Tuesday, 29 December 2015

Television Kingdoms: Yorkshire, Hill Communication

Remember that tour of the UK via television regions that I said I'd be doing? Started over a year ago and I haven't been arsed with blogging since. Well, somewhere over Stamford I conked out, just needed a jumpstart and here I am in the next spot, Yorkshire...

TV for thee

Even if you're not a telly nerd, you must be familiar with 'the Big Five'. The ITV franchises that dominated prime time in the days before it all turned into a unified mush of soaps, TOWIE, Kyle and Cowell. I'm referring to Thames; LWT; Granada; ATV/Central and Yorkshire.

Well, this is my first step into the territory of the Big Five and I dare say YTV is the smallest out of that elite ITV tier. In fact, Yorkshire's area was formerly served by neighbouring Granada on weekdays, with ABC - who would go on to become 51% of Thames) taking weekends. That was all before the 1968 change in the network.

There's something about the northern England, where it appears to those of us outside it, that they tend to hate each other, with the Pennines being a major dividing line between the north west folk and Yorkshiremen. Of course, I'm fairly sure hostilities ended in 1487 and the peoples are united in their hatred of anyone south of Worksop.

Why TV

So, I've travelled up here from my base in Anglia. And hey, the roads tell me to "keep two chevrons apart". Ha ha ha! You see? Because, um, Yorkshire's on-screen identity was a chevron. (Okay, that gag needs some work.)

According to many telly nostalgia forum users, the parping yellow chevron drilled fear into them as a child. Not for me, it just signalled the start of Tim Brooke-Taylor-narrated cartoon Gideon.

Having barely visited the region in my childhood (despite it being the birthplace for everyone on my mother's side) I can't really say I've had memories of growing up with the service. We holidayed for two weeks every year, but my parents tended to have 'northophobia', citing "the cold" as a reason to head southbound. Only twice was this rule broken - Blackpool and Scarborough.

On the Aire...

Come the age of the internet, my first meeting with someone online was over in Sheffield. A chap called Chris - a huge Sheffield Wednesday fan - took me on a walking tour of the Steel City. Fans of the Owls don't have a lot of respect for Leeds-based Yorkshire Television, with the station opting not to show any of Wednesday's post-match celebrations over Manchester United in the 1991 League Cup final, even though many other regions continued showing a rightfully exuberant SWFC.

YTV had decided that its viewers would enjoy the scheduled American import, War Of The Monster Trucks. Such disdain for Sheffield has had accusations slung over at Kirkstall Road for having a bias to West Yorkshire. The incident spawned a Wednesday fanzine to sarcastically adopt the name. Indeed, my online friend described the regional news show as CaLeedsar. Admittedly, that's a rather weak pun, but seeing as I've just used a gag about road chevrons, who am I to complain?

So, for those you that don't know, Yorkshire is actually four counties. It's also our true midlands, if you take Great Britain into consideration. As such, playing cricket, regarding tea as a science and moaning about change - all Yorkshire stereotypes - can be considered the beating heart of our country.

There are three things on British television that convey their own vision of Yorkshire to the rest of the country. Last Of The Summer Wine; Emmerdale and Heartbeat. The first one, undoubtedly a stalwart of the BBC schedules up until recently, portrayed the massive hills and valleys to the point where they actually played a part in the comedy.

Woolpacking in them

I really really wish I could state that Rising Damp has been Yorkshire Television's biggest and most prolific export, but the sorry truth is that it's Emmerdale, ITV's 'B' soap, has that title. Probably the biggest money spinner for the franchise, the farm-based serial started life as Emmerdale Farm - filler for afternoons in 1972 when the IBA allowed ITV to broadcast non-stop through the day.

As someone with no time for soaps, I've very little to say on them, but even I recognise Emmerdale. The earworming melody of the theme tune followed by 27 minutes of rural tedium. It was a sneered-upon parochial offering back in the day, at a time when ATV's Crossroads was neck-and-neck in a prime-time war with Coronation Street from Granada.

