How ITV set the pace in colour 

12 June 2017

From the TVTimes for 15-21 November 1969

Howard Steele is a good-looking man who looks as if he could probably do an excellent impersonation of the singing-cowboy film star, Roy Rogers. Steele has that kind of face and that type of head. And inside the head throbs one of the brains that has done more than most to bring high-quality colour to British Independent Television. He is the Chief Engineer of the ITA and, as such, is the man who has masterminded the entire technical operation. Since it all started happening he has got through £10½ million of the ITA’s money. Many believe it is one of the shrewdest investments ITV has made since its beginning.

At 39, Howard Steele has already spent three-and-a-half years seeking to fulfil his personal dream of turning ITV into colour. But the dream started a long while ago. Not all technicians and engineers manage to combine progressive philosophy with their technical know-how. Engineers aren’t always made like that.

But Howard Steele is. About four years ago, as Chief Engineer for ABC Television, at Teddington, he was given reasonably extensive opportunities to experiment with colour. It was the coming thing, wasn’t it?

Steele wanted more than that. He could see the thing coming too slowly. It didn’t matter how much work on colour was done by any individual company, or any group of companies. It was the ITA that counted and, when he was asked to take over as Chief Engineer, he realised it was the best possible place to see through the introduction of colour to ITV.

It started for Steele as a schoolboy in Mill Hill, London. He was intensely interested in amateur dramatics — and radio; and by the time he left school he was thinking of going into the BBC as a trainee producer.

Instead, he took the advice of a friend who told him to go to university and train as an engineer. Then he could go into the BBC as an engineer and — if he felt like it — change over into production.

He got the qualifications he wanted and, after leaving university, returned to the BBC and said: “What about it?” It was not to be so easy as he had hoped. He was advised to “broaden his experience,” particularly in the field of design and installation. So, at 21, he joined Marconi and began learning the trade. He did a television course and, at the time that the firm was developing its interest in making equipment for outside broadcast facilities, Steele started to really involve himself in television.

He designed some of the early BBC scanners, for instance, and part of his work began to tilt towards colour television. He was in charge of all the BBC studio and Outside Broadcast contracts for Marconi, one of which was for the first experimental installation of electronic colour.

He was in charge of the firm’s TV equipment unit at about the time Independent Television started. He was naturally enough caught up in the rush to provide all the equipment that was being called for. And this made him think that, perhaps, he should go into ITV himself.

There was a tremendous wave of enthusiasm, especially from the engineers all over the country who were building their own organisations as ITV started to grow.

Later, after changing jobs, he was given the task of putting Teddington Studios on the air. He was also one of the team that helped to launch Ulster TV in the face of huge local problems. He was also involved with Grampian and Channel TV stations.

“It was about 1961 when I began to feel that colour television couldn’t be very far away,” he said. “It had really got going in the United States and it was obvious that it would come here soon.”

Initially, when Steele came to consider colour at ABC, he felt a sense of frustration. “It was difficult to see what we could usefully do that the BBC hadn’t already done. They had been looking at colour for a decade previously!

“And then I went to a lecture at the Institution of Electrical Engineers where the European SECAM system was being discussed. It seemed to me that it had a lot of advantages over the American NTSC system and that it was really worth looking at.”

To Steele’s surprise he discovered on the grapevine that the BBC were not proposing to look at this system at all. “So — just to be different — to have a reason for getting our fingers burnt on colour, we decided to have a look at the SECAM system.”

Steele and his team started off by borrowing equipment — a colour monitor and so on. The experiments they made were virtually slipped in between their real job of looking after maintenance and equipment.

They didn’t even have a budget, but there was the sideline benefit of attracting a lot of Press coverage. To any publicity-conscious TV company, that was justification enough. The number of favourable column-inches was worth more than the amount actually being spent on colour experiments.

And soon it was realised that the SECAM system was worth proper investigation. “We no longer wanted to go on dabbling with it.”

Unofficially, Steele’s men and BBC engineers were liaising; swapping ideas, developments, theories. The expertise was developing.

