Magic of Eight-Nation Television 

4 February 2022

1954 will long be remembered in broadcasting history as the first year in which eight nations contributed to and shared in an exchange of television programmes. Here one of the prime architects of the exchange recalls some of its perils and excitements



Radio Times Annual 1954 cover

From the Radio Times Annual 1954

TELEVISION is a restless thing. Its complications and difficulties make it so. Wherever television exists, it is restless in its striving for more money, more gear, newer and better techniques, better performers, better writers. Television is never calm and, no matter how one tries, there seems little chance of achieving a quiet, ordered day even for the most efficient producers or executives.

It was this restlessness and this demand for novelty that were partly the cause of the BBC Television Service’s first Continental venture in 1950. Partly—for there is also the nature and essence of television to consider. The television camera is made to look at the world, to convey one part of the world to another. So even before we had the necessary technical gear, we were looking longingly to Europe and we were determined to procure transmissions from Europe. We chose Calais, just across the Channel, and with its many historical associations for Britain, and on Sunday night, August 27, 1950, the square outside the illuminated Hotel de Ville was filled with happy, excited French people, and for nearly two hours pictures of them triumphantly reached British viewers.

But technically difficult as it was, in programme terms Calais was essentially simple. It was our Television Service’s idea, the content was conceived in terms of natural interest for British viewers, BBC producers directed the operation, and British cameramen and commentators gave us the pictures and the words. It was a British programme with French content. European television could not grow up quite like that. The next step was to get programmes from a Continental country, using the television service and resources of that country. We determined to get programmes from Paris, and Radiodiffusion-Television Francaise, with whom we had been in close contact for some years, was eager to enter into the scheme. It took us two years to achieve it, but during seven days in July 1952 twenty programmes in Paris were transmitted simultaneously by RTF and the BBC. The technical difficulties were again considerable, but the main one, the conversion of the French 819-line picture into the BBC 405-line picture was overcome by a brilliantly simple idea from BBC Research Engineers, and the conversion bogey, which had been discussed and debated for years, was gone for ever.


Calais town hall

International television began in August 1950 when viewers in Britain saw Calais en fête, itd town hall floodlit and with entertainment and dancing in the streets


To Satisfy French and English

I think, however, that my engineering colleagues would agree with me that the programme difficulties were immense. First of all it was decided that the programmes must appeal to both countries and it was extraordinarily difficult to satisfy the two national points of view. Second in each programme there had to be a minimum of French and a minimum of English. Third, there had to be English and French commentaries added to each programme. Fourth, the programmes were each directed by two producers, one French, one British. We were almost exhausted before the programmes started. We all had to use patience, tact, and forebearance [sic], and I think it was only the mutual friendship of the two Services which allowed us to handle this situation of ‘pull devil, pull baker.’

However, though some of the programmes were far from good, the whole experiment was in many ways a major success and we had taken another important step forward. We came back to London to receive the usual mixture of praise and blame, which is the lot of those who toil in television, and to think again about the future. Obviously, it seemed to me, future European television programmes could not be done the Calais way and should not be done the London-Paris way. And another two years were to elapse before there were any more such European projects.


Queen Elizabeth II reviews a naval parade

On June 12, 1954, viewers in eight countries saw Her Majesty the Queen review the Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve on Horse Guards Parade; it rained


Meanwhile television began to spread in Europe. And at the next conference in London (it was now a conference not just a few meetings between D’Arcy of RTF and McGiven of the BBC) round the table were the representatives of eight countries — France, Belgium, Holland, Denmark, Germany, Switzerland, Italy, and Britain. It was D’Arcy who proposed that the next move should be an exchange of television programmes between the eight countries. I looked doubtfully at that idea. It had been difficult enough with two countries. However, it was decided that the core of the proposed month of exchange should be the World Championship Football Matches in Switzerland in June-July 1954. Well, all the eight countries wanted to take the matches and that simply forced a big hook-up operation. The technical circumstances were such that, for example, to get pictures of a football match in Switzerland to the BBC transmitters in Britain, they had to travel from Switzerland to Germany, to Holland, to Belgium, to Lille in France, and then to London. That made six countries. We might as well add the other two. So the project became an eight-nation hook-up. And finally in the actual transmissions, forty-five transmitters and one hundred and twenty repeater stations were used.



One basic fact had been apparent for some time. It seemed that the Continental countries firmly believed that, because of the very high costs and programme difficulties — and programme lacks — of television, European television could only exist if there were a set and regular method of European Television programme exchange. The BBC, with its longer experience, its more years of building up resources and programmes, did not quite feel the same necessity. However, for different reasons, because the BBC has always believed in international radio exchange and co-operation, we also were more than enthusiastic about the scheme. It was against this background of determination to achieve results that the next conferences took place in Paris and then in Cannes.


Nine women in cocktail dresses

Nine television announcers came from all over Europe to Lime Grove to appear in ‘Café Continental’: (back row – from the left) Tania Koen (Holland), Mary Malcolm, Paula Semer (Belgium), Fulvia Colombo (Italy); (centre row) Janine Lambotte (Belgium), Jacqueline Joubert (France); (front row) Irene Koss (Germany), Eve Haefeli (Switzerland), and Gerda Pullen (Denmark)


Television in the Background

The meetings were long. In Cannes they began at 10 in the mornings and ended at 7 or 7.30 at night. The longest one went on until 8.30. The most I saw of the blue Mediterranean was through the window of the conference room. This was tantalising. Outside, the sea was blue, the skies were blue, film stars were parading up and down (it was the season of the Cannes Film Festival). There were cocktail parties and film showings, and the stars from many countries in a blaze of spotlights and with fanfares of trumpets walked up the stairs to the Festival Theatre and went on to the gala dinners afterwards; the film world was en fête. And the television representatives of eight European countries were sweating it out in difficult discussion in a back room. However, one could comfort oneself. For the present, the cinema. In the future, television.


