Au Revoir, Television 

1 September 2016

Editor’s note: This article first appeared in the BBC Handbook for 1940. The illustrations are from that book and its predecessor, which was published before the outbreak of war. The actual closedown sequence of the BBC Television Service is disputed; the short description here is correct, although the actual events were more nuanced. – Russ J Graham

aurevoir1940At noon on 1 September 1939, the television announcer at the radio exhibition at Olympia wound up the morning transmission with a light-hearted recital of good things to come. Next week the lucky owners of television sets were to have a fine feast: five full-length plays, solo acts by at least two stars of the first magnitude, two new editions of ‘Picture Page’, outside broadcasts, films, and much else besides.

But up at Alexandra Palace a few people who watched the screen from the Central Control Room were sadly shaking their heads. The telephone message which they had been dreading for days had not yet come, but now it could only be a matter of minutes.

It was decided to keep the station on the air a little longer. The announcer’s farewell smile faded into a riotous cartoon film— ‘Mickey’s Gala Première’ — which ran for 8 minutes and finished when a caricatured Garbo sighed: ‘Ah tank ah go home’. Those were the last words transmitted from the television station. The close-down order came at 12.10. Undramatically, without even a closing announcement, the world’s first high-definition television service was halted on the threshold of certain success.

When the service closed down, there were already more than 20,000 viewers, compared with half that number a year before. But the increase which was believed to be imminent last September would probably have been out of all proportion to the previous rise, for reports from Radiolympia at the end of August showed that at last television really had ‘caught on’. The ordinary man was beginning to realize that he could have it in his home for a few shillings a week.

The radio trade, which had worked so hard to bring about this awakening, was prepared for a rich harvest. Good authorities in the industry were prophesying that, by Christmas 1939, television would be enjoyed around 80,000 firesides. This was the heartening prospect that was spurring on the staff at Alexandra Palace, who in three years had established a new medium of entertainment, knowing no precedents and encountering new and difficult situations at every turn.

The year 1939 began with a television campaign by the Radio Manufacturers’ Association, in cooperation with the BBC, supported by the lusty slogan: ‘Television is Here — You Can’t Shut Your Eyes to It.’ It was an eye-opener. Thousands of people who had imagined television to be a flickery toy were induced to test it at home, and in nearly every case the set stayed there.

Simultaneously the BBC was launching a Television Questionnaire to ascertain the likes and dislikes of its audience. Over 4000 viewers answered the thirteen comprehensive questions, and an enthusiastic number added long supplementary comments of their own. Plays and variety programmes direct from theatres, news reels, ‘Picture Page’ (the weekly topical magazine), and light entertainment generally, were liked by 90 per cent of viewers. Outside broadcasts of sporting and other events came next, followed by full-length plays from the studio.

A characteristic feature of the television service was the bond of intimacy which grew up between viewers and those who entertained them. Sight, it seemed, strengthened the impression, which ordinary broadcasting so often gives, of the actual presence of the speaker or artist in the home. Viewers admitted in correspondence that the announcers, Miss Elizabeth Cowell and Miss Jasmine Bligh, were looked upon as friends of the household, and the same was said of those two popular ‘Picture Page’ personalities, Leslie Mitchell, the interviewer, and Joan Miller, the ‘receptionist’.

An intimate link between the station and its public was forged in Christmas week 1938, when Gerald Cock, the Director of Television, went into the ‘witness box’.

Gerald Cock, Director of Television, 'in the Witness Box' with Elizabeth Cowell (23 December 1938)

Gerald Cock, Director of Television, ‘in the Witness Box’ with Elizabeth Cowell (23 December 1938)

Facing a television camera at the end of the evening programme on 23 December, Mr. Cock invited viewers to ring him up on the telephone and put questions to him about the service. Enquirers were asked to have their ’phones in the same room as the television receiver so that, on being ‘put through’, they could see the Television Director lift his telephone and look directly at them as he answered their question. The experiment was almost too successful, for the Alexandra Palace switchboard was jammed and there were many requests for a whole series of the same kind.

Another intimate and friendly touch came later. The world’s first ‘Television Party’ was held in the Concert Hall at Broadcasting House on 26 June 1939. More than 700 viewers had responded to a televised invitation to drink tea with the television staff, but the accommodation was limited to 150, so, after a ballot, 75 couples received cards of admission. Staff from Alexandra Palace, wearing identity buttons, mingled with the guests and discovered what the ordinary viewer really thought about this programme and that. Afterwards the chair was taken by Sir Stephen Tallents, BBC Controller of Public Relations, while the Director of Television welcomed the guests, introduced the staff, and answered questions.

To talk of the television programmes during those last eight months of the service is to stir wistful memories. We throw a glance nowadays at the blank screens of our receivers and remember when they held us like a spell. We recall the constantly changing scene: Royal processions, tennis at Wimbledon, comedies and thrillers in the studios, the big fights at Harringay and Earl’s Court, the living portraits of ‘Picture Page’, the breath-catching tumbling acts of variety, the fun and music of revue and cabaret, the pure pictorial beauty of masque and opera, and we ask with Keats, ‘Was it a vision, or a waking dream?’

The outside broadcasts continued to win the more spectacular triumphs. In March the French President and Mme Lebrun were televised arriving at Victoria Station for their State visit to this country. Six weeks later the King and Queen left for Canada, and their departure was televised both from Buckingham Palace and Waterloo Station, viewers enjoying comparatively close-up glimpses of the Royal Family on the platform. The same double broadcast was carried out on Their Majesties’ return.

