Each individual ITV company in the 20th century faced a difficult balance in making programmes for three different potential audiences; regional, national and international.
Companies bore responsibility for reflecting the distinctive concerns and histories of their local regions, but were part of a national network, with peak-time programming (drama, comedy, light entertainment, current affairs and documentaries) formed of contributions from across the ITV family (although weighted in favour of the ‘big five’). Locally specific programming ran a risk of alienating a national audience. An international dimension was added by the potential commercial export value of shows, where a global success (such as Tales of the Unexpected, 1979-88) could act as a great boon for the producing company (Anglia Television) in terms of revenue and recognition (while only sporadically representing the region where it was made).
Questions about prioritising between the three conflicting audiences became particularly acute for companies from outside England, whose programming represented national as well as regional identity. No ITV company had a more problematic brief than HTV (covering Wales and the West of England), having to serve not only two countries, but also two very distinct audiences within Wales (Welsh-speaking and primarily English-speaking).
Harlech Television (HTV from 1970) was one of four new ITV companies created by the 1967 franchise review, broadcasting from May 1968. Television Wales & the West (TWW) had previously served the region since 1958, save for the Welsh-speaking North and West Wales between September 1962 and January 1964 by the short-lived Teledu Cymru (which was merged into TWW after its financial collapse). The launch of UHF transmission in the Bristol Channel allowed Harlech to offer separate Welsh and English programming from 1970, splitting into HTV (Wales) from Cardiff and HTV (West) from Bristol.
TWW had produced little in the way of drama during its ten years on air, screening a handful of Welsh language productions and five plays for the modest partially networked Thirty Minute Theatre (1961-63) slot.
Harlech Television attracted ambitious hopes of creating high-profile international programming when it was founded, with an initial board of directors that included prominent Welsh stars Stanley Baker, Richard Burton, Sir Geraint Evans and Harry Secombe, in addition to Burton’s wife Elizabeth Taylor. However, initial financial difficulties led to the company’s initial aspirations being indefinitely postponed in 1969 (Potter 1990: 172-3).
HTV Wales’ contribution to nationally-networked ITV drama over the 1968-81 period ended up as modest, with only four productions or series shown by the entire company over the period[i] (HTV West contributed more drama to the national network, largely through its specialisation in imaginative children’s serials). This article outlines the programmes, follows press reception, and considers the ambitions and intentions that lay behind each production, in order to examine how they represented Wales to the national audience.
Saturday Night Theatre: Fade Out (1970)
The nationally networked ‘Fade Out’, Harlech’s first full-length colour drama, is a good illustration of the type of programme that the company had initially promised to make. A melodramatic and glossy story of TV journalism, the expensive (£120,000 budget) play starred Stanley Baker and Hollywood veteran George Sanders, and was made with the intention of international export. In a TV Times interview Baker outlined the commercial potential of such a prestige project:
“I know there’s a view that the smaller stations outside the big five, like Harlech, should stick to local programming. But one reason for my going to Harlech was to ensure that the voice of Wales became international. This takes time. (…) Fade Out was made for any market that will take it, and, as soon as I find another script as good, I will appear again.” (Ottoway 1970: 4)
The forward-thinking actor and businessmen even predicts a future home video market for television programming in this interview.
“Harlech, the ITV company for Wales and the West of England celebrated its first appearance in the network Saturday Night Theatre slot this weekend with a play about a London ITV company.” (Guardian, 13 April 1970)
“Stanley Baker, joining the highly select band of Harlech producer-shareholders who have actually carried out some of what they have promised to do when they got the contact was Sam Tennant.” (Daily Mail, 13 April 1970)
The “showy and entertaining melodrama” (Mail) updated the conventions of the Hollywood newspaper film, outlined by Oliver Pritchett in the Guardian:
“As always there was the doting PA, the impressed new boy, the smoothie who is after the hero’s job, and the whiskey in the filing cabinet. Sam Tennant thumped desks, defied the management, did not give a damn for politicians, deployed helicopters without a thought for the levy and was in every respect the standard issue Loveable Swine.”
