CENTRAL TV IN ABINGDON – WHAT ON EARTH WAS IT DOING THERE?
It broke all the rules of the time: a purpose built news production and broadcast operation on a business park in a small market town. Central News South was a pioneering idea set up on the old MG works.
It went on air in January 1989 – we’re having a party to celebrate the 25th anniversary next year. The first night wasn’t a happy event with the new technology failing the programme badly. In fact it was a dreadful start but it went on to dominate local TV news and feature broadcasting in a way in which few others have ever done.
The waters have washed over now, only historians of British broadcasting soon will ever know that it was there. Already people in the area have forgotten – they hardly ever watch the news at 6pm these days, why would they, it comes from a building just off the M27 between Southampton and Portsmouth.
Some remember Wesley Smith and if they’ve dredged up my memory as well in an encounter they will ask about him. He’s doing fine by the way.
But, at its height, Central News South employed 70 people, 60 of them in Abingdon. We knew all the Tea shops and pubs and I was a regular visitor to the now-departed Modern Music.
We came, we conquered, we went! We were the vanguard of a TV revolution but all vanguards are expendable. Just for a while, though, we were changing the TV industry.
There was a time when there were just four channels and ITV ruled the regional news agenda. It was that golden period at the end of the 80s before satellite TV was dominant and digital TV had been conceived.
ITV was set up as a loose regional organisation with headquarters and big drama and production studios in the main cities of London, Manchester, Liverpool, Leeds, Birmingham, Glasgow, Bristol, Southampton and so on.
The stations such as TVS and our own Central had massive coverage areas and the local news reflected that; anything on one of the programmes – like Coast to Coast or Central News – would almost certainly have appeared in the national newspapers as well.
These programmes were compulsory and expensive but the companies were making huge amounts of money, they could afford the luxury. So the programmes defined the company and set it in hard concrete in its region.
But things always change and technology gallops ahead all the time. So what would have been impossible in 1980 with just BBCs One and Two and ITV, was very possible ten years later. Transmission became more sophisticated, cameras, editing and sound were far more portable and outside broadcasts were becoming commonplace.
So Central took the big step of putting money into a separate show to cover what it called the South of the region. Birmingham and Nottingham were already well looked after but it was thought that the areas around Oxford, Gloucester, Cheltenham, Hereford and so on could do with a boost.
So a completely artificial cultural and geographical region was fashioned from those ingredients. How we managed to make a success of it is beyond me, but we did.
Ideally it would have been situated in Oxford where we already had an outlying office with Cameraman Ian Gibb, Spark John Price, correspondent Tim Russon, soundman Dave Davies and administrator Sylvia Garnet.
Park and Ride
But to cover an area like that stretching from the Welsh borders to the M25 and from Northants in the north to the M4 in the south meant we had to be able to get about and would need a lot of vehicles.
When this difficulty was brought up with Oxford City Council the legend has it that they suggested we use Park and Ride. I can’t verify that. Anyway, getting in and out of Oxford and parking there was clearly going to be a problem, so the first groundbreaking decision was made: go to a business park.
Cue Abingdon. We could link from there straight to the M40, M4 and A40 so it was well placed to reach the strange region which had been created.
I was absent for the first eighteen months which were spent working for a TV station in Dubai and then freelancing at ITN. An old friend from TVS, Guy Pelham, was running the newsdesk at Abingdon and suggested I come for a look. I thought it was out of professional courtesy, until I got a call a day later from the editor, John Boileau, offering me a job.
I took it! June, 1990. By that time the programme had taken the ratings by storm. I was introduced to the ideas of a studio with remote cameras and with everything being run from the gallery. Nowhere else was doing this. It meant that it could be a much smaller space.
Revolution in and on the air
The newsroom and edit-suites were much smaller and we all had these funny flickering computers with orange characters on a black background. We were working with some major changes in the industry and they set the template for the rest of the country in the coming decade.
Those computers were the prototype for the all-in-one news management systems which are now commonplace. We used to plan programmes on the back of an envelope, type up the scripts on whatever came to hand and then work from those as best we could.
Now everything went into the computer and was timed to the word. It could be adjusted there and then by the producer or editor. In case you’re wondering, it’s three words per second – so 180 words equals a minute of broadcast speech. It always works out, I have no idea why, nor does anyone else.
Strangely editing was taking a few steps back as it stepped forward. We were all by then in the industry using tape and 8mm film had pretty much gone for good. But that also meant putting items together had to be a far more planned process and if it went wrong would have to be unstitched and started again. With film you simply cut it out and replaced it with something else, or re-ordered the clips as you wanted using scissors and sellotape.
Tape meant we could get stuff quickly and as much of it as we wanted and we had the very latest Beta SP set-up at Abingdon using something called Component – I never really understood it. But it also meant there had to be an absolute precision in the way the pieces were structured – and the nature of news, even art itself, is to be able to adapt and improvise; this got in the way of that.
