Into the homes of the people…

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The pre-war television programmes were the blueprint for the programmes of today. The small group of viewers in the London area could see ballet… Miss Gracie Fields… and full-length plays produced in the Alexandra Palace studios. They were the days of experiment and improvisation. The screen was small and the programmes did not make headlines. But in these early programmes lay the promise of today’s wide and still expanding television world.

Television is an urgent business with its mind on tomorrow. It has little, if any, time to look back over its history. Yet for the BBC Television Service this year of 1956 produces three anniversaries.

On 27 August 1936, the first television show ever transmitted by the BBC to the public was broadcast at Radiolympia. This was a curtain-raiser to the opening by the BBC on 2 November 1936, of the first public television service in the world. And on 7 June 1946, that service which had been suspended during the war re-opened to begin its tremendous march forward into the homes of the people.

Thus twenty years ago the foundations were being laid for the national television system we know today; and in a decade we have experienced a revolution which has transformed television from the recreation of the few into an instrument of information, education, and entertainment for millions of people.

Only ten years ago there were around 20,000 television sets in the whole of the country, there was one transmitter, and the engineers were proudly boasting of pictures being received in Brighton. Today, less than 4,000 days later, the BBC Television Service can reach ninety-seven per cent of the population of the United Kingdom and is already being carried by fourteen transmitters into six million homes. The BBC television cameras range at will within these shores and pictures are brought from other countries. It is no longer a miracle that the viewer, sitting in his armchair, can be taken on a tour of Britain or the Continent; he accepts the Cup Final or the Test matches on his screen almost as he accepts water from his tap; he has acquired for himself the right of a front row seat in the stalls at the play, the ballet or the music hall; and it is an established part of his routine that he should be present at the great events of our day.

Robotic soldiers bayonet figures lying on the ground
For close on three full years, the BBC Television Service presented plays, such as Karel Capek’s The Insect Play. But in that year, 1939, the war came and the service closed down.

The viewer is the human figure, the key figure, in this twentieth-century revolution. The BBC Television Service began in a small way to please and beguile him. Now it exists as a service to meet his many moods and interests and demands. The BBC Television Service grew because the people of this country wanted it to grow. They understood its purpose as a facet of national life; they appreciated its programmes — and were interested enough to say so when they did not. Consequently the audience increased. The hundreds began to be measured in thousands, the thousands were multiplied and the millions arrived.

A chef, in a suit, puts finishing touches to a dish on a wooden dining table next to a free-standing gas stove
The pre-war Television Service created its own personalities. Leslie Mitchell and Joan Gilbert were among the earliest. And, anticipating Philip Harben, there was M. Boulestin, preparing the dish of the month. The month: October 1937.

Yet it was only ten years ago, on the re-opening day in 1946, that the BBC Television Service was announcing that television producers could now ‘cut’ from one camera to another without the laborious business of a slow ‘mix’. It was only ten years ago, on the same occasion, that the then Postmaster General looked forward to the day when history in the making would be seen by ‘more than a handful of the population’. The next day, 8 June 1946, the Victory Parade was televised. But who in those days could have forecast that television cameras would be present at a Coronation ceremony and that twenty million people would see the crowning of the Queen? Only the heavens have been seen by more people at any one time.

Anybody who comes of age in 1957 has always lived in the television era. But to the men of BBC Television it has seemed a short road. They can recall without taxing the memory their dreams of television from the air, from ships at sea, and of television spanning continents. The dreams were father to the fact. Looking back from 1956 there is little that BBC Television has not done. In the years between, the picture has improved, the hours have increased, and the technical marvels have come one after the other. As with the Coronation, who in those earlier days would have thought of a camera unit or a commentator operating without the hindrance of cables? Yet the self-contained Roving Eye and the lapel microphone were invented to bring greater freedom to production.

And though the visionaries saw the development of television to embrace all aspects of our national life, did they see it advance so quickly in so many fields? The viewer who used to see a play a week might well reflect that now he sees more than 150 a year, that in fact the BBC Television Service puts on more new plays than the West End theatres. The viewer to whom his television set was a diversion in earlier days might well reflect on the growth of its importance in bringing Prime Ministers, the leading figures of the arts, sciences, and the theatre, the sportsmen and the celebrities to the screen. Each viewer, depending on when he joined the vast army now looking in, will have his own memories of the ‘old days’. There is a legion of viewers who know nothing but the new days.

