There used to be a comedy program called The Goon Show on the radio when I was a kid in England. It was originally broadcast by the BBC Home Service from 1951 to 1960, which means it actually finished when I was three years old, so they must have broadcast repeats after that because I remember listening to it with my dad.
It’s hard to describe the Goon Show – the script was incredibly zany, the humor was surreal, and the programs were jam-packed with bizarre sound effects – you had to be there. Prince Charles loved it, and it was cited as a major influence by folks as diverse as the Beatles and the members of Monty Python.
The key members of the cast were Spike Milligan, Harry Secombe, Peter Sellers, and Michael Bentine. As an aside, Spike Milligan and Harry Secombe first met and became friends while serving in the Royal Artillery during World War II. Both must have been young men in their early 20s at the time. Milligan's artillery unit accidentally allowed a large howitzer to roll off a cliff. Secombe, who sitting in a small wireless truck at the bottom of the cliff, describes what happened as follows:
"Suddenly there was a terrible noise as some monstrous object fell from the sky quite close to us. There was considerable confusion, and in the middle of it all the flap of the truck was pushed open and a young, helmeted idiot asked 'Anybody see a gun?'”
The “idiot” asking the question was Spike Milligan. Secombe immediately responded “What colour was it?”
(This must have been one of the greatest comebacks of all time – it makes me grin just thinking of the two of them meeting in this way.)
From left to right, Sellers, Milligan, and Secombe
Two of the characters in the Goon Show were called Bluebottle
. A snippet from one of the programs in which Eccles is trapped in a cellar (as I recall) sticks in my mind to this day. It went something like this:
BLUEBOTTLE: Why don't you open the door?
ECCLES: Okay, I'll open... how do you open a door?
BLUEBOTTLE: You turn the knob on your side.
ECCLES: I haven't got a knob on my side.
BLUEBOTTLE: On the door you idiot!
Well, it made me laugh… but that’s not what I wanted to talk about… I was thinking of the way televisions were and how you had to twiddle and fiddle with their knobs to make them work… and it was this that caused the Goon Show to pop into my mind.
These days we're used to seeing incredibly thin, flat television screens in the form of LCDs (Liquid Crystal Displays), plasma displays, OLED (Organic Light-Emitting Diode) displays, and so forth. Also, the electronics systems inside today’s television sets are based on digital logic implemented using solid-state silicon chips.
The end result is that modern televisions are extremely reliable, the full-screen picture appears almost instantly when you power-up the TV, and the picture remains rock-steady...
...things weren't always this way...
When I was a young lad, the display portion of the television was a huge phosphor-lined, heavy-duty glass vacuum tube called a Cathode Ray Tube (CRT). [I’m spelling everything out for the younger folks who really may not have seen a CRT in their lives.] Meanwhile, the electronics systems inside the set were based on vacuum tubes (called valves in England), which – if you took the back off the set and peered inside – sort of looked like dimly-glowing light bulbs.
As a result, there were certain characteristic features associated with the early television sets that would be unacceptable to a modern viewing audience, but were simply regarded as a "fact of life" in the early days...
When you first turned the set on, for example, the picture didn't immediately appear. Instead, a small version of the image appeared in the center of the screen, and over the course of a few seconds it gradually grew to fill the screen. (In my "mind's eye" I'm visualizing a black-and-white television picture because that's what we had, but the same thing happened with color sets).
Similarly, when you turned the television off, the picture didn’t simply disappear. Instead, it gradually shrank toward the center of the screen, growing smaller and smaller until – eventuality – you were left with only a bright white spot in the middle of the screen (this dot subsequently faded away into oblivion).
But wait, there's more, because things began to deteriorate over time. After a few years in operation, your television set was no longer as "robust" as once it was. For reasons too complicated to go into here, the vacuum-tube based electronic systems began to "drift" such that the image might not exactly "fit" the screen.
Thus, on the back of the set (almost invariably to be found in the most inaccessible location) there would be a collection of knobs that allowed you to adjust the width and height of the picture. Also, there would be a knob to move the entire picture up/down and another to move it left-right. (Since folks at that time were generally unused to any form of electronics (outside of things like radio sets and record players), the vast majority of users regarded these controls as being the equivalent to the cockpit of a commercial airliner.)
In some cases – possibly depending on ambient temperature and humidity, or possibly depending on your television's sheer contrariness – the picture might start to rotate in a vertical direction. This would begin with the picture gradually moving up (or down) the screen such that the upper portion of the image disappeared off the top of the display and reappeared at the bottom. (Imagine watching an episode of I Love Lucie where the cast's legs are walking around the upper half of the screen while their heads, shoulders, and torsos appear on the bottom.)
If left unattended, the image would start to rotate from top to bottom, or vice versa, which was a bit like watching one of the dial's on an old-fashioned slot machine just after you had pulled its handle. Thus, there was also a knob to control the "vertical hold" on the back of the television set.
The sad thing is that once you started playing with these knobs, you knew in your heart-of-hearts that "the end was nigh"
for your television. Tweaking one knob seemed to subtly affect the other settings. Thus, although things might appear to be "tickety-boo" by the end of your current session, the next time you turned the set on the picture could well be "all over the place", thereby requiring you to perform a new, more radical set of "tweaks".
And remember that these controls were on the back of the set, which meant you had to drag the whole thing away from the wall and squeeze behind it to be able to access the small, ill-marked, hard-to-reach knobs.
Now imagine the frustration of "tweaking furiously" to achieve the "perfect picture", returning the television to its usual location, sitting back down in your seat ... only to see the picture start to roll around again!
Before long, you were spending more time adjusting the picture than you were actually watching the television programs.
Ah... the good old days... (grin)Click Here
to see other articles in this "How it was..."
series...Editor's Note: It would be great if – in addition to commenting on my articles – you took the time to write down short stories of your own. I can help in the copy editing department, so you don’t need to worry about being “word perfect”. All you have to do is to email your offering to me at max@CliveMaxfield.com with
“How it was” in the subject line.I can post your article as “anonymous” if you wish. On the other hand, what would be really cool would be if you wanted to add a few words about yourself – and maybe even provide a couple of
“Then and Now” pictures – for example:On the left we see me as a young sprog – I was still a student at this time, poised on the brink of leaping into my first position at International Computers Limited (ICL). On the right we see me as I am today – a much older and sadder man, beaten down by the pressures of work and bowed by the awesome responsibilities I bear (grin).
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