It was 60 years ago today… 

3 November 2006

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At 3pm on Friday, 7 June 1946, a BBC Television Service announcer drove up to the doors of Alexandra Palace in a chauffeur-driven car. She stepped out and walked up to a TV camera. Then, captured on newsreel film and watched by an unknown number of television viewers, she said, “Good afternoon everybody. How are you? Do you remember me, Jasmine Bligh…?” The BBC Television Service had reopened, after being off the air for the duration of the Second World War.

Three years earlier, before the war had ended, plans had been drawn up to restart British television broadcasting, and a government Committee was set up to decide how to do it. The Committee, under Lord Hankey, reported back at the end of 1944, and only a month after the end of the war in Europe, in October 1945, the re-opening of the BBC Television Service was announced.

Several explanations have been suggested as to why impoverished postwar Britain even thought of restarting a television service that, by its close in 1939, had under 100,000 viewers and was limited to the London area. They range from philosophical to practical.

Certainly the attitude in Britain, rebuilding after the war, was that this was a new world, and a new approach was needed. A newly-elected radical Labour government was planning dramatic and far-reaching changes to the infrastructure of the UK – with powerful public ownership and social service initiatives that would last until their emasculation by Margaret Thatcher and her successors over thirty years later. It also fostered a new, positive worldview to which progress, national achievement and pulling together were central.

Television certainly had a role to play in this ambitious programme: informing, educating and entertaining in the manner of Lord Reith’s pre-war BBC. But in addition, the country needed cash – foreign cash. Britain had been a world leader in television before the war, and British broadcasting technology, from transmitters to television receivers that could be converted from British 405-line to American 525-line operation, could be sold abroad.

Thus it was that on 7 June 1946, the Service, headed by Maurice Gorham, returned to the air from AP. Over the years that followed, the 405-line VHF service – technically the same specification as before the war, but now with significantly improved quality as a result of significant engineering developments at both the transmitting and receiving ends of the chain – was expanded from the London area, first to the Midlands from a new transmitter in Sutton Coldfield, and then beyond, ultimately bringing about the Committee’s aim that the service should be extended to cover “at any rate the larger centres of population within a reasonable period after the war”.

Television was, once again, on its way.

For more on the return of the BBC Television Service, read Kif Bowden-Smith’s story on the politics, The Fools Return to the Hill; Maurice Gorham’s account of the practicalities in Television is coming back; and on the BBC website, Finlo Rohrer’s Back after the break (opens in a new window). The BBC is also hosting an excerpt from Scrapbook 1946, First Year Flashbacks including the re-opening. Transdiffusion is not responsible for the content of external web sites.

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