Sunday, 2 November 2014

Television Kingdoms: Anglia, museum of the airwaves

I'm going on a virtual journey through the UK, having always viewed the country divided into television regions. Sod country boundaries and accents, my head says this rainy island in north west Europe is made up of bizarre and effectively-defunct television stations from the past.

A brief introduction to regional television

The first half of the word 'television' is ancient Greek for 'far-away', and at times it seems like TV does appear to be from a totally different world. If you're over 30 and experienced television in Britain when growing up, then you'll be familiar with the patchwork quilt that was the ITV regional system.

Basically, the fourteen far-flung companies who made the shows on the third button, all had a piece of the United Kingdom (and Channel Islands) all to themselves. Of immediate recognition to anyone with a vague passing interest in telly would be big hitters like Manchester's Granada; Leeds's Yorkshire Television; London's Thames and the self-explained London Weekend Television. Oh, and Birmingham's ATV which meta-morphed into Central in the 1980s.

These were the 'Big Five' who delivered the most familiar programmes seen on ITV. Coronation Street; Emmerdale Farm; World In Action; This Is Your Life; The Muppet Show; Crossroads; Rising Damp and basically any shiny-floored stuff featuring Cilla Black or Jeremy Beadle.

The rest of the ITV stations are sadly vague memories to most people. Newcastle's Tyne Tees; Cardiff and Bristol's HTV; Southampton's Southern (and later TVS); Norwich's Anglia; and Glasgow's STV did manage to get a fair few notable productions on the nationwide network here and there, like the occasional FA Cup win from a perennial Premier League mid-table floater.

These could reasonably be termed as a 'Medium Five', which does sound like I'm damning them with faint praise. However, it'd be churlish to ignore their ITV contributions, such as Robin Of Sherwood; Worzel Gummidge; Tales Of The Unexpected; Taggart and The Tube. Actually, that last one was made for Channel Four, and the closest ITV equivalent would be Top-Of-The-Pops-wannabe The Roxy, but let's try to forget that.

If those are the B-list, then we're left with the minnows - Aberdeen's Grampian; Belfast's Ulster; Carlisle's Border; Plymouth's Westward/TSW/WestCountry and St Helier's Channel Television. Rarely spotted, and usually giving some token filler material, like religious programming, schools and children's slots.

In this post-Alan-Partridge era, the idea of regional television is something that is laughed at, just parochial telly to look down your nose upon. Much of these regional companies have been merged into one big massive PLC that uses the ITV brand, through a series of mergers that took place throughout the Nineties and Noughties. As a result, regional ITV is reduced to about 30 mins at 6pm every evening, presenting the news from a galvanised shed on some charmless industrial estate.

With digital, we have at least 70 channels available to anyone, and the quality is spread rather thinly. 'Constructed reality' is the order of the day, with members of the public making up the cast, real-world locations being the backdrop and no proper writers to be paid. It's strange to think that the North East is now represented on the airwaves by orange-hued twat party Geordie Shore.

However, I'm acutely aware that I should never come across like some finger-wagging old man, sneering at anything new. Thus I cannot say "things were better in my day" without remembering that we had to put up with a metric Bobby-Davro-load of televisual shite.

Eastern promise

I kick off this tour of the UK from my own region, Anglia. Actually, whether or not it is my region is disputed. I live in Northamptonshire, which for many decades has received a none-too-shabby signal from the midlands, so we've had the option of watching the far cooler ATV/Central offerings. Considering my county is officially and legally in the East Midlands, I've felt like it was an anomaly in the first place that we've had Anglia on our screens.

Nonetheless, with Anglia being the strongest signal here, Anglian Water serving us with dihydrogen monoxide and various other businesses with Anglia/Anglian in their name, people in my hometown have come to think of us being part of East Anglia. This is despite the somewhat less-than-flat topology and the obvious lack of rural charm of somewhere like Southwold. Oh, and Birmingham's just 60 miles away, whereas Norwich will set you back 100 miles.

Rural retreats

Still, channel 3 in most homes was dominated by that horse-riding knight statuette, which only confirmed that Anglia was a station broadcasting direct from the 19th Century. Other stations had beautiful geometric symbols, we had to endure about three hours of a heraldic crest placed on a turntable.

Anglia's station ident wasn't the only thing rendered in silver. Most of the announcers between the programmes seemed to be upwards of fifty, so tuning into Anglia was like having your television run by your grandparents.

On my only visit to Norwich, and continuing a childhood mission to visit as many television HQs as possible, we popped into Anglia Television's reception and managed to see a two-foot replica of the Knight-on-a-Horse. In neighbouring glass cabinets, there were many other smaller replicas. One of these had to be The One, surely? Well, I use that excuse to say I've literally seen a famous television ident 'in the flesh', so to speak.

One slight relief in the presentation would be during the children's programmes, where we were treated to the anarchy of B.C., a leopard-y tiger-y lion-y puppet thing, who was the focal point of 'Birthday Club'. Viewers would get their birthdays read out on air by the announcer and have a wave from the aforementioned feline jester.

I recently learnt this tradition lives on over on CBeebies, thanks to a neighbour whose sprog had their birthday cited by the announcer.

The regional news, About Anglia, where we'd learn of ward closures at Addenbrooks Hospital or of a bus strike in Lowestoft, rarely touched on our county. However, a visit by Princess Diana to Wellingborough's Victoria Centre granted me a fleeting appearance on the telly, my first time on the gogglebox.

