TV80: Television To-day 

2 November 2016

1938From the BBC Handbook for 1938, published in November 1937

When The King and Queen neared Hyde Park Corner in their Coronation Coach on May 12, they were seen not only by the throng of sightseers lining the route, but by an army of people scattered over the Home Counties, from Cambridge in the north to Brighton in the south.

This was television, a phenomenon which would have been hailed in any other age either as a miracle or as a piece of witchcraft. The twentieth century, sated with inventions of all kinds, is not easily impressed, but the arrival of high-definition television has made an impression on everybody, from owners of broadcasting receivers to owners of racecourses. Trains were an improvement upon stage coaches; mechanized flight, on ballooning; but television is an improvement on nothing. It is something new under the sun.

Development of the Service


Although 1936 saw the start of the world’s first high-definition television service, with Great Britain as its sponsor, it was not until well into 1937 that the public became ‘television-conscious’. The BBC’s London Television Station at Alexandra Palace transmitted test programmes for the first time in August 1936, to coincide with the radio exhibition at Olympia, but two systems were then in use, and, since the authorities were themselves undecided as to which method should be taken into regular use, it was perhaps too much to expect the general public to make up its own mind in the matter. But on February 5 1937, the Postmaster General announced that, as a result of experience gained by the transmissions from Alexandra Palace, the Television Advisory Committee recommended the termination of the experimental period and the adoption of a single set of standards for transmissions from the London station. These standards — known as the London Television Standards — provide for a picture composed of 405 lines, interlaced, with a frequency of 50 frames a second. These are the standards employed in the Marconi-E.M.I. system, which is now in regular use.

The adoption of a single standard enormously simplified the task of programme production at Alexandra Palace. Whereas, formerly, the entire routine of the station had to be changed each week to allow of alternate transmissions by the two systems, it now became possible to concentrate on the development of one. Almost at once the programmes improved; they became more ‘professional’, the rough edges were trimmed off, more careful study could be given to the development of studio lighting, multi-camera work, and general presentation; and, imperceptibly at first, there developed a new technique which owed more to television than to theatre or cinema.

What does the BBC television service offer to-day?

The aim is ‘something for everybody’. Approximately two and a half hours of ‘live’ material, as distinct from film, is available on home screens every week-day, as well as one hour on Sunday evenings. On week-day mornings there is an hour of demonstration films transmitted for trade purposes. The studio programmes range from tap-dancing and the lightest type of variety act to grand opera and drama. They include illustrated talks, music, ballet, revue, art exhibitions, fashion parades and frequent appearances in person of people in the news. Current news-reels are shown daily, and Mickey Mouse and other cartoon films are frequently included.

Outside Broadcasts


But studio and film transmissions are only half the story. In the spring of 1937 a new field was opened up with the purchase by the BBC of a mobile television unit, constructed by the Marconi-E.M.I. Television Company, Ltd., which made television possible from practically
any point within 20 miles or so of the transmitting station. Mobile television was gloriously inaugurated on Coronation Day. Despite bad weather conditions, the whole of the Coronation Procession was televised from Apsley Gate, Hyde Park Corner, and it is estimated that more than 10,000 people found an opportunity to see the picture on a television screen. Three Emitron cameras were used: two on the plinth gave general views of the procession, and a third, at pavement level, showed the procession in close-up with clear glimpses of The King and Queen.

In the first year of its existence the mobile unit has added success to success, and the failures have been few. Viewers in their homes have watched at the moment of happening Wimbledon tennis, the Lord Mayor’s Show, the Cenotaph Ceremony on Armistice Day, film-making at Pinewood, Denham and Elstree, Pets’ Corner at the Zoo and an Omnibus Pageant at Chiswick.

When in central London, the mobile unit is linked to the transmitting station by a special television cable, installed by the Post Office, which conveys the pictures to the Alexandra Palace control room for re-transmission to viewers. Outside the central area the unit employs its own radio transmitter, the signals being picked up on a radio receiver at the television station and reradiated.

In addition to the outside broadcasts from the mobile unit, the television programmes include what are known as ‘local O.B.s’ from Alexandra Park. In effect the Park, with its grassy slopes, woodland and lake, becomes an outdoor ‘studio’. The studio cameras are taken into the open, but in all other respects these features are controlled and produced as indoor shows. The park ‘studio’ has made it possible to show model yacht-racing on the lake, sheep-dog trials, firefighting demonstrations, car parades, lessons in horse riding, archery and golf, and the Television Garden tended and described by C. H. Middleton.

