High Definition Television – A British Achievement 

20 October 2023 tbs.pm/79670


radio show EARLS COURT

From the Earls Court Radio Show catalogue for 1957

The Radio Show has always been closely linked with the milestones of television progress. This one marks the 21st birthday of practical high definition T/V in this country, for it was at the Radio Show at Olympia in August, 1936, known as “Radiolympia”, that it was first shown to the public. And these historic transmissions marked the start of the first regular public service in the world.

Now, when there are seven million T/V sets and aerials cluster thickly as chimney-pots, it is not easy to recapture the atmosphere of secrecy and expectant excitement that surrounded the subject in those days. To say that the first show transmitted from Alexandra Palace to Radiolympia was “Here’s Looking at You” produced by Cecil Madden, is a bald statement that covers a frenzy of pioneering achievement.

Mr. Madden, lean, energetic, devoted, relates an anecdote that well illustrates the tension and uncertainty. The B.B.C.’s station at Alexandra Palace, first of its kind in the world, had been in process of construction for a year. Transmissions were to go out alternately on the Baird and Marconi-EMI systems, following years of experiment with the primitive Baird 30-line method.

Gerald Cock had been appointed a somewhat harassed Director of Television. Early in August, 1936, he assembled his newly chosen staff in the Concert Hall at Broadcasting House to give them a reassuring talk. There was plenty of time, nothing to worry about, and it would be about four months before the regular service really got going. The staff duly heaved sighs of relief. Mr. Madden says that he, as Programme Organiser, felt especially grateful for the respite.

He went off to Alexandra Palace and entered his office which was so innocent of furniture that the telephone was resting on the floor. As he entered the instrument began to trill. It was Gerald Cock. “Forget everything I said”, insisted Gerald. “We want a show on the air for Radiolympia”. History does not record what hidden pressures had produced this sudden SOS.


A man points a television camera at a woman singing

Sophie Tucker in ‘Starlight’ – November, 1936.


Whatever the reasons, something had to be done and done it was by August 26, with Cecil Madden, who will be in charge of the Birthday Celebrity Dais at this 1957 show, as the presiding genius. Memory plays tricks but my recollection is that television was confined to eight booths, or theatres, in a dark and noisome area that one entered with trepidation and crossed fingers expecting a breakdown at any moment. There were some 15-inch sets in those days, but for reasonably priced sets the manufacturers were thinking of 9-inch or 10-inch screens.

Long, disbelieving queues waited to see this latest wonder. The pictures were not confined to the live transmission but there were also snippets from film that included such stars as Charles Laughton, Paul Robeson, Elizabeth Bergner, Jessie Matthews, and Jack Buchanan.

But the chief marvel was direct transmission of live occurrence. Leslie Mitchell sensed and conveyed this when he said, in his introduction to “Here’s Looking at You”, in simple words: “Hello, Radiolympia! We are now coming to another part of this demonstration — direct television from the studios — which means that you will be watching a programme that is actually going on now”. He was followed by Elizabeth Cowell and, on other days, by Jasmine Bligh, the three having been appointed as the first television announcers of the B.B.C.

Helen McKay sang the theme song which sticks in my mind, surviving a multitude of other experiences, and fixes the mood of that moment:


“Here’s looking at you
From out of the blue
Don’t make a fuss
But settle down and look at us.

Here’s looking at you
It seems hardly true
That radio can let you
sit and watch the show”


Well, we sat and watched the show until the inevitable breakdown which in those days was apt to be more than a matter of moments. Douglas Birkinshaw [sic – Birkenshaw], who was engineer in charge at Alexandra Palace tells me that in these crises he used to dash out of his office to panic stations, take his coat off and himself help to put the trouble right.

Besides attractive red-head Helen McKay, the other artistes in this immortal first show were the Three Admirals, crazily comic Pogo the Horse with Miss Lutie, and the Chilean dancers Chilton and Thomas.


Dancers in a row

Russell Swann, Evelyn Dall, Gloria Day and the Merriel Abbott Girls in ‘100% Broadway’, September, 1937.


Personalities who afterwards became T/V household names were hidden in the cast. Eric Robinson was the second violin in the Television Orchestra, then conducted by Hyam Greenbaum; George More O’Ferrall, whose proper province was drama, helped Cecil Madden in the production. Best concealed of all was Harry Tate’s son Ronald, afterwards famous as Harry Tate junior. He was the hind legs of Pogo, waggling the tail as a precursor of the moustache.

