THE COLOUR BAR

When talking pictures arrived at the end of the 1920s, many saw them as a novelty in the same way 3D would be viewed (rightly, as it turned out) thirty years later; the silents – even in their familiar comedic form – had achieved the status of Art by this stage and the intrusion of sound appeared an unnecessary gimmick. If one compares the amateurish early talkies with the otherworldly sophistication of the finest silents produced at the same time, it’s not hard to understand why sound seemed to coarsen what was a unique art-form and ruin the illusion. Yet, within five years of ‘The Jazz Singer’ appearing in 1927, silent movies were completely over; by the middle of the 1930s, pictures talked and that was how things were. It was impossible to imagine them any other way.

Although television was still regarded as cinema’s poor relation in the early 1950s, the devastating impact it rapidly had on cinema attendances as the decade wore on prompted the film industry to invest in all the technical wizardry TV couldn’t compete with – widescreen, cinemascope, the aforementioned 3D, and (more than anything else) Technicolor. That was the real advantage cinema had over its household usurper. Yet, even the fact that the newest mass medium was transmitting to a tiny screen in murky monochrome couldn’t prevent it from supplanting both cinema and radio by the early 60s. Audiences appeared to have accepted that the living room’s one-eyed monster came in black & white and that was that. Unbeknownst to the wider viewing public, however, TV’s pioneering alchemists had been attempting to make television in colour almost from the very beginning, right back to Baird’s lab. It was more or less monochrome by default.

The interruption of the Second World War set back TV’s development by a good decade, but broadcasting in colour was an ongoing experiment that had occasional outings on US networks from the mid-50s onwards. A small amount of filmed series began to be made in colour from this period, but the technical demands of producing electronic colour pictures using video cameras in television studios – not to mention the expense of special sets being required to receive colour transmissions – meant conversion to colour was a slow process that took several years. By 1964, only 3.1% of American households owned a colour set, and the majority of programming outside of prime-time shows remained in black & white. But the competition between the big three US networks weaponised colour as a ratings-winner and by 1968 virtually all American TV schedules were in colour – or ‘IN COLOR’ as they liked to say.

On this side of the Atlantic, the BBC had been trying to forge ahead with colour for almost as long as US broadcasters, but it took until the arrival of BBC2 and its technically superior 625 lined-picture in 1964 and then the adoption of the Europe-wide PAL system (as opposed to the NTSC system used in America) before British TV was finally ready to go for it. BBC2 pioneered colour from the summer of 1967 onwards, commissioning lavish new documentaries on colour film such as Kenneth Clark’s ‘Civilisation’ and studio dramas in colour, beginning with an adaptation of ‘Vanity Fair’. For many passers-by when TV rental shops would display rows of sets in the window, however, it was BBC2’s broadcasts from Wimbledon that really caught the eye. Programme-makers realised many sports worked better in colour – none more so than snooker, which BBC2 effectively copyrighted for a decade with the launch of ‘Pot Black’.

By 1969, the likes of the Eurovision Song Contest and the Mexico Olympics had shown that large, spectacular events captured the public’s attention even more when they could be seen in colour and, with the mouth-watering prospect of the Mexico World Cup just a few months away, plans were hatched by the BBC and ITV to convert all their output to colour. As with the introduction of decimal currency, the public was prepared in advance; BBC2 would screen ‘Trade Test Colour Films’ at hourly intervals during the day to exhibit the new technology, and the arrival of a certain little girl playing noughts & crosses with a certain scary clown also served to remind viewers TV was entering an exciting new age. The price of a colour TV licence, not to mention a set itself, remained somewhat off-putting, however; the widespread rental of sets from stores such as British Relay, Radio Rentals, Wigfalls and Valance’s was one way of overcoming the problem – and this was a habit that endured throughout the 1970s; our household didn’t finally own a set until around 1981.

On 15 November 1969 – exactly fifty years ago today – both BBC1 and ITV went into permanent colour; well, sort-of. I handily have a copy of that week’s Radio Times, and on the very first full colour day of BBC1 – which was a Saturday – the entire line-up from the start of ‘Grandstand’ at 12.45 through to the end of ‘Match of the Day’ at 11.5 was in glorious colour – including the likes of ‘Star Trek’, ‘Simon Dee’, ‘Dixon of Dock Green’ and ‘The Harry Secombe Show’. The RT proclaimed the colour service would be available to lucky viewers receiving their pictures from the transmitters at Crystal Palace (London), Sutton Coldfield (Birmingham), Winter Hill (South Lancashire), and Emley Moor (Yorkshire). As with the initial spread of TV itself twenty years previously, colour would take time before becoming nationwide. ITV’s regional structure meant the rollout took even longer, with distant Channel Television being the last ITV company to covert to colour as late as 1976.

The plan was that all newly-produced networked BBC and ITV output from the autumn of 1969 onwards would be in colour. Although there was still a backlog of black & white shows that had been made prior to this decision, once they reached the end of their runs, they were then deemed to be of no further use. If the TV companies were forever extolling the benefits of colour yet still repeating monochrome shows, why would the public invest in colour sets? The mass wiping of TV shows made before the colour era began in earnest during this period, but black & white drama in particular – like similarly-discarded silent cinema before it – had its own merits; some examples that survived or have been subsequently salvaged from skips aren’t merely colour shows with the colour turned down. Designers and technicians accommodated the limitations of monochrome and gave these programmes a unique look and ambience that often resembles German Expressionist cinema, with shadowy sets creating a specifically sinister atmosphere impossible to recreate in colour. So, we did lose something.

I can date the period our household finally acquired a colour set to late 1976. One of the great attractions of visiting grandparents and relatives up until this point had been the rare chance to see ‘Doctor Who’ or ‘Top of the Pops’ in colour; now such shows would be colour for good and it was unimaginable to think of settling for them in black & white ever again. A colour TV set ceased to be a social status symbol by the end of the 70s, overtaken by ownership of a second (portable) set or one with Teletext or even a VCR. The Jones’s will always latch onto something new, and I’ve no doubt the neighbours were made well aware of what they were watching on this very day half-a-century ago.

© The Editor

2 thoughts on “THE COLOUR BAR

  1. Happy memories of our 14″ B&W Bush TV in 1958, then the great upgrade to colour in the mid-70s – and now, in my current perch a few thousand miles away, I can still get UK channels in glorious HD on a big flat-screen TV, plus on my lap-top, phone etc. Progress is sometimes good, but when she still wants to watch ‘Strictly’, perhaps less so.

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    1. Those old sets were certainly built to last. The first ‘family-owned’ one mentioned in this post, which had been purchased in 1981, was eventually inherited by me and finally gave up the ghost around 2000. I think I’ve been through three since then.

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