Ambitiously filling an hour of weekday evening schedule, About Anglia would often pad the programme out with a cookery slot called Patrick's Pantry (brought on to the strains of Hot Butter's synthpop hit, Popcorn and helmed by Patrick Anthony), and an amusingly humble attempt at Points Of View, entitled Write Now! This would be hosted by Paul Barnes, who would 'spike' every viewer letter after reading it out, on some strange mustachioed bust of Victorian police officer. It made no sense to me, but seemed to be cult viewing for my mum and dad, like a newspaper letters page put on the airwaves.

Other local fare included farming programmes. Pretty much every weekend was made up of them. If you switched on your telly on a Sunday lunchtime, you'd be faced with some gruff presenter helming Farming Diary, Farming Today, Farming Now, Farming Calendar, Farming Appointment, Farming Right This Second, Farming For Farms, or whatever it was called.

Obviously, with the transmission area for Anglia being largely rural, this is what you had to expect, but it was televisual anathema for this young viewer. Still, it's one of the purest examples of public service broadcasting, and you can't imagine the ITV of today even contemplating such output.

Speaking of which, Anglia were rather famed for their in-depth weather forecasts, and they'd be presented by a chap entitled Michael Hunt, who was never to be referred to as 'Mike' for obvious reasons. Weathergirl Becky Jago superceded him, and then went onto bigger fame as a Newsround presenter and Chris Tarrant's sidekick on Capital FM, before returning back to Norfolk as newsreader on Anglia News.

Aside from B.C., one regional announcer tended to go off-script. I'm referring to the nocturnal Paul Lavers, who did all the live night-time continuity throughout most of the nineties. He of the unusual hair colour, would go into free-form monologues and worry the management. It's the closest Anglia ever got to a Phillip Schofield or Andy Crane, and yet you'd probably only see him if you set the video for WCW Wrestling or Prisoner Cell Block H.

Serving the nation

Ask anyone outside the region what Anglia was best known for, and you can expect the words "Live from Norwich, it's the quiz of the week!" to be bellowed. This phrase always introduced Sale Of The Century, which was rather confusing to me, having expected to see a show genuinely called The Quiz Of The Week. (Still, Central's Family Fortunes was also bewildering with the first words on screen being 'Big Money'.)

Much parodied and derided, this low budget game show operated a shoestring and yet gained something like twenty million viewers nationwide around the late 1970s. It's probably Anglia's biggest known hit.

At some point in 1996 I had a job interview for a satellite TV station in central London, run by a former LWT programme director. When they asked me what region I came from, they all went into the Sale Of The Century theme tune. I should have cited the much cooler and hipper Central instead.

Other things Anglia made for nationwide consumption was the wildlife-observational spectacular Survival, which went all around the world to film exotic animals. Heavily highbrow and definitely worth to make, this was a time when ITV could be expected to create output that rivalled BBC2 as well as BBC1. It simply wouldn't happen today. Anglia milked this for all its worth, putting reruns of it out in their region long after it stopped being nationally transmitted.

And then of course, there is Britain's answer to The Twilight Zone. Tales Of The Unexpected ran for many series, introduced by a frail-looking Roald Dahl and showcasing a standalone 30 minute supernatural drama each night. Nowadays just boiled down to that silhouetted-naked-dancer title sequence for talking heads clips shows and tired comedians to re-enact.

Tales Of The Unexpected did meet its ambitions, albeit not with an Anglia production crew. It was largely made in London by non-Anglia employees.

"And for our younger viewers"

One chance for smaller broadcasters to build up their IBA-mandated national programme quota was with children's television. As I've detailed so far, Anglia seemed a century out of touch, so it's actually quite surprising that it was behind one of the most well-remembered children's programmes of all time.

Knightmare hit Children's ITV in the late 1980s, combining the geeky world of role playing with a much more respectable pseudo-video-game-like concept. It nearly didn't get made at all, as the Anglia management were adamant that any programme they made had to reflect their region - something that never bothered The Big Five.

Thankfully, by pointing out Cambridgeshire's contribution to home computing (what with the Acorn Electron and Sir Clive Sinclair) and Northamptonshire being home to various games producers (such as Activision), the board of directors were convinced, and Knightmare become cult viewing for several years. Child players were chrome-keyed against backdrops of beautifully hand-pixellated art, as live actors and animations posed as risks or even assistance.

Anglia's big blue-screen studio was also used for a little-remembered Alice In Wonderland playlet, proving that chrome key would suffice in lieu of an expensive studio construction budget. Impressively, Michael Bentine, Eric Sykes, Leonard Rossiter, Bernard Cribbins and Windsor Davies were on the voice cast list.

While Anglia never played a big role in the Saturday morning slot, it did take part in the Get Fresh and Ghost Train shows, which were vehicles (yes, literally) managed by Tyne Tees in order to let all the regions outside of the Big Five and the Number-73-producing TVS to have a crack at putting their region on air.

The Anglia region of course played host to a few of these shows, and they also contributed to every show of Get Fresh series 2 and 3 with gunge-as-punishment game show slot Get Mucky (scarily reconstructed on YouTube by a muck enthusiast in his home here). This is pretty much as close as Anglia would get to making a new Tiswas.

The game involved two children playing computer game Starglider against each other. The later series used Xenon (on the Atari ST, I believe). The losing child would have their friend stood on a plinth, as host Charlotte Hindle pulled a lever to drop a load of gunk or flour over them. We're a long way from Farming Diary now.

Speaking of Tiswas, Anglia was one of the first regions to simulcast ATV's flan-stained parade of anarchy, although it did made the stupid decision to drop the show in favour of Southern's Saturday Banana in 1978, along with a few other regions. After the 1979 strike, most regions backed the return Tiswas, although Anglia decided to take on the Saturday Banana again for a second series, which no other region (apart from Southern, obviously) bothered with. By 1980, Anglia and Southern were back with Tiswas. I'm pretty sure at one point, Anglia had their normally staid announcer Michael Speke flanned by a replica Phantom as the show was introduced. I'm not imagining that, am I?

