The bizarre world of 1970s hyper-local TV

Behind the scenes at Swindon and Greenwich local TV stations in the 1970s

Local TV may be coming to a screen near you soon - but not for the first time, as the UK already has a rich history of local television, writes social historian Joe Moran. But did viewers really want to watch pub darts and barber shop singers?

Last week, the Local TV Network launched an awareness campaign, beginning with a session at the Edinburgh International Television Festival on Local TV: The Next Big Thing?, ahead of the first stations going live this autumn.

What is less well known is that back in the early 1970s, residents of south-east London, Sheffield and Milton Keynes were already enjoying a diet of hyper-local entertainment.

Local television began as an offshoot of the cable TV network, which had thrived in areas where reception was poor or the analogue transmitters did not yet reach.

Local TV licences

Ofcom has already awarded licences for the following areas:

Belfast, Grimsby, Nottingham, Birmingham, London, Oxford, Brighton & Hove, Leeds, Preston, Bristol, Liverpool, Sheffield, Cardiff, Manchester, Southampton, Edinburgh, Newcastle, Glasgow and Norwich.

The closing date for applications for Bangor, Cambridge, Middlesbrough, Mold, Scarborough, Swansea and York is 11 September 2013

The licensing process for a a further 23 stations is scheduled to begin in the autumn.

Source: Ofcom

The first of these stations to open, in July 1972, was Greenwich Cablevision. It should really have been called Plumstead Cablevision because it operated from a shop on Plumstead High Street. It benefited from the fact that Plumstead had a dreadful terrestrial TV picture from the Crystal Palace transmitter which, on its way east, bumped into the immovable object of Shooters Hill, one of the highest points in London.

Greenwich Cablevision solved this problem by picking up its signal from a mast on top of one of the borough's new high-rise blocks and piping it to thousands of homes.

It had a Saturday night variety show called Greenwich Meantime which offered early career breaks for Jim Davidson and the comedy duo Hale and Pace, and a weekly Special Report, which, among other things went behind the scenes of the "Entertainments Department of Greenwich Council".

Sheffield Cablevision, which broadcast dominoes and darts from Sheffield pubs in an imitation of Yorkshire Television's Indoor League, and Hullabaloo, an anarchic Saturday morning children's programme inspired by ATV's Tiswas, was also helped by bad terrestrial reception. Sheffield, which nestles in a valley, has more than two million trees - a problem for television signals in the summer when they are in leaf.

Fred Trueman presenting Indoor League Fred Trueman presented Yorkshire Television's Indoor League

The fact that tenants in Sheffield's 20,000 council homes were forbidden to erect roof aerials also helped the new cable channel. But it was on air for only a couple of hours a day. At other times it showed a channel ident with Radio Hallam playing in the background - and, in an era when almost half of homes now had colour television, it broadcast only in black and white.

Since the government would not allow them to run commercials like ITV, these local cable channels were perennially poverty-stricken and had closed down by 1976 - with the exception of Swindon Viewpoint, where volunteers managed to carry on after its former proprietor EMI generously bequeathed them the station's equipment for £1. Milton Keynes Channel 40, which went on air in December of that year, had more luck because it was generously funded by the Milton Keynes Development Corporation, which hoped it would foster a sense of community in a new town full of displaced families.

Channel 40 was run by seven full-time staff and a small cadre of volunteers - many of them techno-literate young men, with a seasonal rush of students and schoolchildren in the summer months - and was piped in to all new houses in Milton Keynes for free, four hours per week. Competing against Crossroads and Nationwide in the almost primetime hours between 18.00 and 19.30, it pulled in 16% of the audience. But it ceased in 1979 when its funding came to an end.

In 1989, while filming a Channel 4 series called The Television Village, Granada Television helped the residents of Waddington in Lancashire's Ribble Valley set up a local station, Waddington Village Television. The Independent Broadcasting Authority lent them a small TV mast which was erected next to a local farmer's pig slurry tip.

Milton Keynes Milton Keynes got its own station in a bid to foster community spirit

The village channel broadcast between 19.00 and 20.00 each evening from the church hall, its badminton lines still visible on screen. The programmes included cub meetings, music from the local barber shop singers and the vicar giving his thought for the day. Barring a technical glitch when sheep nibbled through the wires leading from the transmitter, the village station gained 95% of the available audience, beating EastEnders in the ratings.

Residents of neighbouring villages even adjusted their aerials to pick up the evening hour of WVTV.

The two dozen local stations formed after the 1996 Broadcasting Act, which allowed new channels to take out restricted service licences to broadcast on spare analogue frequencies, were less successful.

The Isle of Wight's TV-12 channel, which was based in a converted caretaker's bungalow in the grounds of a Newport school, filmed local bands playing in pubs and a productions by the amateur dramatic society, The Ferret Theatre Company. But it was replaced by Solent TV which, even after it diluted its local content with cheap imports such as Futbol Mundial and old black-and-white films, went out of business.

