The miracle of Eurovision 

13 May 2017

From Television Jubilee: the story of twenty-five years of BBC Television by Gordon Ross, published in 1961

The miracle of television has been heralded as one of the most notable scientific achievements of the twentieth century. The part which Eurovision has played has been large, intensely exciting, and reflects great credit upon the men whose brains have conceived and developed the idea of an inter-nation network; a network which by 1959 embraced these twelve countries, and sixteen services; all members of the European Broadcasting Union, the nerve centre of Eurovision. The E.B.U. has played a vital role in promoting a happy working agreement for sharing facilities between countries.

In addition, Eurovision programmes could be distributed over the networks of Finland and Jugoslavia, but neither the Oy. Yleisradio nor the Jugoslovenska Radiodifuzija was then able to contribute to the Eurovision network. It was still a formidable list which had sprung up like a giant mushroom from the modest beginnings of only a few years previously. Inter-nation co-operation began with the establishment of an Anglo-French Television Liaison Committee in November, 1950. The Committee first discussed the possibility of a series of programmes to be described as “A Week in Paris” to be carried out in July, 1951.

In August, 1950, the B.B.C. had carried out a couple of television outside broadcasts from Calais — the first time that television had been brought to the British public from a point outside the United Kingdom and the first time that a television link had been set up across an international boundary. These programmes, however, were seen only in the United Kingdom and not in France. France had not at that time started to develop its television network; its only transmitters were in Paris, and to link Calais to Paris as well as to London would, at that time, have been beyond the joint resources of the French Television authority — Radiodiffusion-Télévision Française — and the B.B.C. The second and more cogent reason was that the French and British services were operating — and they still are — on different line standards.

At that time there was no known technical means of converting the vision signals from one standard to the other. From the B.B.C.s point of view it was still a most ambitious project and a considerable amount of preparatory staff-work was involved. It meant despatching a large outside broadcasts team, with all its equipment, to Calais and the setting up of a series of point-to-point radio links between Calais and London. The Channel was spanned by a link working between the Hotel de Ville at Calais, and the top of the cliffs at Swingate near Dover, using a frequency of 4,500 Mc/s. The span from Swingate to London required three links in tandem and these operated on 6,800 Mc/s, 64.75 Mc/s and 4,500 Mc/s respectively. With the object of avoiding moving hum bars on the picture, a telephone circuit between Dover and Calais carried a signal derived from the British electricity mains and this was used to lock the waveform generators of the Calais outside broadcast unit.

Richard Dimbleby had made history by commentating with Alan Adair on the first programme transmitted across the Channel, when viewers saw the town of Calais, en fête, with a torchlight procession, dancing in the square and a firework display. The date was 27 August 1950.

The results, if not spectacular, were most encouraging, but it was decided that the “Week in Paris” idea was still a little ambitious as a prospect for 1951 and it was decided to defer it until the summer of 1952. Meantime, serious thought was given both in France and in the United Kingdom, to possible means of conversion from the French line standard to the British and vice versa.

By February, 1952, sufficient progress had been made for it to be decided that a comparative trial between the French and British standards converters was worth undertaking. These tests proved that both French and British equipment was good enough to justify plans being made for a series of joint R.T.F. (Radiodiffusion-Télévision Française)/B.B.C. programmes in July. These were to be produced in Paris using French cameras and equipment and would be broadcast simultaneously by the two services.

R.T.F. had by this time opened its first 819-line Regional television station at Lille and this was fed by a permanent circuit from Paris. The R.T.F. took the responsibility for the next link from Lille to Cassel — a high point on the way to Calais. At Cassel, the B.B.C. standards converter was installed and the conveyance of the 405-line signal from this point was up to the B.B.C. The route they chose was Alembon-Swingate-Wrotham-London.

The total distance was about 500 kilometres as compared with 150 for the Calais transmission. This great relay took place between 8 and 14 July. The quality of the pictures produced in Britain varied a great deal. Some were extremely good; others were marred by every imperfection known to the television engineer. The relay was still regarded as a success since these imperfections would obviously be eradicated in the light of technical developments which it was known could and would make rapid strides. There was no reason at all why the Coronation of Her Majesty should not be seen on the Continent. This view was taken at a meeting in London in December, 1952, and as a result of some prodigious efforts by all concerned the requisite circuits were established and the B.B.C. Coronation broadcast was relayed by a total of twelve transmitters in France, the Netherlands and Western Germany, the extreme point on the network being Berlin.

