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Television and its social and technical advances during the postwar years

Posted in Britain in the 60s, Communications, Historical articles, History, Royalty, Science, Technology on Tuesday, 28 February 2012

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This edited article about television originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 654 published on 27 July 1974.

Queen's TV broadcast, picture, image, illustration

Another first for BBC television – the Queen’s first Christmas Day television broadcast, by John Keay

During the Second World War, British television was off the air. These would have been the lost years of an infant marvel, but for its fast-growing cousin, radar, whose secret advancement gave television a technological boost when peace returned

On September 1st, 1939, the day that Hitler marched into Poland, BBC Television came to an end for the duration of the Second World War, and did not start again until June, 1946. The day after the service was resumed BBC cameras televised the Victory Parade in London.

During the war years, great technical strides had been made, not only in America, where the television service had continued, but also in Britain. Here many scientists and electronics engineers had been secretly developing and operating radar, which worked on the same principle as television. In the First World War, radio advanced because of the necessity for instant communications between field commanders, and huge amounts of money were spent which would have been unthinkable in peacetime. Again, in the 1939-1945 war, radar became a number one priority. Many people believe that without the use of the “magic eye” during the Battle of Britain, Britain would have undoubtedly lost the war.

So, although the BBC Television Service was shut down for seven years, it did in fact emerge from the war stronger in technical resources. There was a vast number of skilled electronics engineers available from the armed services, and this, together with the “know-how” that the United States had acquired in running their television service, gave the BBC an encouraging start.

Immediately after the war, there was very little indication that within ten years there would be more people in Britain watching television than listening to the radio. Even in 1948 there were only 50,000 receivers, but the BBC were planning to extend the service to the rest of Britain, and a combined radio and television licence cost only £2.

Slowly, in those early post-war years, the scope of television widened. The first religious service to be televised was the Battle of Britain service at Biggin Hill. After operating for about 18 months, BBC engineers made the first tele-recording, and thus made it possible to preserve historic television.

By the end of 1949, Londoners were not the only people watching television. The opening of the Sutton Coldfield transmitter brought the service to the Midlands. If, in the late ‘forties, the progress of television appeared slow, in the ‘fifties many things happened with such speed that the medium almost outgrew its strength. It could be said that in the ‘fifties television took root.

A network of transmitting stations spread the service across Britain, and today there are over twenty. In May 1950, BBC Television expanded by taking over Lime Grove, a disused film studio, which had four production studios in London. That same year saw the initial step towards spreading television across the world. A BBC team, working in co-operation with the French Television Service, sent the first television pictures from the Continent to Britain.

This great technical achievement grew out of a publicity stunt. The British company, which, in 1850, had laid the first telegraphic cable across the Straits of Dover, wrote a letter in 1950 to the late Richard Dimbleby, a well-known broadcaster. It suggested that the centenary of the cable-link might be marked by an attempt to send the first television signal across the channel.

In Britain, those were the days when television was constantly trying something new. Until 1949, mobile television units had a range of only about 23 miles, but BBC engineers had been experimenting with new microwave links, and they believed that in four stages they might be able to join Calais with London (95 miles away) despite the problems of transmitting over the sea. So BBC television cameras and a mobile control room were shipped to Calais.

Cecil McGivern, then the head of BBC Television Programmes, and one of television’s great pioneers, described the test as he saw it in his office: “At 7 o’clock, the screen was black, then light flickered across it, then turned to blackness again. We knew that our Outside Broadcast engineers in Calais had switched on their gear, that cameras were alive; that pictures were struggling to reach us at Alexandra Palace. No one was sure they would come. Then slowly a picture formed. It was the Town Hall of Calais. The picture settled; the building became clear. The camera panned slowly up the tower to the clock face, 6.35 it read. That was not the correct time; the clock in the Tower at Calais had said 6.35 ever since a bomb had detonated nearby.”

Another link in television history had been made. And just over twenty years later we think nothing of watching “live” colour pictures of men walking on the surface of the moon.

By 1953, programmes that were originated in London, including the broadcast of the Coronation of our present queen, were seen “live” by viewers in France, Belgium, Holland and West Germany, and a new word had been coined – Eurovision. Now, of course, television can be seen instantaneously all over the world by use of satellites, and has become a true window on the world.

David Attenborough’s various “Zoo Quest” programmes were interesting examples of television enterprise in despatching a member of the BBC staff to the far corners of the earth. In those early days, the majority of television programmes were “live,” but today the majority are pre-recorded. “Live” television can in many ways be much more exciting, as there is an extra thrill in knowing that something unexpected could happen – such as the time when a famous actor was sitting in his dressing-room watching a television programme and he suddenly realised he should have been acting in it.

In the meantime the cast had to ad lib until he arrived five minutes late. There were many occasions when the scenery was shifted too soon and actors were left performing in front of bare studio walls.

Owing to the tremendous number of programmes that are produced daily, it is humanly impossible to transmit them all “live” because of the lack of studio space and staff. But by pre-recording, studios and staff can be used outside broadcasting hours. There is no doubt that programmes such as plays can be perfected by recording them as it is possible – just as it is with films – to retake various scenes which need improving. Television today, in fact, has become like a factory conveyor belt, turning out canned programmes for the watching millions.

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