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London Weekend Television (LWT)

Broadcaster, Production Company

Main image of London Weekend Television (LWT)

When ITV's second franchise round came up in 1967, the Independent Television Authority (ITA) had it all worked out. While the 1964 franchise allocation had seen little new, the latest round was set for some changes. The original division of the three largest regions - London, the midlands and the north - needed some alterations. In the beginning, the three regions had been divided between four contractors, based on an ingenious formula devised by the ITA's first Director General, Sir Robert Fraser, in which the number of broadcasting hours was multiplied by the region's population, giving contracts intended to yield the same kind of level of income for each of the four companies.

The plan had worked well for a dozen years, but in a more stable, more fully developed network, the pattern had become rather too London-centric. Three of the four companies had their primary production facilities in the London area and the fourth was run from there. The ITA was determined to resolve this, and at the same time to prevent one company having two regional contracts (as had ATV and ABC). First, weekday/weekend splits outside London would be a thing of the past: the London split was to remain because a 7-day London contractor would completely dominate the network and pull even more resources into the London area. Second, the enormous and now highly lucrative trans-Pennine 'pan-North' region that the Bernsteins called 'Granadaland' was to be split into two, with a new contract offered for the Yorkshire region.

The plan had some obvious fallout in the affected regions. ABC Weekend Television, currently providing weekend programming to the midlands and the north, would lose its current place. ABC had been a good player in the network, rapidly addressing the Authority's one complaint - that its presentation was lacklustre. It deserved reward. Granada, innovative and often exasperating (to the ITA), would be fine in the north-west, with the eastern half of its former region handed to a new Yorkshire company. In London, Rediffusion had become somewhat less stuffy since 1964 and had broadly done a good job, while in the early days the deep pockets of its primary backer, British Electric Traction (BET), had kept the network afloat, even saving Granada from bankruptcy. In the Midlands, ATV had also performed successfully and was well-placed to become the sole contractor for its region, though inevitably losing its weekend franchise in London.

This left an obvious gap - London weekends - and an obvious company to fill it: ABC. But there had to be a contest. The Authority had to be seen to be fair, and to consider new as well as existing organisations.

So it was that a group called the London Television Consortium bid for the London weekend contract. On paper - which was all it could be - it sounded incredible. It had a stunning collection of celebrities and top people on its letterhead, from David Frost to the Controller of BBC1. The proposed programming, too, was exactly what the ITA, hoping for a movement up-market, thought a contractor should offer, and more - solid, quality arts programming and social commentary with a dash of popular content. It seemed almost too good to be true.

The consortium simply had to be given a chance. As ITA chairman Lord Hill put it while installing the Harlech consortium to replace TWW at the same time, "If promise is never to be preferred to performance, then every television company will go on for ever." The bid, therefore, was accepted. Immediately, this threw a spanner into the carefully engineered new machine. Suddenly ABC, a successful company that had virtually always done the right thing, had nowhere to go.

The solution was a shotgun marriage of ABC and Rediffusion to form a company that was nearly half one and half the other, but with the reins in ABC's hands. The LTC was busy choosing a name for itself. 'Thames Television' was considered and thrown out - the name was subsequently picked up by the new ABC/Rediffusion company. The successful weekend consortium eventually decided on London Weekend Television (LWT). As Thames needed only the central London offices at Television House, Rediffusion's Wembley studios - along with many of its staff - were picked up by LWT. The new company set out to look and sound cool, despite the BBC and Rediffusion influences on its output, and broke with tradition by employing a specially-commissioned jazz piece (Don Jackson's 'A Well Swung Fanfare') instead of the traditional Coatesian orchestral march.

Considering that it broadcast for just 50 hours - two and a bit days a week, though the new consortium lobbied hard to get Fridays (the changeover happened at 7pm on Friday night to begin with: in the 1980s this changed to 5.15pm) - LWT has had an enormous effect on British television, and it would be nice to think that this was the result of those top names in charge, that sparkling proposal being implemented to the letter. But this could hardly be farther from the truth.

It soon became evident that what had pleased the ITA and LWT's bosses was less appealing to London viewers. The launch week was dogged by strikes and then a subsequent shut-down that affected the entire ITV network, which had to put out an emergency service. But when LWT was able to put out its planned schedule, the audience went elsewhere. It did not, it seemed, want high quality arts programmes and the other proposals in the LWT prospectus. What it wanted was its accustomed fare of light entertainment, something to help escape from the working week.

To survive, a commercial broadcaster must produce programmes that audiences want. But LWT management, overwhelmingly from the BBC, failed to understand how commercial television worked, especially when they had control of only two days of it. There was also the competition from a well-funded, populist weekday station, Thames, which with the combined experience of its parent companies could get good audiences even for a serious programme like This Week (1956-92). LWT's sales staff, mainly ex-Rediffusion and used to the prestige of a London weekday contract, found themselves with thin order-books. The arts programming, discussions and David Frost talk-shows the ITA had loved so much didn't attract the audiences, were not picked up by the network (which instead took popular shows from Granada, now operating at weekends), and didn't sell overseas. Meanwhile a revitalised BBC was going great guns at weekends with popular light entertainment programming. LWT was stuck between following the money down-market and keeping its promises to the ITA.

With LWT close to bankruptcy, the ITA was forced to draw up emergency plans. Howard Thomas was asked to consider how Thames might manage a temporary 7-day schedule until another weekend contractor could be found; that contract would be offered first to Rediffusion and parent BET, which could re-occupy its old studios and re-employ staff, while probably being offered financial incentives from the ITA - selling its stake in Thames, perhaps to EMI. Whether this last idea would ever have flown is another matter, however, since although BET didn't control Thames, its nearly-half share was a good earner.

