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Associated Rediffusion / Rediffusion Television

Broadcaster, Production Company

Main image of Associated Rediffusion / Rediffusion Television

It may seem curious that British Electric Traction, a company that had started life in the 19th century supplying cabling systems for electric trams, was to be the main parent of Britain's first commercial television company. But BET, having run tram cabling along many streets in urban areas across the country, had branched out in March 1928 with the formation of Broadcast Relay Service Ltd, using that distribution network to carry radio broadcasts by wire into homes, avoiding the need for complex and hard-to-operate early radio sets.

BRSL soon became known as 'Rediffusion' - a name meaning simply 'broadcasting again'. With the advent of the BBC Television Service in 1936, Rediffusion was well placed to rent TV receivers and to provide a basic form of cable TV service to subscribers.

After the war, BET and Rediffusion diversified into providing wired distribution and ultimately wireless broadcasting, including commercial radio, in the former and remaining British Colonies. With the announcement of commercial television in the UK, Rediffusion was quickly on the scene with a bid. Just in case things were not as rosy as expected, BET brought in a partner in the form of Associated Newspapers, owners of the Daily Mail, with a 50% stake.

The first contracts were awarded on October 26, 1954, just three months after the Independent Television Association had been formed, and the new company, Associated Rediffusion, was given the franchise for Monday to Friday in the London area - the jewel in the ITV crown.

With only 11 months to get on the air, Associated Rediffusion installed itself in the former RAF headquarters on Kingsway. The building, previously Adastral House, was renamed 'Television House' but a ghost of the former name persisted with the station's logo, a rotating 16-pointed star, becoming known as the 'adastral' by members of staff. In charge of operations at Kingsway was A-R's General Manager, Captain Tom Brownrigg, RN, retired. With military precision, building conversion went ahead at top speed. The Kingsway building housed four small continuity and news studios, but the main production facility was a five-studio complex at Wembley, originally the British home of 20th Century Fox.

The new service was to be transmitted on Band III, rather than the lower-frequency Band I used by the BBC Television Service, and viewers needed a new aerial, and had either to buy new sets or install a converter to watch the programmes.

Following a series of test transmissions, commercial television in the UK began on Thursday, 22 September 1955, with an evening jointly programmed by A-R and 'ABC', Lew Grade's consortium that held the London weekend contract and was soon to become known as ATV after a disagreement with ABPC. Leslie Mitchell, the former voice of the BBC Television Service, announced for the first time, "This is London." The station clock reached 7:15 pm, and Independent Television was on the air, taking a live feed from the opening ceremony in the Guildhall. A variety performance from the Wood Green Empire, courtesy of Lew Grade, followed, along with the first commercial on British television, an ad for Gibb's SR toothpaste at ten past eight, for which Elida Gibbs paid 50% over ratecard (the scale of standard charges for buying broadcast advertising time). Drama, a boxing match, Chris Chataway reading the news from ITN and live coverage of the opening night party took the evening up to a closedown prayer at 11:05pm.

There was only one problem: the evening had made a dramatic financial loss. Programme costs had been larger than expected, and instead of giving the evening's advertising proceeds to the Lord Mayor's nominated charities, the two companies stumped up a token £100 each. With just two companies responsible for all the programming for several months after the opening, income continued to lag behind costs, and, by the first anniversary, Associated Rediffusion had lost £3 Million. Associated Newspapers wanted to back out, and Rediffusion bought 80% of its shares. But with the major players in the network by now in place, 1959 saw A-R's annual profits reach £2.7 million. By the end of ITV's first decade they were twice that of the entire Rediffusion operation in 1955.

As far as programming was concerned, A-R had a dilemma. On the one hand, the company ethos - as well as public expectation - dictated that the company should produce high-quality, 'serious' programming, and this it did, with long-running factual series such as This Week (1956-78; 1986-92) and drama from the likes of Harold Pinter and other leading playwrights - even including a performance of Elektra in Greek. A-R led the field with the introduction of broadcasting to schools, and provided a strong strand of children's programming. Indeed, it was sometimes referred to as 'the BBC with adverts'. On the other hand, the 13 years of Rediffusion are remembered more today for game shows like Double Your Money and Take Your Pick (both 1955-68). The fact is that the latter, lowest-common-denominator programming essentially paid for the highbrow output, and one would not have been economically viable without the other. In addition, there were solid drama series such as No Hiding Place (1959-67) and Crane (1963-67), pop music show Ready, Steady, Go! (1963-66) and comedy, in the form of the innovative At Last the 1948 Show (1967-68), A Show Called Fred (1956) and children's comedy Do Not Adjust Your Set (1968), not to mention The Frost Programme (1966-73). The company also left an indelible mark on the psyche of Londoners, if not those further afield, separating commercials with its 'adastral' symbol zooming rapidly towards the viewer, still today the very incarnation of the 'commercial break'.

The 1964 franchise round saw no changes in the fortunes of existing ITV companies. However, Associated Newspapers finally withdrew completely from A-R, apparently somewhat unwillingly, as a requirement to maintain a one-third stake in Southern Television. The 'Associated' was thus dropped from the name, and the station relaunched itself as 'Rediffusion, London's Television', with a new and memorable theme tune by John Dankworth and a 'swinging sixties' on-screen look. The station remained extremely profitable for another four years.

When it came to the 1968 renewal process, however, things were different. Rediffusion had a very high opinion of itself, and according to David Frost, the interview with Rediffusion chairman John Spencer Wills included some heated exchanges concerning the entire process of franchise review. Charles Hill, who had been present at the opening of ITV a dozen years earlier as head of the ITA, had been considering obliging applicants to merge - an idea not without precedent - as a way of allowing new blood into the network. He proposed that ABC Television, weekend contractors in the Midlands and the North, and Rediffusion should set up a joint company in which ABC, upon whom the regulator looked favourably, would own 51%, and thus have control. Rediffusion was able to negotiate an equal split of profits, but not equal power. As a result, the new company formed by the parent company of each, to be called Thames Television, was to owe a great deal more to the style of ABC than it did to Rediffusion, and as a television company, Rediffusion disappeared from London's screens on 29 July 1968.

Richard Elen

Sendall, Bernard, Independent Television in Britain, Vol 1 (Macmillan, 1982)
Independent Teleweb (
Television House (

Selected credits

Thumbnail image of At Last The 1948 Show (1967-68)At Last The 1948 Show (1967-68)

Sketch comedy series now seen as a dry run for Monty Python

Thumbnail image of Do Not Adjust Your Set (1967-69)Do Not Adjust Your Set (1967-69)

Madcap children's sketch show starring several future Pythons

Thumbnail image of Double Your Money (1955-68)Double Your Money (1955-68)

Glitzy ITV quiz show - the first in the UK to offer cash prizes

Thumbnail image of Midsummer Night's Dream, A (1964)Midsummer Night's Dream, A (1964)

ITV adaptation of the Shakespeare play, with Benny Hill as Bottom

Thumbnail image of No Hiding Place (1959-67)No Hiding Place (1959-67)

Police drama following the cases of Scotland Yard's DCS Lockhart

Thumbnail image of Show Called Fred, A / Son of Fred (1956)Show Called Fred, A / Son of Fred (1956)

Groundbreaking post-Goons outing for Peter Sellers and Spike Milligan

Thumbnail image of Take Your Pick (1955-68)Take Your Pick (1955-68)

Long-running ITV quiz show devised and hosted by Michael Miles

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