Okay, I promise – last anniversary of the week! Mind you, this is one that has ultimately affected us all, if not in the present, then certainly in the past. You probably know by now, but I think it’s worth marking the fact that 80 years ago today saw the launch of the world’s first regular high-definition television service from Alexandra Palace in North London. Of course, 2 November 1936 may have been the official start, but there was a lengthy journey to get there. In 1929, when radio itself was still regarded as something of a newfangled novelty and the cinema was silent, John Logie Baird began experimental TV broadcasts from the BBC’s Long Acre studios in Covent Garden, using radio transmitters to test his revolutionary, if somewhat clunky electromechanical system. For the next six years, Baird’s pioneering 30-line invention constituted a half-hour of programming per day via the BBC, though it was probably only partially more unwatchable than the current daytime line-up on BBC1.
By 1935, advances in technology had seen the BBC try out the superior picture quality of the EMI-Marconi 405-line system for its television broadcasts, though come the autumn of November 1936, when the Corporation had decided to make its television service an official and permanent wing of its broadcasting output, Baird had improved his design to 240 lines. The BBC would trial both Baird’s and EMI-Marconi’s competing systems for six months, with Alexandra Palace (viewed as one of the BBC’s minor outposts) designated as the home for a service that Director General Lord Reith was contemptuously dismissive of.
The BBC had to be quick out of the blocks with their television service. Similar experiments with the infant medium had been conducted in the USA, USSR, Canada, Australia, France and even Mexico prior to November 1936, and Nazi Germany was already ploughing ahead with its own intermittent service. The promotion of television sets in the run-up to the BBC launch was a hard sell considering the transmitter couldn’t broadcast beyond the capital, though dedicated enthusiasts for all things electronically innovative in an age whose appetite for gadgets almost matches our own embraced the revolution.
Although only available to a few hundred viewers, the BBC accompanied the launch of their television service with a Radio Times front cover and extensive press publicity. At 3.00 on the afternoon of November 2, TV in this country officially went on air with that famous musical opening by Adele Dixon that is wheeled out come every anniversary, even though what we see is sourced from a film camera restaging the event rather than an actual video recording of what the viewers watched, as the facility to record didn’t then exist; mind you, if it had, the BBC would no doubt have wiped the tape in the 1970s.
An hour after the service came on air it closed down – something we all recall as a regular feature of BBC TV during the day up until the 1980s. It resumed at 9.00 in the evening and ended for the night at 10.00pm, establishing the early pattern that would constitute schedules during the pre-war period. Programming ironically similar in its mundanity to what one could expect to see tuning-in today provoked dismissal from critics, though the BBC was now committed to the service and by the time the Baird system was dropped in favour of the EMI-Marconi one in February 1937, the BBC Television Service had begun to build up a small albeit steady audience. That same year, the first TV outside broadcast (something that would have been impossible using the Baird system) came with the Coronation of King George VI, followed a month later by the inaugural TV coverage of Wimbledon; the FA Cup Final was televised for the first time in 1938, the same year TV cameras were on hand to broadcast Chamberlain waving his piece of paper from Herr Hitler.
By 1939, television’s hours had expanded a little, as had the range of the transmitters used; it’s estimated that as many as 25,000-40,000 homes could now receive the service. However, at the beginning of September that year, the inevitable imminent events of such a momentous month saw the BBC take the decision to close down the newest addition to their portfolio without warning. Television engineers and technicians would have a higher calling for the next six years and fears that VHF transmissions would attract the attention of enemy aircraft during anticipated bombing raids also played their part in the pressure from the government to suspend what was seen as a frivolous alternative to the serious medium of radio. Following the broadcast of a Mickey Mouse cartoon called ‘Mickey’s Gala Premiere’ on September 1 1939, the BBC Television Service disappeared from screens, not to be seen again until June 1946, when it returned with the same Disney short.
It took another three years after the post-war re-launch for the BBC Television Service to reach as far beyond the South East as the midlands, when the Sutton Coldfield transmitting station opened for business in 1949, though thereafter TV spread rapidly across the country. Perhaps the BBC was mindful of the upcoming competition from ITV when it was scheduled to arrive in 1955, though their oldest television rivals would also take several years before they could broadcast to the entire nation.
As no actual recordings of any pre-war BBC programmes exist beyond the snippets captured on film, we can only build up a picture of what the TV service was like via descriptions available in print. The fact that occasional outside broadcasts began to form part of the schedule less than a year after its debut is evidence of television’s nascent ambition; and even if the critics and Reith himself were relentlessly critical of the embryonic innovation, few could have known the unprecedented power it would acquire as a medium not much more than a decade after the end of the Second World War – a premier position it held until the arrival of another medium at the end of the twentieth century that was equally dismissed in its early years, yet has now surpassed even television. Little acorns indeed…
© The Editor