Lanarkshire TV, meanwhile, had a talent show called Talented Lanarkshire, a quiz night from Lanark Grammar School and a local constable appealing for witnesses in a small-scale version of Crimewatch.

Cable vision advertised in shop window Quiz nights or the Christmas play?

It was replaced by Thistle Television, which broadcast to a wider catchment area and interspersed this local material with Sky News and the QVC shopping channel. Like almost all the more recent local channels, it failed to attract enough investors or advertisers and stopped broadcasting in 2005.

It is an interesting time for the relaunch of local television because in the digital era, mainstream television has lost its connection with place - witness the demise of the ITV regions, which were defined by the reach of the analogue transmitters.

The lesson from history seems to be that when local TV is very local, such as in the case of Milton Keynes Channel 40 or Waddington Village Television, it can be surprisingly addictive, and viewers may prefer watching programmes about their own community to glossier alternatives, because there is novelty and interest in seeing their own High Street or the local school's Christmas play on screen.

But when small stations with low advertising revenue attempt merely to mimic mainstream programmes, which can draw on lavish central budgets and high production values, viewers usually prefer to watch the main channels.

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Here is a selection of your comments.

Regarding Lanarkshire Television ( LTV) I used to appear on it, I was the Constable who was involved in the local Crimewatch. We used to do it every day. I would talk about local incidents, ask for witnesses, and give crime prevention advice. I remember during a fatal gas explosion in Larkhall, we had more information than the national channels! I also remember recording a Christmas special, where I was on the couch with [presenters] Shereen (she briefly became a weather girl on ITV) and Max. I ended up telling jokes from Christmas crackers! It was a really happy time, and was filmed in an old mental hospital. I'm now retired, and wish I had kept some of the recordings."

Craig Ritchie, Lesmahagow, Lanarkshire

Coventry had a quite decent "Channel 10" in the late 80s and 90s. As an enthusiastic cook available for four or five hours each week I was enrolled to devise and present a weekly programme looking at food in season, shopping locally and commenting of quality and prices and then meeting the challenge of producing a nutritious and appetising three course meal for four people on a budget of a fiver! That was in the 90s, people still recognise me in the street and make comment.

Martin Bostock, Coventry, England

Fred Trueman did a pub quiz show on the Redifusion Bristol channel. The opening shot was a close-up on a dimple pint mug. The mug was in crystal clear focus but of course Fred, sitting behind with pipe was tastefully out of focus. Being the cameraman for this opening shot it took ages to set up. We went live and at that very moment somebody took the mug away and started to drink from it, leaving the all important opening shot of Fred and pipe out of focus... badly! Good fun.

Chris Napier, Bristol

When I was 11 I appeared on a local television channel, Oxford TV dancing the May Pole. We practised for months before hand and I was delighted to be the one of just three girls that got to dance with a boy (there was a major gender balance issue in our year). Unfortunately, I never properly got to see the performance as the signal for Oxford TV was poor to say the least at our house.

Catriona Harris, Pyrton, Oxfordshire

Growing up in Milton Keynes in the 1970s and 1980s I remember Channel 40. Although I remember very little of the event itself I do recall being a member of one of the teams on a school quiz programme on one occasion, it was recorded in a flat above a shop in Fishermead and I was gutted that it was actually going to be audio only; this was probably about the time the MKDC stopped it's funding and they tried to carry on as radio only.

Alex Bailey, Corby, England

I remember many years ago Robert Guillaume, the butler from Soap and later appeared in his own show Benson, was a surprise celebrity guest on the channel. I think it was as part of a surprise on someone that was part of a show on mainstream TV, but it's always stuck in my mind. He even guest appeared on a running soap on the channel, which I think didn't even have a script.

Anamur, Portsmouth

Swindon Cable ran live local bingo in the form of the homeshop telebingo show. I've often wondered why these projects never continued.

Mark Keen, Swindon

I used to live in the Caribbean in the 1990s and the only TV I could receive was Anguillan TV. One of the shows was 'The Roadworks at Blowing Point'. It was, as the title suggests, live footage of the roadworks just outside Blowing Point (a village on the island) and was on for 5 - 6 hours a day.

Richard, London

I remember Greenwich Cablevision well. I only had a black and white portable TV when I lived in Plumstead in the 1970s. A little man came round every week for the subscription money. You got a choice of three ITV stations as well as BBC1 and BBC2 which meant you could watch the local news from Norwich if you wanted. You also got a choice of films on Friday nights from the different ITV companies: Anglia's were always X certificate! I watched a couple of their live broadcasts only because a guy from work was one of their presenters. I think they only had one camera because sometimes when they were interviewing someone you would see the interviewer move a bit to the side to get a good shot of the interviewee. Wonderful stuff!

Ian Small, Eltham, London

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