Television returns in 1946 

3 October 2016

Editor’s note: This article originally appeared in the BBC Yearbook for 1947, published in late 1946. Television, in the shape of the monopoly single channel BBC Television Service in London only, had been closed down with little notice on 1 September 1939 in anticipation of the outbreak of war. It reopened in June 1946 with the same studios, equipment and single transmitter, to cover the Victory Parade in Whitehall. – Russ J Graham

1947yearbookTo most people with pre-war television sets, and many who hoped to be viewers in the near future, the year opened in delicious mystery. Up at Alexandra Palace something was being done at long last; the Government’s acceptance of the recommendations of Lord Hankey’s Television Committee had given the green light to the BBC and it was known that television screens, dead for nearly seven years, would soon be awake again.

But viewers-to-be were wondering what was really happening beneath that spindly, bristling aerial-mast on London’s northern heights. The new head of the Television Service was there — Maurice Gorham, lately in charge of the Light Programme and before that Director of the AEF Programme. Around him gathered the new programme staff — new only in the sense that they were taking up television afresh: Denis Johnston as Programme Director after a long spell as radio war reporter; Cecil Madden as Programme Organizer after directing the Overseas Entertainment Unit; George More O’Ferrall as Senior Play Producer after years of army service in the Far East and work with the AEF Programme. And while the programme staff laid their plans, the technicians, led by the Superintendent Engineer, Douglas Birkinshaw, submitted the entire transmission plant to the most thorough overhaul it had had since the pioneer days of 1936. As a result of this overall spring-clean, the apparatus, by the time the service opened, was producing better pictures, with improved detail, finer gradation and less ‘streaking’, than in 1939.

All this time the two disused studios were being put in working order, stored equipment was being brought out again, and studio staffs were recapturing the old skill. One of the two mobile units was being overhauled piece by piece.

The Prime Minister and Mrs. Attlee chatting with artists during a visit to the BBC Television Station

The Prime Minister and Mrs. Attlee chatting with artists during a visit to the BBC Television Station

Zero hour was 3 p.m. on 7 June. Up to that date, activity at the television station, though never leisurely, was deliberate and comparatively unhurried, but everyone knew that, once the plunge was taken, there could be no pause. Television, perhaps the most absorbing, is also one of the most exacting forms of entertainment; to keep the screens ‘alive’ for at least three hours a day — and this was what the new schedule demands—requires concentrated teamwork. Actual screen-time produced in a day’s ‘shooting’ by the average film studio is less than three minutes.

At the scheduled hour the plunge was taken. Miss Jasmine Bligh, one of the original television announcers, walked towards an emitron camera on the terrace in Alexandra Park and, to the strains of a Television March specially composed by Eric Coates, smiled into the lens and made the first announcement. At the inaugural ceremony a few moments later in Studio A, the Postmaster-General, the Earl of Listowel, formally declared the service open, stressing that television was intended as a recreation for the many, not a luxury for the few, and expressing the hope that the service would be extended to Birmingham in the not far distant future.

Viewers then saw their first studio programme, but in less than twenty hours the service was put to a supreme test. The result was a triumph. Television cameras mounted on a stand in the Mall opposite the Royal saluting base defied cloud and shower to present an open-window view of the complete Victory Parade— the arrival of Their Majesties, the long procession itself, and even some of the aircraft in the Fly-past. Side by side with the television cameras the BBC Film Unit took pictures which were televised in that evening’s programme.

People who had cherished their television sets for this moment through all the miseries of air-raids and black-out were not disappointed. Some confirmed that pictures were better than in 1939; all awaited with eagerness the promise of those ever-popular features—plays, variety, ‘Picture Page’, demonstrations, children’s features, cartoon films, and the panorama of ‘O.B.’s’ from sports grounds, theatres, and dance-halls.

The promise has been kept despite various austerity handicaps in the world of entertainment.

Outside Broadcasts continue to yield the most spectacular successes. From the Mall the mobile unit proceeded a week later to Wimbledon for the final matches for the Wightman Cup. Wimbledon is far outside the circle of co-axial cable which rings the West-End and gives direct connection between the mobile unit and Alexandra Palace, so the mobile radio transmitter was used, with excellent results. Within the next few days the unit gave proof of its mobility on the eve of televising the first England versus India Test Match at Lord’s, by paying a lightning visit to the Dorchester Hotel, Park Lane, for celebrity interviews at the presentation of Daily Mail Film Awards. A whole week at Wimbledon for the International Tennis Championships —twenty hours of television from the centre court — was followed by the first post-war visit to a London theatre — the Garrick —for the Beatrice Lillie revue ‘Better Late’. Since then the television audience has been taken to other theatres for dress circle views of such shows as ‘Follow the Girls’ at His Majesty’s and ‘Sweetheart Mine’ at the Victoria Palace. From time to time the old Bedford, Camden Town, was ‘taken over’ by the BBC for an evening of televised ‘Variety on View’, in the presence of a specially invited audience. In July the mobile unit drew up at the Open Air Theatre, Regent’s Park, for a complete performance of ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’. Public ceremonies give full scope to television’s unique quality of ‘actuality’ or ‘immediacy’, demonstrated in a most spectacular manner by the Lord Mayor’s Show, and most impressively by the Service of Remembrance at the Cenotaph.

