In the mid-1950s broadcasting was on the point of massive change. It was about to be transformed from the cosy deferential style of the BBC to the more abrasive journalism that arrived with the opening of independent television in September 1955.
Until then there had only been the BBC, and only one television channel. I was working as a studio manager in Broadcasting House at the time, and radio was seen as the by far the more important source of news. Hadn’t it, after all, led the nation through the dark days of the recent war? We saw television as some upstart adventure going on in some remote spot out at Shepherd’s Bush. But slowly tales reached us of new jobs on offer, paying better, having more scope, in fact being the shape of the future. We began to notice what was happening.
ITV’s arrival shook everything up – including the BBC. Its style until then had always been deferential, dull, informative. There were stories of an interviewer asking a government minister: “Minister, is there anything more you’d like to add?” To which the answer was a smug, “No, thank you.” ITN gave a new generation of assertive young reporters their chance. Robin Day led the pack, the first to interview Nasser after the nationalisation of the Suez Canal, and giving Prime Minister Macmillan a tough time in 1958. The bow tie, the horn-rimmed specs were widely lampooned. The audiences swung to ITV and the BBC was in a funk: it rushed to give its own programmes more cut and thrust. Television had become part of the political process.
Times were serious and this was a serious generation. Britain had won the war by imposing an implacably controlling regime that governed people’s jobs, how they were supplied with food, heating, clothes. People expected the state to decide, and with the return of the Labour government it did: it invented the Welfare State. There was a good deal of high-minded optimism around. Young broadcasters were keen to make the world a better place, uncover corruption and promote the lot of ordinary people. Current affairs was the place to be. At the same time, older producer hands were having their left-wing allegiances challenged. The talk in the pubs when the Soviet Union crushed the Hungarian uprising in 1956 was which of them would now leave the Communist Party.
Broadcasters tended to be serious-minded, too. The upper classes went on their glittering way in a world of fashion and fun unavailable to the rest. The world of debutantes and society scandals lived way above our heads. We went to French films and dressed like our parents. Power clearly belonged to the men, which made any woman who enjoyed success conspicuous. Grace Wyndham Goldie was the most powerful, nurturing a nest of talent known as her “Goldie boys”: two went on to become director-generals; another, Richard Dimbleby, founded a dynasty. She never promoted women: she said they were inclined to tears. But she did poach Robin Day from ITV.
The studios and indeed broadcasters would look dowdy by today’s standards. We all conformed: there was little conscious style and glamour. Women might wear trim little dresses à la Mad Men. I wore
a hat and gloves for my first job at the BBC. For the blokes, it was a time of flannel trousers, tweed sports jackets with leather patches and, daringly, a coloured waistcoat. To turn up to work with a loosened tie and open-buttoned shirt would have been like arriving in your pyjamas.
Television then was a job for life. When you enrolled at the BBC they discussed your pension. People expected to stay and rise in their company of choice. Individuals had 20- to 30-year-long careers. We were ambitious, of course, but not for money. The world of ratings, independent companies and short-term contracts was way ahead. Life felt secure and we loved it.