Great impetus was given to the development of international relays by the starting of television services in a number of other countries and in Paris in January, 1954, plans were laid for a much more ambitious series of daily programmes, involving eight national television organizations, to be carried out in the month starting on 6 June. The idea was that each country should contribute one or more programme to be relayed by all the others. An international co-ordination centre was set up at Lille.

Tests were carried out in April and they brought immeasurable problems. In many cases extremely improvised equipment was being used. These problems were analysed and were solved if some, only partially, but the Lille experiment duly began on the appointed day and the pictures obtained over far longer links than had ever been attempted before, were, on average, surprisingly good.

The period 6 June to 4 July was chosen because during that month the matches in Switzerland for the World Football Cup offered a first-rate popular attraction. The enormously complicated engineering side of the relays was organized by a technical committee under the chairmanship of Mr M. J. L. Pulling of the B.B.C. When the whole vast network had been connected, it ran to 4,000 miles of radio circuit, extending between Belfast and Rome with branch lines to Copenhagen and Berlin, using forty-four transmitters, about eighty relay stations, and four converter stations.

One of its most spectacular links, which connected the German and Italian television systems and forms a permanent part of the Swiss national network, carried television signals across the Alps; it ran from Chasseral, 5,000 ft up in the Jura range of northern Switzerland, through a relay station sixty miles away and 12,000 ft high on the Jungfraujoch, and on to the summit of Monte Generoso, near Lake Lugano in southern Switzerland. It was manufactured in Britain, and formed part of £2,000,000 worth of British equipment supplied to the Eurovision network.

Some seven weeks before this month of international television opened, the ambitious project took a hard knock from the International Federation of Musicians, Actors and Variety Artistes. Meeting at a conference in Paris the three federations resolved that all organizations affiliated to them and having agreements with television organizations should not extend their agreements beyond 15 June 1954 and that organizations having no such agreements should boycott all international relays until the three federations had reached an agreement with the European Broadcasting Union.

In actual fact it was not until 1 February 1957 that the first agreement negotiated between the federations and the E.B.U. came into force; it provides for supplementary payments to performers ranging between 50 per cent for programmes relayed between three countries and 150 per cent for those relayed between eight or more. This performers’ boycott forced several countries participating in Eurovision’s special month to revise their plans at short notice, and for a further two and a half years it tended to confine international relays to events mostly out of the studio. It thus limited cultural exchanges and placed a great emphasis upon sporting events. In fact from the beginning of the Eurovision month in 1954 to the end of 1956, 65.9 per cent of Eurovision’s programmes were sporting; only 2.2 per cent were cultural and 4.7 per cent drama and music. Switzerland and Italy provided the programmes for the opening day in 1954.

The Fête des Narcisses at Montreux in the afternoon and an evening visit to the Vatican City, where the Pope spoke in five languages and delivered the Apostolic blessing, contrived to make a memorable day. Eurovision had arrived. People had sat by their firesides on a wet Whit Sunday and seen the Pope; interest had been stimulated on the Continent where the sale of television sets showed a marked increase even before the month’s relays were over. The United Kingdom’s main contribution was broadcast on 12 June and included scenes of the Queen reviewing the R.N.V.R. on Horse Guards Parade, the Glasgow Police Sports and the Richmond Horse Show.

When the Lille experiment ended it was imperative to pause and take a deep breath. Eurovision was here to stay but how was it to be kept going on a permanent basis. There were many difficulties, both technical and administrative; there was the all-important question of the difference of language to overcome. At the end of 1954 Great Britain had temporarily to withdraw from the Eurovision network, but rejoined it permanently on 17 September 1955; by that time the first section of a permanent two-way television link between London and the Continent was completed. During the first month after its return the B.B.C. contributed scenes from the Woolwich Searchlight Tattoo, the International Floodlit Athletics at the White City, and the Horse of the Year Show at Harringay. A most welcome and moving programme received in Britain was the Arnhem Memorial Day.

In the New Year of 1956 the Italians undertook the prodigious feat of organizing relays from the Olympic Winter Games at Cortina, in which every one of the Eurovision countries participated. This was followed in April by another outstanding multilateral relay—the transmissions from Monte Carlo during the marriage celebrations of Prince Rainier and Miss Grace Kelly. The successful experiment of a Eurovision song contest in 1956 had led to the event having won a place annually in Eurovision affairs.

There have been many programmes since Eurovision began of special technical significance; there is one which should be singled out both for its technical novelty and because it was completely unheralded. On 14 July 1958, the R.T.F. fed to the Eurovision network from two pick-up points in the South of France a television programme from Algiers, 800 kilometres away on the other side of the Mediterranean.