To both categories we offer this backward glance over the years of the television revolution. In these pictorial pages will be found a record of the past and a promise for the future. For the BBC Television Service never stands still. The march of its progress is not halted by its past achievements. It has its eye firmly fixed on the things to come.

A boxing ring, dramatically lit from above
But even in the early days television was not tied to the studio. The outside broadcast cameras went out; in this case to televise the Boon v. Danahar fight from Harringay in February 1939.


The two lead actors embrace in fear, overlaid with the shadows of two INGSOC policemen
The play that caused a furore and added Big Brother to conversation – 1984, with Peter Cushing and Yvonne Mitchell.

The Sunday night play on BBC Television has become almost a national institution. Indeed, it is often said that television drama, entering, as it does, millions of homes, fills the need for a National Theatre in Britain. In 1946, when the BBC Television Service resumed after the war, the whole field of international theatre was ready to be explored. Since then the world’s plays, hundred by hundred, have been given new meaning and new audiences through the eyes of the television camera. Today the Drama Department is extending its scope; more and more plays are being specially written for the television screen. So the new writer takes his place alongside Ibsen and Shakespeare. And in these plays are presented some of Britain’s most distinguished actors and actresses.

The plays of Shakespeare are televised four times a year. In December 1955 Othello brought together an impressive trio — Gordon Heath as Othello, Rosemary Harris as Desdemona, and Paul Rogers as Iago.

Actors in poverty clothing
...and Shout Aloud Salvation, originally produced in April 1951, brought to the screen a little-known actress named Virginia McKenna.
The cast struggle to remove a helmet from the first victim in Quatermass
In the summer of 1953, The Quatermass Experiment took viewers into the realms of other worlds. The popularity of this serial led to its sequel, Quatermass II, which took viewers into Outer Space.

Outside Broadcasts

When it happens… as it happens. The BBC Television outside broadcast camera brought a new dimension into life – the ability to see events as they took place, perhaps hundreds of miles away. Today, the outside broadcast camera ranges across the whole of our national life and activity. In the ten years since 1946, the BBC Outside Broadcast Department has taken the viewer into ships at sea, under the earth, up in the air, and under the sea. But in all the vast procession of events, perhaps one stands out as offering television its greatest challenge. On 2 June 1953, BBC cameras televised the Coronation of Her Majesty the Queen.

Up in the Air. In August 1955, BBC Television cameras took wings. One was mounted in the bomb-aimer’s position in a Varsity to bring dramatic pictures of the take-off and landing.

Into Ships at Sea… A month earlier, in July 1955, BBC Outside Broadcast cameras went aboard the aircraft carrier H.M.S. Bulwalk, which was at sea. This meant providing a link between the ship and the shore. So a combined power, transmitter, and aerial vehicle is hoisted on board the carrier.

… and under the sea. In June 1956, after months of experiment, the BBC television cameras went down in a submarine.

A BBC camera points at a cricket match
The tranquil pleasure of the cricket field is relayed by the BBC camera to the home. The great sporting events, as in this fifth Test Match between England and South Africa, are now part of the service for BBC viewers. In the summer – visits to the Oval or Lord's and Wimbledon. In the winter – visits to Wembley or Twickenham. Television has brought a renewed interest in all kinds of sport.

Not all outside broadcasts take place outside. Sometimes the cameras go indoors – to see the show-places of Britain or to meet celebrities At Home. But, indoors or out, the operation is the same. Cameras have to be transported, cables laid, and the interviews prepared. Early in 1955 the BBC cameras went to meet Lady Barnett at her Leicestershire home. The cables, like so much spaghetti, have to be manœuvred through the window of the dining-room, and (right) the view that Lady Barnett got of the cables coming in. The men are used to such work. There are no breakages.

A chest of drawers is moved by two men
Little furniture is moved, so that the room shall be seen in its usual state. But in this case space had to be found for a light.
Barnett and Edgar look at a camera script
A few hours to go before the broadcast. Producer Barrie Edgar discusses on or two points with Lady Barnett.
Lady Barnett poses behind a BBC camera
A camera is installed in the corner of a room. Lady Barnett tries it out.

