Friday 25 February 2022

7 British TV Channels You Probably Never Saw in the Pre-Sky Era

There was a time, before the emergence of satellite television, that Britain's televisual landscape was a much simpler, uncluttered place. Turn on your television today and call up the EPG and, well, you can scroll through the available channels until the cows come home. It's a vastly different world to the good old days of, at best, having four channels to watch. But, guess what? There were more than four channels available in the days before Sky.

Some of these were community channels, some required cable and, most excitingly, some were illegal. Regardless of the format they took, there was one thing that they all had in common: a relatively small audience. As a result, it's unlikely that most people reading this article caught these channels when they were on the air, and I include myself in that. Therefore, the time has come to take a look at 7 British TV channels you probably never watched.

1. Pay TV

Britain's first dalliance with pay television came in January 1966 with the aptly named Pay TV. Backed by British Relay Wireless, Pay TV was part of an experiment by the British government to judge the viability of such a system. The channel was launched in the London boroughs of Southwark and Westminster with around 2,500 homes capable of receiving it through cable. And, in order to access the programmes, viewers' existing televisions had to be fitted with a special telemeter, into which coins were fed to access programmes as they aired.

At the channel's launch, 50 hours of content a week was available; weekday schedules ran from 7pm to midnight whilst weekend viewing was extended with hours of 11am to midnight. The cost of accessing a film was around six shillings, with early films available on Pay TV including Billy Liar, The Ipcress File and A Shot in the Dark. Sports also featured heavily, with plenty of horse racing available as well as American wrestling and the occasional live exclusive such as Henry Cooper and Cassius Clay's 1966 clash.

Several months after the London debut of Pay TV, a version of the channel was launched in Sheffield with a similar strand of programming - films, sport, ballet, theatre - but with a different set of regional announcers fronting the transmissions. However, both the London and Sheffield iterations of Pay TV would prove to be short lived. The British government were unwilling to remove caps on subscriber numbers to the service and, ultimately, the channel was unable to generate profits; the closure of the channel was announced in November 1968.

2. Greenwich Cablevision

Britain's first ever local television station, Greenwich Cablevision made its first transmission in the summer of 1972. Previous to this, gaining a broadcast licence had been incredibly difficult. Thankfully, earlier in 1972, the government had announced an experimental scheme which would see six local television licences made available. With their licence in place, it was time for Greenwich Cablevision to start gearing their channel around the local area.

The channel generally only broadcast for an hour every evening, but it made sure that there was room for everything. Naturally, local news and affairs featured heavily, but time was also allocated for local poets to showcase their talents and, perhaps most interesting of all, a spoof television programme called Fridaynite produced by Greenwich teenagers. The diverse local community were also brought into the fold with news programmes conducted in Hindustani and coverage of a North Vietnam public meeting.

As the 1970s moved on, the lack of advertising income - one of the license stipulations - meant that Greenwich Cablevision was financially unviable. Nonetheless, rather than close the channel completely, founder Maurice Townsend turned Greenwich Cablevision over to local volunteers. And, although this venture finally ran out of steam in the early 1980s, they did manage to launch Britain's first breakfast television service - Greenwich AM - in May 1981.

3. Swindon Viewpoint

Emerging from the same pilot scheme as Greenwich Cablevision, Swindon Viewpoint may have started a little later - its first broadcast was in September 1973 - but it remained on the air, in one form or another, until the 1990s. 

Swindon Viewpoint was originally launched as part of the Radio Rentals cable network, with the television sector of this owned by EMI. And, for 65p per month, subscribers to Swindon Viewpoint could look forward to five hours of local content every week.

This initial schedule, transmitted in black and white, included a two-hour entertainment strand alongside hour long features on town affairs, home affairs and local events. Swindon Viewpoint proved popular in the town and a wealth of local content was produced such as digging up the remains of an ancient icthyosaurus, early performances by XTC and the opening of The Oasis leisure centre.

The lack of revenue available to Swindon Viewpoint, much like Greenwich Cablevision, meant that EMI would pull out of the project in 1976. Nonetheless, EMI sold the service to a new board of local directors for just £1, and left Swindon Viewpoint as the only community channel from the 1972 pilot scheme still broadcasting. The channel went colour in 1978 and even featured heats from the World Disco Dancing Championship in 1979, but financial problems reared their ugly head again and its final broadcast came on April 27th 1980.

The channel did, however, remain on an intermittent basis. After going into partnership with the local Media Arts organisation, Swindon Viewpoint became a purely volunteer-based enterprise up until the early 1990s, when it finally closed down due to a lack of funding. 

4. Channel 40

Another entrant into the annals of local television history, Channel 40 served the residents of Milton Keynes and was a community led affair from the start. Launching in December 1976, Channel 40 was funded by the Milton Keynes Development Corporation and the Post Office, who owned the cable network in the town. The channel operated with minimal staff (seven in 1977) and produced around four hours of content a week in black and white.

