‘As good as going to the Games’: London 1948

10th August 2012

Earlier this week Eric Pfanner for The New York Times celebrated the BBC’s coverage of the Olympics, suggesting- albeit only cautiously – that it was significantly superior to NBC’s offering. This might be the year of Super Hi-Vision and every-minute-of-every-event coverage (and haven’t we loved it!) but Pfanner also noted that

London Olympics have provided a variety of television firsts. The last such Games, in 1948, were the first to be televised to people’s homes, for example.

There was television at the notorious 1936 Berlin Games but the pictures were only shown in collective viewing rooms. So London 1948 was the start of the small-screen Olympics, and as this year’s extravaganza comes to an end I thought it might be interesting to look back to television at the Games sixty-four years ago. (The official Olympics web sit has some vivid colour newsreel from 1948.)

BBC Archive has assembled a rich online collection  of traces of the ‘austerity games’. Three fragments of BBC newsreel from the time are complemented by some audio recordings, clippings from Radio Times and some great glleries of photographs: Opening Ceremony,  Events and Broadcasting the 1948 Olympics. Look at how many of the images foreground the technology of television (as in the one above) – cameras are highly visible in so many of BBC publicity shots of the time, underlining the significance of the medium in comparison to the events that constitute the ‘message’.

Telerecording was barely at the experimental stage in 1948, and so the newsreels are almost the only television images of the event – although of course they are short film documentaries. The most interesting of the trilogy here is Latest TV equipment at the Olympiad, which hymns with almost comical enthusiasm the arrival of an outside broadcast truck fitted with new CPS Emitron cameras.

On their invaluable YouTube channel the Alexandra Palace Television Society have posted a version of this newsreel (embedded below) that also features at the end just a couple of thrilling shots of what the opening ceremony actually looked like on a domestic screen. Such images of actual television in operation are exceptionally rare from this time.

In the third volume of his official history of the BBC, Asa Briggs  notes how important was the introduction of these cameras (and it’s worth reading his account alongside the photographs in the BBC Archive galleries):

The coverage of the 1948 Olympic Games… captured public interest in television – and that of the Press – to a hitherto unprecedented extent. Two mobile units controlled from a radio centre in the Palace of Arts – one unit in Wembley Stadium itself, the other at the Pool – each marshalled three cameras, with producers watching events on monitoring screens and drawing on the stories of a dozen commentators. As many as seventy hours of television programmes were prepared in fifteen days [with 7 hours 35 minutes on one day]

The CPS Emitron camera equipment [first deployed at the 1947 Royal Weddding]… was used in an improved version in the mobile control van of the Outside Broadcasts team for the July Olympic Games at Wembley Stadium. Never had television pictures been so good. The very high lighting levels needed in the studios at Alexandra Palace were no longer necessary for televising, and the pictures of the Games on the screen had a ‘velvety’ quality reminiscent of high-grade photographs. There were still a few operational risks, but from now on it was possible to take pictures in settings which had hitherto been too ‘dim’ to televise.

In his Adventures in Vision, a book written just a year or so after the Games, John Swift gives a vivid picture of the excitement of what he describes as

… the biggest undertaking in television history. All the main Stadium and Empire Pool events were broadcast as actualities, while the Television Newsreel unit, also put to its most severe test, was despatched at speed from point to point to cover rowing, shooting, cycling, yachting and other events taking place at centres other than Wembley. The exposed reels were rushed back to London laboratories, often by ‘plane, to be processed speedily and often included in the programme the same evening. The “scoops” were many.

None of the great moments, of triumph or disaster, were missed on the screen during those two weeks of intense activity – [Don] Finlay’s tragic stumble at the last hurdle; the final last second spurt of [Harrison] Dillard that won him the hundred metres; the dark figure of [Arthur] Wint pounding the turf in his grief after pulling a muscle that lost him certain victory; the dramatic end of the Marathon, and the phenomenal power and stamina of Fanny Blankers-Koen as she added one victory to another to become the finest woman athlete ever known. All this, and more, was seen.

That, at least, is the official story – and certainly there were many at the time who were happy with this idea of television’s first successful games. The Listener, for example, editorialised that

Those happy enough to enjoy the pleasures of television also appear to have been well satisfied, the more enthusiastic viewers remrking that it was as good as going to the games.

The Observer was similarly positive on the first weekend of the Games:

The Olympic Games got off to a warm start, and the stay-at-homes in the London area were not only spared a gruelling session in the sun, but became highly privileged spectators if thy were lucky enough to own or have access to a Television set. To watch the water polo was almost to be splashed with the water.

Given all this enthusiasm, it is particularly interesting to come across a more nuanced and partly dissenting view – from Harold Hobson, who then was the television critic of The Listener. Hobson is full of praise for the new cameras, and for the way they captured the drama of the closing stages of the 5,000 metres:

Quite the biggest thing I have yet seen on the television screen was the defeat of Zatopek… Had the race lasted another second, had the track been two yards longer, Zatopek would have won. As it was, the universe being what it is, courage and human determination counting little against the inexorability of mathematics and the measuring rule, Rieff broke the tape in the flash of an eyelid ahead of Zatopek, and one more display of human magnificence slid back into the grave of time, bruised and defeated, but an inspiration, an illumination.

[They don’t really write television criticism like that anymore, do they?]

Hobson, however, was withering about the overall picture of the Games that came across on the small screen:

Supposing that the organisers of the 1948 Games wanted to create an effect of shabby, shoddy muddle, then judging from the television screen, they… succeeded in their aim. Seen from an armchair the Games seemed to have neither comprehensive plan nor individual impressiveness of presentation. On the television screen they looked like some haphazard athletic events run together at the last moment by an incompetent spiritual instructor who had counted on the annual Sunday School treat being washed out by rain.

Somehow I doubt that any commentator will be pssing such a verdict on London 2012 or on the immaculate BBC coverage.


  1. Luke McKernan says:

    The “vivid colour newsreel” is taken from XIVth Olympiad – The Glory of Sport, the official feature film record of the 1948 Games, producer by Castleton Knight for Rank and shot in Technicolor (monopack, bipack and three-strip). Castleton Knight was a Gaumont-British News producer and also oversaw the black-and-white newsreel filming of the Games, for which a pooling system was in operation.

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