Ray Herbert review

NBTVA newsletter, August 2000
by Ray M. Herbert

“As the title suggests, this book deals largely with the retrieval and restoration of Baird’s 30-line television pictures, which were recorded on shellac and aluminium discs over the period 1927-35.

Many authors writing about the history of television are faced with the difficulty of finding something new and prefer not to quote too often from earlier accounts written by other people. Donald McLean managed to avoid most of these problems since he was in the unique position of being able to describe a form of television archaeology which had never been attempted before. He also designed the special equipment needed to restore the images, besides producing the attractive computer-simulated graphics for the book.

An early chapter explains that mechanical scanning is by no means obsolete. Weather satellites and the Pioneer probes to Jupiter and Saturn are quoted as examples of present-day use. The various applications of the Nipkow disc receive detailed treatment and off-screen photographs show the way in which the 30-line images improved from 1926 until 1934.

About 70 pages are devoted to the restoration of Phonovision discs and other examples of recording television signals. The author provides a fascinating account of the 19 years spent investigating the subject, all undertaken in his spare time.

Others have attempted in the 1960s to obtain a picture from a Phonovision recording using simple audio filters to eliminate needle scratch but no recognisable images could be resolved. Clearly, a more sophisticated approach had to be made and this involved a great deal of tedious work.

First, the video signals on the Phonovision disc had to be transferred to tape. Next, the resultant analogue recordings were put into digital form. Each frame required individual attention to correct phase errors, remove surface noise and to provide re-synchronisation. At 12½ frames per second it meant that 8 hours of processing was necessary to provide 64 seconds of restored moving images. Great care had to be taken to ensure that this work was purely a cleaning-up operation, with nothing added in the way of retouching. Three different types of early video recordings were restored – Baird’s Phonovision discs, video recordings from the BBC’s 30-line era and the Radiovision recordings which consisted of stills.

One particularly rewarding aspect of this work concerned the retrieval of an amateur video recording made on a six-inch aluminium disc between 1934-35, during a BBC 30-line television programme. The restored image showed a head-and-shoulder shot of a lady singing. She is entirely at ease in front of the scanner (camera) and delivers her act with aplomb. Judging by the tempo of the song, her mannerisms, hair style and features, she is almost certainly Betty Bolton, who made television appearances between 1930 and 1935. Fortunately, she is alive and well, living in London and had no difficulty in confirming that it was, indeed, her performance.

Written in a conversational style, this book covers a considerable amount of new ground. It is copiously illustrated and 40 of the photographs have never been published previously. There are 295 pages and over 150 illustrations.

The flavour of the infant years of television is captured most successfully and the book represents essential reading for everybody with an interest in those days.”