Review: The Dream that Died – The Rise and fall of ITV by Raymond Fitzwalter
It used to be said that British television was the best in the world. There was justification for that – but no longer. Raymond Fitzwalter explains why.
What made British TV great wasn’t that it was British but that it was diverse and had high standards. The result was good quality programming which included top-class news, current affairs and documentaries, as well as impressive dramas with a wide appeal. The roots of this didn’t essentially lie with the BBC, despite all the hype (sometimes justified) which has surrounded that institution. Paradoxically it was the introduction of commercial television in Britain (ITV) in the mid-1950s that brought a fresh wave of thinking to the industry, challenging the stuffiness of the BBC and its close connections with the political establishment.
Commercial TV raises standard
The BBC had always been funded from a licence fee the public paid to the government. Now it was to face competition for viewers from commercial channels which raised money through advertising. There was an understandable fear that this would inevitably drive the whole of television downmarket as the new channels sought ever-higher viewer ratings and the BBC followed suit. But that didn’t happen. Ratings were important but the quality increased! That was partly because the new channels had to commit themselves to a certain level of public-service broadcasting. It also happened that they managed to attract a new generation of bright, go-ahead journalists and producers determined to beat the BBC at its own game. They were regionally based channels and in attitude differed from the metropolitan conservatism of the BBC. The overall result was not a lowering but a raising of quality and diversity.
Granada in the game
Raymond Fitzwalter focuses on the story of Granada Television, based in Manchester in the northwest of England. Granada became a flagship broadcaster, setting the standards for other commercial TV companies as well as the BBC. Its journalists and, crucially, its management had a commitment to making good television. On the drama side programmes ranged from the classic Coronation Street, a favourite of literally millions around the world, to expensive, quality – though also popular – series such as Brideshead Revisited.
Granada excelled when it came to investigative documentaries. For years its weekly World in Action was a must-view programme for anyone keen to learn about the inner workings of British politics and society. The company was also prepared to invest in serious drama documentaries – reconstructions of real events with realistic settings. A number of excellent such productions were made, for example, about the rise of Solidarnosc in Poland, with warehouses near Granada’s Manchester studios serving as the Gdansk shipyard.
So what went wrong? In a nutshell what started a downward spiral was Britain’s 1990 Broadcasting Act. At stake was what was seen as the monopoly the regional commercial channels had in their areas and equally, if not more importantly, the idea that regulation had no place in a free-market economy. In the TV context this meant that requirements to be a public service were slowly going to be eroded. No longer would the commercial channels, like the BBC, be working to an agenda of “information, education and entertainment” but now “choice” was at the forefront, alongside economic efficiency, meaning profits at all costs.
What “choice” boiled down to was a mass of new channels all offering, at best, “infotainment”. The unrestrained profit motive meant drastic cuts in the workforce and in programme investment. The short-term bottom line took precedence over quality television. Slowly the creative production people were pushed out or felt they had to leave the major companies such as Granada.
Ray Fitzwalter was a World in Action editor for 11 years until he became Granada’s Head of Current Affairs in 1987. Six years later he was one of those who decided to leave. His story is thus based on experience but not just his own – his book is based on over 90 interviews with people who held key positions in commercial television. This “human story” approach adds a light touch to what is a very detailed and sometimes complicated account of how Granada and others declined from being internationally recognised as part of the best broadcasting system in the world into the “ignorance and self-interest, the idiocy and feeble-mindedness that is 21st-century ITV”.
Just over 20 years ago, on 14 March 1991, a group of Irish prisoners in Britain walked free. Known as the Birmingham Six they had been wrongly convicted in 1975 of the murders of 21 people killed by IRA bombs left to explode in Birmingham pubs. Proving their innocence had taken an awfully long time. The authorities and the public were reluctant to believe that the police and the prosecution had got it wrong.
Part of the shift in opinion was due to a Granada docu-drama called Who Bombed Birmingham?, which retraced the steps of an earlier World in Action investigation. It was watched by ten million people and caused a great stir. The government and the authorities didn’t like it but it helped put to rights an appalling miscarriage of justice.
It was an example of courageous television journalism. The sad thing is that such a programme is unlikely to be produced today.
Buy the book
The Dream that Died
Paperback, illustrated, 273 pages
Troubadour Publishing, 2008, GBP14.99