Friday, February 01, 2008

The History of Television

So Aaron Sorkin writes the history of TV and it goes to Broadway. I write it and it goes... nowhere.

Back in November 2006, I was commissioned to write a Radio Times article to go alongside BBC2's Imagine... series which was doing a special on TV's anniversary. That show got bumped around the schedules, my article had to be transformed into about 70 words and that was that. I hadn't actually thought about it since about December 2006 but just now, searching for something totally unrelated, I found that document on my hard disk.

I can't see any reason why I shouldn't show it to you, and I think you might like it too. So here it is: as not published in RT.

Hope you like it,


Radio Times has behind the scenes access to television - and it always has. As BBC1's Imagine... goes back 70 years to the start of television, RT reveals how its coverage goes back even further to when John Logie Baird was young and anxious to show his new invention to us.

Summer, 1923: no TV, no Radio Times. But they were both a heartbeat away. John Logie Baird was talking up his new invention and Lord Reith was having it out with newspaper publishers who wanted money for printing BBC radio listings. By July, Baird had got a patent for television and by September, newspapers had seen their circulation rise because of listings, but Reith wasn't listening: he published his own paper, The Radio Times.

The 1920s were fast-moving: on April 4, 1924, the BBC's Organiser of Programmes, CA Lewis, wrote in RT: "Television is a long way off, and, as far as I can hear, the various inventions in regard to 'talking' films are not achieving success."

Yet before the end of the month, on April 25, RT's cover said: "Television - a Fact!". Baird had demonstrated his flickering, faltering system to RT writer William Le Queuex who enthused madly: "A Maltese cross was first transmitted, and was clearly visible. My fingers, moving up and down in front of the transmitting lens, were clearly seen moving up and down on the receiving disc. It remains now to transmit detailed images and a machine to do this has already been designed."

Sure. There's no question Baird was first but he was never good enough and though the BBC experimented with both his kit and a rival system from EMI/Marconi, by the end of 1936 everyone found it easy to see which was going to win. They just found it harder to say. So the official decision to drop Baird was delayed until February 1937 - three months after a Crystal Palace fire destroyed all his equipment.

So RT's very first behind-the-scenes feature of TV as we know it was in The Radio Times Televison Number (2d), published October 23, 1936. The first behind-the-scenes photo was of "The Baird control room" but the second was of the Marconi-EMI studio with "The Three Admirals rehearsing" at the first television studios at Alexandra Palace.

And it was a detailed yet so innocent time as RT took us around Ally Pally, mentioning: "The walls attract your attention. You touch them. An asbestos compound, of course. Just the stuff for absorbing sound."

Strangely, there were no actual television programmes in this special issue of RT. There was a radio play (October 29) dramatising how "from the first ideas of the early pioneers there has gradually developed the high definition television service which is to be opened from Alexandra Palace on Monday next."

And there were ads for HD TV sets, though HD then meant 405-line images on a narrow screen: today it means 1080 lines widescreen, not to mention colour. But some things don't change: the 1930s HD TVs were expensive. RT advertised a GEC High Definition Television Receiver (Cat. No. BT3701) for 95 guineas or over £800 in today's money.

"If you can afford a television set," wrote RT in this issue, "and you if you live near enough to Alexandra Palace, the next few months will be full of interest. You will be watching the beginnings of a new art. How does this affect people outside the London area? Wait and see."

It was quite a wait. In 1936 you had to live within 25 miles of Alexandra Palace in Muswell Hill, London, and only a couple of hundred people watched the first months. By February 1939 the price of TV was dropping radically but the BBC was still saying 25 miles and RT interviewed farmhand George Boar who lived twice that distance away. "He did not even trouble to see a demonstration. With astounding pluck he invested his whole fortune (and £126 is certainly a fortune to a farm-hand) in his set," said RT. Boar invited Radio Times to join him and his neighbours one night. "Reception is amazingly clear, causing the majority of the audience to express their wonder in strange Suffolkese."

Boar himself knew he'd spent wisely, telling RT: "Television's far more entertaining and much less trouble than a wife would be." The revealing word there is probably "would" but six months later his TV went dark: the BBC Television Service was suspended on Friday, September 1, 1939 at the start of the Second World War. By then, around 20,000 TV sets had been sold and its power was spreading in every sense: for the May 1937 Coronation of King George VI, 50,000 people had crowded around what sets there were and the signal now reached up to 63 miles from Ally Pally.

"Television Again" said the cover of RT for June 2-8, 1946 as we saw the Reopening of the BBC Television Service - in London. In 1948 Londoners saw the Olympics but coverage was also extending to the Midlands which it reached in 1949, then South Wales and Scotland in 1952. In 1953, the Coronation of Queen Elizabeth II was seen by over 20m viewers and for the first time more people watched than listened on the radio.

By then Baird was dead but others were pressing ahead with the next big thing: colour. Unofficial tests ran even in the 1950s but it was July 1, 1967 when David Attenborough, then Controller of BBC2, could write in RT: "This week we launch colour. All BBC2's coverage of the Centre Court at Wimbledon will be transmitted in colour. So will The Virginian on Monday and Late Night Line-Up every night. Many viewers are no doubt waiting to make up their minds about colour until they see it with their own eyes. We offer the launching programmes, with confidence and excitement, as evidence."

BBC2 offered five hours of colour every week until December 2, 1967 when it officially began its full colour service and then BBC1 followed on November 13, 1969. But there was still a difference between the BBC broadcasting colour and our receiving it: James Redmond, BBC Director of Engineering, responded to RT readers by explaining: "Because about 500 transmitters are needed to cover the country, it will take right through the seventies to complete the project."

So you might have had to wait a bit, but you had colour television - and two weeks after BBC1 moved to colour, Radio Times looked at what could come next. The November 22-28, 1969 issue peered into the far, far distant future... of 2000 and "interplanetary man, as he could be."

Some predictions were startlingly good - "one paper-thin TV set on the wall will offer him news, information and entertainment" - and some weren't. "He sits on a column of air, his control panel gives him robot service on 5, a problem-solver on 11." Channels 1 to 3 were expected to be for Earth, Moon and Mars.

"The year 2000, you recall, is just thirty-one years away."

William Gallagher


1 comment:

Lozzie Cap said...

I had no idea that David Attenborough was the Controller of BBC2. I had assumed that he spent all of his career on location somewhere exotic with an animal or a plant.