OPENING OF THE TELEVISION SERVICE 3.00p.m. - 4.30p.m. MONDAY 2nd NOVEMBER, 1936
3:00 Opening Announcement - Leslie Mitchell (reserve Announcer, Miss Bligh) - announcement as undernoted:-
"This is the B.B.C. Television Station at Alexandra Palace.
To-day the Television Service is to be opened by the Right Hon. G.C. Tryon M.P., His Majesty's Postmaster-General. Major Tryon will be introduced by Mr. R.C. Norman, Chairman of the B.B.C., and will be followed by the Right Hon. Lord Selsdon, K.B.E., Chairman of the original Television Committee. On the platform with these speakers are the Right Hon. Lord Inverforth, Chairman of the Marconi-E.M.I. Television Company and Sir Harry Greer, D.L., M.P., Chairman of the Baird Television Company.
We have had to make a change in the programme as published in the "Radio Times". The opening programme is to be televised twice; firstly by the Baird system; then, after an interval of thirty minutes, by the Marconi-E.M-I. system.
After the speeches, the latest edition of the British Movietone News will be shown; then Adele Dixon, and after her Buck and Bubbles; both these performances will be accompanied by The Television Orchestra, conducted by Hyam Greenbaum. After this there will be an orchestral interlude in sound only..."
As the plaque at Alexandra Palace says, the world's first regular high definition television service was inaugurated precisely 75 years ago today. It was anything but high definition by current standards - a flickering black and white display, broadcasting to a handful of appropriately-equipped homes in North London. There were two competing systems, Baird and EMI Marconi, battling for future dominance in an epic VHS/Betamax-type tussle. It was already obvious that Marconi's 405-line system was superior to Baird's 240, but broadcasting kicked off on an equitable basis all the same. The toss of a coin decided that Baird would be used to make the first historic transmission from Studio B - details of which appear in the transcribed script above. And then all the performers trooped nextdoor into Studio A to perform the whole thing again, live via the alternative camera set-up. An hour in, and already BBC Television's first repeat.
Alexandra Palace wasn't the BBC's first choice of location. They'd have preferred Crystal Palace to the south, but that would have meant building from scratch and they didn't have either the time or the money. Ally Pally was higher above sea level and (crucially) available for rent, so they whacked up a transmitter tower on the roof and it was all systems go. Good decision, as it turned out, because at the end of November 1936 the old Crystal Palace burnt to the ground. Initially programmes were broadcast for only a couple of hours a day, less on Sundays, all with a prim, proper, stilted, very middle class vibe. Not surprising, given that a television set then cost the equivalent of what a car does now, so nobody on the council estates of Tottenham was watching.
Viewing figures were boosted by the Coronation of George VI the following spring (an estimated 50000 people watched that), though still low enough that the entire service could shut down for three weeks mid-1937 to allow staff to take their summer holidays. World War Two brought an enforced closedown, during which time Alexandra Palace's mast was used to confuse incoming German bombers by jamming radio frequencies. Ally Pally remained the BBC's main TV transmitting centre for London until 1956, then became an important centre for news, and finally the outpost where professors in Arran sweaters made informative broadcasts for the Open University. But since 1981 the old studios have been locked away, slowly decaying, opened only infrequently, at constant risk of redevelopment or worse. Fancy a look inside?
On Saturday 5 and Sunday 6 November 2011 a series of free activities for the public will be staged at ‘Ally Pally’ to encourage the public to explore the past and discover the future of television. Highlights include: - » tours of the famous BBC Studios where history was made on 2 November 1936 » interactive and immersive audio visual displays featuring rarely-seen BBC footage » taking centre stage and preparing to go ‘on air’, made up in authentic 1930s TV style (with blue lips and eyes and white pancake facepaint) » sharing your BBC and ‘Ally Pally’ memories with roving reporters » 1930s inspired food from the ‘BBC canteen’ » demonstrations of the latest innovations in 3D TV » become a BBC newsreader! Record a snippet of the news and take the recording home with you as a unique souvenir. Entry is free, but anyone wishing to take a tour of the BBC studios needs to call 0208 365 4321 to secure a timed ticket.
I've been inside the old BBCstudios as part of Open House, and it was fascinating to walk up the narrow staircase into the very place where TV broadcasting began. Every Japanese gameshow, every Brazilian soap opera, every iPlayer catch-up download, has its roots here in a high, dingy room in Haringey. Best visit this weekend while you can, while Alexandra Palace's inner sanctum survives. And I wonder which is more likely to reach its centenary - television itself, or the place of its birth.