Roll out the barrel 

1 January 2003

Part of the influence of our London-centric media is the way that the inception of new broadcasting outlets in the London area is so often reported as though it applied to the whole country. The rollouts to the rest of the UK – often surprisingly slow by today’s standards – are written out of history. This has come to count for progressively less with the dramatic increase in the number of broadcasting outlets available in recent years, and is much less notable with the launch of Channel 4 in 1982, the last terrestrial channel launch before the multichannel era. C4 was available at its inception within every ITV region and was within reach of most of the UK from its first day, including some isolated areas where BBC-2 had not arrived until the 1970s.

However, in earlier eras, the roll-out of the last new channel, BBC-2, had a great cultural significance and resonance, adding to the impression of early BBC-2 as being reflective of a mainly metropolitan culture, far more liberal than was the accepted norm in Britain in 1964. The then-unprecedented informality and “artiness” of its presentation, with art deco shapes for its idents, less authoritative voices than were heard on BBC-1 at the time, and the absence of the National Anthem, would all suggest this.

The journalist Peter Hitchens, evoking London at the time of Winston Churchill’s funeral in January 1965, comments on how the new channel was presenting a comparatively permissive outlook on art and culture, which at that time was confined to the so-called “liberal metropolitan elite”, but within a few years would have spread to the suburbs and the provinces – which is not an inaccurate description of the spread of BBC-2’s coverage area between early 1965 and, say, 1970.

Similarly, the early years of ITV – when it was a kind of socially-unifying-within-conformism equivalent to One Nation Tory politics – seem to define and express the then-new consumer society better than almost anything else. ITV’s slow arrival in the south-west of England mirrors the slow progression of that ethos from the south-east – specifically Harold Macmillan’s “new suburbia” – to the rest of the UK. If Devon in 1959 seemed stuck in the 1930s, with the complacency of both the landed gentry and the rural working classes, then the absence of Independent Television and the continuing monopoly status of the pre-Hugh Greene BBC would have reinforced that impression.

These are some of the transmitter switch-on dates for various parts of the UK, which should confirm the extent to which the arrivals of Britain’s first three channels varied from region to region.

Region BBC ITA BBC 2
London Jun 46 Sep 55 Apr 64
Central South England Nov 54 Aug 58 Jan 66
Devon & Cornwall Dec 54 Apr 61 Jul 69/ Oct 71
South Wales & West Aug 52 Jan 58 Sep 65
The Midlands Dec 49 May 56 Oct 65
North West England Oct 51 May 56 Oct 65
Western Yorkshire Oct 51 Nov 56 Jan 66
Central Scotland Mar 52 Aug 57 Jan 66

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