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Central Independent Television

Production Company

Main image of Central Independent Television

As the 1970s drew to a close, ATV Network Ltd, the contractor for the ITV Midlands region - a sprawling mass across the centre of the country with perhaps the largest population and certainly the largest geographical spread of any ITV franchise - was coming under increasing criticism. In the East Midlands, complaints were received from local groups who felt that their part of the region was underrepresented. Even in Birmingham, ATV's headquarters in the Midlands, there were murmurs of discontent from local councils. In particular, it was felt that the company relied too much on out-of-area production facilities - namely those in London that were retained even after ATV lost its London weekend franchise. As a contributor to the ITV Network ATV was a significant force; regional commitment, however, was its Achilles heel.

The Independent Broadcasting Authority (IBA) was considering a number of possibilities for the Midlands region by the end of the decade. These included giving the south-western transmitter in the region, Ridge Hill, to the Wales & West of England contractor; hiving off Oxford and giving it to the South, or to London; and creating a new East Midlands region based around the Waltham transmitter. But the latter would hardly be enough to stand on its own: it would require the addition of the already-controversial Belmont transmitter, claimed by both Anglia and Yorkshire. Indeed, each of the options had significant drawbacks. In the end, the IBA drew back from dramatic changes and created a dual region along the lines of Wales and the West, allowing a single company to hold the franchise but requiring it to provide both the East and West sub-regions with distinctive programming.

The new contracts were advertised at the start of 1980 and three applications were received, from two new contenders, Mercia Television and Midlands Television, plus ATV. Both new applicants focused on what they saw as the primary shortcoming of the incumbent: its handling of local areas within the region. But while the IBA, after a round of consultations, decided that the new applicants had some good ideas, it felt that neither had the financial backing or the breadth of programming required to handle the diverse and extensive region successfully.

However, in awarding the contract to the incumbent, the Authority demanded a raft of significant changes to the broadcaster and its approach to the region. A new broadcasting company was to be formed, with the parent company, Associated Communications Corporation, permitted to hold only a 51% stake - the rest was to be in the hands of investors based in the region. This proved a very difficult requirement to fulfil, surprisingly enough, and the remaining 49% eventually ended up with BPC (ultimately Robert Maxwell), DC Thomson, Ladbrokes and Sears. The post of MD also proved hard to fill: after several declines, it finally went to the former head of Independent Television Publications, Bob Phillis.

The name Central Television was an obvious choice, but an enterprising Midlands resident had already snapped this up, along with a large number of other obvious potential titles. However, the new company bypassed the problem by calling itself "Central Independent Television", although the middle word was virtually never heard on-air. A more significant early problem was a dispute that kept the new East Midlands news service off the air for some time.

The new broadcaster was more successful in other areas, however, notably with an enormous set of idents, all based initially around a globe symbol, later sliced horizontally into a 'cake', and a specially-commissioned theme with a huge number of related variations. These, coupled with in-vision continuity provided largely by the previous ATV team of announcers, combined to establish an extraordinarily strong identity for the station in a very short time - despite the odd complaint that 'Central' sounded more like a railway company than a broadcaster.

In 1986, the IBA licensed British Satellite Broadcasting as the UK's first official satellite broadcaster. When Amstrad and Virgin's consortia pulled out of the bidding, leaving Granada and Pearson, Australian tycoon Alan Bond and London ITV contractor Carlton Communications stepped in to the fray. Central held discussions with both Granada and Carlton about coming in with them, but the board declined, despite Phillis's recommendations to go with Granada. As a result, Phillis left to join Carlton. Then in early 1989, in a meeting between Carlton's Michael Green and Cyril Stein of Ladbrokes, Green proposed that Ladbrokes sell Carlton its 20% stake in Central. This was finally agreed, and one of Carlton's first moves was to appoint Phillis to the Central board as its representative - Phillis was back.

Prior to the introduction of a new IBA requirement that at least 25% of productions should be made by independents, Central sold its Zenith Productions to Carlton. Green subsequently had the opportunity to pick up Robert Maxwell's 20% of Central following a chance holiday meeting, but he declined, against Phillis's advice.

In advance of the 1992 franchise round, Central raised the bar by creating its own new sub-region, giving the area served by the Ridge Hill and Oxford transmitters in the west and south of the region its own local news service. The new regulator, the Independent Television Commission, responded by making this a requirement for all applicants. Central won its contract with a bid of just £2,000 plus a percentage of revenue.

