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Box-watching for Beginners

January 2014

John Wade remembers how we viewed television in the 1950s

These days, as we turn on our 60-inch, high-definition, wide-screen, 3D-capable colour televisions, it’s hard to believe that there was a time when it was necessary to learn how to watch the box. The discovery in a local market of the 1954 Television Annual revealed just how much things have changed in the telly-watching world since those early days, not least of which was a whole chapter devoted to what it called Fallacies and Facts for Beginner Viewers.

One fallacy it was keen to dispel was the necessity to watch TV in the dark. Early sets whose small screens were green when turned off, lost all contrast in the picture if a room light was turned on. But by 1954, with the new screen technology, the Annual recommended viewing with a table lamp situated behind the set. With a nice touch of political incorrectness, it added, ‘allowing mother to get on with darning the socks if she wants to.’

Neither was it desirable to have a big screen. Purchasers of moderately priced sets were told to feel in no way inferior to those who lavished money on larger screens. The truth was that most modern drawing rooms needed no more than a 12-inch screen. Anything more than that would reveal the dark lines that made up the picture, meaning viewers would have to sit a long way from the set. In many homes, it was suggested, rather condescendingly, that would mean sitting in the hall.

Strictly monochrome
The pictures, of course, were in black and white, although there were those who tried to convince themselves otherwise. On sale in the 1950s were large, square pieces of plastic, coloured green at the bottom, orange in the middle and purple at the top. Viewers put these in front of their black and white sets and kidded themselves they were watching in colour.

Status symbol
But back to that 1954 Television Annual, where we learn the TV era had made it a sign of superiority to nail an H-shaped aerial to your chimney stack. It was pointed out that it wasn’t always necessary, however, since those who lived close to the transmitter could survive well enough with a small indoor aerial. Nevertheless, up went the H-shaped aerial, as a way of boasting to neighbours that we had a television.


Any channel as long as it’s BBC
One shock that new viewers had to face was that TV programmes were not regionalized. On the wireless, they could listen to broadcasts from their own regions on the Home Service and, if they didn’t like that, they could turn over to the Light Programme. There were no such luxuries with television, where the same programme went out to everyone in the country, on a single channel, broadcast by the BBC. The broadcasters had the answer to this if anyone complained: don’t bother to watch. They reckoned it was a good way to counter those stick-in-the-muds who maintained that television ruined the art of conversation or prevented us engaging in more creative pursuits.


Dawn of the serial
The first TV serial started in those days too. It was called Little Red Monkey and involved the killing of British atomic scientists. The little red monkey turned out to be a Russian midget who was stealing secret papers, and generally doing dirty deeds. A little later, The Quatermass Experiment, the first drama serial written specifically for television, scared the life out of a generation of viewers and was among the first programmes to be announced as ‘unsuitable for children’. Each evening’s programmes ended with the National Anthem.

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