A very contrary region 

1 September 2001 tbs.pm/1761

Television in Northern Ireland has always been a bit different than what you would see in Great Britain.

On the whole the schedules for the BBC and UTV would be roughly the same as for the rest of the UK, save for the usual regional variations and programs.

Regional programming produced in Northern Ireland aspires to be much bigger and better than the sort of programming you see in other regions, largely due to the region being out on its own both geographically and culturally.

It’s not these differences in programming style or content that I am writing about, it is about a form of presentation that is unique to Northern Ireland and does not exist in any other TV region in the UK.

As you probably know, Northern Ireland has, for the last 30-plus years, been in a virtual state of war, more commonly known as ‘The Troubles’, though thankfully it now seems to be coming to an end.

This has had a major effect on television in Northern Ireland. Local news programs made by both the BBC and Ulster Television have done a sterling job of reporting on the death and destruction caused by The Troubles.

Both stations also have long running and highly regarded current affairs programs, Spotlight on the BBC and Counterpoint and Insight on UTV. These aren’t that special though, most other regions both of the BBC and ITV variety have local current affairs programs.

The difference is that in Northern Ireland these programs have had to focus on reporting The Troubles for most of the time as opposed to the more mundane subjects of other regions current affairs programming.

Aside from the programming, what else is different about television in Northern Ireland? Quite a bit actually. In the worst days of The Troubles, both the BBC and UTV had to provide emergency announcements to the population. Such announcements took many forms and nearly always made your heart miss a beat, as you knew such an announcement never contained good news.

We Interrupt this Program

You would be sitting down comfortably watching an episode of Coronation Street or EastEnders when the sound would suddenly drop. Then the words “POLICE MESSAGE” would appear on screen over the program. At this point you would find yourself jumping a bit, as you knew something bad was happening somewhere in Northern Ireland. An announcer would then utter words similar to the following:

“We interrupt this program to bring you an important police message. The police would like to advise all key holders for premises in the Boucher Road area to check their buildings for suspicious packages or devices. For more information please contact your local police station”

Terseness

Sometimes the message would be a bit more terse. “Due to a bomb blast in the Ormeau Road area the police would like all key holders from that area to check their buildings for damage and if necessary take steps to secure their property.”

As you can imagine such messages were scary and caused worry, but it was accepted as a necessary part of life. Such was the importance of passing on the message, it was considered acceptable to break in to popular programs such as soaps and not wait for the next commercial break or for the end of the show.

The form of such messages varied over the years. In the 1980s, the BBC version was simple, just the words “POLICE MESSAGE” in yellow text placed in the centre of the screen over the program.

UTV appeared to have a special slide for the task, containing the Ulster Television ‘waveform’ logo along with the words “IMPORTANT POLICE MESSAGE”. All in all the Ulster Television version looked much more pleasing to the eye, but, in fairness, does looking good matter given the nature of why such captions and slides were used?

As the years rolled on and technology improved, the on-screen graphics changed. Ulster Television would simply put a textual summary of the police message on screen, with no logos or prepared graphics. The BBC’s version was similar except sometimes they would use the name captions from “Inside Ulster” (the local news programme) to hold the textual summary.

Such messages have not been seen for some time, thankfully. This is due to the lowering of tensions in Northern Ireland and our rocky peace process. However they are still an interesting piece of television presentation nonetheless.

The Police have Informed Us

The “Police have informed us that…” message was seen exclusively on Ulster Television and never on the BBC due to the fact that only UTV used in-vision continuity.

The continuity announcer would appear on screen looking very serious usually holding a piece of paper with the message on and the read out a terse message similar to those mentioned above.

Many times it would be clear to see the paper the announcer was holding had come straight from a fax machine – such was the urgency of such announcement, there was no time to prepare a script.

After making the announcement they would revert to continuity announcer mode and introduce the program.

Sometimes this procedure would be reversed and the announcer would introduce the program first and then add the announcement at the end. For me this always seemed odd and didn’t seem right, but even if it wasn’t, it had to be done.

Static slide

Another form of broadcasting announcements was to make the announcement between programs. This was seen on the BBC, as Ulster Television would use their continuity announcers to do the same. In the 1980s this would take the form of a plain blue screen with the words “POLICE MESSAGE” written on screen.

The announcer would then speak the message. Again, as the years went by, the style of the on-screen graphics changed, and in the late 1980s a textual summary of the message appeared on-screen.

However, in to the 1990s a corporate style of on-screen graphics was used. The style was identical to the transmitter information slide, but with the words ‘POLICE MESSAGE’ instead, and there was no textual summary of the message written on the slide.

As well as making important emergency announcements, TV presentation showed other signs of being affected by The Troubles, the most obvious being the adverts for the confidential telephone service, used in Northern Ireland to allow the public to give tip-offs to the police.

Prior to the 1990s, when such adverts became multi-million pound cinematic efforts, such adverts were very, very plain and dull. Usually a picture of an old telephone, accompanied by a list of phone numbers and appropriate voice over.

Such films were rarely seen on Ulster Television, but were common on the BBC usually late at night before close down. However it wasn’t at all uncommon for such film to appear before an episode of EastEnders and for it to be announced as a special ‘information film’.

As we moved in to the 1990s the government started making big cinematic adverts of epic proportion to raise awareness of the confidential telephone service, many of these adverts could last over 3 minutes.

Usually they were shown on Ulster Television or Channel 4 during the commercial breaks, but they also appeared on the BBC Two. If my recollection serves me correctly such adverts were shown just at the end of the local news at 7:00pm and at the start of the evening’s viewing.

It goes to show how the situation in Northern Ireland created a situation where public information films such as these were given such prominence, whereas standard government Public Information Films in other regions would rarely be seen in primetime, except during the depths of recession when advertising was cheap.

The story of how television in Northern Ireland was affected by The Troubles is fascinating and no doubt a whole book could be written on the subject, but for now I hope you enjoyed reading my recollections of what was a unique kind of television presentation.

A Transdiffusion Presentation

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