Thursday 5 January 2012

Back to the Future as RTÉ turns 50

Barely a week into the ‘celebrations’ for RTÉ having invented television 50 years ago – thus providing a great leap forward for human evolution – I am perplexed.
I was around back in 1962 and actually at the very peak of my television viewing career (being eight years of age). Yet the arrival of RTÉ barely registers in my memory.
It is overshadowed by an event of a few years earlier when Ireland’s first television channel was launched. Full of Irish accent, foibles and endearing bloopers, it came to us from Havelock House in Belfast.
But I remember UTV’s arrival in our Clones home mostly because, on the very first evening it went on air (Halloween 1959), it showed The Adventures of Robin Hood starring Richard Greene in the title role with Bernadette O’Farrell from Birr and later Patricia Driscoll from Cork as Maid Marian.
It could hardly have seemed more Irish and, given the day that was in it, we were treated to a Halloween episode with ghosts and ghouls that bothered my first cousin Aidan Magee who was visiting from Irvinestown that day.
But not only was I bewitched and beguiled by continuity announcer Miss Adrienne (McGuill), I was cured of a bewilderment that had occupied much of my thoughts during all the tedious ‘test card’ hours before BBC broadcasts began in late afternoon with Watch with Mother (presented for a time by Patricia Driscoll, see above).
The arrival of UTV solved the greatest mystery of my early life – the purpose of that numbered dial on the Murphy TV set daddy bought in late 1955 from Charlie Slowey’s shop across The Diamond. Now by turning the dial from 1 to 3, we were transported from stuffy BBC in London to UTV in Belfast and all its familiar ads for Cookstown sausages and Cantrell & Cochrane ‘minerals’.
Negotiating those two simple digits was enough to realise that with seven more numbers on the dial, we had blasted off for a multi-channel world of the future.
When my mother roused me from sleep one night to ‘change the channel’ on the rotary dial because daddy was out, I knew I had acquired a level of technological skill beyond most adults at that time. Yet while I cast longing glances at the other digits and longed for their speedy deployment, I cannot now recall what number on was occupied by RTÉ when it came along. (Was it 9?)
Perhaps my exposure to those exciting other worlds brought to our pre-1962 living-room by BBC and UTV meant I was already emerging from childhood innocence when RTÉ joined the dial. My viewing habits were formed around firm favourites and I was not willing to be transported off on any old Wanderly Wagon that might happen along the road from Dublin.
Just a couple more years (1963) and we were tuned into Cool Britannia when Top of the Pops and Ready Steady Go! came on air from BBC and UTV. We embraced pop modernity and Sean Dunphy, Brendan Bowyer and that showband lot didn’t stand a chance against The Beatles and Van Morrison’s Them.
Yes, there were many times down the decades when I watched RTÉ, but it never really became my channel of choice. I do admit that I was torn for a short time between Dáithí Lacha and The Magic Roundabout! Daithi’s goose was cooked when I twigged on to some of the hidden messages from the animated carousel crowd.
Today, I squirm at RTÉ’s incessant self-congratulation and, as we face into a full year of how Montrose brought civilisation and modernity to Ireland, I expect I’ll be watching another channel… or none at all.

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