Of course, by the early Noughties, the roles were reversed. Crossroads was the daft hopeless afternoon filler, whereas Emmerdale had already cemented its place in the evening schedules thanks to a 1993 plane crash storyline. That epoch had turned the soap from dreary Archers-on-TV mediocrity to being an eyebrow-raising 'drama serial' with realism-defying incidents. A bit like every other prime time soap on telly.

I'll recognise Rising Damp as the greatest thing Yorkshire Television have ever produced. It's a bit of a cliche, but most folk will agree it's the best sitcom ITV have ever made. To this day, it deservedly forms part of the ITV3 listings. Miserly landlord Rupert Rigsby, with his right-wing leanings, is played brilliantly as a pathetic petty character by Leonard Rossiter. Students Alan (Richard Beckinsdale) and Philip (Don Warrington) were the target of Rigsby's spite.

Alan's hippy-esque ways and, sadly, Philip's skin colour, would bring out the worst in Rigsby. Thankfully, he always came a cropper, making it a delight to see an on-screen bigot fail every week, just like Alf Garnett over on the Beeb. Unifying all the male tenants' attention was spinster Ruth Jones (Frances De La Tour).

Having established a ratings hit, Yorkshire kept Rising Damp's writer Eric Chappell employed throughout the 1970s and 1980s. Subsequent sitcoms from his pen were Only When I Laugh; The Bounder; Duty Free; Home to Roost; Singles and Haggard. Of those, I could only say I heard of Duty Free and Home To Roost. Rising Damp was always going to be a tough act to follow.

Les is more

A huge face in comedy, figuratively and literally, Les Dawson had won ABC's talent show Opportunity Knocks in 1967. He went on to be compere on BBC2's International Cabaret. In 1969, with Yorkshire Television being a year old, he was signed up for their comedy panel show Jokers Wild, helmed by comic mastermind Barry Cryer.

Now, there are two genres of television that are highly prolific these days. The TV talent contest and the comedy panel show. Two things that have me reaching for the 'off' button. However, with Les Dawson on board, you can bet it was a joy to watch. Alas, I was suffering with Not Being Born at the time.

Yorkshire must have taken a shine to the gruff Blackpool-based comic, as they handed him his own star vehicle, Sez Les. This sketch show ran for eleven series and various specials. It was the birthplace of 'Cissie and Ada', where Roy Barraclough and Les dragged up to play the northern gossipmongers. Also, John Cleese joined the series after exiting Monty Python's Flying Circus. Despite the jaw-dropping differences in their comedy styles, the two became great friends.

Kirkstall Road continued to pay Les's mortgage for much of the rest of the 1970s, as Yorkshire continued with a news series - Dawson's Weekly and various specials, such as Dawson And Friends. In 1978, he signed a contract with the BBC, largely sticking with the broadcaster for the rest of his life.

Based on Un Dos Tres, Devised by Ibanez Serrador

A really massive thing YTV was famous for in the 1980s, was the evening game show 3-2-1. It's a cliche to point out how the clues were totally unfathomable. Mind you, all game shows were baffling to me at that age. What kept me amused was the way Yorkshire's chevron could whizz around the screen in the animated titles, before landing in a bin.

This receptacle for refuse would then transform into Dusty Bin. Well, that's the magic qualities of the mighty Yorkshire chevron. It all went tits up by the mid-80s when they took on computer graphics, with the animation so incredibly stilted, they may as well have pointed a camera at a real bin.

Of course, computer graphics would also infiltrate the Yorkshire ident itself. According to TVS's The Television Show, the new sequence where a solid 3D chevron rose out of liquid gold, cost a million pounds.

"Hello, 'Benders!"

So far I've not really mentioned anything of Yorkshire's contributions to kids' television. The station tended to contribute a fair bit to the lunchtime pre-school strand, keeping former Rutle Neil Innes busy with the cartoon Raggy Dolls and wizard-based antics in Puddle Lane.

