In search of television times past
-- the making of "JLB"

© Malcolm Baird 2002

It is a late afternoon in April 2002 and I am standing in a howling gale on top of Box Hill, overlooking the rolling landscape of Surrey. Although I have lived through 35 Canadian winters, I feel colder than I have felt for years. A camera is pointed at me and a wireless microphone is tucked under my collar and I am expected to say something. But for a moment, all I can think of is the cold. Why am I here and not at home in the central heating?

The answer to that question has to do with my father, John Logie Baird. Shortly before my retirement from McMaster University in 2000, the historical writer Antony Kamm suggested that we should collaborate on a definitive biography that would separate fact from rumour, and I eagerly agreed. Our proposal was accepted by National Museum of Scotland Publishing and the book was published in August 2002 as “John Logie Baird: a life”.

A 90 minute television documentary based on the book and entitled “JLB -- the Man who Saw the Future” has recently been completed by Leman Productions of Edinburgh and shown on BBC television. Jan Leman had invited me to take part in a 10-day filming tour around Britain in the spring of 2002, visiting places where my father had lived and worked. My wife Jean accompanied me as a sort of “minder” although she was also to make an important musical contribution during the tour.

Helensburgh

Down to Helensburgh by train for the first day of filming. Superficially the town has not changed since my mother and my sister and I lived here for several years after my father’s death in 1946. However there is much more traffic, and the tea shops seem to have been largely replaced by wine shops. Fifty years ago, wine was not a major consumer item in Scotland.

My father was born in 1888 and his birthplace, “The Lodge”, stayed in the family until 1971. It is a distinctive Victorian villa but when we lived there it was rather faded and gloomy, heated to some extent by single bar electric fires and filled with old family portraits and theological books. Now it has been completely renovated, gas central heating has been installed and the decor of the rooms has been aggressively brightened up. But a few stubborn traces of John Logie Baird remain Two of the windows have his initials scratched on them with a diamond, and in the old wash house doorway there are pencil marks for his height, “John aged 6, John aged 8 ½” and so on. The stretch of Argyle Street near the house, is just as evocative as the house itself. My father was a keen photographer in the 1900s and took many pictures of his family and friends and his ramshackle motor vehicles in the street against a background which is still recognisable.

Hastings

Architecturally Hastings is a fine example of a late Victorian resort, facing out to the English Channel. The seafront looks much as it did when my father arrived, in bad health, early in 1923. It was here that he laid the groundwork for his television system.

Our first visit is to his former lodgings and I am filmed walking up Linton Crescent and then up the steep steps to the front door. The sun keeps on disappearing behind clouds and the sequence must be repeated until the light is right. Filming is a good way to keep fit. Then on to the Queen’s Arcade, another piece of Victorian architecture. I chat with Gary, who runs a butcher’s shop on the ground floor beneath the workroom which my father rented in 1924-25. In July 1925 he met with an accident in the form of an electrical explosion in which he narrowly avoided death by electrocution. Unfeelingly his landlord, a Mr.Tree, asked him to leave.

Next, to the Hastings Museum which has recently acquired a very interesting set of Baird papers and pictures which had been kept for years by the family lawyer. The purchase was made possible by a trust fund which had been started by the same Mr.Tree who evicted my father from the Queen’s Arcade over 75 years ago. It’s a funny old world.

While in Hastings we stay at the Royal Victoria Hotel on the seafront. The hotel is spacious and dignified, with marble pillars in the public rooms and a splendid oak staircase. There is a fine grand piano in the lounge and it is easy to imagine the scene here in the twenties, with guests in evening dress and a string quartet sawing away at selections from Merrie England.

Jan Leman has brought along the faded sheet music for “Alice Where Art Thou?”. This touchingly mournful song is linked with my father’s first love, who visited him frequently while he was in Hastings. Jean is persuaded to play it on the grand piano, and the chords of this forgotten tune echo through the deserted lounge. The thought occurs to me that my father and “Alice” might have frequented this very hotel, but perhaps that was unlikely. Every spare penny he had went towards his research.

Central London

Traffic is horrendous and the crew show great skill in manoeuvring their large van into small spaces. We do some filming at an Italian restaurant in Soho, in the building where in 1925 my father had his breakthrough with “real” television, half-tone pictures as opposed to silhouettes. My father’s laboratory was in a small apartment on the top floor, but unfortunately the occupant has refused every effort of the producer to persuade her to let in the cameras.

Then on to 133 Long Acre, site of the offices and laboratory of the Baird company from 1928 onwards. The flat roof served as an outdoor studio and it is still recognisable from an old press photo which shows the theatrical star Jack Buchanan lounging in a deckchair in front of the television camera. On one of the brick chimneys I see the rusting remains of the steel brackets that supported the aerial for the experimental television transmissions.