Three men stare hard at various electronic equipment

At Swingate, near Dover, pictures from the Continent were converted from 819 lines to the British 405-line standard


We ended the conference having decided that each country should transmit at least one programme to all the other countries, as well as the transmission of all the football matches from Switzerland. And in addition, whichever two countries could arrange programme exchanges between themselves were, of course, to do so. Again we separated. Wondering whether the pictures would get through. If they did, what would the quality be? And how would the countries newer to television, some of them with few facilities and with their outside-broadcast units on order but not yet in action — how would they show up against the competition of the countries which had had television for years?

Broadly speaking, the programme officials had comparatively little to do during the next few months. Not so the engineers and technicians. They had long weeks of detailed planning and testing. During those weeks the programme officials received a blow. It had been more or less expected. Nevertheless, when it happened, it was a considerable blow. Action by the Performers’ Unions prevented our transmitting to other countries any programmes involving union performers. The plan of the BBC to transmit Café Continental as one of the few light entertainment programmes requested had to be abandoned. So had Denmark’s idea of transmitting from the Tivoli Gardens; and France’s idea of transmitting spectacles from Versailles and from the studio; and the idea of the French Section of the Belgium Television Service of giving us a programme of pantomime. All these involved musicians, actors, singers, dancers, acrobats, and so on. Such programmes had to go, and the exchange had obviously to consist mostly of outside broadcasts, and with the emphasis on sport. It meant a narrower range than we had wanted, but we were determined to go on.


Pope Pius XXI and 5 men stand in front of microphones and a television camera

On the first day of the Continental Programme Exchange the Italian Television Service presented a programme from the Vatican that culminated in an address in six languages by His Holiness the Pope


‘The Exchange Worked’

The experimental period began on June 6 and ended on July 4. A recital of programmes would be dull, but a few facts are important. First of all, the exchange worked. There were hitches and breakdowns but, overall, the picture quality was good, at times excellent, on one or two occasions startlingly good. In Britain on occasions the picture quality from the Continent was at least as good as if we had been transmitting from Wimbledon. The programmes themselves were a mixture. Some were very good, one or two very poor. But that is the usual television mixture, whether the programmes are coming from one country or from eight. One gratifying — really gratifying — fact was the success in production and camera work achieved by the countries which were newer to television: Switzerland, Holland, Belgium, and Denmark. Their small — and comparatively inexperienced — staffs must have worked like slaves and they worked wonders. And, looking back, I think of certain outstanding moments. The Pope in the Vatican, walking into the room with the springing step of a young man and speaking in six languages, pointing out to all of us the essence of this television programme exchange. The Queen of the Netherlands and her daughter so delightfully informal at a children’s party. The tiny children throwing flowers in Switzerland’s ‘Fête des Narcisses.’ The wit and intelligence of the French programme, Would you like to have a game with Paris? Our own Queen inspecting the Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve protected by an umbrella (for the weather on June 12, the day allocated to the BBC and on which we did four outside broadcasts, was abominable. It rained cats and dogs.) However, I would like to dwell for a moment on only two moments which appealed to me personally.


A man on scaffolding adjusting a dish about twice his size

A BBC engineer adjusts one of the television transmitting ‘dishes’ established on the roof of the casino at Cassel


On the first day of this European Exchange, I went up to the Presentation Suite in our Lime Grove studios in London for a few minutes before the first programme began. The engineers were testing. Out of the loudspeaker came a babel of voices. They were the voices of commentators, engineers, producers, and secretaries all gathered in Switzerland for the ‘Fête des Narcisses.’ The voices were in the languages of the eight countries taking part in this exchange. And the voices were all happy and excited. There was anxiety but they were all laughing. It was a magic moment which made my eyes prickle. All that work, all that discussion and here it was. I felt that nothing in the coming month could give me personally greater pleasure. It was deeply moving and deeply satisfying…


Three men behind a camers

Alberto Gagliardelli (right), the Italian producer for the remarkable broadcast from the Vatican on June 6


The Real Aim

My second moment occurred on the last day, on July 4. There I was in the programme and engineering co-ordination centre which had been set up in Lille in Northern France. The last transmission was the final of the World Football Championships. Hungary was in the final — that was expected. Their opponents in the final were Germany — that had not been expected. The match was a thrilling one. I sat watching it in the company of French programme officials, French technicians, French secretaries. As Germany fought back, the excitement in the room grew and grew. Then Germany equalised. Then Germany scored another goal — the winning goal. And the game ended with Germany the winners. And the French officials and technicians and secretaries stood up and clapped their hands and applauded, loudly, fully, sincerely. French people sincerely cheering Germans!… Perhaps such a moment was not important enough and long enough to stop a war. But it was interesting. That was something of what we had all been really working for.


As the British viewer saw it


Tele-snap of HM the Queen of the Netherlands

Queen Juliana with some orphan children

Fancily-dressed men

In the Parade of Ommerganck from Brussels

Racing cars on a track

The 24-hour Motor Race at Le Mans

People laughing

Spectators at Montreux admiring…

A float made out of flowers

…the ‘Fête des Narcisses’.

Photographed from the screen by John Cura


Cecil McGivern (1907-1963) was Controller of Programmes, Television, at the BBC


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