Before the war mains radio became the focus of living room entertainment. No longer a solitary pastime for hobbyists with headphones, amplifiers could now drive external loudspeakers to enable the whole family to gather round and listen to the valve radio set.
The popularity of radio was such that the old wind-up record players of the 1930s were replaced by radiograms – impressive pieces of cabinet furniture with mains radio, electric turntable with autochanger and perhaps several large loudspeakers. Radiograms were frequently found in dining and living rooms throughout the 1950s and 1960s, by which time they were marketed as stereograms.
The mains radio was still a prominent feature in most houses in the 1950s, enhanced by better quality broadcasts on the high-power VHF/FM service launched in May 1955. At the same time the radio set was undergoing a technological revolution as valves changed to transistors to create smaller, more reliable and more portable radios for personal use.
Direct competition from television ousted radio from the centre of the home. Radio licences began to fall from 1952 while TV licences rose from 344,000 in 1950 to 1.5 million in 1952, by which time four out of five homes could receive TV signals.
Television enters the home
The spectacle of Queen Elizabeth II’s Coronation in June 1953 provided the incentive for large numbers to buy a television set for the first time. Children and staff at Great Ormond Street Hospital watched the procession in the Abbey unfold in full colour as the BBC staged the first public experimental closed circuit demonstration of colour TV in Britain. Those who couldn’t afford a set caught their first glimpse of live black and white television between the shoulders of unknown neighbours lucky enough to have one. Often they were besieged by whole streets of people.
Television conquers all
The launch of independent television (ITV) in 1955 meant that some radio programmes were successfully transferred on to television, such as Take Your Pick with Michael Miles, Hughie Green’s Opportunity Knocks and a year later Hancock's Half Hour. ITV also brought advertising directly into the living room to sell everything from toothpaste to washing machines to a captive audience. By 1960 television had been transformed in the home from an amusing diversion to the means by which the great mass of the UK received their entertainment, news, sport and information. Social snobbery about owning a television was so strong that some houses sported TV aerials, though they lacked the actual set.
Family habits were remoulded. The cosy sitting room in which the comfy huddle of the three-piece suite was like a little encampment – mimicking the togetherness of the nuclear family, and forming a miniature stadium for watching the world as shown on TV.
In many households, cooking and eating was sometimes based around television programme scheduling, with simpler buffet-style meals designed to be eaten whilst viewing. Then there was the TV dinner – an airline-style ready meal in a compartmented tin-foil tray, washed down with a bottle of beer. Although popular in the USA they never really caught on in Britain. More memorable were the ‘television assortment’ tins of biscuits and toffees produced by manufacturers cashing in on the TV craze. These would be passed around while watching programmes such as Coronation Street or the Sixty-Four Thousand Dollar Question.
There seemed no end to the scope and potential of television. Before the end of 1969, viewers had enjoyed the Wimbledon tennis championships in full colour and watched in awe as Neil Armstrong stepped onto the surface of the Moon 382,000 kilometres away.