A highlight of the London visit is a lunch party with some former members of the Baird company, all in their 80s and early 90s. I sit next to Paul Reveley who joined my father as his personal assistant in 1933. He has detailed recollections of my father and his work on large screen colour television. As I listen to him I find it hard to realise that it all happened a lifetime ago.

Box Hill, Surrey

By 1929 my father’s financial troubles were over, at least for the next ten years. He rented a large chalet-style house known as “The Swiss Cottage” on the top of Box Hill, overlooking Dorking. The house and Box Hill itself are now owned by the National Trust. The Trust will not let us go inside but I enjoy ambling around the beautiful sheltered garden and talking for the camera about my father’s days of affluence.

The sun is getting low in the sky when we move on for a filming session in the nearby public park. The view is terrific but we are exposed to the full force of a spring gale and I feel as if rigor mortis is setting in. Our producer, Jim Hickey, kindly moves Jean and me to a nearby pub for badly needed restoratives. The dedicated crew stays on the hill, getting background shots.

The Crystal Palace and Sydenham

In 1933 the Baird company moved its main premises to the Crystal Palace, about ten miles from central London. All went well until the disastrous fire of November 1936 which destroyed the building. Six decades later the site is overgrown and unkempt, with a notice threatening dire penalties for tipping rubbish. The grand steps and sculptures of the landscaped gardens are still in place though showing signs of neglect. The rain has started and most of the filming consists of long shots to establish atmosphere.

A mile or so from the Palace is the big Georgian-style house at 3 Crescent Wood Road which my father owned from 1933 until 1946. The house has been divided into flats and the ground floor occupant has kindly agreed to let us inside for filming. The decor is bright and open with Danish minimalist furniture, a far cry from what it was in the 1930s. My mother had bought large pieces of furniture and oriental carpets simply to fill the space and in her memoirs she described the effect as “ a mixture of Jacobean and Chinese”.

My father spent most of his time in his private laboratory, a separate building which had been converted from the old coach house. That was strictly forbidden territory for my sister and me, because of the high voltages. It was here that he worked developing high definition colour and later stereoscopic (3D) television; some of his best work was done in the difficult war years. Sadly the laboratory is no more, only the foundation remains. Some patio furniture stands around and bluebells are in flower nearby. The rain has cleared and the crew get good outdoor footage.

Bude, North Cornwall

Until the outbreak of the second world war, my father had never been to Bude. He simply picked it out on the map as being a safe place for the family. Within a few hours of Neville Chamberlain’s declaration of war we were on our way to Bude, where we were to live for five years. The film party arrives in late afternoon. It is the off season and the beach is almost deserted. The sky is like burnished silver, the sea is like burnished pewter and the dark cliffs rise up above the shore...a Wagnerian scene. We are booked into a small hotel, the Penarvor, which has strong personal memories for me. During the war the building was a private school which I attended for 4 years. It was a good school but my worst recollection of those days is the lunchtime food, in particular the stringy beef and over-boiled cabbage, the smell of which permeated all the rooms. Happily that is all in the distant past. The hotel cuisine is excellent and there is no hint of cabbage on the menu.

The next day there is filming on the golf course, looking across to the Edwardian terrace house where the Baird family lived. The sun is out and there is a light sea breeze. The smell of the sea air and the trodden grass pulls me back sixty years, an uncanny sensation. I know exactly what J.B.Priestley meant when he said that the past has a way of curving back at us.

Bexhill

Throughout the war, my father had continued to work on research at his laboratory in Crescent Wood Road, with occasional visits to the family in Cornwall. By 1945 he was physically worn out, but the prospects for television were brightening and a new Baird company was set up with financial help from Jack Buchanan. The family moved to Bexhill, to a house right across the road from the station.

Today, the house has been made into flats and is known as Baird Court. The exterior is filmed but the traffic noise makes sound recording difficult, so we move to the promenade in front of the De La Warr pavilion. Here I talk about the troubled days of early 1946 when my father became seriously ill, and his death on June 14, just one week after the BBC resumed television broadcasting. Our cameraman, Chris Cox, pans over the deserted promenade where a few deckchairs are flapping in the breeze.

Then suddenly it is all over and Jean and I are in the train on the way to Gatwick Airport. The tour has been a strange but uplifting experience and it has given us a deeper insight into my father’s life and personality. It has been a remembrance of times past.


The documentary was shown on BBC television several times in 2002 and 2003 and repeated in November 2009. It is currently available for download on various pay-to-view subscription websites, but as far as we know this has not been authorized by the copyright holders.

My thanks to Jim Hickey for permission to use his still pictures. The documentary is based on the book John Logie Baird: a life by Antony Kamm and Malcolm Baird, advertised on this website.

Return to Home Page