Sunday, 2 November 2014

Television Kingdoms: Anglia, museum of the airwaves

I'm going on a virtual journey through the UK, having always viewed the country divided into television regions. Sod country boundaries and accents, my head says this rainy island in north west Europe is made up of bizarre and effectively-defunct television stations from the past.

A brief introduction to regional television

The first half of the word 'television' is ancient Greek for 'far-away', and at times it seems like TV does appear to be from a totally different world. If you're over 30 and experienced television in Britain when growing up, then you'll be familiar with the patchwork quilt that was the ITV regional system.

Basically, the fourteen far-flung companies who made the shows on the third button, all had a piece of the United Kingdom (and Channel Islands) all to themselves. Of immediate recognition to anyone with a vague passing interest in telly would be big hitters like Manchester's Granada; Leeds's Yorkshire Television; London's Thames and the self-explained London Weekend Television. Oh, and Birmingham's ATV which meta-morphed into Central in the 1980s.

These were the 'Big Five' who delivered the most familiar programmes seen on ITV. Coronation Street; Emmerdale Farm; World In Action; This Is Your Life; The Muppet Show; Crossroads; Rising Damp and basically any shiny-floored stuff featuring Cilla Black or Jeremy Beadle.

The rest of the ITV stations are sadly vague memories to most people. Newcastle's Tyne Tees; Cardiff and Bristol's HTV; Southampton's Southern (and later TVS); Norwich's Anglia; and Glasgow's STV did manage to get a fair few notable productions on the nationwide network here and there, like the occasional FA Cup win from a perennial Premier League mid-table floater.

These could reasonably be termed as a 'Medium Five', which does sound like I'm damning them with faint praise. However, it'd be churlish to ignore their ITV contributions, such as Robin Of Sherwood; Worzel Gummidge; Tales Of The Unexpected; Taggart and The Tube. Actually, that last one was made for Channel Four, and the closest ITV equivalent would be Top-Of-The-Pops-wannabe The Roxy, but let's try to forget that.

If those are the B-list, then we're left with the minnows - Aberdeen's Grampian; Belfast's Ulster; Carlisle's Border; Plymouth's Westward/TSW/WestCountry and St Helier's Channel Television. Rarely spotted, and usually giving some token filler material, like religious programming, schools and children's slots.

In this post-Alan-Partridge era, the idea of regional television is something that is laughed at, just parochial telly to look down your nose upon. Much of these regional companies have been merged into one big massive PLC that uses the ITV brand, through a series of mergers that took place throughout the Nineties and Noughties. As a result, regional ITV is reduced to about 30 mins at 6pm every evening, presenting the news from a galvanised shed on some charmless industrial estate.

With digital, we have at least 70 channels available to anyone, and the quality is spread rather thinly. 'Constructed reality' is the order of the day, with members of the public making up the cast, real-world locations being the backdrop and no proper writers to be paid. It's strange to think that the North East is now represented on the airwaves by orange-hued twat party Geordie Shore.

However, I'm acutely aware that I should never come across like some finger-wagging old man, sneering at anything new. Thus I cannot say "things were better in my day" without remembering that we had to put up with a metric Bobby-Davro-load of televisual shite.

Eastern promise

I kick off this tour of the UK from my own region, Anglia. Actually, whether or not it is my region is disputed. I live in Northamptonshire, which for many decades has received a none-too-shabby signal from the midlands, so we've had the option of watching the far cooler ATV/Central offerings. Considering my county is officially and legally in the East Midlands, I've felt like it was an anomaly in the first place that we've had Anglia on our screens.

Nonetheless, with Anglia being the strongest signal here, Anglian Water serving us with dihydrogen monoxide and various other businesses with Anglia/Anglian in their name, people in my hometown have come to think of us being part of East Anglia. This is despite the somewhat less-than-flat topology and the obvious lack of rural charm of somewhere like Southwold. Oh, and Birmingham's just 60 miles away, whereas Norwich will set you back 100 miles.

Rural retreats

Still, channel 3 in most homes was dominated by that horse-riding knight statuette, which only confirmed that Anglia was a station broadcasting direct from the 19th Century. Other stations had beautiful geometric symbols, we had to endure about three hours of a heraldic crest placed on a turntable.

Anglia's station ident wasn't the only thing rendered in silver. Most of the announcers between the programmes seemed to be upwards of fifty, so tuning into Anglia was like having your television run by your grandparents.