Channel 40's objective was to provide the people of Milton Keynes with both a new source of local information and the chance to express themselves. Local events, such as English Civil War re-enactments and sports events, were covered heavily. And there was also Hot Stuff, a cookery programme hosted by an ex-Naval chef. Most of these programmes were pre-recorded and went out in the evening. However, towards the end of the channel's life, a live mid-morning discussion programme, put together by local women's groups, aired under the title Things That Mother Never Told Us.

Around half of Channel 40's output came from the local community, with the rest coming from official bodies, a scenario which irritated locals and caused some controversy. Further issues dogged the station following reports of strained labour relations and, by the end of July 1979, with its funding coming to an end, Channel 40 had closed down for good.

5. Starview

At the start of the 1980s, the government decided it was time for another experiment with subscription TV. And the first to make its debut was Starview, a channel run by Rediffusion which aired in five areas of its cable network: Hull, Reading, Burnley, Tunbridge Wells and Pontypridd. The channel's raison d'ĂȘtre was films, and the service launched on 9th September 1981 with an airing of The Sea Wolves, which had only been in cinemas a year earlier.

The subscription cost varied from town to town (£8 in Hull and £12 in Reading), with Starview available in around 22,000 homes served by Rediffusion's cable service. Weekday schedules consisted of two daily slots (7pm and 9pm) with Fridays and Saturdays also featuring an 11pm slot (for X-rated films such as The Stud) whilst Sundays offered a matinee showing at 5pm.

Films featured over Starview's two and a half year run included North Sea Hijack, The Omen II, Flash Gordon, Mother Jugs & Speed and there was even room for a Rod Stewart concert. Starview struggled to make a huge impact and Tunbridge Wells, where the channel only had a 10% uptake, was the first area to drop the channel in March 1984. Shortly afterwards, Starview was also dropped in the four remaining towns, with The Entertainment Network (TEN) replacing it on the Rediffusion cable service.

6. Showcable

Part of the same pilot scheme as Starview, Showcable was a joint venture between Visionhire and the BBC. Using Visionhire's existing cable network, the BBC joined the project but, contrary to public expectations, they would not be providing BBC programmes to the service. Instead, the BBC would be bringing their scheduling skills, a number of films that they held the rights to broadcast and, as an added bonus, Ceefax.

Showcable - which was only available in a selection of London boroughs - positioned itself as a film channel made its maiden broadcast on 15th October 1981 with an airing of The Thirty Nine Steps from 1978. The channel was available to around 170,000 households when it launched, with a subscription fee of £7.95 a month. Showcable started with 54 films on its roster for the first two months and, following this, it was planned for 15 new films to be added each month.

The aim of Showcable was to show relatively recent films with offerings including International Velvet, Baltimore Bullet, Phantasm and the small screen premiere of Chariots of Fire. The channel ran 111 broadcast slots across the month with weekday hours running from 6pm until midnight and slightly extended hours over the weekend. Showcable remained on air until 1st January 1984 when, due to changes in cable licencing, they decided not to apply for an extended licence.

7. Telstar TV

Britain's first pirate television station to make it on the airwaves, Telstar TV was based in Birmingham and began broadcasting in 1984. Transmitting from Rising Star Records on Dudley Road, the channel was an enterprise set up by local businessmen and technical wizards. And, of course, it was highly illegal. Telstar TV took to the airwaves by 'liberating' the BBC2 transmitters - which had closed down for the evening - to beam out their broadcasts during the wee hours of the weekend.

The content, which was allegedly supplied by a video store in the Northfield area, consisted of movies and the occasional music video - Duran Duran being a popular choice at the time. Not afraid to hide their faces, there was also in-vision continuity on offer where the presenter would introduce programmes and even read out viewers letters on air. Limited, naturally, due to technical constraints, Telstar TV only reached around 5,000 viewers but it is remembered fondly by those lucky enough to catch it. It remained on air for eight weeks before disappearing, a move hastened by the Department of Trade beginning an investigation.

Did you watch any of these channels? If so, I'd love to hear your memories of tuning into these new frontiers of broadcasting. Just leave a comment below.


  1. Telstar tv/ 1984. Coming back to Birmingham for xmas i saw a fuzzy video of do they know its christams a few times late at night.i think it was tuned to bbc2 so this may have been telstar tv. i also saw the same video again in dec 84 very fuzzily a couple of times down in london on my portable which i had to tune in so not sure what channel it was broadcasting on

    1. The one in London was probably Thameside TV which broadcast a few times towards the end of 1984. Someone else told me they remembered seeing Do They Know It's Christmas on there!

  2. Telstar TV was broadcast from the Turves Green local relay transmitter in South Birmingham it was achieved by interfering with the signal being fed from the main station at Sutton Coldfield...

  3. I remember some ITV Prank show that had Robert Guillaume who played Benson in the TV Show and the got him to enter a Pirate TV station mid show.I sometimes wonder if I have this confused on something, but I'm sure I'm sure I remember it from about 1981. Anyone have any info on this?

    I'm in Dublin and did Pirate Radio and in recent years Dr. Don who died 2021 was my neighbour and we became good friends, Don set up several pirates including Channel D TV in Dublin.