Radio Rentals in the 1950s

ROBBIE Williams sang “Let me entertain you” and this song title could belong to former Ipswich man Jim Garrod who now lives on the Isle of Wight. Jim kept televisions and radios working, as a repair man.

ROBBIE Williams sang “Let me entertain you” and this song title could belong to former Ipswich man Jim Garrod who now lives on the Isle of Wight.

Jim kept televisions and radios working, as a repair man. He also played the organ and piano at the Ritz cinema in Ipswich, where he worked as a projectionist. Jim also recalls the days when news film was shown at the cinema. Few had television then and the news film was days or even weeks old when it was shown before the main feature.

Jim saw the memories of the early days of television in our homes, featured recently in Kindred Spirits. Jim said: “The 1950s television rental scene in Ipswich, described by my old friend Tony Adams, brought back wonderful memories of my time in that period as a service engineer calling on 'Radio Rentals' customers. If no-one came to the door after a call had been requested we used to let ourselves in. That once brought me face to face with what seemed like a very ferocious dog, though he was only bluffing. When the customers returned to find me on the floor behind the TV set, and the dog stretched out on the hearth rug, they were astounded. They thought their dog would never let anyone in.

“A note left at another house said 'I think the tube has gone'. It hadn't, and knowing that the customer was a teacher, I marked his note three out of ten, with the comment 'Try harder next time'. He rang to say he appreciated the humour.

“After restoring the picture on a TV in Jupiter Road, Ipswich I set about adjusting it, using the test card. This was transmitted during the day when there were no programmes. Its patterns for picture size and shape revealed wide gaps at the sides, with its big circle elongated off screen at both top and bottom. This would have made any people in the picture look extremely tall and thin, but the customer liked them that way, and had it put back as it was!

“There was the Bramford Road lady wanting a set with loft aerial. I said she wouldn't get a good picture with a loft aerial where she lived, but she said her neighbour had a perfect picture with one. How many TV sets had she seen? Not surprisingly, just that one, which was very poor.

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“The Radio Rentals job was my third as a TV engineer. The second was with Brian Hicks at Stowmarket, who had a shop in Station Road as well as one in Ipswich Street. It was 1959, when nearly all TV sales were to first time buyers. The Ipswich Street shop also sold records, and had customers jostling to buy the number one in the then new fangled pop chart, often without knowing anything about it! I commuted to Stowmarket by Lambretta scooter or 1940 Morris Eight, and then drove the firm's Hillman Husky and Commer Cob.

“My first TV job had been with Murdoch's in the Buttermarket, Ipswich, working among radio sets, pianos, gramophone records, and the legendary Dansette players. 45 rpm records were then fairly recent, and the manager admonished me for advising customers to buy those instead of 78s. “They're toys” he said. “They'll never replace real records”. We sold the first transistor radio on the market, made by Pye, branded Pam. They sounded awful. We also had Pam TV sets with beautiful walnut veneered cabinets, laughingly known as Pam with doors - no drawers.

“Everything changed in 1957 when the John G Murdoch chain was taken over by entrepreneur Jimmy James. All the staff had to muck in on a Sunday to redecorate the shop in down-market colours. The prestigious HMV and Murphy dealerships soon went, and so did the pianos, to make room for cheap TV sets, but it wasn't all bad. Head office talked to staff at every level, and raised my service manager pay from £7 to £9 a week.”

“My first job was in 1946, in a shed behind a shop in Spring Road, working for Douglas Osborne, a man of many talents. He was photographer, artist, cabinet maker, and radio engineer, and I was one of three employed to help him make radio sets on a commercial scale. He designed a novel chassis, which we made by drilling, punching and bending sheets of aluminium. Parts were assembled and wired, cabinets were made, and the end product was “Gainsborough” radio sets. It's not known how many were sold, but we exported some to Malta, and elsewhere.”

