A tour around the ether

I’m an Air Force brat – both my parents were in the RAF when they met, although my mum left to have me. This meant I moved house somewhere between every two and every three years between being born and leaving home at 16.

The main result of this merry dance (known as “being posted”) was I grew up with a fine understanding of the regional nature of British television before Mrs Thatcher wrecked it. Every time we moved, more or less, there was a new local news programme from the BBC and a new ITV logo to see.

Roughly, this works out as Tyne Tees, Yorkshire, Anglia, Yorkshire, Central and back to Tyne Tees (not including HTV back home in Ebbw Vale). That’s not the whole picture: RAF stations are generally in flat places in the middle of nowhere – flat for the runways, in the middle of nowhere for the Russians – and flat places in the middle of nowhere have a habit of being in the famed overlap areas for transmitters.

Oh, the joy of this in the days of three-channel television, when each ITV region could differ markedly in its schedule, even in peak time. Living in an overlap area gave you a use for the ITV-2 button on your set, a channel of hiss in other people’s houses but in ours the slightly-further-away region would be tuned in. Suddenly, you had FOUR CHANNELS. It was like Christmas.

My regions therefore were actually TTT/YTV, YTV/ATV, Anglia on its own alas alas, YTV on its own, Central/YTV/Anglia and back to TTT/YTV (not including HTV/ATV back home in Ebbw Vale). Many of these were actually quite poorly receivable, so I was the only one watching the alternate option; and it was made harder in the period between Channel 4 launching (and taking the ITV-2 button) and my parents getting a TV with more than four buttons. Damn Decca and their everlasting wooden television sets.

One of the things that I noticed early on – and I mean very early on, in the late 70s before I was even at primary school – was that the poorer reception ITV channel was often completely invisible in the winter but better quality than the ‘main’ region on unseasonable stiflingly hot days in the late spring and early autumn. Yes, I’m such a geek that I independently discovered “atmospherics” when I was about 4.

I dimly recall a change of aerial in our house in the very early 1980s making the old, incompatible with the transmitter, aerial surplus to requirements. For fun, my dad wired a plug on to the trailing cable and plugged it into the crappy Chinese portable monochrome TV I’d got for my best-ever birthday present. It didn’t make much difference to picture quality, but what it did reveal was a silent, very hazy Yorkshire Television picture visible with a slight turn to the right of the tuning knob from BBC-1 East. When we next moved, the reverse became true – with the big aerial, hiding to the right of BBC-1 North was to be found a wavering Anglia. This is, of course, the most exciting thing ever ever ever.

Flash forward to 1991. That summer was a hot and listless one. I was about to leave home to go live somewhere – anywhere – where chicken shit and crop rotation weren’t deemed interesting subjects by the locals, discover I wasn’t nearly as grown up as I thought I was and come back again 5 months later. I had finagled a portable aerial into something a bit more useful in order to escape Tyne Tees and watch the slightly-but-only-slightly more cosmopolitan Yorkshire. I was in my room watching said Yorkshire. The picture got better and better and better as the afternoon wore on; then it started to get dramatically worse and was soon surreally overlaid by the same programme a millisecond or so out of sync. This new programme soon took over entirely and I was delighted beyond measure when, at the end, up came an ident for Central. Good golly gosh!

I didn’t go to bed that night. I got to watch an episode of Prisoner Cell Block H on Central South, then something else on TSW and finished with a bit of TVS. Then I watched a bit of BRTN (Belgian-Flemish) before finishing the spell around dawn looking at test cards from Switzerland. Then the atmospherics blew themselves out and this event has never happened to me again. For shame.

The closest I’ve got is sometimes being able to see, but not hear, TV3’s output from Ireland on similar days; but analogue switch off locally means I rarely remember to bother to surf between Channels 21 and 69 looking for stations when there’s nothing at all there 99.995% of the time.

What I do instead is periodically knock my Freesat box into a “discover” mode and let it play across the transponders it picks up blind without Freesat’s EPG as a guide. As a rule, I find nothing of interest to anybody. Sometimes I get stuff that looks interesting – is that Sky Atlantic unencrypted?! No, it’s a promo for Sky Atlantic that happens to be unencrypted – but usually, it’s nothing in particular. Which fairly well describes the (BBC) test transmission above, which is nothing in particular at all but does have a curious hypnotic quality.

DX television also has that curious hypnotic quality. Unlike the test transmission, however, DXing is – or was – actually exciting.

One comment

  1. I grew up (and still live) at the intersection of three regions (NW, Midlands, Wales). In the VHF days, Granada/ABC (pan-north), ATV/ABC (midlands) and TWW (later Harlech) were all readily receivable.

    UHF meant that we lost HTV (line-of-sight being more crucial than it was for VHF) for a few years until a new transmitter was built just across the valley in 1977.

    I lived about 900 feet up a hillside with views right across the Cheshire Plain, and even with nothing much more than a V-type internal aerial plugged into the back of a Yugoslav-built 12″ monochrome set could quite often watch three different episodes of ‘Soap’ the same evening (Granada, ATV, HTV) and sometimes five (a faint Yorkshire and even fainter Tyne-Tees!).

    Even with the household’s main colour set and roof aerial pointed for Winter Hill, Yorkshire from Emley Moor was quite achievable if you didn’t mind the multi-coloured snowstorm effect.

    Beyond that, I remember one hot, clear August morning being able to pick up the picture (though not the sound) of one of ZDF’s transmissions. But it wasn’t just in summer that weird atmospheric conditions prevailed. With the b&w portable, I was able to pick up Anglia quite clearly one January night, and see the photo of Her Maj The Q on horseback which they used to accompany the national anthem.

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