On my only visit to Norwich, and continuing a childhood mission to visit as many television HQs as possible, we popped into Anglia Television's reception and managed to see a two-foot replica of the Knight-on-a-Horse. In neighbouring glass cabinets, there were many other smaller replicas. One of these had to be The One, surely? Well, I use that excuse to say I've literally seen a famous television ident 'in the flesh', so to speak.

One slight relief in the presentation would be during the children's programmes, where we were treated to the anarchy of B.C., a leopard-y tiger-y lion-y puppet thing, who was the focal point of 'Birthday Club'. Viewers would get their birthdays read out on air by the announcer and have a wave from the aforementioned feline jester.

I recently learnt this tradition lives on over on CBeebies, thanks to a neighbour whose sprog had their birthday cited by the announcer.

The regional news, About Anglia, where we'd learn of ward closures at Addenbrooks Hospital or of a bus strike in Lowestoft, rarely touched on our county. However, a visit by Princess Diana to Wellingborough's Victoria Centre granted me a fleeting appearance on the telly, my first time on the gogglebox.

Ambitiously filling an hour of weekday evening schedule, About Anglia would often pad the programme out with a cookery slot called Patrick's Pantry (brought on to the strains of Hot Butter's synthpop hit, Popcorn and helmed by Patrick Anthony), and an amusingly humble attempt at Points Of View, entitled Write Now! This would be hosted by Paul Barnes, who would 'spike' every viewer letter after reading it out, on some strange mustachioed bust of Victorian police officer. It made no sense to me, but seemed to be cult viewing for my mum and dad, like a newspaper letters page put on the airwaves.

Other local fare included farming programmes. Pretty much every weekend was made up of them. If you switched on your telly on a Sunday lunchtime, you'd be faced with some gruff presenter helming Farming Diary, Farming Today, Farming Now, Farming Calendar, Farming Appointment, Farming Right This Second, Farming For Farms, or whatever it was called.

Obviously, with the transmission area for Anglia being largely rural, this is what you had to expect, but it was televisual anathema for this young viewer. Still, it's one of the purest examples of public service broadcasting, and you can't imagine the ITV of today even contemplating such output.

Speaking of which, Anglia were rather famed for their in-depth weather forecasts, and they'd be presented by a chap entitled Michael Hunt, who was never to be referred to as 'Mike' for obvious reasons. Weathergirl Becky Jago superceded him, and then went onto bigger fame as a Newsround presenter and Chris Tarrant's sidekick on Capital FM, before returning back to Norfolk as newsreader on Anglia News.

Aside from B.C., one regional announcer tended to go off-script. I'm referring to the nocturnal Paul Lavers, who did all the live night-time continuity throughout most of the nineties. He of the unusual hair colour, would go into free-form monologues and worry the management. It's the closest Anglia ever got to a Phillip Schofield or Andy Crane, and yet you'd probably only see him if you set the video for WCW Wrestling or Prisoner Cell Block H.

Serving the nation

Ask anyone outside the region what Anglia was best known for, and you can expect the words "Live from Norwich, it's the quiz of the week!" to be bellowed. This phrase always introduced Sale Of The Century, which was rather confusing to me, having expected to see a show genuinely called The Quiz Of The Week. (Still, Central's Family Fortunes was also bewildering with the first words on screen being 'Big Money'.)

Much parodied and derided, this low budget game show operated a shoestring and yet gained something like twenty million viewers nationwide around the late 1970s. It's probably Anglia's biggest known hit.

At some point in 1996 I had a job interview for a satellite TV station in central London, run by a former LWT programme director. When they asked me what region I came from, they all went into the Sale Of The Century theme tune. I should have cited the much cooler and hipper Central instead.

Other things Anglia made for nationwide consumption was the wildlife-observational spectacular Survival, which went all around the world to film exotic animals. Heavily highbrow and definitely worth to make, this was a time when ITV could be expected to create output that rivalled BBC2 as well as BBC1. It simply wouldn't happen today. Anglia milked this for all its worth, putting reruns of it out in their region long after it stopped being nationally transmitted.

And then of course, there is Britain's answer to The Twilight Zone. Tales Of The Unexpected ran for many series, introduced by a frail-looking Roald Dahl and showcasing a standalone 30 minute supernatural drama each night. Nowadays just boiled down to that silhouetted-naked-dancer title sequence for talking heads clips shows and tired comedians to re-enact.

Tales Of The Unexpected did meet its ambitions, albeit not with an Anglia production crew. It was largely made in London by non-Anglia employees.

