The Lost Precinct Advent Calendar – #8: SWEB Showrooms

“Electricity, Electricity… Two Four O volts…*”

Part and parcel of many a British street till the mid 1990s was the electricity board’s showrooms. An exemplar of public sector enterprise, they were a human face for an otherwise dull but important industry.

The Ad of Christmas Past

For our eighth window, we have chosen the cheesy SWEB Christmas advert. The South West Electricity Board’s 1985 effort is voiced by Richard Briers. Their rhymes wouldn’t have been out of place on Bullseye. The music sounds like a low rent version of the Electric Light Orchestra’s 1980s work (eerily similar to something from their Balance of Power album a year later).

As we have noticed with the previous entry on Liquorsave, there’s another shock in the price department. 30 years ago, £239.00 was pretty good for a microwave oven – but you had less wattage for your quid then (500 watts for the Sharp 6210). Today, £239.00 could buy you the Panasonic NN-CF760MBPQ model, with a tenner change for a decent cookery book. This model includes a combination grill and convection oven. The wattage: 1000W – one-third of the wattage of an instant boil kettle.

The Shop of Christmas Past

South West Electricity Board supplied electricity to the people of South West England, and was one of fourteen Area Electricity Boards formed under the 1947 Electricity Act. This saw the amalgamation of municipal and privately owned concerns and their nationalisation. Showrooms for electricity and gas boards had been part and parcel of their infrastructure since the early 20th Century.

As well as alluring customers to the latest electrical goods, SWEB’s showrooms and its like elsewhere in Britain also offer bill payment facilities. This was before free personal banking rose in popularity by the late 1970s. After privatisation in 1990, SWEB’s electrical supply arm was renamed SWEB Energy. This would see the end of its showrooms as Direct Debit became the privatised utilities’ preferred payment methods.

As with many others, the showrooms were sold off (NORWEB Retail would become part of Comet whereas Scottish Power’s retail arm would continue till 2001). SWEB’s electricity supply arm is now in American arms, owned by the PPL Corporation (formerly Pennsylvania Power and Light). SWEB is known as Western Power Distribution.

To paraphrase Frank Sidebottom: old bills never die, they just get printed off these days and appear on the balance sheet of any online bank account.

S.V., 08 December 2015.

* Electricity, by the late great Chris Sievey (under the papier mache alter ego of Frank Sidebottom). George Street in the song refers to the location of Altrincham’s NORWEB showroom rather than Manchester’s, Ashton-under-Lyne’s and Oldham’s George Streets.

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