80 years on: television’s first night

2nd November 2016

The world’s first regular television service started 80 years ago today, when BBC Television began daily transmissions from Alexandra Palace (above is AP’s blue plaque). To mark the date, at 9pm tonight BBC Four broadcast Television’s Opening Night: How the Box was Born, and I live-blogged the evening. For the advance information on the programme, scroll to 6.15pm, and then read up through the evening as I linked to other resources and, after 9pm, offered reactions to the programme.

The programme itself is now on BBC iPlayer until, I think, 2 December.

Throughout, this remained as irresistible as ever:

10.40pm Thanks, if you have been, for reading along. I’ll add some further thoughts tomorrow – and do please leave any reactions in Comments below. Good night.

10.39pm Also from Twitter, : ‘Tonight’s show was enjoyable, but only skimmed the surface, it would have been so good to have seen the full “opening programme”.’ I guess we always want more of the things we love.

10.36pm Some very positive reactions on Twitter (to the show, not my blog): ‘Brilliant programme’; ‘Absolutely brilliant’; ‘Wonderful documentary’; ‘Completely bloody marvellous’. Kudos to the splendid Windfall Films for the achievement, even if I do have caveats.

10.29pm So… really good on explaining and visualising the technology of early television, with some excellent interviewees, but all a bit too contrived, and frustratingly limited by the focus on machines. Thoughts?

10.25pm Dallas: ‘The whole thing was insane.’ … and … ‘Of course we did cheat a bit.’

10.19pm So this is supposed to be a recreation of the start of the first broadcast, but – as BBC Genome details – before viewers got to the variety show there was half an hour of speeches, then a short interval and an edition of British Movietone News. I know, it’s picky of me, but I’m something of a purist.

10.17pm Final prep for the ‘live’ show.

10.11pm ‘It’s getting close to the wire now’ – no, it’s not; it’s just coming up to the time when the programme makers decided to film the concluding sequence. ‘6 hours to broadcast’ – no, there is no ‘broadcast’.

10.10pm ‘I’m all for historical accuracy but this is heavy going.’

10.07pm David Hendy again with a 1930s set of the kind I saw this afternoon in action – probably the same one, in fact, with the switch that takes you from 405 lines to 240 lines.

10.03pm Another really good explanation of the technology of the Baird telecine system.

9.59pm Yay! The BFI’s Dick Fiddy. Talking about eye strain caused by watching early television – and certainly looking this afternoon at the television set showing 240-line pictures (see 7.49pm) there was a really noticeable flicker which would certainly have been very wearing after more than a few minutes.

9.52pm A visit to Baird’s assistant Paul Reveley who is 104 years old! How amazing is that. Talks about ‘JLB’ and 80 years fall away.

9.47pm Still frustrated by the disrespectful misuse in a history doc of archive film by the cutting off of the top and bottom of 4:3 frames.

9.45pm Paul Marshall and Danielle George geek out over an original 1948 camera tube. ‘There’s probably less than 6’ – and Paul has 4 of them.

9.43pm There’s that anachronistic Bush TV22 set again (h/t).

9.39pm I entirely understand why – and the programme is both interesting and strongly visual – but the whole emphasis here is on TECHNOLOGY. As it has been for decades in so much written history about the birth of television. No real engagement with institutional questions, social and political issues, or with aesthetics. So far.

9.33pm We’re going to need a bigger disc!

9.29pm Near the top of the show tweeted “Well, it’s on the air! A little too much Bush TV22 from the 1950’s which is a real shame…” Expert comment on the employment of an anachronistic television set.

9.26pm Fairly tech-y but entirely understandable discussion of the photo-electric effect. Late 19th century discovery of this was ‘television’s Big Bang moment’.

9.22pm Great mock-up of the ‘flying spot’ camera – I’m even think, after reading about this for 30 years or so, that I am beginning to understand how it actually worked!

9.20pm The amazing Lily Fry who tap danced on television back in 1936. 91 years young, and still a star this afternoon at AP.

9.16pm Grrr! If you’re doing a serious and responsible programme recreating early television, then you absolutely should not disrespect the archival traces with which we do have. But that’s the case when you make a full-frame 16:9 image by cutting the top and bottom off sequences from Television Comes to London, 1936, which was shot with a 4:3 frame ratio.

