BBC Television Demonstration 1936

Transmitted from Alexandra Palace to the Radiolympia Exhibition 75 years ago today…

This YouTube video from the Alexandra Palace Television Society has a very good description,

On August 26 at 11:45 a piece of Duke Ellington was heard, accompanied a caption card reading, BBC Demonstration to Radiolympia by the Baird System. It was followed by another ten minutes of music, including Eric Coates London Again suite contrary to belief in some circles, Coates Television March was not played, either during these tests or during the official opening: it was written for the re-opening of the Television Service after the war, ten years later.

The two other announcers having been taken ill, Leslie Mitchell alone was on hand to make the first announcement at the top of the hour, sitting in the dark of the Spotlight Studio, his words memorised, introducing a short documentary shown via telecine.

The highlight of the demonstration, starting half an hour into the programme, was to be a variety show. Its working title was originally simply “Variety”, but someone had the bright idea of calling it “Here’s Looking At You”, and the show included a song with the same title by Ronnie Hill, performed by Helen McKay.

The studio items were live, of course, and predominated: filmmakers, feeling understandably threatened by the new medium, were slow to get involved. As the main Baird studio was not ready, the show had to go out from the tiny Spotlight Studio, inevitably seriously cramping its style.

It was not until the next day, when everything was repeated using the Marconi-EMI system, that the show was seen in its full glory: with three cameras, two mobile and one fixed. The main EMI studio was divided into three, with a different act performing in each section one after the other, the cameras and lights moving down the studio as the show progressed. This was the version filmed by British Movietone news cameras and featured here.

“Hello Radiolympia”, said Leslie Mitchell, standing in front of the first set of curtains. “Ladies and gentlemen, Heres Looking at You.”

The 30-minute show that followed went out twice a day for two weeks, with the two competing television systems alternating on a daily basis.

The programme was received as far away as Bournemouth and Nottingham. And on September 5, the Marconi-EMI team, with their mobile camera, were able to include some shots from outside the building.

A great deal of excitement surrounded the demonstrations broadcast to Radiolympia, although they showed up severe problems with the transmission systems, especially on the Baird front, where the limitations of the equipment seriously compromised the content of the programming.

There were even some attempts at sabotage by parties who evidently believed that the new medium would represent a serious threat to their livelihoods, and receivers at the Olympia show had to be placed under guard.

Following the close of Radiolympia, test transmissions resumed in October leading up to the official inauguration of the BBC Television Service, which had been brought forward three months to early November.

Director of Television Gerald Cock believed that broadcasting hours should be limited and interrupted frequently for health reasons (in addition to the fact that resources were limited).

To avoid eye strain, he wrote in 1936, there should be interval signals between individual programmes, lasting not more than half a minute. These intervals should be marked by means of a modern clock, the dimension of whose face should be roughly the same as the dimensions of the received picture.

It was the beginning of the art of television presentation. Cock envisaged the television broadcast day as including around four hours of programming.

The intention had been to reconsider the performance of the two companies in April 1937, but with the Baird system suffering continuing inferior performance and unreliability, the government decided to adopt the Marconi-EMI system more rapidly, and the final Baird transmission went out on January 30, 1937.

While many pundits felt that the apparent competition between the two systems was a good thing, engineers at Ally Pally did not share this view. Programme planner Cecil Madden, quoted in Normans Heres Looking at You, noted, Working in the Baird studio was a bit like using Morse code when you knew that next door you could telephone.

It should be noted, however, that while mechanical scanning was perhaps not the best technology for a television service, it has not gone away. Rotating mirrors and mirror-drums not at all unlike Bairds are still in use by weather and surveillance satellites, and in interplanetary probes.

The BBC Television Service continued for three years, until the Alexandra Palace transmitter was closed down for the duration of the war on the afternoon of September 1, 1939 in case it was to act as a beacon for enemy bombers.

This film footage is from the Archive Collection held and administered by the Alexandra Palace Television Society.

~ Preserving the televisual past for the digital future ~

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