Terry-Thomas and the Baird Portable

by Iain Logie Baird, 24 February 2021

After World War II, several British companies entered the domestic television receiver market as television, at this time only available to the London area, began its slow recovery. Television broadcasting had been shut down during the war, but the BBC anticipating its end was able to recommence broadcasts in June 1946. With so much competition between manufacturers for a limited market of British people in areas that could receive television, it became desirable to devise some means to stand out from the crowd. The Baird Company introduced a new set in 1948, with the main selling point was that it did not require connection to an external aerial, thus it was 'portable' because it could be used in different rooms in the home. It was wired such that its mains cord would double as the aerial. This exclusive feature also solved the problem of television ownership in flats and other premises where rooftop aerials were forbidden.

The idea of using the mains cord as an aerial in areas with good reception originated from within the Company when it was still called John Logie Baird Ltd., probably from Baird's former assistant Edward Anderson, who left the company in 1948, or possibly during the war from Baird himself. The idea continued to be integrated into sets even when the Company changed primary ownership. Since JLB's death in 1946 at the age of only 57, the company had been carried forward by actor and manager Jack Buchanan. JLB Ltd. formed part of a new company, Scophony-Baird, in November 1948 as the result of a merger with Scophony Ltd. At this time, television receiver production moved to a factory in Lancelot Road, Wembley, Middlesex.

About a year after the merger, 38-year-old actor Terry-Thomas (1911–1990) was hired to publicise the latest 'Portable' model. At the time, T-T was doing some similar advertising work, including a British public information film called Copy Book Please (1948), a rationing propaganda short If You Don't Save Paper (1948) and a cinema advertisement for British Petroleum as one of the 'BP Supermen' (1950). An association with the BBC was emphasised by his appearance in the film Helter Skelter (directed by Ralph Thomas, 1949), a comedy set in Broadcasting House.

An autographed photo of T-T with a Baird Portable circa December 1949. [Thanks to 'The Chap' magazine]

Most importantly, Terry-Thomas was appearing in and co-writing a very successful comedy show on BBC television called How Do You View? in which he played a cash-strapped, amiable bounder presenting the show from his bachelor pad. The show was first broadcast on 26 October 1949 and is considered the first comedy series on British television. Unsurprisingly, How Do You View? was mentioned in most if not all of the Baird Portable advertisements featuring T-T. His prominence on television at the time made him an ideal spokesperson for selling sets. T-T biographer Graham McCann writes:

It was ... very evident within the industry just how important both the show and its star now were - not only for setting such a high standard for other programme-makers and performers to aim to emulate, but also for being such massive consumer attractions ('If television has made Terry-Thomas into a name,' one critic remarked, 'then equally Terry-Thomas has made television into an entertainment'1). Market research was indeed now suggesting that some people were actually buying television sets for the very first time in their lives chiefly to see what all the fuss was about the man they called "T-T": 'Here's Terry-Thomas to help you sell more sets,' declared a full-page advertisement in a trade magazine for Baird televisions, urging the nation's electrical retailers to use images of the star in cinemas to lure more and more viewers to the small screen. A powerful magnet for the medium had thus been found. How Do You View? was why a growing number of people were viewing.2

A few of the other TV manufacturers also hired celebrity endorsers. Ultra had Arthur Askey on contract for years, while Philips briefly employed Gracie Fields. Jack Buchanan would return in 1952–53 to endorse receiver sets made by a small company called True-Vue. True-Vue sets featured a similar mains-cord-as-the-aerial circuit.

A Baird Portable model T164, author's collection

Introduced in September 1949, the T164 has a handsome figured walnut cabinet in a streamline shape, with curvature at front edges as well as at the top, with the loudspeaker pointing forward, and four knobs below. It originally cost £57-15-0.

Terry-Thomas was famous for his cigarette holders, and a comedic H-shaped one in the style of the rooftop aerial of the day was perfect for the Baird Portable promotion, pitching the idea of an 'H' rooftop aerial as excessive. Whilst it may-as-well have been specially-made for the promotion, it had in fact been a gift. In his autobiography, T-T recalls...'Once How Do You View? had caught on, fans started sending me gifts of holders. One was in the shape of a TV aerial with holes for five (sic) fags at a time'.3

An autographed photo of Terry-Thomas with the TV aerial cigarette holder, circa 1950, author's collection

The publicity photograph (above) was usually a bit smaller than post-card-sized and prints were often autographed by T-T. The photos can be found with signature dates ranging from 1950–1953. The photo's ultimate claim to fame is that it was used (following colourisation) for the cover of the debut issue of TV Mirror magazine on 29 August 1953, Britain's first weekly television periodical.4 The photo was about four years old at that time and possibly part of the same shoot as the 'bachelor pad' photo at the top of this page, (although on close examination T-T is wearing a different suit).