9.12pm Danielle George clambering around on the roof of AP at the foot of the transmitter – very jealous of her getting access there. Here’s a pic of how it looked this afternoon.

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9.09pm So the key initial task is to re-build a Baird ‘flying spot’ camera, with Hugh Hunt from Cambridge. In six weeks! (Not sure we really need the added, slightly false jeopardy.) But Hugh Hunt is good value, making a Baird system with a hole-puncher!

9.05pm Ah, the wonderful ‘hidden’ theatre at AP, the focus of a major restoration project. And now the first interviewee is the excellent Professor David Hendy. Nice graphical mock-up of the ‘memory’ of a variety act playing in Studio A.

9.03pm ‘A story of cogs and gears, electron beams and dancing girls, and one mad night that helped change the world forever.’

9.01pm Dallas Campbell: There are no recordings of the first broadcast but ‘we’re going to re-stage that opening broadcast as faithfully as we can.’

9.00pm Continuity announcer does a jokey intro by slipping into the clipped tones of a 1930s announcer.

8.58pm BBC Four finishing one of those lovingly nostalgic docs about the glory days of steam railways.

8.52pm Many thanks to Andrew Barker for highlighting in the Comments below the audio recording of the 4pm opening ceremony broadcast via the EMI-Marconi system; you can find that by clicking here. I have to admit I was saving this link for just before the documentary began, but it’s great to have it contributed by a reader!

8.49pm More that I can share, this time courtesy of the BBC’s 100 Voices website: a three and a half minute report about the building of the studios at AP – although it’s not credited here, I think this comes from the film documentary Television Comes to London directed by Dallas Bower; it was first shown at 9.05pm on 2 November 1936.

8.43pm Re-enacting the first night of television, 80 years on: as a taster ahead of the 9pm documentary, here’s a Trinity College Cambridge blog post about Trinity Fellow Dr Hugh Hunt and Cambridge engineering students recreating John Logie Baird’s cumbersome ‘flying spot’ camera.

8.39pm Although to be fair to the Corporation, here’s tonight’s four and a half minute BBC London News Report on the anniversary celebrations at Alexandra Palace:

8.35pm By contrast (see 8.31pm) British Pathé seems happy for us to share their newsreel material, including this terrific behind-the-scenes view of television at Alexandra Palace (although I wonder if the 1938 date is correct):

8.31pm For the 75th anniversary of television the BBC made some delightful YouTube videos including Alexandra Palace Slideshow – History of the BBC and 75 Years of BBC TV – History of the BBC. But to see them you’ll have to click the links since embedding is disabled – what was I saying (8.13pm) about the BBC not wanting people to share?

8.27pm 34 years ago today, with an entirely appropriate eye for history, another television service started up when Channel 4 went on air – I can still remember the visceral thrill of sitting in front of my screen at, I think, 4.20pm and seeing this for the first time:

8.25pm  The History of the BBC – The Official Start: an extract on the Teletronic site from Kenneth Baily’s A Personal Account of Television’s Early Days, first published in 1950, which includes this:

The BBC decided that the official start to the Television Service proper should be on November 2 1936, and it laid down the red carpets at Alexandra Palace and had the thing done in style, with an opening ceremony before the cameras performed by a strangely mixed company. Lord Selsdon, judicial chairman of the Government’s television committee, the Post Master General, and the chairman of the BBC governors were joined by Adele Dixon, singing, and by a [pair of entertainers] known as Buck and Bubbles [see 7.06pm], dancing. But viewers possibly had better entertainment from the second edition of Picture Page which followed the ceremony, and introduced them to airman Jim Mollison, Miss Kay Stammers, Algernon Blackwood, a pearly king and queen from Blackfriars, and -for their first off-duty appearance- Elizabeth Cowell and Jasmine Bligh, the announcers.

8.17pm The Sunday post – television begins: another very good blog post from BBC Genome project’s Andrew Martin, on this occasion mostly about the television test transmissions that preceded the opening night on 2 November. There were broadcasts from the trade show RadiOlympia between 26 August and 5 September and then a schedule of rehearsal broadcasts from 1 October onwards.

8.13pm Here’s the trailer for the documentary Television’s Opening Night: How the Box was Born at 9pm on BBC Four. I almost didn’t include this because of the ugly and overwhelming graphical surround that the BBC uses to “protect” its media – you might think they didn’t actually want anyone to share it.