In November 1993 it was announced that ownership restrictions were to be lifted on 1 January 1994, allowing companies to own two contractors outside London, plus 20% holdings in a third and 5% in a fourth, making Central a prime target for a takeover bid. Michael Green approached DC Thomson immediately and lined up its Central holding for Carlton, which had recently become the London ITV contractor. The Central board was considering its own acquisitions in light of the changes, but decided to Carlton's takeover offer. Carlton integrated the two companies, making the Central production wing Carlton UK Productions, but the licence remained in Central's name. The look of the station changed gradually too, with Central's distinctive 'cake' logo finally replaced in 1998 - to public outcry - by initially rather uninspiring Carlton-style graphics. The following year the name went too, as part of a 'Carltonisation' campaign to rebrand Central and Carlton's other 1990s acquisition, Westcountry. Then, on 8 October 2002, the Carlton Central Region took on the homogenised 'ITV1 Carlton' identity and thereafter used the regional title only before regional programming. With the February 2004 merger of Carlton and Granada, it became 'ITV 1 Central'. Since then, the company has seen the closure of its presentation division, its duties being handled from the National Transmission Centre in Leeds.

Central's contributions to the network include a number of programmes inherited from ancestor ATV, notably the oft-ridiculed but enduring soap, Crossroads (1964-88). Other drama successes have included the extremely popular Inspector Morse (1987-2000), made by Zenith Productions, Central's production company. Based on the series of novels by Colin Dexter (who turns up in many episodes), the leisurely-paced series gave John Thaw one of his most iconic roles. Morse ran to 33 2-hour episodes, marking a radical departure from the conventional 1-hour drama format.

Cadfael (1994-96) was another successful and likeable drama, a murder mystery with a twist. Plucked from the novels of 'Ellis Peters' (Edith Pargeter), the 'detective' hero, Brother Cadfael (the inimitable Sir Derek Jacobi), is a 12th Century Benedictine herbalist monk. The four series were filmed on location with, surprisingly, Hungarian countryside standing in for the Welsh borders.

Early 19th Century swashbuckler Sharpe (1991-97), based on Bernard Cornwell's novels, featured the ruggedly handsome Sean Bean as its Napoleonic soldier hero. Lucy Gannon's Soldier, Soldier (1991-97), meanwhile, took a more sober look at life in the contemporary British Army.

Comedy drama Auf Wiedersehen, Pet (1983-86) was a novel, politically understated take on Thatcher's Britain, charting the experiences and interrelationships of seven unemployed builders who leave Britain to seek work in West Germany. Its raucous, hard-drinking, regionally diverse characters, played by the (then unknown) likes of Jimmy Nail, Timothy Spall and future Morse sidekick Kevin Whately, struck a chord with audiences.

More politically biting was Spitting Image (1984-96), a deep-satire featuring the memorably grotesque puppets of Peter Fluck and Roger Law, aided by a number of impressive voice mimics. Mrs Thatcher and her cabinet, Ronald Reagan and the Royal Family were satisfyingly lampooned. Rather less successful was OTT (1982) - a late-night, adult successor to ATV's anarchic TISWAS (1974-82) - which might have fared less disastrously if born a decade later in the wake of 'post-pub TV' like Channel 4's The Word (1990-95).

Game show Family Fortunes (1979-) and junior quiz Blockbusters (1983-93, later reincarnated on Sky and BBC2) drew large audiences, while Central and production company Richmond Films and Television won critical plaudits and a BAFTA for children's drama Press Gang (1989-93), which told the story of youth newspaper the Junior Gazette. Devised and written by ex-teacher Steven Moffat, the series covered tough themes like drugs, incest and abuse with intelligent scripts and an excellent pair of leads in Julia Sawalha and Dexter Fletcher.

Richard G. Elen

Selected credits

Thumbnail image of Auf Wiedersehen, Pet (1983-86)Auf Wiedersehen, Pet (1983-86)

A gang of building workers leave Newcastle to find work in Germany

Thumbnail image of Cadfael (1994-98)Cadfael (1994-98)

Medieval detective stories, starring Derek Jacobi as Brother Cadfael

Thumbnail image of Inspector Morse (1987-2000)Inspector Morse (1987-2000)

Gentle Oxfordshire whodunnits faced by the melancholic detective

Thumbnail image of Press Gang (1989-93)Press Gang (1989-93)

Children's series about the staff of the Junior Gazette newspaper

Thumbnail image of Spitting Image (1984-96)Spitting Image (1984-96)

Topical satire show featuring memorably vicious puppets

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