Part Two: 1960s – 1980s

Robin Carmody on Radio and TV Times

First published July 2000

If there are – as some insist – only three distinct periods of ITV history, then the transition from the first to the second unquestionably took effect in the summer of 1968.

Shortly after the Rediffusion star and ABC triangle faded from the screen, and the familiar names of Thames, LWT and Yorkshire arrived on the scene within one week (HTV had succeeded TWW earlier in the year) the TV Times became a truly national magazine for the first time, with the local magazines that played its role in certain areas abolished (although the tiny Channel Television, subject of so many “TV in miniature” clichés over the years, was uniquely allowed to continue its magazine, The Channel Viewer, because of the revenue gained from it, without which the company would probably have gone under). In its first “national” week in September 1968 it went through a major redesign for this new era, putting on its front cover an approximation of what Lulu would look like, aged 40, in 1988 (they did indeed interview her about 20 years later, but naturally made no reference to this, or any aspect of their past, by then). Inside that issue was a wonderful prediction of “life in 1988″. All that “house of the future” stuff has become clichéd now, and looking back on it is not the thrilling and exotic experience it was five years ago, with all the sniggering that has gone on since, but let’s just say that this TV Times article, with its silvery-grey video recorder about the only thing that ever did happen, is the absolute peak, the quintessence, of all late ’60s populist futurism.

But the magazine seemed a little unwieldy in its early days as a national publication, much like ITV itself, which was afflicted by a major strike in the summer of 1968 and had to create a nationwide emergency service, and then suffered disastrous ratings for the next few months. The design seemed cumbersome, the pages too large, the typefaces awkward. It improved considerably with a streamlining in 1969, and by the following year it had not only its clearest and most aesthetically pleasing design ever, but also a quality and literacy of its journalism utterly at odds with its reputation, but suiting the optimism of ITV itself in 1970, as the new structure became stronger and more successful, the coming of colour widened the scope available to programme-makers (especially in children’s television, which showed a miraculous improvement almost overnight) and the BBC went through a lull in creativity as the cautious middlebrow Charles Curran replaced the fearless radical Sir Hugh Greene. For example, an article by legal expert Fenton Bresler entitled “Let the Punishment Fit the Crime” in the 14 – 20 February edition served as an absolutely fascinating and invaluable account of social tensions, reactions and general feelings on the cusp of the 1960s and 1970s, but you wouldn’t imagine for a moment that it was in the TV Times. Yet it was. 1970 was a remarkable year for that magazine, which journalistically it would never surpass.

Over at the BBC, the Radio Times between late 1967 and August 1969 was a fascinating stylistic hotchpotch which was easily the magazine’s messiest design ever. Its fascination, though, is that of so many cultural products of the 1960s – the way the old and new, the joyously futuristic and already archaic, are pushed next to each other. At least 10 typefaces were used regularly, and the fascination comes from the way they still felt it necessary to use a particularly old-fashioned (even by then) italic typeface which had been in regular use since at least 1950. I have a soft spot for the extraordinary variety of a summer 1969 RT, with its late ’60s iconography mixed in with the ’50s formality of the typefaces, but it was overdue a major facelift and aesthetic cleanup, and it got it in the 6 – 12 September 1969 issue largely due to the efforts of the 29 year old Geoffrey Cannon, who edited the magazine from that year until 1980 (Douglas Williams, editor from 1954 onwards, retired in early 1968 and was succeeded by Campbell Nairne, who was himself close to retirement, so RT in late 1968 was being edited by a veteran aware that his time was nearly up, which is very much the impression given by that design). This new look displayed all the clarity and straightforwardness of the best turn-of-the-decade promotional material, and stands as something of a classic. Unlike so many of its successors, it gets over all it needs to say without much fuss, but with great style and a perfect mix of simplicity and detail.

