Come On In To
THE VIEWING ROOM
When I was a boy, I was fascinated by television. I suppose I must
have been part of the first generation to be raised on TV. That air of
magic about the very process of bringing pictures and sounds to
our living room was still strong.
And magic it was. Even today, if I actually think about how
it all happens, it still causes my old mind to boggle. Worse yet, I
can't now fall back on the old innocence which led me, as a child of
about six, to believe that it happened by someone rolling up the
pictures at the other end and shoving them down the aerial
cable to our television set.
Those old 405-line black-and-white sets had a certain presence,
too. I mean, they were big, heavy things, which gave off that beguiling
smell which, I now realise, was just hot dust on the valves.
They had a very distinctive sound, too, in the form of that
pitched-just-at-the-top-of-the-hearing-range whistle from the line
As for the programmes themselves, well I won't go off at a tangent
on those just here. But the bits between were equally attractive,
sometimes even more so than the programmes themselves. This was
especially true in the case of Independent Television (ITV) which, in
its Golden Years (which, to me, are from about 1966 to about 1983), was
still loyal to its federal structure and its commitment (however
superficial it might be at times) to local programming.
This meant that, in addition to one's own region (more than one if
you were living in the right place) and its programme provider, to
which you felt a kind of loyalty which could be quite determined and
fierce at times, you could see programmes made by other companies in
the network, companies which were based many miles beyond the
capabilities of your aerial to receive directly.
There was no bashfulness or reluctance to tell you which company
was providing a particular programme. It was announced right at the
start of each one by way of something called, variously, a 'frontcap'
or an 'ident' (purists argue over the precise term to this very day).
Depending on the company, this could be either an animated image allied
to a brief but memorable snatch of music or, more boringly, a static
caption simply giving you the name of the company.
Some of these idents/frontcaps became associated with memories of
particular programmes: the soothing compass of Southern TV was always
likely to be the precursor to rather good children's programming; the
mirrored riverscape of Thames meant Benny Hill, Kenny Everett or The
Tomorrow People; ATV's blaring fanfare and animated 'eye' meant the
imminent start of the original (Midlands-only) Tiswas.
(Browse the TV
Ark site for examples of what I mean)
Rather like short-wave radio enthusiasts, though, those of us who
were TV 'geeks' (the term wasn't used in such a context at that time,
but it would be now) would scour the pages of the latest
edition of the TV Times, looking for rarities. Some stations in
the ITV network provided very few programmes for the network. What they
did make was often used as fillers in out-of-the-way slots in the
schedule, such as weekday afternoons. These were the only opportunity
we would get to 'bag' a rare ident. So, the sight in the TV Times
of something billed as a "Westward Television production", for example,
would set the pulse racing somewhat. The contracting company for
South-western England rarely got anything shown beyond its own purlieu,
so this would be a prize catch. Unfortunately, I was usually at school
when these tasty little morsels aired, thus making them more coveted
The Golden Age tarnished during the 1980s, and was melted down
after the 1990 Broadcasting Act into dud coinage for huge, aggressive,
agglomerating corporations and other pirates and charlatans to plunder.
For many years, I gave up hope of ever recapturing the Good Times™,
but I finally got online in June 2001, and within a few
weeks I had discovered to my delight that I was not alone. Indeed,
there were many sites out there dedicated to rescuing and making
available these triggers of nostalgia.
More than that, there was also a means for contemporary imagination
to play with the images and concepts of that earlier time. I happened
one evening upon a site called Afternoon Programmes Follow Shortly
(APFS). Here the site's owner Mark McMillan had created galleries of
images dedicated to one of the most beguiling of imaginative games: the
'what if' scenario. 'What if', for example, ATV had not been relieved
of its franchise in 1981, but had gone on through that decade and the
next? What would its on-screen image look like? Again, 'what if'
completely different companies had been awarded the franchises for
particular regions? How would they have gone about showing their face
to the network and its viewers?
It wasn't just Mark McMillan, though: his bold thought had
attracted others of like mind, who sent him their own creations, so
that dozens of galleries sprung up based on these original
speculations. In the early part of 2002, I trepidantly submitted my
first gallery to APFS. As the years went on, I contributed eight
galleries in all, some of which I'm more proud of or happier with than
others. I later went back and amended or updated a couple of them in
the light of new ideas or a better mastery of the techniques of
producing 'mocks' (as they have come to be known).
Mark McMillan has now moved on to other things in his life, and
APFS finally closed at the end of April 2006 (*). In gratitude and tribute
to him and to my fellow 'mockers' for their efforts and their helpful
suggestions and critical comments on my own attempts to create
alternative history, I have salvaged my galleries from APFS, and
present them in the following pages (click on the test card below to go to the Index).
* Mark McMillan has now resurrected all the old galleries here.