In a convoluted way, Anglia is responsible for The Prodigy's success. The Braintree-based rave anthem makers definitely lived in the region, and their official biography tells of how Charly managed to become their breakthrough hit, thanks to a decision to rerun 1970s Bash-Street-Kids-as-live-action serial The Double Deckers on Saturday mornings in 1991. Whether it was due to irony or budget constraints, I'm not sure, but both Central and Yorkshire were also shoving it out in a similar timeslot.

In the commercial break, Anglia had stuffed in a few vintage Public Information Films. This is usually a sign that a station hasn't sold enough adverts for the slot, but with this rerun evoking nostalgia amongst the student-age generation, especially a 19-year-old Liam Howlett, it could be said it was a deliberate move.

Impressed with the "Charly says..." cartoon (where the cat was allegedly voiced by Kenny Everett), Liam set the video for the following week, hoping to grab the PIF to include the lines as samples over a Joey-Beltram-riff-infused track he had been working on.

Thankfully it was repeated, and the result is of course Charly, the band's second single yet their first appearance in the mainstream. The rest is of course, history. It's odd to think that such a massive hard-edged band with over two decades of hits, owes its success to a space-filling decision made at Anglia Television.

Thatcher lot

As the eighties were about to expire, so would the regional make-up of ITV itself. The 1990 Broadcasting Act meant the once-a-decade-ish renewal of television franchise would now take bank balances into account rather than programme quality. Wiser stations, such as LWT, had broken themselves up into production facilities, transmission, studio hire and archives, ready for a worst-case scenario if they were no longer to be part of the ITV network.

Sensing the regulatory authority ITC would take into account regional commitments (just as its predecessor the IBA did back in the early 1980s) when assessing renewals, Anglia quickly carved its rather large region up into two by the middle of 1990. Hence, the service became a bit like HTV's West and Wales offerings, and here in Northants, we were served by the refreshingly titled 'Anglia West'.

This was a huge breath of fresh air, as no longer would we have to suffer boring reports about surfers in Gorleston from 120 miles away, we could instead sit through a handful of stories about Luton job cuts, Cambridge students and the occasional report from our county!

Neighbouring region Central had already sliced itself up into two east/west options by 1984, and did another act of localising segregation with the creation of the Central South region in 1989. We had Central News East as competition to Anglia West, and yet if Wellingborough would be featured, they tended to use the same video as each other.

It took years for the BBC's Look East offering to do the same. Now satellite viewers in my area have the rather bafflingly titled 'BBC One East (W)' label at the top of the EPG.

Of course, with cost-cutting going throughout the cash-strapped ITV plc in the Noughties, the two services were once again unified. The regional split does technically exist for advertising purposes, but Anglia is barely considered in the modern operation of ITV. Every feed of Anglia on HD or +1 is superceded by Meridian. So if you're in Stamford and hoping for a local report, you'll have Eastbourne on your screen instead.

While it barely bothered with Channel Four, Anglia's parent company in the 1990s (United News & Media) had the station producing early Channel 5 shows hosted by Matthew Wright.

Anglia also played host to the terrible Trisha Goddard shoutathon, which are the spiritual ancestors to Jeremy Kyle's daily humiliation platform. Yeah, er, cheers for that. Trisha herself is now a fairly big name on American network NBC.

Anglia had a go at digital satellite broadcasting, like many active and inactive ITV franchise-holders did in the 1990s. In an out-of-character move, it transmitted dance/club channel RaptureTV, which has collapsed and been revived a number of times.

So, Anglia, as parochial as an ITV region can get, firmly rooted in its region and fairly proud of it, even if it meant losing out on the national limelight on many an occasion. Never shifted by any latecomers, this eastern-counties broadcaster has remained on air since its inception in 1959.

Where are they now?

I believe Paul Barnes married announcer Helen McDermott. Paul went onto host a jazz-infused evening show on BBC Radio Norfolk, called The Late Paul Barnes. It went on to do so well that it's now shared across all BBC local radio in the BBC East region and even BBC Radio Kent.

Chef Patrick Anthony also jumped over to BBC East, having a radio gig on BBC Radio Norfolk at one point, and also became part of Ready Steady Cook.

As you probably know, Nicholas Parsons hosts Just A Minute, Roald Dahl is currently dead.

Paul Lavers plunged himself to satellite broadcasting, taking a major part in shambolic premium-phoneline-dependent Friendly TV, where he possibly libelled a couple of Hollywood stars on one occasion. This cash-strapped channel was a rare example of a satellite station fronted by visible continuity announcers, and in its death throes, it had a few hours where Paul Lavers was literally presenting and managing every caption on screen. Friendly TV evolved (or devolved) into one of those Babestation type affairs, and so now Paul treads the boards, having been an experienced thespian well before Anglia gave him a pay cheque.

As for Anglia itself? The regional archive is held by the University of East Anglia, as indeed much of their former Norwich HQ. Anglia's news output for the entire region now emanates from Cambridge.

Good knight

And that's that. Quite a lengthy blog post, as I've lived in this region all of my life, plus I had to write a few paragraphs on the whole concept of this series of posts. If you've made it this far, give yourself a pat on the back and book yourself in for a viewing marathon of Tales Of The Unexpected.

