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A Journey Back to the First Week of BBC Television

Updated on June 19, 2018

Alexandra Palace

Alexandra Palace from East by Matt Brown, on Flickr
Alexandra Palace from East by Matt Brown, on Flickr | Source

Ally Pally

Regular high-definition television began broadcasting courtesy of the BBC in November 1936. The early transmissions came from a Muswell Hill mast, in north London, which transmitted to an audience of less than two thousand. Although there had been many test broadcasts that pre-date this service from the nineteen-twenties onwards, from across the globe, ranging from Russia to the United States. German already had a regular service, however the quality was significantly lower compared to 405 line high-definition broadcasted by the BBC.

The first six days of television only amounted to a mere twelve hours of broadcast time, which was made up of a strange mix of programmes, that were mostly in-studio productions of ‘show and tell’ items; such as zookeepers escorting their wildlife animals to the studio, or demonstrations of model boats, or displaying pride winning Chrysanthemums to the viewers at home. There was also entertainment with variety performances and cultural productions from the world of theatre, such as ballet and segments from West End plays. Not everything was live in the studio, they also screened film documentaries and cinema newsreels.

The BBC were not willing participants in the creation of television. The government had already written a white paper which established the guidelines for broadcasting and technical standards, which gave the Beeb a choice of either embarking on a new television service or losing their monopoly in broadcasting rights in the UK. A government committee also defined the specifications for high-definition television, at least 200 lines, which is a fifth of the lines our current HD screens uses.

One problem the committee didn’t solve and pasted onto the BBC, was its indecision on recommending a single broadcasting system. There were two competing processes, the Baird’s mechanical method which at the time of the committee had barely met the 200 lined threshold, and the superior Marconi-EMI 405 lined electoral system. The BBC had to give both parties an equal opportunity to delivery their services, by alternating the two technologies weekly, with one week using the Baird's equipment and then swapping the following week to EMI's, Thanks to a toss of a coin, it was Baird's technology that was used to broadcast the Inaugural week, by which time they had just about managed to increased its lines to 240, but it wasn’t enough to save them. Just like the eighties consumers of VHS and Betamax will learn, you can't have both, and ultimately the Baird system became the Betamax of broadcasting and was dropped the following year.

The home of the BBC's new television service was Alexandra Palace, a victorian entertainment venue built in the grounds of Alexandra Park in London in the year 1873, however two years later was rebuilt because the original had burned to the ground. The BBC only leased a small section of the building from 1935 for the sole intention of making and transmitting television, and it was during that time it gained the affectionate nickname of Ally Pally. The Beeb's section mainly comprised of two studios called A & B, and a giant transmitter mast, which would later be used in the second world war to block German aircraft navigation systems.

Day One

On Monday afternoon at 3 pm, the 2nd November 1936, the BBC televised the very first programme, 'Opening of the BBC Television Service'. A riveting fifteen minutes of speeches from three politicians. Major the Right Hon. G. C. Tryon, M.P gave the first of the speeches followed by Mr. R. C. Norman (Postmaster-General & BBC Chairman) and finally Right Hon. the Lord Selsdon, K.B.E. (Chairman of the Television Advisory Committee). This was followed by a newsreel and the weather.

Thankfully the second half of the first hour was far more entertaining with 'Variety'. Anybody who had seen film clips from those early days, would had surely watched, the specially commissioned song, 'Magic Rays Of Light', as performed by Adele Dixon wearing a long dress and singing in her correct received pronunciation.

The existing film of Miss Dixon's performance wasn't taken from her live appearance, because it was impossible in 1936 to record live television and everything was live, with the exception of the odd screening of pre-recorded films. The film clip in question was taken from a pre-recorded film documentary called, 'Television comes to London', which revealed the workings from behind the camera, and included Adele Dixon's song. The documentary was shown later the same evening, and is one of the few remaining programmes from the emerging television service, to exist today.

The live variety programme also had a turn from Buck and Bubbles, an American comedy and dance act, and Chinese juggling performed by 'The Lai Founs'. The music was supplied by the BBC Television Orchestra, with band-leader Boris Pecker and conducted by Hyam Greenbaum. That concluded the first hour of broadcasting, until it would reopen at nine o'clock.

The most important show to be screened that evening was the long running magazine programme, 'Picture Page', a series that ran until 1951. It was like 'The One Show' of its day. It was made-up with a sequence of interviews with either well-known personalities or people of interest. It featured many topics and covered public events. These mini-items of interest were linked by actress Joan Miller, a Canadian who acted out the role of a telephone switchboard operator. In the days before automated telephone systems, you would make a call to the operator, and she would connect you to the number you wanted manually. The shows interviewers were also the channels part-time continuity announcers, Leslie Mitchell and Jasmine Bligh.

Shows with legs

'Picture Page' wasn't the only long running programme with its origins in the first week. There were two other shows that would run well into the forties. First of which was Starlight, an entertainment show that normally showcased the performances of individual acts, which run until 1949. The other long runner was Cabaret, which had multiple acts from the world of music hall, that continued until 1946, and was very similar to 'Variety'.

