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Friday, 12 November 2010

At the setting of the TV - Part 2

‘Listen with Mother’ was a superb programme that provided a mix of songs, nursery rhymes and stories in which the pictures, provided by your own imagination, were always far superior to those in the later television equivalent.  Quite what a modern child would make of those very correct accents and pronunciation, I would hate to guess.  A personal favourite was the nursery rhyme about the various horse-riding styles of certain noblemen and countrymen (you either know it or you don’t and if you’re my age, you probably do) which was always great fun but had very little contemporary relevance.  I’ve tried singing it to various nephews and nieces in recent years (which is a form of cruel and unusual punishment according to the U.N.) and they still find it hilarious, even though the subject matter must be even more obscure to them than it was to me all those years ago.

I can’t remember when we first had a television but it must have been in the late 1950s and it was definitely second-hand.  It was, of course, black and white and boasted as many as two channels to choose from but the only thing I really remember about the television, is it going wrong.  It was exceedingly temperamental and took great offence at the buses that stopped at the Bus Stop (unsurprisingly) outside our house.  Each ring of the conductor’s bell sent the picture into spasm and sent out a noise that could waken the dead.  In its later years it became eccentric and started to demand sacrifices from its subjects in order to work at all.  At first this was a hard-backed book strategically placed on a particular spot on top of the set (I don’t know how we discovered this, we just did), then two, then three…before it finally joined the great technological scrap-heap in the sky, it demanded no less than eight hard-backed books before it would even consider warming up (remember when things had to warm up before they functioned?  There is no need to be like that, madam.)

I have this theory, for what its worth, that there is a very fine line between sophisticated technology and magic.  This is particularly so in the early days of any technology when all of the elements function but (in Eric Morecambe’s immortal phrase) not necessarily in the right order.  With an established technology you can reasonably expect an instant response to commands, with the actual work going on unobtrusively in the background. Making anything happen with new technology is essentially an act of faith and the internal crashing; banging and frequent failures are painful evidence of the work in progress.  This is true of computers today (well, mine anyway) and was definitely true of televisions then.  As a result, we technologically challenged individuals (or ordinary mortals if you prefer) are reduced to superstition to make these ‘magical’ devices do what we want them to do, hence the books on top of the television set.

A classic illustration of this early technology/magic theory is my first experience of stereophonic sound.  My youngest uncle had a passion for traditional jazz, particularly during the brief phase when it was, to all intents and purposes, the pop music of the day.  This featured in ‘Saturday Club’ presented on the Light Programme each Saturday morning by Brian Matthew (he’s still there, on Radio 2 now of course).  At some point, the BBC conducted a series of experiments in broadcasting stereophonic sound which took place on Saturday mornings.  Now my memory tells me that this involved ‘Saturday Club’ because I feel sure I remember the wonderful sound of traditional jazz appearing in the middle of my grandmother’s living room as if the artists were actually there.  The ‘magic’ element of all this was that this amazing sound was created by playing both the wireless and the television at the same time, with one channel of sound coming out of each.  Of course, this only worked if both pieces of equipment were strategically placed in the room and my uncle would spend ages carefully positioning each for maximum effect whilst I sat and waited with eager anticipation.

I started to write this particular memory with some trepidation because, although I was sure that I recalled it accurately, I had never met anyone else who had experienced it.  Then, through the medium of the internet, I was delighted to find the following “1958 - First investigations into stereophonic broadcasts (Crosby system).  Experimental broadcasts begin using television sound transmitters for the right hand channel and the Third Programme transmitters for the left hand channel” (  Accessed 27.04.06).  So it really did happen, but somehow I doubt that the Third Programme played traditional jazz.  I have always been reluctant to tell anyone about this, wary of them calling for the men in white coats with the specially tailored jackets, but now I feel vindicated (they can’t touch you for it) so, if you have any memories of this incredible experiment, I would love to hear from you.

At some point, if you’re really unlucky, I will tell you about my encounters with coin-operated colour televisions, eccentrically designed cassette recorders and Dansette record players with enough small change piled on the armature to buy a fish supper. But I really must go now, I have to record a programme on the DVD recorder and I think a couple of carefully positioned volumes of the Encyclopaedia Britannica and a brief prayer ought to do the trick.  Just try not to say anything to annoy it, whatever you do.