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BBC History launches archive to mark 80 years of television

MUMBAI: To coincide with the 80th anniversary of the launch of the first British television service by the BBC on 2 November 1936, BBC History has launched a new microsite that provides the public with access to archive material from the early days of television.

The archive, which can be viewed at bbc.co.uk/historyofthebbc/birth-of-tv, contains a wealth of video and audio footage which tells the story of television – including, the invention of television, the opening night at Alexandra Palace in 1936, TV closure during the war and its resurrection in 1946, TV’s milestone moments such the Olympics and the Coronations of 1937 and 1953.

Some highlights of the history archive include:

  • Technology battle: Early TV was a battle between two companies, the Marconi-EMI partnership and the Baird Company, each developing different technologies. Idiosyncratically, the press favoured the Baird Company technology, mainly because there was a 60-second delay in the image appearing on screen. At a special demo for the press this enabled journalists to run round and see themselves on the screen. In 1934 the Government asked the BBC to formally launch a regular service testing both systems.
  • Launching the service: Early TV was a white-knuckle ride. Its first producer, Cecil Madden, recounts how his boss said they had four months to prepare for the first broadcast, but within hours the plans had changed and Cecil had only nine days to prepare for the BBC’s test transmissions, and hours to make a plan!
  • First TV signature tune: For the Opening Night on 2 November, the new BBC Television Orchestra, conducted by Hyam Greenbaum, began playing – and the famous musical comedy star Adèle Dixon took to the studio floor to sing ‘Television’, the TV service’s first specially composed signature tune (‘A mighty maze of mystic magic rays is all about us in the blue’). Proceedings began at 3 o’clock in the afternoon before Dixon kicked-off a half-hour variety show at 3.30pm.
  • Early output: The overall output of the new service was quite limited – an hour between 3 and 4 o’clock in the afternoon, and another between 9pm and 10pm. The BBC’s Director of Television, Gerald Cock, had ruled that there should be breaks between individual programmes in order to “avoid eye strain” for those watching at home, but this extended break was also designed to avoid interfering with viewers’ domestic life, including mealtimes and children’s bedtimes.
  • TV and celebrity: One remarkable feature of these early years was the number of high-profile celebrities who were willing to make the journey to Alexandra Palace to go before the BBC cameras, which was down to the curiosity of many actors and singers wanting to see a TV set.
  • First TV magazine programme: Early programmes included Picture Page. Presented by Joan Miller, it was the very first television magazine programme in the world. Its remit was simple: to place people in front of the camera ‘to be televised’. Such was the sheer novelty of the medium in the early years, it was enough to see before you a performance by a tap dancer or an interesting character or ‘type’ as they were sometimes referred to. During the first edition of Picture Page, Joan Miller – who was dubbed ‘Picture Page Girl’ – was sitting at a mock-up of a telephone exchange ‘switching’ the viewer through to each item in turn. What TV viewers didn’t know was that Miller was ‘cued-in’ by the studio director on each occasion by being given a ‘mild’ electrical shock through wires attached to her ankles.
  • Rules for television staff: Working life at Alexandra Palace was becoming established and new rules were needed. No dogs (one of the on-screen presenters, Jasmine Bligh, once brought her Aberdeen terrier to work), no ‘drag’ on television (although a male entertainer dressed as half-man, half-woman was permitted) and no alcohol. Internal memos show the fear of management that if alcohol “got a foothold at Alexandra Palace it would sooner or later spread to Maida Vale and Broadcasting House, and possibly become unmanageable”.
  • TV & WW2: On 1 September 1939, at the outbreak of war, Douglas Birkinshaw, the BBC engineer in charge at Alexandra Palace, received a message that transmissions should cease. The BBC’s pre-war television service ended abruptly with a Mickey Mouse cartoon and then, without ceremony, there was a total Closedown. An interview with Lord Orr Ewing in which he claims that Lord Swinton (Air Minister until 1938) told him that the reason the public service TV service was started was to secretly develop the manufacturing capacity for cathode ray tubes that could be used in radar, which subsequently helped win the Battle of Britain.
  • Two Coronations: The Coronation of King George VI and Queen Elizabeth on 12 May 1937 gave the BBC Television Service its first major outside broadcasting challenge, which was a huge technological leap forward. Despite the equipment failing just as the procession approached, the BBC’s Tony Bridgwater recalls EMI engineer Bernard Greenhead giving the equipment “an almighty biff with his fist” – which managed to restart the unit just in time.
  • The Coronation of Queen Elizabeth II in 1953 was a far more complex operation using more than 20 cameras in multiple locations. It was a seminal moment not just in British history, but in the development and popularity of television as a medium. BBC Director-General, Ian Jacob, said the Coronation “was the thing that made the Television Service take off… everybody from that moment on wanted to have television”.
  •  Mass Observation: In 1949 Mass Observation, the pioneering social research organisation that was launched in 1937 to document everyday life in Britain, asked how people felt about having television in their own homes. Some of their replies were fascinating: O. Barritt, a 28-year-old housewife, wrote that: “the worst of television, from a housewife’s point of view, is it requires a darkened room, so that knitting or mending is out of the question”. Other worries were expressed by Mrs P. Green, who wrote that: “a television set in the home would tend to make one lazy, whereas if you go out to a show it means extra sprucing up (a joy to a woman who has been busy around the house most of the day)”. Forty-two year-old Esther Home could not afford to buy tickets for Wimbledon or other sporting events, but having a television set now meant that she could watch tennis at home and “in comfort I will watch the Ascot races, and also see the dresses of the women walking in the paddock”.

Speaking about the archive, BBC History head Robert Seatter said, “We are delighted to mark this momentous occasion by sharing much never-before-seen material from the BBC archives. The anecdotes, images and recordings offer today’s audiences a fascinating behind-the-scenes insight into the early days of television.

“It is also great to be doing this in partnership with media history experts from the University of Sussex and other UK research centres, who set our BBC story in the wider context of what was happening in communications and society.”

University of Sussex professor of media and cultural history Professor David Hendy said, “These fascinating accounts, from the BBC’s own collection of oral history interviews, take us straight back to a time when the future of TV wasn’t yet known, when everything was new and uncertain. They offer us as never before the real inside story of those who set television going on its now 80 year-long journey. And a very human story it is: a tale of risk-taking, pioneering spirit, rivalry, hope, anxiety – and, of course, the slow working out of how to make popular art out of an obscure bit of rather cumbersome technology.”

The BBC History archive project is a collaboration with The Sussex Humanities Lab, University of Sussex; Centre for Media History, Aberystwyth University; Department of Media and Communication, University of Leicester and The National Media Museum.