BBC Television is 25 years old 

2 November 2020

The world’s first daily television service



The story of B.B.C. Television

Cheddar Valley Gazette masthead

From the Cheddar Valley Gazette for 3 November 1961

THE Queen is visiting the B.B.C. Television Centre today (Thursday) when the B.B.C. celebrates the 2Sth anniversary of its television service.

It was on November 2nd, 1936, that the then Postmaster-General. Major G. C. Tryon, officially opened at Alexandra Palace the world’s first television service.

The story of B.B.C. Television began with a few enthusiasts living in the London area who bought themselves television sets.

Although television was virtually a novelty and its scope and transmission area were limited, pre-war television was vigorous and ambitious. But the enthusiasm for television grew slowly. Even in 1948 there were only 14,500 people holding combined radio and television licences. The millionth licence was not reached until 1952. It was television at the Coronation of Queen Elizabeth II, in June 1953, which marked the ‘break-through.’ By 1961 eleven and a half million people held combined radio and television licences and the service was available to 98.8 per cent. of the population.

Television actually began on August 20th, 1936, when it was seen by the public at Radiolympia. In November came the inauguration of the world’s first daily television service, which then occupied two small studios at Alexandra Palace, set on the hills above North London. Among the stars and personalities who made the journey to those studios were Greer Garson, Anton Dolin and George Bernard Shaw. Outside broadcasts included televising in 1937, part of the Coronation procession of King George VI, when a television control van was used for the first time; in 1938 the first visit to a West End Theatre and in 1939 coverage of the Derby and the Boat Race.



But on September 1st, 1939, the day that Hitler marched into Poland, television came to an end. The transmitter was closed down for security reasons.

In June, 1946, television returned to the air. At that time a combined sound and television licence cost £2 [about £90 in 2020 money, allowing for inflation]. The day after the service was resumed the BBC cameras televised the Victory Parade in London.

Slowly, in those early post-war years, the scope of television widened. The first religious service was a Battle of Britain Service from Biggin Hill. After operating about eighteen months, B.B.C. engineers made the first telerecording. It was now possible to preserve historic television on film.

By the end of 1949, Londoners were not the only people watching television. The opening of the Sutton Coldfield transmitter brought the service to the Midlands. If, in the late forties, the progress of television appeared slow, in the fifties many things happened with such speed that the medium almost outgrew its strength. It could be said that in the fifties television took roots.

A network of transmitting stations spread the service across the country and today they are over twenty in number. In May, 1950, the move begun from Alexandra Palace to Lime Grove, with its four studios. That same year saw the first step towards spreading television across the world. A B.B.C. team working in co-operation with the French Television Service sent the first television pictures from the Continent to Britain. These pictures of a fete in Calais were the harbinger of Eurovision in the later fifties and of the wider network of the early sixties. There were also transmissions from an aircraft in flight, a coal mine and a ship at sea.



June 2nd, 1953, however, is regarded as the day on which television grew up and became accepted as the most persuasive form of communication. Months of preparation went into the programme transmitted that day— the Coronation in Westminster Abbey of Queen Elizabeth II. Over twenty million people saw the programme in Great Britain and Europe and many millions more in the Commonwealth and the United States saw recordings some hours later.

Eight countries took part in a link-up programme in June 1954 which established the Eurovision network.

On Christmas Day, 1957, the Queen’s broadcast message to the Commonwealth was seen for the first time on television and in the autumn of the following year cameras were at Westminster when she performed the State Opening of Parliament. A B.B.C. invention, Cable Film, caused the world to shrink further in 1959. It was now possible to send short extracts of news-film across the Atlantic a little more than an hour after the event took place.



On June 29th, 1960, the B.B.C’s £10 million [£235m] Television Centre was ready for use and put out its first programme. This circular-shaped building built specially for television stands on a thirteen-acre site at White City in West London.

This, the twenty-fifth year, has seen yet another exciting television development — the exchange of live pictures between London and Moscow.



One of the first stars


A singer looks into a television camera; a microphone dangles above her

The well-known singer, Sophie Tucker, appearing on B.B.C. Television in 1936.



Twenty-five years ago


NOVEMBER 2nd, 1936 … the start of the B.B.C. high-definition Television Service. But what else was happening in the world at that time?

There were still more than a million unemployed in Britain.

The Jarrow Marchers, who typified them and their plight, were making the headlines on the front page:

“London turned out to welcome the men of Jarrow in Hyde Park. It was the most dignified demonstration London has ever seen. These men had not come to make trouble. They only wanted to be heard.”

On the front page, too, was reported the sudden death of Sir Henry Curtis-Bennett, the famous K.C. who collapsed at a banquet the previous night.

Hitler must have been in one of his quiet moods because his name was scarcely mentioned in the papers all that week although a paragraph reported that on the day B.B.C.-tv began, the new Nazi ambassador, von Ribbentrop, was having a forty minute chat at the Foreign Office in London.



No, that day it was the other dictators who made the headlines. Mussolini, in Milan, had broadcast a declaration that Britain and France must recognise his conquest of Abyssinia and that Britain must also recognise Italy’s Mediterranean interests. And there was a War Correspondent’s story from Spain. In Birmingham, the representatives of 150 organisations, voicing the opinion of more than a million young people, passed a resolution at the National Peace Conference rejecting “the fatalism and inaction fostered by the teaching that war is inevitable.”

(A little advertisement on page 1, introduced “New Fireworks for 1936” including Wizard Superbangs, 6d a dozen [£2]; Parachute Rockets 2s [£8])

Churchill was there. A pleasant picture under the heading “Three Generations of Churchills” was captioned: “Mr. and Mrs. Winston Churchill with their first grandson, in the arms of his mother, Mrs. Duncan Sandys.”

