The Channel Islands close and yet so far

A BBC journalist in Plymouth once asked, " How long does it take to drive to Jersey?". We can laugh at this unschooled question and at the same time reflect on the trials and tribulations it took to make the broadcast connections between the mainland and archipelago.

Surprisingly it wasn't the BBC who made the first connection - but an enterprising company called REDIFFUSION who dared to grasp the challenge.   

Rediffusion came about as a cable relay company who could receive the radio broadcasts of the territories in operated in and 'pipe' them down cables to subscriber loudspeakers avoiding the need to purchase radio equipment. After WW2 the company expanded into the British Dominions and Jersey also became another commercial opportunity. In summer 1949 a new local subsidiary was formed. It took several attempts to gain approval from the Jersey States (legislature). By 1951 offices were open, and over a thousand subscribers signed up. A site at Les Platons on the north of the island hosted the new aerials picking up signals from the BBC and Radio Luxembourg.  They also had ambitions to receive the new TV transmissions and tests began. The BBC  had dismissed TV reception from England as impossible - but Rediffusion with their sanguine expectations were not going to give up that easily!

By the end of 1951 they had set up an experimental receiving station at Les Platons, first receiving signals from Crystal Palace, London and then swapping to Wenvoe when the South Wales transmitter  opened in 1952. Additionally, aerials pointed to Paris providing another international option for Jersey viewers. The coronation of Queen Elizabeth prompted Rediffusion to seek permission from the PMG ( The States are under UK jurisdiction for broadcasting) to relay the pictures for a small number of subscribers and visitors to their shop. A waiver was granted but just for the event until a final decision was made. This took until the following year because there was opposition from some radio dealers who feared loss of revenue. The coronation relay was a success and allowed Jèrriais to enjoy the spectacle.

Meanwhile, the BBC were busy planning their own TV receiving mast having been assisted by, and motivated by Rediffusion's success. This too was to be at Les Platons. Rediffusion did get there a year in advance of the BBC which allowed them to build up a subscriber base in the south of the island. Rediffusion staged some outside broadcasts covering the 'Battle Of Flowers' and the Muratti Vase, the local football competition. 

Rediffusion Les Platons a little later in 1960

The BBC opened their transmitter in autumn 1955 primarily receiving its signal from North Hessary Tor on Dartmoor  to Torteval on Guernsey thence via a radio link to Les Platons... and so began the Channel Isle link with Southwest England. In France the authorities were getting nervous that British TV reception may encourage viewers in Normandy and Brittany to buy 405 line sets contrary to French plans. Their regional rollout was not due until the early 60s, so they rushed out plans for low power stations at Rennes and Nantes to counter the British advantage.    

The BBC had taken the initiative to feature the Isles on some live transmissions starting in 1948 on radio when the Formula 1 road race on a street circuit in St Helier was featured. In 1955/6 the new television service had been inaugurated and management in Bristol were debating how or if they could get pictures back from the islands with a view to producing live programmes. Tests showed that a direct link back was unachievable, so Desmond Hawkins BBC West boss met with the head of programmes at Radiodiffusion Télévision Française. A radio link was going to be available from Deauville in July and so a deal was done to provide extra radio links linking from the Cherbourg peninsula.  Full speed ahead! read more after the video below.

The Jersey Road Race broadcast

The first live TV broadcast from the Channel islands in 1956

Click HERE for a description of the broadcast from the Radio Times of that week in 1956 


Hello Independent Television

Whereas the BBC had always planned that television with them would be an outpost of the west region, as it was, or Plymouth area as it would become, the Independent Television Authority (ITA) knew that there were keen applicants for a Channel Isles only contract license. Peter Cadbury of Westward had agreed to collaborate with any new licensee and the way was clear after the law was changed to include the Islands as part of the Television Act. Two strong applicants were in the running but Senator George Troy, who had been lobbying for radio and television for years was successful with his group's proposals. He realised his ambition to create a Channel islands station and see it on the air but sadly died soon afterwards. A link to further information can be found HERE.