Home Viewing


The viewer at home can watch these animated and changing scenes by operating two or three switches. The pictures are small (10 x 8 in.), but regular viewers know how satisfying such a picture can be when seen under home viewing conditions. It is nearly double the size of the full-plate photographs published in the illustrated weeklies; the definition at a distance of four or five feet leaves nothing to be desired, and, perhaps the most important point of all, there is no flicker. Add to this the fact that, owing to the use of ultra-short waves for transmission, the sound reproduction is, if anything, superior to that of ordinary broadcasting, and it will be realized that the owner of a television set is a person to be envied.

The BBC Television Service is highly organized. Only thus is it possible to keep the screen animated with new and varied material for sixteen hours a week.

Comparison with conditions governing stage and film production is inevitable. It suggests that the problems confronting the television personnel are formidable and even, perhaps, frightening. In the theatre the minimum time devoted to the rehearsal of a play is three weeks, and once the production is staged its sponsors have hopes, at least, of a run during which the play will look after itself. Film studios have problems of their own, but even a high-speed schedule does not usually entail the production of more than two or three minutes of actual screen time in a day’s work. But the present television service at Alexandra Palace involves ceaseless effort to keep the screen alive for 150 minutes each day and every day. There can be no halts to review the position, no ‘cutting’ and starting again. Every morning is zero hour, and yesterday must be forgotten. In a sense, television is to the stage and screen what journalism is to literature.

The fever of Fleet Street pervades Alexandra Palace from the moment the commissionaires unlock the doors to the piano-tuner at 7 a.m. until the time when the announcer rehearses her closing announcement at about 10.30 p.m. Every hour of screen time involves at least six or seven at rehearsal, so rehearsals go on from morning till night — in studios at Broadcasting House and Maida Vale, in music rooms, odd corners of Alexandra Palace, and even in the homes of producers. Camera rehearsals, which are the only dress rehearsals, are just possible for an hour or two immediately preceding transmission, only four camera channels being available; so the earlier rehearsals call for much imagination on the part of the producer, who must visualize his camera positions and communicate his intentions to the artists in an environment which would often be more suitable for a seance or an afternoon tea-party!



The organization falls under two main departments: engineering and programmes. Only the briefest glance can be taken at the engineering side here. Two transmitters are employed, one for vision and one for sound, operating on wavelengths of 6.7 and 7.23 metres respectively. These wavelengths come within the ‘ultra short-wave’ band, the only one which embraces a wide enough band of frequencies necessary for transmitting the elements of a picture. Unfortunately these waves have a range limited to about 20 or 30 miles under average conditions. To obtain this service area a high transmitting aerial is necessary; hence the 300 ft. mast which surmounts the south-east corner of Alexandra Palace. This mast supports two separate aerials, the upper being for vision and the lower for sound.

From 'Electronic Engineering' magazine, 1936

From ‘Electronic Engineering’ magazine, 1936

The paths of the engineering and programme departments run parallel but separate until the studio control room is reached. Here they converge, for it is here that the programme producer and the productions manager or his deputy rub shoulders with a team of sound and vision-controlling engineers in the hot and noisy cubicle which overlooks the studio.

The programme side, under Gerald Cock, Director of Television, is divided into two groups: Programmes Organization and Productions Management. The Programmes Organizer allocates duties to the team of producers now numbering fourteen, and is also responsible for securing a right balance in the building of programmes. The Productions Manager is in charge of all the elaborate machinery of presentation. The announcers, stage managers and studio staff are under his control, and his responsibilities range from the building of an elaborate ‘set’ to the design of a caption card, from the preparation of each day’s ‘running order’ to the allocation of dressing-rooms to artists.

During a transmission the studio control room is the station’s nerve centre. From his desk overlooking the studio, the producer of any particular show is temporarily in the position of an organist at the console of a huge instrument which yields pictures as well as sound.

Six feet in front of him are two receiver screens, or ‘monitor’ tubes, one showing the picture which is being radiated, and the other a choice of pictures from other cameras in the studio. On this second screen a picture can be prepared in advance which can be substituted for the other at a predetermined moment, the transition being effected by the vision-mixing engineer seated just behind the producer. To the front of the producer are the engineers who control sound mixing from the studio microphones, Big Ben, the gramophone turntable, and other sources. To the right and below the producer is the studio itself, seen through a sound-proof plate-glass window. The main studio measures 70 ft. X 30 ft. X 25 ft. high, and here the bulk of the television programmes are performed. Use is also made of a second studio, formerly used for transmissions by the Baird system, at the other end of the BBC wing. It is not yet fully equipped for Marconi-E.M.I. transmissions.

Televising a Cabaret Show


Let us imagine that we are to be allowed to sit beside the producer during the production of a cabaret programme. Before we climb to the control cubicle we are invited to look round the studio itself, and the first thing that strikes us is the torrent of white light, perhaps running to 60 kilowatts, which pours down upon the stage from every angle. There are lights on the gantry across the centre of the studio, lights in the roof and wings, lights behind the cyclorama at the rear of the stage, lights in corners, lights everywhere. All are controlled from a switchboard which enables any combination of lamps to be used to suit the producer’s requirements.

