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A new televisual age dawns

Friday, March 2, 2012 - 11:17

WIGHT LIVINGWHEN Island TV screens go blank in just a matter of days it will mark the end of two eras — that of analogue television and of the Rowridge television mast that was built to transmit it.
As the Island gears up for the digital revolution — straight-line signals replacing the waves that emanate from Rowridge at the moment — it is a pertinent time to reflect on the changes in broadcasting and its technology that have taken place in the last 58 years.
Rowridge went live on November 12, 1954, and the next day the County Press heralded the great event. 'Television comes to the Island!’ screamed the headline.
These were the days when televisions were large items of polished furniture, containing glowing valves and hot transformers, long tubes and surprisingly small screens.
They also came at no small cost.
Mainstones in Union Street, Ryde, offered the new Pye 17ins screen model for 79 guineas (£82.95 in new money). The 14ins GEC table model was a mere 65 guineas.
These were the days of Hall’s Radio Vision of West Wight, of Grace and Co in Ryde High Street — 'A Name to Depend On in Television’. There was Gooch’s Radio and Television and Attrill and Son in Cowes.
Remember Sherratt’s in Newport High Street? They had the Eckovision Model TC208, complete with its 'spot wobble’ tuning — whatever that might have been — full automatic picture and sound control and flywheel synchronisation.
Then there was Davey and Zwicky Ltd, large-screen television specialists. They could be reached by dialling Freshwater 516.
What flickered into people’s living rooms was equally far removed from the present day to the equipment that received and transmitted the material.
When the valves finally warmed up during the 1950s, your televisual pleasure would certainly have included Muffin the Mule, The Woodentops and Andy Pandy.
There was the Potter’s Wheel, London to Brighton in Four Minutes, Hancock’s Half Hour, Harry Worth and the first TV DIYer, Barry Bucknell.
Then there were the adverts. Murray Mints, the too-good-to-hurry mints, and few would remember that the Rice Krispies’ Snap, Crackle and Pop were children of 1955.
Rowridge was an obvious choice for a mast to transmit the burgeoning outburst of creativity as one of the highest points on the Island on its central ridge of downs 450ft above sea level. From there it could beam to most of the Island and much of the south coast.
The first temporary Rowridge mast was 150ft high. It was replaced by the present permanent structure, which was extended to 491ft.
The new mast, which replaces that, is 614ft, bristling with an array of communications equipment.
When Rowridge first went 'live’, in the days of three and four-digit Island telephone numbers, few households could afford a television set.
How very different today — the new Rowridge will reach two million people, most of whom will have a choice of more than 40 Freeview channels.
In the days of old Rowridge and its commercial Chillerton 'twin’ there were just two. BBC was on channel 3 and ITV could be reached on 11 on your dial.
In between, there would be nothing — for years.
It was one W. G. Sherratt, a television expert, who heralded in the County Press the new dawn of broadcast entertainment.
"Yesterday, November 12, was without doubt the most exciting day in the Island’s connection with broadcast entertainment since its inception on November 14, 1922, when the first regular broadcasting began in Marconi House, London, and programmes were transmitted for a few hours daily, the call sign being 2LO," wrote Mr Sherratt.
That was, of course, radio and it was not until 1932 that the first regular television signals were received on the Island — sound coming from one transmitter and vision from another.
Mr Sherratt told us: "These first broadcasts were extremely crude, artists having to have their faces painted white and their lips and eyebrows black. Even the studio floor had to be covered with black and white squares."
From 1936, the Island received its signals from Alexandra Palace and in July 1938, in a specially hand-picked house on the Newport-Cowes road, the first 'high definition’ demonstration was given.
Until Rowridge, high definition on the Island did not exist, except for those lucky few living on a hill facing London. Even they would often welcome a foggy night where still conditions provided a 'tunnel’ of warm and cold layers of air that led the signals, undisturbed, from transmitter to Island TVs.
Advice for TV viewing in the 1950s urged people to avoid viewing the screen in darkness, recommending, instead, a normally lighted room.
It was predicted Rowridge would provide analogue signals that would be satisfactory for 85 per cent of the Island, which was broadly true.
The remainder would later be satisfied by the relay stations serving Bonchurch, Ventnor, Luccombe and Brading, which, after the digital switchover, will provide one third of the number of Freeview channels available elsewhere.
That would still have been beyond the wildest dreams of 1950s’ viewers, who were even then aware of the huge social implications of the gogglebox.
It was recognised then as both a hugely valuable window on the world and, even then, as a medium of manipulation, social and habitual change. In the 50s, a Welsh brewery, taking note of the embryonic alteration of people’s habits brewed Television Ale — aimed at the off-licence trade for those who wanted to put their feet up at home — in front of the TV.
But one article was suitably reassuring: "Undoubtedly, television will condition your social habits, as it has for thousands of new viewers elsewhere in the country.
"Don’t let it worry you. Being British, you’ll soon learn how to rationalise the situation — and get back to normal…"
• Island viewers served by Rowridge will lose their analogue signals on Wednesday for BBC2 and for the three remaining terrestrial stations on March 21. Other dates are set for those served by mainland transmitters.
Age UK IW, in partnership with the IW Rural Community Council, was appointed to raise awareness about switchover on the Island and there is a help scheme available for older and vulnerable people. More information is at www.helpscheme.co.uk
To view how your reception may change go to www.digitaluk.co.uk/postcodechecker
If you need a set-top box for your older-style TV, more technical information is at www.digitaluk.co.uk/buyersguide

Notable TV dates:
August 22, 1932 — First TV programme from Broadcasting House.
November 2, 1936 — Official inauguration of TV service from Alexandra Palace.
May 12, 1937 — Coronation of King George VI. First TV outside broadcast.
September 1, 1939, to June 7, 1946 — Wartime blackout.
August 27, 1950 — First TV broadcast from the Continent.
November 12, 1954 — Opening of the Rowridge transmitter.

Reporter: [email protected]

 


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