On 30 July, Thames Television turns 50. It’s fair to say that the Thames brand is a true landmark in British television (appropriately enough, considering the number of London landmarks in its logo), and at Network, we’ve long been proud of our relationship with this iconic ITV company. Since 2004, it has been our privilege to work with their programme archive, finding new audiences and new formats for some classics of the medium.
Although it’s been absent from our screens since 1990 (barring repeats), the Thames ident, with its jumbled assemblage of London landmarks, is still one of the most recognisable in British television, fondly remembered by a generation who grew up with programmes like Callan, Special Branch, Man About The House, and, of course, The Sweeney. When Morecambe and Wise came to Thames in the late 1970s, their arrival was commemorated with a unique, vocal version of the time-honoured musical sting. It didn’t quite scan properly, but nobody cared when the network proudly declared: ‘Here they are now, More-cambe and Wise!’ It was the televisual equivalent of the red carpet treatment. For anyone of a certain age, Thames’ eight-note musical ident, honked out memorably by a small brass section, is enough to invoke a Proustian rush of nostalgic televisual memories. When Paul O’Grady plays old TV themes on his Radio 2 show, they’re played in with the Thames jingle. But there’s a lot more to Thames than a jumbled-up skyline and a jolly brass fanfare…
Although the Thames name turns 50 this year, its lineage can be traced back to the very beginnings of ITV. The company arose from a merger between Associated-Rediffusion and Associated British Picture Corporation (ABC) who until 1968 held the franchises to supply programming to the London area on weekdays, and the Midlands and North at weekends respectively. When the ITV regional franchises came up for renewal in 1968, both the Midlands (served by ATV) and North (Granada) were extended to seven-day working, meaning that the former ABC Weekend Television lost its franchise (despite bidding for the Midlands operation). ITV recognised the popularity of ABC, some of whose productions (like The Avengers) were important export earners, and a merger was proposed between ABC and Rediffusion (who had dropped the ‘Associated’ from their name in 1964). Although the move was resisted by Rediffusion, the threat of losing out to ABC was ultimately enough to secure an agreement. A new holding company was duly inaugurated, with controlling interest held by ABC board members.
The new network needed a new name. ‘ABC London’ was considered and rejected, as was ‘Tower Television’. ‘Thames’ had in fact been passed over as a possible name for the new London Weekend franchise, and this now became the name of the new ITV operation, which would serve the London area on weekdays, handing over to London Weekend at 7pm on Fridays.
Tuesday 30 July 1968 was Thames’ first day of broadcasting. Programmes began at 11.30am with coverage of the Fourth Test Match at Headingley (commentary supplied by Ian Wooldridge and a certain Michael Parkinson). At 1.30pm, the network closed down for twenty-five minutes, before returning at 1.55pm with fifty minutes’ coverage of Thames’ inaugural luncheon at The Mansion House. Self-congratulatory junkets like this were more or less the norm at the launch of any new TV service, and Thames was no exception. Andrew Gardner provided the commentary. Following an afternoon of racing and a serial, Driveway, children’s television began at 4.40, with Sooty, who had defected to Thames from the BBC along with his mentor Harry Corbett. Another new Thames production followed in the form of Magpie, the debut editions of both shows going out across the ITV network. News and a regional magazine programme (hosted by Eamonn Andrews) were followed by a first run in the London region for the 1959 movie Carry On Nurse. Thereafter, the evening’s programmes presented the uncomfortable juxtaposition of Tommy Cooper and a discussion on sex education, followed by News at Ten, with a drama and a religious item rounding off the day.
Despite its new name, Thames maintained continuity with what had gone before, and production continued uninterrupted on popular series such as Opportunity Knocks, Public Eye, Never Mind The Quality, Feel the Width, and The Avengers. The only noticeable difference for viewers was that these series, which had traditionally aired at weekends in the Midlands and North, were now shifted to weekday evenings. The first weeks were tough for the new company: industrial action flared up within days, and the unrest soon spread to the other regions, leading to the emergency measure of a management-run ITV national service, which kept the network on air until the dispute had been resolved.
One of Thames’ first innovations was to investigate the logistics of running a separate film production division, and as a trial, a short filmed series for children was commissioned. The Tyrant King, directed by Mike Hodges and adapted for the screen by Trevor Preston, was based on an adventure story created to encourage young people to explore London by public transport, and as such provided an ideal testing ground for location work around the capital, using a small 16mm film crew. The experiment proved a success, and Euston Films was born: a division of Thames that would go on to produce some of its most successful series.
Back at its Teddington production base (the former home of ABC), Thames produced videotaped drama, sitcoms and factual series, including many of ITV’s most enduring comedies (Father, Dear Father, Man About the House), the perennially popular Benny Hill Show, and innovative new series for children such as Trevor Preston’s Ace of Wands. The next big development at ITV was the introduction of colour broadcasts in 1969, and the same year saw the beginning of production on the network’s most ambitious documentary series to date, Thames’ prestigious The World at War, which would be four years in the making.
The 1970s was the golden age for Thames, with a line-up that included quality film productions such as The Sweeney, Minder, Danger UXB and Quatermass, alongside heavyweight VT drama series like Rumpole of the Bailey, Van Der Valk, Rock Follies and Hazell. Where the BBC had once led the way in serious drama productions, ITV now came to the fore, with challenging new productions including Thames’ award-winning The Naked Civil Servant. The decade was not without its problems, however, the most serious being the industrial action (originating at Thames) that blacked out the entire ITV network for ten weeks during the summer and early autumn of 1979.
The 1980s saw Thames embroiled in controversy when it attempted to poach the highly successful Dallas series from the BBC in a deal that resulted in the station being forced to sell the programme back to the BBC at a loss, in response to pressure from other ITV operators. Thames’ respected documentary strand This Week also courted controversy with its film Death on the Rock, examining the shooting of IRA members by British troops in Gibraltar. The programme contained statements later found to be libellous, although it would go on to win a BAFTA for Best Documentary.
Another disruptive strike occurred in 1984, sparked by a row about overtime payments and use of new technology. Once again, a management-run emergency service was put in place, and while the dispute had little noticeable effect outside the London area, Thames’ profits were almost halved for the 1984-85 period. A lacklustre stock market floatation occurred in 1986, and at around the same time, Carlton Communications made an unsuccessful bid to take over the company.
Ultimately, however, it would be Carlton who emerged victorious from the next round of franchise renewals in 1991, outbidding Thames for the London area contract. As a long-standing provider of ITV programming, Thames’ loss of the franchise was controversial, not least because of new rules governing the bidding process which were interpreted by many as having been politically motivated. Some commentators hinted that Mrs. Thatcher, angered at Death on the Rock, had instigated the changes in order to ensure Thames was stripped of its franchise, whilst others insisted the new rules were simply bringing the bidding process into line with Tory ideas on the free market economy.
Angered at the loss of their franchise, Thames dug in their heels, refusing to let Carlton advertise its new service on the network, and going to the High Court in a battle over the broadcasting rights to the hundreds of films in their library. Carlton prevailed, and within a short space of time, the brand had effectively taken over the ITV network, shouldering out the old regional identities, some of which had been in place since the 1950s. Carlton, in its turn, was bought by Granada plc in 2004, leading to the formation of ITV plc, which brings us up to the present day.
Like any good brand, Thames has never really gone away. Following its acquisition by FremantleMedia, the name was submerged in the Fremantle company Talkback Thames, before re-emerging as a production brand in its own right in 2012. Join us now in raising a glass to one of the outstanding names in British television production. Happy birthday, Thames!