Critics questioned the wisdom of Harlech drama premiering with a play about a television company (the Mail’s review headed, ‘So this is how the television people see themselves’):
“It was odd to see TV glamorising TV. (…) The themes on the studio floor and in the gallery control room were well done and generated some excitement. (…) [T]he internal politics of Consolidated TV may have been far fetched but they are pretty weird in real life ITV too. (…) I think Harlech could have chosen a better play for their appearance on the network than this tame piece of incest.” (Guardian)
The Inheritors (1974)
It took over four years for a second HTV Wales drama to reach the national ITV network. Like ‘Fade Out’, The Inheritors was another large-scale project – in this instance a six-part prime time serial – but significantly was a story with a (largely) Welsh setting and protagonists. The story of a disputed estate – contested between the ruthless Lord James Gethin (Robert Urquhart) and his idealistic son, Michael (Peter Egan) – combined two potentially gripping elements, family saga and boardroom drama. The programme was devised, produced and partly written by Wilfred Greatorex, pioneer of this form of drama at ATV over the previous decade, creating The Plane Makers (1963-65), the phenomenally popular The Power Game (1965-9) and Hine (1971). Recruiting Greatorex was something of a coup for a company with little track record in drama, and demonstrates the importance of the programme to HTV.
The plot of the estate’s uncertain future enabled the story to include a number of specifically Welsh concerns (industrial, environmental and national) with the threatened sale of Gethin Castle (in reality, Powis Castle) provoking a riot by Welsh patriots. The series’ opening credits presented viewers with these themes of heritage, resources and development in a montage of three images; stirring aerial shots of Powis Castle, coastal cliffs, contrasted with the jarring sight of a grid of vehicles in an vast caravan park.At the same time, the business story could range over international settings. TV Times coverage drew attention to the series’ attention to detail and authenticity in its use of cars and food.
One is well disposed towards smaller stations winning time on the national network, and HTV must have sunk money and hope into the project. I wish I could have liked it better, or at all. (Shaun Usher, Daily Mail)
The (often derisive) reviews of The Inheritors frequently refer to the same perceived flaws. It was felt that casting Robert Urquhart as the ferocious father made the character insufficiently villainous to carry the story (“Despite every attempt to make the ruthless Lord Gethin into a heavy he comes out as dead cuddly”, Clive James, Observer), with Richard Hurndall’s determined taxman, Mackie, deemed the greater attraction for viewers.
Despite the series’ scale and expense, it lacked obvious spectacle, with Alan Coren complaining in the Times that, “Ninety per cent of the action took place on chairs” and Shaun Usher observing that “HTV might have picked a more spectacular part of their area for location shots, and used more”. What were intended to be dramatic set pieces underwhelmed critics: “Finally, the cavalry advanced to save Gethin Castle in a thin-on-the-ground, rent-a-riot of Welsh patriots supplied by Equity, threatening an avalanche of lava bread on the heads of the English” (Martin Jackson, Daily Mail).
Reviews found much cause for amusement in the formulaic nature of The Inheritors, Greatorex’s storytelling reliant upon schematic snakes-and-ladders plot development that could have been “programmed by [Monopoly board game manufacturers] Waddingtons” (Jackson). In particular, the dialogue struck several critics as being quotably bad:
“The script is much given to heavily underlined dialogue; ‘You don’t plead with a thick cheque book. You flash it.’” (Jackson)
“[T]he cast visited the sick tenant to hear him croak Cold Comfort Farm lines like “There are black streams running over black stones and I am a black stone…”. Still, he fared better from the script than the secretary, who had to say “I’m not just anybody, James, I’m me”, and much twaddle of this order. “Givers get hurt and the takers win” was also forced out of somebody’s mouth.” (Coren)
The combination of these factors (casting, plotting and dialogue) made The Inheritors a series that critics found shallow, failing to derive empathy or emotional engagement from:
“[A] venal Lord Gethin – and his tribe- sprawl their appalling sentimentality across the Welsh countryside. (…) Gethin’s brusqueness, and his son’s whimpering, are such that no one could fail to wonder if was worth centuries of wealth and good breeding to produce them.” (Richard North, Listener)
“People wise however, the show is automated throughout. Robots shout at slot-machines and go to bed with androids.” (James)
Part of this perception of shallowness derived from The Inheritors’ serial format. With the story crammed into six episodes, the series could not offer the gradual unfolding narrative development of open-ended series such as The Power Game or The Brothers (BBC 1972-76):
