1955 – 1964

By Ian Jones, Chris Hughes, Graham Kibble-White, Jack Kibble-White, Steve Williams and Simon Tyers

First published October 2005

Throughout its history ITV has nonchalantly perpetrated some of the greatest triumphs and embarrassing misfires to grace British television screens. If the quality of its output has been inconsistent, however, its response to the challenge mounted by its rivals has never wavered: to try and do things its own way.

To best reflect such a grand innings, we’ve picked a programme from each of ITV’s 50 years that, while not always the most popular or accomplished, seems to typify the state of the channel at that point in its history. The list, we hope, best represents the changing fortunes, and the never-changing foibles, of the most single-minded and successful TV station in Britain.

1955 – Double Your Money

The first of many innovations ITV sprang upon the nation at large (not to mention an unsuspecting BBC) was its intention to put real people on television. This was none more evident than in its attitude towards game shows. Before commercial TV, the Beeb had contended itself with parlour contests such as What’s My Line? and Animal, Vegetable, Mineral involving society figures partaking in whimsical riddles. ITV, however, launched the first British television shows to offer a cash prize and to welcome identifiably “normal” participants. Double Your Money took this to extremes with 15-year-old accounts clerk Monica Rose, who won only £8 on the programme but proved so popular she was eventually brought back as a hostess. Dapper presenter Hughie Green, meantime, was just the sort of showman who could take a rather simplistic format – a series of questions each worth double the last, with a jackpot of £1000 – and inject enough razzmatazz to make it a hugely popular success.

Some aspects of Double Your Money seem utterly archaic from a modern perspective, chiefly the demented, never-ending list of categories from which contestants could choose to answer questions, including Bridge, opera, good housekeeping, meteorology and, best of all, jazz (traditional) and jazz (modern). Yet the show, along with its stablemate Take Your Pick, started a tradition for lively, compelling ITV quizzes that has thus far continued for half a century. Both programmes were discontinued in 1968 thanks to the loss of Associated-Rediffusion’s franchise and a feeling at the Independent Television Authority (ITA) that each had been running for too long. Both, typically, were replaced by virtually identical series, Take Your Pick‘s Michael Miles spinning the Wheel of Fortune and Green helming the “National Knowledge Contest” The Sky’s the Limit, with even Rose still on board. Double Your Money would live on in spirit, though, and four decades later a similar no-nonsense cash-based quiz show would thrill the public in equal measure.

1956 – The Adventures of Sir Lancelot

One of the most enduring characteristics of ITV has been its ability to uncover gaps or weaknesses in its opposition’s armoury and then exploit them ruthlessly, usually to great success. After game shows, the second genre targeted for attack by the fledgling network was the historical adventure series. It may have been an obvious choice – the BBC simply didn’t make any – but lack of imagination in subject matter was more than made up for by a surfeit of suspense, derring-do and, above all, buckets of celebrities. Money was hurled at these shows from the off, and the result were eminent personalities such as Richard Greene, Donald Pleasance and Paul Eddington (ATV’s The Adventures of Robin Hood), and Marius Goring and Patrick Troughton (Associated-Rediffusion’s The Scarlet Pimpernel) parading across millions of screens every weeknight.

Other period romps established a number of new stars, notably Roger Moore (Ivanhoe), Robert Shaw (The Buccaneers), and, in this case, William Russell. Producer Sidney Cole had a hand in almost all of these ATV antique affairs, and his casting of the hitherto unknown Russell as the titular Knight of the Round Table handed commercial TV one of its first pin-ups. While academics moaned the show was erroneously set in the 14th rather than the 6th century, The Adventures of Sir Lancelot typified the huge popularity of these roustabouts, all of which dated from ITV’s first five years and none of which survived into the more discerning, contemporary-obsessed 1960s. Still, its legacy lived on in the shape of a time-travelling curmudgeon (Russell graduating to become one of the first Doctor Who companions) and cartoon cut-out chicanery (the BBC’s splendid Sir Prancelot).