This remarkable link had been achieved by equipping an aircraft as a radio relay station, the aircraft flying some 6,000 metres above the Balearic Islands, about half-way between Algiers and Marseilles. It was the first occasion when the Eurovision network has been supplied with a programme from another continent.

One day, perhaps, a link with North America will become reality. There has been a good deal of talk over a long period on this subject. The technical problems are by no means insurmountable; the problem is how the fabulous cost could ever be justified. This situation is likely to continue so long as a satisfactory television picture requires as large a bandwidth as is now used for conventional systems. Once a method was perfected whereby a satisfactory picture could be obtained with a very substantially narrower band of frequencies, then a transatlantic circuit could become technically simple and economically feasible. The establishment of inter-vision by the Russians for the Eastern Bloc countries has now been successful in bringing Moscow within range. The next step now will be Tokyo.

The E.B.U., with its technical centre in Brussels and its administrative office in Geneva, is the co-ordinating centre of all Eurovision programmes. The co-ordination of these programme exchanges falls into four main categories. Unilateral programmes are originated in one country for reception in another; a case in point is the Scots Guards band at the Brussels Exhibition which was relayed in Great Britain but not in Belgium. Unilateral inserts are similar except that they are only a part of a programme in the receiving country such as a single item for a news bulletin. Bilateral relays are originated in one country and taken both in that country and another in the E.B.U. network.

Multilateral relays are those which are taken by a number of countries as well as the country of origin. In the early days of Eurovision, the unilateral relay was not possible. The programme could only be passed into the network through the local service, so that if an event took place during normal programme hours in that country and that country did not want to take it, nothing more could be done. Now, however, a second line system has been installed so that a programme can be passed from one country to another, by-passing both the home system and others en route.

This collaboration was taken a step further on New Year’s Eve, 1957, with the arrival of the single programme to which several countries contribute under the control of a single director. On that night a producer at the E.B.U. centre in Brussels — by unanimous invitation it was Francis Essex of the B.B.C. — was in control of the television services of ten countries. He kept in touch with them over an omnibus talk-back circuit, and in addition to the complicated split-second cutting by eleven switching centres hundreds of miles apart, a split-screen effect was achieved, where, for instance, a small boy in Brussels was seen apparently lighting the announcer’s cigarette in London.

The basis of the fundamental working of Eurovision is friendly give and take. If, for example, Italy gave the B.B.C. facilities for a programme from Venice which they themselves were not intending to use in their own service, then Italy would be in credit so far as the B.B.C. is concerned and she would be offered comparable facilities from Britain at some future date.

Cecil McGivern described this feeling of Eurovision good will when he said “There is something very much deeper in Eurovision than, shall we say, Wimbledon being seen by various countries. There is the B.B.C.s purpose of using broadcasting for the good of the world. There is the gratifying fact that when I go to an E.B.U. conference I meet friends. Not only friends, but good friends. We have learned to know one another, to respect each other. This fundamentally, is Eurovision.”

Sir Alexander Korda

(born Sándor László Kellner)

Eurovision has done something else. It has offered the B.B.C.s Mr “Fix It” full scope for his talents. Imlay Watts was bom in Johannesburg; he was educated at an English Preparatory School, and subsequently at Ecole-des-Roches, the French equivalent of Eton. In 1932, he entered the Motion Picture business, and it was during the Alexander Korda régime that Imlay Watts learned to fix.

If you worked for Korda, and he wanted a herd of elephants by half past three, you got them, or else you no longer worked for Korda. In one executive capacity or another Imlay had a close association with such great pictures as The Ghost Goes West, with Robert Donat, directed by Rene Clair (who could hardly speak a word of English); Knight Without Armour — the first Dietrich picture in this country; The Drum, featuring Sabu; Wings of the Morning — the first British technicolour film with Annabella and Henry Fonda. By 1938, the Motion Picture Industry was well conscious of the development of television, so Imlay Watts joined the B.B.C. for six months to have a look round.

He is still looking round in 1961. If you want a seat on a plane leaving for the North Pole in twenty minutes which is full anyway, he will arrange for the pilot to move over and make room for you. Should you be stranded abroad with an empty wallet he will have it filled by telephone from London. This, in fact, actually happened on one occasion in 1948 during stringent currency restrictions when Michael Mills and Holland Bennett were on the Continent looking for talent; they ended up in Hamburg wanting to travel on to Berlin but without a bean.