“Altogether, a horrendous failure by Wilfred Greatorex to repeat The Power Game, something which The Brothers does very well. While The Inheritors tries to cram all present Welsh crises into six hours of cross-cut confrontation, The Brothers can slowly develop modern industrial themes at a human pace.” (Andrew Sinclair, Listener)
This deficiency was made more apparent by The Inheritors taking over its Wednesday night ITV slot from Granada’s dour chronicle of northern working class life between the wars Sam (1972-74), a series of great popularity and high seriousness:
“[T]he contrast could hardly be stronger nor more unfortunate. The crucial difference is that Sam and its like, from Family at War to the painful Helen – A Woman of Today, satisfied a current taste for stories about the way people are, rather than for political, social and business strokes scored against each other.” (Usher)[ii]
It is unfortunate that the episode featuring the nationalist riot (‘Did Machiavelli have Welsh Blood?’, 29 August 1974) is one two not known to survive, as extant parts of the serial demonstrate little interest in developing explicitly Welsh themes. Such consideration as there is, is articulated by the heir, Michael, and reflects his conflicted position within and beyond the Gethin family: “As soon as I start taking to a Welsh nationalist, I start thinking ‘but there’s more to it than that’, then I start talking to a true blue British League Conservative and I start sounding like a Welsh nationalist”. Designation of the series’ limited amount of filmed location footage to particular characters creates a visual scheme of national identification realised through individuals. Michael is framed sympathetically in harmony with Gethin Castle and its grounds in ambitious and picturesque shots (“They used to say that this lake was blessed by St. Pedrog before he left Wales to live in Cornwall”), whereas Elliot Morris (Philip Madoc), the mining company’s Project Manager is generally seen driving through the valley and, once thwarted, crossing the Severn Bridge out of Wales.
Despite The Inheritors’ poor critical reception, there is little evidence to suggest that it was especially badly received by the viewing public. Ratings held up, with summer audiences reaching 12.54 million (Gambaccini and Taylor 1993: 222). Four decades after transmission it is impossible to accurately speculate how audiences received the programme, although a letter in the TV Times indicates that it was more capable of inspiring the mild pleasure of familiarity than any exceptional response. Reader Colin Day of Kentish Town suggested that “it looks as if we are going to have another good ITV series of great houses and great families struggling to keep their heads above water”, with the guest letters editor (actress Jean Marsh) concurring that, “I must say I enjoyed the first episode but I think it may be difficult to keep up the polish.” (‘Your Letters’, TV Times, 14 September 1974: 87)
With two of the six episodes currently lost, it seems unlikely that The Inheritors will ever be repeated or commercially released again, contributing to its obscurity when compared to contemporaneous boardroom dramas and family serials made by larger ITV companies. HTV Wales did not attempt another drama production on the same scale again, with its next nationally networked dramas screened five years later in 1979.
Border Country (1979)
In being a project of high artistic ambitions, but never intended for large audiences or commercial success, Border Country was in some ways the opposite of The Inheritors for HTV. Although nationally networked, Border Country was rather hidden in an ITV August schedule, shown after the News at Ten. Overseen by distinguished novelist Emyr Humphreys, Border Country was an anthology of three plays based in the Welsh Marches, deriving from the writings of authors who drew their inspiration from the region and its rich heritage. Each story was set in a different period between the 1890s and 1930s with the opening credits sequence, formed of prints of 18th century border country scenes, drawing upon earlier Welsh history.
Crucially, the plays were made entirely on film, following in a specific tradition of literary adaptations of short stories that was a feature of 1970s British television; A Ghost Story for Christmas (BBC1 1971-75, from M. R. James), Country Matters (Granada/ ITV 1972-73, from H. E. Bates and A. E. Coppard) and Wessex Tales (BBC2 1973, from Thomas Hardy). The filmed conditions under which plays in these series were made gives them a specific sense of environmental atmosphere, period drama rather than costume drama, in which viewer identification stems as much from protagonists’ location in a specific place as it does from the interrelations of characters or dramatic incidents. Operating within this form of drama meant that the films could engage with a particular, rather than general, sense of Welshness that derived from the individual literary pedigree of each source text and the local specificity of the border country setting.