There were no dancing girls. It was long before the days of the Television Toppers and in any case the B.B.C. would have been shocked at the idea of a leg show. In essence it was a string of variety acts, but it was gay and zestful, buoyed by immense novelty. It was fun. The wonder was that the Alexandra Palace team were able, at last minute notice, using two radically different systems — Baird was 240 lines and Marconi-EMI 405 — to put out two hours of transmission daily for the ten days of the exhibition, including vaudeville, newsreels, and excerpts from current British and American films.

They were days of odd improvisation, when the difficult was accomplished at once and the impossible did not take much longer. As a poor man’s rival to Radiolympia, a waiting room at Waterloo Station was used as another television theatre.


A man sits in a chair. A woman applies make-up to his face. Standing behind him another woman applies eye shadow

Mary Allan making up Leslie Mitchell with Elizabeth Cowell – August, 1938

After all this the official opening of Alexandra Palace on November 2, 1936, came as an anti-climax, and indeed there was no real break between the Radiolympia shows and November, experimental programmes going out daily. It was during this period that Cecil Madden produced his best remembered programme the well-loved “Picture Page,” with vivacious Joan Miller, now best known as an accomplished dramatic actress, as the switchboard girl introducing the various magazine items. I was ecstatic in praise — it was in the days before T/V critics became jaundiced with surfeit. “‘Picture Page’ was a brilliant success”, I wrote in my enthusiasm. I must have been right, because it ran for 246 editions up to the outbreak of the war and till that Radiolympia of 1939 that gradually faded away as the drums of war beat louder and, one after another the stand-holders folded their tents like the Arabs. After the war, in 1946, “Picture Page” showed its virility by staging yet another series.

Cover of the 1936 Radiolympia catalogue

Cover of the 1936 Radiolympia official catalogue

But great as the marvel of transmission was, perhaps that of reception was still greater. The manufacturers, working in an unknown field by trial and error, had to produce reasonably priced sets capable of receiving at the turn of a switch the two basically different systems. Later, when the B.B.C. had decided in favour of the Marconi-EMI system, design became a degree simpler and there was a remarkable advance. At the 1937 Radiolympia there were 30 different models and 14 manufacturers had each equipped a miniature television theatre capable of seating about 30 people.

In those days there was no purchase tax, but even so the 1937 prices ranged from £35 [£1,950 today, allowing for inflation – Ed] for a 9-inch set to £136 10s. [£7,500] for a 15-inch. It is remarkable how well to-day’s prices, burdened as they are with tax, bear comparison. That this is so despite the present trend of constantly rising costs reflects the achievements of factory know-how and simplified mass-production. Needless to add that the value of a modern 21-inch set in brilliance, picture fidelity and reliability is immeasurably greater than that of its 1936-37 forerunner.

And to-day there are 50 hours of entertainment weekly on each of two networks. Television has extended its range beyond the dreams of the early televisionaries. The first outside broadcast was achieved when Gerald Cock indulged a whim and told the engineers to shove a camera out on to the balcony at Alexandra Palace, in the rain. Worried Cecil Lewis covered up most of the precious box with his mackintosh while Cock chattered inanities with comedian Leonard Henry.

Then came the real “O.B.’s”, the Coronation procession of King George VI, the return of Mr. Chamberlain from Munich, the Derby in 1938 and 1939. Now live television transmissions can come from any comer of the British Isles or from many countries of Europe. Ocean and mountain barriers have been crossed and it is only a question of time before the five Continents are united in a global network.


A camera points at ballet dancers

Covent Garden Russian Ballet dancing Les Sylphides for a transmission from Alexandra Palace in August, 1938.


Looking back a little wistfully at the Himalayan achievement of laboratory, studio and industry resulting in to-day’s endless flow of entertainment and information to a myriad homes, I can think of only one note on which to end, addressed to all T/V enthusiasts. It is Tommy Trinder’s well worn, yet still irresistible phrase: “You lucky people”.



L(eonard) Marsland Gander (1902-1986) was radio critic at the Daily Telegraph.


Your comment

Enter it below

A member of the Transdiffusion Broadcasting System
Liverpool, Friday 19 July 2024