25 AUGUST 1961, Page 6

The Lucrative Mystery


IN a sense, Independent 7 elevision came into

being because Mrs. Ernest Bevin wanted to spend a weekend at Brighton. The wife of the then Foreign Secretary hoped that the sea air would improve her husband's health but in the event he caught a cold, and so entered the sad, final stage of his illness.

The relevance to ITV? Simply that Herbert Morrison was at this time (1951) the Minister concerned with the impending question of whether to renew the BBC's Charter. As a fer- vent BBC supporter, Morrison, was prepared to push forward as a matter of legislative urgency a new Charter which would maintain the BBC's monopoly. But when Bevin resigned, he was appointed Foreign Secretary, and the Labour Government's broadcasting policy became the responsibility of the Secretary of State for Com- monwealth Relations, a Minister of less in- fluence. The moment of urgency passed.

Likewise it could be argued that ITV was made possible by another fortuitous switch in government appointments, this time on the Tory side. Again the office of Commonwealth Rela- tions had its part to play in the history of British broadcasting, for in the spring of 1952 Lord Salisbury, a firm BBC man and overlord under Churchill of the BBC's future, was moved to that post, and broadcasting came under the

of Lord Woolton. His attitude was un- deniably a major factor in bringing ITV into being, though I believe there is no truth in the rumour that ITV's first successful comedy series, A Show Named Fred, was a gesture of gratitude.

These are at least two approaches to the ad- vent of ITV, and if anyone objects that so to pinpoint an immensely complex evolution is misleading, I will agree—but there must have been certain really decisive moments. The whole thing is like some marvellous Balzac novel about Power and money, with names unfamiliar to the public emerging from the shadows as Titans of tremendous influence . Harley Drayton, one of whose lesser concerns is now Associated- Rediffusion, with its seven-millions-a-year profit • • . Lord Bessborough . Suzanne Warner • • Charles Orr Stanley. How much do you know about these people? And do you know how much they have shaped the present state of this country?

Indeed, a novel might be the best medium for telling this story, because it can deal in accurate guesses, and my own guess (once confirmed to me by Mr. Norman Collins) is that the full, exact, factual truth about the birth of ITV is known to very, very, very few, and will never be published. Precisely where and when, over what glass and table, in which hotel, club or home the OK was assured (and, perhaps an even 'Dore vital question, the distribution of licences arranged), this, I suspect, will remain hidden.

However, harmless attempts to discover and .tell all are bound to be made, and much pub- 1,...leitY and praise has been accorded to Pressure 1.°11P, 'the campaign for commercial television,' DY an American professor, H. H. Wilson (Seeker and Warburg, 18s.).

Here 1 think I should mention that the other year I started to ride the same trail as Mr. Wilson, and in the course of my researches 1 was very pleasantly entertained by him and his wife at Princeton. He had been in England to gather material—and in passing, let us note that one of the most remarkable things about his book is that it was not done on a Ford Founda- tion Grant. He met many of the people con- cerned with ITV : I, as it happened began by going through all the cuttings about ITV in a national newspaper's library. My complaint about his book is that his diggings, fascinating though they are, do not convey enough of the scope and complexity of his subject.

Mr. Wilson sees the creation of ITV mainly as a triumph for a small posse of Tory back- benchers—and incidentally. I find nothing dis- honourable about the behaviour of these back- benchers. There was never any secret about their affiliations in advertising and public relations, and it is silly to assume (as some seem to do) that a cause must be invalidated because its pro- tagonists have professional interests at stake.

But the drawback to Mr. Wilson's approach is that the Television Act represents much more than the political success of a small pressure group inside Parliament. In fact, what is most fascinating about the story is the varied rami- fications of the movement to bring in commer- cial TV, and what is disturbing is the extent to which Parliament was bypassed.

There were, at the simplest level, several clear factors, ploys and risks involved.

One was the conversion of Mr Norman Collins, and this I think Mr. Wilson underrates, if only because Mr. Collins makes no important appearance in his narrative until half-way through, whereas in a sense ITV began as a gleam in Mr. Collins's eye. In 1948, Mr. Collins went to America for the BBC to gather evidence to combat commercial television; in 1950 he re- signed from the Corporation, and in 1951 he went to America again, returning with evidence that commercial television was a necessity here. It actually matters little whether, as the BBC canard goes, he resigned from pique because he was not given control of BBC TV, or whether, as in his own version, it was a question of dis- agreement on principle. What counts is the for- midable personality of the man.

Success sits upon Mr. Collins like an old com- fortable tweed suit; he wears it as to the manna born. He has had an astonishing career as writer, organiser, tycoon. He is known to wish to get into the House of Commons, but I suspect that eventually he will find it easier to get into the Lords. When Collins took up the cudgels for commercial, the BBC was in real trouble, and in fact nothing in the whole saga is more comic than the way the BBC seemed scarcely to know what hit it until after it had been knocked out.

But if the energy and passion of Mr. Collins were like a detonator, there were other com- ponent parts to the explosive. There was the prejudice against the BBC (which Mr. Wilson underrates) and the desire of ad-men, especially in America, to get at a new market. Also there was the factor of finance for propaganda. Mr. Collins has told how he ran his campaign on a shoe-string, with a single-room office and a single secretary. But my researches show that from very early days, probably even before he came actively into the picture, money was being spent to promote commercial TV. In September, 1950, for example, eighty businessmen in Cambridge were secretly shown advertising films a demon- stration which cost £1,000. Or again, in April, 1951, £1,500 was spent on a private demonstra- tion for MPs lasting twenty-five minutes. There was a lot going on besides Mr. Collins's activities.

One idea Mr. Wilson does deflate is that the Popular Television Association arose from popu- lar demand: it was the result of a small private dinner at St. Stephen's Club on July 16, 1953, at which some £20,000 was subscribed to finance it, and never attracted more than 5,000 members. Not that such expenditure can be called a gamble, as is sometimes implied. What puzzles me as much as anything in the whole story is how so many people involved can have failed to realise that they were on to the biggest golden goose of our time. Certainly men like Mr Dray- ton never seem to have doubted or wavered, and my own guess is that it was when these really big operators decided to come in, that com- mercial television became a near-certainty. Raising capital caused trouble later on, but given the capital--well, the goidmine of American television was there for all to see.

Thus it seems to me that as the battle was gradually joined, two forces were opposed which never really met. Mr. Collins has a good joke about how one day he opened the Times• and saw a letter from Lady Violet Bonham Carter op- posing him, whereupon he knew he must eventu- ally win. (Official Liberal policy earlier was different, the country having been given to understand that when Mr. Clement Davies was called upon to form a government the BBC monopoly would be broken. 1 believe there were five Liberal MPs at the time.)

But now consider this curious contrast. The

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