Terry-Thomas and the Baird Portable





by Iain Baird, 22 February 2021



The Baird Portable television set's main selling point was that it did not require connection to an external aerial, thus it was portable because it could easily be moved to different rooms in the home. It was wired such that the mains cord would double as the aerial. This concept originated from within the post-war Baird company—either from John Logie Baird's former assistant Edward Anderson or possibly during the war from Baird himself. The idea continued to be integrated into sets even when the Baird company changed primary ownership. The company had been carried forward by actor and manager Jack Buchanan since JLB's death in 1946, becoming Scophony-Baird in November 1948 following a merger with Scophony Ltd., its pre-war competitor.

About a year after the merger, 38-year-old actor Terry-Thomas (1911–1990) was hired to publicise the latest version of the Portable. Around this time, T-T was doing some similar advertising work, including a British public information film called Copy Book Please (1949) and a cinema advertisement for British Petroleum as one of the 'BP Supermen' (1950).





An autographed photograph 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, the 'How Do You View?' title was used 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 receiver 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.


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. It was a very large show and included its own BBC television studio. On a wall within the Baird company's stand was a large portrait of John Logie—the same portrait used as the model for the metal medallion on the front of the 1949–50 Baird sets. The models to feature the medallion were the Baird Portable priced at £57-15-0, and the least expensive Everyman model (at £36-15-0), in addition to the two more expensive models—the 'Townsman' no aerial console and the 'Countryman' long range console.





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]





A 1949 Baird Portable, model T164, author's collection


As previously noted, the Portable was about £20 more expensive than the Everyman. It has a handsome walnut veneered cabinet in a streamline shape, with curvature at front corners as well as at the top, with the loudspeaker pointing forward and on the right of the screen, and four knobs below.





T-T was famous for his cigarette holder and a comedic H-shaped one, in the style of the rooftop aerial of the day, was fashioned for the Baird Portable promotion. It was a creative way of pitching the image of an 'H' rooftop aerial as excessive. The mains aerial solved the problem of television ownership in flats and other premises where rooftop aerials were forbidden.


This publicity photograph was usually post-card-sized and often autographed by T-T. Today, these photos can still be found (for a price) with signature dates ranging from 1950–1953. This photograph's ultimate claim to fame is that it was used (following colourisation) for the cover of the debut issue of TV Weekly magazine on 29 August 1953, Britain's first weekly television periodical. The photo was about four years old at that time since it was part of the same shoot as the 'bachelor pad' photograph at the top of this page.





In September 1950, the updated version of the Portable became available, model T165. It was slightly less expensive than the 1949 model, yet of a similar design and with the same 9" screen.3 The advertisement above appears in a Royal Film Performance programme dated 30 October 1950 (for The Mudlark starring Irene Dunn and Alec Guinness). The advertisement above is a typical example, stating: '"How do you view"? "Very well thank you with my BAIRD portable" says Terry-Thomas'.4


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!"





This is a short film of T-T's appearance in the 1951 Star 'if I ran the BBC...' award ceremony [courtesy: BBC Archive, recently colourised by Matt Spanner].



T-T's contract with Scophony-Baird seems to have expired during 1951. The 1951 National Radio Show, now back in London at Earl's Court, was officially opened by Lord Mountbatten on 31 August. Here, 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]. Again, the Radio Show was very much dominated by television and again it included its own BBC studio specially-built for the occasion, from which seven television and two radio programmes were broadcast during the course of the exhibition. The exhibition also included a very unsuccessful no smoking sign.





References


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

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