Television is coming back
23 Aug 2003 0 comments. tbs.pm/1915
In the summer of 1939, some 23,000 people in the south of England had their own television sets. They saw the Derby, the Theatrical Garden Party, the return of the King and Queen from Canada, Peggy Ashcroft in ‘The Tempest’, ‘Me and My Girl’ from the Victoria Palace, visiting celebrities in ‘Picture Page’. Now [in 1946]…
From 1936 to 1939 the BBC ran a television service – the first public service of television programmes to be given anywhere in the world. The BBC itself had been experimenting with television transmission for some years before 1936, but from that time onwards the ordinary citizen living in the London area could buy a television set, have it installed in his home, and see, every afternoon and evening, programmes that had real entertainment value: everything from ceremonial processions and top-line sport to studio plays, cabaret, discussions, and films.
This service closed down on 1 September, 1939, at the coming of war. Since then there has been no television in Britain, and more fortunate countries have had a tempting opportunity to catch up.
In September, 1943, the Government appointed a committee to prepare plans for the reinstatement and development of the television service after the war. This involved special consideration of extending the service to ‘at any rate the larger centres of population within a reasonable period after the war’; of research and development, and of the question of export trade in television equipment. Under the chairmanship of Lord Hankey, the Committee contained representatives of the General Post Office, the Department of Scientific and Industrial Research, the Treasury, and the BBC. Amongst the members were the very distinguished scientists Sir Edward Appleton, who represented the D.S.I.R., and Professor Cockroft, who retained his interest in the committee’s proceedings even after his main energies were diverted to the atomic bomb. The committee held thirty-one meetings, in the course of which it heard witnesses from the electrical, radio, and telephone industries, the film producers, the Ministry of Education and Board of Trade, and the British inventor, Mr. J. L. Baird.
The committee presented its report to the Lord President of the Council on 29 December, 1944; the Government indicated agreement with its main recommendations on 9 October, 1945; this gave the BBC its signal to go ahead, and preparations for re-starting the television service were put in hand at once. Before the end of the year intensive work was being done at the old television headquarters at Alexandra Palace ; the complex engineering equipment was being tested down to the last detail, studio circuits and lighting were being re-installed, scenery and wardrobe were being sorted, overhauled, and renovated. Much of this work was being done by former television staff who had earned their release from the Services in which they had spent some six years. By the beginning of 1946, the return of the television service was within sight.
Although the BBC has been charged with the task of operating the television service, this task involves co-operation with many other bodies, from the radio manufacturers, who will provide the sets, to the various Government departments who can supply facilities and allot priorities in manpower and materials that are essential before television can resume and expand. And there is the same need in television as in sound broadcasting for friendly co-operation with private interests and professional organizations in the worlds of entertainment and sport, if television is to bring to the viewer the full range of broadcasts in which sight can usefully be added to sound.
Granted that co-operation in all these directions is successful, what sort of television service can the BBC provide in 1946?
The range of the service will be a radius of about forty miles from Alexandra Palace, on Muswell Hill, the site of the London television transmitter, the top of the mast being 606 feet above sea-level. This forty miles is no rigid limit. Before the war, many people living at a greater distance from London had television sets and became regular viewers. There were frequent reports of reception well outside the estimated range, and occasional reports of freak reception over unexpected distances; for instance, the television picture from Alexandra Palace was once received in New York. But hopes that radar research would turn such exceptions into the rule have proved premature, and in 1946 the range of television, as a service to give regular entertainment to the ordinary home, is not likely to extend much beyond the forty miles.
The technical standards used will be those used in 1939: 405 lines, fifty frames interlaced, giving twenty-five complete picture frames per second. This means a picture technically considerably below the definition standards of the cinema, but whereas the cinema picture is viewed on a large screen in a theatre the television picture is viewed on a comparatively small screen in the home, and this difference in conditions of viewing makes the straightforward technical comparison rather misleading. With good lighting at the transmission end and the right adjustments at the listener’s end, the television picture becomes more than a picture – you know that you are watching real people doing real things. The same applies to the size of the screen, whatever it may be. A badly-produced programme may make you feel that the screen is small and cramped, but if the programme is good enough you will look at the screen not as a picture within a frame but as a view seen through a window – and the view may comprise anything from a Boat Race or a shot up into the Big Top at the circus to a vivid bit of acting in the studio, or even a close-up of a conjurer producing a rabbit from a hat.
Hours of transmission before the war covered an afternoon session up to an hour and a half in length and an evening session up to two hours, plus a morning demonstration intended mainly for dealers who want to show customers their sets in action. (Though, it may be said in passing, nobody can expect maximum television sales from this sort of demonstration, still less from casual viewing at exhibitions; the sure way of getting new devotees for television is to install the set for a trial period in their homes and let them enjoy it in the conditions in which they will be using it.)
Viewing television is a very different activity from listening to sound broadcasts. The radio set can remain on for hours at a time; you can enjoy it as background to reading, writing, homework, housework (some people can even enjoy it as background to conversation, darts, or bridge). The television set demands your attention; you cannot enjoy television from the next room. You must sit facing the set, with the lights down or shaded, and if you are a normal viewer you will find yourself very reluctant to be disturbed during a programme that you enjoy. This puts a limit on the hours that the ordinary viewer can give to his viewing. Broadcasting must go on from morning till midnight, but television is quite another matter, as most viewers will soon find.
As for programmes, there is no limit to what viewers can hope to see. Judging from previous experience, the most popular items will probably be television ‘outside broadcasts’ of sporting events – Cup Finals, the Derby, big boxing, tennis, cricket, seen whilst they are actually taking place – and from theatres, with of course big public events such as the opening of Parliament and the Lord Mayor’s Show. These outside shows will always appeal particularly to the new viewer. The old hand may in time come to earmark his evenings primarily for full-length television plays, which were the other great attraction in pre-war days. And then of course there will be variety, cabaret, ballet, fashion shows, demonstrations of everything from cooking to carpentry, talks, discussions, and quiz programmes, art shows, personality interviews, visits to the Zoo, street interviews with ordinary Londoners, jazz sessions, recitals, and films. Briefly, it might be said that television can do many things that sound broadcasting cannot do and can improve on almost everything that sound broadcasting can do. Almost everything; for there are still one or two categories of sound broadcasting to which sight could add little and from which the exigencies of television production might even detract.
When the pre-war staff are back, when Alexandra Palace is all cleaned up and on the air again, when television is again a household word in the London area; what is the next move? When will standards be improved so as to give a clearer picture with greater detail, and when will television spread out of London and into the other great population centres of Great Britain?
The answers to these questions are not likely to come in 1946. Nor will they come from the BBC alone. The Hankey Report made certain recommendations as to what the answers should be, but it also recommended the setting up of an Advisory Committee such as had done valuable work in the development of television before the war. The appointment of this Advisory Committee was announced on 27 November, 1945, and its chairman is Mr. G. M. Garro-Jones. Representing as it does the public bodies on whom the development of television into a national service depends, it will be concerned with all these problems of the future. Under its guidance, television has the chance to go forward fast to the stage when it is no longer a comparative luxury for people who live in one part of the country, but an amenity that can be enjoyed by the bulk of the population, bringing to broadcasting the one element that it has always lacked.
Maurice Gorham was appointed to take charge of the BBC Television Service after the War. This article originally appeared in the BBC Year Book, 1946