Demonstration of Colour Television to Members of Parliament 

22 July 2022


by S. N. Watson
Head of Television Section, Designs Department


Cover of Ariel

From Ariel, the house magazine of the BBC, for February 1957

ON Wednesday and Thursday, 30 and 31 January, the BBC gave a demonstration of live colour television to members of both Houses of Parliament. Since the eventual ‘when’ and ‘how’ of colour television are matters for the Government, advised by the Television Advisory Committee, the demonstration was in the nature of an interim report, given at first hand and in an interesting way, of the progress which the BBC has made with the experimental transmission and reception of colour pictures.

A demonstration of this kind sounds easy, but in point of fact it represents a major technical feat and has only been made possible by the coming together of two main lines of development which have been proceeding simultaneously within the BBC.

The first of these has been the investigation by Research Department at Kingswood Warren of the performance of a colour television system capable of being transmitted by our existing stations on the present 405-line standards. This system, which is, in principle, a modified form of the American N.T.S.C. system, is capable of giving simultaneously a colour picture on a colour receiver and a black and white reproduction of the same colour picture on existing domestic receivers. This investigation has led to several successful demonstrations at Kingswood Warren and to the design and construction of a great deal of the equipment used for today’s demonstration.

Colour Cameras

The second development has occurred at Alexandra Palace where two colour studio cameras and a film scanner, which was designed and supplied by Research Department, have been installed with the object of testing the performance of the colour system under operational conditions by originating simple programmes for transmission from the London station outside normal programme hours. A number of colour receivers have been obtained from commercial firms on special order and others have been designed and constructed by Research Department.

The work at Alexandra Palace has been the responsibility of the staff of the Superintendent Engineer, Television Studios, under the general direction of Designs Department. From a modest beginning in October 1955 with still pictures and moving pictures from film, of strictly technical interest, the activities at A.P. have expanded until in November 1956 a regular series of experimental programmes from the studio began. The programmes, which have been directed and produced by Television programme staff on behalf of Engineering Division, are received in the homes of a number of engineers who assess the results as part of the investigation into the quality of the colour pictures. The Radio Industry is also co-operating in this aspect of the work. Thus, when it was decided to give a demonstration at the Houses of Parliament there was available, on the one hand, the knowledge and experience of Research Department, and, on the other, the experience in mounting studio programmes at Alexandra Palace, and of transmitting them without significant distortion from our Crystal Palace station.


Dancing girls

‘The Silhouettes’ in the Colour Television Studio at A.P. where they took part in the Colour demonstration for M.P.s.


An Ambitious Programme

The programme was much the most ambitious so far attempted at A.P.; the staging of the demonstration at the Houses of Parliament also presented really tough problems. As far as is known, some of the aspects of the demonstration have never been paralleled elsewhere.

Six colour receivers and four black and white receivers were installed, each complete in itself, but all supplied from a common aerial picking up the signals from the Crystal Palace transmitter. Five of the colour receivers were of the type designed by Research Department and capable of as high a standard of reproduction as can be obtained at present, the sixth was supplied to special order; the four black and white receivers were standard commercial models. All the receivers, colour and black-and-white alike, have 21 in. tubes.

The real nature of the problem at the Houses of Parliament lay in the simultaneous presentation on six colour receivers and in the timing of the programme. Obviously, nothing could have been more disastrous than that the six colour pictures should have shown marked differences in the appearance of the picture. Provided that a basis of comparison is available, the normal human eye is capable of detecting extremely fine differences in the hues of colours. (Fortunately for the future of colour television and indeed for all methods of colour reproduction, this sensitivity of appreciation of the hues of colour is much reduced without a basis of comparison and in the isolation of our homes quite a range of different reproductions gives pleasing results). It is almost impossible to convey to the non-technical reader the difficulty of adjusting six colour receivers of the experimental types now available to equality of reproduction, but, given unlimited time, it can just about be done. Unfortunately, time was in extremely short supply. In order to suit the convenience of Members of Parliament, the demonstration was given in the evening during the ‘free’ hour between six and seven o’clock. Members were expected to arrive at any time from a quarter to six, when the receivers would be displaying the usual transmission in black and white, to be followed immediately, in essence, by the colour programme. Also during the speeches by the P.M.G. and D.G. the engineers were not able to adjust the sets for fear of distracting attention.

However, all went well. Immediately at the end of D.G.’s speech, a beautiful coloured view of the exterior of the Houses of Parliament appeared simultaneously on all the receivers. It would be absurd to pretend that no differences were detectable on the receivers throughout the rest of the programme but the discrepancies were sufficiently small to satisfy the exacting standards of the Research and Designs Department engineers who were responsible for the technical arrangements. So far as is known, reception of colour television pictures from a broadcasting transmitter which immediately before had been on black and white transmission has never been attempted on this scale for such an important occasion.


BBC colour test card with Sylvia Peters


Produced by Ian Atkins

The demonstration took place in the No. 4 Committee Room of the House of Lords and attracted a large attendance by members, some two hundred and fifty of whom came on the first evening. So far as one could judge from overheard comments, the demonstration was favourably received and certainly very few members left before the end.

The programme, which was produced by Ian Atkins, lasted for just over half an hour.

Although, inevitably, public interest was largely concentrated at the Houses of Parliament on this occasion, the magnificent efforts of those at Alexandra Palace, engineers, programme staff, and artists alike, were of equal importance. The technical and lighting resources of Studio A, once again the home of pioneers in a new art, were stretched to the limit. Since the installation at A.P. is of an experimental nature there are few reserves available in case of breakdown of the exceedingly complicated electronic equipment. Inevitably, troubles and tribulations were encountered; however, little or no effects of these were seen at the receiving end.

The successful results obtained with a demonstration such as this were, of course, the outcome of the efforts of a large number of people in many departments of the BBC, which it has been impossible to mention by name. Those most intimately concerned would like to send their thanks to them.


Courtesy of HuntleyFilmArchives


You Say

1 response to this article

Julian Watson 14 November 2022 at 12:44 pm

Thanks for publishing this report. The author was my grandfather who became Chief Engineer of BBC Television. He received an OBE in 1976 for services to television.

He is one of many unsung heroes who worked behind the scenes to pioneer colour TV for the masses.

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