Babycham Night

Source: Philip Norman, Babycham Night (London: Macmillan, 2003), pp. 148-149

Text: To help the little invalid through these long daytime hours, my mother rented a television, a Ferguson model with a seventeen-inch screen and twin frontal knobs set in a strip of gold mesh. But it was an inconstant companion. The solitary black-and-white BBC channel usually did not begin service until mid-afternoon and there were frequent shutdowns, or ‘interludes’, when they killed time with film sequences of a clay pot being thrown on a wheel, or a punt-prow gliding somnambulistically through plantations of river reeds. Unless you lived within a couple of miles of the BBC’s London transmitter, reception tended to be poor; on the Isle of Wight, it was atrocious. At regular intervals, the picture would collapse sideways into horizontal black and grey stripes, or flick downwards in individual squares like frames of film. The only person we knew who could put it right was a taxi-driver from the Esplanade rank named Mr Stiles. We’d have to wait for hours, or even days, until Mr Stiles had time to drop by, in his peaked chauffeur’s cap, and twiddle knobs until the picture stabilized again.

With the television’s arrival, I ceased to be totally bedridden and became capable of the few brave steps from my parents’ bedroom into the adjacent sitting-room, where I would lie on the big brocade Chesterfield sofa, covered with a rug. In the curtain-drawn twilight considered necessary for TV-viewing in those days, I watched all of what little was on – Test cricket, Russian ballet, the afternoon adventures of puppets like Andy Pandy, Mr Turnip and Bill and Ben the Flowerpot Men. I knew every note of the long drawn-out overture played as a sound track to the test card before transmission began. Beside me in the darkness watched Mrs Kennie, knitting-needles ever in play. ‘Verra gude,’ was her invariable judgement on everything.

Comments: Philip Norman (born 1943) is a British novelist, biographer and journalist. He was brought up in Ryde, on the Isle of Wight. Babycham Night is an account of his 1950s childhood. This passage dates from the early 1950s. Andy Pandy was first broadcast in 1950; Mr Turnip was a character in Whirligig (first broadcast 1950); Bill and Ben were the lead characters in The Flower Pot Men, first broadcast 1952. Norman’s ‘illness’ was feigned.

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