Sir Robert Fraser, the I.T.A. Director-General, was responsible for building up independent television from nothing, through serious initial trials and tribulations, into a first class public service. Rediffusion, in the difficult pioneering days, introduced the first regular television service for schools in this country and has since been the leader in that field. Rediffusion took the initiative in forming the International Television Federation, an association of major television organisations in the English speaking world for the production, exchange and distribution throughout the world of high class documentary programmes on world problems. Rediffusion has always played a leading part in the independent television network, providing the central production services and key staff for state occasions and other national events and its general programme contribution to the network has not been surpassed by any other company. Rediffusion has won over 40 awards in international and national competitions for its programmes and publications in every field of broadcasting activity. The list of ITV Awards in the I.T.A. 1968 Year Book, covering the years 1956 to 1967, records that Rediffusion has won more awards than any other programme company. This surely cannot be a company which has ‘completely failed to make the grade.’

But let me now offer you a selection of tributes from outside on the Company generally and on its programmes, including some from the I.T.A. itself.

From ‘The Observer’ –

‘Rediffusion is the most BBC-like of the companies, full of people who really know and care about TV.’

From the ‘Television Mail’ –

‘But – though perhaps it’s a bit early for tributes and similar goo – it does seem appropriate at this time just to say how much, in our opinion, A-R, together with the other pioneers, has contributed to this vast industry. It took some courage, in those days, to hang on and keep a brave face while watching all those millions of pounds pouring out of the window; A-R at one stage not only lost nearly £4 million, as well as its original partner. Associated Newspapers. But the original management’s faith in commercial television eventually paid off, and many of the later entrants into ITV were able to take advantage of the spadework -and the risks – undertaken by A-R in the very early days.

And since that time the company’s record has been pretty impressive. It has been associated with Intertel, ‘This Week’, Studio 5 at Wembley, E-Cam, and many other advances in the technical and creative fields. Sure, it’s had its failures, too; but at least it’s been man enough to admit them; last year’s balance sheet includes some thousands of pounds written off in untransmitted programmes (some people would have transmitted them).

On the sales side, too, A-R has done a great deal for the advertising world. At the time of the announcement of the new contracts, it was installing a computer timebooking system; and many initiatives in the time sales field have been taken by the company.’

On the occasion of the tenth anniversary of Rediffusion’s ‘This Week’, the then Chairman of the I.T.A., Lord Hill of Luton, wrote –

‘For a decade ‘This Week’ has been a regular illustration of Independent Television’s determination to provide a well-balanced service. ‘This Week’ has faithfully provided information, educational and not seldom entertaining material about the contemporary world with unfailing skill and imagination. Its ingenious methods of presentation have consistently made sense of complex current issues without distortion, over-simplification or playing down to the audience.’

On the same occasion, the Prime Minister wrote –

‘A pioneer in this field has been ‘This Week’. Its integrity is undoubted, its professionalism obvious. I congratulate its producers and all who play a part in its presentation.’

The Leader of the Opposition wrote –

‘Television has been largely responsible for stimulating the public appetite in this respect. During the past 10 years, ‘This Week’ has played a notable part in providing commentary news headlines.’



I have already referred to our initiative in the formation of The International Television Federation and I think our standing in the principal English-speaking countries overseas is well illustrated by the following extract from a citation recently presented to us by our fellow-members of the Federation. It is as follows:—

‘Intertel, at the eighth annual meeting, accepts with profound regret the resignation of Rediffusion Television Limited and gratefully acknowledges its wise leadership and generous contributions to the common effort.

(Signed) T. S. Duckmanton, The Australian Broadcasting Commission
Eugene S. Hallman, The Canadian Broadcasting Corporation
John F. White, National Educational Television (USA)
MALTA, September 30th, 1967.’

May I now give you a few extracts from the I.T.A’s own Year Books about Rediffusion programmes?

Muriel Young presenting Small Time, assisted by Pussy Cat Willum

1963 ‘If this gradual and intelligible introduction to television on behalf of children could be achieved, no better start could be made than with ‘Small Time’, a short programme appearing from Monday to Friday between 4.45 p.m. and 5 p.m. on most stations of Independent Television.’

‘In the winter of 1960-61, Associated-Rediffusion transmitted a French language series ‘Chez les Dupre’ in the early evening and found an immediate and substantial response among viewers in the London area.’

‘The play should speak to the condition of a television service. In so far as it does so, in the case of Independent Television, it reveals it to be in good heart. Each of the four largest companies (A-R, ATV, Granada and ABC) has made and continues to make, serious contributions to television drama . . .’

1964 ‘Nevertheless, the serials have been very good in recent months . .. ‘Sierra Nine’ and ‘Smuggler’s Cove’ from Associated-Rediffusion, all accurately described as adventure serials, with children taking the major parts.’

‘Melodrama, which may cover all other kinds of fictional series, is entertaining enough to deserve its considerable place in television. Lively who-done-its such as ‘No Hiding Place’ … are the essence of quick-moving, intelligently planned entertainment.’

A Midsummer Night’s Dream on the cover of the TVTimes for 21-27 June 1964

1965 ‘To take one example alone, the much acclaimed production by Rediffusion of Shakespeare’s ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’ in June, 1964 was seen by almost 4,000,000 viewers.’

