When things go wrong 

1 January 2001 tbs.pm/2236

When you look at the complexity of the ITV network as it operated in the 1950s and 60s it is surprising that the failures were as low as they were, although you might not have thought so when your favourite programme had been replaced by an apology caption.

Each of the companies had general rules in the event of a loss of source. If either sound or picture were available sometimes they would stick with it, particularly if they had a hope that things would be resolved quickly. If necessary there would be a move into a hierarchy of music; the first often deliberately selected to match the mood of the missing programme, but these would gradually become more jolly as the fault persists. In the end they might give up and move to a stand-by local film. Presiding over all of this was the continuity announcer, either behind a caption, or if necessary filling in by talking about the next three weeks’ programmes.

Today, particularly with the satellite or cable stations a fault can stay on air for many minutes before being detected, and it is rare to even receive an apology. Manners change.

Below is a look at the various styles used by companies that cared about keeping their viewers in the picture. Even if they didn’t have one at the time to keep them in.

Circumstances beyond our control

A catch-all caption. Whether anyone ever got to find out what the circumstances were relating to this ABC Weekend TV problem is not recorded.

Unless Sheila Kennedy found out.

Similar problems hit Rediffusion London.

Resume as soon as possible

Short, apologetic and too the point. Who could ask for anything more? Rediffusion London will get back to you.

A rather more wordy version from Rediffusion. It amounts to the same thing, though.

ATV says the same sort of thing. The photograph here was clipped.

If products are not available in your area

Not a fault but a strike caption from 1968. During the strike following the new franchises a national emergency service was mounted. This meant some viewers saw adverts for products they couldn’t buy where they lived.

A change to the advertised programme

The sight of captions like these might not indicate a fault as such, but it always raised viewer complaint when a billed and expected edition of their favourite serial was replaced by pro-celebrity bog snorkeling from Hereford. Even the beauty of the 1967 H-style Granada caption is unlikely to reduce that anger. The more simple example in the middle is from the same era at Rediffusion, and the dots before the eyes on the right was used by somewhat earlier by WWN in 1963-5.

On the other hand, whether it was rain, hail, sun, fire or brimstone, the real reason for the loss of this Southern programme is unknown.

Sound but no picture

Half a service from TWW in 1967.

Picture but no sound

Granada in c1969 would like to teach you to lip read. However, this overlay maintains the house style of the time that Granada should always be underlined.

On the mend

Things at Rediffusion will soon be better.

Of course there always was the problem of where in the programme to resume. In the live days it was usual for the last minute or so to be restaged. Associated – Rediffusion had what appears today to be a very strange custom after introduction of recording – although they would tape a play they would still mount it live in the studio ready for transmission, being a back-up in case the tape failed. This didn’t last long.

Live in hope

Any time this month reports Granada in c1969.

These days maybe just the first two lines would be enough.

The outer limits of in-vision announcing

Don Murray-Henderson in 1966 in an accidental extreme closeup.

Joking apart

ITV companies didn’t consider a breakdown to be anything funny, and although joke cards were not uncommon elsewhere they weren’t seen in the UK. This modern example sees this humourous style imported.

You Say

1 response to this article

Arthur Vasey 28 February 2016 at 2:43 pm

Breakdowns were almost commonplace in the early years of television – sometimes we would have picture and no sound, sometimes sound with no picture – in extreme cases, both – when there was no sound, the announcer would apologise for the loss of sound; no picture, you would see a caption which, in my region where I grew up (Tyne Tees), read, in capital letters “THERE IS A FAULT – PLEASE DO NOT ADJUST YOUR SET” – still didn’t stop people banging it and fiddling with the horizontal or vertical hold, which was accessible on old black and white tellies.

I think that the reason for breakdowns was a number of causes – live programming could be caused by the equipment used, but recorded picture and sound faults could be due to a poor quality tape – film stock could also be of poor quality as well – in the case of programmes made on film – or even films themselves – they were ran through a telecine – and the film often snapped.

I recall a few incidents of technical breakdowns on television – one that stuck out like a sore thumb was an episode of a children’s series called The Enchanted House – missed the beginning of the episode in question – always did in our house – when it came on, there was no programme audio – there was the video – but the audio was replaced with an interval tape that Tyne Tees often played when they had intervals in huge gaps – one of the tracks was a really weird version of the folk song Come, Landlord, Fill The Flowing Bowl – a strange song to play over a kids’ programme – I think almost the whole episode went out without sound!

An edition of Magpie, the second half went out in sound only – as if ITV had just decided to relay a radio station.

ITV also bought a TV series from, I think, Canada called McQueen – it was made on very poor quality film and, on at least two occasions, broke down – the first time, just after the break, the picture appeared to – hard to describe this properly – have a thin line across the middle and the top half of the picture was the bottom and the bottom was the top – on another episode, the picture appeared to “roll” – like when you alter the vertical hold – but the lines were thin.

An episode of Get Smart, the picture just froze – as if someone had just pressed pause!

Fortunately, with today’s technology, breakdowns are a thing of the past … or are they?

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