The Book Tower remained part of Children's ITV for a very long time, having started long before the strand existed. Its title sequence was utterly terrifying, the exterior of some empty stately home, soundtracked by Andrew Lloyd-Webber's Variation 18 - a doom laden piece of orchestral prog-rock. Once that ordeal was over, we had the host, a post-Doctor-Who Tom Baker. Actually, that didn't make things any less scary. The series ended in 1989, with Timmy Mallett as host.

The TV-am irritant also got his own vehicle, Utterly Brilliant, in the early 90s. While this show tried to take on a 'cool' street style, it wasn't going to go far with Timmy Mallett as host. Also, around this time, another TV-am refugee - Mike Morris - ended up fronting Calendar, the region's evening news.

Now, for my money, Yorkshire Television didn't put a foot wrong when commissioning Round The Bend - an 'electronic comic' (thankfully Krankies-free) that was devised by cartoonists/writers Patrick Gallagher; Tony Husband and Mark Rodgers, at a time when their own comic - Oink! (a sort of junior Viz) was facing an uncertain future.

This really was a televisual Oink! Of course, there was no Uncle Pigg battling it out with Mary Lighthouse. We had a puppet Doc Croc hosting the show from the comic's offices - based in a sewer - with all kinds of rodents struggling to get the show together. A bit like The Muppet Show with snot-and-bogey humour. All puppets were put together by the Spitting Image workshop. Tony Husband, now more famous for his Private Eye work, has every episode available to view on his website.

Naturally, anarchic humour has always been right up my street and I usually found that ATV/Central could deliver that in spades. However, Yorkshire did well with the aforementioned Round The Bend, plus a little known school-based comedy, Behind The Bike Sheds, featuring a pre-omnipresent Tony Slattery and numerous child actors. Maybe it could be seen as the parent of Hardwicke House or Palace Hill, but having just viewed a bit of it, it's way too song-and-dance heavy. I do recall the final show doing a bit of fourth-wall breaking, by just announcing they were in a television studio all along as the cast dismantled the set.

Whiteley Rose

I don't know whether to go with stuff outside of ITV for the Television Kingdoms strand of the blog, but then, early Channel Four was pretty much like an extension of the ITV network. Well, you don't get much more early Channel Four than Countdown - the first show on the fledgling station and it's still there today.

A Yorkshire Television production from the off, Countdown probably gave viewers the impression that Channel Four was a second ITV (and sets of the day would literally have 'ITV2' on such a button).

As unlikely as it sounds, Countdown actually began life as a branded spin-off from regional news programme Calendar, as Calendar Countdown. It was only screened on ITV in the Yorkshire region, and didn't get networked. Like YTV's other game show behemoth, 3-2-1, it was actually a format from the continent. Des Chiffres Et Des Lettres had been running since 1965.

Also, I'm stunned at how Yorkshire slapped their Calendar brand (itself a rather generic word that has no connotation to the region) on the show in its pre-Channel-Four days. They did the same with short-lived music show Calendar Goes Pop. Taking YTV's logic, maybe my home region could have produced About Anglia Sale Of The Century.

Anyway, Countdown is cemented in the Channel Four schedules and, as you'd suspect, it attracts a huge audience of pensioners. My friends from ATVLand.productions got to see the last edition Carol Vorderman worked on, and reported how the warm-up man constantly reminded the silver-haired demographic - without any irony - to take their pills during the breaks.

With the near mothballing of the Leeds Studios towards the end of last decade, Countdown was taken away from Kirkstall Road by ITV and relocated to the Granada region at Salford's MediaCity.

Now, if we're channel-hopping, I guess we could give a nod to BBC2's dark sitcom The League Of Gentlemen, as all the interior scenes were filmed at Kirkstall Road. This isn't too surprising, given that the BBC didn't really have any suitable studios in the area.

