They might live in one of the most picturesque areas of the country but residents of the small village of West Witton in the Yorkshire Dales are having to deal with the loss of a different sort of view: their TV signal stopped working a month ago after a fire.
“The wife’s not happy,” said Eddie Hammond, a retired haulier, sitting in the Fox and Hounds pub. “She hasn’t seen Emmerdale in weeks. Mind you, one of the actors lives in the village so at least she gets to see him walk past the house sometimes.”
The newly arrived landlord John Walker was more upbeat about the idea that the lack of television was pushing the people of Wensleydale to have an extra pint of Theakston’s. “That could be a major reason that we’ve been so busy … It’s quite an old demographic and people here do rely on their telly but they’re more than happy to come here for a chat and some company," hy het gesê.
They are among the almost 1 million people across the north of England who have spent the last month unexpectedly learning to adjust to life without TV. The cause of their woes is the Bilsdale transmitter, the 10th-tallest structure in the UK. Sitting atop a remote hill in the North York Moors, its thin tubular steel structure rises 314 metres above the surrounding heather and since 1969 it has provided the television signals that serve large parts of County Durham and North Yorkshire.
Na going up in flames on 10 Augustus for as yet unknown reasons, it has been out of action and is likely beyond repair – meaning some homes could be without a Freeview TV signal until a replacement is finished at some point in 2022.
Charities, local councils and housing associations are deeply concerned about the impact on loneliness during the winter months, especially if there is any return to coronavirus-related lockdowns.
“I admit I talk to the TV and I bet I’m not alone in that,” said 72-year-old Ganka Swailes at her house in Newton Aycliffe, County Durham. “Some might find it strange or even funny but to people like me the television is a companion, it’s the voice you hear when you wake up and I often fall asleep in front of it at night.”
The retired social worker, originally from Bulgaria, said her family lived abroad and her TV was her route to the world. She is desperate to be relieved from her new routine of reading endless John Grisham novels and return to watching Magnum PI. “I miss it so much because I feel it keeps me connected to people and to life when sometimes at my age you feel as though it is going on without you. That’s a little sad but that’s the way it is for many of us.”
Swailes is one of many who feel the issue has been overlooked on the national stage. “If this had been in London it would have been fixed in a week.”
Even in an era of booming online streaming services, levels of traditional TV viewing remain high among older and less well-off audiences. The media regulator, Ofcom, estimates about 6% of British homes are without internet access, meaning a significant minority have no other way of accessing television.
“This is a black swan event,” said Paul Donovan, the boss of Arqiva, the business that owns most of the UK’s transmitter network. “We are absolutely devastated. Our purpose is that you should never have to worry when you switch on your TV or radio whether it works or not.”
He says temporary masts mean about 500,000 households are back receiving signal but despite him being given a blank chequebook it could take months to connect the remaining homes. The remote hilly terrain makes it one of the most difficult areas of the country to provide signal. “If we were in East Anglia we wouldn’t be having this discussion," hy het gesê.
Many villages are buried in deep valleys that signals cannot reach. Bilsdale’s national park location means restrictions on construction disrupting local fauna. Roads cannot take the weight of lorries, forcing Arqiva to use helicopters to fly in metal and concrete to construct a temporary replacement mast.
“This is not about cost,” said Donovan, who is offering to install free satellite dishes for some of the worst-affected households and is worried about the impact on single mothers on benefits who cannot afford other entertainment. “This is about our responsibility to live up to the reason my company exists.”
After a campaign by the Northern Echo newspaper there has been an unprecedented agreement to partly refund the BBC licence fee for some of those affected. Until then, they are having to find alternative distractions.
In West Witton this included last month’s unique “Burning of the Bartle” ceremony, which involves 100 locals marching an effigy – thought to be based on a 14th-century sheep thief – through the village while chanting a traditional doggerel before cheering as they set him ablaze at Grassgill End. “You don’t see that kind of thing on the telly,” said one local at the Fox and Hounds.