Grouped in the centre of the studio are three Emitron cameras which act as ‘electric eyes’. The optical image is focused by a lens upon a photo-sensitive plate to produce upon it a faithful electrical picture of the original scene. This is ‘scanned’ line by line by an ‘electron gun’ to produce an electric current, the amplitude of which varies according to the light and shade of the picture. These variations are eventually applied to the cathode-ray tube in the home receiver, enabling an image of the scene to be reconstructed.

No. 1 camera is mounted on a ‘dolly’ truck similar to those used in film studios and can thus move backwards and forwards to provide medium shots or close-ups. Flanking it are cameras 2 and 3, also movable, and for the show we are about to witness they are trained on side sets which will be used for comedy sketches or announcements by the compere.

Poised overhead like a giant fishing rod is the microphone boom, which can swing the ‘mike’ noiselessly and inconspicuously in pursuit of the most nimble artist. Camera men and microphone men all wear headphones so that the producer can talk to them while the show is in progress.

The Television Orchestra


Basking in comparative shade at the producer’s end of the studio is the BBC Television Orchestra, 22 strong, which is probably one of the most versatile musical combinations in the world. In the course of an hour they may be called upon to play accompaniments for ‘hot Momma’ songs, ballet, a sensational skating act, and perhaps a movement from a pianoforte concerto.

To the right of the studio, as we see it from the producer’s desk, are two small cubicles, the size of telephone booths. One is a quick-change room for artists who, when the ‘show is on’, have no time to reach their dressing-rooms on the other side of the studio corridor. The other booth houses a television set which is used for various purposes and is invaluable to the make-up staff, who are able to study the appearance of artists during rehearsal and decide what kind of make-up is required for each individual. Being made up for television is not the terrifying ordeal that it was a year or so ago, when artists looked more like mandrills than anything else. It was then necessary to emphasize the cheek-bones and jaw-bones with lines, and all the hollows had to be filled in. Bright blue lips were necessary, and George Robey eyebrows.

Jane Carr, a popular singer, in Baird 30-line make-up in November 1932. inset: how viewers saw her on their homemade television 'sets'.

Jane Carr, a popular singer, in Baird 30-line make-up in November 1932. inset: how viewers saw her on their homemade television ‘sets’.

Nowadays, the aim is to achieve a healthy sun-tan. Women use normal lip-stick with the addition of delicate shading to bring out the beauty of the eyes. A little light powder is added with a finishing touch of mascara for the eyelashes. For men a liquid foundation is used to bring up the sun-tan shade. Dark complexions have to be lightened, fair darkened.

‘Two Minutes to go!’


And now the studio manager, on instructions from the producer, has blown the warning whistle: ‘Two minutes to go!’ Talk drops to a whisper; a perspiring artist receives a last dab of face-powder from one of the ubiquitous make-up assistants; an announcer smiles before Camera 2… and it is time to join the producer upstairs. Sitting in his uneasy chair, and surrounded by faithful engineers, he has one eye on the studio and the other on the left-hand monitor tube, which shows a cartoon film, transmitted from the tele-cine room next door, nearing its breathless conclusion. The right-hand monitor already gives a picture of the announcer as seen by Camera 2, and, as the film runs out, our producer takes charge. ‘Over to Camera 2!’… and, as the vision mixer obeys, the announcer is given the cue light to begin.

Announcements are short, and within twenty seconds we are ready to ‘fade over’ to the Cabaret Chorus on Camera 1. The picture is already prepared on the alternative monitor tube and, fifteen seconds after the opening of the announcement, the orchestral conductor is given his green cue light to strike up. Simultaneously the studio manager signals the Cabaret Chorus to begin dancing and, two seconds later, the producer — performing the surprising feat of watching at the same time his script, the monitor tubes and the show in the studio — gives the order: ‘Over to Camera 1!’

The Show is on


Now he talks through his desk microphone to No. 1 cameraman. ‘Track up slightly… Pan left… that’s better. Hold it!’ …and the show is ‘on’.

Of all this hectic endeavour the viewer at home knows nothing. He is watching a pleasant, intimate cabaret by his own fireside, an apparently effortless piece of entertainment which ends too soon.


You Say

1 response to this article

Paul Mason 3 November 2016 at 5:26 am

Obviously I was not around in 1936 but our first and second 405 line TV set were BAIRD manufactured even if it had little to do with John Logie Baird’s actual.invention. The Baird-EMI competition reminds me of the VHS-Betamax video battle in the 1980s.

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