David Behrens: The 50th anniversary of Yorkshire Television – or ‘proper’ TV

Employees of Yorkshire Television line up outside their studios in 1986.
Employees of Yorkshire Television line up outside their studios in 1986.

THIS weekend marks the 50th anniversary of “proper” TV in Yorkshire, by which I mean its birth as a self-contained region.

July 29, 1968, was when Yorkshire Television went on the air, from Europe’s first purpose-built colour studio. It was an inspired use for what had been a council slum clearance site; the drama, comedy and documentaries it turned out were among the best in Britain and, in many cases, the world.

The first transmissions came at the end of a bizarre scramble between ITV and the BBC to get on air first. The corporation had spent the better part of the 1960s insisting that Yorkshire didn’t need its own service, but performed a volte-face when the Independent Television Authority decided that it did. It took over a church hall a mile and a half across town from YTV, and moved heaven and earth to get Look North on to the region’s screens before Calendar.

But its studio was unfinished and had no proper soundproofing. One of the BBC film editors recalled that barking dogs outside in Leeds could be heard by viewers in Sheffield.

All of this springs to mind because a similar race is going on in Leeds as we speak. This week saw the city placed on the final shortlist of locations for Channel Four’s new headquarters, along with Manchester and Birmingham.

The councils in all three centres are falling over themselves to be accommodating. The channel is not planning to build a studio or to produce programmes in its new home on any scale, but its presence would nevertheless be a beacon.

So in this weekend of industry nostalgia, let’s rewind and remember how the politics played out previously.

In 1968, the BBC beat Yorkshire TV on air by several weeks, but it wasn’t a level playing field: the corporation’s base here was tiny in comparison. If we can learn from history, it is more likely from the episode in 1956 when the first ITV service in the North was created.

It went on air from Manchester, but it could just as easily have been Leeds.

A potential studio site in the city had been identified by Granada, the first of the region’s programme contractors. But they also found one beside the Irwell, and the council in Manchester was apparently more pliant. Let’s hope history doesn’t repeat itself this time.

If I were a betting man, I would say the odds for Channel Four were stacked against Birmingham. No-one has ever been truly enthusiastic about making programmes there; the first Midlands ITV companies made do with one converted theatre between them.

In Yorkshire, the enthusiasm for television was genuine and joyful. I was privileged to work at YTV for 12 years, on and off, and can bear witness to what now seems to be a golden age of programmes made in, and for, Yorkshire.

The studios are still there but they have been turned over largely to a single production – Emmerdale. Welcome as that is, it is an operation vastly scaled down from the original one. That is a consequence of the contraction that has taken place within ITV – and the cost to the region can be seen by a casual glance at the current TV schedules.

Two hours of prime network time on BBC Four this week was occupied by daily coverage of the Royal Welsh Show. Two weeks earlier, there was almost none from the Great Yorkshire Show. Yet in its heyday, YTV provided an almost identical service for viewers here – a daily half-hour transmission from the Harrogate showground. Its regional audience alone would have matched anything on BBC Four.

And Yorkshire’s output had a distinct quality not found elsewhere. The late writer David Nobbs, who made his home here, summed it up when he recalled popping into a newsagent’s for a packet of cigarettes in the early 1970s, while a crew filmed in the street.

“Is that really Les Dawson outside my shop?” asked the lady at the counter.

“Yes, it really is,” said Nobbs.

“Les Dawson, outside my shop, on the telly?” she repeated, scarcely able to comprehend the enormity of what she was seeing.

She finally gathered herself. “Ooh, I don’t like him.”

So much for glamour. Let that be a lesson, said Nobbs, to anyone who thought they were above themselves.

I hope the southerners at Channel Four know what they might be letting themselves in for.