TV turns 80 today! The inside story of how it all started

Lord Reith, BBC General Director, thought the box was a “ridiculous affair”

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Eighty years ago, at 3pm on 2 November 1936 to be precise, BBC television officially began. 

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Mr RC Norman, the BBC chairman, gave a speech that introduced those watching to a new word: “viewers”. 

A West End musical star, Adele Dixon, then sang a song, Television, composed for the occasion, which gave thanks for the “mighty maze of mystic, magic rays” that “bring a new wonder to you”.    

The BBC’s director-general, John Reith, attended that evening’s broadcast, a miscellany called Television Comes to London. In his diary he wrote that it was a “ridiculous affair” and that he “left early”.

BBC4 commemorates the anniversary in Television’s Opening Night: How the Box Was Born. Dallas Campbell, Professor Danielle George and Dr Hugh Hunt will re-create the first broadcast using the original technology.

No recording exists, of course, for all television then was live and died on the air as it was broadcast. John Logie Baird had first demonstrated television in 1925, but the BBC was lukewarm about his invention. This was largely down to the presiding influence of Reith, who admitted later that he was “always afraid of television”. 

The BBC yearbook for 1930 reflected the official view. “If this power is ever brought to mechanical perfection,” it wrote of television, “there is little reason, except the desire to be gregarious, that anyone but a few should go in person to any place of entertainment again.”

The Baird Company and the BBC had broadcast low definition television from 1929 to 1935. The BBC had trialled its new television service for two weeks in autumn 1936, in order to sell some of the new television sets at the Radiolympia show.

But it was the launch on 2 November that gave us television that we would recognise today: broadcast two hours a day, at 3pm and 9pm, except Sundays. The number of viewers was so small that the first programmes would get a “zero rating” in today’s viewing calculations.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3CED062n-ow

There were only about 400 TV sets, and only those within a radius of about 30 miles from the mast at the BBC’s Alexandra Palace studios could get a signal.

The necessary exile of television to the north London suburban heights – 600ft above sea level, so the signal would carry furthest – had another, unplanned effect. It reinforced the sense of television as a marginal medium within the BBC for years afterwards.

Broadcasting House remained the corporation’s metropolis; Alexandra Palace was the colonial outpost. The BBC had held a competition on-air between the Baird Company’s so-called “flying-spot” film-based technology against Marconi-EMI’s all-electronic system.

Though the Baird Company won the coin-toss to be first on-air, within three months it had been dropped in favour of the rival with its superior 405-line system.’

Some, however, thought the programmes dull. L Marsland Gander, The Daily Telegraph’s newly appointed television critic, complained, “I find that next Saturday a Mr JT Baily is to demonstrate on the television screen how to repair a broken window.

“Probably at some future time, when we have television all day long, it will be legitimate to cater for a minority of potential window repairers. Out of two hours, however, the allocation of 30 minutes to such a subject seems disproportionate.”

From the start, television had more of what we’d now call lifestyle programmes than radio: cookery, gardening and DIY.

Gander was the first in a long line of critics to complain that TV’s voracious demand for content (even when it was only on for two hours a day) led it to embrace the mundane and banal.

Gander did concede later that the first edition of Picture Page, on that opening night of 2 November, had filled him “with an enthusiasm for a new artform that has never waned”.

On Picture Page the BBC announcer Leslie Mitchell conducted a series of quickfire interviews with everyone from a bagpiper in Trafalgar Square to a London cab driver who took a fare to John O’Groats.

Picture Page epitomised a key advantage that television had over radio: informality. Radio talk at this time was often scripted, and delivered in what Hilda Matheson, the BBC’s first Director of Talks, called a “parsonical drone”.

On television, the announcers could not read from a script if they wanted to look at the viewer, and could not see much in the glare of the lights anyway, so they had to speak off the cuff and learn to sound natural.

But Reith was unconverted, and said later that the arrival of television influenced his decision to leave the BBC in 1938. On his last day, the corporation presented him with a rather tactless leaving present: a television set. He barely looked at it.

In her 2006 book Reith of the BBC, his daughter, Marista Leishman, attributed this suspicion of TV to his upbringing as a son of the manse.

Her father, she wrote, “looked out at television from the scarcely opened door of an unadorned Free Church building, the glass of its windows frosted and crinkled as a barrier between the worshippers within viewing the distractions of worldly matters without”.

Were Reith alive today, what would he make of BBC television 80 years after its launch? Mostly he would be appalled by the sheer abundance of it, the way it fills every hour of the day and then invites us to “catch up” with it on iPlayer.

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Lord Reith in 1940

This was a man, after all, who deplored “tap listening” on radio, and decreed that there be a few minutes’ silence in between programmes to allow people to switch off.

The broadcaster’s ethical and educative mission still thrives under his successor, Tony Hall, from extensive coverage of arts festivals and the Proms to poetry-themed Saturday nights on BBC2.

But Reith, unbending in his views, would not be appeased. Were he in sight of a TV set, he would watch for a few minutes with a look of disgust, pronounce it a “ridiculous affair” and switch off.  

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Television’s Opening Night: How the Box Was Born is on Wednesday 9.00pm, BBC4