Rediffusion’s history begins in the 19th century, with a company of quite a
different name – and quite a different business. ‘British Electric Traction’
(BET) provided the cables over which power ran to the trams that had become
common in the major conurbations of the UK at the end of the Victorian era.
They also manufactured tram motors, thus ‘Traction’. From this base, BET
expanded into making, and even operating, tram systems in the UK and ‘the
Dominions’ as were.
broadcasting first began in earnest in the UK in 1922, BET soon realised
that they had a complete wired network of cables that passed a significant
number of homes in the larger industrial towns. Those home that they didn't
pass by were very close and easy to reach. And radio reception – thanks to
very low-power broadcasts and crystal-based, home-made ‘cat’s whisker’ radio
sets – was a touch and go business.
company were to pick up, off-air but with large, well-tuned and expertly
directed aerials, the signals from the then British Broadcasting Company,
and provide them directly to a loudspeaker in the front room of a well-off
household, they could easily replace the headphones-and-drifting-tuning that
bedevilled early radio.
company already had a complete electricity distribution system to hand, they
could run additional ‘cable radio’ wires between the same poles in the
street as the overhead wires for the trams used, and even, ultimately, carry
the radio signals via AC (Alternating Current) through the same cables as
the DC (Direct Current) power to the trams was supplied. They could access a
ready-made market of potential listeners-in who wanted radio entertainment –
if only it were affordable and non-technical. That company could then charge
a few shillings a month (or less), and, with little capital expenditure,
make a fortune from the public’s interest in the new medium.
the company to do it, and while they initially called their offspring,
formed in March 1928, Broadcast
Relay Service Ltd, it soon became known as “Rediffusion” – literally
meaning ‘broadcasting again’.
was almost immediately profitable. The company soon branched out from simply
‘re-diffusing’ radio, into the manufacture of radio sets. From there, the
sale and hire of sets in the High Street followed.
broadcasting opened up in the Dominions, Rediffusion was hot on its heels,
using the tram wires, or bespoke ‘pipe radio’ systems, to provide the new
Dominion broadcasting stations to the cities, as well as the new BBC Empire
Service (now BBC World Service Radio).
BBC began the first regularly scheduled high-definition television service
in the world in the mid-1930s, Rediffusion was again well-placed to provide
television sets for sale and rent, plus a ‘pipe-TV’ service to those not
well-placed for broadcasts from Alexandra Palace, or reluctant to have such
a gauche symbol as a VHF TV aerial on their roofs.
II interrupted television, the growth of wired distribution, and much of the
peacetime activities of both BET and Rediffusion. For the duration, the
whole of the Empire was put ‘on hold’ and all energy devoted to the war
effort. For Rediffusion, this meant their expertise in reception and
rebroadcasting suddenly became, not a diversion for the middle classes, but
of essential national importance.
had a wealth of knowledge that the Allies – and especially the UK, ‘standing
alone’ – needed. From broadcasting (for radar) to cathode ray tubes (for
radar). From cables (for troop communications and radar) to reception sets
(for monitoring communications of friend and foe… and radar). To this day,
several elements of what Rediffusion did during the war are held under the
Hundred Years Rule (that means it will be late 2045 before we know exactly
what they were). So even today, we don’t know exactly what Rediffusion did
in the war against Fascism – though we can probably guess.
post-War, the world changed dramatically. BET was included, with some
justification, in the list of companies the new Labour government planned to
nationalise. The tram systems started to disappear too, partially because
the necessary nationalisation of the electricity companies meant that the
old local generators became part of the new Central Electricity Board. The
councils who ran the trams had to pay for the electricity, and coupled with
war-delayed refurbishment of the systems, it was cheaper and easier to shut
them down and replace them with bus services.
decade of the end of the war, nearly all of the trams – and all of the
services in the industrialised areas – had gone.
however, survived without being nationalised, due largely to Labour losing
power at the end of 1951, despite getting more votes than it achieved in
1945, because of the UK’s antiquated electoral system.
Rediffusion, in an effort to avoid nationalisation, had started to diversify
even further than before, especially overseas. With the Dominions gone, they
repeated previous successes by starting Overseas Rediffusion, offering wired
television and radio, and later over –the-air broadcasting stations in the
remaining colonies. Soon, places as diverse as Barbados and Hong Kong had,
respectively, Rediffusion Radio and Rediffusion TV in operation – one
broadcast, the other wired. So when a commercial television service to rival
the existing non-commercial BBC Television Service was first mooted by the
incoming Conservative administration, BET and Rediffusion were immediately
on the scene. They sought to run the entire operation – or, failing that,
they would be happy with having the franchise for London.
first contracts were awarded in 1954, they were given London weekdays,
sharing a frequency with a rival company who were given Saturday and Sunday.
