BBC Four turns on to regional television

ATV Today logo ATV Centre backgroundBBC Four is to look at the story of how the United Kingdom fell in love with regional television.

Contributors including Angela Rippon, Michael Parkinson, Martin Bell, Mike Neville and Derek Batey describe the excitement and sense of adventure that existed during the very early days of local broadcasting. In the late 1950s and early 60s viewers were offered a new vision of the places where they lived.

“ITV and the BBC took advantage of transmitter technology and battled for the attention of an emerging regional audience.” The BBC say.

The first ITV regional service to launch was Associated Rediffusion, swiftly followed by ATV London in September 1955. Other areas soon followed such as Granada for the North West and ATV Midlands for central England in 1956.

Rediffusion Television LondonIn March 1956 a Gallup Poll was undertaken in two ITV regions, London and Midlands, with the question posed which broadcaster do you prefer, the BBC or ITV? The ATV and ABC service to the Midlands had been on barely a month, but 58% of those polled put the service above the BBC. 16% preferred the corporation. In London Rediffusion and ATV had also proved more popular with viewers than the BBC, with 16% opting for the licence fee funded service, while 60% opted for independent television. The rest in both polls were either unsure or had no preference.

Local television made household names of some of its stars and some of the regional programmes became national treasures upon being ‘networked’. From Coronation Street to Countdown, Top Gear to Mr and Mrs to Nick Owen, Gordon Burns and Bob Warman as well as Jean Morton, Eamonn Holmes, Gloria Hunniford and Shaw Taylor. All local faces that went on to national stardom.

Mike Neville first worked for Tyne Tees as an announcer before switching to the BBC in the 1960s. At the beeb he was host of Look North and became a national star when he joined Nationwide. However he refused to move to London and continued to present both the national and regional north east news at the same time, a first in British television. He re-joined Tyne Tees in the 1990s but not before he was ‘honoured’ with a ‘Gotcha’ from Noel Edmonds on House Party. The only regional presenter to be ‘Gotcha’d’ by the primetime entertainment series, such was the regard the nation still held for Mike.

Mike NevilleRegional TV also launched Richard and Judy upon the nation. The pair started off as the hosts of evening news show Granada Reports before being picked to front a new daytime slot that everyone said would fail, This Morning.

It was often a low budget affair, as current ATV Network president Alan Coleman recalls his early days at ATV Midlands’ Alpha Television studios:

“The studios were actually a converted cinema, which I believe started out life as a theatre. It was an old building, it gave us problems. I remember very often we had to move all the buckets off the studio floor which were there to catch the water which came in through the roof on a rainy day. It was a little bit dangerous as water and 240v don’t mix, but fortunately we all survived.”

From those rather damp and underfunded facilities came the first regional news service in the UK, when ATV, before the BBC, began providing daily news for the region. However, later on, it still seemed a battle against time to get news reports to the air;

“Monday to FridaAnne Diamondy I read the evening news for ATV and during the day I would be a reporter and could be sent anywhere within the huge Midlands region, which in those days stretched from Leicester to Hereford, Nottingham to Oxford. I’d be required to rush back to base in Birmingham in time to develop and edit the film. You had to be quick to get your film into developing before the day’s Crossroads shoot! And then go into make-up in time to slide into the newsreader’s seat at 6.00 p.m. to say `Welcome to ATV Today’.” Anne Diamond told the Radio Times.

Some viewers believed everything they saw on their own regional service was produced in the region; the story goes that when Tyne Tees Television began broadcasting the American cowboy action series The Lone Ranger to the people of the North East, viewers turned up at the Newcastle studios to see the horse!

The regions of ITV, while working towards bringing viewers to one network, were known to have silly and trivial rivalries, which Granada were the  best at being the bitches of broadcasting.This Morning, 1994

“Even though Yorkshire Television and Granada weren’t rivals in the sense that they were broadcasting to the same audience, there was a lot of professional rivalry. Yorkshire thought that Granada news was crap and as soon as I got to Granada, I thought that Yorkshire news was crap. I got poached by Granada and when I told the head of news at Yorkshire, he just gave me this long look and says `Richard, they eat their young at Granada Television. For your own sake don’t go there’. I knew what he meant, Granada was, and still is, unbelievably political.” Richard Madeley who worked for Border TV from 1978-80, Yorkshire from 1980-82 and Granada from 1982-88 told the Radio Times.

The power of local broadcasting became noted when daily daytime chat and music show Lunchbox started outside specials. Production company ATV expected around 3,000 to attend the live transmission from Nottingham Forest Football Ground, nearly 30,000 tuEric and Ernie with Noele Gordon on 'Five Years by Your Fireside' celebrating five years of ITV/ATVrned up to catch a glimpse of hostess Noele Gordon.

“The programme makers were an eclectic bunch but shared a common passion for a new form of TV that they were creating. For more than half a century they have reported on local stories. The early film-makers were granted freedom to experiment and create different shows and formats, including programmes that would later become huge hits. Regional programming also acted as a launch pad for presenters and reporters who would become household names.” The BBC say.

Today one of the most successful regional services in the UK is UTV for Northern Ireland, while the majority of other ITV regions are now little more than local news outlets, UTV continues to rate well in its ITV broadcast area.

Michael Wilson, Managing Director, UTV Televison, said recently on Ultimate Ulster, one of the company’s most successful none-news programmes: “Ultimate Ulster continues to be one of the strongest regional programmes in the UK” He adds that, “Previous series of Ultimate Ulster have out-performed EastEnders [in the UTV region], the BBC’s flagship programme, and I hope that the audience continues to grow.”

BBC Four aim to find out just how real the portrayal of regional life was in those early years and asks how will local life be reflected on our screens in the future?

Regional TV: Life through a Local Lens is broadcast on Wednesday, 20th July at 9pm BBC Four.