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Smallville: License Optional

Peter B Farrell finds himself deeply entangled in the reddest of red tape - and all because he wants to watch TV.

To read more of Pete's deliciously funny columns please click on Smallville in the menu on this page.

I was staring down the barrel of a gun with a hair trigger, £1000 or else. The ‘gun’ in question was an unmarked vehicle circling the neighbourhood, the ‘hair trigger’ an anonymous telephone operator in a call centre.

In a state of shock I read again the letter marked ‘Urgent’ from the TV Licensing people. I faced prosecution and a fine of £1000 - as set out in the Communications Act - if any attempt was made to use the TV to watch or record programmes, including the use of a DVD recorder, PC or mobile phone. On the mobile phone issue I was on safe ground. What’s a text message?

‘There is no record of a license issued to the above address,’ was the call centre message, repeated ad infinitum on choosing option 8.

In the early 1900s, our Victorian cottage - numbered 54 - was one of many properties scattered among the woods and farmland, about a mile out of town on the main road.

When we took up occupation some ninety years later, the number of properties had more than quadrupled, filling spaces left by open fields and meadows, the majority of the new houses identified by names.

The many ‘Ivy, Rose, Elm Cottages,’ ‘Meadow, Hill, River Views,’ ‘Dunroamins’ and ‘Frednas,’ proved to be a menace to the staff in the Royal Mail Sorting Office. The Postal delivery relied solely upon the encyclopaedic knowledge of old retainers, wheeled out of retirement. The younger elements met the challenge with enthusiasm, only to be reduced to tears, returning to base with more mail than they had set out with.

In an effort to solve the problem, the local Council at the behest of the Royal Mail - before it was changed to ‘Insignia’ and back to Royal Mail again, at a cost of £3,000,000 - decided to renumber all 360 houses on the Road.

On a given day in the calendar our property became number 162 - ‘You must display this number clearly.‘ It took over six chaotic months before we got the correct electricity, telephone and water bills. Some bank statements are still out there, along with sundry birthday cards, wedding invitations and my weekly copy of ‘Tap Dancing World.’ Oddly enough the junk mail never failed to arrive, usually ‘Welcome to your new home, we can supply you with that new carpet/fireplace/washing machine, or Need a Plumber?’

The biggest headache was convincing the various call centres employed by the insurance and banking people, that we hadn’t abandoned our home and resurfaced overnight, a mile up the road. Technically, both my wife and I could be burned to a cinder with no hope of a payout. Would the deeds of the house need redrafting, along with the wills?

‘There is no record of a license issued to the above address,’ was the call centre message again, but this time I chose to proceed to option 9. I had now moved on from the virtual world and was able to speak to a real person, in plain English and in measured tones.

“I am staring at a valid TV license - issued to number 54” pause. “I live at number 162 - which was previously 54“ pause. “I am aware you have no record of a license issued to number 162” pause, “previously, number 162 did not exist.”

I was relieved to hear that simply returning the license with an explanatory note could solve the problem. It would then be reissued with our new address. My relief evaporated when I realised that it would be sent by return post, currently the equivalent of ‘man-with-cleft-stick.’

“In the meantime, can you call the dogs off?” - or words to that effect. Not really, the TV monitoring people were from a private security firm acting independently of the Licensing Authority and if I could not produce a license...

I searched through my glossary of banned cliches and - taking the bull by the horns - came up with ‘Possession is nine tenths of the law.’

“What if I was to hold on to the license and send you a photocopy instead?” Only if the copy was verified by the local Postmaster who had originally issued it.

The operator on Option 9 proved to be the end of the line and - being at the end of my tether - I duly complied. Driving the eight miles to obtain the proof of purchase from a suspicious Postmaster, I attached the photocopy and sent it off, laughingly ‘post haste’.

With the unmarked vehicle somewhere out there, it’s bristling technology waiting for the slightest sniff of Columbo or Inspector Morse, the intervening delay before receiving the new license was spent with blank screens and peering through drawn curtains.

Although occasionally receiving blank looks when confronting the Postman, I was cheered by the thought that we would not be confronted with Jonathan Ross, his celebrity cronies and the interminable award ceremonies.

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