By 1989, Greg Dyke was getting into his stride as director of programmes at LWT, and was keen for the company to maximise its potential for advertising revenue. The economic downturn that had caused his predecessor John Birt, to focus the station’s output on cheaply made mass appeal game shows had now passed and the television industry was enjoying a period of relative prosperity, thanks to blossoming house prices and cheap credit, ensuring consumers had more expendable cash, and therefore advertisers had more reason than ever to pitch their wares on television.
Many within the ranks of LWT had become disenchanted with Birt’s strategy, believing the company’s reputation for quality drama and comedy – that had been so hard fought during the 1970s – had become irrevocably sullied by the numerous people shows that had proliferated during the 1980s. Before departing for the BBC, Birt had instigated a major research project to review LWT’s audience. Its findings suggested that the station was failing to appeal to the ABC1 high earner viewers (crucial to advertising revenue), to that end Dyke worked with the other network heads at ITV to try and strengthen the weekend schedule and attractive a more affluent type of viewer.
Integral to this strategy was drama. Perhaps the most decisive move was made by Andrew Quinn, managing director of Granada Television, who with some persuasion from Dyke and Thames Television’s David Elstein, agreed to increase Coronation Street from two weekly episode to three, with that third edition crucially being broadcast on Friday nights. For many years Granada had resisted such a move, believing it would dilute the quality of their flagship soap, however the arrival of EastEnders in 1985 had forced them to look again. In fact, 1989 was to prove an especially successful year for Coronation Street with popular characters such as Brian Tilsley and the malevolent Alan Bradley being killed off in memorable fashion, both helping to secure the soap the coveted number one ratings slot for the first time on a consistent basis since August 1985.
In addition, Dyke worked with his close ally at Yorkshire Television, John Fairley, to introduce a number of completely new dramas to the weekend schedules. Most notably A Bit Of A Dofeaturing David Jason and Nicola Pagett. Jason would become increasingly important to both Yorkshire Television and ITV’s weekend output over the next few years thanks to the success of his next two series The Darling Buds Of May (which on its debut in 1991 would attract an astonishing 18.4 million years) and A Touch Of Frost.
LWT also contributed to the influx of new dramas. Their Sunday night series, Forever Green,featured John Alderton and Pauline Collins who were now embarking on their fifth series together for LWT (the other four being Upstairs, Downstairsand its sequel Thomas and Sarah; and the mid 70s sitcom No, Honestly and its sequel Yes, Honestly). Broadcast on Sunday nights, this gentle drama (in many ways one of the precursors for the hugely popular and long-running weekend hit Heartbeat) concerned a married couple who relocated from London to live in the country. It proved popular with audiences pulling in up to 15.7 million viewers.
American drama, so important in the earlier part of the decade, would again play its part, most notably in the screening on Saturday nights of six two-hour adventures produced by DL Taffner Limited featuring Leslie Charteris’ famous sleuth The Saint. Best remembered in Britain as a long-running ITC television series featuring Roger Moore and latterly Ian Ogilvy, this latest version starred virtual unknown Simon Dutton, and was in fact the character’s fourth television incarnation (DL Taffner had produced a one-off TV movie in 1987 featuring moustachioed Australian Andrew Clarke as The Saint in Manhattan). This latest series cost £7.5 million to make, and in many ways could be considered the television equivalent of Timothy Dalton’s tenure as the famous big-screen spy James Bond.
Both actors were keen to make their interpretations of their respective famous spies grittier and more realistic than their predecessors (“He travels a lot and is very charming,” Dutton claimed of his interpretation of Simon Templar, “but he’s not a goody- goody hero. His relationships with women are romantic rather than sexual and although The Saint appears part of the Establishment, there is something of the loner about him, a darker side that is close to the character in the book.”) However the most striking similarity between the two was just how unsuccessful their interpretations were with the general public. Dutton’s Saint failed to win over the character’s devotees or the audience at large, and the series was considered one of the most expensive flops of all time.
LWT’s new approach to weekends did not simply encompass drama. As we have seen, Murder Weekendwas an attempt at doing something different with the game show format, perhaps to appeal to a more aspirant section of the audience. But it was not to be the station’s only stab that year at doing something new.