Steele was then given a budget allowing him to spend £100,000 on colour whenever he liked. Then, about four years ago, just before he joined the ITA, he was chatting with some former colleagues at Marconi, when he offered to buy a colour camera prototype—straight off the drawing board.

“Thus it came about that ABC had the very first four-tube separate luminence colour camera. The four-tube camera, at that time, on any line-system, could give a better colour picture than any camera the BBC had.”

When Steele came to the ITA he was able to give Press demonstrations of colour with ABC equipment of a quality that had never been seen anywhere on 405. “We could never have done that if it hadn’t been for that nucleus down at ABC,” he said.

Minds were changing. There was ITV demonstrating colour that on one line system (405) was better than BBC’s on either line standard.

This gave ITV a valuable negotiating base. By pressing ahead with the 405-line system plans “people began to get really worried.” BBC wanted 625. The manufacturers were almost on the point of switching production to 405.

“At that stage,” Steele explained, “we said: ‘Right, we will go to 625 lines on conditions.”

Those conditions were mainly technical, but they meant that programmes would begin simultaneously in colour on BBC-1 and ITV. It meant a better overall service for the viewer no matter which channel they watched. And in between it was decided to opt for the PAL system which is considered better than SECAM or NTSC.

Steele, I suspect, never really wanted 405-lines as the colour system. For one thing, it would have meant there could never be an ITV2 channel — and we would have been the only country in the world requiring 405-colour equipment which, apart from other things, would have hampered manufacturer in producing for overseas markets.

Now colour ITV is starting. For Steele, the man who has done more than most to bring it about, it is a day to remember.


There are three colour systems in the world today.

NTSC was developed in America in the early 1950s and has the disadvantage that the colours don’t always stay correct. The viewer has to make frequent adjustments to the colour knob to achieve correct tones.

SECAM is the system used by the French and Russians and the advantages it has over NTSC are that the colours are truer, stay so and it is easier for the broadcaster to record a programme on magnetic tape. The one disadvantage is that there is often a “patterning” on the screen.

PAL originated in West Germany and adopted in Britain on the 625 lines system in 1967, when BBC-2 started colour transmissions. PAL does not have the problem of “patterning” and, once the set is installed with the colours correct, gives a remarkable fidelity of colour.

You Say

8 responses to this article

Jeremy Rogers 12 June 2017 at 4:43 pm

“Steele, I suspect, never really wanted 405-lines as the colour system. For one thing, it would have meant there could never be an ITV2 channel.”

There was nothing technically to prevent the option of 405-line television being transmitted in UHF within the 8MHz channel spacing that had been agreed through the EBU. Even though that had been discounted by the Pilkington Committee.

Although there were those that considered UHF using any standard a side-show and money shouldn’t be wasted on it. Just wait for satellite TV to be ready in about 1980. But that is another story.

Nigel Stapley 12 June 2017 at 5:23 pm

Of course, the three different systems had their nicknames:

PAL = “Pray And Learn”
NTSC = “Never Twice the Same Colour”
SECAM – “System Essentially Contrary to the American Model”

Russ J Graham 12 June 2017 at 6:01 pm

I’ve also seen “Pale And Lurid” for PAL!

Jeremy Rogers 12 June 2017 at 7:06 pm

Just take care to avoid Hanover bars.

Anthony 26 January 2018 at 11:09 am

PAL was by far the best system with lovely sharp images, vivid colour reproduction and a clarity and quality the other two systems didn’t quite match.

Phil 27 September 2018 at 3:07 pm

Another nickname for PAL:
PAL = Peace At Last

Steve Gray 5 January 2019 at 4:00 am

Here’s an interesting glimpse into the limitations of the new colour equipment.

It’s 6th December 1969, just after the introduction of colour on ITV and West Ham, at home, take on Manchester City in full colour.. Until fading light conditions are blamed for a switch back to monochrome.

Mike S 24 September 2019 at 5:52 pm

Colour television was only a start. Howard Steele gave a glimpse of what the future of television and online services might look like in his 1976 Faraday Lecture ‘The Entertaining Electron’ for the IEE. Most of his predictions have now become reality, with digital television and the internet now widely taken for granted.

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