LWT bit the bullet and introduced more popular programming, but the result was boardroom chaos, with the founders' ideals shattered, plans leaked to the press, and the share price tumbling. When in 1969 the board sacked MD Michael Peacock, half the founders left with him. Morale was at an all-time low, with strikes and rapid staff turnover on the floor as well as in the boardroom. At last, in 1971, a white knight was found to save the company, offering £500,000 in return for a seat on the board. Within months, he had supplanted Peacock's successor, Tom Margerison, as Managing Director. LWT was saved - and Rupert Murdoch had entered television. Decades later, the IBA removed Murdoch because of his newspaper interests, but the new, populist schedule he put in place turned the company around. The Duke of Kent opened LWT's new South Bank studio centre, Kent House, in 1972.

David Frost remained with the company for many years, though with fewer shows than in 1969, when he presented programmes on all three days of the company's output, while ex-Rediffusion drama head Rex Firkin produced one of ITV's most successful drama series, Upstairs, Downstairs (1970-75), which had originally been rejected by Granada. The Edwardian drama won huge audiences and ran for five seasons. Another period drama was Lillie (1978), based on the life of Lillie Langtry.

Comedy hits included Doctor in the House (1969-70), classroom sitcom Please, Sir! (1968-72) and the critically hated, but hugely popular, On the Buses (1969-73). The inventive children's comedy Catweazle (1970-71) featured Geoffrey Bayldon as an 11th Century magician catapulted into the present.

Serious programming did not disappear, however. The London Programme (1975-) was a weekly regional current affairs series about topics in and around the capital. Arts strand Aquarius (1970-77), with Humphrey Burton, was ultimately succeeded by the South Bank Show (1978-), presented from the outset by Melvyn Bragg, and now the longest-running arts programme on British TV. In the 1980s, LWT established the London Minorities Unit, which produced programming aimed at Black, Asian and other minority audiences. Mainstream current affairs programme Weekend World, with its distinctive theme tune, included such staff as Peter Jay, John Birt and David Aaranovitch.

Blind Date (1985-2003), based on US show The Dating Game, proved a huge draw. Another popular show has been You've Been Framed (1990-2004), featuring home videos in which spontaneous unfortunate or comic events occur, originally compered by Jeremy Beadle and based on the US show America's Funniest Home Videos.

With Jimmy Hill on board, LWT could be expected to excel in the sports arena, with the Saturday afternoon World of Sport (1965-85), formerly produced by ABC, going head to head with the BBC's stalwart Grandstand (1958-). LWT replaced host Eamonn Andrews with Dickie Davies, while Hill also co-hosted new football show The Big Match (1968-88).

Breakfast television arrived in the 1980s and then, following the 1990 Broadcasting Act and its blind auction approach to allocating franchises, GMTV, in which LWT had a stake, took over from incumbent TV-am. The new breakfast contractor broadcast from Kent House, now renamed The London Studios and spun off as a separate business. LWT partnered with new London weekday contractor Carlton to form the London News Network, providing a regional ITV news service until early 2004, when the job passed to ITN.

At one point in the 1990s, it seemed that the television's upper-echelons were entirely staffed by LWT alumni. As well as Frost and Bragg, those who passed through the company on their way up included two now ex-BBC director generals, John Birt and Greg Dyke, ex-Channel 4 chief executive and current BBC chairman Michael Grade, former BBC financial editor Peter Jay, ex-ITV controller David Liddiment and youth TV pioneer Janet Street-Porter. New Labour architect Peter Mandelson and Commission for Racial Equality chairman Trevor Phillips also once paced LWT's corridors.

In 2002 LWT became ITV1 (London Weekends) and the company commemorated its last day as a distinct entity, 27 October, with a version of a traditional station start-up from the 1970s. The South Bank Show was preceded by the company's characteristic 1970s 'ribbon' ident, followed by a montage of LWT presentation styles over the years.

Richard G. Elen

Selected credits

Thumbnail image of After a Lifetime (1971)After a Lifetime (1971)

20th-century class politics explored through the death of a lifelong activist

Thumbnail image of Agatha Christie's Poirot (1989-)Agatha Christie's Poirot (1989-)

The casebook of Belgium's finest detective

Thumbnail image of Blade on the Feather (1980)Blade on the Feather (1980)

Meditation on loyalty and treachery by Dennis Potter

Thumbnail image of Blind Date (1985-2003)Blind Date (1985-2003)

Long-running ITV dating game show, hosted by Cilla Black

Thumbnail image of Catweazle (1970-71)Catweazle (1970-71)

Children's comedy series about a time-travelling sorcerer

Thumbnail image of Enemy at the Door (1978-80)Enemy at the Door (1978-80)

Powerful drama set in the Nazi-occupied Channel Islands

Thumbnail image of Fosters, The (1976-77)Fosters, The (1976-77)

Sitcom about the life of a South London black family

Thumbnail image of Gentle Touch, The (1980-84)Gentle Touch, The (1980-84)

Drama series about a female police officer in London's CID

Thumbnail image of Me! I'm Afraid of Virginia Woolf (1978)Me! I'm Afraid of Virginia Woolf (1978)

Mournfully funny Alan Bennett play about a cripplingly shy English lecturer

Thumbnail image of Mind Your Language (1977-79, 1986)Mind Your Language (1977-79, 1986)

Sitcom about a class of foreign students learning English

Thumbnail image of Mixed Blessings (1978-80)Mixed Blessings (1978-80)

Comedy series about a mixed-race married couple

Thumbnail image of Stanley Baxter Picture Show, The (1972)Stanley Baxter Picture Show, The (1972)

Memorably lavish film and television parodies

Thumbnail image of Upstairs, Downstairs (1971-75)Upstairs, Downstairs (1971-75)

Hugely popular drama about life in an early 20th Century London household

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