Did Anglians Dream of Electric Screens?

Working with the people of Norfolk to write a history of Television in Norfolk.

Category: BBC

A Sound Vision?

I’ll admit that this post is a bit of an aside from the aim of the Did Anglians Dream of Electric Screens? project, but the subject of the documentary that I’ve embedded above is so interesting and the delivery so compelling that I couldn’t resist writing about it. I’m also sure that all of you will enjoy listening to it.

Paul Hayes of BBC Radio Norfolk was kind enough to draw my attention to a radio documentary called Radio in a Roundabout Way that he had produced. It explores a really interesting period of broadcasting history during the 1970s when Norfolk, and parts of East Anglia, opted out of broadcasting the Today programme on Radio 4 and instead broadcast Roundabout East Anglia from the BBC Studio at St. Catherine’s House. The documentary features the recollections of a number of key figures (you’ll recognise some of the voices!) from the period and is a fantastic insight into how the region tried to exercise a degree of independence from the national network.

This ‘opt out’ from Radio 4 sets into context some of the ideas expressed in Broadcasting in the Seventies, a document published by the BBC in 1969. That document made clear that there should be an adjustment of the relationship between broadcasts from London and those from the regions. As the Rt. Hon. Lord Hill of Luton (Chairman of the BBC) suggested in his foreword to the document:

Whatever else happens the public service which the BBC provides should be complete, nationally and locally. [P1]

Whilst the nations of the BBC had always expressed dissatisfaction with the power and influence of London within the BBC, Broadcasting in the Seventies pointed out that a similar sentiment was growing within England too:

It is not only Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland which look for a separate identity. In England, too, there seems to be a growing resistance to the inexorable magnetism of London. Any national broadcasting organisation must create a system of broadcasting which enables this more localised feeling to express itself and which provides focal points for community interest. [P2-3]

The ultimate expression of this idea, in terms of Norfolk, was of course the establishment of Radio Norfolk in 1980, but as Paul’s documentary points out the BBC staff in Norwich were able to create radio ‘in Norfolk and for Norfolk’ long before the BBC were able to provide the resources required for the establishment of a full service.

But Broadcasting in the Seventies didn’t restrict itself to radio, it was also concerned with how the BBC television service should develop. Each of the new regions that the BBC had earmarked for creation (Birmingham, Bristol, Leeds, Manchester, Newcastle, Norwich, Plymouth and Southampton) would also be expected to:

…produce daily news bulletins and news magazines, and they will also start their own Saturday sports reports. At the same time, we intend to expand their production of general programmes. These have been confined in the main to the existing three regions; a total of about 150 a year, Within the next two to three years, we intend that each of the new regions should produce a weekly general programme; a total of about 400 a year, over and above their daily news magazines. [P8]

Which rather begs the question: Just what were the BBC doing in regions such as East Anglia/Norfolk before Broadcasting in the Seventies was published and what did the audiences in those areas think of the service? Did Anglians Dream of Electric Screens? might be able to throw some light on that question!

I’m fascinated by the way that broadcasters have historically approached the requirements of national, regional and local audiences and Radio in a Roundabout Way is a fantastic example of the stories that can be uncovered when we shift our attention away from the national context and specifically look at activities in the regions instead.

The interactions between broadcasters and the region are an important part of the social history of Norfolk and documentaries such as Radio in a Roundabout Way show how the experience of broadcasting in Norfolk did differ from the rest of the nation at times. It’s important that we make sure these differences, no matter how subtle they might appear at times, are recorded – they could have interesting consequences for the ways in which the people of Norfolk see themselves, how they see the world and how the world sees Norfolk!

Why not find out how you can help in making sure that the history of television in Norfolk is recorded? Click here for more details on getting involved with the project.

Talking TV on the Radio

Once again Radio Norfolk have been absolutely fantastic to me, this time they invited me, or alternatively I asked really, really politely if they’d let me,  (I’ll let you decide which explanation is more believable!) on to the Stephen Bumfrey show on Tuesday 8th April, 2014.

Not only did I get to talk  about my project, which is always fun, but I also got to talk about the history of television in Norfolk a little more generally. That’s an unexpected bonus, particularly when the host has an interest in the topic too and is pushing you to come up with some good answers to his questions! It’s occasions like this when I hope people get a glimpse into how passionate I am about the project. There is an incredibly interesting, nuanced and complex story to be told about how television arrived in Norfolk and what it might have meant and it’s a genuine privilege to be involved in helping to record it.

There are obviously going to be a lot of similarities with the experiences of other parts of Britain, but there are also some important differences. Differences that I believe may have had significant consequences and that we really should give close consideration to. Hopefully by involving the people of Norfolk in the project I can begin to unpick some of these variations and peculiarities, ultimately creating a rather intriguing narrative that will be of interest to academics and the people helping me to tell it!

Anyway… I should probably just post the iPlayer link so you can all have a listen. It should be available until the 15th April 2014, after which it will be available on the Media Coverage page. My interview starts at the 3hr 5 minute mark, just after the Coldplay song (I like to think that Coldplay opened for me and that I was the headline act!)

I’ll end by saying a massive thank you to everyone at BBC Radio Norfolk, and in particular to Stephen Bumfrey and Thordis Fridriksson, as well as to Paul Hayes and Matthew Gudgin, for all their help and for responding so positively to myself and the project: they really have been brilliant!