The digital systems of recent years have restored that flexibility.
Goodbye heart failure
The old days of dramatic dashes from edit suite to play out area clutching a tape in your hand and managing to crash it into the machine just as your cue was being read were on the way out. That was all part of the adrenaline rush, the romance and drama of TV news in those days, but you needed to be young to survive it. I wasn’t sad to see it go.
Now items were placed in a device which sorted them in priorities and played as and when the computer prompted. If it was a desperately tight edit up to and beyond the deadline then the item could be played directly from the edit suite into the programme.
Mind you, there was one person to whom that didn’t seem to make any difference: he’s a good friend of mine, I’ve known him since we were running around London, Britain and the world in the 1980s working for other outfits. He had a reputation for pushing his deadline right to and beyond the limit at his previous place which meant nightmares for producers.
The new system should have made his and their lives easier, but no, he carried on leaving it right until the very last seconds so the new technology might just as well not have been there.
For the rest of us, though, the physical distance from edit suite to playout machine was reduced to three metres from something like 100 metres in my previous TV employment.
Other new ideas meant a merging of jobs – it started by trying to create all in one technicians who could edit, sound-dub and work cameras and some managed to do well at all of those, but it didn’t always work.
They were still called camera crews but the days of a team of four or even five turning up made way for just one person who did everything unless it was a complicated shoot and needed specialist lighting.
The same happened with editing: there were no dubbing suites, the voice was recorded and everything assembled and finalized by the editor – we now call them craft editors.
It was a relatively young team – certainly younger than elsewhere in the industry – but giving all of them a chance to step forward in their careers. Some came from the established centres like Birmingham to continue their careers, others from other TV stations, but most were drawn from hopefuls wanting to move up from Radio.
In many cases they carried on moving up because it was a dynamic team which, by the mid-1990s – was securing more than half of the available viewers and on one memorable occasion managed to get 64%.
So people like Gargy Patel, Debbie Kelly, Ian Cameron, Guy Pelham and later Abi Donald and Kate Garraway – herself a native of Abingdon – went on to become major influences in national broadcasting.
We were able to do things which other stations couldn’t because we had no real competition at the time. It was only later that the BBC put in something to match us in Oxford. For about ten years we could do what we liked which meant that experiments would be allowed – we tried new feature ideas, went to places you wouldn’t have associated with a regional TV station, were adventurous with graphics.
It was in that period that we cemented our relationship with the viewers. We became part of their lives. There was nowhere on the patch I could go where I wouldn’t be known – not as a celebrity, but a familiar face.
The very early days weren’t easy because it was a still-unformed team of people coming in from somewhere else and trying to tell the people who lived there what was happening in their area. We relied heavily on the old fallbacks of courts, crime, public issues and I think we might have overdone it on the amount of aircraft we filmed because there were so many RAF bases nearby; I was always up in the sky at that time.
But gradually we started to learn abut the things which people really cared about and found a way of getting them on air.
The beginning of the end
When did it come apart? Things were changing at the turn of the century just as we were re-equipping for the digital age. Satellite had taken off, Digital TV was just around the corner, Channel Five was another terrestrial competitor and the BBC was starting to make inroads into our ratings.
We adjusted the programme, made items shorter, went down the celebrity route with everyone else and waited for the merger of all the ITV companies which would spell the end of the regional idea. It happened in 2002 and with rationalization and no longer a need for a region to have a flagship Central News South was officially wound up in December 2006. I was on the very last broadcast and we had an emotional hug in the studio – Wesley came in especially for it.
It was replaced with a programme called Thames Valley Tonight but I know little about it as I was no longer working in the Abingdon studio. That finished two years later and now you get Meridian Tonight with my old mate from TVS days, Fred Dinenage.
The Abingdon offices, minus the studio, stayed open, with just two people there, until April of this year when the keys were finally handed back. We all stay in touch so we learned of the last act together through someone who was there from the beginning – Steve Cotterill, cameraman and editor and one of my favourite travelling companions through the years.
Steve and I worked on two documentaries together and had an extraordinary trip to Hungary which neither of us is likely to forget.
Steve put together a photo collection of everything in the haunted building including the mail pigeonholes which still bore our names.
We’ll all see each other again in a few months time. Some of us see each other regularly anyway and we nearly all stay in touch.
Abingdon was unlike anywhere I’ve known in broadcasting; it was a family – often a bickering one but still family. All the things you see in dramas about TV were present – the ambition, backbiting, egos, but still we survived it and learned to like and sometimes love each other. We miss it.
Maybe you do too.
Member since: 1st June 2013
I'm Mike, a writer and broadcaster since fire was discovered. I've been involved in all forms of media - magazines, newspapers, radio and TV and have specialised in recent years in making films for the...