The fools return to the hill
18 Mar 2004 0 comments. tbs.pm/1961
The politics behind the return of TV in 1946
In June 1946, in a country worn out by more than six years of world war, the “luxury item” of a television service was reinstated. Considering that there were only around 25,000 television sets in use when the service had been suspended on the outbreak of war in 1939, it was surprising that the decision was taken at all. Food and clothes rationing were still in effect and would remain so for many years more, due to manufacturing capacity restraints and import restrictions.
It seemed a strange priority for a cash strapped government to authorise in 1945. It took almost a year to get the service back on the air, the BBC needing to bring the original staff back from service in the Forces and renovate the silent and dusty studios at Alexandra Palace in North London – headquarters of the BBC Television Service since 1936.
It became clear in time that the main motivation for the politicians and ministers was national pride and international competition – rather than serving maybe 75,000 viewers through 25,000 sets. The viewers, by definition, would be the more well off citizens of London – hardly a priority group in a time of national shortage.
When television had started in 1936, Britain had led the way with a high definition service, for several hours each day – albeit only in London and its environs. Experiments and attempted services in Germany, America and Russia had many achievements to their name, but a full daily service of high definition pictures and wide programming variety that ordinary people could receive in the home had initially been unique to Britain. This had all followed years of test transmissions and experimental broadcasts in the early to mid thirties.
Britain was at that time a country where the ruling classes were easily motivated by patriotic concepts. The idea of the UK being first and beating other countries in all manners of endeavour was powerful and effective. The government would authorise almost anything if it were suggested that a reborn Germany, the French or above all the Americans were about to “beat us to it”. The wartime coalition government had as early as September 1943 appointed a committee to consider the re-instatement of the television service. It took evidence from hundreds of specialists, witnesses and technical advisers and reported back in December 1944 recommending resumption of service. The government authorised this in October 1945, only a month after the war finally ended and it took the BBC eight months to prepare.
The real reason for this hurry – beyond even national pride as a concept – was that the war had bankrupted Britain. To get out of that bankruptcy and build the ‘New Jerusalem’ fit for returning heroes, the government needed cash. Printing pound notes wouldn’t help either – the cash had to be dollars.
These dollars could only be gained by selling goods to the Americans and to other countries willing to pay with dollars. Even the Empire and Commonwealth couldn’t really help – their currencies were linked to Sterling. Television sets could be one of those items to export, along with ‘luxury’ cars and valve-driven electronic goods. Even heavy switchgear used for radio transmission could be sold to a ravaged Europe, assuming they had the US funds to pay for it.
A British 405-line television set could be converted very easily into an American 525-line set, the theory went. Production lines producing one standard could also produce the other. And the manufacturers – largely British owned – could export for cash dollars and have an instant home market. But that home market required a television service for people to watch on their expensive new sets.
Thus it was that at a time of great national shortages, money and resources were diverted to restoring a minor middle class plaything to the citizens of the London. It was realised that the television service would need to expand to other regions and that a long slow development process must be got underway. Even so it was 1949 before the Midlands was reached and the early fifties when the North of England, South Wales and central Scotland were added.
June 1946 marked a watershed in BBC history, with the re-birth of a service that would eventually supplant radio as the main activity of the BBC. But it would take the death of a monarch and the accession of his young daughter before the public interest in television suddenly became a clamour that has yet to abate.
Kif Bowden-Smith is the founder of Transdiffusion.