"And for our younger viewers"

One chance for smaller broadcasters to build up their IBA-mandated national programme quota was with children's television. As I've detailed so far, Anglia seemed a century out of touch, so it's actually quite surprising that it was behind one of the most well-remembered children's programmes of all time.

Knightmare hit Children's ITV in the late 1980s, combining the geeky world of role playing with a much more respectable pseudo-video-game-like concept. It nearly didn't get made at all, as the Anglia management were adamant that any programme they made had to reflect their region - something that never bothered The Big Five.

Thankfully, by pointing out Cambridgeshire's contribution to home computing (what with the Acorn Electron and Sir Clive Sinclair) and Northamptonshire being home to various games producers (such as Activision), the board of directors were convinced, and Knightmare become cult viewing for several years. Child players were chrome-keyed against backdrops of beautifully hand-pixellated art, as live actors and animations posed as risks or even assistance.

Anglia's big blue-screen studio was also used for a little-remembered Alice In Wonderland playlet, proving that chrome key would suffice in lieu of an expensive studio construction budget. Impressively, Michael Bentine, Eric Sykes, Leonard Rossiter, Bernard Cribbins and Windsor Davies were on the voice cast list.

While Anglia never played a big role in the Saturday morning slot, it did take part in the Get Fresh and Ghost Train shows, which were vehicles (yes, literally) managed by Tyne Tees in order to let all the regions outside of the Big Five and the Number-73-producing TVS to have a crack at putting their region on air.

The Anglia region of course played host to a few of these shows, and they also contributed to every show of Get Fresh series 2 and 3 with gunge-as-punishment game show slot Get Mucky (scarily reconstructed on YouTube by a muck enthusiast in his home here). This is pretty much as close as Anglia would get to making a new Tiswas.

The game involved two children playing computer game Starglider against each other. The later series used Xenon (on the Atari ST, I believe). The losing child would have their friend stood on a plinth, as host Charlotte Hindle pulled a lever to drop a load of gunk or flour over them. We're a long way from Farming Diary now.

Speaking of Tiswas, Anglia was one of the first regions to simulcast ATV's flan-stained parade of anarchy, although it did made the stupid decision to drop the show in favour of Southern's Saturday Banana in 1978, along with a few other regions. After the 1979 strike, most regions backed the return Tiswas, although Anglia decided to take on the Saturday Banana again for a second series, which no other region (apart from Southern, obviously) bothered with. By 1980, Anglia and Southern were back with Tiswas. I'm pretty sure at one point, Anglia had their normally staid announcer Michael Speke flanned by a replica Phantom as the show was introduced. I'm not imagining that, am I?

In a convoluted way, Anglia is responsible for The Prodigy's success. The Braintree-based rave anthem makers definitely lived in the region, and their official biography tells of how Charly managed to become their breakthrough hit, thanks to a decision to rerun 1970s Bash-Street-Kids-as-live-action serial The Double Deckers on Saturday mornings in 1991. Whether it was due to irony or budget constraints, I'm not sure, but both Central and Yorkshire were also shoving it out in a similar timeslot.

In the commercial break, Anglia had stuffed in a few vintage Public Information Films. This is usually a sign that a station hasn't sold enough adverts for the slot, but with this rerun evoking nostalgia amongst the student-age generation, especially a 19-year-old Liam Howlett, it could be said it was a deliberate move.

Impressed with the "Charly says..." cartoon (where the cat was allegedly voiced by Kenny Everett), Liam set the video for the following week, hoping to grab the PIF to include the lines as samples over a Joey-Beltram-riff-infused track he had been working on.

Thankfully it was repeated, and the result is of course Charly, the band's second single yet their first appearance in the mainstream. The rest is of course, history. It's odd to think that such a massive hard-edged band with over two decades of hits, owes its success to a space-filling decision made at Anglia Television.

Thatcher lot

As the eighties were about to expire, so would the regional make-up of ITV itself. The 1990 Broadcasting Act meant the once-a-decade-ish renewal of television franchise would now take bank balances into account rather than programme quality. Wiser stations, such as LWT, had broken themselves up into production facilities, transmission, studio hire and archives, ready for a worst-case scenario if they were no longer to be part of the ITV network.

Sensing the regulatory authority ITC would take into account regional commitments (just as its predecessor the IBA did back in the early 1980s) when assessing renewals, Anglia quickly carved its rather large region up into two by the middle of 1990. Hence, the service became a bit like HTV's West and Wales offerings, and here in Northants, we were served by the refreshingly titled 'Anglia West'.

