Lockdown Jottings – 07

Watching with Mother

I’m trying, somewhat unsuccessfully, to wean myself off the 24-hour television news channels. Yes, they are depressing and repetitive at the best of times but even more so at the moment – the coronavirus story just isn’t unfolding fast enough for an hourly news cycle – but it’s my yearning for good news about a vaccine being discovered, or some other discovery that will bring an early end to lockdown, that keeps me tuning in. I have the television on in the background most days, sound turned down a little while I get on with my work but keeping one ear cocked just in case there’s some optimistic new development that will help to move the story forward.

A couple of nights ago, the BBC broadcast a programme looking back to a gentler time. “From Andy Pandy to Zebedee: The Golden Age of Children’s Television” took me straight back to my own childhood and revived memories of watching TV at home with my parents, particularly my mum while dad was out at work.

I can still remember the day (if not the date) that our first television was delivered. It was during the spring or early summer of 1957 around the time my younger brother was born. It was a sunny day as I stood in the hallway of my parents’ home, clutching onto my teddy bear, from whom I was at the time inseparable. The set was delivered and set up in the living room while Teddy and I did our best not to get in the way. I can remember the delivery man tousling my hair and asking what my teddy bear was called…..

As it was our first television, an aerial had to be fixed to the chimney stack and the cable fed down the back of the house. A small hole was drilled in the (wooden) window frame to allow the cable to pass through into the living room. Once the aerial was connected to the set, instructions were shouted back and forth between the man setting up the set and the man on the roof so that the aerial could be adjusted to ensure we had the best picture.

Once they were satisfied, off they went, leaving us to admire the new arrival (– the TV set, not my new brother!).

It was a large cube-shaped affair, made by Baird, in a mid-brown polished wood veneer and stood atop a matching table. On the front, and beneath the square screen, were two cream-coloured plastic knobs, one either side of the speaker grille. One knob turned the set on and adjusted the volume, the other enabled the selection of channel – from a grand choice of just two: BBC or ITV.

The set (and the table) were supplied by Radio Rentals – for a weekly payment, you too could watch TV: sets were just too expensive to buy back then and many families with television sets relied on the rental companies. (DER – Domestic Electric Rentals – was another such company.)  

The TV took a time to come on – valves had to warm up – and when it did, the picture was in black and white. When you switched it off, the picture shrank rapidly to a little white dot at the centre of the screen which then took a few moments to fade completely away – and we’d sometimes watch it as it did (we took our pleasures where we could!).

One consequence of the time is that so many of my childhood memories are in black and white: TV programmes, films newspapers, family photos, all in black and white. (Even buildings came in soot-stained black back then.)

Occasionally, and right in the middle of a favourite programme, the TV would break down – and that meant not only that you missed the rest of the programme (not to mention the rest of the evening’s programmes) but also the possibility you’d be without TV for several days as you had to wait for a repairman to come out to fix it – a job that could take a few minutes or a couple of hours. Sometimes, the TV set would have to go back to the shop to be fixed and a loan TV would be supplied until your own could be repaired.

One of the biggest disruptions to my childhood television viewing was when the ITV television mast at Emley Moor collapsed in the winter of 1969, brought down by the weight of snow and ice that had accumulated on it and the power of strong winds. I seem to remember that we lost our ITV reception but could still receive BBC transmissions which came from the Holme Moss transmitter. Nearer to home, our own aerial blew down one evening in bad weather and we had to wait until someone could come out and put it back up for us.

My earliest memories of watching television still centre around the weekday ‘Watch with Mother’ programmes broadcast around lunchtime: Picture Book (Monday), Andy Pandy (Tuesday), Bill and Ben (Wednesday), Rag, Tab and Bobtail (Thursday) and The Woodentops (Friday).

Children’s television programmes were also broadcast in the late afternoon. Particular favourites from childhood were The Adventures of Robin Hood (starring Richard Greene, a name I always thought rather apt for a character meant to be dressed in Lincoln green), Ivanhoe (starring Roger Moore – on horseback! – later to go on to become The Saint and then, of course, James Bond), and The Lone Ranger (a US import). We also had The Forest Rangers (a Canadian TV series broadcast in the 1960s: I’ve just discovered some episodes are available on YouTube – and they are in colour, a revelation!), and Four Feather Falls, a puppet show produced by Gerry Anderson who was to go on to produce other puppet shows such as Supercar, Stingray, Fireball XL5 and, best of the lot in my view, Thunderbirds! Four Feather Falls was the name of a (fictional) town in Kansas where Sheriff Tex Tucker, voiced by Nicholas Parsons, kept order. Still in the world of animation, The Magic Roundabout, with Florence, Dougal, Brian and Zebedee (amongst others) broke new ground, shall we say.

On Saturday afternoon, 23rd November 1963, I watched a programme such as I’d never seen before. This was the first ever episode of Dr Who starring William Hartnell. If truth be told, it was so unexpected that I didn’t know what to make of it and it was only later in the following week when I watched Junior Points of View and saw all the letters that the programme had generated that I realised how significant that first screening of Dr Who had been. The programme had got a bit lost, however, as it was broadcast the day after the assassination of President John F Kennedy in the United States and many people, it seemed, had missed it. This led the BBC to repeat the first programme and run it back to back with the second episode on Saturday, 30th November. From that moment on, I was hooked, and I’ve been a Dr Who fan ever since, even though some episodes terrified me as a child.

We stayed in black and white right through the 1960s. Our set was capable of receiving transmissions on what was called the 405-lines service – and sometimes, you could see every one of those lines when the picture broke down. Every so often, the picture would slip – you’d see the top half of the picture at the bottom of the screen and the bottom of the picture at the top, the two halves divided by a black line. And sometimes, they’d continue to slip as if someone was pulling a reel of cine film through the set with every frame individually visible. Usually, it took no more than a sharp slap to the side of the set to restore the image to how it should be.

BBC2 was launched in 1964, but you needed a TV set that could receive transmissions on 625 lines to watch it. Ours couldn’t do that, so we had to do without BBC2 for a while after that.

In the run-up to the wedding of Princess Anne on 14th November 1973, the first ‘modern’ royal wedding to be broadcast live, we moved up in the world and migrated to a modern, colour television on the 625-line service. So posh was it that it came housed in a large, floor-standing cabinet with sliding doors that could be closed when the set was not in use. And the world of news bulletins and other programmes came to life in full colour.

The TV was still rented from Radio Rentals, but when they collected the old set, we got to keep the table – and that continued in use for another twenty years as a slightly too tall ‘coffee table’.

Watching television was a pastime for the whole family. Assuming we were all at home, we would all settle down on an evening to watch TV. It led to some arguments, of course, over which programmes to watch but we had our favourites. One of my dad’s was All Our Yesterdays with Brian Inglis; for mum, it was Emergency Ward 10 and Coronation Street and we all liked Z Cars.

But whatever we watched, and so unlike today, you knew that broadcasting would stop each evening, the set would be switched off, the little dot on the screen would eventually vanish and it was time for bed, as Zebedee would have said.

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