Did Anglians Dream of Electric Screens?

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

Tag: technology

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.

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’.