Icons of London Weekend Television: The Not So Perfect Ten

A special Not So Perfect Ten to commemorate the 45th anniversary of London’s weekend ITV franchise

Second only to Granada Television, my favourite ITV franchise was known for its Aquafresh striped logo, Blind Date and the South Bank studios. Today, it is part of the corporate single ITV monolith but South Bank (or rather The London Studios), is one of ITV Productions’ key bases along with MediaCityUK.

For many, London Weekend Television meant Blind Date, Gladiators and Game For A Laugh. For some, it meant On The Buses, David Frost, Russell Harty and Metal Mickey. I fall somewhere between the two camps, though I remember Russell Harty more from his BBC chat show.

In recent memory, London Weekend Television was a byword for entertaining yet non-taxing light entertainment programme or sitcoms. When formed as the London Television Consortium by David Frost, its original aim was to be highbrow, to reinterpret Reithian values to a late 1960s audience.

That notion flopped dismally and lost viewers. However, a sitcom rejected by the BBC which began in 1969 marked a turning point. Frank Muir, former Assistant Head of Comedy at the BBC commissioned On The Buses. The programme became an instant hit and attracted advertisers to LWT. By 1970, Rupert Murdoch bought a stake in LWT and increased his share to 39.7% in 1971. The bottom line improved somewhat and by 1980, Mr Murdoch sold his stake. Perhaps he was after bigger things like The Times newspaper (which he did buy along with its Sunday title a year later).

Today, LWT is part of the ITV London region, which also consumed Carlton’s London franchise. A great many of ITV Productions’ light entertainment programmes are still made in The London Studios.

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Our Not So Perfect Ten Icons of LWT:

  1. Sir David Frost;
  2. The River Thames style ident;
  3. Graphics Gurus;
  4. The South Bank studios;
  5. On The Buses;
  6. Bruce Forsyth’s Big Night;
  7. Weekend World;
  8. London Community Unit;
  9. Live football coverage;
  10. Chat Shows.

1. Sir David Frost: without the high-minded ideals of David Peregrine Frost and a few others, London Weekend Television wouldn’t have seen the light of day. His eponymous programme [The Frost Programme] attracted the movers and shakers of the late 1960s and early 1970s. They were filmed at LWT’s original studios in Wembley, inherited from Associated-Rediffusion.

2. The River Thames style ident: The previous LWT ident was a circular affair. By 1971, this would change into a River Thames style ident designed by Terry Griffiths. Set to a snatch of music by Harry Rabinowitz and Graham Hix, this for viewers of a certain age meant Please Sir! was moments away. It became as much a televisual ident icon along with ATV’s three colours and shadowed eye. Nor did it escape the attention of producers of comedic productions. Just William would be seen crashing out of the caption; it was adapted to fail on the very first episode of End of Part One.

3. LWT’s Graphics Gurus: for me, LWT was also about the graphics as well as its light programming. As well as Terry Griffiths, who designed the 1971 LWT ident, other graphics gurus included Pat Gavin. On the end credits, opening titles and on-screen graphics side, there was John Tribe. He joined LWT via Associated-Rediffusion and illustrated book covers for Penguin. His most esteemed works were the hand-painted graphics for the TV adaptation of Agatha Christie’s Partners in Crime and A Little Princess. For many TV geeks like myself, it was the spoof continuity on End of Part One.

Alongside Mr Tribe, there was another designer who gained fame after LWT: Martin Lambie-Nairn. Whilst at South Bank, his credits included the titles for Mind Your Language and Play Your Cards Right. He would later set up his own production company and be indelibly linked with the Channel Four Television ident. The ‘4’ itself is still used today, almost 31 years after its first airing.

4. The South Bank Studios: indelibly linked with LWT is the imposing South Bank Studios. This replaced inadequate facilities at Wembley, which LWT was forced to purchase instead of ABC’s Teddington studios. The latter studios would become Thames Television’s base. The South Bank Television Centre (to use its original name) opened in 1972 whilst incomplete (construction would finish in 1974). It is now known as ITV Towers.

5. On The Buses: compulsive viewing for most early 1970s households was Ronald Chesney’s and Ronald Wolfe’s sitcom set in the Luxton and District bus depot. It was LWT’s first commercial success thanks to its working class humour, autocratic inspector Cyril Blake and ladies man Stan Butler. It ran from 1969 to 1973, attracted 12 – 15 million viewers and spawned three spin-off feature films (On The Buses, Mutiny on the Buses and Holiday on the Buses). Today, the double entendres, gender stereotyping and chauvinism would no longer be seen in today’s situation comedies nor be welcomed by a fair few of today’s audiences.

6. Bruce Forsyth’s Big Night: whereas LWT gained great success with On The Buses, Just William and The South Bank Show, there was one programme which promised so much, but turned out to be a milestone. They thought they were on to something when they prised Bruce Forsyth from the BBC. With a lucrative contract he would anchor a 90 minute variety spectacular on a prime time Saturday in 1978. Unfortunately for London Weekend Television and ITV, it turned out to be an expensive flop.

