VHF off 

1 Sep 2001 0 tbs.pm/1950 Article text released under the Creative Commons Attribution license Media copyrighted Report an error in this article

We hear a lot of talk about digital, satellite, HDTV, widescreen, 16:9, pay-per-view, Digiboxes, gigahertz, and so on, and so forth. Television buzzwords and phrases, typical of the late 20th and early 21st century.

There was a time, nearly seventy years ago, when only the most eminent scientists and inventors would have understood some of it. All we had then was the promise of television, in two distinct forms: mechanical, with a maximum definition of 240 lines, and electronic, with 405 lines.

ITA VHF transmitter network at maximum strength

Considering the steady progress that television technology has made over the last twenty years – mainly in terms of cable and satellite, but more pertinently, in terms of choice – many have forgotten that all that was available to the average viewer in the UK for many years were three channels, BBC 1 and 2 and ITV, and the first and last of these were broadcast on 405 lines on VHF.

It was the Marconi-EMI system, developed in the 1930s and refined, first for ITA Band III broadcasts, for experimental colour services in the late 1950s, and then, finally, for 625-lines on UHF.

Later, the VHF transmissions were converted UHF signals sent out locally, as all origination at the studios was UHF/625 lines from around 1969. The move towards a universal standard was largely due to the wish to develop TV in parallel with other countries, not only to enable the use of common television hardware, but so programmes could be exchanged, sold and broadcast in other markets.

The line standards were defined in the USA early on, by the National Television Standards Committee, who agreed on 525 lines. France went with 819 lines: and the rest of the continent went for a variation on each. 625 lines was considered by the Pilkington Committee in 1962 for the second BBC Television Service, especially with an eye to the future development of colour.

It could be said that this was the first nail in the coffin for 405 lines. As I recall, VHF Band I signals from Holme Moss on channel 2 were generally very good, but prone to high whistle at times. Occasionally there would be incidences of “sporadic E”, usually during the summer months, but at Christmas 1976 it was particularly bad.

Band III, Channel 9 (Winter Hill) was “smoother”, with less disruption to the picture. Channel 12 had better reception on BBC1, but VHF TV sets had mechanical selector switches that were prone to slip, and the only way to get any improvement was to jam pieces of folded card behind the leading edge of the dial.

Bear in mind that unlike the coding/decoding pabulum we have now, all we had to receive this was a whip dipole hung from a rope in the attic and a concentric fine-tuning control to (hopefully) improve reception.

None of this took into account the effect of four high-rise blocks two streets away causing multiple ghosting!

BBC Band I transmitters

In 1977, our family ditched the dual-standard set in favour of a sleek push-button UHF monochrome set. By this time, Dad and I had replaced the old dipole with a short Yagi array, horizontally polarized of course, and screwed to one of the crossbeams in the attic, so now we had three channels with excellent reception.

But, still I kind of missed the old VHF channels, and as a hobby of mine was to fix TV sets, I used to indulge in trying to see if I could still receive them. The old often-repeated joke is that with 405 lines, one could receive a signal with a piece of wet string.

I never tried that (and don’t try that at home, kids) but it was amazing that old bits of mains flex on a picture rail could produce a very acceptable picture, and even bring in the occasional DX picture.

January 1985 came around quickly. There had been noises about discontinuing the VHF services, and yet there was little fanfare about the very end. I saw “Coronation Street” on 2 January 1985, and the close of Granada that evening, but there was no actual announcement or curtain call.

The next morning, I switched on, and there was nothing. After all those years, the VHF Band I and III television broadcasts ceased. The reasons given by both the BBC and IBA were that the equipment was very old, nearing the end of its life, and that maintaining it was more of an art than a science.

Indeed, looking at the stills on Darren Meldrum’s site, it looks rather quaint and very much like a scene from Dr. Frankenstein’s laboratory.

Since 1985, nothing televisual seems to be happening on Bands I and III in the UK, although there were a number of plans mooted. DAB radio can now be found on Band III, but that’s about it.

Some enthusiasts remain fascinated by the old system, and there are still those who try to get any parts for sets, video recorders and even studio cameras.

As I said at the start, there are so many definitions of television now, and the medium itself is taken for granted: but, while the old VHF system was maybe a little unreliable and prone to failure at times, it was, for many people, the first proper television system in this country.

Without its development and its later adoption by the BBC and ITA, we would not have had any television at all. And considering its discarding in favour of better technology, it might be gone, but it certainly is not forgotten.

Andrew Hesford-Booth

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