As the viewer saw Lady Barnett and her husband.


News knows no time boundaries. Day and night it pours into the BBC’s news headquarters. But news on television also means illustration. So there are cameramen ready to ‘shoot’ the news of the day. Behind them is a vast organization geared to presenting on the screen that night a complete survey of what happened, not only in this country but in all parts of the world.

Two men load equipment into the back of a car
A BBC cameraman and a sound recordist load up their gear to cover a story for Television News...

… and later, in the sound editing room at Alexandra Palace, the work of film man and recordist is ‘married’.


Three aeroplanes
War in the Air
The sculptor at work with a hammer and chisel
Henry Moore
A statue atop a plinth in the square outside a grand stone building
Week-end in Europe
Bill, Weed and Ben
Flowerpot Men
Children sit on the ground watching something off camera
Severn West Ward

The BBC Television Service embraces the most extensive film operation in this country today. The department uses more than six million feet of film a year. Film sequences are to be found in all types of programme from documentary to light entertainment and viewers have seen many films specially made by the department. And in the Film Library are recorded some of the great events of our time in a stock of film which would stretch from London, across the Atlantic to Newfoundland.

A man walks down a country road beside a valley
Heart of a Nation


BBC Television Talks is a department which has created its own character. A talks programme does not consist simply of putting a man in front of a camera to talk. It can be a series of zoo quests about animals and jungles; it can be a current affairs magazine like Panorama; it can be Orson Welles or Jacqueline Mackenzie. Under Talks you will find the men of politics and the men of learning; the archæologists discussing the latest finds and sparking off new interest in books and courses on archæology; bookmen and scientists and social historians; and just ordinary people of the world whose activities are part of our affairs. The BBC’s Royal Charter speaks of the value of broadcasting as a means to inform and educate as well as to entertain. All these three principles are to be found embraced in the talks programmes. And through these programmes some of our most distinguished experts have become as familiar to the home as the professional entertainer.

Sir Mortimer Wheeler and Dr. Glyn Daniel have become television personalities in their own right. They have made archæology bright and interesting, whether through Animal, Vegetable, Mineral? or, as pictured here, through Buried Treasure. Both enjoy good food; but this was a little different. Sir Mortimer and Dr. Daniel taste an Iron Age gruel.

Panorama opens the Window on the world – and so does David Attenborough, in his Zoo Quests.

The camera goes in for a close-up of Christopher Mayhew, M.P. We, the British – are we in Decline? That was the question posed by Mr. Mayhew in six programmes which ranged from Britain as a world power to our habits as a church-going nation.

Presenters site behind desks with maps of Scotland and London behind them
When the polls had closed after the 1955 General Election, the BBC Television Service swung into action with a minute-by-minute report – a combined operation by the News Division, the Outside Broadcast Department, and Talks. All through the night and the next day the television screen was alive with reports, results, interviews, and scenes from twenty different points in Britain.

Light Entertainment

At one time Light Entertainment followed the example of the music-hall. The act was the staple ingredient. But BBC Television developed its own forms of comedy. Now more and more shows are based on a single personality; it is around their particular talent that the show is moulded. It is Light Entertainment’s task to provide all types of humour, from slapstick to satire; but it has developed far beyond the variety-stage conception of entertainment. Now there are serials to be done; ‘spectaculars’ to produce; and new artists to be groomed to find those elusive laughs in the audience.

Shirley Eaton, Terry Scott (with script in hand) and Bill Maynard
Bill Maynard and Terry Scott are examples of the new age in Light Entertainment. They were newcomers who were given a chance on the television screen; and they took it – with the help of Miss Shirley Eaton – to become star names.
Actor playing actors and stage staff watch a man in a flat cap mop the floor
The scene: an alleged film set. The man in the flat cap: Dave King. The date: June 1955. By this time Mr. King had his own show. He was another of the young men who were groomed for television comedy. Today he is a top favourite, a man whose shows are a 'must' for millions.

Not all Light Entertainment is jokes and funny faces. Sometimes it comes from the gratification of a wish, as in Ask Pickles. You want to stroke a lion? Or dance with Victor Silvester? Or conduct an orchestra? Then – Ask Pickles.

