They Say… Peter Black


Frank comment from an outsider

Cover of 'Fusion' 2
From Fusion 2 in 1958

Q. – Kindly state your name and occupation.

A. – Peter Black, television critic Daily Mail. Began journalism on Letchworth Citizen, 1937-39. Film and theatre critic, Brighton Evening Argus 1946-9. Theatre critic Brighton Herald 1949-52.

Q. – If you had to describe your opinion of Associated Rediffusion in one word, what would it be?

A. – Wellmeaning.

Q. – Perhaps you’d better take some more words.

A. – None of the programme companies has better intentions. But with A-R there is a damaging tendency to mistake the intention for the deed. My impression is that programmes are mounted in a quick rush of enthusiasm, before the difficulties and weaknesses have been cured. Too many go off at half-cock, and contain obvious misjudgments that should have been spotted earlier. My impression is of too many executives shouting brisk decisions down dictaphones. But I know it is a false one.

Q. – How do you account for it, then?

A. – Probably it’s the nature of A-R’s organization. When you think of the other companies you think of one man in each: Sidney Bernstein, Val Parnell, Howard Thomas. When you think of the BBC you think of the Archbishop of Canterbury, the MCC, the Foreign Office and the Polytechnic. When you think of A-R you think of a Board of businessmen directors.

Q. – Is that bad?

A. – Of course not. But it could lead to some oddities.

Q. – Name some.

A. – Light entertainment, for one. It seems to me an extraordinary decision to buy most of it from an outside organization.

Q. – Why?

A. – Because you lose at once full control over it. You have to take what you’re given. And you’re given shows like ‘The Lady Ratlings’.

Q. – Would it surprise you to know that ‘The Lady Ratlings’ figure in the Top Ten?

A. – No.

Q. – Continue.

A. – Because your own output is small you have nothing to replace shows that ought to be taken off. Do you remember ‘Highland Fling’?

Q. – Yes…

A. – And the department’s authority suffers. The last Lyon series, in my opinion, was frankly not good enough, and they should have been told so. Yet when A-R’s own men back shows, they have done some fine things. They gave Peter Sellers and Spike Milligan their chance and TV comedy received an entirely new twist.

Q. – How about being constructive – what would you do?

A. – Look for a man who would forget about the spectaculars, the running-about dancing, the acrobats and conjurors, and find something that would extend the range of light entertainment. His job would be to create programmes that were recognizably an A-R contribution, just as ‘Chelsea at Eight’ carries Bernstein’s bold signature.

Q. – You’re saying, in effect, that the more responsibility a department has, the better it functions?

A. – Of course. Look at A-R’s programmes for schools. Here a sense of responsibility is at its keenest. The result is that these programmes are the best thing A-R does.

Peter Black

Q. – Don’t forget that it’s easier for schools TV. The audience is around the same age, and at that age differences in taste are negligible.

A. – I was just going to say that. We must remember, too, that television is at its most interesting when it is frankly teaching. Only fools think that it mustn’t teach. The new term’s series on music is one of the best things of its kind that I’ve seen. I wish we were lucky enough to have it in the evening schedules.

Q. – Say something about drama.

A. – All TV drama has had a stroke of luck. It’s now been proved that audiences will take almost any subject, no matter how serious, if it’s in play form – unless it’s in poetry, fancy dress, introduces ghosts or plays tricks with time. All the drama departments are fruitfully exploiting this popularity, and none more than Norman Marshall and his team. There is a steady trickle of good, new writing coming out of A-R.

Q. – What do you call good writing?

A. – Plays that are about our own people in our own time. But I don’t mean comedies in which lazy writers try to catch atmosphere by sticking a bottle of tomato sauce on the table and talking about a ‘caff’. Jack Pulham’s ‘You Can’t Have Everything’ was an example. It was topical, grown-up drama, full of suspense though nobody got shot; and the actors and production fell on it like hungry men on a good meal.

Q. – What about features?

A. – I’m glad you asked that. All ITV features have suffered to a varied extent from ratings fever, a malady caused by too much exposure to the graphs supplied by TAM. Symptoms are, in the beginning, a rush of words to the head, a preference for the close-up and a tendency to talk loudly and to confuse fidgety cutting with speed. During the crisis the sufferer has the obsession that if a features programme slows down for a split second an executive will jump in and kill it.

Q. – The cure?

A. – Two. The short-term remedy is to move features away from peak time periods. This gives devisers, producers and performers a better target to aim at, allays their morbid fear of an inferior TAM rating, and restores their self-confidence. Hence programmes like Bronowski’s ‘New Horizons’, Wolf Mankowitz’s ‘Conflict’, and Dan Farson’s ‘People in Trouble’, all of them outstanding current affairs series.

Q. – And the other? How about ‘This Week’, for example?

A. – ‘This Week’ found the long-term cure. For months it gave you the impression of trying not to break into a run, like a man hurrying down a dark alley who sees behind him the shadow of the upraised cosh. Then, about six months ago, it seemed to acquire confidence in itself. It was as though it had realized that its position, as ITV’s only weekly serious feature to get a peak time, was more secure than it had thought. This sense of feeling necessary is of great value. Because of it ‘This Week’ is not only a key programme, it behaves like one.

Q. – How do you see the future of ITV, and A-R’s share in it?

A. – There is no doubt whatever but that ITV will become less frivolous. For one thing it can afford to – the undertaking is enormously profitable. For another, the market will change. Advertising and programming follow each other, and in ITV’s first two years we had cheap, mass-selling commodities being advertised around mass-market entertainment. Advertisers will now want to catch the smaller, particular markets, and programmes will match them. They’ve wooed the Smiths: now they’ll go after the Smythes.

This will suit A-R down to the ground. I suspect that its heart has never really been in ‘The Lady Ratlings’.

About the author

Peter Black was television critic of the Daily Mail

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