John Henwood, Channel’s new managing director
Four years ago, as Channel prepared to celebrate its 21st Birthday, I was asked for my views on local programmes through those years. Today I find my impressions of the early years haven’t altered with the benefit of additional hindsight. The four years since then have been very significant ones for programming so I have added my more recent impressions to those of the earlier years…
I SUPPOSE it was an inauspicious start. Senator George Troy, Channel’s Chairman, said all the right things, thanked all the right people and expressed all the hopes that the shareholders and staff silently held.
George Troy said all these things on 1 September, 1962 in Channel’s Jersey studio during the Station’s first local programme; he ended by handing the audience over to the tender care of Robin Hood. This was the cue to start Channel’s second programme which was on film.
The only trouble was that George Troy said what he had to say in a considerably shorter space of time than anyone expected. Programme one on day one had underrun by about five minutes and confusion reigned.
For me that first day was a blur of excitement and anticipation, tension verging on panic, errors, problems then more mistakes and finally exhaustion. I remember thinking that if every future day was going to be like the first we were all going to get old very quickly. Indeed the early weeks and months were fraught with problems and the station was well into 1963 before things really settled down into some sort of logical pattern.
In those stumbling starting weeks, local programmes tried to do little more than broadcast a news bulletin and weather forecast once a day at around six o’clock for a duration of about nine minutes.
Some bulletins, but by no means all, were illustrated with clips of film, black and white of course, and in most cases silent. With hindsight it was not a terribly ambitious start, but Channel’s first Head of News and Features, Ward Rutherford, had a tiny staff who really could not be expected to do very much more.
The contribution may have been small, but it was highly significant as it was the first time for very many years that the existing newspapers in Jersey and Guernsey had had to face up to competition. Not only that, but Channel was also setting out to provide a news and information service which covered all the Channel Islands.
Apart from news and the occasional individual programme, usually musical, Channel also broadcast a type of programme in those early days which has long since disappeared from British Television screens — the advertising magazine.
This was like a very long commercial break masquerading as a programme in which the presenters extolled the virtues of local products and services. In the United Kingdom some of these ad mags, as they were known, became quite popular with viewers, and their presenters like Jimmy Hanley became stars.
Channel’s admag was called Island Shop and practically every edition was a production disaster.
In fairness to the News and Features team it must be said that Island Shop was written, produced and directed by the Sales Department, who were all jolly nice people, but who also knew very little about making television programmes.
Ward Rutherford’s news team, which included Brian Le Feuvre, the journalist who was to become head of the department when Ward left Channel to concentrate on a career as a novelist, soon established itself as a viable alternative source of local news to the newspapers, and a new vehicle was sought in which longer items could be broadcast.
The twin programmes Studio Tuesday and Studio Friday were created for this purpose and were the forerunners of the present day’s nightly news magazine Channel Report. Always presented live, the studio programmes included filmed interviews from Guernsey and silent illustrative film from both Bailiwicks.
Tried in both early and late evening slots, this basic formula went through a number of detail changes including the show’s title (do you remember Newsweek?) with varying degrees of success.
Under Brian Le Feuvre local programmes became more ambitious. New types of shows were introduced and whilst some are best forgotten others were excellent. Brian himself became Channel’s answer to John Freeman when he introduced Frankly Speaking and persuaded local and visiting personalities to open their hearts to him and to the public.
A pop music programme, Now Look Hear, was launched and each week the studio was filled with gyrating teenagers as the latest chart-toppers were played.
It was this series that introduced the man who was eventually to succeed Brian Le Feuvre and become Channel’s third Head of News and Features, John Rothwell.
Brian Le Feuvre also pioneered documentary production at Channel. Some of his shorter items were real gems which stand close comparison with features produced anywhere today.
I particularly remember a mini-documentary on the old island pastime of low-water fishing: a couple of years ago I came across this piece again when researching an Encore programme and marvelled at the way he had documented an aspect of a Jersey that is no longer to be found.
Another landmark was The Lonely Man, a film about Alphonse Le Gastelois, the hermit of Les Ecrehous. Brian Le Feuvre’s greatest contribution though was the way in which he built and developed Channel’s news gathering and dissemination service, a service which, when he left television to edit his own newspaper, John Rothwell was to inherit.
John Rothwell was (and probably still is) by nature a keen investigator and during his tenure as Head of News and Features his staff turned lots of stones which had lain for years covering up unpleasant or in some cases illegal goings on.
Through the Sixties the process of development in local programmes continued, but the technology available to programme makers did not change much. Film cameras were replaced by better, more up to date models and film processing machines got faster and more efficient.
