Whilst on a flight of fancy, I wrote the following piece, which probably won’t make it to the upcoming Jack Hylton biography, because it’s probably rubbish, but I thought I’d share it anyway. I’d been writing about the time Jack Hylton spent as Advisor for Associated-Rediffusion, one of the fledgling ITV companies, between 1955 and 1960, a time when he made some 295 TV programmes, to pretty bad critical reception on the whole, despite a great number of them reaching the top ten in the ratings. Anyway, this evening I thought this, which is perhaps interesting, perhaps not…
“Whilst it is widely accepted that Jack Hylton’s foray in television was ultimately unsuccessful it’s worth exploring the differences between Hylton’s approach to television and the approach of his contemporaries Val Parnell, Lew Grade, Bernard Delfont and Prince & Emile Littler, all of whom experienced considerably more success, both critically and financially.
It’s clear that Hylton saw light entertainment on television as a way of promoting the theatre. Theatre was and always had been Hylton’s first love; it’s obvious from the way he promoted definite flops and niche shows that he cared less about making money and more about creating a product that he thought was worthy of the stage. Of course one could argue that this position was only brought about through his enormous wealth from a twenty year band career, backing smash hits, but whatever the reason, he was renowned for putting things into theatres which weren’t guaranteed money spinners, all the way back to 1940 when he backed the London Philharmonic Orchestra in such a way that even if he had made a profit, it would be given back to the orchestra by way of bonuses. It’s hard to see Val Parnell or Lew Grade doing something of that nature.
When the ITV franchises appeared, Parnell, Grade, Hylton, et al all jumped on board. Their combined knowledge, experience and contacts in the world of light entertainment meant that it was obvious that the fledgling companies would approach them, and indeed they did. Clearly there was a great deal of money to be made, both through share options and through the production of shows. It also became clear that if hundreds of thousands, and ultimately, millions of people saw a show on television, that would discourage them from seeing the show at a variety theatre. If two thousand people were seeing a show, twice nightly, then even in a busy theatre, around twenty thousand people would see a show per week. If a million saw it on television, why would they then spend money to see it at a theatre?
Of course, this is the argument levelled at radio, at cinema, and at television over the decades and we know that theatres still sell tickets, but of all of those, there was the most dramatic shift when television was introduced and the biggest shift was away from variety in the form which had been popular in theatres in the 1930’s through to the 1950’s.
What Parnell did, which Hylton didn’t do, was sell theatres to make money to invest in television. This seems to have been anathema to Hylton. He was, of course, just another in a long line of wealthy impresarios, but he was different to his contemporaries; he was empathetic to his artists in a way which Parnell chose not to be. It’s clear from the longevity of the associations which Hylton had with so many artists, with a number of names appearing from the 1920’s when Hylton first appeared on the scene (in fact before there was any kind of ‘scene’) right up until his death in the 1960’s. Artists with whom Hylton had appeared before anyone knew the name ‘Jack Hylton’, would not only work with the band in the 20’s and 30’s, but would appear in variety shows, theatre shows and TV shows.
It’s apparent that the theatre giant Moss Empires, of which Parnell was Managing Director, was prepared to forego the freehold of the less glamorous, less important (less profitable) theatres within the massive group of theatres owned by the company. The money could be pumped into television and enormous sums of money could be recouped. Of course, Hylton never had such a legacy of theatres, given he was working by himself and building up his own empire, not one bought into from decades of work by others, so he would never have been able to work with such a real estate legacy, but even if he had, his genuine love of theatre would surely have discouraged him from such a move.
As the sold off theatres became cinemas, the theatre audiences dropped, the TV audiences increased, especially as the regional programmes became syndicated through the network; Parnell, Grade and all those at ATV conquered, whilst Associated-Rediffusion stuttered. Of course, the success of Sunday Night At The London Palladium was a massive part of that success. Perhaps if Hylton had hit upon the right idea at the right time, then that one programme would have been sufficient to rescue his televisual legacy. As it was, he floundered and escaped to carry on his theatrical successes. By the early 1960’s Hylton was slowing down and spending more time enjoying himself and less time working, so perhaps ultimately TV came too late for Hylton. Parnell and especially Grade would go on to great wealth with television. Parnell, ultimately a theatre man, would retire in the 60’s and Grade would go on to be the first wealthy TV impresario, though despite his fame and success he still never became a man who nurtured artists in the way that Hylton always had.
Of course, success can be measured in any number of ways. If, as an artist, you’re offered a huge contract then the impresario who offers you that contract will remain a major impact on your life. Hylton offered something different; a handshake, a deal, often a long-term, lifelong friendship which endured through changing public taste and changing performance opportunities, and perhaps that is the legacy of Jack Hylton and television – that he was from what we would now call the ‘old school’ – he was more concerned with producing something which people wanted to see, performed by people who he was interested in giving work to, who he respected and maintained contact with because they were the best, who would deliver a product which thousands of people wanted to see. Perhaps if the television companies of the 1950’s and 60’s had developed that kind of attitude a little more, and been less obsessed with making money from the fledgling ITV companies, then entertainment in general, and not just televisual entertainment, would be in a better place today.”