1957 – Lunch Box

A shoo-in for a place in the 10 most iconic female faces of ITV, Noele Gordon’s relationship with the small screen was as old as television itself. She began as a supporting player in numerous dramas on the BBC’s shoestring pre-war TV service, leant her talents to John Logie Baird’s colour transmission experiments in the 1940s, then made a name for herself as a star of stage musicals before chancing her luck in America. But it wasn’t until she was coaxed back to the UK in 1955 to take up the drab-sounding role of “women’s programmes advisor” at ATV that her career really blossomed.

This turned out to be anything but a boring desk job and instead a shameless excuse to have Noele front as many shows at as many times of the day as possible. It worked, however, thanks to the way the affection in which she was held by the public guaranteed anything she did became a success. The results, including Tea With Noele Gordon, a few sports shows, the cross-promoting advertiser-friendly About Homes and Gardens and sitcom The Most Likely Girl were all well-received, but Lunch Box was the biggest hit. It pioneered an instantly popular mix of live music, informal lifestyle features and idle gossip – in short, the formula of every daytime magazine show ever since. It made Noele the face of the Midlands and the obvious choice to headline ATV’s first daily soap in 1964. Naturally enough, when Crossroads was eventually networked across the country, she became a much-deserved national institution.

1958 – Sunday Night at the London Palladium

For many, Sunday Night at the London Palladium invented the notion of family viewing. “That was a great show,” says Lionel Blair today, “because people saw stars they’d only seen in movies, and suddenly there they were live on the stage.” Before the birth of ITV, television was arguably still in the thrall of radio, with visuals a strictly perfunctory part of the entertainment experience. When Palladium premiered in September 1955 with a line-up boasting Gracie Fields, Guy Mitchell the Tiller Girls and compère Tommy Trinder, it quickly became apparent that for the first time British audiences were being offered an actual spectacle. This was television to really look at, not simply sound with moving pictures.

The result was electrifying, famously prompting vicars to alter the time of their evening services to avoid clashing with transmission. Flinging everything at the screen, Palladium was the epitome of something for everyone television. But despite the disparate nature of its acts, it was largely powered by just one big player in the variety business: Lew Grade. Airing on his network (ATV), it acted as a handy shop front to promote his roster of talent (future presenters Bob Monkhouse and Norman Vaughan would both go on to host numerous series for him), while his collaboration with the show’s creator and legendary booker Val Parnell resulted in regular appearances from American stars. By 1958 Bruce Forsyth was at the helm, and within two years Palladium was achieving what were, at the time, record viewing figures, peaking when – of all people – Harry Secombe put in an appearance on the famous revolving stage. The show later slipped from grace, the curtain falling in 1967 before an ill-fated revival fronted by Jim Dale in 1973. Yet its impact on the world of entertainment can still be felt today, not least in the enduring popularity of Brucie and his latest vehicle, Strictly Come Dancing. The status of Sunday Night at the London Palladium as the ultimate in appointment-to-view TV will never be bettered.

1959 – No Hiding Place

Surly exchanges about fishing trips “up the country” and which of the “shorthand ladies” was going to type up this week’s incident reports wasn’t quite the departure from Dixon of Dock Green viewers had been promised, but over time (236 episodes) No Hiding Place eked out enough of its own quirky personality and stylish aplomb to become ITV’s first hit crime drama. It certainly had more panache than its BBC rival, thanks chiefly to Raymond Francis’s debonair portrayal as DCS Tom Lockhart. For all the endless on-screen snuff-taking and pheasant-shooting, plus the fact he looked about 70, Francis brought a freshness and spirit to his role as one of Scotland Yard’s finest that you never got with the lumbering, homely George Dixon. Lockhart was somehow less passive and presumptuous. His was a police service that was self-aware, sceptical and – through sidekicks such as DS Harry Baxter (Eric Lander) and DS Russell (Johnny Briggs) – leaning towards the aggressive.

No Hiding Place‘s slickness belied the fact it was almost always transmitted live, and foreshadowed the tone of later ITV anthology efforts such as The Strange Report starring Anthony Quayle, and Special Branch with Derren Nesbitt, George Sewell and Patrick Mower. It was also itself a sequel to Lockhart’s earlier, equally popular escapades Murder Bag (1957 – 59) and Crime Sheet (1959). This, plus the fact that No Hiding Place kept going until 1967, meant that Lockhart ultimately notched up enough years on duty to remain ITV’s longest-serving gentleman of the law until the arrival of Inspector Morse in 1987.

