BBC Radio 6 this evening featured a news story that, “as at 31 March 2018, 7,531 black and white (mono) TV Licences were in force”. I didn’t realize that it was still possible to operate a black and white television, the story brought back memories of this night forty-one years ago.
Wednesday, 16th November 1977 was a cold autumn evening. Night had long fallen by the time the kick off of the football match was due. As it does tonight, and beyond the upstairs window of our house a thick darkness covered the Somerset landscape. Thick cloud meant that the absence of any moonlight contributed to the gloominess of the moment. England were to play Italy in a qualifying match for the 1978 World Cup and our television was not working. Ordinarily, this was never a problem, my father’s years as a radio and radar engineer meant he made quick work of television problems, parts would be adjusted, wires would be reconnected. The problem this night was that my father was 600 miles away working at Kinloss, an RAF station in the North of Scotland as part of some NATO exercise.
The television screen was no more than a grey fuzziness, it was as impenetrable as the darkness outside. In 1977, television still came in two formats: the UHF signal gave a picture formed by 625 lines, primitive compared to the digital pictures with which we are now familiar, but considerably more refined than the 405 lines of VHF. The advantage of VHF was that the signal seemed more flexible, apparently, years later, it was still used in rural parts of Ireland to try to reach remote valleys.
The problem that night seemed to be that the aerial was not working. Switching the television to the VHF channels there might be a chance of doing something for a signal. Attaching a spare length of aerial cable to a wire coat hanger and hanging the hanger on the handle of the metal window frame, all that remained was to plug the cable in. “Hey, presto,” it was not perfect but the match could be watched; my father would have been pleased. England won 2-0, but it did not secure them a place in the following year’s finals.
Black and white televisions had the best programmes, those watched by tens of millions of viewers. Nothing on a digital screen has a fraction of the audience of many of the weeknight programmes. Were it possible to recapture something of the golden age of television, it would be worth watching it in monochrome.