Colour TV? It made me see red! 

30 October 2023

Report from the East Coast by L. Marsland Gander



Cover of TV Mirror

From TV Mirror for 1 June 1957

THERE it was in the drawing-room — taking up rather too much room, perhaps, but the family had been driven out and I was gloriously alone with my new plaything. It cost £165 [£4,500 in today’s money, allowing for inflation -Ed] and had a 21-inch [53cm] screen which gives 254 square inches [1639cm²] of viewable picture, says the blurb. And the picture is in COLOUR.

All this happened to me in Greenwich — not Greenwich, London, but Greenwich, Connecticut — just 27 miles outside New York — where the hospitality of a friend made it possible for me to put myself in the position of a viewer with a newly acquired colour television set.

It is true that there had been a preliminary spot of bother with a valve, but electricians had rushed to my aid, even though it was a Saturday. All I had to do was to switch on and follow the instruction book. And what an instruction book — all green, red and blue, with combinations of the three showing the ghastly results of mistuning.

The controls looked simple enough. First there was a channel selector with the usual numbers on it, then there were two other concentric knobs — an on-off and volume control in the centre and a brightness regulator outside. But wait a bit, what’s this? A concealed panel with five more controls — contrast, framehold, linehold, hue and colour. I just couldn’t wait to try the hue and colour.


A man operates a camera in a studio

One of the giant colour TV cameras used by NBC-TV in America. “Colour’s still got a long, long way to go,” says the author


Familiar horror

I switched on to the colour transmission that was due to start and twiddled hopefully. Tuning a colour TV receiver is like no other experience on earth. You take a lovely woman with a picture hat, cornflower eyes, a peach-blossom complexion and auburn hair. First of all the familiar horror of the tweed pattern is liable to mar her features — that means you have turned the tuning control too far to the right.

But the real fun starts with the hue and colour. If the colour knob is turned too far right she looks horribly drunkenly flushed, if too far left abominably anaemic. If the hue knob is twisted too far right she suffers dreadfully from sea-sickness and turns a delicate shade of green; if too far left she looks as if she has just fallen into a vat of purple dye.

Colour TV has a perfectly horrible fascination. I just couldn’t leave it alone and afterwards black and white viewing seemed flat and insipid.

It was exciting yet maddening. Can you who have your occasional arguments with the rest of the family about brilliance, focus and contrast, to say nothing of the choice of programmes, imagine what will happen when those infuriating diabolical twins “hue” and “colour” are on a million sets?

One curious effect on me at my initiation was that I could not for the life of me discover what the play I was watching was about. It was called Key Largo and it starred Alfred Drake, Anne Bancroft and J. Carrol Naish. It was put out by WRCA, “the colorful station” and beyond that my mind is a beautiful blank.

You see if somebody called another character a “white livered cur” I wanted to rush up to the screen and give him a white liver which was perfectly feasible. A “yellow bellied rat,” the award of a purple heart, somebody “seeing red” or “looking blue” or “turning white with passion” — all acquired new meaning and offered special temptations to the fiddler.

In more expert hands and ideal circumstances the American colour TV is impressive. I visited the world’s first all colour station, WNBO in Chicago, and in the control room saw some of the finest TV colour imaginable, entirely free from the faults that I have mentioned. But in a Hollywood studio, watching the Dinah Shore show, I had a chance of comparing colours on the stage with those on a TV monitor in front of me.

They did not match in the least, though if I hadn’t made the comparison they would have looked reasonable enough. As it was, a Cambridge blue on the stage looked more like an Oxford blue on the screen (to me) and there were the trickiest differences in the shades of red.

The RCA has spent £20 million [£535m] on colour development and NBC in New York is putting on at least one major colour show a night totalling 120 hours of programme time in the last quarter of 1956. RCA and NBC began to push compatible colour hard in 1954 with the rest of the industry following less enthusiastically behind. Now, three years later the most optimistic figure of sets sold puts the grand total at 100,000. Sceptics say that only 75,000 have been sold. What is the moral?


Make-up artists work on actors in costume

For colour TV, everything must be just right. Here last-minute touches are given to Mel Ferrer and Diana Wynyard before they go in front of the colour cameras for NBC-TV’s “Mayerling.” Also in the picture – Ferrer’s wife, Audrey Hepburn and famous old-timer Raymond Massey


Too expensive

It is that colour has a long, long way to go in America before it catches the popular fancy but this may happen quickly and certainly will happen eventually. Tuning will have to be simplified to check incessant fiddling and uncertainty. Sets will have to be made more reliable and foolproof. They will also have to be made cheaper still.

The colours are certainly not exactly natural but there are wide differences of opinion on this subject. For example, I am one of those people who has never seen much colour in the various “subjective colour” experiments in black and white advertisements on ITV screens, but I know people who declare heatedly that they can see vivid reds and greens.

In America it has been declared that some programmes benefit much more than others from the addition of colour. Personally, I believe that just as every broadcasting programme is better on television than on sound only, so ultimately, every TV picture will be better in colour than mere black and white.

One thing is fairly certain, namely that the BBC, learning caution from the American experience, will not rush into a regular colour service. My guess is that we shall not have colour broadcasting here until 1962 — if then.


You Say

1 response to this article

Alan Keeling 30 October 2023 at 8:34 pm

The first `filmed` US TV series shot in colour was `The Cisco Kid (1950 – 1956).`

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