The Telly Man

“It’s the Telly Man!”

Before I forget I’ll write down type up some bizarre tales from my memory (the wet organic type) about what it was like to be a TV Repair Man / TV Mechanic / Field TV Service Engineer in the ’70s and ’80s. (The last job title was the preferred one.)

Watch This

Once when I visited a customer’s home to fix the TV “Watch this” was what the man said when I asked him what was wrong. I was puzzled because he was sat in his armchair actually viewing the TV and the picture seemed fine. The fault description given to me beforehand was rather vague.

The man demonstrated the fault by pointing the remote control at the TV and pressing the Off button. The On-Off switch on the front of the TV clicked loudly and the On-Off button flew right across the room to be caught neatly by the customer in his other hand! I was grateful when he said it would be ok to glue the button back on.

Tech Note: Push-button mechanical mains switches like this one had a powerful spring and clicked in and out when switched on and off. The remote didn’t put the TV to standby; it activated a solenoid (electro-magnet) which released the spring.

It’s no a guid fotie

I was sent to a house in Empire Street in East Whitburn. “Poor picture” was probably the fault quoted on my paperwork. The picture was always going to be rubbish by today’s standards because it was an old TV powered entirely by valves – i.e. no transistors or chips, and it was a dual-standard black and white TV with both 405 lines and 625 lines. I remember this visit clearly because of the lady’s colourful, colloquial comment “It’s no a guid fotie, it’s affa sair on the een.” She meant it wasn’t a good picture and it was awfully sore on the eyes.

Tech Note: USA readers should substitute “tubes” for “valves”.

I should get good reception – I live on top of a hill

This service call was years later when satellite TV was quite new. I was in the picturesque Scottish Borders near Earlston and the customer had poor results from his Amstrad dish. I was only there to diagnose the set-top box and I gave it the all-clear, blaming instead the dish – which could have been out of alignment. Also the plastic covers over the LNB in the centre of Amstrad dishes had a design fault – UV light from the sun damaged them and rain could get into the works.

The customer did indeed live on top of a small hill and I explained to him that a few feet higher made little difference when the satellite’s orbit was 22 thousand miles above sea level.

Is not aerial

On Thursday 17th November 1988 I was sent to a house in Hartington Gardens off Viewforth in Edinburgh. The complaint was “poor picture”. At first glance it was obviously a faulty aerial because the picture was snowy and had ghost images. I proved there was nothing wrong with the TV by unplugging the aerial and plugging in my pattern generator which put nice crisp colour bars on her screen. This did not satisfy the foreign lady who trusted her son’s diagnosis more than the professional’s. She just kept shouting at me “is not aerial”. I left.

It’s not the aerial

This was a visit to a house in Edinburgh’s New Town, on the corner of Queensferry Street and the Dean Bridge. The lady was complaining about a corrupt Teletext display. The normal TV picture wasn’t snowy but did have a slight double image (ghosting). The Teletext display was indeed corrupt, breaking up with garbage text.

I proved to my satisfaction that it was a faulty aerial by unplugging it and instead holding a screwdriver against the centre of the aerial socket. The screwdriver (and possibly my body as well) acted as an aerial and, lo and behold, the Teletext was no longer garbage on-screen but perfectly legible.

Again, the customer preferred her own diagnosis to that of mine, the professional expert. We argued and I stormed out of the room, so exasperated that I still had her remote control in my hand as I walked along her hallway. I remembered when I got to the front door and turned round and gave it to her. She had followed me, still claiming that her TV was faulty.

The TV stays on – even when I unplug it

This was in the village of Winchburgh west of Edinburgh, in a terraced cottage in the old miners’ rows. When the old lady told me that pulling out the mains plug did not stop the TV working I was naturally sceptical. However I followed the mains cable from her black & white TV to the 3-pin mains plug in the socket on the skirting board and unplugged it.

The TV remained on. Then I noticed another cable coming out of the plug which trailed along the floor to another mains plug. This meant that the exposed brass pins of the plug were live and touching them would have caused a severe electric shock, possibly fatal. I unplugged the second mains plug and removed the dangerous cable.

In another cottage in Winchburgh I saw mains electicity extensions using single-core bell wire with joins insulated only with Sellotape, and shoved under the carpet.

To change channels jump in the air

GEC brand TVs were innovative in their day because they had a touch-button channel change. The technology wasn’t like today’s iPhones or iPads. It wasn’t capacitive but sensed the 50Hz electric field present in your body when near a mains supply.

