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Pop Music on British Television 1955 - 1999


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ITV After Hours


I'm not gonna wait till The Midnight Hour.

The British love bedtime. It's the only time that television can't compete with, so for the first couple of decades ITV just didn't bother, and in case you weren't aware, they would display a clock at the end of daily transmission to prove how late it was. It was like we were keeping them up.

When ITV debuted in September 1955 there was an established hour-long gap in daily broadcasting from 6 until 7 pm when fretting parents could get their kids to bed with the promise that telly had actually finished for the night. This lasted until 16th February 1957 when an undeclared war between the BBC and ITV kicked off and the gap was finally filled. Kids looked at each other and said "knew it!", so new contracts about bedtime had to be drawn up and agreed to.

But TV for the last couple of hours of the day was nothing to talk about, usually filled with post-news documentaries, followed by the Epilogue with titles like At The End Of The Day, Dialogue With Doubt and Change of Heart. The Epilogue was a five-minute religious-themed monologue given by a media-friendly vicar or faith-based journalist, something, for some reason, that the BBC didn't have to broadcast. The occasional American import like Dragnet might be played, but proper entertainment was rare at the midnight hour.

In October 1958 the ITA applied to the Postmaster General for an increase of weekly broadcasting hours from 50 to 71, meaning another three hours per day. The original allocation of 50 hours was with the BBC's agreement, but the increase, which would be optional, would likely be given over mid-day broadcasting.

In a surprising gesture towards giving the people what they want the BBC's That Was The Week That Was debuted late on a Saturday night in November 1962, just after the day's football highlights, and no, it wasn't Match Of The Day then. The show was a response to ITV's What The Public Wants which, due to contractual misunderstanding, had to be removed from the schedules, and quickly. It showed that people were willing to stay up and watch if the channels actually bothered in playing anything worthwhile.

But even up to the mid-sixties the usual time that TV went to bed would be just after 11.30 pm. Sets were switched off and after we all watched the dot disappear from the centre from the screen, the set was unplugged (no rocker switches on plug sockets in those days) and we all headed up the wooden hill to Bedfordshire. We had work to go the the next day you know. Lord Renwick, chairman of ATV made a case for longer viewing hours in 1965, but his call was never returned. While a similar request from the newly formed Yorkshire TV in late 1967 questioned why TV hours shouldn't be extended in the afternoon. However, others were taking the matter of blank screens into their own hands. From a disused wartime naval fort off of the coast of Felixstowe Tower Television briefly flickered onto a few screens on Channel 5 after closedown in November 1965. Station owner George Short told The Times "We aim to show old films, local film clips, and perhaps later, live telecasts from a studio out here to viewers who are still awake after midnight." It never materialised, not did any of the threats from Radio Caroline to broadcast TV after hours from the Bristol Channel.

Despite having requested the extra hours none of the ITV stations suggested what would be shown that would make those extra hours worth staying up for, although ATV argued in their 1969 annual report "There are significant minority and other groups in the population who cannot be reached so long as such restrictions continue to apply." If they were hoping that the extension would bring in much needed advertising then they would have to earn it, but it was never suggested that the extra hours was something that the had public requested.

By this time, the only regular concession that guaranteed after hours telly would have been new year's eve and general elections. Thankfully, the moon landing in summer 1969 made through the night TV a necessity, with both the BBC and ITV putting on a respectable showing. But even within spitting distance of TV going colour in late 1969 everything was still unplugged by midnight, but the weekend relented and BBC2's Midnight Movie was occasionally worth staying up for. Even the first Christmas in colour wouldn't even make that much of an effort to take TV into tomorrow. Postmaster General, John Stonehouse hinted at an unlimited extension for "certain types of programmes" in late 1969. However his request for an extension of hours for ITV was rebuffed by the government as it was felt that the BBC could not compete. Talking at a symposium on broadcasting in late 1969 Stonehouse suggested "There are powerful arguments not merely to extend hours but to abolish restrictions on television broadcasting hours altogether."

In February 1970 Television Caroline threatened to broadcast from a Constellation aircraft 20,000 feet above the UK. Technically, it was never going to work, but the attraction of broadcasting until 2 am was enough to draw attention from the media, while in July 1970 the ITA would make another approach to the government to extend broadcasting hours.

