Wanna watch Eric and Ernie at Christmas? Not on your telly, if you're in Todmorden

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The Independent Online

As the nation steels itself for the traditional repeats of Morecambe and Wise and the blockbuster television premiere of Titanic, the Yorkshire mill town of Todmorden finds itself counting down to a particularly heavy round of parlour games and jigsaws.

As the nation steels itself for the traditional repeats of Morecambe and Wise and the blockbuster television premiere of Titanic, the Yorkshire mill town of Todmorden finds itself counting down to a particularly heavy round of parlour games and jigsaws.

Both pursuits constitute something of a wild night in for the residents who, for eight months, have become accustomed to books, sewing patterns and conversation as their best means of passing a long evening in front of the fire amid a total absence of television.

The town, in the Calder Valley, has been in televisual exile since April, when vandals forced the demolition of a derelict local cotton mill - and the reception mast strapped to its side.

While telecommunications firm NTL set about finding a site for a new mast the picture on television screens in 400 households resembled little more than a heavy snow storm. The consequences have been varied and far-reaching as the search for alternative recreation has been a painful struggle for some but a welcome blessing for others.

Wendy Frost, who lives with her mother in Lineholme Avenue, watched so many taped episodes of Emmerdale that her video recorder broke down, while Shaun Kew in Ashenhurst Road, admitted finding few alternative pursuits and complained that the inactivity has made his wife moody.

The saga has also set Todmorden's television haves against the have-nots. Those tuned to a different reception mast have, on safety grounds, campaigned robustly against the erection of a replacement near their homes and incurred the wrath of those neighbours desperate for a a resumption of their usual service.

Dozens of the anti-mast brigade packed a public meeting in the town hall, called by NTL to pacify those with no picture several weeks ago, and tempers were, by all accounts, fairly frayed. "There was some acrimony between the two sides," said Dr David Deach, a Huddersfield University computer scientist and anti-mast campaigner. "Some people want a picture very badly. Others just didn't want the mast."

But for Doreen Tempest at Keswick Close, the loss of the black box in the corner of the living room has opened up new worlds. She has sewed more voraciously than ever while her husband David has settled down to read more books than he remembers.

Mrs Tempest's friend brings videos of Coronation Street around every few days and her 11-year-old granddaughter Louisa is contentedly resigned to the fact that she won't be watching her favourite - The Simpsons. It's currently running on BBC2, where the snow storm is a near blizzard.

The Tempests' experience bears out the testimony of Todmorden library, which reports a marked upturn in trade since the old aerial went down. "They're reading more and some have joined the library for the first time," said an assistant. "We've also had people coming in more to take videos out. We stock all the feature films."

"The smaller the TV screen, the better the flicker seems," said 70-year-old Mr Tempest, twiddling with the tuning buttons on a seven-inch screen in his kitchen yesterday and peering at what, from one angle, appeared to be Judy Finnigan. "But we're resigned to not watching it after all this time."

Such acceptance of an alternative lifestyle to the one more usually lived vicariously through the television has provided rather good ammunition for the enlightened minority who switched off years ago.

To them the Todmorden experience is a prime example to the estimated 20 million people who tune into the nation's top TV offerings this Christmas (20.89 million watched a single episode of EastEnders last time around) that they ought to find more intellectually engaging pursuits.

To date, this apparently lost cause has been confined to the self-styled anti-television organisation, White Dot, which has campaigned with near- evangelical zeal from its base in Sussex to persuade viewers that they must switch of for good.

The organisation introduced the American concept of International Television Turnoff week to Britain two years ago and, perhaps ambitiously, anticipates more than five million people voting with their remote panels during the next protest week, from April 23 to 29 next year.

The American book Get A Life, reinforces the thesis that some in Todmorden bear out and even provides a survival guide for those who take the plunge, including guidance on the "moment of wimpout" and equipment the novice off-switcher may need. Alcohol, books and bagels are all recommended.

A chart accompanying the book, which assumes readers live to be 80, calculates that they can save five television years if they stop watching at 50.

But a social experiment ironically conducted for television in May this year demonstrated the potential gulf between such theory and practice.

In Can you live without.... Television?, one of a series of Channel 4 documentaries based on the concept of turning the general concept of Lent into a gameshow, the Kenny family of Liverpool were deprived of the box for three weeks.

What began amicably with a collection of games boards descended into acrimony when, in the words of the producers, "they ran out of things to amuse themselves with."

In Todmorden, patience as well as recreation is now in short supply, amid NTL's apparently fated attempts to erect a replacement mast.

Delays have been variously attributed to access rights, bad weather and even the unacceptable colour of the replacement - one of several reasons why an initial planning application was thrown out.

The furore has sparked furious correspondence. At the local Todmorden News, even the town's biggest story of all time - the arrest and conviction, earlier this year, of serial killer Harold Shipman, a former local GP - has not matched the TV aerial saga for volume of letters.

Recipients of furious missives on the subject have included broadcasting minister Janet Anderson and the BBC's Director of Revenue Gathering, who has agreed to consider waiving license fees on a case-by-case basis.

With the new transmitter still possibly three months away, the plot thickened yet further last week when NTL offered residents a two-week flavour of what they had been missing through the erection of a temporary booster mast over Christmas.

The catch lay in the firm's advice that residents should "enlist the services of a good local aerial rigger" to turn their own aerials around to face the mast. The dearth of local riggers has elevated the cost to around £40 a time, prompting many residents to continue going without.

"We may even have to move the aerial again when the permanent booster is put up next year," said one, Douglas Redmond.

As she set about another tapestry last night Doreen Tempest confessed to a lingering desire for "normality".

For obvious reasons, she had missed a much anticipated BBC Watchdog item on the town's predicament, two days ago, and her husband's friend - who's fiendishly good with aerials - still hadn't pitched up to turn their aerial around to face the new mast.

"Some people might say good riddance to the box," she said. "But all in all we do like our quizzes and nature programmes and this is the time of year to put your feet up."