To a degree, a modified version of this system still exists in London to
Rediffusion were reluctant to take on the full risks of this venture – just
in case – so they split 50% of the company equally between them and took on
partners for the other half, in the form of Associated Newspapers,
publishers of the British arch-right-wing Daily Mail newspaper to
22 September 1955, Associated-Rediffusion (A-R) took to the air in London.
It was an
immediate disaster. Both Associated-Rediffusion and weekend rivals ATV
(though they started life calling themselves ABC until an injunction from
the cinema chain and putative commercial television contractor of the same
name put paid to the initials) lost money on Day One.
By the end
of the first week of broadcasting, the loss of money had turned into a
By the end
of the first month, the loss of money was such that a man shovelling
fifty-pound notes on to a fire could scarcely have kept up.
start of 1956, ATV was going under and Associated-Rediffusion, fearful that
it would be asked to provide programmes on the weekend as well, started to
prop themselves up in various ways.
1956, ATV had spread to the Midlands and the next contractor, ABC (owners of
the cinema chain of the same name) was providing the weekends from the
Birmingham transmitter whilst the London weekend company provided the
weekdays. New entrant ABC immediately began to lose money.
mid-1956, Granada in the nominal north of England had arrived on weekdays,
with ABC again on weekends. And whilst ABC's parent company, the Associated
British Picture Corporation (ABPC), had pretty deep pockets, Granada did
not. Granada had 35 cinemas in the south east and no film-making production
base to rely on (ABPC also had a large investment from Warner Brothers to
help). So Granada signed a deal with Associated-Rediffusion that was against
both the wording and the spirit of the 1954 Television Act.
deal allowed Granada to feel secure and gave Associated-Rediffusion an
important source of networked programming. The deal meant that A-R
guaranteed that Granada wouldn’t make a loss – but that Granada’s profits
were, effectively, to be Associated-Rediffusion’s property.
point, no one was making a profit. But BET had very deep pockets, and was
more than willing to gamble them away on British commercial television.
By the end
of 1956, Associated Newspapers were desperate to leave and paid BET and
Rediffusion to buy the majority of the shares back, leaving only a 10%
was turned in 1957-58. From that point, A-R, ATV and ABC all began to make
greater and greater profits every year – more money than they knew what to
do with, in fact. Poor Granada was left breaking just over even until the
1960s, thanks to their justified timidity and Associated-Rediffusion’s
Associated-Rediffusion’s success would be its ultimate downfall.
licences to broadcast in the UK were not permanent. Every few years they
were put up for review. In 1963, A-R swaggered into their interview and
swaggered out again – justifiably feeling themselves to be the king of ITV.
offended the man in charge of the review, Lord (Charles) Hill of Luton, the
man who, as Postmaster-General in 1955, had given birth to ITV in the first
place and was now the head of the independent regulator, the Independent
Television Authority. He was unable to act under a Conservative government
(despite being a Tory himself). But by 1967, he was acting under the
auspices of Labour, returned to power in 1964 for the first time since 1951.
Labour wanted ITV controlled and disciplined; Hill wanted ITV to obey the
Rediffusion London – the name that Associated-Rediffusion had taken in 1964,
finally recognising that Associated (Newspapers) were no longer significant
shareholders – swaggered into the interview again and swaggered out again,
Hill took action. In December 1967 he announced that, from July 1968,
Rediffusion London would be merged with ABC in the north and midlands.
Rediffusion London’s contract would be given to the new company, of which
ABC would hold 51% – despite being far smaller, both on the network and in
terms of profits and parent size, than Rediffusion.
1968, Thames Television – essentially ABC plus the bits of Rediffusion that
ABC wanted – was born.
weekends, a new company calling itself London Weekend was born, with LWT
being made up largely of former Rediffusion staff with a sprinkling of
ex-ABC. In Yorkshire, former ABC staff helped create Yorkshire Television (YTV)
with a sprinkling of ex-Rediffusion personnel.
Television Limited continued to exist as a separate entity (as did the
Rediffusion rental chain, Rediffusion Cable systems and Overseas Rediffusion).
