A year of colour 

23 April 2018 tbs.pm/65575

David Attenborough, Director of Programmes, Television:

From the BBC Handbook for 1969, published in late 1968

On 1 July 1967, BBC-2 transmitted its first scheduled colour programme and by doing so became Europe’s first colour television network. That opening programme consisted of 4½ hours of championship tennis from the Centre Court at Wimbledon, and it was provided by what was, at that time, our only colour outside broadcast unit. It worked hard that week. Before the championship was over on the following Saturday, it had provided another 28½ hours of colour pictures. Colour television had not merely started, it had started with a splash. The Press was astounded by the quality and fidelity of the colour and praised it extravagantly. Marvellous, awesome, true-to-life, epoch-making, triumphant, were some of the adjectives used. Everyone who saw the picture, whether viewers or professional broadcasters, seemed to be delighted.

This technical success was the end product of a great deal of training and preparation. Indeed, BBC teams had been experimenting with colour for twelve years on closed circuit. Many of those involved in that pioneer work were now guiding the progress of these first scheduled transmissions. But none knew better than they that conducting experiments in the privacy of a closed-circuit studio is by no means the same thing as exhibiting colour publicly and predictably in regular programmes. They knew that everybody professionally engaged in colour television, whether they were in the studio, operating telecine machines or working at transmitters, whether they were concerned with the design and manufacture of receivers or their servicing and installation, needed working experience of handling the colour signal on a limited basis before the inevitable and potentially overwhelming pressures of a full colour service.

So it was that, apart from the tennis, programmes in the first weeks were kept few in number, modest in style and unobtrusive in placing. To make their nature plain, they were called Launching Programmes. But with every week that passed, we tackled within them some new technical problem. We distributed the colour signal throughout the whole of BBC-2’s ultra high frequency network which involved broadcasting it from fourteen major transmitters as well as many minor ones. We filmed in colour on a wide variety of stocks. We relayed, live, the programmes specially mounted by France and Germany to mark the beginning of their own colour services and, in the process, not only tested the colour capability of the Eurovision circuits and links, but also converted from the French SECAM system into the PAL system used both in Germany and this country. Most ambitiously of all, we relayed live by way of a satellite a golf championship in the United States, electronically converting the picture from the American standard of 525-line 60-field NTSC into 625-line 50-field PAL, a feat of engineering virtuosity that no other country could parallel then or now.

At this stage, we still had no major production colour studios in service. But colour cameras had been installed in the tiny presentation studio, measuring 32 ft by 22 ft, which had originally been designed to accommodate little more than an announcer or a weatherman. From this studio, every night, ‘Late Night Line-Up’ was transmitted live and in colour. The programme thus became the first regular colour programme in Europe. It paid for the privilege by serving as an experimental guinea-pig. New makes of cameras, new styles of make-up, new lighting techniques and new electronic modifications were all tried out and the results transmitted in the late hours every evening to be watched avidly, in colour, by the few people who so far had managed to get hold of colour receivers.

Not the least of our technical concerns was that the version of the colour picture seen on black-and-white receivers should be of the highest quality and in no way degraded by having been originated and transmitted in colour. During the whole of the Launching Period, we did not receive a single complaint on this score.

It had been announced at the beginning of 1967 that the opening date of the Full Colour Service would be 2 December. By the end of November, our colour resources had been built up to two outside broadcast units, two production studios, one presentation studio, together with telecine and video-tape machines.

There were two radically different ways in which we might deploy this equipment. We could either concentrate our efforts, resources and expertise into producing a small number of extremely spectacular highly coloured programmes; or we could attempt to turn every programme into colour irrespective of its nature. The first policy seemed, from several points of view, to be more cautious and sensible. But the more it was considered, the more dangers it seemed to contain. If colour was used only in spectacular programmes, then producers and engineers would be faced with learning the elementals of the new techniques on productions which would have been complicated in monochrome but which, in colour, would certainly cause gigantic problems. Colour would thus become synonymous with complexity and difficulty from the outset. This, undoubtedly, would lead to a drop in studio productivity and the spiralling of costs. Furthermore, such an approach, by its very nature, might lead producers to believe that the most important element in their programmes was the colour. This was a trap that others had fallen into before, both in the cinema and in television elsewhere. Both, at times, had seemed to cherish the belief that everything in a colour production must be colourful, and had suffered from the delusion that in some way this miraculous new ingredient justified and redeemed a poor play or an unfunny comedian. Lastly, if we deliberately kept colour transmissions down to only a few hours a week, it was very unlikely that we should be providing enough to persuade people to invest in expensive colour receivers.

On the other hand, the second alternative seemed to avoid all these problems. There would be simple programmes with only a few performers and uncomplicated settings in which engineers and producers could learn the new techniques. Because all programmes would be televised in colour, producers would come to accept that colour was not exceptionally important but only one component in their production to be exploited where it was relevant and accepted as routine where it was not; and the public would be presented with a true colour service in which black-and-white programmes were the exception. That, surely, would be a real inducement to buy a receiver.

