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It's Saturday Night

33. Any enthusiasm we may have had for continuing discussions is waning


Cross-channel pilfering had been undertaken by ITV before, (in 1978 with LWT’s infamous “Snatch of the day”). At the time, the BBC had poured scorn on the channel’s underhandedness, but viewers welcomed an attempt to break the corporation’s monopoly on football coverage. However, public opinion would not look so kindly on ITV’s next attempted hijacks. Thames managing director, Bryan Cowgill would mastermind ITV’s 1981 and 1985 attempts to prize Dallas away from the BBC. This all began prior to the network’s 1981 buying trip when Thames made overtures to Worldvision (the distributors of Dallas). Cowgill had long mistrusted ITV’s Film Purchase Group (FPG). This collective of station representatives was slow and unresponsive. In addition, Cowgill felt Thames’ own representative on the panel – director of programmes, Nigel Ryan – lacked the competitive edge required to influence the FPG into making assertive moves.

Just to make matters even worse, the FPG was bound by an agreement written up jointly by the BBC and ITV as a result of the “Snatch of the Day” debacle. This ensured neither organisation could enter into a bidding war over the renewal of an already existing contract. Having been registered with the Office of Fair Trading by the Independent Television Contractors Association (the network’s body set up to deal with collective legal and copyright issues) on 4 October 1978, the Concordat read (in part): “The only understanding we have with the BBC is that once a series has been acquired by one organisation, that organisation is offered the first option for renewal of a second series”. It meant that if Cowgill wanted to steal Dallas from the BBC, he would have to first persuade the FPG to disregard their own regulations.

Teaming up with Michael Grade (then LWT’s director of programmes), Cowgill reported to the FPG that from their earlier investigations they believed the BBC’s position had weakened and that a counter bid was definitely possible. What then followed is unclear. Leslie Halliwell asserted in 1985 that “we did not try to steal Dallas; on the contrary Worldvision tried very hard to make us an offer, and the BBC was fully aware of the situation”. Thames programme buyer, Pat Mahoney, boasted at an Industry party that Thames were going it alone to purchase Dallas. Meanwhile, Worldvision’s Dallas representative, Colin Campbell, informed the BBC’s Gunnar Rugheimer of ITV’s approach, resulting in an apoplectic response from the Swede. Campbell’s motives remain unclear.

Recounting the episode for his book Independent Television in Britain: Volume 5 ITV and IBA, 1981-1992 The Old Relationship Changes, author Paul Bonner claims that Campbell confided in Rugheimer due to feelings of loyalty towards the BBC man. However, it is clear that whoever who could break up the BBC and ITV’s cartel, would be viewed as a hero by American exporters, long frustrated by their inability to play the two organisations off against each other in a bidding war. In addition, Campbell had been instructed by Kevin O’Sullivan (chief executive officer of Worldvision) to get a record $40,000 for Dallas. The BBC, now aware of ITV’s interest were willing to go to $35,000 for two series (more than twice the average cost cited by Milne for imported drama). In turn, the FPG’s concerns regarding the ITCA agreement meant they were willing only to match the bid (which ensured that while going against the spirit of the agreement, their actions did not actually constitute an attempt to outbid the BBC). Frustrated by the FPG’s lack of ambition, Cowgill and Grade felt partially consoled with the thought that in forcing the BBC to pay a substantially increased amount for Dallas they had at least succeeded in reducing the amount of money the corporation had left to spend on the rest of its programmes.

So, Campell offered the BBC first refusal at $35,000, to which the corporation agreed, and promptly issued Worldvision with a writ for breach of contract. Worldvision responded by counter suing the BBC for restraint of trade, and sacked Colin Campbell for failing to achieve the $40,000 figure asked of him. Unsurprisingly as the writs flew around during the summer of 1981, the FPG quietly and with a minimum of fuss, attempted to extricate ITV from what was becoming an extremely messy situation. In August 1981, Halliwell informed Worldvision “in view of the prevalence of law suits and solicitors threats, any enthusiasm we may have had for continuing discussions is waning.” Cowgill alone remained open to the possibility of acquiring the rights to Dallas at some point in the future. He would only have to wait four years for another opportunity.