Their last real production for British television was The Life and Times of
Lord Louis Mountbatten, shown in the UK as a Thames presentation, and as a
Rediffusion Television production.
itself was removed from ITV at the end of 1992 on the orders of the
then-government, though it retains its programme production capability and
is now part of what was Radio Luxembourg (later RTL, then CLT, now Fremantle
the creative side of their business, Rediffusion and BET were left with a
49% investment in the major ITV franchise, plus the other areas into which
they had diversified.
included air conditioning, office management, waste disposal (Biffa),
background music (Reditune, the second largest company of its type in the
world), telecommunications (Redifon), burglar alarms (Shorrock), aircraft
flight simulators , bespoke CCTV systems, Rediffusion International Music,
and of course the television rental arm, and local wired systems; and a
whole host of things that – by a great stretch of the imagination – could be
considered part of ‘broadcasting’ as an industry. Their 1975 slogan was “we
know TV inside out”.
world was about to change – again.
companies with a lot of minority interests in many industries had been
fashionable in the 1970s – walking Unit Trusts, really – by the 1980s, the
financial markets wanted companies to specialise. Any company with a lot of
fingers in a lot of pies was seen to be ripe for takeover by a venture
capitalist who would sell off everything other than the ‘core business’,
then sell off the asset-stripped remainder of the business for a profit.
the pendulum has swung back now, and companies are encouraged to diversify
into anything related – unless they are ‘underperforming’, in which case
they should do the opposite. But in the 1980s, cash was king, and BET and
Rediffusion owned a lot of cash, but controlled comparatively little.
capitalists - like vultures - started to circle.
immediately to sell off the ‘non-core activities’. Rediffusion Hong Kong and
Rediffusion Singapore were sold to the local governments or their agents.
Rediffusion Rentals disappeared from all but the High Streets of the Channel
Islands (and soon not even there), and Rediffusion Television’s stake in
Thames Television was floated. Soon, everything had gone except for what BET
perceived as their new core market: Facilities Management. They were poised
to ride the boom of commerce that transformed the UK in the late 1980s.
the Tories managed to burst their own false boom, bringing rapid recession
to the entire economy. The new market that BET had hoped to tap burst at the
same time as companies retrenched and the trend for ‘outsourcing’ rapidly
disintegrated (it would return a decade later with renewed force). BET was
left cash rich from the sell-offs, but without a market to appeal to – it
was ripe for a takeover.
tried mergers and takeovers of its own, coupled with rebrands and
refocusing. But the share price remained in the doldrums – the company, put
simply, was unfashionable. It wound up as nothing really more than a
contract facilities company – cleaners for offices, in other words – under
the name ‘Initial’.
name, the smaller but more fashionable Rentokil, best known for the
extermination of rats and insects in homes and offices, made a bid – and
Initial succumbed. The new company was called InitialRentokil and continued
to use the Rediffusion Adastral. Eventually, it became Rentokil Initial with
a new logo, and is set to become simply Rentokil shortly.
perhaps, would end the story… but not quite.
tram, the maker of BET’s fortune and so long unfashionable in the UK, is now
on its way back. Already south London, Manchester and Sheffield have
well-developed tram systems. Birmingham’s is now open. Newcastle/Gateshead
is growing along disused and ceded British Railways lines. Leeds is next to
put trams back on the old BET routes. Birkenhead and then Liverpool will
follow, with European Union money already allocated.
Rediffusion Television, so long forgotten – or at least dismissed because of
the hour a day of (remembered) popular shows they transmitted to fund more,
now forgotten, hours of quality programming – is now the darling of the
British Film Institute, with the BFI actively seeking lost Rediffusion and
Associated-Rediffusion programming. The name of the 40-year-old organisation
behind this web site – Transdiffusion – is at least in part a tribute to
that television company. And most recently, television producer and critic
Victor Lewis-Smith has secured the use of the name Associated-Rediffusion
Television Productions for his production company, along with the signature
adastral, so the familiar A-R endcaps are visible once again at the close of
fine and varied television programming, as they were almost fifty years ago.
Electric Traction, Rediffusion and their associated companies over a century
deserved to be remembered and the facts known. Rediffusion and its employees
were part of an organisation that helped make domestic transport easy for
working people; helped pioneer popular mass entertainment; helped win World
War II; helped bring information, entertainment and enlightenment to the UK,
the Dominions, the Colonies and the Commonwealth for over 50 years; and
produced some of the best television programmes and popularised some of the
best music the world has ever known.