This was the policy we adopted. The new technique, we said, was not so much colour television as high fidelity television. With its aid, we would be able to present viewers with a more accurate and informative picture of what was in front of the television camera than ever before. This being the case, there was no programme in which the visual component was so worthless that it should be shown from choice in low-fidelity black-and-white. The mounting blush in a politician’s cheek might be just as important to convey as the colour of a chorus girl’s spangles.

The only programmes that would remain in black-and-white were those few that the producer could argue were positively better by being so, or those which we were unable to televise in colour because of lack of equipment. Furthermore, the balance of programme schedules would not be distorted to favour colour, nor would we accept, at this stage, any programme which relied for its validity on its colour content and which would be uninteresting or incomprehensible in black-and-white. This last resolve might have seemed repressive to some. It was, however, essential, for we had to remember, in the midst of our enthusiasm for the new technique, that the great majority of BBC-2 viewers, for a long time to come, would be watching colour programmes on black-and-white receivers. We could not, in justice, sacrifice style or content on what would be, to the bulk of viewers, an invisible altar.

We had, cautiously, promised that the Full Service would provide 15 hours of colour every week. In that first week of December we transmitted 25½ hours. Three weeks later, in Christmas week when restrictions on broadcasting hours are relaxed, the total rose to 41½ hours. In February, colour film processing machines and colour electronic cameras were installed in Alexandra Palace and ‘Newsroom’, the longest news bulletin in British television, moved into colour. In the two main studios, drama, comedy shows, quiz programmes and arts programmes were in regular production. Outside Broadcast cameras went to Covent Garden to relay the new spectacular production of ‘Aida’, live and uncut. In March, a third colour outside broadcast unit joined the fleet. In April the Eurovision Song Contest, for the first time, was televised in colour from the Royal Albert Hall and relayed to Europe. By now, over ninety per cent of BBC-2’s schedule was in colour. In May, the Cup Final was televised in colour and a third production studio came into service. By July, when ‘Play School’ went into colour, the full service had been running for over six months and we had enough experience and statistics to show that we had achieved our aim of keeping the productivity of colour studios on the same high level as monochrome studios. It was also clear now that the increased programme costs attributable to colour with the existing schedule were less than twenty per cent.

In August, one of the manufacturers announced that the forecast of colour receiver sales had already been exceeded; in September, actual figures were given – well over 100,000 sets had been sold. In October, the Olympic Games were relayed in colour by satellite from Mexico and the signal converted on the BBC’s new improved standards converter and supplied to Europe.

It had been an exciting first year. Colour was no longer an experimental nine-day wonder or even an expensive and unreliable novelty. It had become the new standard of television.



from the Radio Times for 1-7 July 1967



When will colour TV start?

The BBC’s Colour Television service on BBC-2 will start on December 2. A colour launching period, during which BBC-2 will transmit regularly about five hours of colour programmes each week until the start of the full service, will open on July 1.

Will I be able to receive the colour programmes?

Yes, if you live in an area served by BBC-2. But at the start of the launching period on July 1 colour will be available only from the BBC-2 transmitters at Crystal Palace (serving London and the South East), Sutton Coldfield (the Midlands), Winter Hill (Lancashire), Emley Moor (Yorkshire), Belmont (Lincolnshire), and Rowridge (Southampton area). Colour will become available from other BBC-2 transmitters over the next few months.

Will I need a special set?

Yes. Black-and-white sets cannot be converted to receive colour.

Will I need another aerial?

Yes, unless you already have a BBC-2 aerial installed giving you good reception on this channel.

Can I see black-and-white programmes as well as colour on a colour set?

Yes. Colour receivers will be dual standard and will provide BBC-1, ITV, and BBC-2 in black-and-white as well as the colour programmes

Will I be able to see the colour programmes in black-and-white on my present set?

Yes. The transmission system employed is what is known as compatible and. providing you have a modern black and-white set capable of receiving BBC-2, then you will be able to see the colour programme in black-and-white.

Will colour sets be reliable?

Yes. They must, however, be installed and maintained by a fully qualified colour service engineer.

What will my set cost?

The price will vary according to size and model. Costs will also depend on whether you buy or rent your set. It is advisable to consult your TV supplier about the type of receiver which will best suit your requirements.

Will they be difficult to use ?

Most colour receivers to be used in this country will have only one extra control. This control decides the amount of colour in the picture and you will be able to adjust it to suit the lighting conditions in your room and your individual taste.

Will there be many programmes in colour?

Yes. The majority of BBC-2 programmes will be in colour, amounting to between 15 and 25 hours a week.

When will colour be available on BBC-1 and ITV?