Having fended off ITV for the time being, the BBC sought to strengthen their position, and in 1982 snapped up Dynasty. Deliberately created as an alternative to Dallas, creators Esther Shapiro and Eileen and Robert Pollock had originally turned to the BBC’s own I Claudius for inspiration. “I thought,” explained Shapiro; “these Roman families aren’t very different from what I see around me. Basically, I want to write about winners, people with power to control other’s lives. I could see a sea of cars from the window. I thought: someone in oil is controlling this. They have huge mansions, they’re the nearest we have to kings”. In a manner strongly reminiscent of the first series of Dallas, Dynasty would begin by focussing on the trials and tribulations of a female character recently married into a rich and powerful family. Here – at last – Linda Evans got to play the role she had missed out on in Dallas.

The BBC gave arrival of Dynasty significant exposure, and was keen to highlight the programme’s virtues. Interviewed for 1 May 1982 edition of Radio Times, Linda Evans commented, “I’ve only watched Dallas for a few minutes but they didn’t seem that wealthy to me. They talk about their money but their house doesn’t show it; I don’t recall what anyone’s ever worn on that show – not that they don’t look nice but on this show they don’t care how much it is, they go to the finest shops”. Scheduled at 9.10 pm on Saturday nights, Dynasty invited comparisons with the Texan soap, and, by and large was a success with British Dallas fans. “With Dynasty BBC1 has given us another lush saga to which we are becoming addicted fast!” wrote one fan in July 1982. “Dallas leaves us each year hanging in suspense, and we are told by critics we are morons to become hooked on such nonsense, and escapism from our humdrum lives”. By August, Dynasty had become the BBC’s 10th most watched programme, justifying the BBC’s decision to run it in the vacated Dallas slot. Achieving ratings of 7.6 million, it would never challenge the supremacy of Dallas, or find itself at the heart of a bidding war, however it proved yet again how effective American imports could be if judiciously scheduled.

Not that everyone was altogether happy with Dynasty. In the 29 May 1982 edition of Radio Times, Dynasty actor Dale Robertson (Walter Lankershim) commented of the programme: “I think it is marvellously acted, splendidly directed, crisply characterised. But I do not approve of all those immoral goings on. There’s everything from men eyeing men, to women groping after married men; even the horses are homosexual.”

Next Monday: 1983: It was considered by LWT and then put in a bottom drawer



  1. Glenn Aylett

    April 21, 2018 at 12:33 pm

    It probably was a huge relief to the BBC that they kept Dallas, and also bought in Dynasty, as during a ratings slump in the second half of 1983 and first half of 1984, these were often the only shows the BBC had in the ratings Top 10. Indeed Auntie’s expensive American imports did lead to questions in the House, when their only huge rated shows one month were Dallas and the mini series The Thornbirds, that the BBC was wasting money on imports and being unable to make popular British programmes.

  2. Richard16378

    April 21, 2018 at 12:52 pm

    The BBC seemed to have a few flop historical dramas at the time, such as The Borgias & The Cleopatras, which were normally second nature to them.

    It was galling that ITV had big hits with Brideshead Revisited & The Jewel In The Crown in the same time period.

    Even the usual Sunday night dramas seemed to dry up for the BBC for a few years after the original run of All Creatures Great & Small ended.

  3. Glenn Aylett

    April 22, 2018 at 11:52 am

    @ Richard 16378, BBC1 seemed to be in a mess in 1983 and 1984, after starting the eighties in a very bullish, confident mood. For weeks on end, their best rated show was an American import and their domination of Saturday nights had been crushed by some terrible scheduling decisions by Alan Hart and defections to ITV. Also the Beeb was short of money as a three year licence agreement was ending, I do recall watching an episode of Bergerac, which was filmed on location, and some action scenes involving a shoot out on a yacht were stills with the sound of a gun firing.

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