Television Service inaugurated by P.M.G. 

2 November 2020

Britain Leads the World




Western Mail masthead

From the Western Mail for 3 November 1936

The B.B.C.’s regular television service was inaugurated from Alexandra Palace on Monday by Major Tryon, the Postmaster-General, after three months’ experimental transmission.

Programmes will now be televised for an hour every afternoon and a second hour in the evening throughout the week.

The inaugural ceremony, which contained a quarter of an hour’s speechmaking by the Postmaster-General, Mr. R. C. Norman (chairman of the B.B.C.) and Lord Selsdon (chairman of the Television Advisory Committee) had been rehearsed for two hours.

Mr. R. C. Norman said: “We of the B.B.C. are proud that the Government have decided to entrust us with the good conduct of the new service. We are fully conscious of the responsibilities which that decision imposes upon us.

“As for the future, we know already that television is much more complicated than sound broadcasting. We are encouraged in facing its intricate and fascinating new problems by the patience with which the public and the Press have waited for this day and by the interest and, let me add, at times the indulgence, which they have shown during the recent test and trial transmissions. We hope that their interest and tolerance will continue, for we shall certainly need both.

“We are, however, confident that television in its special combination of science and the arts holds the promise of unique if still largely uncharted opportunities of benefit and delight to the community.


Alexandra Palace

Alexandra Palace [post-war photograph]

“The foresight which secured to this country a national system of broadcasting promises to secure for it a flying start in the practice of television. At this moment, the British television service is undoubtedly ahead of the rest of the world.

“To-day’s ceremony is a very simple programme. In every respect it will doubtless seem primitive a few years hence to those who are able to recall it. But we believe that these proceedings, for all their simplicity, will be remembered in the future as an historic occasion not less momentous and not less rich in promise than the day almost exactly 14 years ago when the British Broadcasting Company, as it was, transmitted its first programme from Marconi House.”

Inaugurating the service, Major Tryon said, “Few people would have dared 14 or even 10 years ago to prophesy that there would be nearly 8,000,000 holders of broadcasting receiving licences in the British Isles to-day. The popularity and success of our sound broadcasting service are due to the wisdom, foresight and courage of the governors and staff of the British Broadcasting Corporation, to which the Government entrusted its conduct 10 years ago.

“The Government of to-day is confident that the corporation will devote themselves with equal energy, wisdom and zeal to developing television broadcasting in the best interests of the nation and that the future of the new service is safe in their hands.


“Television broadcasting has great potentialities. Sound broadcasting has widened our outlook and increased our pleasure by bringing knowledge, music, and entertainment within the reach of all. The complementary art of television contains within it vast possibilities of the enhancement and widening of the benefits we already enjoy from sound broadcasting.

“On behalf of my colleagues in the Government I welcome the assurance that Great Britain is leading the world in the matter of television broadcasting and in inaugurating this new service I confidently predict a great and successful future for it.”

Lord Selsdon, a former Postmaster-General, to whom tribute was paid for his work as chairman of two television committees, replying, said: “It has rightly been said that the potentialities of this new art… are vast, and it is possible, for instance, to conceive of its being applied not only to entertainment but also to education, commerce, the tracing of wanted or missing persons, and navigation by sea or air. All these and more will, no doubt, in due time be tested and some of them will arrive.


Gracie Fields

Miss Gracie Fields appearing on television in the 1930s

“From the technical point of view I wish to say that my committee hopes to be able, after some experience of the working of the public service, definitely to recommend certain standards as to number of lines, frame frequency, and ratio of synchronising impulse to picture.

“Once these have been fixed the construction of receivers will be considerably simplified, but meanwhile do not let any potential viewer delay ordering a receiving set for fear that a change in these standards may put it out of commission almost at once.

“It is an essential feature of the development plans that for two years after the opening of any service area no such change will be made therein. For at least two years, therefore, to-day’s receivers, without any radical alteration, will continue to receive Alexandra Palace transmissions.”

Just how wide the London service area would prove to be was difficult to say with absolute certainty. Roughly speaking it would cover Greater London, with a population of about 10,000,000, or again, roughly spreading, a radius of more than 20 miles [32km] with local variations. In the light of experience there they would proceed with the location of a second and subsequent transmitting stations as public interest justified that course.


dramatis personæ


Lord Selsdon (previously Sir William Mitchell-Thomson, Bt) 1877-1938: Born in Edinburgh, Mitchell-Thomson was Unionist MP for North West Lanarkshire from 1906-1910, then Irish Unionist MP for North Down 1910-1918, then Conservative Unionist MP for Glasgow Maryhill 1918-1922 and finally Conservative MP for Croydon 1923-1932. He was Stanley Baldwin’s Postmaster-General, a cabinet position, from 1924 to 1929. He was ennobled in 1932 and his Television Advisory Committee’s report, recommending that television be pursued and that responsibility be given to the BBC was published in 1935.

Ronald Collet Norman 1873-1963: R C Norman was brother to the long-standing Chairman of the Bank of England, Montague Norman. Active in local politics in London, he was appointed Chairman of the BBC Board of Governors in 1935, overseeing the replacement of John Reith with Frederick Wolff Ogilvie in 1938. He resigned in 1939.

Major George Tryon (later Baron Tryon) 1871-1940: Conservative and Unionist MP for Brighton 1910-1940. Was appointed Postmaster-General in 1935 and served until 1940. He was then appointed First Commissioner of Works by Winston Churchill, in charge of public buildings in the UK, but resigned shortly before his death (from natural causes) and was succeeded by Sir John Reith.



❛❛Russ J Graham writes: These speeches seem never to be reported in the same way twice. Most, but not all, of the sentences here turn up in other reports of the opening, but often in a quite strikingly different order.

Aside from that, it’s Selsdon’s remarks that are most interesting to me, as they reveal that television has launched, but what it will become, both technically and culturally, are still unknown.

Technically, Selsdon signals a two year pause in development, implying that 240p and 405i will remain the line standard (240p was on the scrap heap early in the new year). Culturally, he foresees television expanding beyond mere entertainment into other subjects, but read his words closely. “[B]ut also to education, commerce, the tracing of wanted or missing persons, and navigation by sea or air…” is not an invite to the BBC to start programmes for schools and Crimewatch. He’s seeing that the science of television, rather than the art of it, could have further uses. Education is a clear one: linking classrooms to experts and teachers to the children of remote Scottish crofters, for instance.

Commerce is less clear. It could mean QVC, it could mean videophones so executives don’t have to travel long distances for meetings. That’s certainly what Germany thought it was most useful for, and a network of public videophone booths in major cities was being built under the Nazis.

Tracing wanted and missing persons? Other than putting pictures of said people on screen, one can only assume that a public, open air system of sets in police station windows and at town halls is the thinking, so that you can bring a photograph of your missing sibling and have it shown live across the nation to anybody out doing their shopping.

But air and sea navigation? Nope. Unless he’s referring to radar, which used the cathode ray tubes of televisions for its display. But radar wasn’t yet developed, and what work had been done on it was kept very secret as its main use would obviously be in a war and you never knew when one of those was going to break out.

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