Friday, 20 April 2012

BBC2 will follow shortly

Today is the anniversary of the most disastrous channel launch in television history. On 30 September 1963, a publicity campaign had been launched for the new channel, BBC2, using the symbol of a Joey kangaroo emerging from the pouch of its mother, who were given the unlikely names of Hullabaloo and Custard (no one was sure which was which). They appeared in trailers and on posters with the underwhelming slogan, ‘BBC-2 – it’s new’, cardboard cutouts were displayed in shops and squeaky kangaroo toys sold to attract children. On the eve of its launch the new channel had a service of dedication in Westminster Abbey.

The main anxiety about the opening night, 20 April 1964, was that the rain might ruin the planned firework display from Southend Pier, billed as ‘Off with a Bang’, to be shown on BBC1 and BBC2 simultaneously. At the BBC’s Lime Grove studios, the first warning that something was wrong was a flickering light in the staff bar 25 minutes before the launch. The power went and George, a real kangaroo brought from the zoo for the launch, was stuck on the fourth floor because the lifts stopped.

Gerald Priestland, appearing from the Alexandra Palace newsroom, initially without sound, explained what had happened. An electrical transformer at Iver had blown up, causing the collapse of the entire power supply in west London. Priestland appealed to his Uncle Jock, an engineer, ‘to nip out and see if he could fix the Iver transformer – but he only watched television with the sound turned off’. The Lime Grove engineers opened a book on when the lights would come back, but they never did. ‘I ploughed on through every scrap of unedited Reuters tape they could feed me,’ Priestland wrote in his autobiography. ‘After what seemed like an eternity of ad-libbing about Japanese fishery disputes and trains de-railed in Tunisia, I was taken off the air.’

An evening of test card music and BBC2 WILL START SHORTLY captions followed, interrupted by apologetic announcers explaining why viewers weren’t able to watch Cole Porter’s Kiss Me Kate. At 9.45pm, BBC2 abandoned its schedule. The next morning, Play School became the first programme on the new channel. That evening BBC2 opened with the announcer Denis Tuohy blowing out a candle in a dark studio, symbolising the previous night’s events.

Wednesday, 18 April 2012

RIP Pages from Ceefax

There has been much lamenting by television nostalgics today about the end of Ceefax, that blameless service which has become collateral damage in the great digital switchover. Actually it still seems to be clinging on in various places but it disappeared in London today when the Crystal Palace transmitter went digital, hence the national news story.

Ceefax was born in a Brompton Road pub in 1969, when a group of television engineers met to work out how spare capacity in the new 625 line TV signal could be used to provide subtitles for deaf viewers. When Ceefax started in 1974, it was the first teletext service in the world - enabling the viewer to ‘see facts’ - and the start of interactive television.

Ceefax was a minority interest at first, as you needed a new television to get it, but the popularity in Britain of rented televisions, which could easily be upgraded, ensured a steadily rising uptake. The service received a great boost in the 1980s when gaps in the schedules began to be filled not with Test Card F but with a selection of pages from Ceefax, accompanied by bland lift music (which, according to Test Card fans, was never a patch on the music by unknown session artists that accompanied the girl with the balloon and the blackboard. Bob Stanley of the band Saint Etienne is doing a talk at the ICA next week on this very subject.) In 1981 there were less than 120,000 teletext TV sets; by 1990 there were 7.5 million.

Ceefax’s go-to pages were well known to initiates: 102 for news, 302 for football, 400 for weather, 430 for train timetables, 888 for subtitles – good for watching Top of the Pops if you wanted to decipher the lyrics. Some people would watch the football on Ceefax, staring at the 0-0 score and willing a goal for their team. I suspect this is more gripping than it sounds.

Anyway, RIP pages from Ceefax, little Zen moments of stillness and contemplation in the otherwise endless flow of television. We have no need of you now that television is on all the time and it will never, ever end.

Saturday, 14 April 2012

A natural affinity

The BBC has been criticised recently by republicans for its panegyric approach to the forthcoming Diamond jubilee. It was ever thus. In his (very good) biography of his father, Richard Dimbleby (which I've just been reading), Jonathan Dimbleby writes that ‘between the most senior and the most junior institution of the Establishment, there was a natural affinity’. The BBC was always under threat from government but the monarchy was out of the political fray. ‘Out of politics, usually above controversy, stable and permanent – it embodied every quality of virtue to which the BBC most aspired. The BBC could give unswerving and uncritical allegiance to the Crown yet maintain its integrity and independence.’

Mundane quote for the day: 'The chains of habit are generally too small to be felt until they are too strong to be broken.' – Samuel Johnson

Sunday, 1 April 2012

The first wash of spring

This is from a lovely piece by the Orkney poet George Mackay Brown - the last of the weekly columns he wrote for the Orcadian newspaper, published a few weeks before his death in April 1996:

This morning - as I write - is April 3, and the first wash of Spring has gone over the earth.

It is such a beautiful word - April - that even to utter it lightens the heart. It is a little poem in itself. It is full of delightful images. It has its own music - little trembling lamb-cries at the end of a field. The first daring lark lost in light.

You feel, in April, that you have come through another winter, a little bruised maybe, but unbowed.

Those chalices of light, the daffodils, having been sorely battered by the March storms, are shedding, one by one, their green covers and opening their vernal tapers.

Soon all of Orkney will be stitched by golden threads of daffodils, a lovely spread garment for Primavera ...

The word 'June' is beautiful, too, of course, but like May it has a curtness that lacks the lyricism of 'April'. In midsummer there is perhaps too much - what month-name devised by man could hope to contain the light and multitudinous beauties of the season? Best to be simple and brief, to hold the word to the nostrils like a plucked wild clover ... Such enchantment, under the light that never leaves the sky - not at midnight even.