Colourful Times

Dicky Howett  charts a few colour tv experiments and returns to the fervid days of early British colour tv.

Colour tv had been a dream of television engineers since John Logie was a Baird. These days, it’s all relatively easy. For example, an all-dancing-all singing colour tv camera can fit comfortably within the folds of a belly button, and produce colour pictures of stunning clarity and resolution. Today, electronic images are created that defy belief with pictures of incredible chromatic purity.  We never had it so good?

Of course nothing under the sun is really new. Way back in 1928 the prescient Scot, J.L. Baird demonstrated that colour television could be achieved mechanically using sequential colour analysis and synthesis. His system worked, but the resolution was poor. Later, in 1941 the US broadcast network, CBS,  inaugurated the world’s first scheduled colour tv service. This service, started  mainly in order to pre-empt their deadly rivals NBC, was witnessed by almost nobody. The CBS system used Baird’s clumsy Field Sequential Colour process, with three coloured discs (R.G.B) spinning rapidly in front of a clunky Orthicon tube. Also, the system used too much bandwidth (a factor of three). Only  tv sets with complimentary spinning discs could receive the  image, which displayed unacceptable colour fringing during lateral movements. Another problem was the presence of a slight but annoying buzz from the coloured disc as it whirred. On one notable occasion a switched on tv set  equipped with a spinning disc disintegrated when moved. Not exactly something to encourage the guardians of health and safety. Thus the entire scheme was a dodgy technological dead-end.

Back in Merrie England,  BBC Television in 1955 embarked on a series of live, experimental colour TV broadcasts from Studio A, Alexandra Palace using the established RCA dot matrix compatible system which the BBC’s research department at Kingswood Warren had adapted to run from the  US 525-line NTSC standard  down to creaky old 405-Iines. This system was built  in conjunction with Marconi’s who provided a couple of re-engineered cameras.

Initially, slides and films were transmitted late night after normal programmes had ceased. These experimental  images used the medium-power reserve transmitters at Alexandra Palace. Later, in November 1956 live-action shows beamed from the Channel 1 transmitter at Crystal Palace took place.

The intention was to mount a ‘normal’ colour TV service in order to assess the quality of the transmitted image. Selected homes in the area were equipped either with 405 line colour sets, or asked to log the compatibility, or otherwise, of the black and white image on standard black and white sets. The live colour programmes were produced by BBC director Michael Leeston-Smith and these included drama, talks, ballet, music (The Hot Colour Club) and light entertainment.

Labouring under the fierce colour lights (a compliment of nine 5K fresnel spots, two 10K, twenty five 2K, six 500W and 52 1K scoops, phew!) in the cause of tv science were (amongst others) Cy Grant, Janie Marden, Carole Carr, Sylvia Peters, a dance troupe called the TV Silhouettes and Phillip Harben who demonstrated cooking. (Cookery was a tricky subject for the colour cameras, because it was discovered that food looks terribly unappetising if the colours are wrong. Fillet steak and cabbage proved a difficult test although, apparently, cheese photographed well.) In all cases these little programmes were mounted to establish the quality and stability of the system. There was no intention to explore production techniques. As a consequence, the technicians retained unprecedented overriding control of programme content.

Technically, the minimum Studio A line-up comprised two Marconi cameras (each with three 3″ image orthicon tubes of RCA design) on pedestal mounts, each with four lenses (maximum aperture f4.5); one 16mm film or slide flying spot scanner; a 35mm Cintel film scanner; one simple vision mixing panel allowing cuts,  mixes, fades and superimpositions from all channels; and three 21″ colour monitors.