They called London from Hamburg. Mr “Fix It” told them to go and have a good lunch with plenty of courses and by the time they were through to the coffee the money to pay the bill and to travel on to Berlin would be forthcoming — it was!

The senior staff of the Supreme Headquarters Allied Expeditionary Force (SHAEF) in Rheims, France, celebrate the Nazi surrender on 7 May 1945

Why has this man got such an enormous pull on the Continent? Partly because of his wartime activities when he worked in the Psychological Warfare Department of S.H.A.E.F., was co-director of the Free French Radio Station and later became chief of S.H.A.E.F. Radio, in Belgium. He has a fluent command of languages and loves the impossible. People are attracted by his bubbling personality. That is very important.

His contacts have been a priceless asset in many a crisis. On 6 February 1958, when an aircraft returning from Belgrade crashed at Munich Airport with the players and officials of Manchester United Football Club aboard, the B.B.C. were informed of the disaster twenty minutes after it had happened.

They wanted to show film of the crash and perhaps interviews with survivors on the ten o’clock news. It was then about four o’clock. All telephone lines to Munich were blocked incessantly by national newspaper correspondents so that there was no chance of getting through to Munich by normal methods.

The News Department turned to Imlay Watts — what could he do? Within five minutes he was speaking to Heinz Von Plato, Director of Programmes in Hamburg. Von Plato talked on his direct line with Munich, where firemen were still trying to extinguish the fire and where considerable confusion still existed, but the Director of Programmes made arrangements to make possible the transmission from Munich in time for the B.B.C.s ten o’clock news. The B.B.C. then had to warn the countries through which the relay would pass.

Suddenly it was realized that the link at Dover was not manned. An engineer was sent down at once and only when he reached Dover did he find out that not only was Lille not manned, but the engineer had gone to a cinema with the key of the station in his pocket. The man was traced, brought out of the cinema, and he opened up Lille in time. The surgeons and nurses at the Rechts des Isar Hospital at Munich were magnificent; the co-operation of the German Television Service was deeply appreciated too, in bringing to a nation stunned by this tragedy the up to the minute news; all the evening there had been conflicting reports.

The Belgian Television Service played a notable part in a transmission on another occasion when Britain was in the throes of a musicians’ strike which was crippling television. Cecil McGivern asked Imlay Watts if he could rake up anything from the Continent for the Saturday night show. Forty-eight hours hence. Imlay Watts did the rounds of the television countries by telephone and couldn’t believe his ears when Bert Leysen, Director of the Flemish Service in Belgium, asked him if he would like the Moscow State Circus. Leysen had no camera units available; there was no certainty that the Russians would agree, but Michael Henderson was sent off straightaway so that at least if the transmission was possible an experienced English commentator would be on the spot.

The Russians eventually agreed and Bert Leysen gallantly brought back one of his units which was deployed elsewhere to do the job. There was no rehearsal — there was no prior announcement by the B.B.C. Quite out of the blue the announcer simply said “We are now going over to Brussels for the Moscow State Circus.” The silent screen came to life with a fanfare of trumpets, balloons were everywhere — it might have been New Year’s Eve at the Chelsea Arts — and so without a moment of camera rehearsal the Moscow State Circus was on British television screens, and what a fantastic performance; what a great blow to world television when Bert Leysen was later killed in a car crash; his memory lives on in the minds of his many friends in this country.

The Italian Television Service made a mighty contribution to “The Restless Sphere”, a programme during the Geophysical Year compered by His Royal Highness the Duke of Edinburgh. Aubrey Singer wanted to include shots of Vesuvius taken from the top of the crater, complete with commentator, in a live transmission. He rang his opposite number in Rome who said that because of the appalling prevailing gale it was quite impossible for a man to stand up there, let alone commentate.

The Italians were then told that the B.B.C. were quite certain that the Duke would be delighted if this momentous undertaking could be carried through, and as the Italians as a race are “Mr Fix Its” they made a further study of the situation and finally said it would be done, but as a safety measure it must be done on film and not live. But Mr Pardi did do it live and commentating in perfect English he only brought the live transmission to a close and went over to film when he was literally being swept off his feet in the teeth of the gale, an incredible performance.

To get the film shots a team of donkeys with television equipment strapped to their backs had made a pilgrimage every day for a fortnight; many was the time that filming was not possible because Vesuvius happened to be in a particularly angry mood that day. Undaunted, the donkeys persevered.