I was sent to a two storey stone house in a street called Sheephousehill in the West Lothian village of Fauldhouse. When the door opened, a cigarette smoking woman appeared wearing an apron from which she pulled a packet of cigarettes, offering me one. There were chickens on the stairs leading up to the bedrooms and she shooed them outside before showing me the TV in the livingroom then returning to the kitchen. The neon bulbs behind each channel selector touch-button would light up but the TV was stuck on one channel.

Noticing that the carpet underfoot was quite damp, I wondered if that had anything to do with it. To test this hypothesis, I jumped in the air and while both feet were off the ground, jabbed a channel button. Lo and behold, the TV changed to another channel and didn’t jump back again. I tried it again before calling on the woman to demonstrate.

Health and Safety – There wasn’t any

Today’s flat-screen LCD TVs are totally different to CRT TVs. Cathode Ray Tubes needed a final-anode voltage of 25KV (25 thousand volts) to suck the electron beam onto the phosphors on the glass screen to make a picture. They also needed powerful electromagnetism to scan that electron beam from left to right to make one line every 64 microseconds, as well as from top to bottom 25 times a second to make a full screen. (I’ll spare you a description of interlacing.)

25 thousand volts could kill you – but so could 320 volts which is roughly what you get when converting AC mains electricity to DC. TV manufacturers kept their costs low by avoiding mains transformers which could isolate you from the mains voltage. Instead they used bridge rectifiers which meant that the ‘earth’ or ‘ground’ would always be live and not a true ground connection at all.

When in customers’ homes diagnosing faults it was often necessary to check voltages on the underside of the main circuit board. To do this you had to loosen some cables and slide the circuit board out of its plastic runners and balance it on one knee whilst squatting on the corner of the customer’s livingroom floor. Then the copper tracks and soldered joints would be exposed and you could apply the probes of an AVO meter or DMM (Digital Multi Meter).

Picture the scene: Squatting in a dingy corner of someone’s livingroom with a live circuit board balanced on one knee whilst trying to measure voltages, possibly whilst being verbally abused and maybe with a dog with its nose sniffing your backside, or toddlers distracting you. There was always pressure from bosses to fix the TV at the first visit.

It was possible to touch the live chassis without being electrocuted – as long as you didn’t complete the circuit by touching something that was connected to true earth / ground. You could be live yourself and not realise it until you grabbed hold of the aerial cable. I had a few shocks and have smelt the burning skin on my hand as I got fried. I shan’t forget such an incident in a cottage in the West Lothian village of Armadale.

We could have gone to Australia

Video cameras now are cheap and can be tiny such as this one that I’ve used to record myself skating. It’s only 5cm (2 inches) in height. Mobile phones often have them built in. At the beginning of the ’80s it was a different story. A customer that I visited in Newtongrange (a former mining village south of Edinburgh) had recently been made redundant from the coal mines and had spent about £4000 of his redundancy money on what was then state-of-the-art portable video-recordng equipment. It’s likely that he worked at the local Lady Victoria Colliery which nowadays is a mining museum.

4 thousand UK pounds is a lot of money even now in 2010 but it was a lot more back in the early ’80s. It was the owner’s wife that was at home when I visited for a service call. The ‘portable’ Sony video recorder (we later called them camcorders) consisted of a bulky, heavy camera with an integral Betamax videotape recorder which required a shoulder holster with an extending bracket to rest agains the user’s chest to help support the weight of this cumbersome apparatus.

Power was not supplied by a rechargeable Lithium Ion battery, or even its Nickel Cadmium (NiCad) predecessor but by lead-acid batteries, smaller versions of those still used in cars today. You had to wear a strong canvas belt to carry this extra burden.

The machine was never satisfactory and was constantly being returned to Sony for repair. The long-suffering wife pointed out to me that she was fed up with this extravagant purchase by her husband. She said he’d bought it so that he could send videotapes to their offspring in Australia – but she pointed out to me that they could have actually had a holiday in Australia with the money he’d wasted. Now you’d use Skype and it would cost nothing.

Some people say men are just like boys but their toys are more expensive. It’s not always a good idea to be the first to acquire the newest technology, even now in the ‘science-fiction-is-now-science-fact’ 21st century.

