Our Century

TV pioneers' heroic failure

Walsall Arboretum
Walsall Arboretum Illuminations' 1955 depiction of Gulliver in Lilliput.

In the year that commerical television first hit the small screen - and in those days they were very small - an attempt to pilot a live transmission from Wolverhampton turned into a comically heroic failure.

The programme called "Town Forum" was a version with pictures of a popular radio panel show which toured various venues in the provinces a little like "Any Questions" today.

What were described as "four prominent Europeans" from Germany, France, Italy and Denmark assembled at the Wulfrun Hall to air their views on the issues of the day - when they fell victim to the British weather.

It interfered with the microwave transmitter on the top of Wolverhampton and Staffordshire Technical College and despite the best efforts of engineers viewers saw only half the scheduled 30-minute programme but were able - and perhaps this was a mixed blessing - to hear everything.

The fault that developed was restored temporarily but failed again during the course of the programme.

In the hall itself an audience of the great and the good from Wolverhamtpton had assembled ready to ask questions but members of the panel spouted on for so long that only four were actually asked from the floor.

Viewers saw only one of the questioners, the president of Wolverhampton Trades Council T R Thomson, who asked for the panel's views on the introduction of a common European language and unrestricted travel across the continent by Europeans.

Other questions - seen but not heard by the viewers - dealt with providing living space for the population of some European countries, the hydrogen bomb and the religious campaigning of Dr Billy Graham.

To complete the fiasco one of the speakers - Per Torben Federspiel from Denmark - was rudeley interruped by cries of "rubbish" by some members of the audience.

The region's early excursions into live TV did not prove too much of a handicap as within a year the first provincial commercial TV station went on the air in Birmingham.

Labour loses out in Staffs election: On the day that Churchill quit as Prime Minister and was replaced by Sir Anthony Eden there were some major political comings and goings closer to home with a big upset in the Staffordshire County Council elections.

Labour lost control of the county for the first time since the end of the war although it was a narrow squeak with the Tories and Independents having an overall majority of just one.

Reg Underhill, West Midlands organiser for the Labour party, tried to put a brave face on it.

"It would be foolish to say the results are not disappointing for, despite the magnificent achivements of the Labour majority on the county council, the party will undoubtedly lose control.

"A careful review of the results does not, however, give rise for any concern in a possible general election."

He was to be proved wrong on this one with the Tories roaring home under Macmillan just four years later.

Taxis seek protection: Walsall taxi proprietor Ted Tomkins demanded police protection for his cabbies after a series of violent late night attacks on the drivers.

He called for his fellow proprietors to back him up with his demands and told his men:

"Take care of yourselves if you get a fare to Aston in Birmingham. That's where mopst of the attacks take place."

He said bilking had always been a problem but that it was now being accompanied by violence.

Sporting a black eye but back on duty in Walsall town centre Johnny Botomer explained how he had been struck with a metal bar and punched in the face by a fare who escaped after being dropped off in Aston.

Schools in shop row: Unofficial tuckshops selling sweets and biscuits outside schools in Stafford were causing concern to both traders and councillors in the county town.

The issue was higlighted at a meeting early in the year of the Stafford Chamber of Trade by L H Kinson who was a councillor - and also, it was significantly revealed, "a grocer and provision dealer".

Councillor Kitson said head teachers of certain schools in Stafford had been buying sweets and biscuits at wholesale prices and selling them to pupils, the profits then going to school funds.

Waiting for the borough status that never came . . . Stan Hill, of Brierley Hill, was the youngest civic leader in the country when he was elected chairman of Brierley Hill Urban District Council . . .

"There was a bit of a catch.

"Everyone expected that Brierley Hill was going to become a borough, as Solihull did. So all the older, more senior members were hanging back and making excuses. They all had a good reason for not being chairman. I think they were hoping to hang on so that they could throw their hats in the ring to become the charter mayor.

"However, the Government had other ideas. Brierley Hill never became a borough and in 1966 was made part of Dudley.

"Anyway at 26 I was an ex-officio magistrate, too. I remember going to the magistrates' room for the first time and knocking on the door.

"No reply. I knocked again. Nothing. Finally, after knocking three times I walked in. This older man looked up and said, 'What the hell d'you think you're doing in the magistrates room?'

"I was terrified. I said: 'I'm a m-m-magistrate." Apparently he thought I was a defendant!

"I was a teacher and then warden for 20 years of Dudley Teacher Centre until I retired in 1988.

"I became editor of the Blackcountryman magazine and published my first proper book, Brierley Hill in Old Photographs, in 1994. I heard last year that it was the best-selling book in that series.

"My latest book is Stan Hill's Brierley Hill and Life, a chance to bring together all these old anecdotes. Since I retired in 1988 I've never been so busy."

"When you're working you have acolytes who can do the donkey work for you. When you're on your tod, you have to do all the donkey work yourself."

Martin Swain
Best teacher? Mrs Brice. First kiss? Carol Lawrence. Next door...

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