Great Service, Great Sets 

1 Jan 2004 11 tbs.pm/1952 Article text released under the Creative Commons Attribution license Media copyrighted Report an error in this article

A television set

These days, renting a television set or video recorder is very much a dying habit. Changing technology, huge advances in reliability over the years, and falling prices for equipment has severely reduced the rental market – so much so that today, marketresearch.com estimates that only 10 per cent of television sets are now rented.

Boxclever logo

Checking out the website of Boxclever, a company formed out of the remains of the once mighty Radio Rentals and Granada in 2000, now struggling with debt problems and recently bought out by foreign banks, reveals that renting a television these days offers no advantage over buying. Should I want to, I can rent an average Hitachi television for £12.99 a month. Assuming the television lasts ten years, this means I will fork out £1599 during the lifetime of the set. On the other hand I could possibly go to my local branch of Comet and buy the same television for £200. Even if I go for a credit deal, I’ll still be saving at least £1200 that I would have given to Box Clever during the lifetime of the TV. And quite possibly, in a few years’ time, the price of the same or a comparable television could have fallen by half. So you can see why, except for the very poor, the rented television – and indeed video recorder – market has joined churchgoing and pipe-smoking as a dying pastime.

Radio Rentals store

In my part of the world, what was Radio Rentals shut up shop just after Christmas following a stock clear-out. This now leaves Whitehaven with no television rental shop, although a company based in nearby Workington, which operates out of an industrial unit with a phone number, does offer nearly-new TVs and videos for rental, with special deals to single parents and the like who now make up the bulk of the rented market. However, with Boxclever closing over 250 branches over the past 3-4 years, the only surviving high street rental chain appears to be heading for oblivion, even though the company’s website does offer a far larger range of products – such as washing machines, Freeview boxes and DVD players – than the old Radio Rentals ever did and is advertising itself aggressively online. The days of rented TVs and VCRs are indeed coming to an end.

How times have changed. In the late seventies, Whitehaven, a town of 30,000 people, had six television rental shops, or electrical shops that ran a lucrative sideline in renting televisions and videos. The arrival of VCRs at the end of the seventies managed to keep the television rental business buoyant in the first half of the eighties, as few people could afford to fork out £ 600 to buy a VCR at the time. Radio Rentals and the like spotted a huge market in rented videos.

One of the biggest concerns in the Whitehaven of the seventies was British Relay. Rather like Rediffusion in other areas, British Relay employed cable television rather than the conventional aerial system. As reception in Whitehaven town centre was often poor due to it being in a valley, and newer public housing estates had no chimneys, British Relay’s cablevision sets were a familiar site in houses in the town.

My parents owned three of these sets, as the two houses we rented were wired up to British Relay and fitting aerials was difficult in houses without chimneys. The first was a 20-inch black and white set that gave excellent service; the other two were reconditioned valve-powered colour sets that were about as reliable as a chocolate fireguard (though this was typical of most valve colour sets, not just those from British Relay). The valve sets were British Relay-branded Pye models, while later transistor sets were made under licence by GEC.

The service offered to British Relay subscribers, apart from better reception, included an extra ITV channel – in our case Granada – which meant that when Border was showing some 0-0 Scottish football match, we would often switch across to Granada to watch a film. I can remember as a nine-year-old at school making a few of my friends very jealous when Granada premiered the Bond film, “Thunderball” the night before Border, and seeing it before the supposedly better off kids on the private estates with their aerials, Bushes and Fergusons. Being from a housing association estate did have its advantages at times.

Another option you had on British Relay TVs was to use them as a radio: the four television presets, at the flick of a switch, became the four national radio networks, quite useful at the time for Radio 1, as the reception on 247m MW was often poor and the cable reception was better.

I actually lived down the road from the British Relay mast for Whitehaven. The mast, which was 50 feet (15m) high, faced the Bigrigg relay, the main transmitter for Whitehaven and Egremont, and obtained its signals from Bigrigg. It relayed the programmes via a sizeable box wired up to the mast, and distributed the signals through cables. The estate I currently live on, built in 1977-78, was completely wired-up for British Relay, and most houses still have the cable boxes and sockets, although no one uses the system now and the mast was demolished in 1990.