For the first time millions of people saw the faces behind the radio voices. Dick Bentley was one of the BBC radio personalities who scored success on BBC Television.

A cast of eight cut a cake
In April 1954, the Grove Family took up residence – and their lives have been followed avidly ever since by eleven million viewers. In May 1956, they celebrated their 100th appearance on the screen with a cake surmounted by a replica of the Grove Family house.
The What's My Line panel, Eamonn Andrews and the contestant sit behind desks
The public knew what they liked – and high among their preferences in Light Entertainment were What's My Line? and Arthur Askey's Before your very Eyes. What's My Line? which began on 16 July 1951, was the panel game to beat them all. It introduced the viewer to a wide variety of occupations and celebrities. For the first time many people learned that a man could be employed as a sagger-maker's bottom knocker.

Arthur Askey, seen here with Leslie Mitchell, appeared in two series of Before your very Eyes – in 1952 and 1955.

Do you like your humour sophisticated and a little dry? Then try Terry-Thomas. Viewers did in 1951 with How do you View? – the first real attempt to find a new formula for television comedy. By popular request, Mr. Terry-Thomas returned in January 1956, with Strictly T-T. Between those two series a new face had appeared and a new reputation had been born: both belonged to Benny Hill, the gay spark in a setting of glamour.

…and a galaxy of Stars

Ray Martin
Ted Ray
Charlie Chester
David Nixon

Ray Martin

Ted Ray

Charlie Chester

David Nixon

The Television Toppers, a female dancing group

The Television Toppers

Jill Day sings
Billy Cotton

Jill Day

Billy Cotton


Vic Oliver
Petula Clarke

Vic Oliver

Petula Clarke

Jack Payne
Ruby Murray
Max Wall
Harry Green

Jack Payne

Ruby Murray

Max Wall

Harry Green

Alma Cogan sings
Richard Hearne, as Mr Pastry, chews celery

Alma Cogan

Richard Hearne


It is often said that all television is documentary because television reflects what we are doing and thinking and, perhaps, hoping. But in a direct sense, BBC Television produces two kinds of documentary: the dramatic document and the feature based on the facts of real life. In the past ten years viewers have seen many vital subjects dealt with in a documentary way, from the colour bar to foot-and-mouth disease. And they have given these programmes high praise. Documentary can combine studio, film, and outside broadcast facilities. By their very nature such programmes take a long time to prepare and mount. Behind them are weeks of writing and investigation. For a documentary must be accurate and, in the finished product, it must be telling.

Four boys stand in front of a panel of magistrates
One of the outstanding documentaries of the decade was The Course of Justice, which dealt with the way the courts of this country work. The series was first televised from Alexandra Palace in 1950, and then repeated in a new production from the Lime Grove studios. Here a London juvenile court is reconstructed in the Lime Grove studios.

Documentary turns its attention to women – in the first instance to look at Women Alone and in the second to report on her work for the community.

The nurse (below) is in San Salvador; and her role was part of The World is Ours series of filmed documents, produced in co-operation with the United Nations.

Music and Ballet

On the day that the BBC Television Service re-opened in 1946, Margot Fonteyn danced for the few viewers with receivers. Almost ten years later, in April 1956, Margot Fonteyn returned to the BBC Television screen – but this time to dance for millions. In the years between, viewers had seen many ballets, with the television camera capturing to the full the poetry of the ballet-dancer’s movements. And alongside the prima ballerinas were the great figures of music who came to the studios to play or to sing.

Somes balances a prostrate Fonteyn on his knee
Margot Fonteyn and Michael Somes in the television programme marking the tenth anniversary of Covent Garden's re-opening after the war.

Not all the ballet was classical. The Paris Opera Ballet took a contemporary theme – the colour bar – and performed a ballet to the music of Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue.

– and there was Russian folk-dancing. The spectacular leap over the heads of the girl-dancers was a highlight of the programme presented by the Moscow State Folk-dance Company in November 1955.

A camera points at Menuhin

The television cameras take two views of the world famous violinist, Yehudi Menuhin, one of the great figures of music who have contributed to the success of Music for You.

Music and verse were combined in a programme in November 1954. The verse – a poem by Keats – was read by Claire Bloom.

