Before 24/7 

1 February 2003

Most of the history of television presentation over the years has concentrated mainly on station identification, continuity and daily opening routines. For many people however it is the nightly closedown at the end of broadcasting that seeded an initial interest in this subject.

In today’s world of 24 hour broadcasting, it is easy to forget a time when all channels were on the air for only a few hours each day and transmissions were ‘topped and tailed’ by opening and closing routines, sometimes with fairly lavish and florid detail.

For the typical British closedown, whether BBC or Independent Television, a slight sense of drama always underpinned the event. These procedures started in an era of formality in television and were held to be marking the moment of “bringing the curtain down” on the evening’s endeavours.

Theatrical metaphor can never go amiss in describing these images, as television was provided primarily as a theatrical process in those days.

In an era when most daily television transmission began around 5pm an evening of television was a family targeted event – and so it was natural that the end of programmes at midnight would find the National Anthem in use to end transmission for the day.

Inevitably the BBC set the standard and with the mid 1950s being the aftermath of the Coronation, it was unquestioned that ‘allegiance to the state’ would be seen as the most important emotion to be displayed as the ‘television service’ left the airwaves for another night.

When the proposed Independent Television was debated in parliament in 1954, the opponents of “commercial television” expected that the service would be a vulgar and commerce lead bazaar.

Britain had recently emerged from the Second World War as a very corporatist state – nominally capitalist, but psychologically socialist after fifteen years of food and clothes rationing.

There was an automatic scepticism about free enterprise, and businessmen were often portrayed as ‘spivs on the take’ in the popular imagination. It was initially assumed by some that the backers of the new ITV might be this type of ‘smart operator’.

Accordingly the original contractors, upon launch in 1955, set out to make the service more highbrow than had initially been expected. The move was not a success in programming terms, and ITV quickly moved down market, but the initial ‘high brow aspirations’ remained in the presentation field.

Associated-Rediffusion in particular, the new London weekday contractor, set out to be “merely the BBC with adverts” and accordingly aped BBC practice in terms of presentation, announcing, symbols and florid heraldic clocks.

It was considered axiomatic that the BBC tradition of National Anthem at closedown would be replicated. Even the later BBC habit of National Anthem over the corporation’s trademark was too informal for ITV’s the early days and a full-length portrait of the Queen in full regalia was used.

In later years, this became a head and shoulders portrait and by the early sixties a daring short piece of film showing Her Majesty inspecting troops was in use at both A-R and ATV.

By this time the BBC had moved to using the National Anthem as merely an accompaniment in sound to their revolving globe in vision. This had the ironical result of leaving A-R and ATV in the more conservative and traditionalist position of still showing the monarch in vision, well after the BBC had stopped doing so.

Oddly the ITV companies, expected by their founders to be the main organs of modernity in British television, remained the more traditionalist of the two channels in terms of presentation formality.

As the sixties wore on BBCtv presentation became more and more laid back in style and with the arrival of BBC 2 in 1964, the sensational decision was taken by the new channels controllers that the National Anthem would not be used on BBC 2.

This caused uproar at the time, as Britain was still a very traditionalist country – but the mould was broken for the BBC and so ITV would be left oddly holding the torch for these traditional values.

In this microsite, we examine the art of the closedown and look over time at both how different companies managed the formality of ‘going off air’ each night and also how daytime closedowns after schools programmes were handled.

You Say

2 responses to this article

Andy Sindle 30 August 2015 at 5:20 pm

In what year did the dot at the end of transmission stop of end, can anyone help?.

Russ J Graham 31 August 2015 at 11:39 am

It never existed in the first place – as a broadcast thing, anyway. It was a function of your TV: the electron gun remaining firing after the power is removed and the gun settles in the centre of the screen, still stimulating the phosphors. That dot or square then fades as the last of the electrons in the gun are spent and the screen’s phosphors cease to be excited.

It only happened on some sets, was more common on black and white ones than colour ones and you only tended to see it in the dark – just as you were switching off the set for the night, for instance.

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