This was a huge breath of fresh air, as no longer would we have to suffer boring reports about surfers in Gorleston from 120 miles away, we could instead sit through a handful of stories about Luton job cuts, Cambridge students and the occasional report from our county!

Neighbouring region Central had already sliced itself up into two east/west options by 1984, and did another act of localising segregation with the creation of the Central South region in 1989. We had Central News East as competition to Anglia West, and yet if Wellingborough would be featured, they tended to use the same video as each other.

It took years for the BBC's Look East offering to do the same. Now satellite viewers in my area have the rather bafflingly titled 'BBC One East (W)' label at the top of the EPG.

Of course, with cost-cutting going throughout the cash-strapped ITV plc in the Noughties, the two services were once again unified. The regional split does technically exist for advertising purposes, but Anglia is barely considered in the modern operation of ITV. Every feed of Anglia on HD or +1 is superceded by Meridian. So if you're in Stamford and hoping for a local report, you'll have Eastbourne on your screen instead.

While it barely bothered with Channel Four, Anglia's parent company in the 1990s (United News & Media) had the station producing early Channel 5 shows hosted by Matthew Wright.

Anglia also played host to the terrible Trisha Goddard shoutathon, which are the spiritual ancestors to Jeremy Kyle's daily humiliation platform. Yeah, er, cheers for that. Trisha herself is now a fairly big name on American network NBC.

Anglia had a go at digital satellite broadcasting, like many active and inactive ITV franchise-holders did in the 1990s. In an out-of-character move, it transmitted dance/club channel RaptureTV, which has collapsed and been revived a number of times.

So, Anglia, as parochial as an ITV region can get, firmly rooted in its region and fairly proud of it, even if it meant losing out on the national limelight on many an occasion. Never shifted by any latecomers, this eastern-counties broadcaster has remained on air since its inception in 1959.

Where are they now?

I believe Paul Barnes married announcer Helen McDermott. Paul went onto host a jazz-infused evening show on BBC Radio Norfolk, called The Late Paul Barnes. It went on to do so well that it's now shared across all BBC local radio in the BBC East region and even BBC Radio Kent.

Chef Patrick Anthony also jumped over to BBC East, having a radio gig on BBC Radio Norfolk at one point, and also became part of Ready Steady Cook.

As you probably know, Nicholas Parsons hosts Just A Minute, Roald Dahl is currently dead.

Paul Lavers plunged himself to satellite broadcasting, taking a major part in shambolic premium-phoneline-dependent Friendly TV, where he possibly libelled a couple of Hollywood stars on one occasion. This cash-strapped channel was a rare example of a satellite station fronted by visible continuity announcers, and in its death throes, it had a few hours where Paul Lavers was literally presenting and managing every caption on screen. Friendly TV evolved (or devolved) into one of those Babestation type affairs, and so now Paul treads the boards, having been an experienced thespian well before Anglia gave him a pay cheque.

As for Anglia itself? The regional archive is held by the University of East Anglia. Anglia's news output for the entire region emanates from Norfolk.

Paul Hayes has commented below this blog entry to correct me on a few things, which I'm grateful for. He points out: "...after selling off most of the latter bits, they're back just in the original building they started off in in 1959, the old Agricultural Hall. There's a story that the reason they don't leave this bigger-than-they-need property is that a condition of the lease is that they must return it to the condition in which they took it on, which would be very expensive, but I have no idea of the truth of that."

Good knight

And that's that. Quite a lengthy blog post, as I've lived in this region all of my life, plus I had to write a few paragraphs on the whole concept of this series of posts. If you've made it this far, give yourself a pat on the back and book yourself in for a viewing marathon of Tales Of The Unexpected.


Paul Hayes said...

Anglia's news output isn't based in Cambridge, it's based at Anglia House in Norwich. Indeed, after selling off most of the latter bits, they're back just in the original building they started off in in 1959, the old Agricultural Hall. There's a story that the reason they don't leave this bigger-than-they-need property is that a condition of the lease is that they must return it to the condition in which they took it on, which would be very expensive, but I have no idea of the truth of that.

Not sure what your UEA comment means - the UEA don't, as far as I know, own any old Anglia property, although they may be partners in EPIC, the independent entity that runs what used to be Anglia's other Norwich studios, on Magdalen Street.

Peter Thomas said...

Hi Paul, thank you for the corrections. I've updated the blog entry accordingly.

Paul Hayes said...

No problem!

Stephen Cummings said...

I liked ITV when it had regional channels. These days, the only thing worth watching on it is are the commercials.