Ever since Priestley’s ‘When We Are Married’ was televised direct from St. Martin’s Theatre in November 1938, viewers had appealed for more theatre entertainment. Although the studio drama was specially adapted to the needs of the medium, it was generally agreed that ‘the real thing’ straight from the theatre in the presence of a responsive audience had an appeal of its own, possibly in part due to its ‘rarity’ value. During 1939 viewers in their homes ‘visited’ the Coliseum at monthly intervals; saw and heard the whole of ‘Magyar Melody’ at His Majesty’s; were present for two performances of ‘Me and My Girl’ at the Victoria Palace; paid several visits to Bertram Mills’ Circus at Olympia; and were even among the guests at a first night ‘Under Your Hat’ at the Palace Theatre.

To name all the outside broadcasts in this truncated year might be wearisome, even to those who recall the special thrills of each. Of the sporting events, the boxing matches were an easy first. Who will ever forget the Boon-Danahar fight on 23 February at Harringay? The occasion was historic in many ways. For the first time, the BBC permitted the promoter to sanction the reproduction of the television broadcast in places of public entertainment, with the result that this matchless struggle was seen in several West End cinemas, as well as in viewers’ homes.

The Cup Final at Wembley; the Oxford and Cambridge boat-race, seen from both Putney and Mort-lake; the Test Matches at Lord’s and the Oval; Varnishing Day at the Royal Academy; the Derby; the Theatrical Garden Party at Ranelagh — these stand out prominently. And there was Bull’s Cross Farm — television’s own farm — where month by month viewers felt at home with the crops and cattle.

Studio plays in 1939 were lavish both in quality and quantity, and before the service closed down viewers were getting nearly a play a day. Viewers will recall Ralph Richardson’s fine performance in Priestley’s ‘Bees on the Boatdeck’; Peggy Ashcroft in a ten-scene, non-stop edition of Shakespeare’s ‘Tempest’; Dame May Whitty in ‘The Royal Family of Broadway’; Ernest Milton in ‘Rope’; Leon M. Lion in ‘Libel’; D. A. Clarke-Smith as Pontius Pilate in ‘Caesar’s Friend’; and Wendy Hiller as Grace Darling. But these are only a few examples.

‘Picture Page’, the weekly topical magazine, edited by Cecil Madden, made Thursday a stay-at-home night for most viewers. The setting for this always exciting feature was a drawing-room into which, one felt, anyone might walk; a Cabinet Minister, a traveller from Tibet, a sword swallower, or a bird doctor from the Mile End Road.

Television had its fauna and flora. Animals sometimes came to Alexandra Palace and sometimes the cameras went to the Zoo. Plants and flowers flourished in the Television Garden under the benevolent eye of Mr. C. H. Middleton.

Groping for a new technique in the early days of the service, the television talk was established on a sure footing long before the close-down. With all the immediacy of broadcasting coupled with many of the resources of the documentary film, it appeared in 1939 in many guises and under many titles. News maps brought up-to-the-minute comments by recognized authorities; viewers were introduced to many distinguished people, ‘Speaking Personally’; ‘Guest Night’ found A. G. Street ‘at home’ to famous sportsmen, travellers, and writers.

Viewers watched the discomfiture of celebrities in a number of Bees — visual, musical, gastronomic, dramatic.

Television was always popular with children, and special programmes came their way in the latter days of the service.

The viewer will cast his mind back to a hundred-and-one other programme features: the Vic-Wells Ballet Company in ‘Checkmate’ and ‘The Sleeping Princess’; Sir Henry Wood and Sir Adrian Boult in that promising series ‘The Conductor Speaks’; that new television personality ‘Percy Ponsonby’, as played week by week by Charles Heslop in ‘In the Barber’s Chair’; the feature films; the sedately charming Fashion Parades.

On 1 September last, five full-length plays were in rehearsal and many more were in preparation. Plans were laid for many more outside broadcasts. It was to have been a television winter on the biggest scale yet.

For the present, however, all these plans are laid aside. One day, we may hope, all that eager striving band of specialists will reassemble under their queer, futuristic mast in Alexandra Park to resume the world’s first high-definition television service. But whether that happens soon or late, we had our glorious hour. Television was Here — You Couldn’t Shut Your Eyes to It.


  • Ernest C. Thomson was the BBC’s Press Officer, Television, before World War II began.

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4 responses to this article

garry robin simpson 2 September 2016 at 1:50 pm

One of the reason”s given [True or False] is that the Radar signal would have meant a quicker invasion by rival planes. I am from the 60″s generation. Alas there are still wars and I fear it will be forever thus. But one day. We live in hope.

Aidan Lunn 3 September 2016 at 11:27 am

That was the “official” line given by Government. The actual one I’m sure is that the engineers from Alexandra Palace were needed as technicians for the war effort, particularly in developing RADAR. In fact, that may have been the entire reason for the television service being started in 1936 – the Government saw that war with Germany was imminent and needed an impetus to develop RADAR along with the cash to develop it. Forcing the BBC to begin a television service (funded out of the Radio Licence) – over Lord Reith’s dead body it has to be said – provided ready trained engineers at the BBC and this service created a demand for sets, providing ready trained development and maintenance engineers from the manufacturers as well as providing funding and facilities to manufacture cathode ray tubes – then essential parts of TV sets and RADAR apparatus.

Ben Grabham 9 September 2016 at 12:43 pm

Fascinating to see a production of ‘Rope’ included in this years highlights…I wonder if Hitchcock was an early adopter of television and saw it?

Tony Currie 9 October 2016 at 2:42 pm

This explains how the myth that the service ended with the Mickey Mouse cartoon came about. Contemporary journalistic licence. Writing that there was a pointer for the evening programmes (that were never to happen) afterwards followed by a test pattern does somewhat spoil the romantic story!

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