8.08pm 100 Voices that made the BBC – The Birth of TV (see 7.13pm) really is a glorious resource for anyone with the slightest interest in the medium’s history. The Programme Parade page, for example, written by David Hendy, has details of a range of early broadcasts, together with embedded clips both from the BBC Television Demonstration Film and from oral history interviews recorded much later. The BBC Television Demonstration Film is a truly precious fragment from these years when there was no technology available to record live broadcasts. The film featured mocked-up programmes which we assume to be close to the actual broadcasts and is one of the few ways that we can actually have a visual sense of early television.

7.58pm Speaking at the AP party this afternoon Head of BBC History Robert Seatter noted that the BBC didn’t always celebrate its own anniversaries with the gusto that it seems to be bringing to today. There have been items on the Ten O’Clock News, on The One Show, this morning’s Today and Woman’s Hour, as well as much else. Not to mention tonight’s BBC Four film that starts in just over an hour. And certainly to me it feels as if there’s more going on than on the 75th anniversary or the 60th – both arguably more resonant dates than the 80th. So what accounts for the difference? Might it be that a BBC that is still fighting the White Paper battle feels the need to underline its long-standing value to the nation? Is history here being quite deliberately used, as it so often is in so many contexts, as a weapon in one of today’s political conflicts?

7.49pm I was delighted to have been invited to a modest birthday party for television at Alexandra Palace this afternoon. Perhaps the highlight of a very pleasant afternoon was seeing a 1936 television in full working order, showing both 240 line images (like those transmitted by the Baird system) and – after a click of a switch – 405 images from the EMI-Marconi system – look!

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7.41pm The BBC’s TV studios in London – Alexandra Palace: a very useful description from a terrific web resource of the production set up at AP in the first years.

7.26pm Television starts – where will it end?: a post from Luke McKernan’s essential Picturegoing website that presents ‘an ongoing survey reproducing eyewitness testimony of viewing pictures, from the seventeenth century to the present day.’ The entry linked to above is from an anonymous article in The Era on 4 November 1936, and it includes this crystal-ball gazing:

We are unable to see that Television increases the menace of radio as a rival to existing forms of entertainment, though it may do something to arrest the decline in the entertainment appeal of radio. Television calls for so much fixation of attention that an hour at a time is likely to be the limit of the average man’s endurance.

On the whole, it seems to us that the entertainment professions should congratulate themselves on the birth of an entertainment from which they will be able to extract substantial fees, leaving Posterity to decide whether Television is to be a comprehensive umbrella for all forms of entertainment.

7.19pm Thoughts and contributions welcome either via @Illuminations or john@illuminationsmedia.co.uk; or please offer responses via the Comment box below – that’s what people once upon a time used to do on blogs.

7.13pm Opening night: this is one section of the wonderful new BBC resource about early television, 100 Voices that made the BBC – The Birth of TV; the website has been developed as a major collaboration between The Sussex Humanities Lab – University of Sussex, The Centre for Media History – Aberystwyth University, Department of Media and Communication – University of Leicester, The National Media Museum – Bradford, and the BBC. I’ll highlight some further elements later in the evening.

7.06pm Among the very first entertainers to appear on the new service were Buck and Bubbles, often described at the time as “the coloured pair” – here they are in a feature film clip from 1937:

6.55pm Click here for Transdiffusion’s presentation of the text from BBC Handbook for 1938 about what the television operation at Alexandra Palace was like in 1937; included is this wonderful cutaway of the AP set-up (originally published in Electronic Engineering in 1936) which each time I look at it never fails to amaze me.

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6.50pm Twitter accounts worth checking in with tonight include @prewartv; @simonvaughan; @transdiffusion; @AboutTheBBC@bbcgenome and @YourAllyPally – mostly, however, you ought to catch most of the action by following #BBCTV80.

6.15pm Tonight at 9pm Television’s Opening Night: How the Box was Born is 90-minute programme hosted by Dallas Campbell, Professor Danielle George and Dr Hugh Hunt. I’m really looking forward to this programme. Here’s an edited version of the BBC’s description.

The very first official broadcast came from Alexandra Palace on 2nd November 1936 (image below) – but there are no surviving recordings. To find out just what went on, this 21st-century team attempts to piece back together and recreate every aspect of the show from scratch – from the variety acts to the cameras – using the original technology and filming techniques to capture the excitement of the day.