(Irrelevant and disrespectful footnote: An anagram of Newtongrange is ‘Gangrene Town’. It’s actually a pleasant village where my Uncle Brian used to live. Unusually, the streets have numbers for names instead of being named after local councillors.)

Service Managers (Bosses)

The first boss I can remember (probably from ’71) was was called Jack Strain at Telebank. Having left the Government Training Centre (later called a Skill Centre) at Granton, and having declined an offer of work at Jenner’s for £15 weekly wages, I started work as a bench engineer refurbishing black and white TVs at premises in Elder Street in Edinburgh. My boss was fine and so were my colleagues, one of whom was called Steve who gave us lifts home in a Morris Minor van that was difficult to see behind when reversing.

Telebank rented black and white slot TVs to the less well-off areas of Edinburgh. They had black plastic coin meters attached and the renters had to insert coins into them to activate the TV. Surplus money could be used to buy products from visiting salesmen. They had to pay Telebank a Fidelity Bond to ensure they didn’t abscond with the cash they removed from the coin boxes attached to and wired into the TVs. The coin boxes could be fooled by inserting coin-shaped bits of ice which melted and thus destroyed evidence of tampering. Another fiddle was to disconnect one of the wires to disable the mechanical timer in the box.

Telebank moved to new premises in Mayfield Road near the former Newington railway station. The parent company was Pearl Radio Bolton and although my boss was happy with my work, his bosses wanted ex-government trainees sacked, and one Saturday morning I was kicked out with no notice at all, apparently legally because I’d only worked there just under 6 months.

The next boss I can remember was at James Grant’s department store’s TV service department based in Edinburgh’s Blackfriars Street, just down the road from their swanky shop at the north west corner of the High Street and North Bridge. He was known as Dick Boron but because he signed his name K Boron I think his first name was really Kazimierz or similar as he was originally Polish I think. Dick was also ok at least to me. If you thought you needed a transistor for a new hybrid TV then you saw him.

Colour TV was in its infancy then in the UK and a colour TV cost about the same as an Austin Mini car. I was a bench engineer refurbishing black and white rental TVs. Most of the field engineers calling at homes eventually graduated to repairing colour TVs which consisted of BRC / Thorne 3000 series machines. These were modular so that individual sections could be replaced in the home. A big, heavy blue-painted box contained the power boards, PAL decoder boards etc. BBC2 showed films about magnetism and degaussing.

At one time only two engineers still only did black and white and they got called the black and white minstrels. The names Tommy Griffiths and Brian Clifford spring to mind. Another engineer was Harry Osborne who, coincidentally previously repaired my dad’s equipment when employed by AH Tomes’ shop in Gilmerton, a couple of doors along from our general store (now part of the adjacent bank).

Grant’s service department shared the same carpark as St Cecilia’s Hall where, as the name suggests, priceless musical instruments like harpsichords are stored. Not long after the service department moved out to Robb’s Loan at Chesser, a field engineer called Stewart Whitson (?) got sacked, partly at least for allegedly freaking out at Dick Boron and calling him a Polish bastard. I got his job and his car and a new wage of £26 a week.

Comet Radiovision Services came to Edinburgh and I applied for a job. They’re still no longer trading as Comet but an alternative website is Comet’s big discount warehouse was in Newhaven Road at the corner of Bonnington Road (manager was Ian Cozzi) but my interview was at the service department at 21 Roseburn Street. Sadly I forget the service manager’s name but I warmed to him immediately when he asked me if I had my City and Guilds qualifications and I said I had. He said “Thank Christ for that.” and I got the job working beside Dennis Flynn, Ron Carey and Dorothy Maitland, as well as a cranky old storeman called Fawcett.

After we moved to Annadale Street Lane where we shared a carpark with McOnomy, we had other bosses. In the mid ’70s I bought my first SLR camera, joined Edinburgh Photographic Society and although they had darkrooms for members at their premises at 68 Great King Street, I soon got my own enlarger and did my own black and white 16in by 20in prints one of which one a prize in the Comet magazine. Service Manager Dave Watson from Dunfermline liked it so much he wanted to borrow it to show to people.

To my dismay, when he eventually returned the mounted print, it was ruined by discoloured thumbprints and drawing pin holes in the corners. It was impossible to make another identical print because it was made from two different negatives. Thanks a lot, Dave Watson.

Another memory of Dave Watson is his being ill and unable to attend work. When Eddie, one of the domestic appliance (white goods) engineers went to visit him at his home in Dunfermline, we heard that despite his debilitating illness he was able to leap across the room to record Laurel and Hardy which he’d remembered was on TV.