One of the reasons why British Relay fell out of favour locally was to do with company politics and poor customer service. British Relay was taken over in 1978 by Visionhire, who decided to let the cable vision system die a slow death in Whitehaven. No new cable vision sets were made for rent after 1978, and customers often complained that when they upgraded from a black and white to a colour set that they were given an ancient valve set instead of the later GEC transistor models.

In addition, the cablevision models cost four pounds a month more to rent than a conventional set, and, even though it was difficult to fit aerials to houses without chimneys, people were to be found rigging up aerials to the sides of their houses or in the loft, and switching to conventional televisions. The story of British Relay locally could be repeated for the whole cable television industry in Britain, which has been one long story of missed opportunities.

The main supplier of conventional rented televisions in Whitehaven, in common with the rest of the country, was Radio Rentals, supplier of my next set after the British Relay model blew up. Formed in 1932 to rent out radio sets, Radio Rentals had moved into televisions and ultimately videos. The company (along with DER, who also had a shop in Whitehaven) was owned by Thorn EMI and produced Ferguson TX sets labelled with the Baird brand name, which was synonymous with Radio Rentals. DER also labelled sets with their own brand, but they, too, were Fergusons in all but name. However, as the latest TX models were too expensive for us to rent, we were given the option of renting a “good as new”, as the advert stated in the shop, older model. This proved to be nearly as much trouble as the British Relay set, as it was a ten year old TV – one of the first transistor models, that had been given a service and a clean up in the shop.

While it might seem laughable to younger readers that anyone would want to rent a ten year old television, you have to understand that people were much poorer 22 years ago and new televisions, even to rent, were expensive, so renting a reconditioned “good as new” set was often the only option available. At least the television did look nice: it was a classic of early seventies design, in a teak cabinet with opening doors and a nice chromed control panel. When new, it would probably have been a good television, but not at ten years old. After three years of persisting with this teak terror, we finally asked Radio Rentals to give it a decent burial – the tube had packed in – and decided to invest in one of the new generation of JVC flat screen televisions from the Co-Op. At last: no more reconditioned junk and fuzzy pictures for us, and the television would be ours after we paid it off.

It is hardly surprising that renting started to go into decline as the eighties progressed. While the falling costs of new sets contributed to the decline of renting, the often-inferior customer service and worn out products offered to poorer customers could not have helped. (Another option offered to poorer viewers – I had a relative in South Shields who had one of these televisions as late as 1993 – was to have a colour set ‘monochromed’, which reduced the rental by half.)

Visionhire logo

Along with British Relay/Visionhire, Radio Rentals and DER, most of the electrical shops in Whitehaven ran a sideline in rented televisions. The Co-Op, who used to have their own branded rental televisions made by GEC until the mid seventies, had a large rental section in their electrical department. NORWEB – the electricity board shop – rented out Fergusons, while Colorvision, as well as selling Decca televisions, also rented new and used sets.

On an industrial estate we also had a depot for Telebank. Telebank specialised in coin-operated sets. Again for the benefit of younger readers, a coin-operated television, rather like the coin-operated electricity meters and gas fires that were still widespread in the seventies, worked from a slot meter. If you wanted to watch an evening’s television, you would put, say, 50 pence in the slot and the television would work for four hours. Once the four hours had expired, the television would go off and you would have to put in another 50 pence. Every week a rep from Telebank would come and collect the money from the meter. Occasionally people would be tempted to break into the meter and every month at the local Magistrate’s Court there were a few cases of Telebank meters being broken into. Coin-operated televisions, which still exist today though on a very small scale, were usually found in the poorest households, who could not afford monthly rental, and to be honest were a ripoff as the meters guzzled money. Personally I’m glad this demeaning type of television rental has virtually disappeared.