Sunday, 27 July 2014

The UK's smallest television station, ever

If you had to pitch a business in one of these five locations...
  • Greenwich, London
  • Bristol, Avon
  • Swindon, Wiltshire
  • Sheffield, South Yorkshire
  • Wellingborough, Northamptonshire'd probably go for one of the first four, as the chances are, you'll have heard of those places. Wellingborough is a small market town in the east midlands which isn't exactly on anyone's radar. Yet, unbelievably, it achieved parity with those much more famous locations back in the early 1970s due to a television experiment.

Yesterday, I blogged about the current batch of 'local TV' channels that have arrived in various bits of the country on Freeview's channel 8 slot. Yet I completely missed the opportunity to talk about my hometown's role in the first ever local TV schemes rolled out in Britain.

In the 1970s, when television was heavily regulated, Christopher Chataway, the Conservative Minister of Posts and Telecommunications was lobbied so that localised television could become a reality. This meant officially allowing broadcasts from outside the established BBC and ITV systems. It wasn't a 'broadcast' in the strictest sense, in that these stations would have to be run via cable.

These days, when we think of cable television, Virgin Media is the blanket brand name that's cornered that market. It seems odd to think there was ever a need for cable television in the 1970s, but for some residents, television aerials gave them sub-standard reception and in some cases, they weren't even allowed to have such things mounted on their roof.

For these reasons, cable television has actually been fairly well established since the 1950s, relaying the established TV channels to viewers, and usually throwing in radio and a few additional ITV regions as a bonus. In fact, British company Rediffusion was launched in 1928 to 'rebroadcast' radio and early television feeds. Subsequently they would go onto to help form ITV by establishing their first London weekday franchise in 1955.

Growing up in Wellingborough in the 1980s, I had known of a few households that had taken cable TV, which brought them the pre-Sky delights of The Children's Channel and SelecTV, alongside the usual four channel line-up. I never got to see this first hand myself, but rumour had it that you could also have ITV's midlands and London offerings (Central, Thames/LWT) in addition to the 'default' Anglia region. I was in a cash-strapped household and just being able to pick up Central was a welcome bonus.

By the early 1990s, the town's cable supplier offering this (Mobile Radio), had changed to selling a diet of Sky One, Sky News and Eurosport alongside the four terrestrial channels, as long as you paid £5 a month.

Getting back to the main topic, the Conservative government had granted licenses for five local community stations in the early 1970s, planned to run until 1976. The first to launch was Greenwich Cablevision in July 1972, run by the south London district's cable business with an eye on increasing cable subscriptions in the area. This was already a captive audience due to a hill blocking off conventional broadcasts from the Crystal Palace transmitter. Half the finances for this were put up by Canadian businesses.

Second to launch was the 'Bristol Channel', on 17 May 1973. It was run by the city's cable supplier, Rediffusion, who at that point was a 49% stakeholder in Thames Television.

Sheffield Cablevision saw the light of day in August that year, backed by British Relay Wireless, swiftly followed by Swindon Viewpoint the following month, which was financed by EMI for their Radio Rentals cable network they had established in Wiltshire's pseudo-city.

What strikes me about Wellingborough's foray into this early broadcasting experiment is that the town certainly doesn't strike you as a media-savvy environment. It's an average-sized market town, dwarfed by at least two or three other places in the county. It would be understandable if its bigger brother, Northampton, had gone in for this venture, or at least Corby or Kettering. I don't mean to bash my hometown, but it's a fairly underwhelming place, like most middling towns across the east midlands. It's on the same level as Loughborough, Worksop, Rugby or Chesterfield.

Bear in mind that even the well-established ITV system had seen some desperate situations. Wales-based broadcaster WWN hit financial troubles just over a year into their contract, despite having been given a lot of programmes by Granada and ATV for free. WWN had to be purchased outright by neighbouring region TWW.

Also, Border Television coasted along with bankruptcy almost staring them in the face during the 1980s. It's not surprising when you look at their broadcast area, the sparsely-populated regions of Cumbria, Dumfries and Galloway, The Isle Of Man and various other parts of the England/Scotland divide.

In any case, 24 March 1974 is when Wellingborough Cablevision got piped into various homes across the town and was made available by Mobile Radio in Midland Road, who were also purveyors of televisions, radios, hi-fi systems and various white goods.

Mobile Radio was based here, in what is now a solicitor's office.
While the other stations were backed by big pockets, and in some cases having help from established players in broadcasting, Wellingborough Cablevision was owned by the curiously-named Wellingborough Traders Television Relay. In other words, local businesses.

At this point, I should concede that I've never seen a single frame of this station, due to not having been born at the time of its launch, and only being about six months old when it came off air. However, I'm just so intrigued at my humble hometown having its own television station, no matter how ill-fated it could have been, that I just had to write this article. Oh, and Wikipedia is pretty sparse on the subject.

The station was black-and-white only, and the 'studio' was situated in what is now Silk nightclub, just a few hundred yards up from Mobile Radio's HQ. It's believed the cable network was VHF-only, so up-converters were provided to subscribers so signals could be seen on the newer UHF televisions.

Silk nightclub. Believed to be one-time home of the UK's tiniest television station. Last time I was in here, I met the Happy Monday's Bez, smashed off his tits.
From online reading about some older residents' experiences, it's not quite clear exactly what was broadcast on this fledgling station, but it gained the affectionate nickname 'WellyTelly'. A friend talks of how he appeared live on the station, singing as part of a children's choir. The station had visited schools in the area, presumably using the idea that local newspapers have, attracting the eyeballs of parents who want to see their little cherubs gain a bit of fame.

