By Ian Jones

First published October 2005

Undeterred by industry dispatches forecasting terminal decline, unconcerned by wildly inconsistent ratings, unrestrained by any need to appease licence-payers, ITV spent September 2005 doing what it does best: putting on a show.

The network celebrated its 50th birthday in typically shameless style, rolling out heavyweight stars to helm extravagant spectaculars in order to salute a half-century of critical and commercial success. The serious bit, all the nuts and bolts and behind-the-camera shenanigans of the last 50 years, had been got out the way much earlier in the year courtesy of, naturally, Melvyn Bragg. Now was the time for the real deal: noisy cavalcades, famous faces talking about their favourite shows, the Coronation Street casting toasting themselves in the Rovers Return – just what you’d expect, really, and all the better for it.

It was refreshing to once again see ITV kicking back and indulging in what, literally from the outset, it’s been able to do with a flair and panache pretty much unsurpassed in British television history. The country’s traditionally most-watched channel can still roll out top-notch entertainment extravaganzas, if not as frequently and with as much imagination as before. But then throughout its history ITV has lived in the shadow of its extraordinarily accomplished past. After all, it’s the only British TV channel to have been a hit from day one. Finding new ways to rekindle the old magic has been one of the most enduring themes of ITV’s 50 years on air.

OTT’s tribute to this illustrious anniversary takes two forms. Firstly, we’ve assembled a roll call of 50 of ITV’s most significant programmes, arranged chronologically with one for each year the channel’s been on air. They aren’t necessarily the best shows ITV has ever produced, but they’re our pick of the most striking, telling, and – for good or bad – memorable to have made it onto screen. In addition, we’ve compiled a selection of 10 crucial dates from ITV’s history, when an important event impacted upon the network and, quite often, changed it forever.

One element that has magically manifested itself, Chesire cat-like, throughout ITV’s existence has been its ability to look favourably upon itself even in the midst of calamity. This capacity to manufacture outrageous cheer in the darkest of hours (and there have been a hell of a lot of them: strikes, financial catastrophe, falling audiences, mammoth flops), undoubtedly means the network will be celebrating once more come its 60th anniversary, and again on its 75th, maybe even its 100th. Precisely what kind of an ITV will be doing the celebrating, however, remains to be seen. But that’s something that will just make the next star-encrusted half-century all the more fascinating.