Arthur Machem’s supernatural ‘The Shining Pyramid’, in which an academic sceptic gets drawn into the ancient Celtic occult, sits within the H. R. James Ghost Story for Christmas mould. The film explicitly links its uncanny and sinister elements to Welsh identity, opening with shots of Dyson (Anton Rogers) driving over the Severn Bridge and a ‘Welcome to Wales’ road sign. Dyson has been invited to stay at the country house of his friend Lord Vaughan (Edward Petherbridge), who has become obsessed with the figure of a white-robed girl who wanders through the valley that the house overlooks (“The spirit of the place. She’s always been here. I never use her name”).
Emyr Hughes’ adaptation spends much screen time in conversations between Dyson and Vaughan about mythology and spirituality before any uncanny events are shown. Vaughan’s mysticism is undercut by the scepticism of his more worldly butler, Mr Joy (Raymond Witch) (“They’re Welsh, they are – treat all strangers like outsiders! (…) always on about the language and that”). Both mystical and rationalist interpretations meet in the story’s alarming conclusion, when the white spirit is shown to be a real (retarded) girl, about to be sacrificed by a coven of witches on the feast of Beltane, “the soul of a strange country”.
“Beti is on the threshold of womanhood, struggling to make sense of the conflicting influences that are pushing her in different directions. Her rough and ready father, Twmi, runs a pub. He has no time for the more sensitive aspects of life. This is also true of Llew, who loves Beti but doesn’t know how to say so. Llew becomes involved in the strangest fight of his life, a battle for Beti’s love. The challenge comes from Evan, a consumptive young poet – who will not fight him…” (TV Times, 4 August 1979)
Critics drew on several elements when discussing the film, often commenting on what they understood to be its specifically Welsh atmosphere. Beti’s choice – between English or Welsh lover – invited wider considerations of national identity and the powerful bonds and passionately felt differences between the Welsh and English:
“The central character is the lovely Beti (…) who is courted by two young men. One offers a life of warmth and passion in Wales where there’s “nothing left… except for market days.” The other is a tubercular intellectual (of sorts) who will take her to England. And although he’s the weaker man, it’s England that both promises and threatens and tempts her in the end. Meanwhile a surveyor is seen in the hills measuring up the land for a highway that will bring ‘char-a-bancs and holiday-makers from Birmingham’.” (Jennifer Selway, Observer, 5 August 1979)
Jack Tinker’s Daily Mail preview noted the film’s evocation of specific conditions of time and place in order to draw a heavy-handed topical conclusion.
“A fine sample of the twilight zone between England and Wales. It shows the area between the wars, at the point when unemployment was driving the locals to find work in England and the new roads were bringing the rich English to find retreats in Wales. A timely piece of nostalgia in view of the present state of holiday-home infernos.”
Praise for HTV in making the film was much more fulsome than the embarrassed credit that The Inheritors grudgingly received, with the Daily Mail’s Barry Took excited to be watching an unfamiliar regional cast:
“Another excellent regional drama comes from the Cardiff studios of Harlech TV. (…) Played with vigour and insight by a cast virtually unknown on the big networks – the notable exception is the dominating Donald Houston – its specially worth watching for Gillian Elisa Thomas (looking like a plump Welsh Jane Russell) and Michael Povey (who bears an uncanny resemblance to the young Aneurin Bevan) as the star-crossed lovers.”
Despite critics’ dialectical readings of the two nations represented in the form of the two rival lovers, the drama of ‘Heyday’ was also understood to operate through associative, almost non-verbal means, “full of thwarted desires, meaningful silences, unrequited love and submerged sexuality” (Took). Nancy Banks-Smith in the Guardian found that this storytelling confounded expectations of Welsh loquacity:
“If I say Wales to you, what is the last word that springs to your mind? Quite so – inarticulate. ‘Heyday in the Blood’ (HTV), the first of three plays set in the Welsh border country, turned on a young girl Beti, feeling the pull of three men, each more speechless than the last. “It’s difficult” “What?” “Talking” “Talking’s no good.” Talking’s no good and that from Wales!”
