David Attenborough is the world’s most famous presenter of natural history TV but less well known is the fact that, back in the late 1960s, he was controller of BBC2.
Among his duties in 1967 was bringing colour TV to Britain on a tight timescale, and he had some extra motivation – beating West Germany to it.
“I heard the West Germans were doing it and I discovered that they were planning to launch it very close to when we were,” reveals Attenborough in this week’s issue of Radio Times magazine. “But what I couldn’t do [in that amount of time] was to start a complete kind of service. The best that I could do would be to have what I called a piebald service, so there was some colour every night, but the whole service wasn’t in colour.”
The main problem was all the new equipment that would have to be brought in and got up to speed. There just wasn’t the time or resources. The solution? Wimbledon.
“It suddenly dawned on me that the one thing we did have was outside broadcast units,” says Attenborough. “I thought, ‘Blimey, couldn’t we deploy them?’ And then I thought of Wimbledon. I mean, it is a wonderful plot: you’ve got drama, you’ve got everything. And it’s a national event, it’s got everything going for it.”
The plan worked, and the UK got colour television just weeks before West Germany.
“I was as proud as a peacock,” admits Attenborough. “It was absolutely terrific. It was a big moment in my life.”
No doubt he’ll be proudly watching as this year marks 50 years of Wimbledon – and Britain – in colour.