It’s easy to see the contribution that falling TV prices has made to the demise of the rental industry. Last year I bought a Samsung colour portable with full remote control for £ 70. Twenty years ago the same kind of television would have cost £ 200, the equivalent of over £ 400 today. Renting makes no sense when it is so much cheaper to buy a television, and the old problems with television reliability, which made renting a viable option in the seventies – where a faulty rental set was repaired or replaced as part of the deal – have almost disappeared. My main television is seven years old now and has never developed a single fault, while the JVC that preceded it lasted 12 years until it gave up, in almost all of that time the television never developed any problems.

There is not a single rental shop left in Whitehaven today. Thorn EMI merged DER and Radio Rentals in the eighties. Granada, famous in the seventies for their “great service, great sets, rent Granada” adverts and their Finnish-made Finlandia televisions, by the end of the eighties became the biggest player in what was a declining industry, buying out Telebank, Co-Op Rentals and Visionhire, the local British Relay shop undergoing three name changes in ten years. Rediffusion, once a big player in cable television and branded sets in the seventies, closed down their television factory in Bishop Auckland in 1986 and wound down their rental business.

By the end of the eighties, Colorvision had closed down their Whitehaven shop and NORWEB had ended their rental business as it proved more profitable to sell new televisions than to rent them out. Rather like other once-thriving British industries like coal mining, changing times have seen the once-mighty television rental industry reduced to a shadow of its former self.

Ironically, the old British Relay/Visionhire/Granada shop in Whitehaven was taken over by Genesis, a white goods and television shop. Wonder if they could do me a deal on a neat 20 inch British Relay black and white set? I still have the cable box and the socket. Possibly the salesman, who is quite young, would think I was insane and throw me out of the shop.

Glenn Aylett

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11 responses to Great Service, Great Sets

robert rowbotham 27 Mar 2013 at 6:39 pm

Hello. It`s nearley thirty years since I left Granada Then a few months later the radio rentals merger.Lots of Showrooms shut-down. Was with SPECTRA before Granada,Servicing Lancs,etc.The blocks of flats in Salford,Took Photos from roof,Before M 602 built.I still have recurrant night-mares about some of the service calls!!No wonder my Back Has Crushed Discs !!Bye from The Triangle Timperley Trafford.Rowbotham.

Pete Singleton 22 Apr 2013 at 11:48 am

Gosh – yes – TV sets we actually RENTED! How weird is that! But it was a way of life in the late 50s and right up to the 80s! OK it is still possible but why on earth anyone would want to rent a set these days is difficult to understand when you can walk into Tesco’s and come out with a 42 inch jobbie for under a couple of hundred quid.

Glen Aylett covers very well the days of rental TV so I won’t repeat his excellent piece but what follows is just a few of my childhood memories.

My Dad started off renting a TV with a firm called “Rentaset” (eventually swallowed up by Radio Rentals) in 1964 (after I persuaded him that I was the only boy in the class whose family did not have a TV set). The TV was a “Sobell” – then we upgraded to a “Baird” (not the original Televisor of old which even I don’t remember!). The Baird was a 19″ dual standard set which could be upgraded with a UHF tuner when BBC-2 started up in the north west of England.

The man came with a spanner and prised out a circular badge covering a hole in the speaker “netting” and fitted the 625 tuner. “The picture will be like a photograph on BBC-2,” he promised, “much better than BBC-1 and ITV.” And to us, it was. It was a miracle! Clear, beautiful black and white in six hundred and twenty five lines! To switch the set to the UHF tuner, you had to “clunk” the channel knob round to UHF and then tune the UHF channel with a separate dial – rather like tuning into a radio station. Of course, when BBC1 and ITV (Granada) changed over to UHF, you had to repeat this tuning process with the UHF dial to “find” ITV or BBC1. Crazy! We even had to have the new UHF aerial fitted in the chimney stack to accompany the VHF dipole – something of a status symbol I guess! Strange to think now, but a friend said to me at the time that, “I don’t think we will be getting BBC2 – I mean, what’s the point? Two channels are surely enough for anybody!”

The reason for all this rambling is that when you rented a TV set, it was so easy to get the latest technology! Maybe you wanted a set “on legs” or just wanted to upgrade from a 19” to a 21” model. You just rang up the TV rental company and a man hot-footed it round with the latest set (although the rental always went up by a couple of bob).

