Television—1930s style

TV set 1936

Many thanks TVHistory.Tv

We have noticed in an earlier Jot that one of the first—or indeed the first– mention of the word ‘television’ in poetry was in Poems by Michael Roberts (1936). But in the October 1936 issue of the literary miscellany Medley can be found a remark by the playwright and Punch humourist A.P.Herbert taken from The Listener.

‘This latest miracle (television) fills me with odd, inconsequent thoughts. For example, will it be possible, I wonder, to switch off the sound and retain the sight? This would enhance the wicked satisfaction of cutting off what one dislikes. One could continue to gaze at the golden girl who will sing sharp, without having to listen to her.’

This is an interesting observation in that the first regular high definition broadcasts from Alexander Palace began on November 2nd 1936. As Mr Herbert was writing in the Listener a month or several months before this time, he based his observations on the period when the Baird system was operating alternatively with the high definition electronic system. It was then decided by the BBC that the high definition system supplied the superior picture and therefore should prevail, and that essentially is the system that we have today.

With the victory of the high definition system came a renewed demand for TV receivers—and a number of companies that had gained a reputation for producing radio receivers competed in this new market. Although these TV sets seem to have been basically superannuated radios that supplied the wavelength for the TV broadcasts, it should have been possible to turn the sound down and retain the picture. [R.M.Healey]


A.M.Low: the professor who wasn’t a professor

a-m-lowDiscovered in a July 1930 issue of Armchair Science, an article by the magazine’s ‘technical advisor’ A. M. Low entitled ‘Little Things and Big Minds’. In it Professor Low argues that we shouldn’t be impressed by large things—whether they are exaggerated claims for some patent medicine, or some mechanical apparatus, such as a typewriter. Machines are made from small parts, just as matter is composed of atoms and molecules; and big phenomena, such as broadcasting is powered by electricity, which is a flow of electrons. Small is beautiful, in other words.

This homily is a preface to the contents of the rest of the magazine, which is mainly devoted to broadcasting, the electron and diatoms. In addition, however, there are fascinating features on the newly invented saccharine, the proto-helicopter known as the autogyro, and tinned food. There is also a double-page spread entitled ‘On My Travels’ by Low, who looks about thirty (he was 42). Continue reading

Television in 1950- a prediction

Baird TV setPublished in the monthly miscellany Medley for September 1935 is this winning prediction from a competition run by The Manchester Guardian. It looks forward to what life might be like in 1950.

“ Last night the new tellie, ‘The Private Life of a Thwarted Ego’, started its run on the City Circuit. Pink One, the famous star of ‘Yes—Today and Hereafter’ and other colossal masterpieces, again shows she is the undisputed queen of Tele-Stereo-Appeal. Mr Malt Whimsy, her creator, has never painted her better. It is a long cry from her first appearance in those early crude ‘ Lunatic Lullabies ‘, but Miss Pink One has made the grade. As the pitiful but brave little Ego, caught in the Web of Circumstance, dazzled by the Lure of Gold, and finally falling by the Wayside, she was stupendous. By all means plug in to ‘Thwarted Ego, ’it’s the tellie of a generation!”

Several points here. Is this one of the earliest appearances of the word tellie, albeit spelt in a different way and used to describe a production to be viewed on a television receiver, rather than the receiver itself ? Also, what does the writer mean by the term ‘City Circuit ‘. Is this a channel ? Also, what opportunities would he or she have had in the UK, to view anything other than the experimental broadcasts put out around 1933/34 by the BBC late at night ? These generally lasted no more than ten minutes and consisted largely of fragments of drama and dances performed by a lady wearing a special photogenic costume. The fact that the writer could accurately predict the future success of a medium which was frequently derided as a flash in the pan at the time is impressive. This is almost as impressive as someone predicting the astonishing success of the Internet back in 1980. [R.M.Healey]



Nixon at the BBC (Face to Face)


Found among the papers of Hugh Burnett,producer of the Face to Face series of television interviews with John Freeman shown between 1959 and 1962, this amusing slightly tongue-in-cheek memo to BBC friends sent out well after the event in 1973. The show was and is (6 set DVD available) memorable for the probing style of its charismatic interviewer John Freeman (more than once causing interviewees to break down..) and also for the importance and variety of its guests. They included Lord Birkett, Bertrand Russell,Dame Edith Sitwell, Lord Boothby, Nubar Gulbenkian, Adlai Stevenson, John Huston, Carl Jung, King Hussein of Jordan, Tony Hancock, Henry Moore, Dr Hastings Banda, Augustus John, Sir Ray Welensky, Stirling Moss, Evelyn Waugh, Gilbert Harding, General von Senger und Etterlin, Lord Reith, Simone Signoret, Victor Gollancz, Adam Faith,Otto Klemperer, Dr Martin Luther King Jr, Jomo Kenyatta, Sir Compton Mackenzie, John Osborne, Cecil Beaton, Danny Blanchflower and, of course, Richard Nixon, then (1959) the Vice-President…

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Hughie Green and his Gang

‘And I mean that most sincerely, folks’. This was one of Hughie Green’s catchphrases. Another was ‘Vote, vote, vote, ‘cos your votes count’. As the host of quiz show Double Your Money and Opportunity Knocks, a forerunner of Britain’s Got Talent, he had one of the most recognisable faces (and voices) on TV in the sixties and early seventies. Then, abortive lawsuits, womanising and alcohol all took their toll and he died largely forgotten in 1997 aged 77. But what many below the age of eighty might not know is that Green was once a child star who, with his very own 'Gang' of fellow child performers, toured the halls from the mid thirties. One of his star turns was a distinctly manic solo dance routine.

