How the West Was
1 Jan 2005 0 comments. tbs.pm/2058
In the first of two related stories, Emrys Sparks recalls West Country television in the 1950s
Now that I’m about to enter the year of the Pension Book, I thought I would look back over the years that first got me interested in TV, film, and photography.
In 1957 I left Yeovil Grammar School in Somerset. At our final year pep talk, the Headmaster pointed out, “From tomorrow, you start on life’s journey. Most of you have no idea what you want to do, but regardless of what your ambitions are, remember that you’ll never be happy in a job you dislike!” He continued, “If you feel that you want to be a dustbin man, in spite of your O and A Levels, then be a dustbin man – even if it’s for only a day, a week or a month – because unless you try it, you’ll never know.” Sound advice indeed, and I’ve always remembered it.
I was very lucky, however, because before I was 10, I knew I wanted a career in photography, or as a film or TV cameraman, and during over 30 years in employment, I achieved all three wishes.
I lived in a small rural community near Yeovil, and in 1951 only three of us in the village gained a scholarship from our 11-plus exams, to attend the local Grammar School, much to the pride of my mother and bricklayer father.
One of the others to gain the award was my close school friend Jimmy Dicks, and it was because of him and his father Kenneth my interest in television was born.
Ken Dicks was a radio and TV entrepreneur (see The Kendic Story). He started his business in Yeovil in the 1930s, where his hand-made radios were legendary. He made them to order: the chassis, the electrics were all crafted by Ken, and Kendic Radios became a local sign of quality in those years of radio mania.
In the late 30s he moved to Stoke-sub-Hamden and bought a vast Victorian mansion called Brocks Mount, where he continued to produce his radios. Turning the ballroom of the mansion into the village cinema on Friday, Saturday and Sunday evenings, he showed the latest western or romance on a 16 mm projector, professionally set up in the ballroom. I think the charge was sixpence or a shilling.
My school friend Jim would take the tickets, and sell ice creams in the interval. Occasionally, we were allowed to rewind the films after the show.
In the late forties, Ken’s interest turned to the developing TV market, and after school Jim and I would watch – or try to watch – children’s TV in their lounge. My very first experience of TV was Muffin the Mule, Andy Pandy, Bill and Ben, Whirligig and Mr Pastry – we’d even watch the test card for hours.
There was no transmitter serving the West Country at the time, but Ken had fixed a vast array of aerials, held by stout guy-wires to the roof, to try to catch a signal from Sutton Coldfield, north of Birmingham, which must have been over 150 miles away. We all know that TV signals follow a straight line, and don’t bend around the Earth, but nevertheless, some afternoons we could watch a surprisingly clear picture on the 9-inch receiver – though on other days we received nothing at all!
We used to watch Ken working in his workshop. He really was quite a character, and sometimes he called us in if he was receiving a particularly good signal. Just before the Coronation in 1953, the local Wenvoe transmitter came on the air near Cardiff (Dec ’52 ), serving Wales and the West Country. At last we received a clear, stable picture. The first images I remember well were the newsreels of the Lynton and Lynmouth disaster, which Jim and I watched in the workshop on a huge 12-inch receiver, made by Ken.
Of course everyone at that time who could possibly afford it bought a TV to see the Queen crowned, but Ken went one step further.
For Coronation day he made and set up a back projection TV with a 60-inch screen (huge for those days), in the cinema, which was remarkably bright and clear in the darkened room, and everyone in the village was free to come and watch the ceremony.
Throughout my teens my interest in TV and photography never waned. But after leaving school my father decided that I should get myself a trade, and duly enrolled me to become an apprentice at the nearby Westland Helicopter factory. Neither an engineer nor a draughtsman was I ever going to be, but I stuck to it for six months. However, as after that I would need to sign on the dotted line to stay with them for five years as an apprentice, I decided that working a lathe and drilling sheet metal was not for me.
My friend Jim had by this time had gone to University, to study Biochemistry, and he later became a world authority on fungi and mushrooms. It wasn’t until many years later – on 26 June 2002 – when I heard and read in the Times Obituary column of his premature death, after an asthma attack, that I realised just how an important person he had become.
Emrys Sparks went on to become the Director of Medical Illustration at a major London teaching hospital where he has worked for the past thirty years, producing award-winning medical training films and videos. He is scheduled to retire in 2005.