Children’s Television

Children’s Television is as wide in range as television itself: to suit all ages, there are outside broadcasts, films, drama, comedy shows, music, features on how to do things. Children have laughed with Muffin the Mule. They have been thrilled by Hopalong Cassidy. They have learned the finer points of games. And they have had a personal link with the programmes themselves. For Children’s Television believes in encouraging the young to take a direct part in what they see. Children’s Television expanded to give attention to the very young in Watch with Mother and, for the older children, to inaugurate an International Newsreel.

Tom Fleming as Jesus, in a white robe standing in the desert
One of the outstanding events in the history of Children's Television was the telling of the story of Jesus of Nazareth. Many of the scenes were filmed in the Holy Land.

The gay colours of the BBC Children’s Caravan have been seen in many parts of Britain. The caravan was built to tour the country and, before an audience of children, to provide a stage from which clowns and other entertainers can put on special shows.

It is afternoon. Mother has just seen a television programme for women. Now comes Andy Pandy – the little boy who entertains other little boys and girls.

Children’s Television is not a stay-at-home. Bobby in France took young viewers across the English Channel to see the sights, to learn a little of the language – and to see what a French loaf looks like.

Ever since 1952 children have been watching The Appleyards, the oldest family in television – but the youngest in heart. Through the Appleyards children have had fun; and have learned about such things as first jobs.


August 1950. On to the television screens in Britain came something different – the first direct pictures from a foreign country. The country was France and BBC cameras were there to televise a Calais fête. The idea had been born of the linking of nations through television. Eighteen months later BBC Television went back to France for a direct relay from Paris. There two programmes convinced the television men on both sides of the Channel that an exchange of programmes could work. And so it was that the word Eurovision came into the language. In June and July of 1954 eight countries combined to present programmes to each other. Today international television is accepted as part of the BBC service.

Eight nations took part in the 1954 week of Eurovision. And the television announcers of those eight nations celebrated with champagne their first week of international television.

This is where the picture started. Peter Dimmock and Max Robertson inspect the camera positions for the Winter Olympics at Cortina, televised in January 1956. From this point the pictures passed over the Italian Alps. through Switzerland and Germany and so on to Britain. The time lag? Less than it takes to blink an eye.

Pope Pius XII reads from a script with two microphones and a camera in front of him
In 1954 viewers in Britain were transported to Rome for the first time. There they toured St. Peter's and the Vatican. And, as a climax to the visit, His Holiness the Pope spoke to the eight nations, each in its own language.
Grace Kelly and Rainier Grimaldi walk down a road as crowds cheer
Eurovision covered the news. The wedding of Prince Rainier and Princess Grace attracted hundreds of newspapermen and photographers. The television cameras were there, too, to bring the scenes to all BBC viewers.

How it is done

The cast sit around a large table with their scripts
The cast meets for the first time to read through the script at an outside rehearsal room. Before them are three weeks of rehearsal.

A television production is a complicated affair in which the practical and æsthetic are related. On the television screen a BBC Television play lasts ninety minutes; but behind those ninety minutes are weeks of preparation. A play is not simply a matter of words or a producer’s interpretation of a classic drama. There are physical questions of scenery to be dealt with; or a decision has to be taken about the style of mantelpiece to be used. These are the good housekeeping aspects of a television play upon which the final product depends for its effect. In July 1955, Rudolph Cartier produced a television version of Jean Anouilh’s Eurydice. The life-story of Eurydice, renamed The Vale of Shadows, is the life-story of every television play.

The play needs settings. So the designer, Stephen Taylor, discusses the working drawings with a draughtsman.

After the dressing of the studio comes the dressing of the actors. Laurence Payne is measured for his costume in the Wardrobe Department. The wheels of the production have begun to turn. The rehearsals can begin. Still in the outside rehearsal room, the cast go through a scene from the play.

(Below) The action begins and the players are watched with eagle attention by producer Rudolph Cartier (left).

Like Masefield’s British coaster, the property stores carry everything – from a telephone kiosk to a pool of water. Eurydice needs ‘props’; so a selection is made while, in another part of London, the actors rehearse their parts.

In a television play, as in the theatre, back-cloths are needed. Now the scenic artists are preparing them in their gallery. They paint in the grand manner, across yards of canvas which unroll through a vent in the floor.

