Colour my life 

24 May 2004

Kif Bowden-Smith watches BBC-1 go colour

Although limited colour transmissions had started on BBC-2 from 1967, with the channel already on UHF and 625-lines, the main dawning of the colour TV age in Britain came in November 1969, when the colour service started on BBC-1 and ITV, though initially only in the major English regions.

Until that time, BBC-1 and ITV had not been available on UHF/625. Anyone wanting the single UHF/625 service – BBC-2 – had to invest in a ‘dual standard’ set. These were able to change between 405-line VHF and 625-line UHF at the flick of a switch, or in some cases, two switches. Some sets had been on sale since about 1960, with a “dual facility” which anticipated the arrival of 625-lines, but did not supply a tuner. These were convertible by the national army of TV repairmen who existed at the time, who had added the tuners when BBC-2 started to roll out in 1964.

When mass colour approached, an advertising campaign in the press and women’s magazines informed the public that new televisions would be required, as surveys initially showed that many viewers at home thought their existing televisions would ‘burst into colour’ on day one of the new service. These viewers believed that the modernisation required was at the studio rather than the domestic end of the transaction. A hard core persisted in this belief until colour began and their sets remained resolutely monochromatic.

Initial publicity from the BBC and ITA in the two years before colour arrived on the main channels had always suggested that a 625-line UHF service in black and white would be launched first, with colour added at an agreed later date. Indeed there are references to this in several yearbooks, where a build up of 625-line black and white was anticipated in late 1968 or 1969.

In the event, the technical planning fell behind, and this initial plan proved impossible to implement, with the transmitters concerned only becoming available for transmission as 1969 wore on. Big programmes of studio conversion were underway, and production in 625-lines, with conversion to 405 for transmission, pre-dated colour transmission by a year or more in some cases. Some of the 1969 test transmissions were partly in black and white, but this was merely the relay of the studio output available during the summer.

When a number of colour programmes were slipped into the output, there was some suggestion of cheating on the agreed colour service launch date that the Postmaster General had agreed with the BBC and ITA. Though there were accusations on both sides, it was probably fair to say that the programmes concerned counted as “test material” in the winking eyes of the executives.

Colour on the main channels was initially limited to the Crystal Place, Sutton Coldfield, Winter Hill and Emley Moor transmitters, serving the London area, Midlands and North respectively. This initially caused disappointment to many viewers outside those areas, but the general approach in transmitter coverage in those days was to start in the more populated areas of England and work outwards.

Indeed, the simultaneous arrival of colour in the North and Midlands was itself something of a devolutionary advance, as the original BBC Television Service, ITV and BBC-2 had all begun in the London area only, spreading north and west over some years.

It was not only the viewers in regions as yet uncovered that were frustrated, as they had been in 1964 when BBC-2 started. Many viewers in the primary English regions were dismayed to find little or no picture at all. The new UHF coverage areas were in many cases smaller than the VHF areas that they were duplicating. When the ITA and BBC had started their UHF transmitter programme, they knew of the more limited coverage than VHF had allowed, and anticipated the need for many local booster transmitters to be added to the network. But it is true to say that some of the engineers involved were rather taken aback at the extent of the shortfall.

Both the Sutton Coldfield and Winter Hill transmitters had a greatly reduced coverage compared to their VHF counterparts, and until the slow rollout of the booster programme, itself secondary to more main transmitters planned throughout the UK, there was very little that could be done.

So it was that many viewers in the first launched areas could get little or no picture initially. This caused some embarrassment in ITV sales offices, where buyers of advertising time had been tempted by the prospect of colour.

It was mainly for this reason, and not the slow spread of colour set sales, that ITV decided not to charge more for colour adverts initially. Indeed most adverts went into colour from day one (which was not wholly the case for programmes – though the majority did). This was almost the opposite of the American experience several years earlier, where colour programmes and adverts crept into the schedules over several years, and were instrumental in creating “two classes of TV output on the same channel” during the early years of US colour.

November 15th was the agreed launch date for ITV and BBC-1 colour in 1969, and at midnight on the dot, both channels officially burst into colour, with showbiz spectaculars promoting the new television output. Much on screen promotion took place, with new company identification methods and daily start-up music, some of which was temporary before old favourites were restored due to popular demand. Broadcasting hours were still restricted by government, and most transmissions still started only at 5pm on weekdays, with viewers still familiar with the paraphernalia of presentation graphics, in a way that is not seen today.

When the new service began, the BBC and ITV were deluged with phone calls from unreached viewers, who reported that their sets were still showing black and white; viewers who had to be delicately told that they needed to actually buy new televisions to enjoy the feast.

