Josna Rege

25. British TV, Fall of ’63

In 1960s, Britain, Family, history, Media, Music, Stories on March 19, 2010 at 2:31 am

In the Fall of 1963 my mother and sister and I lived in England for a few short months before joining my father, who had gone on ahead to India. I attended school in London with my cousin Lesley during a time of dramatic cultural and political change. It was during this fall that Beatlemania broke out and President Kennedy was assassinated. But before this explosive season, living in Greece, I had never even heard of the Beatles or President Kennedy, and the main reason was that I had never been exposed to television.

BBC Globe, 1963 (logos.wikia.com)

British television in 1963 was a pretty limited affair: just three channels airing programming for only a few short hours every day. Young children’s programming would air for an hour or two in the morning and early afternoon, and older children’s programming, between about 4 and 6pm, after school and before the evening news. The evening was divided into two parts, with game shows and other family programmes airing for a couple of hours after the news, and content deemed unsuitable for children running from 9 to 11 pm, after which all the channels signed off for the night, playing the national anthem. Two of the three channels were government-run: BBC1 and BBC2; and only one channel, ITV, carried commercial advertising—or adverts, as they are called in England. But before that fall I had not been exposed to advertising either, so I was putty in the advertisers’ hands.

I had disposable income during those months, because my dear Uncle Bill always managed to slip change into my pockets (though my mother strictly forbade him to do so and me to accept it). So when the adverts proclaimed: “Opal Fruits—made to make your mouth water,” I made a mental note of it, so that I could remember to ask for them at the sweet shop conveniently located across the street from my school. When the adverts announced that Opal Fruits (Starburst in the United States) was adding a new flavor, I felt grateful to them for having provided me with that useful piece of information. In fact, I saw them as entirely benevolent public service announcements; it never occurred to me that they were trying to sell a product. (In America their very name, “commercials,” ensures that no such mistake can be made.)

The Beatles on “Ready, Steady, Go!” October 4th, 1963

That fall I both caught and missed some pivotal events on television. I saw the Beatles playing She Loves You on a pop music show one night, and the very next day their record was Number One in the charts and it seemed that everybody at school, including me, could talk of nothing else. The Beatles’ Royal Command Performance was to be broadcast on television one night, and despite my vehement protests my mother insisted that it was on too late and made me go to bed without watching it. But the next morning, she too had caught Beatlemania, as she recounted with glee what the impertinent John Lennon had said to the royalty in attendance, while I raged in impotent fury.

I had never followed the news before and the near-continuous coverage of President Kennedy’s assassination gripped me, but the horror of it was softened by my previous lack of awareness of Kennedy—indeed, of America in general. I watched the repeatedly replaying footage of Jack Ruby’s killing of Lee Harvey Oswald with fascination, but it was quite unreal to me.

Another shadowy memory: one evening I was alone in the living room before going up to bed, and watched the beginning of a show I had never seen before, a mysterious programme involving a dark-blue police phone booth. It was only many years later that it occurred to me that I had been watching the first-ever episode of Doctor Who.

The TARDIS, November 1963 (rdwf.org.uk)

By the New Year we were back in India, and I was not to see television again for another five years, until another explosive season: the Summer of 1968 (See TMA 119. Top of the Pops, 1968-69).

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  1. What a fab article Jo – you have such a good recall – we must have driven our mums crazy! Yeah Yeah Yeah!! Am just about to read the one you wrote on my birthday. Lots of love, cussin Lesley xxx

  2. Dear Jo
    I have just read your blog very interesting. At the moment I am in Majorca with Neil and Lesley and havimg s lovely time. Give my love to Mum and Dadand of course Andrew. Love Aunty Angy xxxx luck

    • Aunty Angy–all the way from Majorca! Did you read “The Comic Shed”? Do you remember sending all those parcels of comics and magazines to India? Hope you all enjoy the rest of your holiday together and talk to you again soon. Hugs, Jo

  3. As usual, your piece triggered a flood of memories. I was first exposed to TV in India in Grade 6, I think. I remember the excitement of the arrival of the black and white TV set and forgetting dinner because of Lucille Ball, then Richard III, a still marvelous BBC production. Love that you assumed commercials were a public service in the most meaningful way possible :)…what a debt of gratitude! A new flavor of starburst…world news pales in comparison, and the Beatles!

    • Urmi, I Love Lucy was my uncles’ favorite in India (followed by Yes, Minister)! How do you think not having grown up with it affects the way you experience television?

  4. So much fun to read this again! And I’m surprised to see the original date of spring 2010. You’ve been so faithful to your blog, quite impressive, especially since the quality remains so high!

    • Thank you for re-reading, Sarah, and for your kind comment, Yes, it’s been a long time. I’m wondering if it needs to morph into something else, or whether it will do so on its own, in its own time.

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