It always seemed to the ITA that the smaller the company the more the trouble! Channel serving the smallest audience of the network also had the least money and the most expensive transmission network. They were never going to be anything but a liability but that didn't matter in the days when public service was important even in the commercial media field.  Channel had to call on the services of ABC TV one of the biggest contractors, for production and technical know-how but unlike Westward with their rather lavish spending, Channel settled on low budget film and camera facilities - just like the BBC in Plymouth where cheaper vidicon cameras were chosen.  

One of the main challenges was getting a signal from Westward TV across the English Channel. Alderney was chosen as a receiving base which could then beam the signal via microwave to Fremont Point on Jersey, close to the Rediffusion and BBC site. Not only were there technical challenges but also political and planning considerations - not everybody on the islands was keen to have masts on their doorstep. 

So Channel, the smallest station in the ITV family came on air on the 1st September 1962. by the end of the first year on-air they had 60% of the audience share and had gained a good reputation in news reporting. Westward remained the primary source for programmes but they also negotiated an extra deal with Southern TV, mainly because a good signal could not always be received from the Stockland Hill transmitter in East Devon and the Alderney station could switch to the Chillerton Down transmitter on the Isle of Wight . In many respects a connection to the Westward region was not a good fit - the cultural and practical links were always stronger to central southern England - things would change in the years to come.   

The main TV studio in 1962
The studio centre in the early years

Not only was broadcasting taking shape in the islands,  a small manufacturing and design  industry was emerging . Thanks to the Rediffusion connection, a new company called Television Research Ltd was formed which manufactured cable television equipment for the whole Rediffusion group and later for subsidiaries in the background music market. In 1966, the Radio Corporation of America (RCA) set up a small operation in Jersey to remanufacture parts for their  video recorders. The tax status of the island  helped with tax free access to the European market. It eventually closed in the late 80's citing difficulties recruiting skilled staff and transport costs. By the 1980's the market was changing and the Rediffusion operations were approaching 'end of life' . 1985 saw their closure. Coincidentally Rediffusion's old site at La Pouquelaye was sold to Channel TV for their new base.

We recommend browsing to the excellent to see more about the development of Channel to the present day. Below is a great video celebrating the 60th anniversary from ITV. Channel must have had from the start, very effective library staff who were able to keep a very good archive. 

More from the BBC

Back to the 1960's and the BBC continued to refine the transmission system for TV as more TV stations came on line in Europe so there were increasing problems with interference. On Guernsey the receiving station was re-engineered at Torteval in 1964 as this news film shows.

By December 1961 VHF radio had also arrived in the islands. The three main BBC radio channels were rebroadcast from North Hessary Tor or Rowridge in much the same way as 405line TV. This lasted until the 1980's when the Les Platons mast was replaced and re-engineered for stereo reception. Torteval on Guernsey was replaced by a site on Alderney, the closest island to the mainland, to be the main receiving station. This mirrored the changes that had taken place for television reception. A clever diversity radio receiver was now used which auto-switched  from Dartmoor to the Isle of Wight if the primary signal was disrupted.

The momentum was gathering in the BBC for the roll-out of the next local radio stations. Both main islands were to have their own BBC stations - surprisingly so considering the low population and the costs in setting up new stations. 1982 was the big year at BBC Southwest as 4 local radio stations were due to be launched. As it happened the Channel Isles stations were first to launch in March'82 with the mainland local radio stations waiting until the early part of '83 to mark their debut. 

Links from space and Children In Need

It was early days in the development of satellite links for television outside broadcasts. The BBC had a single uplink in development. It was used for a series of OB bookings from Guernsey in November 1981. All were successful using a downlink at Goonhilly in Cornwall. Six years later the trailer and uplink truck made a return visit to provide a link back to Plymouth for the first Channel Islands Children In Need live presentation. Chris Slade was the main presenter at the skating rink at Fort Regent and a team of production and technical staff arrived from their base in Plymouth. A well loaded Renault Espace carted over a concoction of equipment, having been driven via an overnight cargo ferry from Southsea together with the BBC link vehicle from London. Other recordings were planned, to make use of the equipment and crews including carols for forthcoming Christmas programmes. 

