Di­rec­tor gen­eral fought off the threat of com­mer­cial TV

His­to­rian DON­ALD STAN­LEY looks at how a man from Buck­ing­hamshire helped shape Bri­tish broad­cast­ing

Buckinghamshire Advertiser - - NOSTALGIA -

LARGELY for­got­ten, Sir Ian Trethowan was one of three men all with Buck­ing­hamshire con­nec­tions who shaped broad­cast­ing in Bri­tain.

Lord Reith of Har­rias House, Bea­cons­field, ef­fec­tively founded the BBC and was its first di­rec­tor gen­eral.

Nor­man Collins, whose child­hood home in Penn Road is now the branch of a build­ing so­ci­ety, played a ma­jor role in end­ing the BBC’s broad­cast­ing mo­nop­oly.

Collins had re­signed as head of BBC Tele­vi­sion to cam­paign for the in­tro­duc­tion of com­mer­cial tele­vi­sion, for which he in­vented the gen­tler term ‘in­de­pen­dent tele­vi­sion’.

He be­came a di­rec­tor of the newly-cre­ated ITN (In­de­pen­dent Tele­vi­sion News) at a time when Trethowan was an as­sis­tant edi­tor.

Both men had a back­ground in news­pa­pers – Collins on the News Chron­i­cle, Trethowan with the Daily Sketch.

Sir Ian, who was born in High Wy­combe, be­came man­ag­ing di­rec­tor of BBC Ra­dio and in 1977 di­rec­tor gen­eral.

De­spite be­ing a pe­riod marked by in­dus­trial dis­putes and fi­nan­cial trou­bles, the BBC was in good shape and in the process of throw­ing off of its stuffy ‘Aun­tie’ im­age.

It met com­pe­ti­tion from the in­de­pen­dent chan­nels, not­with­stand­ing them be­ing able to of­fer more money to top en­ter­tain­ers de­rived from ad­ver­tis­ing rev­enue, whereas, de­spite in­fla­tion, the cor­po­ra­tion was de­pen­dent upon the fixed in­come from the li­cence fee.

It suc­ceeded in at­tract­ing large fol­low­ings with such come­dies as Por­ridge and The Good Life and the More­cambe and Wise Christ­mas spe­cials.

Ra­dio lis­tener num­bers were in­creased by ex­pand­ing stereo FM broad­cast­ing and im­prov­ing re­cep­tion by adding medium wave to lo­cal ra­dio.

Trethowan re­versed the ear­lier trim­ming in a time of fi­nan­cial dif­fi­cul­ties suf­fered by Ra­dios 1 and 2.

The lo­cal ra­dio sta­tion net­work was ex­panded and au­ton­o­mous na­tional ones in­tro­duced into Wales and Scot­land.

Nonethe­less, he was not averse to mak­ing un­pop­u­lar de­ci­sions such as sack­ing Kenny Everett for be­com­ing in­volved in con­tro­ver­sies out­side his re­mit as a well­known DJ on Ra­dio 1.

On the other hand, he moved among, and was liked by, his staff and en­joyed a rep­u­ta­tion for be­ing ap­proach­able.

It was an at­ti­tude that helped the BBC to deal bet­ter than the in­de­pen­dent com­pa­nies with the labour trou­bles faced by the in­dus­try at the end of the 1970s.

Trethowan’s de­fence of the cor­po­ra­tion’s im­par­tial­ity and bal­anced cov­er­age brought him into con­flict with the na­tion’s po­lit­i­cal lead­ers and, af­ter five years in of­fice, he re­signed as di­rec­tor gen­eral.

BBC boss: (Clock­wise from above) Sir Ian Trethowan; DJ Kenny Everett, who Sir Ian sacked; pop­u­lar sit­coms The Good Life and Por­ridge

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