1960 – Armchair Theatre

Launched within 12 months of ITV’s birth and soldiering on right through to 1974, ABC’s Armchair Theatre flew in the face of criticism that the infant commercial channel was concerned with fripperies and fancies and nothing but. The very idea of using an anthology drama series to premier new work penned specifically for the small screen was groundbreaking, simultaneously an acknowledgement that TV was something to be taken seriously and an important prompt for a host of scribes to switch their attention from the stage to the nation’s drawing rooms. The strand came into its own in 1959, a year after future Doctor Who creator Sydney Newman had been installed as producer, with “No Tram to Lime Street”. A self-consciously earthy, grimy, out-of-London affair, which won Alun Owen the Guild of TV Producers and Directors’ Award for Best Scriptwriter (and for his first TV play to boot), it called attention to a number of obsessions which Armchair Theatre would go on to exploit endlessly, in turn earning itself the appropriate nickname “Armpit Theatre”.

There was occasional glamour – Diana Dors made her ITV debut in 1960′s “The Innocent” – and fantasy, such as Owen’s beauty-and-the-beast parable “The Rose Affair” (1961). But grit remained the overriding watchword, summed up by 1960′s “A Night Out”, Harold Pinter’s debut TV work. It wouldn’t be until 1963, when new producer Leonard White inaugurated an open door for celebrities and more accessible offerings, that the dour stereotype began to fade. Spin-offs like the sci-fi themed Out of This World and the tantalisingly-titled Armchair Mystery Theatre kept momentum going right through the 1960s, and when Thames took over the reins in 1968 there was still enough life in the strand to give birth to Armchair Cinema. By this time, of course, the BBC were more than holding their own, but ITV were there first and, as ever, did it their way.

1961 – Emergency – Ward 10

These days Coronation Street is looked on as the elder statesman of soap opera: an impossibly ancient serial that has been around for longer than all but two British television channels. Back in 1961, however, it was still considered something of an upstart. Emergency – Ward 10 had already been running for four years and had established itself as a permanent fixture amongst ITV’s top five most-watched programmes. Indeed, the hospital soap nestled just behind No Hiding Place and department store-based Harper’s West One as commercial TV’s best-loved drama. Broadcast every Tuesday and Friday from 1957 to 1966, and thereafter once a week for its last year, Emergency – Ward 10 was ITV’s first twice-weekly serial as well as its first ever medical-based soap.

Set around the fictional Oxbridge General hospital (with its remarkable mortality rate of only five deaths per year, later cut to an even more impressive two), it intertwined stories of medical procedures with the lives and loves of its doctors and nurses. Though formulaic in nature, the soap occasionally broke new ground such as introducing an inter-racial relationship between Jamaican born Dr Louise Mahler and Dr Giles Farmer. The powers-that-be at ATV stopped short of any bedroom scenes, however, instead confining the twosome’s relationship to a peck on the cheek in the hospital garden. Later attempts to beef things up, such as engineering a plane crash almost 30 years before Phil Redmond tried it for Emmerdale, seemed to alienate the audience, leading to Emergency – Ward 10‘s cancellation in 1967 due to poor viewing figures. Yet in truth the show’s pre-eminence had been supplanted as far back as August 1961, when Coronation Street had, for the first time, beaten it in the ratings. From that month on, the denizens of Oxbridge General would never consistently outperform the residents of Weatherfield again.

1962 – University Challenge

Feargal Sharkey might have been branded a cabbage by his cousin for his hatred of Granada’s intellectual boat race, but against all the odds somehow the rest of the nation embraced University Challenge and took compère Bamber Gascoigne to its heart. The British public has always been a bit suspicious of eggheads, boffins and smart alecs, especially those educated at the taxpayer’s expense, so it’s a testament to the programme – modelled on the USA’s College Bowl – that practically everything about it has seeped into the national consciousness. From “your starter for 10″ to that oddball theme music, and the amusing split-screen effect that made it look as though one team was sitting on top of the other, it was all here every Sunday afternoon, and all devastatingly parodied by The Young Ones.

