Golden age of Yorkshire Television

Steve Burnip’s oral history project took him back to the early days of Yorkshire Television. Sheena Hastings reports.

BACK in 1968, 16-year-old school leaver Steve Fairholme got a job in the post room at a brand new building on the edge of Leeds city centre, working for the newly licensed independent TV station for the region, Yorkshire Television.

Until a licence for an independent station was granted to Telefusion in 1967, ITV programmes had been provided by Granada on weekdays and ABC at weekends.

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The YTV plan was a grand one: with a vast building (set on five acres of slum clearance land) that cost £1.8m to build and £2.2m to equip its five studios and technical areas, it was to be the most advanced colour TV company in Europe.

During his first year in the post room, Fairholme was encouraged to look around the company’s various departments and identify an area he would like to move into to develop his career.

“I was the 50th person on the staff, which rapidly grew to several hundred,” remembers Steve, who went on to a year’s apprenticeship in YTV’s film department, learning the basics about every aspect of handling and editing the vastly expensive 16mm film which was used for all programme making in those days before digital or even video technology.

Fairholme became one of the company’s most senior and valued film editors, cutting many of the station’s most prestigious and award-winning programmes, thanks to his talent being nurtured by the station’s paternalistic ethos. He worked at YTV until a few years ago.

For the first couple of decades of the company’s life, even short, “quick turnaround” news stories were filmed on 100-foot rolls of 16mm, which had to be dropped off at a processing lab on the other side of Leeds from the vast Kirkstall Road studios.

Reporters and crews who had filmed stories all over a vast region stretching almost to Teesside and down into Lincolnshire, Nottinghamshire and North Derbyshire, raced against the clock to get their material back in time for inclusion in the lunchtime bulletin or 6pm news programme Calendar.

It took 45 minutes to develop each roll, and then the print had to be rushed by motorbike courier back to YTV to be synchronised with the separate sound roll, edited using a chalk pencil to mark the ribbons of sound and pictures before a blade and clear tape were used to make the cuts and join the ends.

To save a few precious minutes and get the cut films into the technical area quickly, editors on the ground floor would place the rolls of sound and film into a plastic bucket with rope tied to its handle outside their window for someone in the Calendar area above to pull up.

They would then grab the previous cargo and run to the technicians, hopefully in the nick of time.

Terry Mounsey, hired as a cameraman during the start-up of the station, remembers that the first edition of Calendar was “a huge disaster”. “The building had only been taken over from the builders a day or two before our first transmission, and no-one had tested the equipment.

“Nothing worked, because everything was messed up with building dust. The poor Production Assistant Annie Gibbons cued each item into the programme but each machine failed to roll, and in the end she simply shouted: ‘Roll anything!’” recalls Terry.

Add to the chaos the fact that the first day’s broadcasts were disrupted by an industrial dispute by the technical union the ACTT (Coronation Street had to be replaced by the film Rin Tin Tin), and it was a shaky start indeed.

These teething problems were later the subject of fond reminiscences when stalwarts of the early days of Yorkshire Television gathered in the on-site bar after Calendar or at “wrap” parties, or when a drama or light entertainment series had finished filming and the cast and crew let their hair down, aided by whatever was left over from the budget.

Employees who’d joined YTV later would be enthralled by the hair-raising tales of reporters’ derring-do, technicians’ wizardry in saving potentially disastrous situations, and the camaraderie that existed as a group of talented people came together to make television in a region that had not previously seen its own stories told on the box.

Steve Burnip was not one of those early crusaders at YTV. Trained as a newspaper reporter, he went into the Calendar newsroom in 1988, first as a newsdesk journalist and researcher. He progressed to producing a wide range of regional series and the live weekday programme Tonight.

In 2005 he left, first of all becoming an independent producer, but soon moving into a lecturing post at Huddersfield University.

Undertaking an MA in oral history a couple of years ago, Burnip chose as his subject the early years of Yorkshire Television, submitting both a commentary on the birth and early story of the regional ITV company and gathering first-hand accounts from a group of 14 interviewees, almost all of whom had been at YTV from that first day in 1968.

With the exception of Val Beman, the colourful and exuberant canteen assistant whose tea trolley brightened up everyone’s life, all the interviewees are men – but then in the early years of TV the industry was very much male dominated – a hangover from the film industry whose customs and practice also fed into the television environment, with the same trades unions also represented among the staff.

As Burnip observes, there was no particular TV expertise resident in Yorkshire in 1968 (the BBC only started a small service in Yorkshire that same year), so staffing the new station involved pulling in personnel from other stations and the BBC in London.

Early “faces” at YTV were Austin Mitchell (later to become an MP), the late Richard Whiteley, who came back to live and work in Yorkshire having been a news trainee at ITN, and newsreader Paul Dunstan, who was already working at Central TV in the Midlands.

Dunstan, whose long career at YTV included producing education and science programmes, remembers being made to stand behind a lectern, rather like a vicar, as he read the news.

Graham Ironside, the Aberdonian who joined the company as deputy news editor and later became head of regional programmes, came to Yorkshire from Grampian TV in Scotland – as had managing director Ward Thomas. He remembers the run-up to the official opening of the station on July 29, 1968 by the Duchess of Kent.

He told Burnip: “We had only a short time after getting the licence to cover the region, setting up contacts and finding freelance cameramen. Some people wanted Calendar to be a mini Tonight programme (the flagship network news programme of the time) and quite intellectual.

“Others like myself thought it should be more down to earth... There was a lot of news to cover in Yorkshire – from “lumps and bumps” and fires, to the coming of North Sea Gas to the downturn of the textile industry and changes in local councils. We also had 75 MPs in the region, and invented a weekly politics programme.”

As is the way with oral history, Burnip found that although his subjects agreed about certain facts during the interviews he carried out, there were some variations in memories of the same event, and each subject very much told the story through the prism of their experience of particular roles within the company.

Their testimony to perhaps the most exciting era in the region’s media history has been edited and made available on a website which Burnip hopes to add to with further interviews and photographs.

“Every single person I talked to said the early years were a fantastically exciting time to work there. What also came across was that there was very much a family feel to the place.

“I found it very touching to hear about this atmosphere that lasted for the first couple of decades. People were encouraged to get on within the company and many did very well. In the 70s there were a number of strikes and other industrial action, but one interviewee told me that while his department were out on strike, managers would go and water their tomato plants on the window ledges.”

“I spent 17 very enjoyable years at YTV, where so much high quality television was made. The company had quickly become renowned for its top-class dramas by people like Osborne, Pinter and Rosenthal, but also for its entertainment shows and many award-winning documentaries, education and children programmes.

“There were many strands of interesting regional programmes – a lot of them local programming at its best. Like many people who joined the company after it had found its feet, gained stature and was making a lot of money from advertising, I heard some great stories about the early days.

“I knew there were still quite a few of the original staff members in the region, and they were happy to be interviewed. I left when I did because (the regulator) Ofcom had decided that ITV companies no longer needed to make all those hours of regional programmes.

“Now there’s little left except Calendar to show the company’s regional identity.” YTV is now ITV Yorkshire.

Is he hopeful that there is a future in television for the bright young things he teaches today?

“All you can do is give them the best possible experience while they are here at university, and equip them for what is a very difficult job market.

“TV has always been hard to get into, and more so now, but there are always bright sparks who will succeed.”

The Memories of YTV website can be found at