I'm told the studio "backed onto Glenbank" (the dead-end terraced road behind Silk), which means this slightly unglamorous sight would have greeted visitors. Not exactly Shepherd's Bush or the ITV Tower.
Warwick Primary School in the town's Kingsway area had their 1974 Christmas concert televised to cable viewers, and Weavers School (based close to the Queensway estate) were keen to show off their new gym.

Local woman Teresa Webb was a presenter, and interviewed a few star names, such as veteran crooner Frankie Vaughan and Canadian singer/actor Edmund Hockridge. I can't be certain, but with no theatre in the town at that time, it's possible these people would have been performing at The Fir Tree nightclub, which had been a magnet for a fair few household names.

The set-up of the station didn't please everyone. "We were promised a peppercorn rent for allowing the cable on our house," said local resident Edward Chambers. "We never got a penny."

Broadcasting to an area an eighth of the size of Leicester was never going to be a long-lasting situation. Despite the five cable community experiments being allowed to continue beyond the initial 1976 expiry date, Wellingborough CableVision closed on 24 March 1975, exactly a year after it had launched. It was the second to do so, with the Bristol Channel having beamed its last output ten days earlier. Sheffield and Greenwich stations would also turn into a white dot the following year.

The present day Mobile Radio shop, which will be closing next month.
Swindon Viewpoint managed to survive for many years. In 1980, EMI pulled the plug on funding and staffing, but left the equipment with the station after local protests. This channel continued to run on and off throughout the 1980s and up until the mid 1990s. Nowadays it runs online.

What of Wellingborough's legacy though? Absolutely no trace of recordings online, not even an idea of the schedules. Yet actual physical traces are still around, according to local resident Martin Percy...

"If you know what you are looking for around Wellingborough, you can still see cables running along the walls of houses, just below the gutters, and a few booster amplifiers for the old 'piped TV' system. There are even traces of the old Broadcast Relay radio service, installed in the 30s, which relayed one or two radio stations around the older parts of town, recipients having a speaker, and a selector switch....I can remember a great aunt and uncle in Albert Road listening to The Archers on the Home Service, later BBC Radio 4, on theirs, up until about 1970."

Plus, it seems one engineer from those days has gone on to greater things by taking up a role at Virgin Media's R&D department.

I'm quite keen to discover more about this short-lived broadcasting experiment. Little is written about Wellingborough's efforts, somewhat understandably, so I'll be making enquiries. I'll have to be quick. Mobile Radio itself closes down in August.

The tale of local media doesn't end for me with Wellingborough CableVision. There was another local cable service, on a county-wide level, which launched in the 1990s, but that's a subject for a later blog...

Saturday, 26 July 2014

When television on your doorstep is just wrong

The first eight years of my life were spent in the era of three channel TV, with BBC 1 offering shiny-floored glitz-and-glamour, BBC 2 seemingly offering a non-stop child-unfriendly diet of highbrow documentaries and ITV being the plethora of the great, the good, the awful and the downright odd.

For most of its life, ITV was a patchwork quilt of stations dotted up and down the country, each of them seemingly having their own speciality. Fast-forward to the present day and modern ITV is pretty much styled on those women's magazines you see at the supermarket checkout, with lurid headlines announcing how an evil rapist uncle ripped someone's life apart, why one woman's husband likes bathing in yak's urine and look, Kim Kardashian has cellulite on her thighs, doesn't that make you feel better?

It's easy to mock ITV, but in the digital era, they now sit alongside tens of other channels fighting for your eyeballs. You can't exactly blame them for seeking the lowest common denominator, although there has been some pretty unforgiveable cases of not just scraping the barrel, but removing the barrel and digging up what's beneath it. It's baffling as to why, in the 21st century, we have the council-estate bear-baiting contest that is The Jeremy Kyle Show; why the mentally ill are invited on to be mocked on The X Factor and how can anyone laugh at the catchphrase farm emanating from that post-millennial Bobby Davro, Keith Lemon?

One thing I'm conscious of, is that as I approach middle age, I don't want to turn into the finger-wagging dullard who sneers at the younger generations, spewing out sentences that begin "Back in my day...". It's become quite a challenge, as the mere existence of Nicki Minaj and Ed Sheeran has made me envy the deaf.

Back in my d... Um, when I was growing up, TV was a great companion for me. My first memories were of getting up really early on a Saturday morning and sitting through the test cards and start-up sequences, having our colour television all to myself.

The BBC would usually be the first to open its doors, giving us Battle Of The Planets followed by their main attraction. Swap Shop would launch a full hour ahead of Tiswas, yet the Noel-Edmonds-helmed compendium of phone-in chat and proto-Freecycle trading was such dreadful tedium that I nearly always opted for ITV despite the first sightings of Chris Tarrant being an eon away.

Now, Tiswas was one of the many gems that was generated by the ITV system of old. Fifteen different companies covered the nation, along with the Channel Islands, each with a region to themselves, yet expected to pitch in to the 'network' as a whole. You didn't always get what your regional neighbours were watching. It paid to keep an eye on the TV Times magazine...

This was multi-channel before the term was even coined. And living in Northamptonshire meant that although Anglia was our main provider of ITV, we could also opt for a version of ITV from the midlands, albeit on a slightly weaker signal. Most folk in Wellingborough stuck with Anglia for the solid picture quality, although the midlands broadcasts were very much watchable, with just the merest hint of haze.

The offerings from the midlands company (ATV until 1982, then Central onwards) were a lot sharper than Anglia. Switch on Central News, and you'd hear of a nightclub stabbing in Leicester. Go for Anglia, and it's a cat stuck up a tree in Cambridge.

