At 3 pm on this day in 1936 the BBC began its first regular television service. To begin with, only two hours of programmes were broadcast each day. There were no broadcasts on Sundays. The BBC didn’t particularly want to get involved in television, it was perfectly happy with radio. But if it didn’t, it faced losing its broadcasting monopoly. They only had about eighteen months to pull it all together too. The site they chose for both their studios and their transmission mast was the Alexandra Palace. The top of the mast needed to be 600 ft above sea level. As the Alexandra Palace already stood at 400 ft, all they had to do was quickly build a 200 ft mast on top of it. Having both studios and transmitter in the same building would prove to be a bit of a problem. The massive power output from the transmitter would get into the filming equipment and cause interference. Meanwhile, people eating in the canteen found that their knifes and forks produced sparks. Not ideal.
Initially, the BBC trialled two completely different broadcasting systems. They both met the standard for high definition broadcasting, which at the time required a minimum of 240 lines. The Baird system was mechanical and produced a picture of 240 lines while the EMI-Marconi electronic system gave a picture of 405 lines. The technology was so new that much of it was not even covered by patents. The programmes could at first only reach around 20,000 homes in the London area, but in reality, there were probably only around 400 sets capable of receiving the signal. The sets were very expensive.
The Baird system was terrifically complicated. It used film to take the pictures. The film was developed, washed, fixed and washed again. Then whilst still wet, in fact, still under water it was re-filmed and converted into a television picture. All this took only 54 seconds. There was a bit of a problem with the sound, which was recorded along with the picture. The microphone which picked it up was also under water. It used to get air bubbles in it which resulted in muffled sound. This meant people had to hit the tank it was in with a cricket bat, or even kick it to dislodge the bubbles. One of the chemicals used to develop the film was cyanide, which sometimes leaked onto the floor. As ladies wore long evening gowns for their television appearances, their hems were apt to trail in the cyanide and they had to be quickly hosed down. There was also a piece of equipment nearby that required 10,000 volts of electricity and a disc that span at 6,000 rpm. So transmissions from the Baird studio were ‘always exciting’. Baird’s system was never going to fly. It lasted only around three months.
The first broadcast began with a fifteen minute speech by an MP, the Postmaster-General and the chairman of the Television Advisory Committee. This was followed by the time, the weather and a Movietone newsreel. The first proper programme was simply titled ‘Variety’ and opened with a specially commissioned song called ‘Television’ sung by Adele Dixon. It was filmed for posterity and you could find it on YouTube, but I don’t advise it. Its begins: “A mighty maze of mystic, magic rays is all about us in the blue…” also featuring, were a troupe of Chinese acrobats called The Lai Founs and a pair of dancers and comedians called Buck and Bubbles. Do check them out, they look like much more fun.
Because programmes were transmitted live, there is very little surviving footage. We will never know just what happened in subsequent broadcasts. We can only read the programme listings. The display of champion Alsations, the prize chrysanthemums and bus driver L A Stock’s talk about his model of the ship, The Golden Hind are lost to us. The BBC, being in London, was in an excellent position to engage a wide variety of performers. All the large hotels in Central London put on late night shows and their acts were free in the afternoons and early evening. They also showed excepts from a ballet and a West End show. This was all just in the first week. It all sounds quite fun really. A bit like one of those late night shows at the Edinburgh Fringe where anybody might turn up and do a spot. What a lovely place the BBC must have been when there was no such thing as a commissioning process.