50 years of hits from a TV station that really caught fire

Pam Ferris, David Jason, Catherine Zeta Jones and Philip Franks in YTV's Darling Buds of May
Pam Ferris, David Jason, Catherine Zeta Jones and Philip Franks in YTV's Darling Buds of May
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IT WAS the first building in Europe designed specifically for colour television. The problem, recalled one of its earliest occupants last night, was that hardly anyone knew how it worked.

The publication of a book celebrating the creation of Yorkshire Television and the county’s first home-grown production studio, half a century ago, stirred memories of a time when a band of pioneers who made up in enthusiasm what they lacked in experience, laboured in what had been a trouser factory to get the first programmes out to viewers.

YTV's Rising Damp

YTV's Rising Damp

But as they worked against the clock to meet the on-air deadline of July 29, 1968, fate, and the summer heat, conspired against them.

“It was a state-of-the-art building but on the Friday before we went on the air the new wiring overheated and caught fire, and burned out the control room,” remembered Graham Ironside, who had arrived at Kirkstall Road, Leeds, from the backwater of Grampian TV in Aberdeen just a few weeks earlier.

“Very few people had done TV before, and the fire meant there was absolutely no chance to rehearse anything,” he said.

The early editions of Calendar, one of the first programmes to be transmitted by the new franchise, were beset by technical problems as a result - and many viewers resented no longer seeing the familiar faces of Brian Trueman and Bill Grundy on the pan-northern news service from Granada that had preceded it.

Calendar presenters Richard Whiteley and Austin Mitchell

Calendar presenters Richard Whiteley and Austin Mitchell

“Our studio was just a place with a desk and a chair that was with it,” said Mr Ironside, who would later become the programme’s editor.

“The programme wasn’t doing very well at all and there was a serious question over its survival.”

It was an Oxford-educated academic who rode to its rescue. The future MP Austin Mitchell, a grammar school boy from Bradford, had been lecturing in New Zealand when he was recruited to YTV, and his populist style was instantly endearing - though not always with the station’s intellectual founding director of programmes, Donald Baverstock, who wanted to mould Calendar in the style of the BBC news magazines he had produced in the 1960s.

“Richard Whiteley to his dying day said that Austin saved Calendar,” Mr Ironside said.

Alan Whicker, an early YTV star

Alan Whicker, an early YTV star

The £25 coffee-table book, Heartbeat and Beyond, is comprised of reminiscences by producers and others who worked for YTV between 1968 and its absorption by its commercial rival, Granada, in the 1990s.

John Fairley, Yorkshire’s former director of programmes, said the first tip he had been given upon taking over the role was to sit next to Granada at the weekly meetings of programme controllers.

“That was bad advice,” he said. “It just made it easier for them to slip the knife between your ribs.”

He recalled: “We were very competitive in the sort of programmes that we could get on to the ITV network, and along with the bargaining came threats. They would say they wouldn’t take our programmes if we didn’t have theirs.”

YTV’s relationship with its southern neighbour, London Weekend Television, was more productive, and it at a meeting with them, in the jacuzzi on the roof of the Beverley Wilshire hotel in Los Angeles, that one of Yorkshire’s most enduring hits was conceived.

Mr Fairley and LWT’s controller, Greg Dyke, on a US buying trip, made a pact to create a new popular drama each, and the results, respectively, were London’s Burning and Heartbeat, the latter starring the former EastEnder Nick Berry, and Niamh Cusack as his young wife.

“We had the rights to Nicholas Rhea’s Country Constable books but what stimulated us was the knowledge that we could get the slots in the weekend schedule,” Mr Fairley said.

“So we made the constable’s wife a doctor and threw everything in including the kitchen sink to make it as popular as possible.

“I’m afraid I also made the delicate suggestion that we should see a little more of Niamh Cusack.”

Mr Fairley said his personal highlights of YTV’s half-century had been the unprecedented success of the David Jason drama, The Darling Buds of May, which introduced the ingénue Catherine Zeta Jones, and a campaigning documentary that helped to clear the names of four people convicted of the 1974 IRA pub bombings in Guildford, in which five people were killed.

PRIME-TIME HITS

IN Yorkshire Television’s heyday, programmes of every type were recorded in Leeds and on location around Yorkshire, and beamed to the nation.

Among its first stars were the urbane and oft-imitated interviewer Alan Whicker, who helped found the station, and Leonard Rossiter in the classic comedy, Rising Damp.

Its other entertainment shows included the long-running quiz 3-2-1, and dramas ranged from the popular Hadleigh to JB Priestley’s Good Companions.

The YTV studios are still in use as the base for its most enduring series, Emnmerdale.