Anyone young reading this will think we lived in the Stone Age, but it is only three quarters of a lifetime away that entertainment at home could be delivered in only a few ways. There was the wireless, the gramophone and the other option was to play and sing at home, usually around an upright piano. The wireless was a large piece of furniture which consisted of transistors that glowed and it took a while before it warmed up and you could tune it in to a station. I seem to remember that there were two wavelengths available, short wave and medium wave. The quality of the sound was nothing like it is today and interference and fading in and out, particularly in short wave, was common. As a very young child I remember sitting on my mother’s knee and listening, with my older brother, to Listen with Mother. This was after lunch and was a quiet restful time for her, whilst we became enthralled in the lady presenter telling stories and singing songs. I seem to recall Mum falling asleep and enjoying the break from two busy youngsters. Another radio programme was Two-Way Family Favourites and this played records and I remember dedications for serving soldiers. There were many songs suitable for children and I am sure many of you will remember The Laughing Policeman, Nellie the Elephant, How Much is That Doggy in the Window, The Runaway Train, Sparky, They’re Changing Guards at Buckingham Palace and many others. I can’t remember specifically singing them with the radio, but they formed part of the repertoire of songs we sang in the car to Bridlington, Scarborough, Filey and Hornsea. There was no television and grandma’s house at Chapel Allerton had an upright piano as did many others and it was common for families to stand around and sing songs such as My Old Man Said Follow the Van and other music hall songs. The piano stool was full of sheet music and people would seek out new music for the popular songs on the wireless, much as people sought out the hit singles that were about.
The gramophone was another large piece of equipment and I particularly remember the one at Stainbeck Preparatory School that had a handle to wind it up and a tin of needles that needed replacing. There was a large horn to produce the sound and large shellac records, 78s were played occasionally. We didn’t have one at that time and so the radio was our only form of home entertainment. Whilst I was still very young, I was born December 1954, we purchased a television. These were still in their infancy and were expensive. We were living in Lawrence Avenue, off Easterly Road, and I believe it was the first television in the street and neighbours would visit to have a look at the wondrous thing. It was a large wooden piece of furniture, with a small, I think, ten inch screen, which showed a hazy grey and white picture with basic sound. There was often interference and the vertical and horizontal holds had to be adjusted regularly. Sometimes a quick slap on the side of the box, by Dad, did the trick.
The one thing that the television brought was programmes designed for children and one of the first was Watch with Mother. It was a similar format to Listen with Mother, with a very ‘well to do’ voiced lady presenter, but now with little puppet stories and stories where the illustrations were shown. Again, young people will think us ancient, but the TV programming was only for part of the day. There would be interludes between programmes, test cards for shops selling televisions and apart from the news there were variety shows and a few shows from the USA, who were more advanced. I can still remember watching an interlude where Pablo Picasso was painting a chicken. It progressed, in black and white, through his process and at no time could I ever distinguish anything resembling a chicken. There was also one showing a potter at the wheel.
The programmes specifically for children were things like Muffin the Mule, Pinky and Perky, Andy Pandy, The Woodentops and Sooty. I loved them all and the poor picture quality, strings on the puppets, unrepresentative upper-class voices didn’t matter a bit. It must have been worth every penny for my parents as we would sit, or lie on the floor, mesmerised. Other favourites as I got older were Tales of the Riverbank with Hammy the Hamster. I am sure the RSPCA wouldn’t allow an animal to be carried up in the air in a balloon, or sitting on a little powered motor boat as he sailed the river, but no one seemed to care then. The most common programme was the Western. Cowboys and Indians were all the rage. The Lone Ranger, Champion the Wonder Horse, Rin Tin Tin and others were children’s favourites and the adults watched Bonanza, Rawhide, The High Chaparral and many others.
Entertainers were quick to realise the potential of the new media and The Goons moved from radio to television very successfully, as did many others. The sit-com arrived and originally with American shows, Mr Ed, Bewitched, My Favourite Martian, The Beverley Hillbillies, Petticoat Junction, The Adams Family and The Munsters being huge hits. The content was very safe and homely and so we were allowed to watch them as we got a little older. Variety artists also saw the opportunity of television and variety shows were common. They were live and very popular. Saturday Night at the London Palladium and, dare I mention it, The Black and White Minstrel Show had huge audiences as televisions became commonplace in homes across the country.
Television was seen as a means of educating the working classes and documentaries started and children’s programmes were created to offer a more educational experience. Programmes such as Crackerjack and then Blue Peter and Magpie offered craft, art, science and history as part of their programmes, as well as fun, comedy and music.
Of course my favourites as a little child were the puppets and animations. Noggin the Nog with the wonderful voice of Oliver Postgate, told of Viking exploits, but marionette programmes started with Torchy the Battery Boy, Four Feather Falls, Supercar, Fireball XL5, Captain Scarlet and then Thunderbirds captivated our lives. We would wait all week for the next episode and be in the chair ready for the programme to start at the allotted time. You can imagine the moans and frustration if the TV wasn’t working properly and the vertical hold meant the picture kept disappearing up the top of the screen and reappearing at the bottom.
We didn’t realise at the time but the technological development was very rapid and in a few years almost everyone, even my Grandma, had a television and just a few years later colour television started.
The television also was a landmark for the arrival of my younger brother, Stuart. He was born at home and he timed his arrival to the ad break in William Tell, the television programme. I can assure you that I and my older brother were not well pleased to miss the rest of the programme and be ushered upstairs to see our new baby brother. We managed to make a quick escape and get back without missing too much. I suppose that was 1959.
The television had a big impact on the way we played outside. We would often be Robin Hood and his Merry Men, or Cowboys or Indians, also with bows and arrows. We would scalp captives in our imagination and again I guess the RSPCA wasn’t taking an interest in the American Westerns and clearly horses were just tripped by ropes during the fight scenes. After all the violence we were exposed to it is surprising that we didn’t all grow up damaged, but I believe children are far more resilient than adults give them credit for. What is definitely true is that the childhood experiences we enjoyed stick with us for our whole lives and do have an impact on our view of the world. There was always a strong moral compass in television programmes and that is sadly missing in the modern, so called, reality television programmes. These may be designed for adults, but children watch and learn, and these can only have a negative influence that makes me worry for the future generations.
For those interested to see what Western Australia is like the video below shows the beach near Fremantle.
The audiobook Blaze can be listened to free of charge on the Soundcloud player below. The last part will be added next week.