Satellite link UKI-001 rigged outside Fort Regent leisure centre

Plymouth Senior Operator Andy White constructs a temporary control room in the boot room at the leisure centre

A video round-up of the whole region's contribution to Children In Need 1987 

A Dream and a Garage

What do you do if you've been offered a redundant garage?  - build a TV Studio in it of course! So begins the story of local BBC TV in the islands.   What ingredients do you need to brew up a new news service? Take a keen news editor, engineering staff who are up for a challenge and a small team of staff with ambition. Back in the 1980's there was no money for a local BBC TV 'opt-out'   - no suitable buildings and no infrastructure to connect what was the BBC base in St Helier to the transmitter site. The BBC Transmitter department worked closely with its counterparts in the IBA who owned the Jersey TV transmitter site at Fremont Point. A deal was done whereby the BBC could lease an old garage. Being on-site with the transmitter, if an arrangement could be made to switch away from the sustaining feed originating from BBC Plymouth a camera and microphone could provide a local news opt.  

The only available transmission slot was after the evening nine o'clock news, replacing the opt from Plymouth. This would mean a high speed dash by car from the St Helier radio studio in the south to Fremont point in the north. In Jersey a dash means 30mph the speed limit! ....well if you stay legal. No new staff could be afforded so an evening news reporter would have to complete their radio duties before the trip 'up north', unlocking the garage, powering up the equipment and preparing for a bulletin. There were to be no facilities at the garage- a generous provision for a wall mirror allowed last minute make up and costume fixes !! No, it couldn't have happened on the mainland.  

Miracles can happen and the engineering team in Plymouth in conjunction with Ken Park the local radio engineer and the transmitter teams had assembled and built the parts necessary to connect it all together. BBC Plymouth had by necessity a proud tradition of 'make do and mend' and old redundant kit was dragged from cupboards, dusted off and reused. There were no means of getting 'moving pictures' into the news opt, the only innovation approaching the new decade was a slide projector and industrial camera to provide still shots. Of course this was second hand as well, having been used on BBC Spotlight to provide studio background images before the digital age. One of the Plymouth engineering innovators who built the original studio is now vice-president Engineering and Operations for NBCUniversal in New York City so garages in Jersey can provide useful experience!

The Plymouth engineering supervisor Gordon Bailey suggested three buttons on the control panel (centre of desk in the picture) one was for Network sound and vision, the next Network Vision with local cart audio and then local camera and microphone for the third. So at the allotted time the presenter would, while listening to the talkback from the Plymouth gallery switch between the sources. The BBC Southwest symbol from Plymouth would be the first scene with the cart machine providing a local introduction and then they would switch to the local camera and microphone. The desk control panel remotely switched a matrix in the transmitter hall nearby. Engineers Joddy Chapman and Glenn Thomason flew over to do the fit out once a new concrete floor had dried. Notice the bits of old carpet on the desktop to avoid sound reflections, no expense spared! 

A Presenter's Viewpoint

Faces At Fremont

As the new century approached the Jersey operation was becoming a bit embarrassing because it contained no  'moving pictures'. More space and more investment were needed. Fortuitously a small office space next to the garage at Fremont Point became available to house a small control room. With the addition of another person to direct the bulletin and with a pair of video tape machines  'moving pictures' would be at last possible. Necessity being the mother of invention prompted Plymouth engineer John Crosswaite to code a computer based event controller which enabled video to cue-up , and play inserts for the bulletins.

After 17 years the garage studio was finally shut down. Money had been found to equip the main BBC St Helier site for a television studio and updated editing facilities. Jersey Telecom was also able to connect the main base to the transmitter. Jersey was always an innovator and one of the first BBC news sites to use multi-skilled video journalists who could prepare their own material.  