Another manager we had for a time in Annadale Street Lane was Bobby Cox. He criticised me for ‘not enough commitment’ at a time when I was travelling all over the Scottish Borders trying to cope with vast distances on country roads. I always had a feeling that Head Office in Hull assumed there was a network of motorways there.

Bobby Cox had an irritating habit of singing out loud and some colleagues referred to him as ‘the singing defective’ (I think there was a TV series called The Singing Detective at the time. He decided the reception area needed a coat of paint and he set about painting the walls himself. Now most folks would remove things like clocks from a wall before slapping on emulsion paint but Bobby thought this was unnecessary and just painted right over the battery powered clock. Later on Dennis painted or drew the numbers back on the clock face, but in keeping with the new spirit of innovation, he put them in random places on the dial. (June 1987)

Later on, a domestic appliance engineer got promoted to Service Manager. Some unkind (but possibly accurate) suggestions that this promotion was based on membership of the Freemasons, of which the area manager was rumoured to also be a member. I shan’t name him but his initials were WC. My mental picture of him is a grumpy little man with halitosis. I thought of him as Diminutive Doggy Breath. He also had a rash on the back of his head and neck, possibly due to stress.

Amstrad Tower Systems were popular at the time and a very apt description of these would be ‘a crock of shit’. It’s because of these and other ‘innovations’ by the Alan Michael Sugar Trading organisation that I cannot bear to consider watching The Apprentice on today’s TV. These audio machines purported to be a hifi system in the form of a tower system made of separate components such as matching amplifier, cassette deck and turntable.

The reality was somewhat different. You got a box made from chipboard with a plastic wood-effect coating. It had castors and an ill-fitting glass door. The cabinet front, although at first glance resembling matching hifi components, concealed mostly empty space. The twin cassette decks (presumably to permit copying of cassette tapes) had but a single motor and rubber drive belts so thin and stretchy they were prone to slipping and snapping.

I fantasized about converting one into a large pedal bin. A big black bin liner would have fitted inside and a pedal at the bottom would have flipped the flimsy plastic turntable at the top up on a rear-mounted hinge into a vertical position so you could tip your rubbish and leftover food into it. All of the engineers called Amstrad Amtrash, a much more accurate name as far as we were concerned.

I was tasked with going to an upstairs flat in Edinburgh’s Grassmarket to uplift one of these efforts for repair by one of Comet’s audio engineers. It was impossible to park anywhere withing walking distance of the flat which was near to where the Traverse Theatre used to be at the corner of West Bow and Cowgatehead, and there was no way that Comet would pay any parking fine I would have incurred.

WC said I had to park regardless, and get to this flat to do the job. “You’ve goaty dae it!” I did so reluctantly and luckily it didn’t cost me a parking fine – but it did cost me £600 (yes 600 pounds) because before I went I made the mistake of saying to the argumentative, foul-breathed WC “You can’t force me to break the law”. WC bore me a grudge because of this perceived insubordination, and as service manager he denied me an annual salary increase of £600.

Later on I spoke to the area manager and I could plainly see (reading between the lines as it were) that he agreed that I had had a raw deal from his (alleged) Freemason underling – but he let things stand as they were.

Ho Ho Ho

In November 1987 Comet’s Service Department moved again to Sighthill at Bankhead Crossway South. At some stage (diary research reveals it was 1990) I decided I’d had enough of being a TV Field Service Engineer and vowed never to go through another Christmas as such ever again. Cell phones were a rich man’s novelty but we had radio telephones with which we attempted to keep in touch. I remember getting hassled by a receptionist called Sylvia as I drove south on the A68 over Soutra Hill. We were supposed to phone in after each call if there was no signal – which there wasn’t once over Soutra Hill.

A note from a diary I kept on my BBC Micro then Atari ST: Wed 8/2/89
Quiet at work so JC & me were kept in 359 to do odd jobs. First we and others had to sit through a pathetic video about how wonderful Technogas cookers and the Italian factory is. Everyone knows they’re dangerous and the gas board just condemns them.

September 1989: Other technological innovations included hand-held terminals with a built-in modem. This made the job even worse. Prior to this, us engineers would call into the service department each morning to get our day’s jobs. We could pick up spare parts and, more importantly, talk to each other and exchange hints and tips on fixing TVs, satellite receivers, video recorders and microwave cookers which we also had to service. (These were full of numerous self-tapping screws, had razor-sharp metal edges – and were often caked in filthy grease.)

