Wednesday, 23 April 2014

The Battle For Britain's Breakfast

I watched this on a bit of a whim, but it turned out to be surprisingly interesting. It’s hard to believe that there was once no such thing as breakfast television. Once upon a time, the only TV before lunchtime was Open University lectures or that test card of a girl playing noughts and crosses with a scary clown. She was a big part of my youth, that girl. My mum couldn’t shove us in front of CBeebies all day long, but she could let us loose on the test card. I am sure that clown had a lot to do with a childhood phobia of the circus.

This documentary detailed the ratings war between ITV and the BBC after the government gave permission for channels to start broadcasting in the early morning. The ITV franchise was awarded to TV-am, and the cheeky BBC decided to launch a rival show two weeks before it went on the air. The first Breakfast Time on BBC1 in 1983 was a big event in our house. (We plainly had no life.) We were always very much a BBC rather than an ITV family, though me and my brother were allowed to watch Rainbow at lunchtime so that my mum could then tune into The Sullivans. So Frank “combover” Bough and Selina “Clothes Show” Scott were regulars in our house, and we only saw Good Morning Britain when we went to visit my nanna in the Lake District. So I was quite surprised to learn that people that I had remembered being on ITV, like Russell Grant and the Green Goddess, were actually on BBC Breakfast Time. Or I guess these were assumptions rather than memories. But that is what the whole ratings war was about – the BBC's breakfast show, with its jumpers and sofas, was trying to be like ITV, whereas the TV-am broadcasts, with David Frost, Parky, Angela Rippon, Anna Ford and a serious news content, were trying to be like the BBC. It didn’t work out for anybody, although the BBC was winning the ratings war. Behind the scenes at TV-am there was a lot of treachery. Famous people got sacked. Jonathan Aitken was a baddie even then (he got wine thrown over him by Anna Ford - you go, girl!). TV-am went virtually bankrupt and could barely pay for enough electricity to keep broadcasting. Greg Dyke, now chancellor of my alma mater, The University of York, brought in a rat puppet called Roland to save the day. 

Eventually things came full circle. The BBC relaunched Breakfast with people in suits behind desks (to make people want to go out to work), and ITV became increasingly tabloid-influenced and sofa-based (to encourage stay-at-home couch potatoes). And since then everything has more or less remained as you might expect.

My grandfather was once on Breakfast Time, when he became the first person to climb all the mountains in England, Scotland and Wales over 2,000 feet high. However, he was filmed on location, asleep in the back of his Volvo, and hiking up his final hill, rather than being allowed on a sofa. Those who knew him would probably agree that my grandfather didn’t look comfortable on a sofa.

It’s sadly ironic that The Battle For Britain’s Breakfast was broadcast the day after the death of Peaches Geldof. Her parents were, of course, very involved with Channel 4’s own early morning programme, The Big Breakfast, which (since it didn't air until nearly a decade later) played no part in this documentary. I once walked past the house where The Big Breakfast was filmed. It was next to a grotty canal towpath that was on the Capital Ring, a 78 mile walk around the edge of London which my husband and I completed one summer. The walk is split into several easy sections, the beginning and end of which are all accessible by public transport, usually from stations in zone 4. I wrote of the Capital Ring in 2006:

“Like all of London, the Capital Ring embraces contrasts. You see some of the most opulent (Richmond) and some of the most squalid (Hackney Wick) parts of the city suburbs. There are palaces (Syon House, Eltham) and sewers (the Greenway). There are streams, canals and rivers, forests, woods, parks and open meadows. There is the world’s ugliest hospital (Ealing). There is a windmill (Wimbledon). There are cranes, swans, ducks, coots, squirrels, rats, voles, mice, woodpeckers, jays and rutting deer. There is dog shit (Crouch End’s Parkland Walk). Some areas are undergoing rapid change and construction, such as the Docklands and 2012 Olympic Park to be. Some are undergoing painfully slow change and construction (Wembley stadium and, if I think about it, the 2012 Olympic Park to be).”

Anyway, if you live in London, I wholeheartedly recommend that you give the Capital Ring a go. We loved it and were very proud of ourselves when we got all the way round. We embarked on the walk's bigger brother, the London Loop, but sadly didn't get to complete this before we had to move away.

I was surprised to read that the Big Breakfast house is still standing now, since it was right in the area where the Olympic Park was going to be built. Apparently it fell under a compulsory purchase order but didn’t in the end need to be demolished.

The first subtitling company I worked for had two contracts to subtitle the news segments on breakfast television, one for Channel 4's Big Breakfast, and one for GMTV, TV-am's successor. Being fresh out of university, I hadn’t had any experience of serious early rising, so never volunteered to cover these shifts myself. Now, with a young child and never getting to sleep beyond six in the morning, I’d be signing up for them like a shot, as you got a taxi ride into work (the Tube not being properly up and running at that time of day), paid extra, and could slope off home after lunch. (Though to be honest, given the cuts to subtitling budgets over the years, I doubt these terms and conditions would still apply.) Subtitling for GMTV was done at their studios on the South Bank and there was also a rumour that if you popped out to make yourself a coffee at the right time, you could also get yourself on television, as some interviews were filmed outside the subtitle transmission room. Our involvement in these breakfast shows' production was hardly as cut-throat as the world portrayed in the Battle For Britain's Breakfast, but the subsequent loss of the GMTV contract was definitely the start of our own company's demise.

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