Undercover A-R


The archaeology of startups

Richard G Elen looks at Associated-Rediffusion’s startups and fits the pictures to the music – or at least works out how one might go about it.

Associated Rediffusion Channel 9

Over the years, Transdiffusion has amassed a great deal of knowledge, reports, facts, deductions and recordings concerning Independent Television daily start-up routines.

Start-up routines were the rituals occurring at least once daily through which the Authority ‘handed over’ control of its television transmitters in different parts of the country to the franchise holders for the region.

In the early days of broadcasting, when television enthusiasts were likely to make up the entire audience rather than just a small minority, the record of these start-ups was in the form of audio recordings, often captured with a microphone held up to the television loudspeaker.

These recordings are backed up by still photographs and, of course, memories. The Transdiffusion Broadcasting System you are now watching is living proof of this, with the largest known private archive of this type of material.

However, if we go back to the very earliest days, predating even the majority of what we would now call television enthusiasts, documentary evidence is even more scarce, and memories less reliable.

A case in point is the way in which Associated-Rediffusion started its daily transmissions.

A recording in the Transdiffusion Archives, taken from a one-off acetate disc labeled “Opening Day”, provides the audio for the start-up sequence that occurred on 22 September 1955. The opening night, shared with the London weekend contractor at the time, “ABC” (which quickly became ATV), began with speeches and stirring music, and continued with a variety gala and some quite highbrow programming.

Of the potential viewers of the time, some, of course, were watching the “other channel”. Others couldn’t watch Band III because they had yet to install the additional aerial and a down-converter or new dual-band TV set. Yet more were listening to the fire that consumed Grace Archer over on BBC radio. In total, less than half of those who could even receive the broadcast watched it.

But those who were watching the earliest moments of Associated-Rediffusion saw and heard an impressive opening. A simple tuning signal was followed by a piece of music: an orchestral arrangement of the traditional tune, The British Grenadiers.

The sprightly three-minute piece progressed through numerous key-changes and passages of light and shade, culminating in a majestic re-statement of the theme and a triumphant close.

This piece of music was used every day for almost a year. During the Suez Crisis in 1956, however, it seems that Grenadiers was thought a little too militaristic and A-R cast around for something else to use as the station’s opening music.

They chose a bright, symphonic march by that master of the light music march, Eric Coates, called Music Everywhere, which had been written in 1948.

Subtitled “Rediffusion March”, Music Everywhere was the perfect choice until something could be written specially to take its place. That happened several months later when the unknown composer “S Bates” – almost certainly incorrectly rumoured to be Associated-Rediffusion’s musical advisor Sir John Barbirolli – completed the piece that came into use in 1957.

Meanwhile, back in September 1955, the “Grenadiers” was followed by a dramatic pause. Then the dulcet tones of former BBC Television and Movietone News announcer Leslie Mitchell announced, “This Is London”, followed by a short fanfare by Charles Williams: Fanfare Number 1 from Five Fanfares. The whole story is told elsewhere, in the History section of this site.

Although evidence for the visuals that accompanied the known audio track is unfortunately scant, we can tell a great deal by running likely images together with the audio and seeing how they fit.

With a compendium of available knowledge on the structure and requirements of start-up sequences that evolved later, we can make some very good educated guesses, helped where available by memories and documentation, as to what the viewers of 1955 would have seen on their screens as the music played.

Although the pieces used in 1955 by A-R were not specially commissioned as was later the case, it would still have been possible to time transitions in the visuals to occur at salient points in the music.

There is no doubt that, with experimentation, some of these juxtapositions fall into place in a most convincing manner, rather like finding two pieces of Neolithic pottery on an archaeological dig and, on cleaning them, finding that they fit together perfectly. Trying such juxtapositions and playing them to people who might have their memories triggered as a result can be a useful technique in reconstructing events like this.

Once it was believed that this start-up was used on opening day only, and on subsequent days omitted the “This Is London”. Apart from anything else, the format, surely, was a little over the top, even for those days. “This Is London”?

Apart from the occasional DX viewer, only people in London could watch the broadcasts from the ITA’s new transmitting tower on Beulah Hill, Norwood, just down the road from the BBC’s Crystal Palace tower in South London. The ITA called it their “Croydon” transmitter (though it was strictly not quite in Croydon) but Associated-Rediffusion, more concerned with the great city in which their audience lived and breathed than technical accuracy, always called it “London”.

My uncovering of a second start-up from the same period, as described in a previous article, prompted a reconsideration of the theory that “This Is London” was used once only.

Along with the complete Grenadiers start-up I located, labelled on my tape “A-RTV Evening Intro”, was another complete start-up sequence, labelled “A-RTV Afternoon Intro”. This featured opening music by Richard Addinsell from the movie Blithe Spirit and a female voiceover – but with the same script and the same content apart from the initial piece.

This suggested that not one but two start-ups had been used in the early days: one for the afternoon programmes starting at 5 pm and the other for the evening, beginning at 7 o’clock. Both included “This Is London”. This also presented a problem.

The General Post Office, the body in those days responsible for licensing of wireless transmissions of all kinds in the UK, and the Independent Television Authority, which had the job of administering Britain’s burgeoning commercial television network, were traditionally thought to have been quite strict with their definition of how the ritual handover of the transmitter from the Authority to the broadcaster was to be carried out.

Opening themes had to be registered with the Authority. A suitable announcement had to be made at the start of the theme. Other requirements also had to be adhered to. By the late 1950s at least, nobody would have been allowed to have two opening pieces, used at different times of day.

In those earliest, heady days of the country’s first commercial television stations, there was a little more leeway. It may be that, as in the days of radio before the BBC, the rules had yet to be written. Or, as the official history of ITV has it, the new contractors forgot, and were quickly reminded of, their status in the broadcasting hierarchy by the ITA.

Whatever happened, if the rules were written in stone on day one, they must have been ignored in the excitement of a dream of broadcasting being finally brought into reality.

You can listen in full to the startups featured in this article in Seen and Heard.

About the author

Born in England in the early 1950s, Richard G. Elen has been writing professionally for over a quarter of a century, and has launched, edited and contributed to leading entertainment industry journals on both sides of the Atlantic. He has also been a recording engineer and producer, a partner in an advertising agency and a marketing executive, and was one of the first to begin to develop the Internet's World Wide Web.

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