It was more than just news. Everyone's heard of the output made by ATV and Central, which was eye-catching and beautifully anarchic. From the aforementioned Tiswas, over to Revolver; The Muppet Show; Spitting Image; Hardwicke House; Auf Wiedersehen, Pet and Sapphire And Steel, the Birmingham-based guys ran riot over the schedules. Of course, there was the more family-friendly stuff which also hit the ratings, like The Upper Hand; New Faces (a watchable Britain's Got Talent); Bullseye and Celebrity Squares.

What's Anglia notable for? Survival; Sale Of The Century and Tales Of The Unexpected. The first of those is undoubtedly a remarkable venture in television broadcasting, but for my tastes, Survival is in the box marked 'Worthy but dull'. Long after they had made a few runs on the network, Anglia would fill a few slots in their own region with scratchy repeats of the exotic-animal-spotting documentary.

It's not too difficult to see that the ITV network of old was dominated by a few big players, with the far-flung less-populated regions barely getting a look-in. There certainly was a 'Big Five'. Being based in London, Birmingham, Manchester and Leeds meant that Thames, LWT, ATV/Central, Granada and Yorkshire could dominate the prime-time schedules with their own big-name productions. The others in the system were forever to be 625-lined Cinderellas, putting in their bit with children's telly and daytime efforts, with only the odd sniff at a post-7pm networked slot.

Central had a very slick presentation about it, making it compelling viewing even when your favourite programmes weren't on. By contrast, Anglia resembled a museum of the air, with silver-haired presenters stuck in front of a locked camera, reading out the schedules with some curtains as the background.

As a Tiswas fan, it's hard to forgive Anglia for dropping the show and taking Southern's Saturday Banana not once, but twice. I remember enduring this tame Saturday morning offering and wishing for Tiswas to return to our screens. I didn't quite grasp how to tune into ATV, where I'd have found Chris Tarrant and the Phantom Flan Flinger all present and correct.

Of course, later on as I discovered all about the different regions, I used it to my advantage. Popping over to my grandfather's house in Surrey was a great opportunity to watch The Smurfs on LWT. It also made me wonder what the hell Fangface was, having glanced an eye at Yorkshire's 'regional variations'. It hit Central, and my curiousity turned to disappointment. Ditto Sport Billy.

These days, none of this matters, as both regions are 99% identical, with only the 6pm regional news and a few sub-five-minute bulletins being the only difference. Every ITV offering from Berwick-upon-Tweed down to Penzance is pretty much the same. When Margaret Thatcher allowed the stations to take over each other from the 1990s onwards, ITV went from being weird and wonderful to being sterile and safe.

So we had Culture Secretary Jeremy Hunt, trying to undo the damage by allowing Freeview's channel 8 slot to be used by local TV stations. A few of these have launched, with Norwich's Mustard TV and Grimsby's Estuary TV taking the 'local happenings' approach. It's sensible stuff, not unlike the regional TV of old, yet on a lower budget. Despite the smaller audiences and narrow finances, both these stations do well with smart graphics and unrelenting enthusiasm. However, it's London Live that grabs the headlines, and all for the wrong reasons.

Being a station owned by the Evening Standard and Independent Newspapers, it's keen to make a big splash and to be known by every Londoner. While there is fresh local content in abundance, the directors decided to fill up a lot of the schedule with programmes acquired from the BBC, ITV and Channel Four. So you get Smack The Pony; Peep Show; Bugs and London's Burning, with the home-grown live stuff emanating from a small studio in the HQ of the newspaper-producing parent company.

Thanks to the satellite broadcasts, I'm able to watch the channel, despite being 70 miles away from the capital. It's not a pleasant experience. Obviously, being so far out of its catchment area, it's not really for me anyway, but I really do think that if I was living in London, I'd not give this channel a second glance.

The biggest mistake the channel has made is to aim itself purely at 18-25 year olds. To look at the presenters and studio is like looking into the window of Toni & Guy. It's running an MTV ethos and unsurprisingly, the original content has gained viewing figures as low as zero. Okay, so I'm citing some pessimistic ratings, but the average audience for their early evening show is around 4,000. When your broadcast area has at least a population of 10 million, that's a stunning failure.

The commissioning choices have reflected the desire to be a London-only BBC Three clone. On opening night, Londoners were subjected to some 'street footballers' and a Jamie-Oliver-wannabe chef who goes out checking 'street food'. It's all urban chic, segued with rapid camera whips and coming across like the station Nathan Barley and his media chums always wanted to make.

It should come as no surprise that the station is facing failure. The regional ITV programmes of old were watched by your mum and dad, and that's what London Live should have aimed for. There's no point targeting the current generation of youth, as local television is by far one of the naffest things from their perspective. It's dull, it's televisual Horlicks, it's 100% Alan Partridge. I very much doubt teenagers and twenty-somethings give two shits about what's on Freeview channel 8. They're off out clubbing and meeting their mates. At that age, so was I.

To grab the eyes of the young, you'd have to be like E4 or ITV2, be bold with expensive imports like Breaking Bad and The Walking Dead. And that's obviously not what the local TV initiative was meant for.

There's no harm in going for the middle-aged viewer sitting at home trying to wind down after a day's work. Outside the M25, that's what the new local stations are doing. I'm baffled as to why channel proprietors Evgeny and Alexander Lebedev decided Hoxtonite hipsters would ever switch on to London Live.

Wednesday, 18 June 2014

Lee James Turnock doesn't like me very much

Underground cartoonist Lee James Turnock hasn't taken to some of my criticism of him.

He says he will no longer publish my comments where I link to some things "written several years ago".