The idea of a fourth national channel was touted in the early seventies, and to help it compete an extension of broadcasting hours was likely to be offered to ITV. Chris Chataway, Minster of Posts and Telecommunications announced in the Commons in January 1972 that there would be an end to all restrictions on broadcasting hours, and in June it was announced that ITV would begin broadcasting 9.30 am until midnight, except for Thursday to Saturday when it could broadcast later. It was considered that the repeats and movies shown late at night were for shift workers and people who couldn't watch during the evening. ATV had already announced that closure would be at somewhere between 1 to 1.30 am with other ITV companies likely to follow. ITV by that time liked to finish off the day with movies, documentaries, repeats of The Avengers or even wrestling, but the end of the day would still be around midnight and seen off by an earnest, thoughtful folk singer or religiously inclined minor celebrity. Old movies or American TV movies became the way to say goodnight by the mid-seventies, but the lovingly-remembered Appointment With Fear series of horror movies shown in the Tyne Tees and Yorkshire areas would become the first branding of late night TV since BBC's Midnight Movies in the sixties. The three day week in late 1973 and early 1974 meant goodnight by 10.30 for both the BBC and ITV, while cuts in output by ITV in early 1975 meant, if anything, an earlier closedown.

The late seventies saw cheap Canadian imports like Oscar Peterson Presents, Celebrity Concert and George Hamilton IV clinging to the late night schedules like bindweed, showing up somewhere nearly every day. Each series would get passed around each station of the network, seemingly lasting an eternity.

By the early 1980s ITV were only thinking of extending opening hours to the other end of the day with breakfast TV. The same honour would not be bestowed upon the night-time. However, in a nod to actual entertainment the Epilogue would occasionally invite more esoteric characters like Quentin Crisp to give us something to think about before we went to bed. Late nights now offered the likes of Police Surgeon, Barney Miller, Superstar Profiles, Portrait Of A Legend or WKRP in Cincinnati, sometimes taking its viewers into the dizzy uncharted territory of half-past midnight, while the previously relied upon Canadian shows would be replaced with similar cheap Euro imports like The Monte Carlo Show or Star Parade, usually starring Caterina Valente, James Last or The Les Humphries Singers.

The promise of something different was delivered when Channel 4 took to the air in late 1982, but what it didn't deliver was late night TV, as it usually closed at midnight too. The promise of multi-channel cable services by 1984 further frustrated the established channels. If they were allowed to broadcast for as long as they like then shouldn't ITV?

The point had been made and Yorkshire would be the first out of the traps in August 1986 with Music Box, EMI's MTV clone which didn't find much of an audience on satellite, so was given a terrestrial tryout. Other ITV channels then gave it a go with bundled presentations of shows, promo videos, cartoons and imports, sometimes with in-vision continuity. TVS had Late Night Late, Central with More, Granada with Night Time and HTV with Night Club, but LWT's Night Network was the only really notable attempt, launching in 1987. Most of these packages would play bought-in shows, usually from America like Casey Casem's America's Top Ten, Cinemattractions, repeats of WKRP In Cincinnati (again) and Taxi, plus a few UK concert series like Video Sounds. The reality of 24 hour TV wasn't exactly shouted from the rooftops when it came to publicity. It might have got a mention in the menu after News At Ten if that, but LWT's Night Network did get print adverts in the monthly music magazine Q.

In the nineties youth targeted show like The Hitman and Her and Hotel Babylon came and went, but both would have been better suited for weekend broadcast.

24 hour TV was now with us and the public apparently couldn't care less, and neither by the looks of it could advertisers as many of the intended advert breaks were unsold and taken up with the government's legendary Public Service Announcements. Pretty much all of the above packages handed in their cards early, with only Night Network really bothering with any original programming. Re-designed packages of night time programming lasted until the 2000s, but none provided any original content, let alone and pop /rock interest. The night time would have been the right time for a thorough examination of ITV's archive, but that would eventually be left to the likes of Granada Plus on satellite.

The late/early hours would eventually be taken up with rigged quizzes, premium phone-line bingo, unpopular sports and signed repeats.

...and don't forget to unplug your sets.