September 1955, exactly sixty years ago – a momentous month for popular culture that drew a line in the sand, signalling the division between the old world and the new; in the case of the latter, it momentarily seemed it had been strangled at birth when Hollywood’s hottest property and poster-boy for the new juvenile delinquent, James Dean, steered his wheels up the stairway to heaven. However, a week before the Rebel without a Cause crashed his car, those two worlds clashed in the arena of British broadcasting on a night that marked the last dramatic hurrah of the old world before it surrendered to the future.
Despite the surge in TV set-ownership during the 1953 Coronation, two years later (when one in three homes possessed a set) it was still the radio that the majority of Brits turned to for education, information and entertainment. Although this was the age of the BBC monopoly of the airwaves, the three networks – Home, Light and Third – provided an impressively diverse service that seemed to have something for everyone, a principle the BBC struggles to maintain to this very day. When it came to listening figures, however, there was already a pattern developing that would be familiar to the twenty-first century TV viewer. The continuing drama serial was the genre that prompted most to tune in every evening, and the most popular of them all was an everyday story of country folk situated in the imaginary village of Ambridge.
‘The Archers’ had been on air for almost five years by the autumn of 1955, and though many of its characters adhered to the plummy RP of the era, the fact the series was produced in Birmingham enabled a rare opportunity for regional accents to be heard around the country, even if there was an abundance of ‘Oo-arrs’ from the likes of Walter Gabriel. ‘The Archers’ didn’t take long to establish itself as a British institution and by the mid-50s was drawing daily audiences of 20 million. In 1955, Phil Archer and his new wife Grace were radio’s golden couple, a less tempestuous equivalent of Den and Angie Watts in terms of the public profile they enjoyed, and listeners looked forward to following their married life for years to come.
As Phil and Grace were tying the knot before the nation, radio’s snotty-nosed sibling was about to undergo its most seismic shake-up in its twenty-year history. Commercial television had initially been proposed by Churchill’s Government in 1951, though fears of British viewers being exposed to what was regarded by many as vulgar American-style programming led to the formation of the Independent Television Authority, a regulatory body to keep the new network in check. The passing of the 1954 Television Act gave the green light for commercial television, though rather than the newcomer being a London-based corporation in the BBC mould, it was decided that ITV would comprise a series of regional companies that would share schedules only during prime-time slots.
The first two companies awarded the ITV franchises were Associated-Rediffusion, which would provide London with its weekday service, and ATV London, which would do the job at the weekend. Associated-Rediffusion essentially wanted to replicate the BBC Television Service and even poached announcer Leslie Mitchell to introduce the opening night, just as he’d done for the BBC in 1936. Mitchell’s greeting was followed by a five-minute London travelogue film with typically stiff-necked narration, describing ITV as ‘a New Elizabethan Enterprise’. The aim was to allay lingering fears that ITV would be a down-market poor relation of the BBC and show the new broadcaster intended to compete on level terms with its rival. The debut of ITV was pencilled-in for Thursday September 22 1955, although only viewers in the capital would receive the inaugural transmission of Associated-Rediffusion. ITV wouldn’t be seen outside of London until ATV Midlands went on air five months later.
The starting time for the end of the BBC TV monopoly was set for 7.15pm, precisely thirty minutes after that evening’s edition of ‘The Archers’ ended. But those in the capital who attempted to switch on their sets after listening to the latest events in Ambridge were most likely too distracted to pay much attention to the arrival of ITV, for the Beeb had played a blinder that night.
Grace Archer, Phil’s bride of five months, had rushed to rescue her horse from a fire that had broken out in the Brookfield stables. As Phil yelled at her to get out, a wooden beam weakened by the heat fell on top of Grace and killed her. Unlike the more contrived, post-‘Who Shot JR?’ TV soap deaths today, no word of warning had leaked out to the press about this melodramatic assassination of a popular household name. It had come completely out of the blue as far as the country was concerned, and the BBC switch-boards were jammed as Fleet Street hurriedly composed its obituaries in time for the morning dailies. Amidst this chaos, who would even notice a new television service had begun the same day? Few did. It was perhaps the last time in British broadcasting history that a radio programme stole the limelight from TV.
At the time, it appeared to be a calculated effort to rob ITV of its opening night headlines, and it certainly succeeded. Nobody has ever confirmed whether the death of Grace Archer, which had been secretly planned for months, was rearranged to coincide with ITV’s arrival; but the decision to axe the character has subsequently been revealed as a consequence of the actress who played her, Ysanne Churchman, encouraging her fellow ‘Archers’ cast-members to rebel against the BBC paying them Equity minimum rates. However, the legend of Grace Archer’s death lingered, so much so that when the 1964 launch-night of BBC2 was aborted by a huge power failure across West London, the rumour surfaced that this was ITV’s revenge for events nine years earlier.
Although it took until 1962 before every geographical region of the UK has its own ITV service, the impact of commercial television had already dealt quite a blow to the BBC, especially the December 1960 debut of ‘Coronation Street’, which took the serial format of ‘The Archers’ and gave it an almighty Salford kiss. The Beeb response was the appointment of a dynamic new Director General, Hugh Carleton-Greene, who dragged BBC TV kicking and screaming into the 60s with a string of ground-breaking new series including ‘Z-Cars’, ‘Steptoe and Son’, ‘Doctor Who’ and ‘The Wednesday Play’. Just as the individual ITV companies competed against each other to grab the prime-time schedules and thus increased the quality of ITV programming as a result, healthy competition also gave the BBC the kick up the backside it needed to enter a golden age of television broadcasting.
During this long-overdue flowering of BBC TV, BBC radio went into a swift decline. Listening figures plummeted from their mid-50s peak, including those of ‘The Archers’; indeed, by the time twenty years had passed since the death of Grace Archer, the audience for the show had dropped to three million a week. The success of the Pirates had forced the rebranding of BBC music radio by the comparatively late date of 1967, but it took far longer before the BBC’s spoken-word services regained some lost ground. Today, sixty years on from the moment radio won its last key battle with television, ‘The Archers’ is still with us and probably always will be, whereas ITV exists in name only, a vastly different broadcasting animal from the one that flourished up until the 1990 Broadcasting Act that brought about deregulation. But I suspect that’s another story for another day.