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75 Years of BBC Television

Wednes­day 2nd Novem­ber saw the 75th anniver­sary of the open­ing of the BBC Tele­vi­sion Service.

To com­mem­o­rate the event, the BBC held a spe­cial cel­e­bra­tion at Alexan­dra Palace, where the Ser­vice opened.

Orig­i­nal­ly, the inten­tion was to hold a spe­cial Open Day on the 2nd, at which mem­bers of the pub­lic would be able to vis­it the stu­dios and see audio-visu­al pre­sen­ta­tions. How­ev­er this was even­tu­al­ly moved to Novem­ber 5–6, leav­ing only an inter­nal BBC event hap­pen­ing on the actu­al day.

I man­aged to obtain an invi­ta­tion, for which my thanks to the ebul­lient Robert Seat­ter, head of BBC His­to­ry, and tech­nol­o­gy jour­nal­ist Bill Thompson.

The invi­ta­tion said “3:45 for 4pm” and as a result I found myself in the Alexan­dra Palace Tow­er end car park well in time for the off, giv­ing some time to take in the views over the city, expe­ri­ence the con­tin­u­al wind and enjoy some dra­mat­ic skies over this “Palace of the Peo­ple” locat­ed at the high­est point in North London.

When the BBC decid­ed on Ally Pal­ly as the site for the new BBC Tele­vi­sion Ser­vice in the wake of the Sels­don Report in 1936, the place was already decay­ing some­what. It’s a process that has con­tin­ued since BBC Tele­vi­sion left here sev­er­al decades ago, and although the team now fronting the Trust that runs the site today is incred­i­bly, and impres­sive­ly, enthu­si­as­tic and upbeat, there is no way it can be oth­er than an uphill strug­gle in these aus­tere times. But you can’t say they aren’t try­ing hard and I wish them every success.

The BBC still main­tains active offices in the block under the mast. But instead of enter­ing through the doors there, adja­cent to the GLC blue com­mem­o­ra­tive plaque on the wall, we were motioned into an entrance along to the left, up a met­al ramp and into what had orig­i­nal­ly been the Trans­mit­ter Hall. It may be not­ed that this was prob­a­bly not the first, but pos­si­bly the last, time that any­one had the bright idea of plac­ing a pair of pow­er­ful VHF trans­mit­ters and a pig­ging great set of trans­mit­ting anten­nae right next to a set of tele­vi­sion stu­dios full of sen­si­tive equipment.

Inside, the room had been dec­o­rat­ed with pan­els against the walls, each car­ry­ing infor­ma­tion and images of some aspect of Ally Pal­ly TV his­to­ry, and a free-stand­ing pho­to dis­play of his­tor­i­cal images, main­ly pro­vid­ed by the Alexan­dra Palace Tele­vi­sion Soci­ety. A jazz quar­tet played suit­able 1930s style music; servers glid­ed among the assem­bled invi­tees dis­pens­ing water, orange juice or Prosecco.

We had the chance to min­gle and chat, and I was very pleased to meet TV cook Zena Skin­ner, who prob­a­bly coined the phrase “Here’s one I made ear­li­er” — though in her case she real­ly had made it ear­li­er, her­self; I also met Pro­fes­sor Jean Seaton, the BBC’s Offi­cial His­to­ri­an and Pro­fes­sor of Media His­to­ry at the Uni­ver­si­ty of West­min­ster; and talked briefly to John Tre­nouth, Tech­nol­o­gy Advis­er to the BBC Col­lec­tion, whom I met dur­ing his time at what is now the Nation­al Media Muse­um in Bradford.

In the cen­tre of the room, a make-up table and lights were set up, where var­i­ous young women were being made up using the colours required by the Baird System.

When the BBC Tele­vi­sion Ser­vice was estab­lished, the Gov­ern­ment required two tele­vi­sion sys­tems to be used. On the one hand was the all-elec­tron­ic Mar­coni-EMI sys­tem, which offered 405 lines, and on the oth­er was the Baird electro­mechan­i­cal sys­tem which deliv­ered 240-line tele­vi­sion. Ear­ly on, it became evi­dent that the Mar­coni-EMI sys­tem was sig­nif­i­cant­ly supe­ri­or, but it had been Baird who had tire­less­ly pro­mot­ed tele­vi­sion as a con­cept, and lob­bied the GPO over licens­ing and the Gov­ern­ment to leg­is­late for a Tele­vi­sion Ser­vice. Baird high­light­ed the fact that his was a British inven­tion – though it could equal­ly legit­i­mate­ly be claimed that the Mar­coni-EMI sys­tem was British. Almost cer­tain­ly the Gov­ern­ment deci­sion, a typ­i­cal British com­pro­mise, was made at least in part to avoid sug­ges­tions that they were turn­ing down a British inno­va­tion, the deci­sion man­dat­ing the use of both sys­tems on an alter­nat­ing basis for six months before a choice was to be made before the two. The prob­lems expe­ri­enced with the tech­no­log­i­cal dead-end of the Baird mechan­i­cal scan­ning sys­tem result­ed in the deci­sion — in favour of Mar­coni-EMI — to be made after just three months.

