ATV’s first night was a joint venture with the London weekday franchise holder Associated Rediffusion. Independent television took to the airwaves on a Thursday evening, with ATV not taking control until the Saturday morning for its weekend capital service.
The first night was planned and arranged by Rediffusion, with ATV providing some of the evening’s programming. The first programme welcoming viewers to the new ‘Independent Television Service’ was to be a co-production between the two London companies, broadcast live from the Guildhall preceded by an introductory film.
On September 22nd at 7.15pm the short film showing London landmarks lead into the live transmission of guests arriving at the Guildhall. In total 500 dignitaries and television executives gathered at the hall, while other celebratory parties were held across London. At the Mayfair Hotel a party was held for 900 guests; mainly made up of stars of the entertainment world – many who were to star on the new network. While a less glitzy affair was held by ITA staff at the authority’s headquarters in Princes Gate.
The Gala celebrations live from the Guildhall included classical music performed by the Hallé Orchestra [pictured above, right] and inaugural speeches. The first 'proper programme' on independent television came at circa 7.55pm when ATV broadcast a live variety and entertainment show from the Wood Green Television Theatre, hosted by Jack Jackson and produced by future ATV programme controller Bill Ward. Entitled Channel Nine, the show was host to many big variety names of the day – and former BBC stars too. These included Hughie Green, Reginald Dixon and Michael Miles.
The first commercial break in British television history aired at 8.12pm with advert spots for toothpaste, drinking chocolate and margarine. On Saturday 24th Associated Television began their weekend London service with their first programme, The Weekend Show. A magazine and lifestyle series aimed at ‘homemakers’ presented by Daphne Anderson and overseen by executive Noele Gordon - who would herself take to presenting rather than producing within weeks of ATV going on air.
While visually the first evening from ITV had proved successful to viewers; off screen it proved to be anything but. Both ATV and Rediffusion failed to make any profit, in fact both companies suffered losses. It had been estimated the London companies on the first night would be in the black by upwards of £10,000. So sure of their success both broadcasters had in their pre-launch publicity announced that all profit from the commericals aired on the night would be donated to fifteen charities. In reality the evening had been a financial shambles. With no profits made the public embarrassment was lifted somewhat by both ATV and Rediffusion shareholders issuing small donations to all the charities concerned.
It wasn’t just charities left unhappy by ITV’s first night. Advertisers too were left disappointed by the launch night transmissions. A number of advertisers had been led to believe they had ‘firm bookings’ for the opening night, but their commercials never aired. The ITA, the regulator of ITV at the time, blamed "someone" in the Rediffusion advertising department whom had over estimated the advert slots on the night, and accordingly taken far too many bookings.
Rediffusion tried to ease the issue by suggesting the ‘opening night’ had only been a ‘preview’ and not a ‘proper evening of ITV broadcasting'. Ford Cars UK – who had booked a commercial spot that never materialised – were not so impressed with that response. Their advertising manager commenting in a note to Rediffusion declared that “Any suggestion of preview [is] not acceptable. As in marriage there can only be one first night.” [Pictured above, left, ATV run a series of promotions aimed at advertisers showing how successful television commercials can be. In this instance its the increased sales of Smarties thanks to an advert airing on ATV that takes centre stage.]
In November 1955 ATV and ABC were informed that the ITV Midlands service was committed to begin transmissions on 17th February 1956. As outlined earlier, when awarded the London Weekend franchise, ATV would broadcast to the Midlands from Monday to Friday with ABC at weekends.
With only four months to launch ABC and ATV joined forces to create a new company that would provide the studio facilities to both companies in the Midlands. Alpha Television Limited would operate the Alpha Studios at Aston Cross in Birmingham. However, unlike Granada Television in Manchester, there wasn’t time to construct a purpose built studio facility. ABC owned the New Theatre at Aston Cross and while profitable, it was closed in order to be converted into a television studio. The ABC Cinema became the Alpha Television Studios within three months. A modern office block was added to the complex with work starting in 1959.
ITV Midlands was to both companies not top of their priority. ABC were mainly concerned with their Northern franchises, headed from Manchester, while ATV were very much a London company. This somewhat showed in the Alpha Television Studios and how they operated.
As the ITA noted, in several 'warning notes' sent to the Midland production centre, it was deemed that the facilities for a considerable length of time were not furnished with comitted studio equipment; instead an outside broadcast unit was parked at the rear of the old auditorium in order to make the theatre a ‘studio’. The regulator was further rattled when they discovered that ABC and ATV's 'answer' to their concerns was to dismantle the OB truck's equiptment and place it in a small outbuilding. The regulatory body continued to muse in later notes to ATV that Alpha was never a ‘genuine programme company base’.
However despite the lack of real investment the complex proved to be an efficient and economical operation for ATV and ABC, with its early technical designs based on the American formats. The office block was completed in 1961 and with this new wing, the old theatre frontage was clad with a metal covering to give it more of a 'studio' look, hiding the fact it had ever been a theatre [Pictured, right, in a photo by Bryan Downes]. By this point technical standards had also improved at the centre although never of a standard the ITA would approve of.
Bernard Greenhead, who joined the Midland company from Highbury Studios, was hired as the first manager of Alpha Television. While the Aston Cross base had Greenhead as a permanent manager many of the producers and directors – either from Manchester or London - ‘came and went to Alpha as and when required’ as the ITA disaprovingly noted. ATV did base some management at Aston in the Alpha Offices.
Notably Reg Watson head of Entertainment, Ned Sherrin head of Factual, Noele Gordon head of Lifestyle and Terence Macnamara head of Technical Operations. However the studios, so lacking in employees, saw all senior staff operate in other lower ranked roles across its first year. The Alpha Studios were also home to a UK first, eight years before the BBC, ATV provided daily regional news to the Midlands. Such were the budget limitations the news unit only had three cameras, and only one with capabilities of recording sound. The newsreels were processed at a local photograph company as Alpha initally were void of any film processing facilities.
Despite all these budget limitations, there is one thing that cannot be doubted of the Alpha Studios crews - they were all passionate about making television for the Midlands. A drive was undertaken to employ more local directors, producers and cameramen. Notably Midlander Alan Coleman was one of the new recruits to Alpha. Alan would later go on to become one of the most successful directors of drama production with Grundy Television.
In March 1956 a Gallup Poll was undertaken in the two ITV regions, London and Midlands, with the question posed which broadcaster do you prefer, the BBC or ITV?
The ATV and ABC service to the Midlands had been on barely a month, but 58% of those polled put the service above the BBC. 16% preferred the corporation. In London Rediffusion and ATV had also proved more popular with viewers than the BBC, with 16% opting for the licence fee funded service, while 60% opted for independent television. The rest in both polls were either unsure or had no preference.