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.