It is worth mentioning here that T-T had in fact given up smoking in 1945 on doctor's orders. In his autobiography he revealed: 'I'd been a dozen-a-day man up to then. So when I was seen on TV or in my cabaret act with a lighted du Maurier in a holder, for me it was only another stage prop, I wasn't really 'smoking'. I used to time my act by the holder. Holding it in my hand and taking the occasional puff, it lasted ten minutes'.5

On 8 September 1950, the National Radio Show opened in Birmingham, the first time it was held there, largely in recognition of the new Sutton Coldfield transmitter that had opened on 17 December the previous year, and in anticipation of Holme Moss which became the UK's third television transmitter on 12 October 1951. There is no evidence that T-T made an appearance at the Birmingham show. It was, however, a very large show and included its own BBC television studio.6 On a wall within Scophony-Baird Ltd.'s stand (Stand No. 39) was a large portrait of John Logie—the same portrait that had been used as the model for the metal medallion on the front of the recent line of Baird sets.

In this BBC film of the 1950 National Radio Show, at 0:34 the Baird stand is briefly shown. A Baird Everyman model turns on a rotating plinth—the JLB portrait is visible in the background. [courtesy BBC Archive]

The sets exhibited and demonstrated in Birmingham included the deluxe 'Townsman' no-aerial console that used a 12 in. cathode ray tube. A reviewer in Practical Television wrote, 'this receiver was the centre of attraction at last year's Radiolympia and is claimed to be still holding its position as the best value in Television to-day'.7 There was also a 'Townsman' version with a built-in radio. The third console model, the 'Countryman' was a long-range set for use in fringe areas, also with a 12 in. picture. The least expensive (£36-15-0) set was the 'Everyman' table model, with a 9 in. picture.8 The 1950 version of the Baird Portable made its debut at Birmingham, model T165, also with a 9 in. picture.9,10 It was similar to the 1949 Portable but with a new plastic insert front and thus slightly less expensive at £53-11-1. An example of this set can be found today in the collection of the British Vintage Wireless Society Museum.

The advertisement above appeared in a Royal Film Performance programme dated 30 October 1950 (for The Mudlark starring Irene Dunn and Alec Guinness). It is a clear attempt to lure cinema-goers to the small screen, stating: '"How do you view"? "Very well thank you with my BAIRD portable" says Terry-Thomas'.11 The advertisement continues:

Top Television star Terry-Thomas is just as successful televiewing as he is televising. You see, like so many in the know, he has chosen a Baird Portable—the set that needs no aerial. "It's such an advantage," says Terry, "being able to move my Baird from room to room. It's so light to carry and so simple plugging in. And my, what a clear picture it gives!"

T-T's 'contract' with Scophony-Baird seems to have expired soon after this, however, he continued to make television-receiver-industry-related appearances. On 28 August, he recorded a closed-circuit contribution plus a scripted act for First Night, BBC producer Graeme Muir's special broadcast 'highlighting the peaks and troughs of the Earls Court Radio Exhibition'.12 The show was broadcast on 29 August from 8.15 to 9.15 pm—the first of the television shows broadcast from the 1951 National Radio Show's temporary studio.13

A short film of the 1951 National Radio Show, including T-T's appearance in the Star 'if I ran the BBC...' award ceremony [courtesy BBC Archive, recently colourised by Matt Spanner].

As in Birmingham the previous year, the Show was very much dominated by television and again it had included its own BBC studio specially-built for the occasion, from which seven television and two radio programmes were eventually broadcast during the course of the exhibition. The Exhibition was officially opened by Lord Mountbatten on 31 August. On this day, T-T presented the first television set awarded in a competition run by The Star for the best letter-writer on the theme: 'If I ran the BBC...' [a Bush TV24]. The exhibition also included a very unsuccessful no smoking sign.

1 'Meet T-T, TV's First Star', Answers (6 October 1951), p. 13.

2 Graham McCann, Bounder! The Biography of Terry-Thomas, London: Aurum Press Ltd., 2008, p. 61.

3 Terry-Thomas with Terry Daum, Terry-Thomas Tells Tales: An Autobiography, London: Robson Books, 1990, p. 32.

4 In April 1957 TV Mirror became TV Mirror and Disc News but the magazine struggled due to the introduction of TV Times in 1955 and ceased publication in 1960.

5 Terry-Thomas and Daum, Terry-Thomas Tells, p. 32.

6 'National Radio Exhibition', Wireless World (September, 1950) 56(9), pp. 305–309.

7 'TV at the Radio Show' [entry for Scophony-Baird Ltd.], Practical Television (September–October 1950) 1(6), p. 275.

8 The Baird 'Everyman' T29A receiver had been so cheaply produced that it was later found to be difficult to maintain compared to the other sets in the 1949–1950 ranges. The 'Everyman' is sometimes confused with the 'Portable'. One of the 'Everyman' sets can be found at Toronto's MZTV Museum.

9 'TV at the Radio Show', p. 275.

10 'RECEIVERS: Broadcast, Television, Communications and Special Purpose', Wireless World (September 1950) 56(9), p. 309.

11 '"How Do You View"?' [advertisement], Royal Film Performance [Gala Souvenir Programme, The Mudlark], Empire Theatre, Leicester Square, 30 October 1950, p. 121.

12 Robert Ross, The Complete Terry-Thomas, London: Reynolds & Hearn Ltd., 2002, p. 58.

13 Television listings for 29 August 1951, Radio Times, television edn. (24 August 1951) 112(1450), p. 46.