Did Anglians Dream of Electric Screens?

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

Category: Institution

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.

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.