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It’s not going to be easy. At the dawn of TV, two rival camera technologies competed live on air to take control of the fledgling industry. The system that went first on opening night was a seven-foot tall mechanical monster built by John Logie Baird’s company. It was called the ‘Flying Spot’ and at its heart was a huge steel disc spinning almost at the speed of sound – meaning mechanical engineer Hugh had better be careful as he attempts to resurrect it. Meanwhile, Danielle finds out how the rival and highly experimental, all-electronic camera system had problems of its own.

The team uncovers the mixed influences of high-minded radio and bawdy variety shows on early TV, at a time when it was still a science experiment and not a mass medium. They seek advice from pre-war television pioneers, including Logie Baird’s former assistant, now aged 104 but still full of handy tips about how to build a mechanical camera.

Dallas learns just how much harder his job would have been 80 years ago, when the very first television announcer Leslie Mitchell was plastered in bizarre make-up and given a cue for ‘action’ that bordered on physical assault! Dallas also meets one of the performers in front of the camera on the original night – now in her nineties – to find out what it was like to be part of television history.

Comments

  1. Andrew Barker says:

    There is a sound recording of the opening ceremony as broadcast at 4pm using the Marconi-EMI system. Here’s the link. https://youtu.be/1TbrSY6Kwvs

  2. Jamie Medhurst says:

    Thanks for the blog John! Wish I could have been there this afternoon but teaching prevented it, sadly. Hope it was a good event.

  3. Jamie Medhurst says:

    John – I now finally understand the flyng spot!

  4. Luke McKernan says:

    I found the programme really helpful on the technology, but disappointing in the recreation. When so much material from 2 Nov 1936 does actually survive – the scripts, the song, the audio recording of the first programme, the film Television Comes to London, and the newsreel British Movietone News – much more could have been done to give us an idea of how it came together and looked. I guess we’ll just have to wait until the 90th anniversary and try again.

    But 104-yr-old Paul Reveley was amazing.

    • John Wyver says:

      And it will not surprise you to know, Luke, that I am certain there are better and more rigorous ways of achieving ‘recreations’ of early television. But that’s for another time – and I am glad that I now have something of a better grasp of the ‘flying spot’ camera. Just don’t ask me to explain it at the end of an evening.

  5. Amanda Wrigley says:

    Agreed – the technological recreations were super helpful, but so much more could have been said, and shared and explored! I vote for John producing the next one of these docus in five or ten years’ time! Thanks for the commentary on the blog, and the links, too.

  6. I have not watched the programme tonight, due to travelling back from the afternoon celebrations at AP.
    I saw the preview at the BFI and couldn’t agree more with your comments John. I also found it contrived, and more “techie” than it needed to be. Paul Reveley & Lily Beaumont were a joy and added the personal touch.
    For me “The Birth of Television” (1976) did a much better job.

  7. Jamie Medhurst says:

    Morning All. Like you, John, I’m a bit of a purist and my wife came in to the living room to catch me shouting at the screen ‘What about the speeches?!’. I also have some issues with the ‘Reith hated TV and never watch it’ narrative and talked to Peter Gauvain about this some months ago – it’s a lot more complex I think but then again in the confines of documentary which was trying to cover a lot…..Overall I enjoyed it but have a few niggling reservations (and I’m pretty sure Baird was invited to the opening and was there albeit not with the dignitaries). Thanks again for the blog.

  8. Steve Bryant says:

    Only just caught up with the programme but my reaction is much as those that have already commented. It struck me that I have spent much of my professional life explaining to people that there are no recordings of the opening of the TV service – just a rather dull documentary about the technology which contains a few segments giving an idea of what it actually looked like. So, 80 years on, I was looking forward to a recreation of the first night’s programming, but what we got was, er, a rather dull documentary about the technology containing a few segments…… Appropriate, I guess.

    • John Wyver says:

      Thanks, Steve – and thanks to the others who responded. I still think that there’s a great deal of mileage to be derived from recreating rather more responsibly and carefully programmes from the first years of television. Using scripts, floor plans, photographs and technology that replicates the images and the audio of early broadcast equipment, this is perfectly possible.

      As perhaps you’ve guessed, I have been trying to secure research funding to do just this, and am waiting on the outcome of a major bid just at the moment. However that falls out, I shall continue to post on the subject on this blog.

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