Did Anglians Dream of Electric Screens?

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

Tag: anglia television

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!