Did you find the interview interesting? Can you remember BBC 2 arriving in the region? Did you have a colourising screen in front of your black and white TV? If so then please get involved in the ‘Did Anglians Dream of Electric Screens?’ project!

An Exciting Week: Part One

As I mentioned in the last update this week is looking like being another exciting one in terms of the project. Starting off with another appearance on Radio Norfolk!

It’s wonderful, and not to mention a little surprising, to be invited back on air to talk about my research and discuss the history of television. Television is one of those topics that seem to have the ability to get people talking (and arguing!) relatively easily – everyone has an opinion on their favourite programmes, what they hate and whether television is ‘dumbing down’, having the opportunity to discuss some of those ideas within the context of the history of television in Norfolk is an absolute privilege and I can guarantee that I’ll learn something new from the process! (Hopefully one day I’ll learn to be less nervous about appearing on the media, but I’m not holding my breath on that one!)

Hopefully I’ll be able to surprise people with a few lesser known facts about the role that television played in Norfolk during the 1950s and 60s, but also the role that Norfolk played in the national history of television! Norfolk is often marginalised in the official histories but that doesn’t mean that there weren’t times when it played a really important role in guiding broadcasting policy!

It should be a fun discussion, so please listen to the Stephen Bumfrey Show on Radio Norfolk (95.1 and 104.4FM as well as online) at around 3pm on Tuesday 8th April and encourage anyone you know to tune in too!

Then and Now: Tacolneston 1954-2014

One of the things I enjoy about undertaking research with a foundation in the local area is that it’s comparatively easy for me to pop along to any physical sites that I think have a historical significance and that I’d like to see for myself.

The reality that a number of these sites are places that I’ve been past countless times during my life in Norfolk, sometimes paying attention to them but often not. Inevitably if you read about the history of something often enough you begin to view it in a different way, and that’s definitely the case when it come to some of these locations. The transmitter site at Tacolneston is a case in point.

The process of its construction throughout 1954 was a visual signifier that television was finally going to be available for the majority of the people of Norfolk (and East Anglia), and its initial activation (and period of test broadcasting) in February 1955 really signified the culmination of a campaign to bring television to the region that took place in both Parliament and the local press, as well as within the BBC.

Of course no historical site ever remains untouched by either time nor human progress, and Tacolneston is no exception to the rule. The site, currently owned by Arqiva, has been subject to considerable redevelopment over the years as technology has advanced; understandably it now looks a little different. Perhaps the best way to illustrate this is to compare a photo taken during its construction (published in the EDP on 13/12/1954) and a photo of the largest mast that I took during a site visit on 23/03/2014 – things have definitely changed over nearly 60 years, but I think that merely makes you appreciate what an achievement the original transmitter mastwas (and how health and safety rules have changed)!

The BBC’s original transmission mast at Alexandra Palace is perhaps the most famous example of a transmission mast, its silhouette becoming an iconic shorthand for the achievements and ambitions of broadcasting as it reached into the London skyline, but I like to think that Tacolneston has its own charms too, and despite its lack of fame we shouldn’t ignore its importance to the history of television in Norfolk.

In particular, and as shown in the photo below, I love the fact that from a distance the towers look like they have erupted from the earth, growing out of the woodland; creating a juxtaposition between steel and wood, between the natural and the synthetic – it seems to me that it could be an interesting visual metaphor for how a technology can become physically embedded in our natural geography.

Tacolneston-landscape-20142

The question is, did television become embedded into the lives of Norfolk people in a similar way?

You can learn more about how you can help me explore that question by clicking here and I’d love to hear from anyone who has any other early photos of Tacolneston transmission mast!

  • Thanks to Tony Currie for pointing me in the right direction on my usage of terminology, the tower should be called a transmitter mast not a transmitter.
  • Thanks to @TAC_TX for pointing out I should actually use the term ‘transmission mast’.

The Launch of the BBC Norfolk Television Studios

What better way to start off this website than by having a look at some of the earliest broadcasts and promotional materials from when the broadcasters first began regularly broadcasting from the region!

Anyone who listened to my original radio appeal on BBC Radio Norfolk will recognise the audio from this footage held by EAFA (click to watch), which was created to promote the imminent opening of the new television studio at St. Catherine’s Close, and which would have been broadcast to the region by the Tacolneston transmitter (remember that Norfolk was part of the Midlands BBC Region, based in Birmingham, at this point).

I mentioned in my original interview that the BBC and Anglia Television were engaged in a race to be the first to establish a regular broadcast from the region, in fact in May of 1959 the BBC began discussing the need to try and beat Anglia to the punch (the BBC had already begun to provide an East Anglian television news bulletin from London at this point). Rather surprisingly the BBC moved at an astonishing pace on this issue, perhaps recognising the promotional value of being able to claim the title of ‘first on air’ within the region and the need to combat a sense of discontent amongst the people of the region in respect to how they had been historically treated by the BBC. Despite a reputation as a monolithic institution, that deliberated for an age over strategic decisions, approval for accelerating the building of the Norwich television studios by the BBC Board of Management only took 1 week from the initial memo at the beginning of June, and by the 23rd of June final authority had been given for the necessary expenditure!

Ultimately the BBC did manage to beat Anglia Television to air by around 3 weeks, whether it actually mattered in the long term is something that I’ll be keen to explore as my research progresses. So can you remember the first broadcasts from the BBC Norwich Studio or does this type of footage inspire some memories? If so then please consider getting involved with the project.