World Of Pub

Quite possibly the most Yorkshirest thing ever shown on TV has to be Indoor League. A none-more-1970s daytime filler that covered pub games like skittles, shove ha'penny and arm wrestling. This was actually networked (and is astonishingly out on DVD), but most people my age only really came across it when Frank Skinner and David Baddiel highlighted it on BBC2's Fantasy Football League.

The sight of Baddiel in drag as a darts-throwing old lady, replete with a Yorkshire Television badge, during one Phoenix From The Flames sketch had me cackling for about five minutes after it aired, despite me not having a clue about this utterly low-budget show.

Just tyke that...

Now, as I said at the start, I don't have much of a personal connection to the station or region. However, there is one incident which left me rather dismayed with Yorkshire Television Limited, to give it its full title.

During a rather extended break 'between jobs' in 1993, the DSS had myself and a friend join one of those 'job restart' clubs, designed to gently encourage long-term dole-ites into work. I could say it worked for me, using the reasoning that it was incredibly depressing to go to these daily meetings. I recall a former butcher at the table moaning that "increasing vegetarianism" was to blame for his redundancy. Quite a few of the assembled tutted and sneered when they saw a guy come in to set up a computer.

"That's where it's all at, these days," said the ex-butcher. "It's all bloody computers."

I nervously shuffled in my seat. Only my friend knew that I'd spent two years at college studying Information Technology and thankfully he stayed quiet on that subject. So, what does this have to do with Yorkshire Television?

Well, one day we were treated to a documentary on gaining employment. The programme was supplied on VHS tape and was shot just like a typical schools programme. The subject was Yorkshire Television and we saw the company giving auditions to would-be lunchtime newsreaders and a day in the life of an outside broadcast engineer.

I have no idea what the documentary was called and I very much doubt it was aired on actual television. The newsreading auditions included quite a bit of fluffing from nervous women, no doubt put off by the fact there was also this documentary camera crew present as well as the news crew gauging the performance.

The part that fascinated me was the outside broadcast truck. The narrator explained that, Yorkshire was very much physically different to other regions, due to having such massive hills and valleys. Having become a motorist three years ago, I can certainly attest to the eye-popping landscape. I've felt my ears pop as I've driven down hugely steep hills in the Whitby area. I've felt my car beg for mercy at the thought of driving up a steep cobbled road in Scarborough. I've had my breath taken away by the cliffs between Bradford and Keighley, where my mother and uncle spent their childhood.

The engineer was interviewing assistants and - with an implied wink - mentioned the need to 'sweet talk' authority figures into allowing the broadcast truck to spend some extended time in spots where a decent line of sight could be established over to Leeds. Evidently, their counterparts in Anglia would have it very easy.

A low point was when a black interviewee was asked about how his interview went. Sitting in the YTV canteen, he gave a rather negative view of the company and, with a nod towards a nearby black cleaning lady, said "that's probably the only kind of job people like me will get here". I hope he was wrong.

People's Republic of Yorkshire

I started work on this blog on Saturday 26th December 2015, at a time when a fair bit of Yorkshire (as well as the north west) was flooded. These events are unrelated to my decision to restart this blog, it's just down to having the spare time available.

By the following morning, ITV Yorkshire itself was facing Neptune's revenge, with the nearby River Aire having reached their archive building.

Now, the vast majority of ITV's archives are stored over in Leeds, partly due to the expertise of the staff and also due to having the space available. If you've ever travelled along Kirkstall Road, you'll notice that ITV Yorkshire spans quite a few buildings, a bit like a university campus.

Thankfully, I learnt from archivist Chris Perry that all was well. "ITV have replied and said that nothing has been lost in the flood. They had already made plans for this eventuality and all went smoothly."

So this goes to show that while it's at the opposite end of the M1 to ITV's major base in London, the Yorkshire HQ is still a major cog in the network.

1 comment:

Brpwrdnsfrnzy said...

Good stuff Pete - although it brought back a few hidden horrors from my childhood!