TV detector vans – an urban myth?

by Jenny Karlsson, PR & Communications Officer

Since they were introduced in the 1950s, a lot of controversy has surrounded TV detector vans. Many people were (and still are) convinced that they didn’t work or never even existed. A new BBC Radio 4 programme on Saturday 13th June will set out to investigate this urban myth, drawing upon files from The British Postal Museum & Archive (BPMA).

An annual licence fee of 10 shillings was first introduced under the Wireless Telegraphy Act in November 1923 to cover radio sets. The first combined Radio and TV licence was introduced in 1946, costing £2 (the equivalent of £57 in 2006) and covering the monochrome-only single channel BBC television service, and the licences were initially issued and administered by the General Post Office (GPO).

As part of the Post Office campaign to track down users of unlicenced sets, the first TV detector van was constructed in 1952. The detection equipment in the van had been developed at the radio experimental laboratories of the Post Office in Dollis Hill, London. The van was then demonstrated in front of then Postmaster General, Lord De La Warr and Assistant Postmaster General Mr Gammans. In articles covering the demonstration, the Postmaster General was quoted as saying: “The equipment, which is suitable for fitting in a standard Post Office Radio Interference van, enables the majority of working television receivers on both sides of the road to be detected, and the houses containing the receivers to be located, as the vans move along the road”.

In May this year BBC Radio 4 visited the BPMA Search Room in London to conduct research and do recordings for a show about TV detector vans. The aim of the show is to expose the myths about TV detector vans, and is part of a series of programmes in which the comedian Steve Punt (famous from the sketch duo Punt & Dennis and shows like The Mary Whitehouse Experience) investigates urban myths. When the TV detector vans were introduced, many people were convinced that they were empty inside or that the equipment didn’t really work. The BBC team also went out to the BPMA’s Museum Store in Debden, Essex, to have a look at the TV detector van that is on show there. Chris Taft, BPMA Curator and Helen Dafter, BPMA Archivist were both interviewed for the programme.

The BPMA holds a range of records relating to TV licensing and detector vans, such as press cuttings, memos referring to difficulties caused by iron railings and iron girdles, and details of experimental combs, including number of TV sets detected, number of calls made and the results of these calls.

TV licensing was also promoted by poster campaigns. The earliest of these posters held in the archive is from 1951 and states: ‘Don’t be a pirate – A Television and Sound Licence costs £2 for a year’. In reference to this, the prototype detector van was known to some members of the press as “The Jolly Roger”.

Dont Be A Pirate! A Television and Sound Licence costs £2 for a year

Don't Be A Pirate! A Television and Sound Licence costs £2 for a year

Why not listen to the show and make your own mind up about TV detector vans?

BBC Radio 4: Punt Pl
Saturday 13th June 10:30am – 11.00am
The show will be available for one week after the broadcast on the BBC’s iPlayer service.

5 responses to “TV detector vans – an urban myth?

  1. It is somewhat curious that the BBC have refused FOI requests to determine how many detection devices they posses, the technical specification of these devices, or how often they are deployed.

    The grounds for refusal were that disclosing this information would reduce the effectiveness of the detector van programme, although it is difficult to see how.

    E.g., knowing that there are only 26 vans to service the whole country (the current estimate based on maintenance contracts), should not stop a detector van from performing the function it claims to be able to do.

  2. I have been researching the use of evidence used in Court and as of yet have not found a single conviction of use of a television without a licence being made on evidence from a detector van, infact it’s hard to find any evidence ever offered by a detector van in any court case ?

  3. Pingback: The Post Office and British Broadcasting « The British Postal Museum & Archive

  4. TV detector vans were possibly plausible from a technical POV when very few homes had TVs. Today, no, the plethora of RF interference from mobile phones, GPS, computers, switch mode PSUs, even the engine electronics in the mythical van itself would completely eradicate any potential viability.

    That said, I’m not against TV licensing in principle. It is often regarded as yet another tax, and it is exactly that.

    The bigger problem is that this government sees fit to make it a criminal offence to operate a TV with0ut a license.

    I do have a television set, and numerous other things in this household that could reasonably be considered to be capable of receiving a broadcast TV signal. Coat hangers, for example, could be fashioned into a makeshift receiving antenna, for example.

    I also have a current TV license. Despite the fact that I only listen to BBC R4 and watch about 6 hours TV per year.

  5. The bbc is institutionally dishonest – of course detector vans are bs. Worse though is how this dishonesty taints even their greatest achievements. Watching attenborough’s latest masterpiece he tells us at the end of each episode how the film crew get such amazing footage. In one of these segments the great man tells us that all the camera equipment failed at a vital moment and the fleeting world-first footage was recorded on a mobile phone. In a typically deplorable act of deceit (and just in case the audience was readily want to suspect sir david attenborough of an untruth) the beeb decided the footage should be adorned with a drawn-on frame and blinking red ‘Rec’ dot to better convince the viewer of the crew’s dramatic good fortune and of course, to show the footage just like it would truly appear if it really were recorded on your (800?) megapixel broadcast-quality camaraphone. The bbc calls such things embellishments – I say they are dressed in deceit.

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