Did Anglians Dream of Electric Screens?

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

Tag: Norwich

Keen as Mustard or Easy as PYE?

After the soft launch of an online service last year, Mustard TV opens for business on Freeview channel 8 tonight at 5.30pm. Part of the Local digital television programme services (L-DTPS) project, a scheme operated under the auspices of Ofcom (and seen by many as the baby of Jeremy Hunt when he was the Culture Secretary), Mustard will be the second of the regional stations to go live on Freeview (Estuary TV in Grimsby was the first).

Regionalism and localism are key issues within my own research, so it’s been interesting to observe the development of the L-DTPS scheme both from the perspective of a potential viewer and also in respect of how it fits into the history of television. That it was necessary for 5 separate pieces of legislation to be passed by parliament in order for Local TV to happen gives some indication of the complexity of the current regulatory media environment and the degree to which the idea was a departure from previous policy, but we shouldn’t assume that genuinely ‘local’, rather than ‘regional’, television is a completely new idea or that East Anglia hasn’t been at the vanguard of television development before.

History is full of ‘what if?’ questions, and the history of television in Britain has more than its fair share of them. One of the more interesting ones that I’ve come across in my research relates to the early history of Independent Television and the curious case of East Anglia.

The important thing to keep in mind is that the 1954 Television Act (which gave provision for Commercial Television in Britain) actually gave very little guidance for how this new service should be arranged. The overall idea was to break the BBC monopoly on broadcasting and provide competition, but competition is a very big, complex word and nobody was initially quite sure how to best implement it. Eventually of course the Independent Television Authority (ITA) settled on a scheme of regional franchises, where each franchisee could potentially contribute to the overall network, even if in reality a small number of the larger companies would dominate the airwaves.

Thus the official record shows that it was only in 1958 that applications for the East Anglia area ITA franchise were advertised for, with adverts placed in the The Times, The Telegraph, The FT, Cambridge Daily News, Eastern Daily Press, East Anglian Daily Times, Worlds Press News, Advertisers Weekly and Audio-Visual Selling on either the 10th or 12th April 1954, and courtesy of the EDP we can see what that advert looked like.

ITA Advert in the Eastern Daily Press 10th April 1954

ITA Advert in the Eastern Daily Press 10th April 1958

Simple, right?

Not quite.

The first application to the ITA to run a television station in East Anglia actually dates back to September 1954, only a few months after the Television Act had been passed into law and a full year before the first ITV broadcast on 22nd September 1955 by Associated-Rediffusion in London!

So what exactly was going on?

There are different explanations for exactly why commercial television arrived in Britain when it did (I think it’s a contentious issue that no single academic has yet been able to adequately explain), but there are definitely certain figures who played influential roles in the process. One of them is C O Stanley.

Stanley ran PYE Radio Ltd (and a number of subsidiary companies) which was, amongst other things, a manufacturer of radio and television sets. He was, by all accounts, an interesting character with a penchant for self-promotion and aggrandisement (see The Setmakers for a great overview of British television manufacturing and its important role within the East Anglia region), and it was the PYE Group of companies that were responsible for these very early, speculative applications.

PYE offered to provide low-power transmitters in areas with low population densities (Cambridge and Lowestoft are mentioned – both sites of PYE facilities), that the ITA would be able to rent (capital expenditure limits were an issue for both the BBC and the ITA during the 1950s and 1960s) and which would broadcast both ITA network programmes and programmes of local interest too. The transmitters would only serve an area of a 15 mile radius, and PYE imagined that 20% of the programming would be of direct relevance to that area, providing coverage of local sports events, news and guides to the shopping opportunities of the region.

PYE’s television service would have been a hybrid, somewhere between the Anglia Television that arrived in 1959 and the Mustard TV that will arrive on our screen this evening. Clearly PYE’s plans never came to fruition, although the ITA were not dismissive of the idea,  but it’s interesting to imagine what the media landscape in East Anglia, and across the country would have looked like if they had been given the go ahead. In some ways it is not difficult to see Mustard TV as the spiritual evolution of PYE’s 60 year old proposal!

Government policy is often based on history, attempting to not repeat the errors of the past in order to create a better future, but we need to be careful that the histories we base far-reaching decisions on are as accurate as possible. Very little of what I have presented above features in the existing written histories of television, but awareness of it might have been useful for those planning future broadcasting policy. That’s one of the reasons why it’s so important that we write a history of television in Norfolk, the information and narratives generated during that process will be important and interesting not just to the local population but to the nation too.

Want to help in the creation of a history of television in Norfolk? Do you have memories of television from the 19650s and 60s or perhaps you even worked for the PYE Group? Then why not find out how you can help with the Did Anglians Dream of Electric Screens? project by clicking here.


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.