“Radio job number two was in 1951, with Derek Witherley at his Tacket Street shop, where he had done all the repairs since he was fourteen. I first met Derek at a victory celebration street party at the end of World War Two. He was operating disco style equipment that he had made, while I played a piano.”

“We repaired loads of pre-war radios, and wartime 'utility sets' which were made anonymously by several firms. They were good, but they didn't have long wave, which was almost essential in Ipswich. Thanks to a coil winder he'd built with government surplus gear wheels, Derek added long wave to those sets.

“Between 1947 and 1951 I was a cinema projectionist, starting at the Ritz, later called the ABC, in the Buttermarket. Being “the boy” was tough, but it was worth it for the professionalism I learned. It was enjoyable work, but the hours were long and the pay was poor. With things in short supply, the four main cinemas in Ipswich had just two newsreels between them. The Odeon shared 'Gaumont British' with the Regent, while we shared Pathe News with the Picture house, which was where Boots store in Tavern Street is now. Newsreel screening times could be perilously close, and that wasn't the only problem. We had American projectors, the Picture House had British, and the spools had different hubs, which wound the film opposite ways round. Consequently, a newsreel they had shown had to be re-wound three times before we could show it - a laborious hand cranking of a thousand feet of film with every inch passing between thumb and finger. Sometimes this was after a frantic dash along the streets, and several flights of stairs littered with patrons.

“One day, after the final re-wind, I put my hand out to stop the high revving empty spool of heavy gauge steel. I stopped it right enough, with a little finger stuck through one side. With blood gushing everywhere the chief told me to get to the hospital as fast as I could, which meant getting my bike out of the shed and pedalling up to Anglesea Road. I still have the scar!

“The Ritz had a wonderful three manual Wurlitzer organ, but the manager wouldn't let me play it. Luckily his successor needed someone to play for the kids on Saturdays, and he agreed to hear me. I'd watched many organists and knew how to get started, but I certainly didn't like what came out. It seems he wasn't so fussy, and after I'd practiced for three weeks he gave me the job. The pay was only four shillings a show, but there were other opportunities, including Sunday entertainment for boys from HMS Ganges naval training base at Shotley.

“One week my Sunday morning practice was in doubt as famous organist Arthur Lord was due to perform. The event was cancelled so I played and as I ended a session, I was startled by loud applause from one man in the auditorium. The man came forward saying “I'm pleased to meet you Mr Lord. I'm in the pit orchestra at the Hippodrome”. I've often wondered who let him in.

“I had to play that piano if there was a power cut, which happened just once. In pitch darkness at the side of the stage, I pulled back the piano's canvass cover, and played. My fingers began to feel wet, but I carried on until the picture returned. Back in the projection room I found my hands covered in blood. I'd been playing on fragments of glass from a strip light that had fallen down and shattered on the keyboard.

“When national service intervened I had a nineteen shilling a week job at an RAF Astra cinema, and on my release in 1950 it was back to the Buttermarket, Ipswich, as third projectionist. This also let me in for some relief work at the Ritz Felixstowe.

“Many of the places I've mentioned have gone, but the main characters haven't. Tony Adams, Brian Hicks, and Derek Witherley are still with us. So is Douglas Osborne, who is now 96.”


Do you remember cinema and television in the 1950s and 60s? Write to Kindred Spirits at the Evening Star.

It was November 14, 1952, when the 'New Musical Express' published a chart of the best selling records in Britain.

Sheet music charts had been published since 1936. In America 'The Billboard' magazine had published the best selling records on the other side of the Atlantic since July 1940. The first number one in Britain was 'Here is My Heart' by Al Martino.

The 78 rpm records were first around early in the twentieth century. The 78 rpm on shellac was easy to break shattering like glass. In 1948 the Columbia company introduced the twelve inch long playing vinyl disc. At 33 rpm the new format could play up to 25 minutes per side. Columbia's rival, RCA Victor then produced the seven inch 45 rpm vinyl disc. Millions of 45s were sold until the format was largely replaced by the compact disc.