I remember a friend’s family renting an “InstanTV” from DER around 1968. This set did not have to “warm up” like other sets (unbelievable!) so it came on virtually straight away when you switched it on. Even more futuristic, it had a “remote” control – not such as we now have, but a box with a thick cable coming from it which trailed its way across the floor to the set (a health and safety hazard these days!). I think it had just two buttons – one to turn the set off (I think you still had to walk to the set to switch it on) and another button to change channels (of course there were only three channels to choose from). You pressed this button and the tuner literally thumped through all the channel numbers until you got the one you wanted. Oh – there might have been a volume “up and down” control but that was about it.

If nothing else, renting a TV set did at least allow people to experience television in the 1950s and beyond – and especially early colour television in the late 60s – at a time when buying such a set would have been out of the question at a cost of in some cases, around 399 “guineas.” Having said that, even renting would have been difficult – I can’t remember a typical rental for a colour set but it must have been around 30/- (£1.50) a week at a time when my weekly wage as a 16 year-old junior clerk in a Civil Service Department started at £6.0.6d (£6.02½p!).

Many memories stirred by Glenn’s informative article…

KEN QUINNELL 6 May 2013 at 10:53 am

I worked for Visionhire for 21 years.I started as a branch salesman at the time when colour tv was starting to lift off and progressed the role of an area manager.When colour took off the most popular size tv was 22″ and our most popular make was a Philips model 534 renting at 9.75 a month.They cost 450.00 to buy.A good local wage was 30.00 per week.

People rented because they were worried about the cost of tv repairs. Rental companies offered a speedy repair service,loan sets if the customers set had to be taken in for repair and of course no extra outlay for repairs.

Visionhire was a superb company to work for and I have many,many happy memories from my time with the firm.They were also held in very high regard by it’s customer’s.

Keith Wilby 27 Sep 2013 at 3:04 pm

I worked for Visionhire for 24years. Visionhire was a great firm to work for until we took over British Relay. From then on I hated it. Most of the sets still out in subscribers houses were “Clapped Out” and in very poor state of repair. Whereas Visionhire had pursued a good policy of constantly updating old, unreliable stock. It was like going back in time

For some strange reason many of the British Relay personnel ended up with the best jobs. In one instance a mere van delivery driver became an area manager almost overnight. It was just as though British Relay had taken over Visionhire.

Without a shadow of a doubt in my mind Visionhire were sold a “Pup”In fact on learned person was quoted saying “Visionhire paid £61milion for a company they would have acquired for nothing if they had waited, as it would have collapsed” Happy memories of Visionhire, Bad memories of British Relay.

In 1988 I took redundancy and got out

robert mcdermott 14 Oct 2013 at 5:18 pm

Hi ken

Many thanks for the brilliant article which brought back many fond memories.

I lived in south Manchester back in the 60s 70s and my mum used to hire all our TV sets from Visionhire in the village.

I remember being excited when the engineer called either with an upgrade (when we could afford it)or to repair and leave a loan set.

The best memories are when we got our first colour set, wow the excitement in our house, then off course the Video came out, kids these days will never know the joy as things change so quickly now.

Thanks again

Bob

John Brennan 12 Nov 2013 at 9:14 am

I worked for Visionhire from 1979 until taking redundancy in 1998. I was originally based in South London and was there when British Relay were acquired. I agree withKeith (above) the stock in Relay customers homes was very poor. I recall being assistant manager in Brixton with a queue of people out the door waiting to sign up for a COM (change of model) to get a brand new 22″ GEC cable vision set. Visionhire did try to revive the cable concept by introducing Showcable, a premium channel showing latest release films for £8.99 a month. Subscribers needed a decoder to plug in to the relay cable socket in their homes. It ran ok for a while but lost momentum due to costs and bad debt/arrears. Visionhire was a great firm to work for but the slippery slope for rental was always there waiting to happen. However, in its day, rental was a fantastic cash cow business.

