The fools on the hill 

13 March 2003

“”I believe viewers would rather see an actual scene of a rush hour at Oxford Circus directly transmitted to them than the latest in film musicals costing £100,000″” — Gerald Cock, Director of Television, in the Radio Times of 23 October 1936

When the decision was made – not without difficult questions being asked by the Governors of all involved – to start a full BBC Television Service, the first thing the new department had to do was make a technical choice.

The location of London’s TV station had to be high up, as VHF waves need line-of-sight reception, even in Band I as these transmissions would be, around 45-49 MHz.

The decision was made to use 30,000 square feet at one end of the decaying Victorian entertainment complex, Alexandra Palace, in Wood Green, North London. The BBC was to provide the 215-foot mast and antennas (one for sound, one for vision), and the sound transmitter. The impressive “turnstile” antennas were over 600 feet above sea level, and got out extremely well: the intended range was just 25 miles, but reception was in fact achieved in Manchester and occasionally on the Continent.


Baird and Marconi-EMI provided almost everything else, with two sets of almost everything. It was a spectacularly wasteful duplication of effort. The EMI end of the building, adjacent to the mast, included the main studio plus a telecine facility and control room; the Baird system had a main studio with a large bay window through which the IF camera looked, a smaller “Spotlight Studio” that used the flying spot scanner, a telecine room, and a control room.

In the Baird 'Spotlight' studio

In the Baird ‘Spotlight’ studio

Equipment began to arrive in the spring of 1936. EMI talked about the flicker-free nature of their system with its EMItron camera and the fact that it was capable of capturing truly instantaneous images, rather than the minute-long delay the Baird Intermediate Film Technique (below) suffered.

Baird Intermediate Film studio

The Baird Intermediate Film camera and equipment (left of photo above) required a special room and could not be moved around the studio, unlike the EMI cameras

Bairds majored on their telecine capability that, at the time, was markedly superior to the equivalent EMI system, and in fact became the basis of all subsequent telecine techniques. During the summer, BBC engineers familiarised themselves with the equipment – particularly the EMI technology, of which they had no experience.

Meanwhile, Gerald Cock was assembling the production team, and searched for the BBC’s first Television Announcers. Leslie Mitchell was chosen, along with two women, Jasmine Bligh and Elizabeth Cowell.

The BBC advertised only for blondes and brunettes as the Baird system was overly sensitive to red and it was thought that redheads would be a problem – for the Baird flying spot system, special blue and black makeup had to be used, while for the Baird IF and EMI studios, standard movie makeup was employed.

Broadcasts Begin

Test transmissions began on August 12, but Cock decided to put together a demonstration transmission to be received at the Radio Show at Olympia later in the month: “Radiolympia” was an annual exhibition put on by the Radio Manufacturers’ Association. Cecil Madden, Programme Director, put the show together.

BBC TS Tuning Signal

On August 26 at 11:45 a piece of Duke Ellington was heard, accompanied a caption card reading, “BBC Demonstration to Radiolympia by the Baird System”. It was followed by another ten minutes of music, including Eric Coates’ “London Again” suite – contrary to belief in some circles, Coates’ Television March was not played, either during these tests or during the official opening: it was written for the re-opening of the Television Service after the war, ten years later.

The two other announcers having been taken ill, Leslie Mitchell alone was on hand to make the first announcement at the top of the hour, sitting in the dark of the Spotlight Studio, his words memorised, introducing a short documentary shown via telecine.

The highlight of the demonstration, starting half an hour into the programme, was to be a variety show. Its working title was originally simply “Variety”, but someone had the bright idea of calling it “Here’s Looking At You”, and the show included a song with the same title by Ronnie Hill, performed by Helen McKay.

“Here’s looking at you

From out of the blue

Don’t make a fuss

Just settle down and look at us… “

The studio items were live, of course, and predominated: filmmakers, feeling understandably threatened by the new medium, were slow to get involved. As the main Baird studio was not ready, the show had to go out from the tiny Spotlight Studio, inevitably seriously cramping its style.

It was not until the next day, when everything was repeated using the Marconi-EMI system, that the show was seen in its full glory: with three cameras, two mobile and one fixed. The main EMI studio was divided into three, with a different act performing in each section one after the other, the cameras and lights moving backwards down the studio as the show progressed.

“Hello Radiolympia,” said Leslie Mitchell, standing in front of the first set of curtains. “Ladies and gentlemen, ‘Here’s Looking at You’.”

radiolympia test.jpg

Announcers, performers and the Television Orchestra come to the end of

a transmission to Radiolympia from the EMI studio.