Entitled Bruce Forsyth’s Big Night, it included variety and the esteemed gent itself. In between that would be a reworking of The Glums, The UK Disco Dance Championships and interactive games such as Beat the Goalie and Teletennis. There would also be a quiz show, in the form of The Pyramid Game. After Bruce Forsyth’s Big Night ended its run, The Pyramid Game would become a series in its own right. Bruce Forsyth would present the more successful Play Your Cards Right.

7. Weekend World: if you’re a child of the 1970s and 1980s, there’s every chance you would have dreaded Sundays. Your day might have began at church or mass, then after an hour, you would hope for something more entertaining. Mum or Dad switches the telly on. You sigh and find it’s Brian Walden or Matthew Parris talking to Michael Foot or William Whitelaw.

On a more serious note, Weekend World was ITV’s most authoritative political programme, and a fair few people involved in its production went on to bigger and better things. One of them, John Birt, would become Director General of the BBC. Peter Mandelson, a researcher, would become Minister Without Portfolio in Tony Blair’s Labour Government, standing as MP for Hartlepool. The set was minimal but the music was ace. From 1972 to 1988, the closing bars of Mountain’s Nantucket Sleighride would be its signature tune.

8. The London Community Unit: away from the bright lights of South Bank Television Centre’s light entertainment output was LWT’s public service programming commitments. The London Community Unit allowed local charities and community groups a modest spot to promote their causes. Each spot would be used, for example, to advertise for volunteers.

9. Live Football Coverage: before the early-1980s, each ITV franchise was responsible for giving its region’s football sides sufficient coverage in the form of highlights. By 1983, the mishmash of regional highlights programmes were replaced by a single brand: London Weekend Television’s The Big Match. There would be the odd live Football League Division One match usually featuring one of the bigger teams (which at the time were Manchester United, Arsenal, Liverpool, Everton and Tottenham Hotspur (Manchester City and Chelsea were in Division Two in ’83)). And Brian Moore.

Its lasting legacy would lead to increased competition for television rights. The high water mark of which was BSkyB’s rights to show F.A. Premier League fixtures since 1992. However, the single ITV of late has consolidated its role as a sports broadcaster with the UEFA Champions League fixtures. On the other hand it has attracted criticism over the televising of F.A. Challenge Cup matches and the ill-fated The Premiership highlights programme.

10. Chat Shows

For our final entry, we go on to an entertainment genre synonymous with LWT’s co-founder. Without which, viewers wouldn’t have experienced on their screens the Yippies nor poked fun at Janet Street-Porter’s teeth. It is through LWT as to how Janet Street-Porter and Russell Harty became famous. At the other end of the scale, viewers were treated to such spectacles like Oliver Reed being drunk in front of Michael Aspel. Or the extended advertisement for Planet Hollywood (poor Mr Aspel, again).

As well as networked productions like Aspel and Company and The Frost Programme, LWT’s chat show output included The London Weekend Show and Saturday Night People. Today, the London Studios (or ITV Towers if you prefer) remains a popular location for today’s forerunners.

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Surely there must be more than ten icons of London Weekend Television…?

If you can add to the list or elaborate on the existing entries, feel free to do so. Did you ever visit the South Bank Television Centre? Were you bored stiff on Sundays thanks to Weekend World? Or couldn’t you wait for On The Buses to start as soon as you heard Harry Rabinowitz’s ident theme coupled with Terry Griffiths’ toothpaste stripes?

This is Stuart Vallantine on behalf of East of the M60 wishing you a peaceful night. Goodnight…

And a final reminder: please remember to turn off your television set.

S.V., 07 August 2013.

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3 thoughts on “Icons of London Weekend Television: The Not So Perfect Ten

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  1. Just to say that I worked in engineering in the studio control rooms on the opening night of this building which was April,14th.1972
    I stayed there for about another Ten years during which I became Head of Technical Services at the South Bank.The Building was originally called KENT HOUSE and was opened by The Duke of Kent to whose reception on the Official Opening I attended
    If you wish I can give you many aspects of the History of this Centre during its first Ten Years as I was very much involved in its development and use.

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    1. Hi John
      Just spent a very pleasant afternoon on the Internet reading about the history of LWT. We might know each other because I was in the video (posted by mancunion below) and about to take over from Keith Gosling as Project Manager to complete Kent House. Earlier this year whilst sorting out some old memorabilia I came across some photographs of the early construction work. If you don’t have any of these I would be happy to pass them on.

      Kind regards

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  2. Hi John,

    The buzz on opening day must have been amazing, and a real improvement on the Wembley Studios. It is still a great building today and I would say the central riverside location must have been the envy of most broadcasters.

    In response to your last sentence, please furnish me with the history of its first ten years. Before I go I shall leave you with this clip from YouTube covering Kent House’s topping out ceremony:

    Bye for now,

    Stuart.

    Like

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