That's a shame. For a man who keeps whining on about how he's been "bullied off" a comedy forum, I thought it would be great to show the other side him, just for the sake of balance.

So, he won't be endorsing my posting of this report of him in The Sunday Times two years ago...

Another prolific DSMO contributor is Lee James Turnock, 38, from Northampton, who was banned from the forum last year but had previously been the third most prolific commentator, using the pseudonym Jimmy Vespa. In one comment "Vespa" proposed reopening a Nazi concentration camp for celebrities to allow the singers Christina Aguilera, Geri Halliwell and Lily Allen to be beaten "with bike chains, bricks, hammers and mallets".

Turnock last week insisted that his "trolling days are over", adding: "Sometimes when you are in an internet forum with like-minded people it is easy to fall into the mindset that this is normal and you are not hurting anyone.

"I thought that it was getting too extreme by the end. The comments were not meant to be taken seriously and if I have hurt anyone I want to apologise."

Monday, 4 July 2011

The best psychology lesson I've ever had

Ever had someone trying to wind you up? There's way of dealing with it. Most of you already know how to correctly react. I only learnt in my early 20s. I share this story, as I still come across folk who fly off the handle whenever they're goaded.

Back in the era of grunge, indie and Britpop™ when I frequented a local nightclub for its alternative nights, I pretty much resembled Neil from The Young Ones. This wasn't an issue for the crowd I hung around with, who were pretty much mandated to wear Kurt Cobain tribute shirts and mosh/dance/rave about to the sounds of Rage Against The Machine/Kinks/Chemical Brothers.

You could paint your face fluorescent green and wander in there wearing a fishnet smock, just as long as you weren't a 'townie'. Townies, a tracksuit-clad fag-end-sucking bumfluff-moustache-sporting social group, were pretty much our social nemeses. I suppose these days, the terminology used for such folk would be "chavs", a term I'm not proud to cite here, as it tends to make people (wrongly) think I'm anti-working class. But, hey, we hated townies and townies hated us.

Goodness knows what label we actually were. We didn't quite have a label as such, and have never really craved such a thing. In any case, we were a diaspora of eclectic social circles. Some of us were fairly gothic/industrial, others were hardcore metallers. The BritPop crew - who would happily wave their forearms with their elbow seemingly attached their hips when dancing to Shed Seven or Longpigs - were fairly adept at doing their own thing, to the point where they formed their own club nights at other venues. (At its peak, they had separate themed nights that could cater for genres such as film/TV themes and retro-hammond-organ funk.)

Oh, and I must give an honourable mention to a contingent of villagers would always bop around to rap-metal, with dreadlocks proudly on display. Bless you, Irchy Boys.

With cheap beer and a playlist that ranged from Megadeth to Elastica, the Alternative Night on Wednesdays at the long-gone Network in Wellingborough town centre, attracted all sorts. I particularly remember on my first night there, a savage looking bullet-belted metaller with the phrase 'I EAT CHRISTIANS FOR BREAKFAST' scrawled in Tipp-Ex over a ripped black t-shirt.

In the eyes of the townies, we were "grebos", "grungers" or "moshers". All of us. Even the quirky suited-to-the-nines Mod chap who would would calmly trot along to the Small Faces.

Yes, some of us, in our Nirvana smiley face t-shirts, German Army jackets, striped tights and Doc Martens, did conform to the stereotype.

We viewed the townies as trouble-makers. This is actually a fairly irrational condemnation, as I've been friends with such people, and really have no justification for smearing them all like that, although we did use the term specifically for the ones who did go out of their way to cause a bit of aggravation.

So, with the pubs shutting at half eleven and low price beer on offer, Network would occasionally attract the type of people who certainly didn't want to come along for Ned's Atomic Dustbin or Kingmaker. (Can't say I'd blame them for the latter.)

I spent much of the 1990s walking round with long hair, and came into two types of grief. Trying to dry it on a winter's morning (I remember it froze one day when walking to work) and of course, townies. I was a "fucking hippy", "poof", "headbanger" and sometimes all three, despite the presence of a Prodigy t-shirt, and, on the odd occasion, a girl who fell for my charms.

Looking like that, you had to develop a thick skin, and also to beware of provocation. On a number of occasions, a dozen or so future-Jeremy-Kyle-Show-loyalty-card-holders would pop in, get beered up, and try and start fights with the clientele. In particular, Karl was a target of their jibes. He was a tall thin guy who would regularly be plastered in eyeliner of all colours, with an outrageous flamboyant hairstyle that leave your retinas working overtime.

One 'grebo-bating' incident sticks out in my mind for the way it was dealt with. Gary, a guy who had recently been hanging out with us, had fairly long blonde hair, and was sitting in a quiet corner of the club. To be fair, Gary wasn't exactly a textbook definition of a Kerrang reader. Other than his long locks, nothing distinguished him from being particularly "alternative". In fact, he had confided in me that he loved R&B. Most of the time he was after a rather sexy black-bobbed girl who would writhe around to Nine Inch Nails and Sheep On Drugs, decked out in the kind of plastic skirts you'd see in sex shops. He feigned an interest in industrial music whenever he was chatting to her, and didn't really succeed.

Back to the story and three knuckle-dragging reprobates, all decked out in JJB Sports' finest, were trying to goad him. I remember Gary just calmly rolling up a cigarette while these yobs mocked his hair, loudly vocalising their false assumptions on his sexuality.

Gary just looked up slowly and... blew them a kiss, smiling as he did so.

All hell broke loose, with the goader-in-chief picking up an ashtray hurling it at Gary, which was the cue for nightclub security to rugby tackle them to the ground and escort them out of the premises, as we all pointed and laughed.

