❚ ONLY ABOUT 400 “LOOKERS-IN” were able to view the world’s first scheduled television service in high-definition (240+ lines) at 3pm on November 2, 1936. The engineers wore white dust-coats and the star wore a cocktail dress. With immaculate middle-class enunciation, she sang a song full of amazement at the newest technology of its day:
♫ A mighty maze of mystic, magic rays
Is all about us in the blu-u-u-u-e,
And in sight and sound they trace
Living pictures out of space
To bring our new wonder to you-u-u-u-u ♫
Everyone knew the musical comedy star Adele Dixon, though not yet the BBC Television Orchestra conducted by Hyam Greenbaum, also glimpsed in the clip above. The opening show was called Variety, and the song was called simply Television — known universally today as The Television Song. It had been specially written for the occasion, with lyrics by James Dyrenforth and music by Kenneth Leslie-Smith. Its innocence still wows us for six.
The broadcast was being beamed from what became a landmark transmitter tower atop customised studios 350ft over North London at Alexandra Palace, the original “people’s palace of entertainment”. Two different black-and-white television systems were being tested in quick succession on that first afternoon, and then on alternate weeks for six months: in the 70 x 30 feet Studio A the Marconi-EMI 405-line electronic system; and in Studio B, John Logie Baird’s 240-line mechanical system.
Baird the tenacious Scot is usually claimed to be the inventor of television and between 1923–1925 he demonstrated his clunky apparatus with a spiral of revolving lenses in the Soho building which became Bianchi’s restaurant soon after, refurbished today as Little Italy. The Times reported in 1926: “The image was often blurred. But it substantiated a claim that it is possible to transmit and reproduce instantly such things as the play of expression on the human face.”
The flaw lay in Baird’s underlying technology being mechanical. In the end, Marconi’s electronic rival proved to be the future and it endured until the 1960s. Cecil Madden, the BBC’s fledgling TV Programme Organiser, says the differences were all too apparent: “Working in the Baird studio was a bit like using Morse code when you knew that next door you could telephone.”
A kick-start to the novice TV industry had come two months earlier. At very short notice the rival systems had been demonstrated at Radiolympia, the annual exhibition mounted by the Radio Manufacturers’ Association. The radio industry couldn’t sell the stands for the 1936 show (Aug 24-Sep 3) and a desperate call for help went out: could television save the day? (All the more desperate considering that TV sets in 1936 cost a princely £150, which is equivalent to £8,300 in today’s money.) Given only nine days’ warning, Cecil Madden appointed himself producer of its first broadcast.
❏ On August 26 at 11:45 a piece of Duke Ellington was heard, accompanied by a caption card reading, BBC Demonstration to Radiolympia by the Baird System, transmitted from its tiny one-camera studio. This was followed by another ten minutes of music. The highlight of the demonstration was to be a variety show someone had the bright idea of calling Here’s Looking At You, featuring a song with the same title by Ronnie Hill, performed by Helen McKay.
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. This was the version filmed by British Movietone news cameras and featured above. “Hello Radiolympia,” said announcer Leslie Mitchell, standing in front of the first set of curtains. “Ladies and gentlemen, Here’s Looking at You.” And Miss McKay sang:
♫ Here’s looking at you
From out of the blue
Don’t make a fuss
Just settle down and look at us ♫
The 30-minute show that followed went out twice a day. Cecil Madden says: “It’s still unique because noone has ever done 20 programmes live, twice a day for ten days, from Alexandra Palace to the radio show at Olympia.”
The programme was received as far away as Bournemouth and Nottingham, and the Marconi-EMI team, with their mobile camera, were able to include some exterior shots from Ally Pally. All of which resulted in the official inauguration of the BBC Television Service being brought forward to early November. Regular programmes were broadcast twice a day from 3pm to 4pm and from 9pm to 10pm, except on Sundays. One of the early fears was that television would cause eye strain — even after only two hours a day.