The BBC television story
issued by the
BRITISH BROADCASTING CORPORATION
Into the homes of the people…
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
How it is done
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.
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).
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