‘Rediffusion has launched ‘Towards 2000’ a major series on the development of technology . . .’ ‘These are essentially action stories rather than plays of ideas, and they include some very popular programmes such as ‘No Hiding Place’ and ‘Crane’ (Rediffusion) . . .’

“‘Double Your Money’ and ‘Take Your Pick’ (Rediffusion) have been running as long as Independent Television itself and continue to be enjoyed by vast audiences.’

1966 ‘A notable programme seen throughout the country was ‘The Music Man’ (Rediffusion) . . .’

1967 ‘Although it was first felt that television’s chief contribution would be to the work of the secondary school, its potential value to primary schools was recognised as early as 1959 when Rediffusion produced ‘The World Around Us’.’

Finally, a selection of press comments on individual programmes:—

‘Laudes Evangelii’ (two quotes from the American press)

‘A magnificent harbinger of the many productions on religious themes that this season of the year will be bringing to our television screens. Some may be as good as this one but I hardly see how any could be better.’

‘Leonide Massine’s Laudes Evangelii surely will stand as one of television’s lasting accomplishments, a work of breathtaking reverence and beauty that has enriched the home screen as much as any single programme in recent years.’

‘Design for Living’

‘. . . beautifully simple, it revives one’s faith in the use of television.’

‘This Week’

‘. . . report on South Vietnam and the round-up of the modern Israeli Army were both prize-winning pieces of TV journalism.’

‘Children of Revolution’

‘. . . television at its best.’

Eric Lander as Detective Inspector Baxter and Raymond Francis as Chief Superintendent Lockhart in No Hiding Place

‘No Hiding Place’ – ‘A Bottle Full of Sixpences’

‘Lord Hill of ITA must be plaintively asking himself why the rest of the boys can’t make programmes as wholesome and morally sound as the sentimental homily we got last night in London.’

‘One In Every Hundred’

‘A compulsive and socially valuable use of the television screen.’

‘Dare I Weep, Dare I Mourn’

‘It is clearly obvious that ITV is capable of producing such first-class material as Rediffusion’s James Mason Film ‘Dare I Weep, Dare I Mourn.’

‘Seven Deadly Virtues’ – ‘The Good and Faithful Servant’

‘This was a play that put some life back into my loss of faith in ITV drama.’

‘This Week’ – ‘The World of Nigel Hunt’

James Mason in Dare I Weep, Dare I Mourn

‘This kind of television, lightening superstitious corners of human prejudice, is high among TV’s most worthwhile achievements.’

It is common knowledge that not all comments about the Company and its programmes have been in the same vein as those I have quoted to you. But whatever adverse comment there may have been, such comments as I have quoted surely could not apply to a company which had ‘completely failed to make the grade.’

Small wonder is it, therefore, that your directors, management and staff are at a loss to understand the Authority’s decision. Even that decision cannot destroy our pride in our achievements over the past 12 years.

The Authority did, however, offer us an opportunity, on the conditions that we completely sacrifice our identity and any control over the development of independent television, to acquire a 50 per cent financial stake, but no effective say, in a new company, to be formed in partnership with ABC Television, to serve the population of the London area for a little over four days a week instead of the five days for which we shall alone have been responsible for the 13 years up to 29th July, 1968.

You will have seen from the Directors’ Report that arrangements for the formation of a new company have been agreed between the Company and ABC Television and approved by the Authority. The establishment of a joint company in such circumstances is a very complex matter; when all the necessary matters of detail have been settled, you will be informed of the overall position.



We shall in future have a 50 per cent stake (but a minority of the voting shares) in an operation covering four days plus part of a day in place of our present exclusive five day operation. In effect, we shall have been reduced from five day operation to marginally more than two day operation. Nevertheless, we have always had the most friendly relations with ABC Television and we shall certainly do everything we can, as I am sure will ABC Television also, to make the new company an outstanding success.

Whatever reasons Lord Hill of Luton (whose appointment to the Chairmanship of our competitors, the B.B.C., had, according to press reports, been decided months earlier) and his part-time colleagues of the I.T.A. may have had for crossing our name off the list of effective contributors to independent television, I and my colleagues on the Board will remain forever grateful to the men and women who built up Rediffusion Television with so much devoted skill, energy and enthusiasm. We believe they have done a magnificent job of work. Although the Company is under sentence of death, every valiant effort is being made, in spite of the obvious difficulties, to keep our flag flying right up to the end.”


About the author

Sir John Spencer Wills (1904-1991) was chairman of Rediffusion Television Ltd in the late 1960s, and chairman of parent British Electric Traction from 1966 to 1982

3 thoughts on “Sentenced to death

  1. A very interesting read – but quite a ‘blinkered’ view – they didn’t see the bigger picture / made to many wrong assumptions (i.e.Postmaster General comments). The forming of LWT and application acceptance upset the whole process – pushing ABC out of the weekends in London slot – but as a result gained the greater prize weekdays in London (ABC did not need Rediussion to run the London weekday franchise – and this was made quite clear to Rediffusion – so they had no choice but to go along with it!

  2. I’d to see the context to be sure, but I’m not entirely convinced that one of the reviews* was as complimentary as it was claimed to be.

    *”Lord Hill of ITA must be plaintively asking himself why the rest of the boys can’t make programmes as wholesome and morally sound as the sentimental homily we got last night in London.”

Leave a Reply