The 2005 the technical and architectural fit out at Parade Road was might be described as a hotchpotch to put it mildly. Budgets did not match requirements and some of the planning decisions were distinctly odd - like instructing the architects and builders to prepare a studio - only to discover that they had planned a space for radio not TV! and the space designated had restricted ceiling height - challenges, challenges. Then money had to be spent instructing contractors to remove brand new air conditioning plant because it stopped a TV set backdrop being fitted. The budget only allowed limited facilities and much diy . Old industrial cameras were reused and most of the lighting had to be based on self modified industrial or domestic fixtures. Then it was disclosed that there was no budget for a sound mixer in the gallery. Scratch heads...' no problem we may have some old kit back in Plymouth' An old mixer was reused (third-hand and 20 yrs old) Those in the know could not help laughing when the new studio was described as 'state of the art' at launch. The freelance TV set designer and contractors had done a brilliant job giving Jersey a set which matched the BBC corporate look on a budget of 'pennies'. That was good in many ways as it encourages creativity and thrift, however when it was disclosed that £6000 had been spent on the BBC Jersey receptionist's desk together with generous junketing, attitudes amongst some changed. 

Quite a bit of extra funding has found its way to the Channel Isles since. Perhaps informed observers may comment how lucky local licence fee payers have been, considering their population, their GDP per capita  and the amount the BBC spends.  

A Unique Situation 

Back in 1995 a big news story was breaking from the islands. The Channiland catamaran, Saint-Malo hit a rock just off Corbi`````````````````````````````````````````````ere lighthouse on the extreme south-western point of Jersey. Many passengers had been injured and rescue teams were at full stretch with the situation. Clearly the BBC wanted to cover the story but had no live TV contribution facilities on the islands...what to do?
Jerseyman and BBC Southwest presenter Russell Labey who was ex employee of  Channel TV had the right connections and together with the operational team back at BBC Plymouth it was discovered that for the first time a video contribution circuit was available from the ITV network back from the islands to the mainland. This made use of the return circuit which had been provided for Channel 4 to the islands. So could BBC SW use this circuit? Channel TV were willing to provide facilities at the 'front end' so could a connection be made. Many conversations took place involving Jersey Telecom, BT, ITV, and the BBC switching centre in London - a plan was devised. The fibre connection came ashore at Dartmouth and was routed by BT to Bristol. Here it made its way to the BT Tower in London. The video and encoded audio could then be routed to the BBC Central Apparatus room at BBC Television Centre. From here the video signal with its associated sound which was to the ITV Sound-In-Syncs standard (incompatible with the BBC's standard) could be cross converted to the BBC standard and sent on the regular contribution circuit back down to BBC Plymouth!  Would it work? Bookings made, rushes (the TV term for raw unedited material) were sent back for editing in Plymouth and to take pre-edited material courtesy of Channel TV. It worked! Hasty conversations were made between BBC Plymouth and Channel TV who offered to provide live studio facilities for Russell to either contribute or host the live BBC bulletin direct from their studio. It was Easter time so the news bulletins  were shorter and easier to host remotely. A simple telephone connection was set up from the sound gallery at the BBC in Plymouth to the Channel TV studio so Russell could hear the talkback from the director in Plymouth. Good to Go    

Time was short for a contribution to the BBC Lunchtime news but still possible as the transmission times for the respective ITV and BBC news were different so Channel could stage both transmissions. Using a standard CTV backdrop Russell went on-air linking from a co-host in Plymouth. For the main evening bulletin Channel offered to provide a plain background so a BBC graphic could be inserted by Plymouth together with an interview set if a live guest was possible. In the event a live guest was not available so Russell hosted the entire bulletin from Channel TV - possibly the only time in history when a BBC news bulletin was hosted by ITV, perhaps!!

Archive news behind the scenes 17th April 1995

Russell with Oscar Puffin during his days at Channel TV


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