'Starlight' had the distinction of having the biggest stars of the week. Bebe Daniels and Ben Lyon were an American husband and wife team, both stars of stage and screen. The couple were mainly actors, although Bebe was also known for singing and dancing, and would ultimately appear in over 200 movies, including the Hollywood spectacular, 42nd Street. Later they had more success in the UK with the BBC with their own radio and television series, Life with Lyons, which ran from the forties to the fifties.

The second edition of 'Starlight' was transmitted later the same day, and had an appearance with Manuala Del Rio. There was Spanish Dancing which was accompanied by the Piano and Guitar.

Cabaret's first programme had a performance by Mabel Scott, an American singer of gospel and R&B music, and Horace Kenney, a comic music Hall singer who also made an appearance.

Not all of these early shows endured for years; Take for instance, 'Temp and Taps', an in-studio demonstration of tap dancing by Rosalind Wade, had one outing. 'The Zoo Today', which was fronted by David Seth-Smith was also singular. The format of the show was simply a Zoo Keeper bringing in their animals to the studio. This concept returned the following year with a show called, 'Friends from the Zoo'; Which was also fronted by Seth-Smith.

Old Television Set

"Old Crosley TV by daveynin, on Flickr
"Old Crosley TV by daveynin, on Flickr | Source

A Week in a Life of Television

The total number of hours of broadcasting in the first week was limited to twelve. The programmes commenced in the afternoon, from 3pm to 4pm, and another hour in the evening, 9pm to 10pm. There wasn't any programmes on Sunday, until the following year. The BBC did increased the numbers of hours over the first three years, but not by much.

Everyday the service would start with the in-vision continuity announcer, who would be clothed in full evening attire and spoke in received pronunciation, listing a summary of today's programmes. Also there was a daily weather report which composed of a static map, with a voice-over reporting on the state of the weather.

By 1936, the BBC's radio news service had already built a reputation of quality and impartiality, and they didn't want this young television upstart muscling into their domain. So there were no live news programmes, instead they screened British Movietone newsreel films, originally produced for cinema's consumption. Ten years later, the BBC would start to make their own filmed newsreels, and it wasn't until 1954, a year before the birth of ITN, that they would broadcast their own live bulletins, albeit in audio only. But it was not long afterwards when the now familiar image of the newscaster sitting behind the desk would emerge.

To educate, inform and Entertain

Demonstration programmes were very popular with the production teams in those early days. They had visitors from down the road from the Alexandra palace local boxing team, who came in and acted out some moves. Other societies would be brought in to reveal their breeds of Alsatians or Silver Fox Rabbits. Prize winning chrysanthemum would go on display from the National chrysanthemum society show, a society that is still going strong today. But best of all was the fifteen minute programme devoted to the construction of a model of Sir Drake's famous ship, the Golden Hind, which was built by Bus driver, Mr L.A. Stock. If only they had sky plus back in those days.

Culture has always been something the BBC wanted to bring to the viewers. The opening week had two notable pieces. First of all there was the ballet which was performed by Marie Rambert's ballet company, who were based in the Mercury Theatre, in Ladbroke Road, Notting Hill Gate, until 1987. The twenty-five minute programme re-created various ballet scenes in the studio, from Swan Lake, and musical numbers like Shepherd’s wooing, Foyer de Danse, Columbine, La Golfeuese/Pompette and Pas de Trois from Alcina. The main ballerina was Maude Lloyd from South Africa, who would later become a dance critic.

The second piece of culture was a collection of scenes of the original 1914 comedy play, 'Marigold', by L. Allen Harker and F.R. Pryor, and the title role of Marigold Seller was played by Sophie Stewart, who had been performing the part in the theatres since 1929, and would later recreate the role for the 1938 film version. Again this production was performed live at the Ally Pally's studios. The outside broadcasting unit was still a few months away.

Alexandra Palace Slideshow

How different

It is crazy to think how much television has changed over the last eighty years. In the first week there was only one channel that transmitted a mere 12 hours per week, compared to hundreds of channels broadcasting 24 hours a day. Although the BBC is still funded by the licence fee and doesn't carry any adverts. The original telly sets were just 12 inches in length. Today's sets can measure over 60 inches, in wide-screen, surround sound, full colour or 3D. We can video our programmes to view later, or even download them over the internet.

The first programme had fifteen minutes of politicians, while we have a dedicated channel broadcasting live from the house of parliament.

We have 'This Morning' and 'The One Show', and they had 'Picture Page'. They had 'Starlight' and 'Cabaret', and we have 'X Factor' and 'The Voice'. We don't have much ballet today, but you can still find it on BBC 4 and Sky Arts. We also have non-stop music channels playing modern songs, just like they had done in 'Variety'. If you want a demonstration of a model ship, I am pretty sure you could find it on Youtube. The internet being the next generation of broadcasting.

But the regular Television service wasn't to last. Major problems on the continent was about to raise its ugly head and war finally broke out on the 3rd September 1939. But the plug had already been pulled on Television, the day before, halfway through a screening of a mickey mouse cartoon. It would take almost another seven years before television re-opened and completed the screening of the same mickey mouse film. But the genie had already been let out of the bottle and Television was going to get bigger and bigger.

75 Years of BBC Television


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