Of the cameras themselves, it was reported that in spite of their weight and length (6ft 6in.) they proved quite manoeuvrable on their pedestals. (These pedestals were first-generation Vinten HP 419’s,  steered quaintly, by tillers only). The fixed (non-tilting) view-finders gave the cameramen some trouble which limited the height of shots to the height of the cameramen. The lens turrets were very quick to swing and were reasonably silent. They gave consistent results working at an aperture of f5.6. and at a scene illumination of approximately 300 ft candles. However, the picture definition was reported as poor due mainly to the many dimensional registration problems, both in the three-tube cameras and the  three-gun shadow mask monitors. To overcome these problems all shots were framed 15-20 per cent closer than normal monochrome practice. Matching of cameras was also a great problem. Colour response varied all the time. The valve-driven cameras suffered from overheating, with resultant loss of definition. They had to be allowed a few hours’ cooling off time between rehearsal and transmission, (as no doubt did the performers). Other common faults occurred in colour registration, as well as shading (usually magenta or green) microphony and dichroic filter reflections within the cameras. To compound matters, the picture monitors (shadow mask type as well as a huge three-tube projection model) were very unstable at all times. It was also thought that panning and tilting the cameras through the Earth’s magnetic field would mean constant re registration by test card. Fortunately, in practice this was not the case.

It was concluded in a report issued later that ‘the BBC’s 405-line NTSC system is undoubtedly capable of offering a most exciting improvement to present monochrome standards’. Even so, the report shrewdly suggested that before embarking on large scale colour television broadcasting the system would have to be capable of giving consistently improved horizontal and vertical definition. as well as even better colour.

In 1957, MPs at Westminster had the opportunity to view a half-hour light entertainment colour show. Six 21-inch colour sets, and four black and white receivers were installed in Committee Room Number 4. Five of the colour sets were of a type designed by the BBC’s Research Department. The sixth was supplied to special order. The four black and white receivers were standard commercial models. As reported in the Daily Express, the black and white pictures looked pretty glum. On the other hand, the colour pictures looked a bit too florid, like an over-dressed, over-painted woman. But the MPs were enthusiastic. What did they see? Some “quite beautiful” close-ups of flowers and bees, butterflies and dancing girls. In the studio, Carole Carr sang Smoke Gets In Your Eyes against a changing background of harsh greens and blues. She appeared later in an Edwardian get-up which showed off excellently a golden dress and vividly flowered hat. But Members must have reserved their opinions about making political appearances in TV colour when they saw naturalist James Fisher and Dr W.E Swinton showing off crystals and art objects. Here, the colour was at its worst, with the men’s faces a plum shade and hands a deep salmon pink. Up at Alexandra Palace, one of the cameras broke down for two hours. An official said: “We were all mucking in with soldering irons and a plan on the floor”.  Such is history.

But does anything visual survive of these experimental BBC colour broadcasts? Actually, yes, but not a lot. Apart from a brief sequence of  Studio “A” filmed in colour for the otherwise black and white 1959 BBC documentary “This Is The BBC”, there are a few production stills, some taken by director Michael Leeston-Smith. His colour slides include shots of the performers and the ‘teapot’ caption which opened the tests every night. Leeston-Smith told the present writer that his colour programmes were actually tele-recorded by the research department for later assessment. Investigations have shown that nothing of Leeston-Smith’s productions survive as specifically colour recordings, however there are some monochrome recordings of the 1957 demonstration programme to MP’s. Also, there’s some unique colour footage displayed recently at the National Film Theatre during a presentation recalling 30 years (from July 1967) of British colour television.

This colour footage includes scenes taken from the screen during a live test. However, the present author noted that this footage was incorrectly described in the programme as a “BBC television 1954 colour test transmission from Alexandra Palace”. In fact it  was a Marconi demonstration in May 1954 at Marconi House in the Strand. It used their unique and short-lived two-tube colour camera system. The telerecording shows Leslie Mitchell in close-up interviewing two ladies who also don hats and scarves. The recorded picture quality is very poor magnifying all the faults attributed to early tube colour systems.

Subsequently, after residing at Alexandra Palace, the BBC’s experimental colour studio moved to studio H at Lime Grove. During 1966, a cameraman called John Humphries shot on 8mm colour, a closed circuit production of ‘The Black and White Minstrel Show’. The cameras used were the final variant Marconi developed of it’s three-tube 3″ image orthicon type. The camera was still a huge lump, even with improved circitry and a new optical path via prisms.  Despite many hours of colour trials in Studio H, the Humphries film is the only known record of colour television from that studio.

© Dicky Howett 1999 & 2018