Still there was no videotape and still we were in black and white. The Seventies ushered in colour, first in the big network companies serving huge populations like in London and Birmingham, then in some of the regional stations, but not in the Channel Islands where Channel Television could not afford to colourise the station.
Despite this the local programme department decided to make a major documentary in colour for the UK network. The subject was the Occupation of the Islands during the Second World War, an obvious choice in 1970 when locals would celebrate the 25th anniversary of the Liberation.
Eventually titled The Bitter Years, the programme was expensive to make and only a partial success in that it did not achieve full networking throughout the United Kingdom. Smarting slightly from the rebuff, Channel was to wait a very long time before offering a production to the network again.
On the other hand purely local documentaries thrived. The Two Arms of the Law, for example, examined Jersey’s unique dual Police system and was one of several fine single programmes.
The Seventies did eventually bring colour to Channel with the conversion phased over two financial years and being completed in the summer of 1976.
When John Rothwell parted company with Channel in 1977 and began what was to be a highly successful political career, local programmes became my responsibility. The station had been on the air for 15 years, during which time many local programme formulae had been tried, and it was reasonably easy to learn from earlier mistakes as to what types of programmes would be popular and appreciated by the local audience, but still I managed to make errors none of my predecessors had thought of.
The nature of programming for an audience as small as 44,000 homes is different from anywhere else, in as much as our entire potential audience is no larger than another region’s minority group. Thus Channel cannot afford to provide permanent programmes for Island minorities.
Nevertheless it is important that minority interests are served, so in recent years we have developed the Brian Le Feuvre pioneered documentary production at Channel technique of devoting a short season of programmes to a number of different areas, or in some cases provided just a single offering on a specific subject.
Technology helped us enormously to move towards this style of service. During 1978 it became obvious that new methods of recording pictures on location would soon be available in Europe.
A new type of portable videotape recording equipment was already taking the place of film cameras in the United States, where the new phrases ‘Electronic Journalism’ and ‘Electronic News Gathering’ had been coined. ENG made sense.
The picture quality was better than film, the videotape on which the image was recorded did not require post production processing and, most important for a small and not very wealthy station like Channel, the tape was cheap and could be used many times.
Despite some fears and many worries, in 1979 Channel closed down its film facility and became the first all electronic television station in Britain.
Since that time new ways of applying the new technology have been devised, and the station’s programme makers are able to provide viewers with much better, more immediate coverage of local events.
1983, the year in which the station celebrated its ‘coming-of age’, marked Channel’s return to the production of network programmes. It had taken a long time to forget the experience of The Bitter Years back in 1970, but in ’83 the local documentary Too Good a Chance to Miss, the desperately sad story of a kidney transplant patient, was fully networked on ITV in the Tuesday Documentary slot. In the same year no fewer than four other Channel programmes were seen throughout the British Isles. Three were about the Channel Islands themselves, the other on the Battle of Britain Memorial Flight; all were shown in the About Britain series.
These small successes provided a huge boost in confidence for all those involved in programme production. In the four years since our 21st birthday Channel has become a significant contributor to Highway, and Sir Harry Secombe has visited all the islands, meeting and charming so many people. There have been a string of successful documentaries including Dakota 1935—1985 and Operation Nestegg, the story of the Liberation, screened on 9 May, 1985, to mark the fortieth anniversary of the end of German Occupation.
There have been prizes; From Cow to Counter, the story of a pint of Jersey milk, was awarded a silver medal at the New York International Film & Television Festival whilst L Exile Extraordinaire, about Victor Hugo, won a bronze. A locally made Highway screened on Remembrance Sunday was judged the best of the year and awarded the Sir Harry Secombe Spirit of Highway trophy.
This year, 1987, the year of our Silver Jubilee, has been particularly special in programme production in that Channel’s first fully networked series has been screened. The Dodo Club, twelve programmes on animal conservation featuring Sue Robbie and Gerald Durrell and starring the animals of Jersey Zoo, were broadcast in Children’s ITV.
At present Valued Opinion, an antiques series presented by Max Robertson, is being shown on Channel 4, and many more exciting projects are under way.
It has been a long haul from 1962 to the present time and it would be a very brave person who attempted to predict what the future holds for Britain’s smallest television station.
Elsewhere in this publication Michael Lucas, Head of Local Programmes and successor to Ward Rutherford, Brian Le Feuvre, John Rothwell and me, presents his view of Channel’s programmes today.
For the moment I remain fairly sure of one thing; if George Troy were alive today he would be very proud of the programmes, and the people who make them, in the television station he launched 25 years ago.