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
...you'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...

1 comment:

Brpwrdnsfrnzy said...

I'm sure we had a rather odd selector type switch in the living room when we moved into Rock Street. Annoyingly we've had the room replastered and it must have been thrown out. Bah. However, this explains (probably) what it was.

Interesting stuff. :-)