The day television caught fire 

23 July 2014

Television returned after the war roughly as it had left – a niche hobby enjoyed by a few people in London with money or technical know-how. And there it might have remained for very many years, except for one big event.

King George VI died in February 1952. A much loved king after his service in wartime, his passing shocked a nation that was almost completely monarchist, conservative with a small ‘c’ and happy to have survived the fate that so recently befell its neighbours.

His daughter succeeded him as Queen Elizabeth II immediately, the British constitution having no space for mourning or inaugurations. Before the late king was even entombed, civil and court servants were making plans for the new queen’s coronation.

The event was thought to be a useful pick-me-up to the nation after over a decade of war, shortages and austerity. Times were starting to get better, most things were off the ration, employment was full and the new welfare state was working well. The people would want a party.

And they got one. Not just in London, not just in street parties up and down the country. The still-new medium of television would bring the majesty, the pomp and the young queen herself into living rooms that could receive the Band I VHF transmitters being thrown up near major population centres. And the idea of this, the idea that television would connect town and country, commoner and queen, was a powerful one. With disposable income in their pockets for the first time, the middle classes and the richer working classes flocked to buy – or rent – 405-line black and white television sets.

By coronation day, 2 June 1953, it was clear to most people that television, not radio, would be the dominant medium for the second half of the 20th century. This Radio Times, then, is the last edition where people would treat the television listings as an after-thought or a novelty. It would still be over a decade before the television side of the magazine would come to completely dominate the radio side and a decade more before radio’s listings began the slow slide into small print in the back of the magazine. But now television was here, and here to stay.

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3 responses to this article

Joseph 23 July 2014 at 9:06 pm

Since the Coronation of Queen Elizabeth II was nine years prior to the launch of Telstar, it was shown in America via what we here in the USA call kinescope recordings (films taken off a TV screen, which the British call a “telerecording”) quickly flown across the Atlantic.

Two U.S. networks (CBS and NBC) set-up film and other facilities at Logan Airport in Boston to feed their respective networks and show the films as soon as they arrived.

Those two networks began showing the Coronation service, on film, at about 4:30 P.M. Eastern Daylight Time, 9:30 P.M. London Time, or about ten hours after it took place.

The other major U.S. network, ABC, decided not to set-up a facility in Boston, but instead, made arrangements with Canada’s CBC to take their video feed of the Coronation service from Montreal, where the CBC’s film was flown to, in the hope CBC would get the film earlier than CBS and NBC. ABC was right, but I think their advantage was only a few minutes.

Although the visual portion of the kinescope recordings were from BBC’s coverage, I would think that CBS and NBC had the advantages of having their own commentators with their film, so (in all likelihood) American viewers were able to hear Walter Cronkite (on CBS) and John Cameron Swayze (on NBC) describe the ceremony.

Courtenay Tordoff 4 October 2014 at 3:36 pm

In an interview years later Walter Cronkite explained that he filmed links into the BBC coverage with Dimbleby’s commentary at an improvised studio at Heathrow and the material was flown to Boston by the RCAF with a transfer at Goose Bay to a military jet. Due to a mix-up over the order of the six cans of film CBS started airing the Coronation at the point where the Queen entered the Abbey while NBC – a few minutes later – began at the start of the day. So CBS claimed to be the first US network to actually show the Coronation itself !

Alan Keeling 28 July 2016 at 10:28 am

BBC was on the air, one hour before the Coronation, with Test Card C (on film) and tone, followed at 10.14 by a monoscopic Test Card C with music: 3rd movement of “The Three Elizabeths” suite by Eric Coates, followed in turn by the BBC coat of arms.

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