Comet went to the trouble and expense of getting BT (that’s British Telecom, not BlueTooth or BitTorrent) to install dedicated phone lines in our houses for the modems in our hand-held terminals. These terminals were powered by AAA batteries and ran at some appallingly slow baud rate. Comet’s idea was to get us on the road quicker and so each morning our terminals’ in-built miniature dot-matrix printers would chug away at little till-rolls printing our day’s work.

To save more money they employed youngsters on Work Experience to answer customers’ phone calls and to issue the jobs. Not knowing any better, these young girls would think nothing of promising a morning visit to Hawick, another morning visit to Berwick-on-Tweed and an afternoon call to Selkirk and so forth. Mission Impossible. After 6 months the girls got better at the job but then they got kicked out. I also had to visit Comet’s shop in Galashiels to repair items brought into that shop as well as set up / fix display items. And, oh yes, I was trained to repair Clive Sinclair’s C5 vehicles which were actually powered by Hotpoint washing machine motors.

Late one Christmas Eve whilst in the remote village of Kirk Yetholm, I diligently phoned in and spoke to the then manager John Hildersley (one of the good guys) who was still there but surprised to hear from me because everyone else had gone home. I then started the long drive home to Edinburgh.

The incident which really made me want to pack it all in and be a traffic warden (or anything at all) was another Christmas Eve service call. I couldn’t fix the family’s TV and had to uplift it. Comet did provide us with a loan set for such circumstances but is was a State-of-the-Arc (like Noah’s) 12 inch black and white effort with a 4-button ‘clanker’ tuner / channel selector which nobody wanted and which served as my very first computer monitor for my 1980 home-built computer.

That Christmas Eve I literally walked up the family’s garden path taking away their colour TV with a sobbing child tugging at my sleeve and cursed by angry parents. I decided to hand in my notice and just quit when the next working day came. For once, Lady Luck was with me and the management was actually asking for volunteers for redundancy. I got £8600 redundancy money, bought a bicycle and another for my wife and looked for another job.

Footnote: I’ve been trawling through old diaries and have made it to the start of the ’90s. My cryptic notes don’t always mean much to me now in 2010 and perhaps that’s just as well. Someone I referred to as JJ seemed to give me a hard time but (thankfully) I can’t remember him. Should any former colleagues remember me and want to exchange notes then I’m easy to find.

1990 was my last year as a ‘Telly Man’ and it was very stressful. From my diary: Thu 15/2/90 Stupid fools gave me 10 calls inc Hawick a.m. and 4 in West Lothian including a.m. calls with duff Amstrad satellite dishes etc. Wed 9/5/90 – 10 calls from West Linton to Eyemouth including ‘after 4pm and MUST BE DONE’ in Kelso. This is to fit an Amstrad LNB cover allegedly ordered by me. I’ll have to phone and tell them that I do not climb up ladders to fix satellite dishes!

Good News: Wed 29/8/90 Told Alan Dunn that I was applying for voluntary redundancy. He phoned Richard at personnel who rang back in 5 minutes confirming £8.5K for redundancy pay!

Recurrent Dreams

Last night (12 Feb 2011) I dreamt I tuned in a 4-button (clanker) mechanical tuner in a TV in a house in East Lothian. The guy gave me a big tip. I also dreamt I was in a very untidy workshop, trying to organise the day’s work ahead. But the jobs were issued on the old style of library tickets (card in a wee pouch) which I could barely read. They fell on the floor and got jumbled up with tools and spares on the benches. Somehow I thought “I don’t have to do this; I’m retiring soon…” and thankfully woke up. I’ve had many more similar dreams over the years, often being lost in towns which should be familiar but were bizarrely different, ranging from Livingston to Hawick.

Livingston had endless wide marble corridors but to get there I had to drive on a road far worse than anything portrayed in the game Fallout. Jaggy slabs of tarmac stuck up in the air. Not even a big 4 x4 could have traveled over this surface.

Hawick does have some very steep streets but not almost vertical ones. I couldn’t walk up a short cul-de-sac with a parked car in it. I reckoned the car must have been winched up this 70 or 80 degree slope. All the streets were preposterously narrow and very crowded and I couldn’t find my car. Quite often in some dreams I’m trying to find a bus in a bus station.