Television cameras also roamed the ballroom floor at the Royal Albert Hall and the Palais de Danse, Hammersmith. In the open air they ranged from Barnet, in the north, for amateur football, to Ascot, in the south, for the new King George VI Stakes. Ascot, twenty-nine miles from Alexandra Palace, is the most distant point from which the mobile units have operated. Nearly as remote is Biggin Hill, Kent, where the first televised church service was held in St. George’s Chapel, on Battle of Britain Sunday, 15 September. The catalogue of televised sport includes Wimbledon Speedway, the final England v. India Test Match at the Oval, International Amateur Athletics at the White City, Amateur Boxing from Tottenham, Edmonton, and Wembley.

The Zoo was toured and another Regent’s Park fixture was the Jubilee Motor Parade. In November the second mobile unit was restored to the service.

Among studio programmes, plays have come first in popularity. Casting a wide net, the producers brought in dramas, comedies, thrillers—Shakespeare and Shaw, Oscar Wilde and Edgar Wallace. Besides Shaw’s ‘St. Joan’, Ian Hay’s ‘The Middle Watch’, Eugene O’Neill’s ‘Anna Christie’, and many other established successes, demanding the utmost resource in studio accommodation, scenery, and costumes, viewers saw numbers of plays specially written or arranged for television, among them J. B. Priestley’s new play ‘The Rose and Crown’, and the well-known stage and film story, ‘Thunder Rock’.

‘Picture Page’, the weekly topical magazine, recaptured its pre-war following with its swift sequences of interviews with ‘people in the news’. The other popular ‘regulars’ included ‘Cabaret Cartoons’, ‘Guest Night’, fashion parades, ‘Music-makers’ and ‘Composers at the Piano’, and cookery demonstrations. ‘Germany under Control’ inaugurated television documentaries, ranging from the training of young actors to the secrets of atomic energy.

New television personalities have emerged. Mr. Philip Harben, suave and deft, early established himself as a master of televised cookery; in the Television Garden, Mr. F. Streeter enlivened horticulture with an engaging sense of humour. The three announcers, familiar guests in every television household, were Miss Winifred Shotter, of stage, screen, and ENSA fame; Miss Gillian Webb, RADA prize-winner, who was appointed in July on the resignation of Miss Bligh; and Mr. McDonald Hobley, former actor and SEAC radio announcer.

Miss Kate Carney in 'Veterans of Variety,' a television production

Miss Kate Carney in ‘Veterans of Variety,’ a television production

Cartoon and interest films were shown in abundance, but permission has not yet been obtained for televising newsreels. The BBC’s own Film Unit has not, however, been inactive and among its scoops was an exclusive interview with Mr. George Bernard Shaw on his ninetieth birthday. The Queen Elizabeth trials off the west coast of Scotland were filmed and shown to viewers on the day the liner set off on her maiden peacetime voyage to New York. As part of a regular exchange arrangement with the National Broadcasting Company of America, films taken on board during the voyage were flown back from New York and televised a week later. Viewers have also seen BBC films of the King opening the new Bodleian Library at Oxford, the Lord Mayor’s Show, the Cenotaph Service, and the Procession for the Opening of Parliament.

Decisions on the introduction of higher definition and expansion of the service to other parts of the country rest with the Television Advisory Committee. The present service area is restricted to a radius of roughly forty miles of Alexandra Palace, though there are many reports of good reception at much greater distances. How many television receiving sets are in operation is still a matter of conjecture, and estimates vary between 15,000 and 25,000.

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6 responses to this article

garry robin simpson 3 October 2016 at 9:38 pm

How it all began [For the second time.] Until the end of the world. Known as when Donald Trump becomes President. I hope I am being Ironic in that statement.

Paul Mason 4 October 2016 at 4:16 am

I remember Philip Harben, who did a cookery show on ABC called The Grammar of Cookery which was broadcast on aSunday afternoon in about 1965/66. He died.relatively young on about 1970.
Another early TV cook not mentioned , surprisingly, because she was on post-WW2 TV was Marguerite Patten who lived to be.99.years of age. Then came Fanny and Johnny Ctadock, but these were slightly later on in TV history.

Paul Mason 4 October 2016 at 4:33 am

Just before I get in hot water I should have called the.Fanny and.Johnny CRADOCK..
Marguerite Patten hated being called a TV cook, she preferred “Home.Economist” and her TV debut was in 1947. She died in June 2015/five months short.of her 100th birthday.

Paul Mason 4 October 2016 at 4:52 am

Last word on early TV cooks Fanny Cradock’s real name was Phyllis Nan Sortain Pechey (1909-1994). She took no prisoners!

Paul Mason 4 October 2016 at 5:47 pm

Another almost TV centenarian was John Freeman, noted for his in depth BBC TV interview series Face To Face. He outlived most of his subjects except Albert Finney and Stirling Moss. But we are off topic now.

Square Eyes 12 November 2016 at 8:52 am

It’s worth noting that the Cenotaph service has been broadcast without interruption by the BBC every year since 1946 and a telerecording of the 1946 service is the oldest television recording in the BBC archives.This makes it the longest continually-televised event in the world.

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