The mass spread of colour TV was slow, and it was another seven or eight years before colour TV licences outnumbered black and white ones. Colour TV was not excessively expensive, the prices dropping quite fast over time, but there was some resistance to the new service from people who felt that it represented a luxury that was not their highest priority. Surveys showed that as in many cases with new technology, it was homes with younger people that converted soonest, with the classic scenario of family youngsters putting pressure on the breadwinner – almost always the father in those days – to “wise up and fork out”. This was an age where watching TV was still ‘cool’ for the young.

Retrospective histories are apt to imply that most Britons watched colour from day one of the mass service. This could hardly be further from the truth. Sales of sets were slow at first, though they gathered pace dramatically after 1973. Many of the feasts of colour output, now commonly replayed as archive clips, were enjoyed new by the great British public, in glorious black and white.

On the positive side, most people who saw colour television liked it at once, and remarks such as “black and white seemed deficient by comparison” became commonplace. For those who have grown up only knowing colour television, it may seem odd that the so-called “deficiencies” of black and white had not been noticed earlier. It can only be said, however, that in reality monochrome television had no actual deficiencies. A well-adjusted set in a strong signal area gave a crystal clear picture, even on 405 lines.

The switch to colour, and indeed the switch to monochrome 625 on BBC-2 in 1964, had given the public a new standard by which the old seemed to be suddenly found wanting.

These issues are for psychologists rather than TV engineers. It may be a cliché to say that you cannot judge the past by the standards of the present, but that was never more true than in this case.

A new ‘reality in picture’ had replaced the magic and fictionalising effect of the home-based silver screen, and in one way the magic of television was diluted. Our lives were not monochrome, and so black and white television spoke to us softly of an imaginary world. Colour television was the real world.

Studio scenery in dramatic productions became more obviously ‘sets’; the very presence of actors and presenters gained credibility, but lost magic. Colour television was an inevitable advance, but in some ways, a mixed blessing. We traded magic for reality.

A Transdiffusion Presentation

Report an error


Kif Bowden-Smith Contact More by me


# # #

You Say

8 responses to this article

Joanne Gray 25 October 2015 at 5:42 pm

I remember reading a letter to the TV Times in the early 1980s from a viewer with a black and white set who was more than a little surprised that it received an evening’s viewing in perfect colour one night. The explanation was given that freak weather conditions can sometimes cause such a phenomenon. Would this really be possible? I’ve lain awake many a night over the past 30 years thinking about this.

Russ J Graham 25 October 2015 at 5:52 pm

Yes and no. But mostly no!

They did not, under any circumstances, no matter what the system and no matter how the television was adjusted, get proper colour pictures.

However, there was something called “subjective colour”, where it was possible to disrupt the sync signal of the broadcast to cause some – but not all – monochrome television sets to excite their phosphors in a different way, producing a colour cast across the picture. So the screen may appear slightly green or slightly pink or the like for a short period. The colour seen, however, was hard to predict: they differed according to transmitter, aerial, set and even how your eyes process colour, so that two people side by side would see, say, pink for one and green for the other.

ATV, for its first year, offered subjective colour to advertisers at a premium. It never caught on. An early Tomorrow’s World also went out in subjective colour, to the disappointment of most viewers who saw no difference.

Bryan Lockey 28 January 2016 at 5:37 pm

There was indeed an OXO commercial shown on ITV (probably in the London Area only), which used such machinations to produce suitable colours for their cubes. Before 1962, if I remember correctly.

Trevor Dance 8 August 2016 at 3:55 pm

Where was the first UK 625 line uhf relay transmitter (ie not main station) situated and on what date?
Also, was this to fill in a difficult reception area within a main stations coverage or was it to extend the main station’s coverage beyond its limit of transmission?

Anthony Lyons 22 October 2016 at 3:18 am

Kiff mentioned that on the stroke of midnight on the 15th November 1969, Both BBC1 and ITV officially burst into colour, with showbiz spectaculars promoting the new television output.I remember BBC1 transmitting a showbiz spectacular. However ITV transmitted a film entitled ” The Stones in the Park ” which was the Rolling Stones 1969 summer concert in Hyde Park.

Russ J Graham 22 October 2016 at 12:23 pm

…which to me counts as a showbiz spectacular, but I see your point.

Tony Currie 14 January 2018 at 8:53 am

Anthony’s remark only applied to Granada – ATV didn’t start colour until Saturday morning and neither did LWT (although I don;t know whether Thames stole a march on them with something after midnight on the Friday night?)

Richard Emra 23 September 2023 at 6:38 pm

I remember the Tomorrow’s World subjective colour demonstration It was a little disappointing but still colour television of a sort.

Your comment

Enter it below

A member of the Transdiffusion Broadcasting System
Liverpool, Monday 22 July 2024