Friday, April 6, 2012

A Historical Perspective: Your License, Please

After the end of the Second World War, my grandfather Les Parkinson left the Royal Navy and settled down in Manchester, where he would serve as part of its police force until 1969. Many of the issues he encountered sixty years ago are just as relevant today; I don't know if they still use television detector vans to figure out who's not paying the BBC license fee, but from what I understand the basic structure is still the same.

Additionally, as a clarifying note - the £20 fine mentioned below may not seem too onerous to us, but after sixty years of inflation it'd more properly convert to around £440 today. Hardly something to sniff at.


The war appeared to be a forgotten happening by the mid-1950s, but one in which a lot of lessons were learned. Big changes were being made in all walks of life. The policeman's lot, in particular, had been made happier with a nice pay increase and a change in uniform style. The old type of tunic had been replaced with an open-necked type, with which we wore a collar and tie, and we were issued with gabardine raincoats. At the same time, small forces were being gobbled up by the bigger ones, just as small towns were taken over by larger ones.

It appeared that everything was being modernized. Even the hitherto working class was fast becoming the middle class. Television was now available at a reasonable price, well within the range of the working man. There seemed to be an upsurge in the need to make life easier, and every house now seemed to have a refrigerator, a television set and now even a car. Though the latter was often an old banger, to me it was a good sign of the populace waking up and realizing that they too could have the things that were supposed to be the sign of the "upper class."

I bought a fridge. It was called an Iced Diamond. To accommodate it in the kitchen, I had to knock out a set of drawers and then purchase a fridge that fit the resultant space. It was about three feet square and four feet tall and barely fit in the only place I could use. The luxury of it, though, was worth it. No more sour milk or runny butter in the summer months. It made me wonder just how we had managed before we got it.

For years I fought off getting a television, for they were so expensive. Then rental companies started opening their doors, and I ended up renting one from a firm called Granada. At this time there were two channels, BBC and Granada. The latter was an independent station that got its revenue from the adverts it broadcasted. The BBC was a corporation and received its income from the licence fees one had to pay. Licences were issued by the General Post Office.

At this time the whole licence structure was silly. One had to have separate licences for the radio in the house, the radio in the car, the black and white television and finally for the colour television. The licence fees went to the BBC, which did not use advertising. If one had a television that was only able to receive independent broadcasts, though, one still had to buy the licence for the BBC. It was so stupid.

The television I got was a huge box with a nineteen-inch screen and a black and white display. I was in court one day when a fellow was up for not having a licence for his television. He was fined twenty pounds and the television was confiscated. That made me think, for I didn't have a licence.

The GPO had special detecting vehicles driving around the area. They were able to pinpoint a television in use, and from their records they were able to tell whether you had a licence or not. In the court, I learned that the shopkeeper had to fill in a form each time a television was purchased, and that was how the GPO was able to maintain its records. Anyway, I decided to get a licence.

As I was walking home that day the GPO van passed me. I realized that that bugger was going to go to my house, and sure enough he stopped and went to the house. As I got to the gate the GPO man was talking to Wyn.

"Oh, here's my husband now," I heard her say. "He can tell you what you want to know."

The GPO man asked me if I had a television set in the house, so I took him to see it. Then he asked if I had a licence, so I showed him the date-stamped one I had bought that morning. He then apologized for bothering me and left. I was lucky again, thanks to that little fellow perched on my shoulder.

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