Celebrating 75 Years of BBC Television 

9 November 2011 tbs.pm/2267

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 (as you can read in other articles here).

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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; and, 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.

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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, 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.

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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.

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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 elsewhere on this site. And then we gradually sloped off home.

A Transdiffusion Presentation

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