Perhaps surprisingly, last night’s opening broadcast from commercial television hardly makes front page news in those papers that carry news on their front page. It’s mentioned in passing on the Daily Express’s rather busy page one in a piece headlined “Who killed Grace Archer?” but its main headlines concern the new leader of the Argentine, General Eduardo Lonardi. a miniature tornado in Dunstable, Bedfordshire, and a white paper on the missing diplomats Maclean and Burgess – which is due to be published later today.
The Daily Mirror splashes “Amazing Story of the King who Wanted a Son” across most of the front page with only and advert and two puffs – one for a series of articles starting next week by sports writer Peter Wilson and one for a back page feature on what it describes as a “Foreign Office Scandal” – for company.
In The Times’ case, it’s page 5, and under the two headings “First Night of the I.T.A.” and “Emphasis on the ‘Stars'”
The Times’ writer notes that the broadcasts – unnatural in their form – formed “one of those evenings of trial and excitement with everyone on their best behaviour and below their usual form.” The commercials themselves, which did not interrupt the opening ceremony from Guildhall, appeared “during the rapid variety show from the Associated Broadcasting Company’s Television Theatre”.
The writer notes some of the products advertised: Gibbs SR Toothpaste, Cadbury’s Drinking Chocolate (in a commercial which spoofed the panel game format), Dunlop who “managed a good shot of some early tires”, National Benzole whose commercial included “some agreeable views of Devon” and Oxo whose cubes were being recommended by Harry Corbett and his dog Sooty.
The mid-evening drama excerpts “were all splendidly done” but not so impressive was the variety show which “did not suggest that the new light entertainment programmes will bring revolution in their wake.” That said, the writer admitted that “The buffoonery in which Mr Billy Cotton and his band specializes gains… from being seen as well as heard” and “it was certainly pleasant to become reaquainted with Miss Shirley Abicair and Mr Leslie Welch”.
At the Mayfair Hotel, George Formby “brightened the picture” and Jack Solomons’ boxing presentation was praised for being one of the few “normal” programmes on and for the “excellent picture quite up to the high level set for relays of boxing on television”.
The BBC’s main opposition, the Philip Mackie play The Hole in the Wall, was “BBC Television drama at its best”. An earlier programme, entitled Highlight, was more mixed as Mr Geoffrey Gorer “had not that much that was new to say” but Bombardier Billy Wells “was an instant success”. In fact, Mr Gorer had nothing at all to say as he did not appear on the programme. The Times should have referred to Mr Geoffrey Hoare – a fact which they acknowledge in their edition dated 1 October 1955.
A separate Times piece sub-titled “Clear Reception over a Wide Area” provides a more technical review noting that “viewers in London saw a clear picture which compared favourably with BBC transmissions” and this despite “a thunderstorm which broke over London shortly after 8pm”. It was also reported that “a fairly good picture” was received in Bristol, 118 miles from the Croydon transmitter, and 71 miles away, in Banbury, the picture was “only slightly inferior to BBC reception.” In Reading, which will be just outside the London transmitter’s primary service area once the expected power increase is put into operation, there was a report of “perfect reception”.
In the Mirror it’s no surprise that Clifford Davis gets to write the main piece on the new service. Noting that “commercial TV opened up last night with a boring forty-five minutes of stuffy speeches from London’s Guildhall,” Davis felt, in contrast to his Times counterpart, that “things brightened up” once the variety show started. As Davis points out, it was the job of the host – Jack Jackson – “to introduce acts signed up to appear on channel nine”. After an appearance from Hughie Green, Derek Roy came on with the greeting, “Hallo, you BBC deserters. Just think, all you have to do is turn me off and go back to the BBC.” At that point the screen went blank – but it was only a joke and after some pleading from Roy, the vision returned. The first commercial break was at 8.12pm. Gibbs SR Toothpaste first, as The Times mentioned, then the panel game Cadbury’s Drinking Chocolate ad in which Helene Cordet was the lucky winner, and lastly a commercial for Summer County Margarine before a return to the variety show and Billy Cotton.
The sound on the commercials which were “presented on film from another studio” was “harsh, strident and distorted,” wrote Davis.
The Daily Express had both of their TV men in action last night. One was Robert Cannell who was watching the BBC play The Hole in the Wall, which he describes as “one of the most realistic plays… since 1984” but adds “There was not one complaint” despite the play featuring “two murders” and “more grim and ghastly realism” when “‘Blind George’ set the place on fire.” The other, Cyril Aynsley, watching ITV, appears to have been more interested in the advertisements than in anything else and he too mentions that the first break consisted of ads for toothpaste, drinking chocolate and margarine. The second break included one for cheese.
After the variety show, an ad for “soap powder was hardly off the screen when Robert Morley introduced three filmed excerpts of plays” and during the boxing there were commercials for “beer, radio sets and electric lamps”.
And lastly, to The Manchester Guardian. Bernard Levin seems not to have been put off by the Guildhall speeches describing the Lord Mayor as “nervous” and Dr Charles Hill as “pugnacious”. Levin too found the variety show indistinguishable from those on the BBC describing it as “well up (or some would say down) to BBC standards”. The boxing, he felt, improved upon previous coverage because the commentators – Len Harvey and Tony Van den Bergh – “confined themselves almost entirely to inter-round summaries” and did not generally describe something which “we could perfectly well see for ourselves.”
In response to those who felt that the introduction of commercial television was an evil in itself, Levin concludes, “speaking as subjectively as possible, I feel neither uplifted nor depraved by what I have seen. But perhaps the deeper moral effects will make themselves felt only over a period of years.”
The paper’s Radio Critic (RC) enjoyed Richard Dimbleby’s trip up the Eiffel Tower last night and felt that “It was probably the right things for the BBC to put on a substantial play in the middle of the evening” but Philip Mackie’s The Hole in the Wall “was not the right play” having actors which “carried no conviction” and finding much “overdone”.
As well as a brief report in its late night newsreel, which included pictures of the opening ceremony at Guildhall, the BBC acknowledged its competitor in two other ways. Firstly, the new announcement “This is the BBC Television Service” was repeated between each programme and secondly in Animal, Vegetable, Mineral? when Sir Mortimer Wheeler observed to his colleague Professor Thomas Bodkin: “Come, come Tom, it doesn’t matter what you say. Nobody is watching us tonight.” He was very wrong, of course. In and around London a majority may well have been tuned in to independent television but beyond the south Animal, Vegetable, Mineral? was king.
The Guardian actually finds things televisual to write about which do not concern the events of yesterday evening. Two books which I have mentioned previously, both of which are entitled Writing For Television, come up for review. To repeat, to save you looking, the one is by Basil Bartlett, a drama script supervisor of the BBC television service (Allen and Unwin, 9s 6d) and the other by writer and producer Arthur Swinson (Black, 16s). The reviewer appears to commend both, while finding more technical detail in Swinson’s.
He, if it is a he, comes to an interesting if, perhaps, controversial conclusion: “It will be a good thing if people who can write are helped by these books to offer possible scripts to the BBC, for it will be there and not in the commercial programmes that new and interesting dramatic and documentary work will get its chance.”