625 Comes North 

1 September 2001 tbs.pm/1651

I recall that for both my schoolmates and me – indeed for most children of the sixties – it was “pestering Dad” that brought new services into the home.

So it was for us when BBC-2 first reached the north. Looking back at the post war development of television now, it is easy to think that after the start of Independent Television in 1955 and the breaking of the BBC monopoly that came with it, the next big event was the coming of colour in the late sixties.

This conveniently misses out what the television trade was getting excited about in the early sixties – the coming of 625-line transmission. Rather in the way that digital TV is promoted today, as an enhancement to picture quality as well as channel choice, the TV trade in 1964 went crazy about the new dual standard sets which would “revolutionise your viewing”.

To me as a child of 12, the ‘bill of fare’ that the new third channel was to offer, was quite a secondary matter to the promotion of the new sets (or the addition of a UHF capability to existing dual standard tubes, which had been on sale since about 1960). Our set, a 1961 Bush, came ready equipped with the extra line capability, requiring the friendly TV man only to fit a new tuner, which worked side by side with the existing VHF one. A switch on the side of the set selected which tuner was in use. I had spent years flicking it when no tuner was fitted, and no adult in the room!

Then there was the matter of the aerial. In our house, I think my father got the new one to shut me up, rather than to see the new programmes. A man turned up with a ladder, and we all went out into the garden to watch him precariously plant the new array on the chimney, my mother indomitably serving sandwiches on the grass!

Like so many children in the era of the space race, it was the gadgetry aspect that appealed – I don’t suppose for a moment that I considered the new programmes on offer – though we did know what they were.

For some time, the BBC had clung to the unpopular policy of trailing programmes on BBC-1 that could be seen “now on BBC-2”. For many viewers this was maddening in the extreme, as BBC-2 was not widely available. It had opened in the London area only, spreading within the first year to the Midlands. Those of us in the northwest area, served by the Winter Hill transmitter, had had to wait over eighteen months before BBC-2 reached us.

My father said that the policy was to have new viewers “gagging for the new service”, but I felt it was a case of promotions almost amounting to cruelty! When reviews of BBC-2 shows spread to Radio Times, “Letters to the Editor” expressed the anger of the disenfranchised.

The BBC had to spin money for the new transmitters from its existing budgets, and no supplementary licence fee was allowed for the new channel. Unlike the special colour licence, introduced four years after BBC-2 started, the early years of BBC-2 were cash limited, as was evidenced by the evening start of 7.30 for weekday programming.

The early black and white years of BBC 2 are often forgotten now, with some weak history books even wrongly suggesting that the channel was launched in colour. Those first three years in black and white are remarkable in retrospect for the way the channel was promoted. 625-lines was the gimmick, an evident improvement (they said) on the customary 405. The slow spread of the channel across the country however showed that the public sector was (again) under financial pressure, and the growth in viewing figures was painfully slow. This was probably a relief to ITV, who felt BBC-2 was no competition.

It was even suggested that a picture by UHF had more “tone and contrast”. This was a particular fraud, as on our set it had markedly less! It seems to have been forgotten these days that the promotional effort at the time was as much about 625-lines and UHF, as it was about a specific new channel.

My parents became avid viewers of BBC-2 because of the literary and cultural weight of the early programming. I think that the original reputation for being the “Third Programme” of the television industry did the set sales no favours, and it was only with the coming of (limited) colour in 1967 that the channel began to gain the attention it deserved.

As a child, I found the original programmes contained little I really understood, but the novelty of having a third choice on the set was amazing. Along with our illicit watching of an adjacent ITV region, we had choice undreamt of. As my mother had said, “What will Kif push us into next?”.

A Transdiffusion Presentation

Report an error


Kif Bowden-Smith Contact More by me


# #

You Say

1 response to this article

Graham Ashley 19 December 2013 at 4:18 pm

The arrival of U.H.F. Transmissions in the mid 1960’s along with colour tv on BBC2 only, was a headache for lots of television engineers because the signal was not always that good and the valve system didn’t always produce what was required. Ah the halcyon days of the pc86 and pc88 tuner unit valves. THORN EMI definitely had one over all other manufacturers by never having a valve driven colour tv set, the good old Thorn2000 series. I can’t believe how far television has come since I started my apprenticeship. From starting repairing televisions with BBB only to seeing Sterling converter boxes supplying ITV connected to others, Colour television, channel 4, satellite tv, channel5, video recorders, dvd recorders, flat screen TV’s and all the time prices plummeting encouraging the consumer to buy more and update quicker. I can’t wait for the motor industry to catch up

Your comment

Enter it below

A member of the Transdiffusion Broadcasting System
Liverpool, Sunday 19 May 2024