The Cornflake Revolution: How Breakfast TV Became a Staple of Britain’s Mornings

The race for ‘bright and early’ viewers began 40 years ago, and changed the way Britain woke up.

Asign on the wall of the BBC’s Lime Grove offices of Breakfast Time, the UK’s first morning television show, read: “Today is the tomorrow that worried you yesterday — and all’s well”.

The epigram was aimed at calming corporate nerves as the Beeb prepared for a foray into the unknown, and a bitter battle with its commercial rivals. The mood in the lead-up to the first broadcast in January 1983 was anything but calm. The launch was a soap opera of back-stabbing, scandals, and giant egos — a stormy melodrama played out as a rapt audience tucked into their cornflakes, tea and toast.

breakfast

Britain in the 1970s had been in economic turmoil, frequently derided as “the sick man of Europe” as successive governments struggled to control the power of the trade unions. When Margaret Thatcher became Conservative prime minister in 1979, nothing illustrated her vision for Britain more vividly than these early broadcasts: a brash, vibrant throwing-off of the Old Order.

In the US, breakfast TV had been around since 1952. The Brits deemed the phenomenon too brash and vulgar for their taste, and seemed prepared to stare down the test card until tea-time. Urged on by a new government keen to break down barriers, the Independent Broadcasting Authority decided in 1980 to put a specific breakfast franchise up for grabs. It sparked an entrepreneurial scramble.

Broadcasting legend David Frost joined forces with Peter Jay, a former ambassador to the US. The pair recognised the commercial potential afoot, and within a few months had founded TV-am, based in a converted car showroom in Camden Town. They put together a strong bid for the franchise, with Frost leading a team of television heavyweights: newsreaders Angela Rippon and Anna Ford, chat show host Michael Parkinson, and journalist Robert Kee. The “Famous Five”, as they were dubbed by the tabloids, stirred up the hype in the months before the launch in February 1983.

The BBC management had been rattled, and quickly moved to spike the guns of its rivals. It devised plans for its own contender — which turned out to be more successful than anyone imagined. The team was led by the avuncular Frank Bough, a veteran of live television, and bolstered by novice newsreader Selina Scott and journalist Nick Ross. The BBC rushed its own launch — and two weeks before the TV-am launch of Good Morning Britain, unveiled its own version, Breakfast Time.

Red sofa television was born.

In another shock for the TV-am team, which had assumed the BBC would produce a sober, highbrow, news-heavy programme, Breakfast Time turned out to be a relaxed, magazine-style show. Celebrity guests were brought in to chat on the sofa, and it was all held together by the unflappable Bough, dressed in a comfy pullover. It was an instant hit. By the time TV-am got to air, Breakfast Time was already pulling in more than a million viewers each morning.

TV-am’s campaign had been muddled. Its first chief executive, Peter Jay, had invented the phrase “mission to explain” as the guiding mantra. Not everyone on the team seemed to understand the nebulous message. Parkinson, who died recently aged 88, was later to describe it as “gibberish”.

Jayne Irving, a regular TV-am presenter, said “the place was run on this ‘mission to explain’ thesis, which of course was really a mission to condescend and bore the back legs off everybody”. David Frost’s attempt to introduce some “sexual chemistry” on the sofa wasn’t helped by the stiffness of the presenters, or behind-the-scenes ructions. An administrative error saw the Famous Five receive each other’s contracts — and the women discovered they were being paid considerably less than their male counterparts.

The launch was a disaster. In the first weeks, TV-am’s viewers numbered fewer than 300,000, while Breakfast Time — with its popular mix of news, horoscopes with Russell Grant and aerobics with Diana Moran, the Green Goddess — was attracting two million. TV-am was spending an estimated £2m a month, but pulling in barely £300,000 in advertising revenue. With alarm bells ringing, Peter Jay was ousted and replaced by businessman Timothy Aitken, who set about restructuring.

Rippon and Ford publicly supported Jay, giving emotional interviews and accusing the TV-am management of “treachery”. Aitken sacked them both for breach of contract, leading to a lengthy and embarrassing legal wrangle. At a drinks party a few days after her sacking, Ford came face to face with Aitken and threw a glass of wine in his face. “It was the only form of self-defence left to a woman when she has been so monstrously treated,” she said. The tabloids gleefully splashed the incident across their front pages.

Greg Dyke, later to become the director-general of the BBC, was recruited to rescue TV-am. He brought in a brace of provincial presenters, Anne Diamond and Nick Owen, whose on-screen chemistry actually worked. And the introduction of a glove puppet called Roland Rat, intended as a children’s segment, proved to be a hit with all ages. Newspaper wags quipped that it was the first time a rat had joined a sinking ship.

When Australian media tycoon Kerry Packer was persuaded to take a minority stake in TV-am, Dyke left the company. He was replaced as editor-in-chief by Aussie broadcaster and businessman Bruce Gyngell, who cut costs to such an extent that the unions walked out. Gyngell sacked them, too.

With the tacit support of Margaret Thatcher, who had described broadcasting as “the last bastion of restrictive practices”, Gyngell’s anti-union crusade led to a slimmer, more efficient operation. By 1988, TV-am was making annual profits of £25m — and winning the ratings war.

Broadcasting rules introduced by the Tory government meant that when the franchise came up for renewal in 1990, it was allocated not by operational ability, but via blind bids. Despite its success, TV-am lost the franchise. Thatcher, now out of office, was so dismayed that she wrote a personal letter of apology to Gyngell. “I’m only too aware that I was responsible for the legislation,” she wrote.

The breakfast TV experiment has been fodder for several books, including Morning Glory: A History of British Breakfast Television, by Ian Jones, and a 1992 documentary, Storm in an Egg Cup, in which the late Michael Parkinson reflected: “God knows how we got on air. We floated in on a cloud of bullshit, apparently.”

From the 1990s, the battle for morning viewers gradually became irrelevant; technological advances were opening a Pandora’s Box of cable, satellite, and internet options. A new age was ushered in, an age in which a blurring of news and celebrity gossip led to a kaleidoscopic merging of media. The BBC’s bon mot from the 1980s could perhaps be rewritten: “Yesterday it was tomorrow that worried you — and today isn’t what you were expecting.”

By Tony Lennox


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