So what we have here is evidence that young Green and his Gang performed at The Empire, Swindon in February 1937. Evidently, Mrs Barbara Slocombe, his landlady at 5, Farnsley Street, was a bit of a celeb spotter and kept an album in which she got her showbiz guests to sign, perhaps with a message, a calling card, and often with a signed photograph, or even a drawing. Several of Green’s gang obliged, but there is no record of the boy wonder himself leaving a signature. What we do have, however, is a postcard from Penge featuring a photograph of Green which was sent by one of the gang, Willie Mars, asking if Mrs Slocombe would kindly send on the sports jacket that he had left behind in her guest house.

I wonder what happened to Willie Mars.


Carroll Levis and the Meaning of Dreams

Found in The World's Strangest Ghost Stories by R. Thurston Hopkins (Kingswood: The World's Work, London  1955) this piece in the preface about the American writer, TV personality and dream therapist Carroll Levis. There is much on Carroll online with Pete Waterman claiming he invented reality TV and The Beatles in their earliest form as The Quarrymen failing in the first rounds of one of his TV talent contests(1957). Paul McCartney described him as the 'Hughie Green of his day.'

Thurston Hopkins is dealing with an earlier incarnation of Levis as a radio star and before that a sort of analyser of dreams (during the depression.) At the end Hopkins even brings in our own J.B. Priestley, also in his time something of a star...The radio show where the public's dreams are re-enacted seems ripe for rebirth.

In 1931, Carroll Levis, who presented the Levis Discoveries Radio Show to eight million aficionados, published Dreams and their Meanings, which was syndicated and featured in newspapers in Canada and the United States. The same year, he wrote a radio series entitled Dream Dramas. Listeners were invited to send a description of their most vivid dreams to Levis, who rewrote them into short twelve-minute playlets. The dreams were re-enacted by  a group of actors, under the direction of Carroll Levis, and at the conclusion of the dramatized dream, a three-minute analysis and interpretation was given to the listeners.

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Doctor Who fan solicits Abu autograph

An interesting fan letter from 2005 found among a collection of TV memorabilia. A very polite and thoughtfully composed letter from an ultra-keen collector of 'The Doctor.' He even goes as far as enclosing a pen, a good idea for an autograph hound on the street but unusual in a soliciting letter (surely?). 850 autographs is pretty good going...could only find one photo of Terence Brown in his role as Abu. By the way the factoid about the early use of dry ice sounds convincing but how true is it?

Dear Mr Brown

I am writing in the hope that you can add to my collection of Doctor Who autographs.

If possible, I should be grateful if you would sign the enclosed cards, which relate to the Doctor Who story The Krotons in which you appeared as the doomed Gond  student "Abu."  His death at the hands of the croutons  was one of the first major uses of dry ice in television drama, and was the catalyst for the Doctor and his friends becoming involved in Gond society. Also enclosed is a pen, which should help with signing certain cards, and a return envelope with sufficient postage for both the cards and a pen.

Of course, I appreciate that Doctor Who is only a very small part of your career, and that you make the firm not to sign certain cards, but I should be grateful if you would return them in any event.

Terence Brown as Abu

Please could you also let me have a signed photograph. I have made one using images from the Doctor Who website, as I realise you may not have any available, but please accept my apologies for the quality. I much prefer a signed picture of the actor, rather than their role in Doctor Who, so I should be grateful for a current photograph if at all possible. These items are solely for my personal collection of over 850 actors and crew from the programme, and I'm quite happy if you would like to dedicate them.

The Krotons is one of the Doctor Who stories for which I have only been able to obtain a couple of autographs, most recently from actor Gilbert Wynne.

I do hope that you will find the time to reply…


The earliest reference to television in literature

Sent in by loyal jotter RR. Interestingly we recently catalogued a literary magazine edited by Lawrence Durrell 'International Post' (1939) -- it had a TV critic and was full of promise but went to just one highly elusive issue. Our copy sold immediately at a substantial premium.

One strong contender ( I would welcome more examples from readers) must be this poem which appeared in Poems (1936) by Michael Roberts. We don’t have a date for this composition, but it was doubtless written when very short experimental broadcasts using the Baird process were being made late each evening from Alexander Palace during the period 1933- 36.My Christmas 1934 issue of The Radio Times lists these in the radio section. They consisted mainly of a series of dances performed by an elegant lady who was obliged to wear a special designed TV- friendly costume that emphasized stripes and zig-zags. There were also vocal recitals and other simple performances that would easily fit into the twenty minute slot.

When, in 1936, the largely unsuccessful and decidedly clunky, Baird method was replaced by the electronic EMI-Marconi process, a greater flexibility in programming was possible. The time allocated to television was greatly extended and in the three years in which it operated, television gave broadcasters like John Betjeman, John Piper and Geoffrey Grigson, opportunities to become well known to an albeit ( the broadcasts only  reached London and parts of the Home Counties) limited audience.

Alas, all this growing potential came to an abrupt end with the outbreak of the Second World War. [RR]