Parliament lay prorogued but, the day after television began, King Edward VIII was due to ride in State to open the new Session. The Political Correspondent speculating on the contents of this first Royal Speech by the new King, suggested that new legislation foreshadowed would abolish the wearing of political uniforms and, among other things, give a date when King Edward would go to Delhi to be enthroned King-Emperor.

It was also on the eve of the United States Presidential Elections. A report from Washington said simply: “All that remains to be decided in tomorrow’s Presidential Elections is the size of Roosevelt’s majority.”

The sensational sports news was from Earls Court, where Peter Kane, the Liverpool fly-weight, knocked out the Welsh Champion, Pat Warburton, in the first round. The Boxing Reporter wrote: “Old stagers said they had not seen anything like it since Jimmy Wilde’s days.”



Advertisements that day offered ten-hundredweight [508kg] vans for £169 10s [£13,000]. Motor-cycles (250 c.c.) could be bought for £29 17s. 6d cash [£2,500] (plus 6s. 3d. [£25] tax) or one could drive them away after a down payment of 50/- [£180]. Empire Blend tobacco: 10½d [£3.50] per ounce [28g]. Railways invited us to live at Worthing: “A Home by the Seaside. Season ticket from the City 2s. 2d. [£8] per day.” But on that important day in the history of T.V. there was only one advertisement for television sets — a ten-inch screen model, 95 gns [£7,500]. On the Radio itself the big programmes that night were a B.B.C. version of “Princess Caprice” … Ambrose and his Orchestra … an adaptation of Priestley’s “Laburnum Grove.”

This account of the news which accompanied the opening of the B.B.C’s high-definition television service was prepared by Geoffrey Edwards, of the B.B.C’s Publicity Staff, who, on November 2nd, 1936, wrote a story as the radio correspondent of national newspaper. The story began:

“In an engineer’s room on the top floor of Broadcasting House yesterday afternoon I watched B.B.C. history being made five miles away at Alexandra Palace — the first regular television service had begun! From the new service may be built a great new entertainment industry, as extensive and important as broadcasting and the cinema combined.”

But the story of television could not compete with the other big events he has outlined. It appeared as a half column on page 3 of the 20-page paper, headed: “Seen and Heard: The B.B.C. Makes History.”



Some highlights of B.B.C. Television


Alexandra Palace

‘Ally Pally’, photographed in 1956

August 26th: First experimental transmission from Alexandra Palace for Radio Olympia.
November 2nd: Official inauguration of the Television Service from Alexandra Palace by the then Postmaster General (Major The Hon. G. C. Tryon). Britain was the first country in the world to have a regular public high definition Television Service, although until 1949 it was restricted to the London area.

May 12th: The return of the Coronation Procession of King George VI was televised. A television control van at Hyde Park Corner was used for the first time.

March 21st: News (a recording, without vision, of the sound news) included for the first time in television programmes.
November 11th: Service of Remembrance televised.

April 1st: Roat Race televised
May 24th: The Derby televised.
September 1st: Television closed down

June 1st: A television licence fee of £2, also covering sound, was introduced.
June 7th: Television Service Resumed.
Juno 8th : Victory Parade Televised

September 13th: Last night of the ‘Proms’ televised.

January 4th: First television programme for children.
July 24th: The Olympic Games — at Wembley — televised for the first time.

February 23rd: Report on the General Election televised for the first time.
August 27th: First pictures sent by a B.B.C. team from the Continent.
October 26th: Opening of the new House of Commons televised.

February 8th: Proclamation of Accession of Queen Elizabeth II televised.
February 15th: Funeral of King George VI televised.
April 21st: First television programme direct from Paris

The Queen and her attendants walk down the aisle of Westminster Abbey

The Coronation of Queen Elizabeth II

April 10th: Mr Butler as Chancellor of the Exchequer makes the first televised broadcast on the Budget
June 2nd: The Coronation of Queen Elizabeth II televised (part of the day’s events were seen in colour on closed circuit).

June 6th: Eurovision — pioneered by the B.B.C. and the French television service — establishes a network with eight countries taking part in a link-up programme.
October 7/8th: First colour television test transmission from Alexandra Palace.

September 22nd: First programmes transmitted by Independent Television.

December 25th: The Queen’s Christmas Day Message televised for the first time.

October 28th: State Opening of Parliament televised.

June 29th: First programme from Studio Three, Television Centre.

April 14th: First live pictures received direct from Moscow.



❛❛Russ J Graham writes: Local newspapers still do this type of feature today (although it was more common in the past). Such spreads exist as a way of drawing in advertising from related business, with the thing being celebrated being edited to fit the space left once as many advertisements as possible have been sold.


Gregorys advertisement


That’s why a newspaper serving Glastonbury and its environs – no offence, westcountry people, but it’s the middle of nowhere – is celebrating 25 years of a television service that didn’t arrive in their area until 1952.

These features aren’t just good for the newspaper sales departments. They’re also useful PR for whoever is being featured (today, a company being featured will underwrite the cost of the page or supplement, guaranteeing it costing nothing to the newspaper if they don’t cover the costs with advertising) – so useful in fact that the BBC probably supplied most, if not all, of the copy.

The paper admits that much for the “25 years ago in the news” feature – supplied by the BBC press office; the “BBCtv dates” section has a lot of language in common with the lists printed in the back of the BBC handbooks of the era, suggesting that it came from the just-published 1962 edition, and was cut-and-paste from there by either the Gazette or the BBC themselves.

The first section has a more homely feel to it, although the trumpeting of Television Centre shows its source to be the BBC themselves again. But it has been rewritten, or at least edited, by a journalist at the paper – probably necessary as new advertising was sold, causing a reduction in the word limit.

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