Fascination with Electronics

I don’t remember exactly when I became interested in electricity and electronics

I don’t remember exactly when I became interested in electricity and electronics; it probably developed during my first year or two of science lessons at secondary school. We had a really excellent science teacher called Mr. Roberts – nicknamed ‘Potsun’ after the character Potassium Roberts in, I think, The Eagle comic. I enjoyed science and ‘Potsun’ made the lessons great fun with practical demonstrations such as blowing up a treacle tin using town gas from the mains. However it began, the interest has stayed with me ever since, first as a hobby and now as a business.

The increasing availability of transistors in the sixties, and the safety of powering things from a 9V battery, made constructing different project circuits from magazines such as Practical Wireless and Everyday Electronics easier and relatively cheap. I became quite adept at building and modifying these circuits, especially at soldering the rather fragile transistors, diodes and LED’s without ruining them. Also, from an early age my father had always taught both my brother George and me to use tools correctly and accurately. This expert guidance and the fact that we were taught metalwork at secondary school meant that I was able to mark out, drill and cut boxes in which to fit my various projects with a degree of expertise.

My practical experience and general interest in electronics led to Arthur Mattinson offering me a job working alongside his main technician, Norman Rabett, on TV and Radio repairs and installations. I also began attending Lowestoft College to study City and Guilds Radio and Television Servicing Intermediate Level. Although I passed the mock examination, I did not work for Arthur or attend college for long enough to take the actual examination. I did, however, gain an invaluable knowledge of electronic component and circuit theory, and more importantly, an understanding of electrical safety – essential when the metal chassis of the TV set could be connected to 240V AC and still work – which stood me in good stead for both my hobby and parts of my future career.

My interest in public address and sound equipment, and thus the origins of Showlite, started back in the late fifties and early sixties when I remember being fascinated by the van full of valve driven PA equipment and huge horn loudspeakers used at the Leiston Co-operators Day fetes. I have always thought that these were supplied by E. A. W. Nolloth who were based in Norwich, but recent conversations with Ken Yaxley from Yaxleys of Norwich have failed to throw any light on the existence of this company in that area so I’m wondering if my memory is wrong and they actually came from Easter Radio Amplification (ERA). In the mid-sixties friends and I often used to visit the Motorcycle Scrambles held at Mumberry Hills, Westleton. The PA system for these was provided and operated by Bob Henderson from Wyndham in Norfolk. I always went with the intention of watching the racing, but, somehow ended up chatting to Bob and watching him at work. I just knew that one day I wanted to do that! Bob is no longer alive, but his son Peter ran the business for some years. We have met a couple of times at the Eye Show when I’ve been there for BBC Radio Suffolk. I believe that Peter has now also retired and the business is now owned/run by his engineer. At one time I was aware of a website and museum called the History of PA which was created and looked after by Ken Yaxley, however both the website and any mention of the physical museum or the History of PA Trust seem to have disappeared. At present (April 2019) I am trying to find out what happened to it all.

Eventually in the late sixties, with Bob’s encouragement, I acquired my first PA amplifier from RSC Ltd. of Henconner Lane, Leeds. It used valves and of course it was mains operated. The power output of only 12 watts was tiny compared with the 120 or even 240 watts I use today, but, it was quite enough for a village fete. Around the same time a work colleague at Wells and Son gave me a ‘transverter’ which was a very noisy piece of equipment able to mechanically convert 12 volts DC from a car battery into a very rough 240 volts AC mains. It consumed lots of battery power in the process, but, it did mean that my equipment could be used in a field away from mains power for two or three hours.

Other bits and pieces followed, particularly a Fidelity reel-to-reel tape recorder with which I began making recordings of services at the Baptist Mission Room (now demolished) in Victory Road, Leiston where my uncle Percy Marjoram was the minister, and of concerts given by the Leiston British Legion Band of which my father was Bandmaster. Later I progressed to a Philips tape deck, but, although quite a bit more expensive, it was never as reliable as my trusty Fidelity!

Schools Out

School’s Out!

Being the first students at Leiston Modern School to be offered the chance of GCE qualifications meant that we were visited on several occasions by specialist Education Careers Advisors. However, they seemed to know little about my chosen career in Television and so I totally failed to convince them that I would rather be a BBC-TV news cameraman than a policeman. Through my own efforts, I was eventually offered a job as a night news film editor with ITN, but, in the end various reasons prevented me from taking up this offer (ah, what might have been…..).

So it was that my quest to work ‘in entertainment’ meant that I started my working life in July 1965 as third projectionist at the original Odeon cinema in Lloyds Avenue, Ipswich. At the time the cinema, along with the Gaumont, belonged to the Rank Organisation and its General Manager was David Lowe. The Odeon’s Chief Projectionist was Sidney Durnford and the second projectionist was Norman Buxton. Although I lost contact with Sid after he retired working together on the Saturday morning ‘Kids Club’ shows with Norman meant that we became great friends. I believe he became the Chief at the new Odeon before its sudden closure in 2005, but I haven’t seen him since then.