The scenery is constructed by the carpenters in their shops at the Television Centre. But the Lime Grove studios are a quarter of a mile away. So, piece by piece, the scenery is loaded into pantechnicons and is driven to the studio.

And in the plaster shop at the Centre, other specially constructed essentials of the play are prepared, perhaps from papier mâché. They, too, go into the delivery van.

The moment is arriving for the final rehearsal, this time before the cameras at the Lime Grove Studios. The lighting supervisor (top left) directs the positioning of the lights under which the actors will work. An artist (below left) paints the title caption of the play. And Miss Sterke (top right) goes to the make-up room. The pieces of the jig-saw are coming together. It is now the afternoon of the evening transmission – and the cameras are ready for the last rehearsal. The producer and his assistants (bottom right) sit before the screen linked with each camera on the studio floor.

On the floor itself, amid a forest of equipment, under the cold stare of the camera and the blaze of lights, Laurence Payne and Jeannette Sterke play a scene.

And on the screen that night Mr. Payne and Miss Sterke are seen in The Vale of Shadows. It is the culmination of weeks of work involving scores of people. Tomorrow there will be another play, by another author with other actors.

Some BBC Television dates

Inauguration of experimental television transmission of still pictures by the Fultograph process from Daventry

30 August 1928

First experimental television programme from Broadcasting House, 30-line system (Baird process taken over by BBC)

22 August 1932

High-definition Television Service from Alexandra Palace officially inaugurated

2 November 1936

Coronation of King George VI: first outside broadcast by Television Service

12 May 1937

Television Service closed down for reasons of national defence

1 September 1939

Television Service resumed

7 June 1946

First television outside broadcast from No. 10 Downing Street: Commonwealth Conference

11 October 1948

Sutton Coldfield television transmitting station opened

17 December 1949

First television outside broadcast from the Continent (Calais)

27 August 1950

First ‘live’ air to ground television broadcast (from an aircraft in flight)

30 September 1950

Holme Moss television transmitting station opened

12 October 1951

First television election address – given by Lord Samuel for the Liberal Party

15 October 1951

Kirk o’ Shotts television transmitting station opened

14 March 1952

First direct television from Paris (experimental)

21 April 1952

First schools television programme (4 weeks experiment)

5 May 1952

First public transmission in the UK of television from Paris

8 July 1952

Wenvoe television transmitting station opened

15 August 1952

Pontop Pike and Glancairn temporary television transmitting stations opened

1 May 1953

Truleigh Hill temporary television transmitting station opened

9 May 1953

Coronation ceremony televised for the first time

2 June 1953

Television relayed from ship at sea for the first time during the Royal Naval Review

15 June 1953

Temporary television transmitting station near Douglas (Isle of Man) opened

20 December 1953

First European exchange of television programmes with eight countries taking part (to 4 July)

6 June 1954

Rowridge temporary television transmitting station opened

12 November 1954

Redmoss temporary television transmitting station opened

14 December 1954

North Hessary Tor temporary television transmitting station opened

17 December 1954

Norwich television transmitting station opened

1 February 1955

Divis television transmitting station opened (replacing Glencairn in Northern Ireland)

21 July 1955

First section of permanent two-way television link with Continent completed

15 September 1955

Les Platons (Channel Islands) television transmitting station opened

3 October 1955

Colour television test transmissions began from Alexandra Palace

10 October 1955

Meldrum television transmitting station opened (replacing Redmoss, near Aberdeen)

12 October 1955

Demonstration of colour television to members of the press

20 October 1955

Pontop Pike television transmitting station completed

15 November 1955

First live television programme from Northern Ireland

17 November 1955

Crystal Palace television transmitting station opened replacing Alexandra Palace

28 March 1956

First public colour television test transmissions from Alexandra Palace

3 April 1956

First Ministerial television broadcast (Prime Minister)

27 April 1956

North Hessary Tor television transmitting station completed

22 May 1956

Rowridge television transmitting station completed

11 June 1956

First ‘live’ television broadcast from a submarine at sea

16 June 1956

First television transmission from a helicopter

4 August 1956

Source: BBC Handbook for 1961

A statue of Apollo stands in front of the lattice mast at Crystal Palace.
On 28 March 1956, Crystal Palace took over from Alexandra Palace as the London transmitter.