I'm no stranger to being insulted, and with the rise of social media, there's all kind of opportunities to do such things to me. What Gary did there, was a valuble lesson to me, as I felt, that had I been in his position, I'd have probably ended up having a war of words, or more likely, cowering away in the corner hoping they'd go away.

There's plenty of examples in my past where I've reacted badly to someone provoking me. I cringe at these memories.

Looking back on what Gary did was awesome. Not getting angry at the situation - which is what the instigators wanted. Bonus points for handing out a reaction they weren't expecting, and the star prize for getting them dropped in the shit.

There will always be comments designed to make me spew out anger, and that's exactly what the author intends. Question the motives of anyone aiming something unpleasant at you, otherwise you'll end up swallowing their bait. They'll be chomping on the popcorn as you dance to their tune.

So, with Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and whatever flavour-of-the-month website comes next, look out for the Annoyance Seed planted in front of you. I know this is screamingly obviously to the bulk of my friends, but you'd be surprised at the sheer gullibility of people out there who let themselves get wound up by digital goading.

Wednesday, 15 December 2010

My MP3 complaint to Tesco Entertainment

Dear Technology People Still Stuck In The 1990s,

I've shopped at to get an MP3 for the first time. It's an experience I'd compare to touching an electric fence - you're curious but you'd never try it again.

What I have seen tonight has been astonishingly shocking. I've bought MP3s from many websites, and always found the process quite easy. This evening my jaw dropped lower than the dignity of an ITV2 reality television star, because your download process has to be the most backward and needlessly complex system I've seen. I've worked in computing for 20 years, I've issued guidelines on usability and have designed ecommerce systems from the groun up, and frankly, whoever designed your diabolical user-torturing system shouldn't be trusted with an abacus.

I understand the need to record an email address, password, credit card details and billing address. I don't understand why you enforce us to install a separate program to download the MP3s. One that insists on us using Windows, so it's a good job I wasn't using my iMac or a Linux partition at the time. It also wants Microsoft's laughably-bad Silverlight platform on our PCs, along with .NET framework 3.5. What's wrong with simply delivering the MP3 through my web browser? That's what it is made for, and other MP3 vendors do exactly that.

The amount of mouse-clicks I've had to do to get my download would instigate RSI in a caffeine-swilling woodpecker. The time taken to obtain this 8.57 MB file - despite being on a ~5Mbps broadband connection - is needlessly long thanks to your ridiculous end-user software demands. Quite frankly, I reckon I'd have done a direct download of the file off a 33.6kps dial-up modem in half the time.

Is there any need for a company in the 21st Century to act with such disrespect for tech-savvy customers? I battled my way through this because I'm fairly proficient with computers, but I fear the average customer would simply give up. You're not exactly going to keep Steve Jobs awake at night with your clumsy cumbersome MP3 store.

I have seen another Internet service doggedly insist on its users having separate programs and a razor-thin choice of operating systems. It was AOL, and that was in 1996. These days they exist as a punchline to a joke.

Sort yourselves out.

Peter Thomas.

Tuesday, 18 May 2010

50 Things More Gothic And Respectable Than Twilight

  1. Rentaghost
  2. A child shining a torch upwards onto their face
  3. Derek Acorah
  4. The Trap Door
  5. Long-forgotten ITV Saturday morning show Ghost Train
  6. An actual ghost train
  7. A lolly stick with "What do ghosts eat for dinner? Spookhetti!" printed on it.
  8. A werewolf glove from a joke shop
  9. The Groovy Ghoulies
  10. Shakespear's Sister
  11. A pair of novelty plastic Halloween fangs from ASDA, 9p
  12. The Amityville Horror and the seven diabolical sequels that followed
  13. The Demon Headmaster
  14. Babylon Zoo
  15. Count Duckula
  16. Secretly keeping your hand hidden behind a door or desk and then making it 'strangle' you as if it's someone else's hand
  17. The Monster Mash
  18. Covering yourself in toilet roll as a cheap mummy costume for Halloween
  19. A rubber bat on a piece of elastic
  20. The Sarah-Jane Adventures
  21. In comic strips, where the main character has an angel and an devil version of himself that give good/evil advice
  22. Plan 9 From Outer Space
  23. That ancient trick where you make your thumb appear detached from your hand
  24. The skeleton baddies in arcade game Golden Axe
  25. Ghostbusters 2
  26. In The Night Garden
  27. The joke "Why didn't the skeleton attend the ball? Because he had nobody to go with"
  28. Evil Michael Knight
  29. Cyndi Lauper
  30. The flaming skulls in Sega arcade game Wonder Boy
  31. Keith Harris & Orville's Messy Monsters game
  32. Any October 31st editions of Whizzer and Chips
  33. Alan Partridge's 'abstract zombie'
  34. The Munsters
  35. Meat Loaf
  36. Caspar the Friendly Ghost
  37. That one from Bananarama dressed as a devil in their video for Venus
  38. The drama segment 'Dark Towers' from BBC Schools programme Look & Read
  39. Dr and the Medics
  40. Shiver and Shake comic
  41. Carry On Screaming
  42. Spray-on cobwebs
  43. Any bored 6 year old girl dressed as a witch for a carnival
  44. TNA wrestler Daffney
  45. Grotbags the witch from Emu's World
  46. Red-and-black striped tights
  47. A badly-rendered drawing of an Iron Maiden album cover on a school exercise book, made by that greasy-haired kid who smells of marzipan
  48. Those novelty eyes-on-springs glasses
  49. Blinky, Pinky, Inky and Clyde
  50. Abbott & Costello meet Frankenstein