His Royal Highness the Duke of Edinburgh gave a remarkable performance in a programme during the International Geophysical Year in 1957. In the studio with him are James Orr (Private Secretary), Antony Craxton (the Royal Producer) and Peter Dimmock (Head of Outside Broadcasts).

The B.B.C. and the Austrian Television Service worked hand in hand on the Hungarian tragedy. When the B.B.C. rang Gerhard Freund for sixteen seats on a plane to Vienna because the Talks Department wanted full coverage of the refugees streaming out of Hungary, Freund offered his full co-operation but asked in return if he could borrow one of the B.B.C.s film editors over the week-end to help his overworked staff cut and edit the hundreds of feet of film taken at the border.

A herculean performance by the Swiss enabled Italy to receive a Christmas Carol service from King’s College Chapel, Cambridge. The thermometer showed many degrees below freezing, and icicles at the top of a mountain were blocking the television picture en route to Italy.

Five minutes before the transmission was due to begin two engineers braved the elements, climbed the offending mountain and knocked the icicles off. This showed great determination by Eduard Haas, the Director of Swiss Television, and indomitable courage and an unswerving devotion to duty by the two brave engineers. Knocking icicles off the top of a mountain is not everybody’s cup of tea. There are many better pastimes on Christmas Eve.

Few of the small contingent of B.B.C. personnel who went to Denmark for the occasion of the State visit of Her Majesty the Queen can easily forget it. Because of court protocol the television cameras were not allowed to show the guests eating at the State Banquet, but they were to be allowed to televise the speeches. It is custom in Denmark for the speeches to follow the fish course, and the King himself was to give a signal when all was ready for the television operation to begin.

The producer watched his monitor screen on a closed circuit and could see from what was happening that it was “Any minute now”, so the programme began with the camera panning round a small ante-chamber until the King gave the signal — but the fish course was so delicious and so popular among the guests that the King served a second helping! Richard Dimbleby had the pleasure of commentating for about twenty minutes on the beauties of the ante-chamber! This was nothing to “Old Smoothie”, but mention of the fish course in Denmark brings back a chill down the spine of at least one member of the entourage.

The Venus de Milo. Photograph by User:MIDI at Wikimedia Commons. CC-BY-SA licence

Sometimes even Mr “Fix It” fails. Once he was asked to get the Venus de Milo moved in the Louvre, because the B.B.C. could not muster enough cable length to reach it. It was moved, but it was found quite impossible to light it effectively and viewers were merely shown the room with the statue in the distance. “Fancy the cameras going to the Louvre,” said the press, “without a close-up of the Venus.” How right they were; how lucky that Imlay Watts was not still working for Korda!

When he left Paris in 1946 to become Studio Productions Manager of the Television Service Imlay Watts said to the Director-General and his colleagues of the French Broadcasting Service, “One day, I hope we’ll see each other on television, and if I, in the smallest possible way, can do anything to accelerate that day, I shall do so. I love France and I am dedicated to television.”

In 1950, British Television cameras went to France to take the first positive step towards Eurovision. The big three of the operation were T. H. Bridgewater, on the engineering side, Peter Dimmock, then Assistant Head of Outside Broadcasts, and Imlay Watts. Cecil McGivern, intensely interested in the project, made frequent visits during the six weeks’ preparation.

Calais gave itself over to the B.B.C. No one more than the Gendarmes. There was even a suggestion to get a few ships turned round — they would look better the other way! More than once the whole operation seemed impossible; it was chaos; the shoe-strings holding it together were in danger of snapping any minute; the jumping of each hurdle inspired Cecil McGivern to aim higher still; in the end he wanted fireworks; he wanted the lot, and he got it.

The pioneers of Calais were the pioneers of Eurovision; they made an immeasurably important piece of history. Dimmock, Bridgewater, Watts and McGivern have earned their places in that history.

In 1960 eighteen European countries were linked together for the transmission of pictures from the opening of the Olympic Games in Rome. It was the biggest television network yet created on the Continent, including Finland and Jugoslavia, besides four countries of the East European block, East Germany, Czechoslovakia, Poland and Hungary.

In 1961, the modern world sealed a new height. The Soviet Union put a man in space to circle the earth. That man, Major Gagarin, was given a hero’s reception in Moscow. These celebrations were televised live from the airport and Red Square to the people of Britain with an amazingly good reception. The B.B.C. swiftly followed up with another direct relay from Moscow — the May Day festivities.

Eurovision strides on, with the sky the limit.

This article is excerpted from Television Jubilee: the story of twenty-five years of BBC Television by Gordon Ross, published in 1961 by WH Allen & Co.

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