Round about 1972, as it began giving great publicity to the new daytime schedules (which went all out to appeal to that clichéd “housewives” audience it has tended to be associated with) the TV Times dropped its literary pretensions and became a more openly populist magazine, but nonetheless a very good one. Until 1981, it would be to mass-market magazines what the Daily Mirror of the 1950s was to mass-market newspapers – the best and definitive example of its type. The 24 – 30 March 1973 issue is, as you might expect, brought down by a feature, written by ’70s TVT regular Dave Lanning, on the girls who featured on The Benny Hill Show (or rather “Benny’s Birds”). It’s as embarrassingly dated in its attitudes as you can imagine: “Without a doubt, they are television’s maids to measure. The Benny Hill Birds. Basically blonde, fantastically frontal and carrying all before them, there is at least one in every production of The Benny Hill Show and every red-blooded British male is jolly grateful.” I don’t think I need to quote any more. But that issue, despite the poor quality of much of the content, was superbly designed throughout. TV Times of this era is as definitive a ’70s time capsule as can be imagined – and the symbols used in the programme pages for most of the decade (goalkeeper and ball in the net for The Big Match, motel insignia for Crossroads, school images for ITV Schools programmes) remain design classics. The best years were probably 1975 – 79, when TV Times provided a perfect reflection of ITV’s fair and level balance between unabashed entertainment shows and cultural ambition and aspiration, and the “futuristic” design touches introduced in 1980 are also excellent. But after that ….

As for the Radio Times, it never ceased to be a superb mirror of the BBC’s activities, but unfortunately it took several aesthetic steps back during the 1970s. Various embellishments around 1972/73 adversely affected the simplicity and clarity of the original new dawn of 1969, and then a major redesign introduced in the 5 – 11 July, 1975 issue removed the attractive lighter typeface used since September 1969, replacing it with the familiar darker-shaded look which would dominate for nearly a decade. While this is far from the worst RT design, it is in my opinion considerably the most overrated – not only does it look plain, uninspiring and unprepossessing compared to what had come before, but it ensures that Radio Times of the mid-late ’70s and early ’80s look, in relative terms, more stylistically antediluvian than those of 1961.

However good the journalism might be (and it was frequently excellent), they still had a rather antiquated look and feel, not helped by the notoriously low quality of the paper (colour pages were printed by a different process and had to go to press six weeks before the rest of the magazine) which was looking very outmoded by 1983. A protracted printers’ strike that year sent the magazine through a bewildering series of changes at rapid speed – several issues were not published at all, and the typefaces used seemed to alter every week. What emerged, in 1984, was the banishing to history of the newsprint style RT had used ever since its inception 61 years before, and a new look emerged out of the aesthetic chaos of the immediate past. The functional and excellent “Today – At A Glance” feature was introduced, but it needed a bit of fine-tuning, which was done in 1985 by reducing the page sizes, and reducing the size of the typefaces on the programme pages, pushing the individual listings closer to each other and removing the untidy elements of the first “magazine format” design.

A large part of me would rate the 1985 – 87 Radio Times design as the best the magazine has ever had – the clarity of each day’s listings was impeccable, and the writing style in the programme pages uncharacteristically clever and witty. It began to go downhill, I think, with the alterations of September 1987, when it came to seem flashier and gaudier (the typeface on the programme pages increased in size, and the untidiness of the original 1984 look seemed to reappear) and the changes in the autumn of 1988 increased this feeling – not helped by the reduced size of the typeface for the titles of children’s programmes, as if they were merely parts of Children’s BBC rather than programmes in themselves, and the introduction at this point of My Kind Of Day and a number of other features which would have seemed more appropriate in the pages of a women’s magazine or, indeed, TV Times.

But as British broadcasting was affected by more and more talk of deregulation, more “choice” and a “new age” to come in the 1990s, encouraged by Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative government, which had always shown a deep distrust of the BBC, it was becoming increasingly obvious in early 1989 – as Sky Television launched and within its first week took the exclusive rights to a Frank Bruno-Mike Tyson fight from ITV – that a series of dramatic and violent changes to the nature of the Radio Times, the BBC, and British broadcasting itself, were lying just around the corner.

<Part One: 1930s-1960s