In the 1980s, they actually did make the teams sit on top of each other, but it just wasn’t the same. Even those scarves and gonks the contestants placed on their desks permeated their way into Blockbusters. University Challenge is testimony to Granada’s original ethos that entertainment needn’t be all about big prizes and dollybirds; some tricky questions, a shy bloke in a corduroy jacket and a gong could be just as compelling, thank you. Besides, the audience might even learn something, even if it’s just how to pronounce Magdalen College. The programme has since been successfully revived on BBC2, of course, although the typical undergraduate has changed since it began in 1962. There’s not much chance of a team mounting a protest against alleged Oxbridge bias by answering “Trotsky” to every question, as happened in 1975. The once rarefied cloisters of education are now open to more of us than ever, and the perception that students are either punting toffs or bearded redbrick firebrands has disappeared forever. University Challenge deserves a little of the credit for that, perhaps, and for helping to change our attitudes to academia. It’s one of the ironies of television history that its most enduring serious quiz is a product not of the BBC, but of ITV.

1963 – On the Braden Beat

Hailing from Vancouver and with a background in serious acting, Bernard Braden’s route to becoming the country’s first TV consumer affairs champion was as whimsical as it was tortuous. Moving to Britain in 1949 he did stints on stage and radio before graduating through children’s programmes, sitcom, commentary (the Coronation), sport and panel games (The Brains Trust) to numerous entertainment-based efforts with his missus such as the wonderfully-titled BBC extravaganza An Evening at Home with Bernard Braden and Barbara Kelly. A lucrative contract with ATV was supposed to lead to similar variety-led affairs, but the outcome was utterly unique.

On the Braden Beat, launched in 1962, was a late-night weekly cauldron of contemporary revue, live cabaret and – incongruously at first – investigations into consumer complaints. If the format was rickety and unfamiliar, however, its content was of immediate appeal. Within a year the show had won a Guild of Television Award and propelled many of its contributors such as Tim Brooke-Taylor and Jake Thackery towards stardom. It outperformed and outran rivals such as That Was the Week that Was, boasted regular guests such as Peter Cook, and Braden’s profile soared to the extent he was voted Variety Club ITV Personality of the Year in 1965. Eventually the Beeb came a-wooing, tempting him back to Television Centre in 1968 for the lookalike Braden’s Week with one Esther Rantzen amongst its contributors. It wasn’t to last, Braden getting the chop for his brazen decision to become the face of Stork margarine on ITV, and Esther quickly usurping her benefactor in terms of ubiquity. But for all of the subsequent stature of That’s Life!, the urbane and witty Canadian had done it first, and with bags more charm.

1964 – Ready, Steady, Go!

One of those shows which far more people talked about than ever actually watched, Ready, Steady, Go! just pipped Top of the Pops to become the first pop programme to end up a nationwide phenomenon. It turned as many heads as stomachs amongst viewers (kids no doubt just as bemused as adults by some of the more wilfully obscure acts shipped in from the States) but for those who’d made the effort to get picked to appear in the studio audience the experience was clearly revelatory. Launched in 1963 and by far the most blatantly boisterous music show on British telly to date, RSG! shook up the industry (both music and TV) as much if not more than the attitudes of the record-buying public, not least through to its appointment-to-view gimmicks (“The Weekend Starts Here!”) and use of non-professional hosts. Kathy McGowan’s wayward manner and near-inarticulate enthusiasm when dispensing even the simplest of introductions ushered in the age of the amateur TV anchor, and helped establish an association between music/youth-orientated shows and shambolic presentation that remains to this day.

In a piece of typical amusing ITV bureaucracy, the programme was axed in 1966 just as British pop was on a roll, thereby helping the Beeb gain a dominance in mainstream music television which ITV would never ever be able to break. As a bizarre epilogue, for some reason Dave Clark (of the Dave Clark Five) ended up owning the rights to RSG! and promptly re-packaged it as a series of compilation shows. These eventually aired on Channel 4 in the 1980s to an assuredly far greater audience than the one which saw it the first time round.