Terry-Thomas and the Baird Portable

by Iain Logie Baird, 24 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 exclusive feature also solved the problem of television ownership in flats and other premises where rooftop aerials were forbidden. The idea of using a mains cord as an aerial in areas with good reception originated from within the post-war company, John Logie Baird Ltd.—either from Baird's former assistant Edward Anderson, who left in 1948, or possibly during the war from Baird himself.

The idea continued to be integrated into sets even when the Baird company changed primary ownership. Since JLB's death in 1946, the company had been carried forward by actor and manager Jack Buchanan, becoming 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. 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 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.

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, pitching the idea of an 'H' rooftop aerial as excessive. 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. However, this photograph'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.3 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.

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 anticpation of Holme Moss which became the UK's third television transmitter on 12 October 1951). It was a very large show and included its own BBC television studio.4 On a wall within Scophony-Baird Ltd.'s stand (Stand No. 39) was a large portrait of John Logie—this portrait had been used as the model for the metal medallion on the front of the 1949 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'.5 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. The 1950 Baird Portable was introduced here, model T165, also with a 9 in. picture.6,7 It was similar to the 1949 Portable but with a new plastic insert front and thus slightly less expensive at £53-11-1.

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'.8 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!"

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].

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.

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

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

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

6 Ibid.

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

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