It is expected that BBC-1 and ITV colour services will be in operation in London, the Midlands, and the North by the end of 1969.

Will my receiver cover any future transmissions on other channels?

Yes. As future programmes are transmitted the receiver will be capable of receiving them.

Do I need an additional licence for colour?

The Government has announced an additional fee for colour receivers of £5 but it will not be payable until the Postmaster General makes a further announcement.

The answers to these questions have been prepared by the BBC in co-operation with the British Radio Equipment Manufacturers’ Association


By David Attenborough, Controller of BBC-2

This week we launch colour. All BBC-2’s coverage of the Centre Court at Wimbledon, both live in the afternoon and recorded in the evenings, will be transmitted in colour. So will One Pair of Eyes on Saturday, Impact on Thursday, and The Virginian on Monday. And so will Late Night Line-Up every night.

We are showing these launching programmes for three main reasons. First to let viewers see for themselves just how exciting and how technically excellent colour television can be. Second to help television dealers to check on the orientation of aerials and to get experience of handling sets in regular operation. And, third, to enable us to put to its proper use the colour equipment that we now have installed and ready for public transmissions both within our studios and in Outside Broadcasts.

To begin with these programmes can be seen in colour in London, the Midlands, the South, and the North — those areas that receive BBC-2 from the transmitters at Crystal Palace (with four relays), Sutton Coldfield (with three relays), Rowridge, Winter Hill, Emley Moor, and Belmont. In a few months the special circuits linking other BBC-2 transmitters will be completed to bring the colour picture to the whole of the network.

But the launching programmes are only samples. The full service begins on December 2. Then, approximately eighty per cent of BBC-2 will go out in colour, and that will include all types of programmes from light entertainment shows like International Cabaret and The Black and White Minstrels, to Theatre 625 and drama serials, film documentaries and quiz shows, sport, operas, and feature films.

Between then and now, the launching programmes will continue every week. Wimbledon will have come to an end, but we have other outside broadcasts in store and other documentary and light entertainment series too. Together these programmes will provide about five hours of colour a week Many viewers are no doubt waiting to make up their minds about colour until they see it with their own eyes. We offer the launching programmes, with confidence and excitement, as evidence.

You Say

9 responses to this article

Joseph 30 April 2018 at 11:55 pm

I had thought that the Beatles’ segment (their recording of “All You Need Is Love”) on “Our World” (June 25th of 1967) was produced in colo(u)r, although only transmitted in colo(u)r in the United States and Japan, as I have seen a colo(u)r clip of it on You Tube.

Kif Bowden-Smith 2 May 2018 at 10:56 pm

I don’t remember this though I saw Our World at the time. There may well have been a simultaneous colour recording made on site, but not I think using the same cameras used for the Our World project. The amount of new equipment available at that point was (as Attenborough states) very small and still being delivered.

Syd 4 May 2018 at 11:13 am

“All You Need is Love” was colourised for The Beatles “Anthology” project in the mid-1990’s. Personally, I think it looks very unnatural.

Geoff Nash 8 May 2018 at 8:28 am

The main article mentions the conversion of American 525 line standard to our own 625 for the 1968 Olympic Games.

I seem to recall around this period BBC2 broadcasting ‘The Andy Williams Show’ in a reduced screen size with an explanation from the announcer that this was to cope with 525 rather than 625 lines. Did any other US shows receive this treatment?

DAVID HEELEY 1 July 2018 at 5:16 am

I worked as a director on “Late Night Line-Up” during this period and, as David Attenborough states, we were used as a test-bed for equipment. I remember one show in which we had three different makes of colour camera (3 tube Philips, 4 tube Marconi, and 4 tube EMI); unsurprisingly, they did not match very well. Usually we had three Philips (under a UK brand name), which were excellent.

The studio was tiny, and therefore challenging. But it was a thrilling time to be working in TV.

Edward Joseph Molloy 3 July 2021 at 3:54 pm

Why is there not thoes film called Joesapena a French move about a little lady in a Garage .
I was uesd by BBC 2 in the days of 1969 .
Can you help me get that film?
Yours Edward Joseph Molloy (Mr)

Russ J Graham 3 July 2021 at 7:48 pm

We’ll need a bit more to go on than what you’ve given us here to do any research. Correct spelling and grammar would help too!

Arthur Vasey 14 November 2022 at 4:12 pm

Edward Joseph Molloy – I think you mean Giuseppina – an Italian film that was part of the many Trade Test Colour Films that BBC 2 broadcast at various times across the day!

Not sure if I can provide a link – but I have seen it on YouTube! Here goes:


Paul Wheeler 14 November 2022 at 5:08 pm

I think Mr Molloy must be referring to the Trade test colour film ‘Giuseppina’ which would have been played more than a hundred times during non programme hours.

Fairly sure it was an Italian garage- not french.

Can now easily be found on youtube by googling the title!

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