Remembrance of Things Past

Mostly about growing up the 1950s in Ilford, Essex.

[27] ’Normal Service will be Resumed …’


I have already written a post about television programmes that made an early impression in my life, (coming in about two weeks,) and I have plans for another one about Children’s Television. So, it makes sense to get an introduction to television in first. I will be looking at the processes of producing and watching early television, and how very different it all was from what we know now.


Television in 1950

Television broadcasting had restarted after the war in 1946. (There had been fears that the signals would reveal the location of London!) It was produced by the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) and the only service available was BBC Television (what would later become BBC One). The limited service was only available from about 4:30 pm to 10:30 pm each day. (Weekends were probably different. There must have been a church service on Sunday morning.)

Very few people had television sets in those days – they were very expensive. The number of viewers went up considerably with people who bought a set just to watch the Queen’s Coronation in 1953.

I suppose I am going to have to start calling it TV, but at first, it was always television, or perhaps ‘the telly.’

Early TV sets were very small, with a screen of nominally nine inches (measured diagonally), so they were about the size of a quite small laptop screen. [Don’t get excited. Picture quality was not comparable!] Ours had a heavy, curved, glass-like magnifying lens, covering the front to provide a slightly larger view as we watched from a distance. For a nine-inch screen, you were supposed to be at least nine feet away if you wanted your eyesight to be unharmed. When you turned the set on, you waited a couple of minutes for it to warm up and produce a black and white picture.

[Here the US readers will still understand feet and inches. UK readers have become metricated! Nine inches is about 22 cm. Nine feet is 2.7 m.]

So, back in 1950, we watch a fuzzy, black and white picture for a few hours a day, showing just BBC One. We had no choice of viewing, no television advertisements, no colour television, no satellite television (not even any satellites until the late 50s), no cable television, no digital broadcasting, no CEEFAX, and no remote controls.

For now, I will say just two general things about the programmes, leaving the rest for future posts. Firstly, almost everything was broadcast live, and, secondly, almost all was produced in the studio. An Outside Broadcast was complex and expensive and involved several huge lorries full of cables and equipment.


As the signals were only broadcast for a few hours each day, a Test Card was shown at other times. This meant, among other things, that a new set could be adjusted if it was first used in the morning.


As well as the History lesson to come, we need a brief revision lesson in physics – about radio and television propagation. Both propagate signals by electromagnetic waves that come in a wide spectrum of frequencies. The effectiveness of propagation depends on the wavelength (and on other things, like weather conditions.)

Radio in Britain used frequencies in three main bands: Longwave radio used frequencies from 0.15 to 0.3 MegaHertz; Medium Wave: 0.5 to 1.7 MHz; and Shortwave 3 to 30 MHz. Later, we added FM (frequency modulated) radio using 90 to 100 MHz.

Television initially used VHF at 40 to 200 MHz, until 1985 – with the 405 line system. Later, it moved to UHF from 450 to 850 MHz, with the 625 line system. (To simplify things, all of my numbers are approximate!)

More to come later!

[You can talk of wavelength instead of frequency, but that has gone out of fashion now.]

Those who lived through the period will appreciate the use of the word ‘Interlude.’ When they had technical problems and were unable to continue broadcasting the programme, the BBC would show an ‘Interlude,’ as something to watch while they fixed things – very often it was a recording of a potter’s wheel going round while a potter worked with the clay. Sometimes it was just a notice telling us that ‘… Normal Service will be resumed as soon as possible.’



The television picture was made on the cathode ray tubes of those days, by moving a dot of varying brightness across the screen. In the early days, 405 horizontal lines covered the whole screen – and by repeating the same thing fifty times a second, it gave the impression of a moving picture.

Such was the quality of this process that, at best, the picture would flicker and the horizontal lines were visible. In practice, poor quality transmission, excessive noise during transmission and poor quality receiver sets meant that the picture was generally far from perfect. It was often almost impossible to keep the top of the picture at the top of the screen. It might drift slowly upwards or downwards, wrapping round at the edges. (Not at a regular speed – it would be easy to adjust for that!)

At the back of the set, there were four rotatable switches to make adjustments. ‘Horizontal Hold’ and ‘Vertical Hold’ would, in theory, allow you to get the picture in the right place on the screen. ‘Tuning’ would make fine adjustments to the radio frequency, and ‘Focus’ could also be adjusted.

While the rest of us watched the poor quality picture as it moved round the screen, Dad would try to adjust vertical Hold and Horizontal Hold to get the best picture, very often an impossible task. In addition he would tweak the direction of the aerial [US: antenna] and fiddle with the coaxial cable connecting it to the back of the set – often it worked best with someone holding the aerial! When it did work you might get five minutes before the picture started drifting again. I suspect that weather conditions were significant because sometimes we had a reasonable picture without any fiddling.

[You could get other faults – ghosting images are the whole thing in negative. It probably wasn’t always bad, and over the next twenty years things slowly improved.]


Independent television came to Britain in 1955 with the ITA, a second channel – with advertising. (The BBC channel then, as now, was sponsored by licence fees.) It had a fragmented setup with six separate organisations running three areas, London, the Midlands and the North, separately for weekday and weekend broadcasting. From the start, sometimes the regions would share the same programmes.

To receive ITA (which later became ITV, now Channel 3) the television set had to be capable of switching between two frequencies. Those with existing sets, like us, could not see ITV until they bought a new set. We kept to the old one for a few years, so I cannot say much about early ITV. By the time we did have a choice, we kept loyally to BBC for most of our viewing. (To be honest, BBC programmes were generally better, and they were not interrupted by advertisements.) In later posts, my comments about the programmes that we watched will probably all be from BBC1, perhaps the odd one from BBC2.


The second BBC channel, BBC2, was added in 1964. It used newer technology, with a 625-line picture replacing the old 405-line system, and used UHF frequencies, so again a new TV set was required. The new system produced better quality pictures, still poor by modern standards. Those with old sets could still receive BBC1 (with continuing poor quality resolution) on their old sets for another twenty years. It was not until the late nineties that BBC1 and BBC2 became BBC One and BBC Two.



The first colour television in Europe came in 1967 when BBC2 changed to colour production. Again new sets were needed to receive colour! (Some programmes would still be black and white, so the change seemed to be gradual. Black and white sets could receive the colour signal, without seeing the colours.) Two years later BBC1 and ITV went to colour.

Other Changes

Programme hours have gradually expanded. It was not until 1983 that we had programmes in the morning. Satellite channels, cable TV, 24-hour broadcasting, digital television and HD all came later – with more opportunities to require viewers to buy new sets with new technology. These are all a bit modern for our era of the fifties and sixties, as is Ceefax, the text service that used the spare bits of the 405-line signal. (Only 377 lines went on the screen. The rest were wasted while the dot moved back up to the top! That’s enough history for now, and more than enough electronics.)

More will come about the actual programmes that we saw in other blog posts …

Author: Alan

Retired, currently living in Cheltenham.

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