ray mcgowan 21 Nov 2013 at 11:33 pm

Started work in September 1971 with House of Clydesdale in Glasgow. They closed in 1994 and got job next day with Granada Alexandria Parade. When they merged with Thorn renaming Endeva I took redundancy to join Comet Left in September 2011 as they shut all the workshops, went bust the next yearI am still unemployed

Graham Ashley 19 Dec 2013 at 3:57 pm

I never worked for Visionhire but part of my company was sold to them by Philips in 1975 and my workmates who were transferred over to them said that they were ok to work for. When colour tv came out in the late 1960’s, it was the same cost as buying a new mini car. Completely out of the reach of the average working man. I knew guys who had mortgages on their houses for between £750.00 and £1000.00 at the time so that’s why rental was so popular. I also remember the Government of the day, “Conservatives” in the 1970’s introducing a two tier V.A.T. rate on purchases and televisions were classed as buying a luxury product which had 25% V.A.T. slapped on it. Retail sales collapsed over night whereas rental steadily increased

Gordon Daniel 4 Mar 2014 at 10:19 am

Worked in TV rentals for 20 years..Radio Maintenance( Thorn) Spectra Rentals, Granada, Rumbelows…..what can I say,?

Carrying 22 ” Colour TV’s with wooden cabinets, with doors,

Up 4 flights of stairs ( and more) all on my own…..

Mr Universe had nothing on me…..countless stints of being off sick with ” lumbago” back pain…was all included in the job spec ( NOT)….worked all areas of London, good & bad ,

Customers , nice, polite, and not so,….endless cups of tea, and SOME offers of ” sympathy” never taken up..!

Now here I am, 72 years old, sitting here remembering some awful service calls, up to 18 a day, and have a serious back problem…. Had surgery in 1999. Crushed disks, damaged pelvic area, and permanent neuropathic ( nerve) pain in back, legs and feet…can’t claim industrial injury as the companies don’t exist any more. Would like to hear from anyone else in same condition. Oh well, must go, got a no colour call in Ruislip and a before 12 pm in Pinner. Dead set GEC 2040…thermistor,….????

David Buckley 22 Sep 2014 at 10:17 am

I worked for Granada TV Rentals for 28 years as an engineer, starting in 1976 & working from the Moss side then to Dukinfield th Worsley, Bury & finally to Trafford Park in the early years it was a good company to work for slowly going down hill from the mid 90’s Trafford park was not a pleasant experience & got worse when engineers were given sprinter vas & expected to do installations as well as repairs. I was made redundant in 2004 when the company Endeva went into receivership & had to leave without a proper redundancy pay-out ( still annoys me to this day) still not got any pension benefits from Boxclever pension scheme I paid into

STEPHEN RANDALL 9 Nov 2014 at 10:36 pm

Hi, I left school in 1967, took an apprenticeship with a small family company called ‘Wiltshire @ Rimmer’ did 1 year full-time Radio @ Television repair course at ‘Highbury’ tech in Cosham. Qualified with ‘Colour endorsement’ by 1972, where British Relay had taken over the company. worked for British relay (driving Simca estate car) servicing TVs. Relay was taken over, so took redundancy and went to work for RUMBELOWS in Reading….. had 12 great years there until … yes you guest it …. made redundant. took a job with Mastercare (lasted 3 weeks) the biggest cowboy outfit ever. Went back to work for RUMBELOWS in Berinsfield – Oxford, for another 4 years, then left and took on a different line of work …. Intruder Alarm Servicing with a company called ‘MODERN ALARMS’ … (did about 1 year, but being called out at all hours didn’t suit) so …. Quit! next got a job with D.E.R . which then changed to MULTIBROADCAST then RADIO RENTALS.
Quit and went self employed for a couple of years, then went to work for Mastercare (again!) well…. it was a job, as an ‘INSTORE ENGINEER’ in CURRYS superstore. Did 8/9 years then decided, trade had had it so did what any person would have done, …. I bought a PUB! …. did this for 8 years, got out whilst going was good (pub trade has had its days as well)…. now working for a Fire Protection company, servicing Alarms, Emergency lighting and doing Fire Risk Assessments, (wish i had found this job 40 years ago) but hey … now looking forward to retirement …… happy days !

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