Whilst working at the Odeon, amongst other things, I had the ‘pleasure’ of showing Mary Poppins around 84 times. It was an immensely popular film. We showed it three times a day and for most of the day we had queues of people waiting to get in, both down Lloyds Avenue and around to the rear of Footmans – it wasn’t Debenhams then. The film itself was quite long so it had an ‘intermission’ within it which was announced as part of the sound track. Originally it said ‘There will now be an intermission of fifteen minutes’, but, the numbers of children to be served meant that it was not unusual for this to go on for twenty minutes or more so Sid ‘edited’ the optical sound track. The intention was to make it say ‘there will now be an intermission’. Unfortunately he was a little heavy-handed with the blooping ink and it ended up saying ‘there will now be an intermish..’.

I often wonder though what would have happened had I been in a position to take the ITN job because, for a boy who had not left home for more than a day before, just living in Ipswich all week did not work out. Although Bill and Betty Hender, the couple I lodged with in St. Johns Road, were very nice and did their best to make me feel part of their family I became very homesick. It was no fun being free all day with nowhere to go and then having to work at night when the few friends I had were free and going out. How much worse would it have been in London?

I became very homesick and so by the end of 1965 I had returned home to Leiston. Over the next nine years I worked variously for Brett Brothers at Friston as a spray painter, for W. Wells and Son in Saxmundham and W. D. Titlow and Son in Leiston as an Ironmongery shop assistant and plumbers mate, and as a TV and Audio service technician for Mattinsons TV and Radio at Saxmundham. Throughout this time my interest in electronics grew steadily, especially whilst working for Mattinsons, and slowly it became combined with my love of entertainment as you will see in the following chapters.

Showlite History the Beginning

In the beginning….

Mum and Dad – note the wireless set!

Mum and Dad at home

I was born in Waterloo Avenue, Leiston in late September 1947, the eldest son of Sam and Olive Whiting. I attended Leiston Primary School, both the old one in Waterloo Avenue and the new school in King Georges Avenue, and then Leiston Secondary Modern School. Again both on the Waterloo Avenue site and its replacement in Seaward Avenue which opened in September 1964. At the Modern School I was amongst the first group of pupils ever to be offered the opportunity to take ‘O’ Level GCE examinations and I opted for five – Mathematics, English Language, English Literature, History, and Geography. Of that first batch I passed only Mathematics and English Language, largely because, as I was unable to take the subjects I needed – the school didn’t have staff available to teach them – I did not try too hard.

One of the set plays for the English Literature examination in 1964 was Shakespeare’s ‘Macbeth’. As part of our study of that work our English Literature teacher, Molly Kirwan, took us to watch a production of it in London. I don’t remember anything about which theatre we went to, or whose production it was, but, the live theatre experience enthralled me.

The English Literature GCE was one of those which I didn’t pass, but, I was well and truly hooked on theatre. With the encouragement of Peter Martyn-Lunken, the new English and Drama teacher at Leiston Modern School, I lit my first play – ‘The Amorous Prawn’ – in Leiston Church Hall (now demolished and replaced with houses!) towards the end of my last full year at school. I have two abiding memories of that first production; the lighting control consisted of about ten on/off switches – no dimmers, and the explosion towards the end of the play was created by Neville the stage manager throwing a lighted ‘banger’ firework under the stage. One night he lit it too early and couldn’t put it out!

Other productions, both for the school and for the Leiston Amateur Dramatic Society (LADS) followed. Two shows stand out in my memory. One is the first pantomime written for the new school by two of the teachers, Jack Watts and Ted Curzon, and called ‘Cinderella at Deadwood Creek’. I not only lit it but also played the part of the Horse Doctor. The other is ‘Murder in the Red Barn’ presented by LADS. I lit this play, helped with the set building, and took the part of Tim Bobbin, the village idiot! My mum came to watch a performance and was so taken in by the realism of the scene where William Corder is hung that, when I didn’t come home at the usual time after the last performance, she thought that George Kerry – the actor playing Corder – had be injured and I’d been arrested . Actually I’d been enjoying the first of many ‘last night parties’!

With the agreement of my parents I then remained at school for a further year to study for the Physics ‘O’ Level I needed to follow my chosen career with the BBC – well that was the plan! Unfortunately the headmaster was the only person qualified to teach the subject, and of course with a new school to run he was very busy. I soon realised that I was unlikely to pass with only one years tuition and so in early July 1965 I left school determined to find my own way to work ‘in entertainment’.