Technical school

By Glenn Aylett

Glenn Aylett grew up with television and radio

I grew up in what could be called the golden era of schools programming, the seventies and early eighties, when BBC1 provided five hours a day of schools television, Radio 4 VHF (not known as FM in those days) provided a similar amount, and ITV, through ATV as the networking company, filled the hours between 9 and 12 with schools programming.

Forget Aussie soaps, Fern Britton and Trisha - daytime television in those days was an educational tool, not a time filler for the elderly and the housebound as it is now. The old Reithian concept of the BBC being there to educate, entertain and inform was paramount and daytime television and Radio 4 VHF in the seventies certainly lived up to the ‘educate' side.

These days almost every school will have internet access and the latest widescreen TV, but primary and secondary schools in the late 70s and early 80s had quite a wide range of electrical gadgets that now, if at all, survive in a museum.

The radio loudspeaker is one such gadget that was popular in my primary school, at least until it was broken by a workman one day in the third form and was replaced by a hefty Roberts four-band radio. The loudspeaker resembled a 30s valve radio in that it had a large speaker grille and a wooden cabinet and seemed to have been created for the schools market.

Snazzier versions came with a cassette player, but my school made do with the one-channel radio version that could have been created by Stalin for outdoor events as it had a very loud sound and only one station (Radio 4 VHF in this case).

I often wonder if any of these exist now, although they would probably be obsolete as what remains of schools radio now is broadcast through the night on Radio 3.

Another popular tool that remained in the schools I attended as late as 1984 was the reel-to-reel tape recorder. At the primary school we had a 60s model with a microphone similar to those found in a recording studio, which was used to record school concerts and occasionally play pre recorded tapes of music (pre-recorded open reel tapes are about as rare as a good show on ITV1 now, but until the early seventies you could buy recordings by the Beatles and other top pop acts in this format).

It was my grammar school where open reel tape recorders were king. The schools language department had a fair collection from half-forgotten manufacturers such as Fidelity, Elizabethan and Tandberg, most of which dated from the pre-cassette era.

My German master in particular preferred open reel technology over cassette, as he said it was an art-form threading the tape through the heads and his O-Level course was based around a sixties set of BBC pre-recorded tapes and workbooks from a series called ‘Frisch Begonnen' (Fresh Beginning), a set of stories and exercises based around a fictional family in Köln.

The French department used an audiovisual course based around pre-recorded open reel tapes and a stills projector, another electrical gadget from a bygone age.

Seemingly when the school went comprehensive a ‘year zero' was declared on the old technology and most of it ended up in a skip, though a particularly nice Philips reel-to-reel recorder was saved by a friend.

School TVs in those days were the predictable 26-inch Radio Rentals wooden cabinet models on stilts and castors with hopeless picture quality. Often programmes appeared in a shade of green, or purple when a video was being shown.

One of my teachers at junior school wished we could have invested in a Sony Trinitron, as the beast from Radio Rentals was as reliable as an Austin Allegro, but the LEA had a British-only electrical policy wherever possible and we made do with a second-rate television.

Luckily my grammar school moved away from these unreliable and dated televisions in favour of a couple of Ferguson TX portables or something similar which were easier to use in a school with three floors.

My first encounter with a VCR was in my first year at secondary school. While the VCR was lucky to be found in 1 per cent of homes at the end of the 70s, our LEA had supplied most secondary schools with a Philips model costing around £500, a fortune in 1979. This was the famous Philips 1500 model, made in Austria, with the piano key controls, analogue clock and top loading. It resembled a black and chrome suitcase.

While very crude by today's standards, this was the cutting edge of technology then, as pupils could watch a schools programme on ITV as the teacher taped a programme on BBC1.

Although the picture quality was poor on the original televisions the school used, picture quality on the portables the school bought as replacements was very sharp. The Philips 1500 was, of course, the grandfather of the excellent and very underrated Video 2000 machines from the early 80s that could play eight-hour tapes.

Of even more interest was a discovery I made in the sixth form. The school had bought in 1969 one of the very first open reel video recorders at a then astronomic cost of £1500, more than the price of a family car at the time. I talked to the history master, whose cupboard contained this beast, and he said the machine had hardly ever been used due to the fact it could only record in black and white - the school went colour in 1975, he said - and the massive cost of the tapes.

He planned to take it away with him when he retired and maybe give it to a museum, as it was too valuable to go in the cull of other veteran electronics. I often wonder if this interesting piece of electronica ever made it to a safe place, as it could be worth a lot of money to a collector.

So in a way school was the best time of my life with all these interesting and often forgotten electrical appliances. If anyone knows who was the manufacturer of the radio loudspeaker, or if their school had an open reel video recorder and saw it working, I'd be interested in hearing from them.

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Article ©2004 Glenn Aylett

Compilation ©2004 Transdiffusion Broadcasting System

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