Writers Workshop: Earliest Memories of Wireless and TV in Wales

hmv radio2Best memoir writing from Our Memoir Group (OMG) in Sydney this week comes from Robert Spencer:

My parents owned a ‘His Masters Voice’ (HMV) wireless, which was placed on the sideboard in the lounge room near the fireplace. As a young child I was always drawn to the emblem on the front of the wireless of a dog looking into a gramophone horn. Later I found out this emblem was the symbol of all HMV products.

I thought a man lived in the box, which was confirmed by my father. He would say,

‘Argh, now son, let’s wake up the little man. Let’s see if I can wake him up.’

He would knock on top of the cabinet.

‘Are you there?’ my father spoke at the cabinet.

A yellow light would start to glow and after a second, a voice would come booming through the speaker.

‘See now,’ Dad would say. ‘Now go over there and play while I listen to the news.’

It was my older brother Hylton who said to me,

‘Don’t be so stupid! No one lives in the box. Dad is only kidding you – the man’s voice comes through the air by radio waves.’

It was his way of trying to explain to me how the wireless worked. Another thing my older brother told me was that there was no Santa Claus.

How did I ever manage to survive growing up?

My parents enjoyed listening to the BBC comedy hour, The Goon Show, with Spike Milligan, Peter Sellers and Harry Secombe. Mum and Dad would roar with laughter at their jokes. I would also join in although I never understood what they were laughing at. I was pleased to hear them laughing because there were very difficult moments in the marriage between my parents.

Other programs they enjoyed listening to were nightly serials, and other stories such as The Count of Monte Cristo, and Shakespearean and other classical plays. Dad also enjoyed listening to sport: football and cricket were his favourites.

Mum would listen to her morning serials. They would run for anything from 15 to 30 minutes and we all had to be quiet when her programs were being broadcast. Mum and my older sisters would also dance to popular songs being played, for example, Bill Haley and the Comets’ Rock Around the Clock or Shake Rattle and Roll.

I can clearly recall one day Mum was ironing and a song called The Twist came on the radio.

‘Come on everybody,’ Chubby Checker’s voice boomed out of the speaker.

She immediately put down the iron, turned up the volume and started doing the twist. After gliding around the lounge room towards me, twisting, she bent down to me, then spun around, and with her right hand grabbed me, still doing the twist.

Then she let me go, closed her eyes, and with her long dark hair swinging, twisted away to the rhythm of the song. She only ever turned up the volume when Dad wasn’t home.

One day Dad decided to buy a television, which was a major commitment and not taken lightly. The television was another HMV product.

In the ’50s and early ’60s there weren’t many transmission towers in North Wales, and every time it rained or snowed we could not get a picture. It rained a lot in North Wales so we missed a lot of programs. Dad was always annoyed then because it meant he couldn’t watch his favourites. Television was an expensive item to buy in those days, which meant my parents had to pay for it by hire-purchase agreements.

I can also recall one day when the TV/radio licence was due for renewal and Mum and Dad packed up the TV and put it in the parlour. Those were the days when an inspector would come around to collect money for the licence.

When he knocked on our door my mother said, ‘We do not own a television, but we do own a radio’.

‘That will be a pound, thank you, Mrs Spencer,’ the inspector promptly replied.

She had told the kids not to say we owned a TV. Yet it was obvious someone in our house owned a TV – it was pretty hard to hide the outside antenna on the roof.

The inspector took a step back and looked up at our roof.

‘Strange! Who owns that antenna then, Mrs Spencer?’

It was as though he’d asked the question in some alien language. Mum just looked at him, blinking. I could feel she was edgy.

‘Well?’ he asked.

‘Pardon?’ Mum said.

‘The antenna! Who owns it?’ the inspector shouted at her.

Mum then went on the offensive.

‘Why are you shouting at me? Besides, who do you think you are to shout at me, you silly little man?’

He was shocked that she had spoken to him in that manner and she didn’t give him a chance to reply.

‘Look, all these houses are joined together so how do I know who owns the bloody antenna?’

‘But Mrs …’

‘No buts about it! You go and find out. It was here when we moved in.’

She then dismissed him by turning around, grabbing me by the arm and walking back into the house. With the back of her foot, she slammed the door in his face.

‘Phew, that was close,’ said my father.

My mother gave him a stern look, and without a word, walked straight past him into the lounge room.

‘Quick. Quickly now,’ she said. ‘Get the TV into the parlour and hide it under Robert’s train set, before he wakes up or some bastard tells the man we own a TV. I’ll get my tablecloth to cover the screen.’

Dad disconnected the TV and tried to lift it into the parlour, but it was very heavy because it was made of solid wood. It took a while.

After a couple days, my parents thought they were safe from the prying eyes of the inspector so they brought the TV out from the parlour again.

But my parents had fallen into the trap. The inspector came back a couple of nights later in a van with a device that detected which houses were receiving signals. The police accompanied him.

So my parents were fined £5 plus £3 for not having a current licence. Eight pounds was a lot of money in those days and we were not the only family caught in Pentre Maelor having to pay the price for not having a licence.

I remember the inspector smirking.

Listening to the radio at night around the fireplace always gave a certain ambience of warmth and security. We were also encouraged to read books borrowed from the mobile library. The library would come around once a week and Mum would select the books we could read. I believe that reading and listening to the radio both helped me use my imagination.

I first heard Dylan Thomas’s Under Milk Wood when I was staying in my grandmother’s house in Brymbo. And today, whenever I hear a Richard Burton recording of the play, it rekindles profound memories, back to that night in the 1960s.

To begin at the beginning:’

‘Shush now, Robert – and listen,’ says Gran.

It is spring, moonless night in the small town, starless
and bible-black, the cobblestreets silent and the hunched,
courters’-and-rabbits’ wood limping invisible down to the
sloeblack, slow, black, crowblack, fishingboatbobbing sea.

I close my eyes on a dark secluded beach at night and I can hear and say these words. I slowly repeat them to myself.

A whisper, the sigh of burning coals and images of yellow-green smoke slowly rising up the chimney. I’m back sitting on the floor in the lounge-dining room. My Gran is sitting in her favourite rose-patterned armchair knitting while Uncle Bill smokes Llareggub tobacco.

‘Oh, Bill. How splendid he writes!’

Bill says quietly, ‘Hush, Marg’.

He places his forefinger on his lips.


Contact our writers workshop www.ssoa.com.au/ on 0432 289 311 or email cvwilliams@ozemail.com.au
Photo credit Powerhouse Museum.


  1. Michael Johnston
    19 May, 2014 at 4:48 pm

    A beautiful piece of writing. Just the right length that portends of much more to come. How valuable to get such prosaic observations of everyday life. Currently in Paris and wondering how the impressionists were able to distil the common things and, with light, illustrate the beauty of daily life. Robert has accomplished this with his pen. Quite inspirational. MJ

    Reply »
  2. Christine Williams
    21 May, 2014 at 3:20 pm

    Kay Barker from Our Memoir Group has sent the following comment of support: 'Hush Kay, Robert will read this wonderful piece to us again if we ask politely!'

    Reply »
  3. Christine Williams
    21 May, 2014 at 3:22 pm

    Bob Beale's response on Facebook was: 'Evocative piece - marvellous ending.'

    Reply »

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