Did Anglians Dream of Electric Screens?

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

Category: East Anglia

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.

A brief update AKA I’ve bought some books!

Despite the silence on the blog I’ve actually been pretty busy with the project recently, hopefully the fruits of my labours will appear will be able to appear on here soon. It’s certainly the case that next week should be an interesting and exciting time for both myself and for anyone interested in the project.

A lot of my time recently has been spent reading and responding to emails from people who have heard about the project and wanted to tell me their short stories about what they can remember about television during the 1950s and 60s.

All I can say is wow! Everyone who has contacted me has had a fascinating story to tell, all of them have made me smile, reinforced my view that this is exactly the right time to being undertaking this research, and that if I write it in the correct way, then it really does have the potential to be interesting to a really wide range of people!

So thank you to you all! Hopefully I’ve managed to respond back to everyone who has contacted me, so please check your inboxes and spam folders; I’m really keen to interview you all!

In other news I also took delivery of a couple of books that I thought you might all be interested in seeing. The UEA library is a great resource, but I’ve developed a little bit of an addiction to having my own copy of some texts, not to mention that some of the books that I am most interested in just aren’t in the library and are becoming increasingly difficult to get hold of. These two weren’t super expensive, but even if they were, I consider money spent on good books to be money well spent!

The Setmakers and Radio Man

The Setmakers and Radio Man

At first glance ‘The Setmakers‘ and ‘Radio Man: The remarkable rise and fall of C.O. Stanley‘ might not appear to be obviously related to the overall aim of my project, but they’re both treasure troves of incidental information, that is both fascinating in its own right, as well as being useful in establishing the overall historical context that surrounded the introduction of television in Norfolk. Ultimately being an academic researcher is a bit like being a detective; sometimes if you want to find out what really happened you need to look for potential sources of evidence that others have overlooked!

As a fringe benefit both books also contain some amazing prints of the types of adverts and promotional materials used to sell TV to the British public – some of them are incredibly beautiful and I just love looking at them!

I’ll end this entry with a question for any media historians out there. The Setmakers was published by BREMA (British Radio & Electronic Equipment Manufacturers’ Association) and heavily uses material from their archives: Does anyone know where that archive ended up?

Do you know where the BREMA archive is? Did you or a family member or friend work for a PYE factory in Norfolk? Can you remember seeing print adverts for television and thinking that you really would have to get a set soon? If so then please get in contact with me via the ‘Get Involved‘ page!

Then and Now: Mendlesham 1958-2014

Since its original opening in February 1955 (although only broadcasting on full power from 1956) the television service in Norfolk, and East Anglia, had been provided by the transmitter at Tacolneston. However the arrival of an ITV service for the region posed an interesting question: would the competing services share facilities or would the ITA justify the capital expenditure for a transmitter of its own?

Although the BBC and the ITA did discuss the possibility of sharing resources, ultimately a decision was reached the ITA that it was more appropriate  for the ITA to have it’s own transmitter – at least in part explained by the fact that the region defined as East Anglia by the ITA did not exactly match that imagined by the BBC and already served by Tacolneston. That meant that another site needed to be identified and another transmitter constructed. As it turned out that transmitter would need to be rather innovative in design if it was able to serve the whole region whilst not intruding onto either the areas of other ITV companies or continental Europe as dictated by the 1948 Copenhagen agreement on use of the radio spectrum.

Introducing TV to Norfolk was nothing if not a technical challenge!

The solution to this challenge, according to a draft press release from the ITA in 1958, was:

[…]the tallest TV aerial in Britain/Europe… The mast will be 1,000 feet tall and the station will serve an area in which 2 million people live… It will be a design not used before in this country, known as the Mesny type, which has been developed by E.M.I.

The claim that it was to be the tallest aerial in Europe was not entirely unproblematic, the problem being that nobody seemed to know what anyone else was building! E.M.I subsequently wrote to the ITA, pointing out that:

We ourselves are not aware of any mast of 1000′ or more in Europe, but we have heard a variety of rumours including one from Sweden to the effect that plans are afoot for the construction of extremely tall masts of the order of 1000′ plus.

and suggesting that

…it might be wise to restrict yourself in this initial handout to the word “Britain” and at a later date when the mast is up and if it is then proved to be the only one of 1000′ in Europe you might like to make a point of this in a further statement.

Regardless of whether or not the ITA was definitely building the tallest transmitter mast in Europe, the structure that the British Insulated Callender’s Construction Co. Ltd erected at Mendlesham in Suffolk was a hugely impressive achievement, and visually dominated the surrounding area.

Unsurprisingly a project of this scale and importance did not go unnoticed by the local press and on August 10th 1959 the Eastern Daily Press sent an intrepid reporter up the top of the tower to report on the experience and take a breathtaking photo looking down at the ground from the mast’s pinnacle. I think it would be fair to suggest that the reporter probably earned his wages that day!

As well as this press coverage, a promotional documentary on the construction of the tower was also made, and thanks to the wonderful East Anglian Film Archive you can watch it here!