Julia Jones’ ‘Country Dance’ (adapted from the obscure source of Marion Evans) had strong structural and thematic similarities to ‘Heyday’, again being the story of rivalry between Welshman and Englishman for the love of a young woman (Ann Goodman), but set in a darker register:
“It is a tragic story. Love turns sour and hate turns to love. Throughout these transitions, an undercurrent of violence casts shadows over Ann’s periods of happiness.” (TV Times, 11 August 1979)
As with ‘Heyday’, the story’s filmic form and local conditions created an ambiguous, slow, insinuating narrative that provoked disconcertment for Jennifer Selway:
“The feeling is intense, though the pace languid. The eerie intimations that precede and follow the piece are never quite fulfilled. The tragedy of love and revenge unfolds in permanent bright summer. Not a celtic twilight in sight.” (Observer, 12 August 1979)
This evocative quality, created by local and national specificity combined with unfamiliar source material, had also been noted by Nancy Banks-Smith: “‘Heyday’, a period piece, had a bright, minute beauty like something seen through the wrong end of a telescope”. Border Country might have been a modest project conceived on a miniature scale, but it had a surprising emotional effect on viewers, and could only have been made in Wales.
Taff Acre 1981
Although the most recent of HTV Wales’ nationally networked productions in the 1968-81 period Taff Acre is by far the hardest to research, the lowly status of the daytime serial attracting little coverage at the time it was made.
Taff Acre was one of a group of three new daytime soap operas offered by smaller companies to the national network in 1980 and 1981, in the hope of generating long-running series (and demonstrating active drama production at the time of an ITV franchise renewal), alongside of Southern Television’s Together (1980-81) – set in a housing co-operative – and STV’s long-running Take the High Road (1980-2003).
Taff Acre took the initial form of a trial series of 26 episodes, shown twice weekly at 1.30 (or 6.30 in Wales). Made in the South Wales location of Llantrisant, the setting appears to share some affinities to the long-running Welsh language BBC series Pobol y Cwym (1974-). The production, which starred veteran Welsh comic actor Richard Davies, was deemed to have been a partial success, but fell foul of the HTV’s new commitments to S4C from 1982 after the company won a renewed franchise for its region.
“The fate of HTV’s successful soap opera, Taff Acre, hangs in the balance as the company sorts out its cash for 1982 despite requests from the ITV network for a new series.
Although the company says it wants to produce more episodes, its commitments to the Fourth Channel and particularly S4C put its programming in doubt.
Mr Patrick Dromgoole, assistant managing director of HTV, said the series was “unusually successful” on the network.
Banks-Smith, Nancy, ‘Spirits from the Past’, Guardian, Aug 13, 1980, p. 8.
Black, Peter, ‘So this is how the television people see themselves’, Daily Mail, April 13, 1970; p. 3.
Coren, Alan, ‘The Inheritors’, Times, Aug 23, 1974, p. 9.
Gambaccini, Paul and Taylor, Rod, Television’s Greatest Hits: Every hit television programme since 1960, London: Network Books, 1993.
Jackson, Martin, ‘Down in the valley, the Power Game stirs!’, Daily Mail, August 30, 1974; p. 19.
James, Clive, ‘Fuzz on the screen’, Observer, Aug 25, 1974, p. 23.
North, Richard, ‘Hearing Voices’, The Listener, August 29, 1974, p. 277.
Ottoway, Robert, ‘The big business of being Stanley Baker’, TV Times, 11 April 1970, pp.2-4.
Potter, Jeremy, Independent Television in Britain: Volume 4: Companies and Programmes 1968-80, Basingstoke: Macmillan, 1990.
Pritchett, Oliver, ‘Fade Out on television’, Guardian, 13 Apr 1970, p. 8.
Selway, Jennifer, ‘The Week in View’, Observer, Aug 5, 1979, p. 20.
Selway, Jennifer, ‘The Week in View’, Observer, Aug 12, 1979, p. 20.
Sinclair, Andrew, ‘Television reputations’, The Listener, September 12, 1974, p. 340.
Tinker, Jack, ‘Hic! Enough, enough’, Daily Mail August 09 1980, p. 20.
Took, Barry, ‘Your week ahead’, Daily Mail, August 04 1979, p. 20.
Usher, Shaun, ‘The inheritance I’d rather do without’, Daily Mail, August 16, 1974, p. 21.
[i] Two other productions might be added to this list. The play Omri’s Burning (starring Ian Holm as an alcoholic) was screened by most of the ITV network at different times over the last two months of 1968, and Lloyd George: The Politics of Derision (3 March 1977) was a reconstruction of some of the great statesman’s speeches, again starring Ian Holm.
[ii] A Family at War (Granada 1970-72), Helen – A Woman of Today (LWT 1973).