The 30-minute show that followed went out twice a day for two weeks, with the two competing television systems alternating on a daily basis.

dual-standard tv.jpg

TV sets were dual-standard: 240-line/25-frame for Baird

and 405/50 for Marconi-EMI

The programme was received as far away as Bournemouth and Nottingham. And on September 5, the Marconi-EMI team, with their mobile camera, were able to include some shots from outside the building.

Birkinshaw takes the camera out

Chief Engineer Douglas Birkinshaw takes the Emitron camera outside the studio for an early outside broadcast, in September 1936

A great deal of excitement surrounded the demonstrations broadcast to Radiolympia, although they showed up severe problems with the transmission systems, especially on the Baird front, where the limitations of the equipment seriously compromised the content of the programming.

There were even some attempts at sabotage by parties who evidently believed that the new medium would represent a serious threat to their livelihoods, and receivers at the Olympia show had to be placed under guard.

Following the close of Radiolympia, test transmissions resumed in October leading up to the official inauguration of the BBC Television Service, which had been brought forward three months to early November.

While there had been several thousand of Baird’s 30-line Televisors, there were very few of the new VHF Band I receivers – which had to be able to receive both the Baird transmissions and those from the EMI system, ultimately to become CCIR System A – and they cost between £100 and £150, a lot of money in those days.

Opening of BBC TS

The opening of the BBC Television Service (Marconi-EMI studio)

As a result it was possibly only about 400 “lookers-in” who were able to see the official Opening Ceremony that began at 3pm on November 2, 1936, with speeches by the Postmaster General, the Chairman of the BBC, and Lord Selsdon.

Baird caption card

In fact it took place twice: first on the toss of a coin with the Baird system and then again with the Marconi-EMI system. The show that followed, called “Variety”, was apparently not unlike “Here’s Looking at You”.

EMI caption card

Among the music it featured a song called “Television”, with lyrics by James Dyrenforth and music by Kenneth Leslie-Smith. It was sung by musical comedy star Adele Dixon, accompanied by the BBC Television Orchestra conducted by Hyam Greenbaum and, even if the show as a whole was allegedly little more than a copy of the Radiolympia demonstration programme, the memorable song itself certainly outshone the previous work:

A mighty maze of mystic, magic rays

Is all about us in the blue,

And in sight and sound they trace

Living pictures out of space

To bring a new wonder to you

The busy world before you is unfurled –

Its songs, its tears and laughter, too.

One by one they play their parts

In this latest of the Arts

To bring new enchantment to you.

As by your fireside you sit,

The news will flit,

As on the silver screen.

And just for entertaining you

With something new

The stars will then be seen. So…

There’s joy in store

The world is at your door –

It’s here for everyone to view

Conjured up in sound and sight

By the magic rays of light

That bring Television to you.

Watch Adele Dixon sing “Television”, in a recreation of a Marconi-EMI transmission as performed for the BBC film “Television Comes to London”, first broadcast on Opening Day, November 2, 1936.

The new BBC Television Service had started, and it was the first regularly scheduled true high-definition service in the world.

Director of Television Gerald Cock believed that broadcasting hours should be limited and interrupted frequently for health reasons (in addition to the fact that resources were limited).

To avoid eye strain,” he wrote in 1936, “there should be interval signals between individual programmes, lasting not more than half a minute. These intervals should be marked by means of a modern clock, the dimension of whose face should be roughly the same as the dimensions of the received picture.”

It was the beginning of the art of television presentation. Cock envisaged the television broadcast day as including around four hours of programming.

The intention had been to reconsider the performance of the two companies in April 1937, but with the Baird system suffering continuing inferior performance and unreliability, the government decided to adopt the Marconi-EMI system more rapidly, and the final Baird transmission went out on January 30, 1937.


While many pundits felt that the apparent competition between the two systems was a good thing, engineers at “Ally Pally” did not share this view. Programme planner Cecil Madden, quoted in Norman’s Here’s Looking at You, noted, “Working in the Baird studio was a bit like using Morse code when you knew that next door you could telephone.”

It should be noted, however, that while mechanical scanning was perhaps not the best technology for a television service, it has not gone away. Rotating mirrors and mirror-drums not at all unlike Baird’s are still in use by weather and surveillance satellites, and in interplanetary probes.

The BBC Television Service continued for three years, until the Alexander Palace transmitter was closed down for the duration of the war on the afternoon of September 1, 1939 in case it was to act as a beacon for enemy bombers.

You Say

1 response to this article

Ferdinand Johnson 17 March 2020 at 12:55 am

where did you find the caption cards?

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