Baird Tele­vi­sion actu­al­ly used two sys­tems. The fun­da­men­tal fea­ture of both was a “fly­ing spot scan­ner” in which, almost com­plete­ly counter-intu­itive­ly, the scene was scanned with a spot of light and pho­to­cells col­lect­ed the light reflect­ed from the sub­ject. The “Spot­light Stu­dio” used noth­ing more than this; the Inter­me­di­ate Film Tech­nique used a con­ven­tion­al film cam­era, exposed film from which was then passed imme­di­ate­ly through devel­op­er and high­ly poi­so­nous cyanide-based fix­er (par­tic­u­lar­ly nasty when it got loose), then scanned with a a fly­ing spot actu­al­ly under water. The fly­ing spot scan­ner was very sen­si­tive to red light, so if you were appear­ing in the Spot­light Stu­dio, you need­ed the spe­cial make up: black lip­stick, blue eye-shad­ow and a pale white face. Very neo-Goth. You checked it by look­ing through a red gel.

This was the make-up that was being applied to the young ladies at Ally Pal­ly on the 2nd. Appar­ent­ly the idea had orig­i­nal­ly been that BBC Lon­don would be send­ing a crew up to cov­er the par­ty, but they had pulled out and the job was left to an enthu­si­as­tic team from BBC News School Report.

Mean­while, we were treat­ed to wel­com­ing pre­sen­ta­tions: by the PR gen­tle­man from the AP team, and from Robert Seat­ter, who encour­aged us to relin­quish our glass­es and pro­ceed upstairs to Stu­dio A.

There were two main stu­dios at Ally Pal­ly orig­i­nal­ly, one above the oth­er. Stu­dio A was the Mar­coni-EMI stu­dio, while direct­ly above it was the Baird stu­dio, Stu­dio B. You can’t go into B today, because it’s rid­dled with asbestos and things are like­ly to fall on your head. But Stu­dio A is acces­si­ble. At one end of the room is a tableau rep­re­sent­ing the pro­duc­tion of the mag­a­zine pro­gramme Pic­ture Page, which ran from 1936–39 and 1946–52 and was ini­tial­ly pre­sent­ed by Joan Miller.

Around the room are assem­bled old TV sets, and var­i­ous exhibits in the room itself includ­ed an EMItron cam­era, which John Tre­nouth of the Nation­al Media Muse­um in Brad­ford kind­ly removed the lid of so we could have a look at the innards (sans tube).

In Stu­dio A we were treat­ed to a cou­ple of brief audio-visu­al pre­sen­ta­tions, the first assem­bled main­ly from clips from the film doc­u­men­tary Tele­vi­sion Comes To Lon­don, which was made to tell the BBC Tele­vi­sion Ser­vice sto­ry in 1936. Rebec­ca Kane, the MD of Alexan­dra Palace Trad­ing Ltd, intro­duced Michael Aspel, a news­read­er at AP dur­ing the peri­od when BBC Tele­vi­sion News was based here, to cut the cake.

And what a cake it was: made in the form of an old bake­lite tele­vi­sion with a pic­ture of Alexan­dra Palace on the screen, deli­cious­ly thick icing and suc­cu­lent innards. Very nice.

After that, we all wan­dered around Stu­dio A and chat­ted to each oth­er. I got into an amus­ing dis­cus­sion about the way in which the Tele­vi­sion Ser­vice closed down at the start of the Sec­ond World War, on Sep­tem­ber 1st, 1939 – about which a num­ber of myths have arisen, most of which are incor­rect (includ­ing the per­pet­u­a­tion of the main myth in Alan Yen­to­b’s Imag­ine doc­u­men­tary, re-shown on Wednes­day) – see The Edit that Rewrote His­to­ry on the Trans­d­if­fu­sion Baird site, which includes a num­ber of arti­cles on tele­vi­sion pri­or to 1955.

And then we grad­u­al­ly sloped off home.

See also:

The birth of tele­vi­sion: the “Baird” microsite at Transdiffusion

75 years on from BBC tele­vi­sion’s tech­nol­o­gy bat­tle — a nice piece by John Trenouth

BBC Cel­e­brates 75 Years of TV — Nick High­am vis­its Alexan­dra Palace