I visited the site on Sunday 23rd March 2014, partly to see how it had changed (it is worth noting that it is no longer used for television transmissions) and partly to satisfy my curiosity as to how tall 1000ft actually is; it’s not an easy vertical measurement to imagine. Much like Tacolneston, the Mendlesham site has been subject to alteration over the years, but it remains a hugely, hugely impressive structure which still imposes itself on the landscape. When you initially spot it whilst driving along the A140 you think it’s going to be quite big, but that doesn’t quite prepare you for how tall it actually is when you do get up close!

Unfortunately I didn’t have the chance to re-create the photo from the EDP report of 1959, but if anyone from Arqiva (who operate the site) or from the EDP is reading then I would love to have the opportunity to do so – it would be a great story for all of us! In the absence of that the best I can do is to provide the following slideshow featuring the original photo from the EDP and some of the photos that I took during the visit that illustrate the scale of the tower and its supporting wires.

The development of the transmitters and their masts at Talconesten or Mendlesham are not at the centre of my research, but they do both represent important moments in the history of television in Norfolk. They are, along with some other sites that I’ll be discussing, the physical and metaphorical totems that serve to remind us of the moments that the different variants of television genuinely arrived in the county and as such they’re well worth spending some time assessing – plus they’re very cool structures!

Do you have your own memories of the transmitter at Mendlesham being built? Do you have any photos of the construction? Can you remember the build up to the arrival of Anglia Television? If so, or if you just love the history of television in Norfolk like I do, then click here to find out why you’re so important to the ‘Did Anglians Dream of Electric Screens?’ project!

  • *Thanks to Tony Currie for the heads up that I should refer to the towers as ‘transmitter masts’, rather than ‘transmitters’ – he’s absolutely right and I’ve still got a lot to learn about the technical terminology of broadcasting! The text has been edited accordingly.

Anglia Arrives (Almost!)

Having dealt with the build up to the arrival of the BBC Television studio at St Catherine’s Close in Norwich here, it’s only right that we also have a look at the arrival of Anglia Television.

The background to the development of Commercial Television in Britain is long and interesting (and the role of people from Norfolk in it will almost certainly receive a blog post of its own), but for now the important thing to remember is that whilst other parts of Britain received ITV in 1955, a service that originated (and that was supposed to serve) Norfolk and the East Anglia region didn’t arrive until 1959.

So let’s have a look at how Anglia Television originally presented itself to the world, in a film produced for the Eurovision scheme and titled Introduction to Anglia(click to watch).

Having watched it I think the following points are interesting to consider:

  • The voiceover acknowledges that ‘things are different in the country’ – This could be interpreted as a subtle attack on how the BBC had historically approached the East Anglia Region.
  • Anglia wasn’t just interested in telling stories about the region, it was more ambitious, particularly in respect of its drama output – probably as a consequence of who was on the Board of Directors.
  • Anglia House was, for its time, an incredibly advanced facility. In fact throughout its early history Anglia Television was a technologically adventurous company.
  • The fact that Anglia was based in Norwich did not dictate that attention was only focused on Norfolk, its franchise covered a much larger geographic area. Although my project doesn’t deal with the issue, I think its interesting to consider whether it did manage to serve this vast area and whether people from other counties had a different relationship with Anglia than those in Norfolk?
  • It’s easy to forget the scale of the task that faced Anglia Television and the ITA. The transmitter at Mendlesham was a huge undertaking and technologically complex due to issues of long term spectrum arrangements and the requirement to not infringe upon the territories of any of the other ITV companies – an issue that returned later in Anglia’s history too.
  • And finally, the cheeky nod to ‘a good play on the BBC tonight’ never fails to make me smile – it just seems to be a typically Norfolk thing to do!

Despite the fact that this snippet of film pre-dates the arrival of television in the region, as mentioned at the end of the film, I wonder whether anyone in Norfolk did in fact see it? If it brings back memories for anyone then please consider getting involved with the project!

 

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.

Welcome

So this is the start of the Did Anglians Dream of Electric Screens? website, but it’s definitely not the start of the project!

In fact my research on the topic of the history of television in Norfolk has been officially taking place for around 18 months. I’ve been surveying secondary texts on the history of both British and international television, identifying different approaches, looking for gaps in the literature and most importantly looking for that special something that triggers a flash of inspiration. I’ve also been lucky enough to be able to visit, both in person and virtually, a number of archives, looking at primary sources that relate to British television in general and television in Norfolk in particular.

You can read about the overall aim and focus of the project here as well as finding out how to be a participant here, but I’m hoping that these blog posts will allow me to keep you all up to date with what I am up to, as well as giving a peak behind the curtain of academia. I’ll try to talk about where I’m going, what I’ve seen and what I’m thinking about and I’ll also try to share some of the material that I’ve been engaging with.

It’s been a fascinating journey getting to this point, and I’m looking forward to sharing my experiences of researching the history of TV in Norfolk with those who were present at the time and anyone with an interest in local, social history. After a gap of nearly 60 years, isn’t it time we really talked about TV in Norfolk?