Heritage: Television in the 1950s changed our world

Television sets in 1951 took a long time to warm up. Photo: PA

Television sets in 1951 took a long time to warm up. Photo: PA - Credit: PA Archive/PA Images

Prof Ged Martin recalls how a Havering childhood was changed by the advent of television.

It was a big event in our Harold Wood home when we got our first television, in November 1951.

Aged six, I’d already seen TV at the home of family friends. Their set was a huge box with a tiny screen like a peephole.

Ours was more like a modern TV, but the picture was weak. You had to block out every chink of light from the room to see anything.

The set needed to “warm up”. Our first programme was a boxing match. The fighters seemed to be swimming in cocoa.

The BBC had started the world’s first television service, from Alexandra Palace in 1936. It stopped during the war.

We paid the price for pioneering: Britain’s 405-line TV pictures lacked sharpness. Other countries started later, using classy 625-line equipment.

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Cathode ray tubes often exploded. I celebrated England winning the Ashes in 1953 listening to the Oval Test on the “wireless” (as we called the radio) because the TV tube had “gone” (again!).

The original BBC service was confined to the London area. In 1951-2, six new TV masts were erected to give near-nationwide coverage throughout our long, narrow island.

I loved their exotic names – Sutton Coldfield for the Midlands, Holme Moss and Pontop Pike up North, Kirk O’Shotts for Lowland Scotland, Wenvoe in Wales.

In July 1952, I was allowed to stay up late to watch the flickering images of the first TV broadcast from Paris.

England qualified for the 1954 World Cup in Switzerland. One evening we were promised a live match, and England were playing that night. People were furious when the game turned out to be between two foreign teams.

What became Eurovision in 1956 couldn’t handle more than one outside broadcast.

There was only one channel, provided by the BBC, with programmes in black and white.

In 1956, the rival ITV service began. Funded by adverts, it was called “commercial television”.

In a rare piece of creativity, I stuck a piece of white paper on a cardboard box and pasted it with adverts cut out of a newspaper. It was displayed at my primary school as “commercial television”.

People either loved or hated the ITV adverts.

“You’ll wonder where the yellow went, when you clean your teeth with Pepsodent”. Some said that was disgusting.

Oil stoves were popular. The cartoon advert for Esso Blue paraffin showed a little man answering a phone as the Esso Blee dooler. The hint of a rude word reduced even respectable people to hysterics.

People were very proper then. A kind lady neighbour was shocked when I mentioned watching “telly”.

Technical progress was rapid. The Telstar satellite provided the first live transatlantic link in 1962. BBC2 began in 1964, although its opening night was banjaxed by a power cut.

Colour TV started in 1967. In 1969, there were even ghostly pictures from the Moon.

But what had this to do with Havering?

Ah, that’s the point! In those early years, television was a window on the world – always about things happening somewhere else.

A few TV performers were local, like the King Brothers from Hornchurch, a pop trio who sometimes featured on the Six-Five Special, a surprisingly bold programme for the BBC. It broadcast rock-and-roll early on Saturday evenings.

You might also see Victor Maddern, a popular actor who lived in Upminster. He was a fervent Tory, and enthusiastically supported local Conservative candidates.

In 1963, the BBC daringly got into satire. The vibrant vocalist of That Was The Week That Was, Millicent Martin, had been born locally.

But our area was only once mentioned in those early years.

A short comedy sketch showed a TV interview.

“You’re Ron Ford from Stanmore?”, the interviewer asked his victim. “No,” came the side-splitting reply, “I’m Stan More from Romford.”

Romford had been mentioned on the telly! It was a memorable night.