Pre-War OBs and Other Things

Dicky Howett rummages through the Radio Times

Via the delights of eBay, I acquired recently, the first 26 editions (from Jan. 8th 1937) of the Radio Times special ’Television’ supplement.

This modest publication (available only in the London area) featured television-related articles, advertisements and the weeks tv listings. Goodies included, ‘Home Affairs-Good Building’, ‘Table Tennis’, ‘Dress Design’, ‘Cabaret From The Grosvenor House and ‘The Western Brothers’. But the highlight of the week for May (12th) 1937 was the television broadcast (‘transmission by the Marconi-EMI system’) of the coronation of King George VI and Queen Elizabeth. Apart from the fact that air-time was being entrusted to a brand new and unblooded outside broadcast rig (complete with three fixed-lens Emitron cameras and an experimental microwave link – albeit as a backup), what was unprecedented up until then was that this television broadcast was scheduled to run a whole hour!

Since the BBC television service began in November of 1936, daily airtime was just two hours, with one hour in the afternoon and another in the evening (no Sunday broadcasts). Average individual programmes lasted 15 minutes. It was thought that programme lengths shouldn’t overstrain the viewer, with 20 minutes as a maximum. (Indeed, as a prerequisite, the original Baird intermediate film system – abandoned in early 1937 – could only run at 20 minutes before it spluttered out of 17.5mm wide celluloid and hypo).

Most television programmes were studio based with outside broadcasts a rarity. Camera cable length was a total of a 1000ft so apart from just poking the camera lens out of the window, any alfresco shooting took place within the grounds of Alexandra Palace. One intriguing ‘outside/inside broadcast’ occurred during the Coronation week. Leslie Mitchell and George Robey took a live ‘Tour Of The London Television Station’ (May 15th 1937). This programme, repeated in the evening, ran again for another whole hour and showed various examples of sweated BBC tv life including visits to the transmitter hall, reception desk, restaurant, make-up room, control room and studios. A great shame that no vision was ever recorded, even a movie record would have been valuable, but such is hindsight and also at the time, the lack of any viable video recording technique. As a third best, a few unexciting photos of the ‘Tour’ appeared later in the Television Supplement.

So who was watching all this groundbreaking stuff? Television receivers were expensive. Top models could be 120gns, (the actual price of a small new car), but there were options of cheaper sets (60gns) or easy ‘£1 a week’ payments. However, television was initially for the well-off (the programmes were aimed at those who visited nightclubs, mannequin stores, played table tennis, watched ballet or enjoyed ‘The White Coons Concert Party’). The majority of lesser-heeled ‘televiewers’ had to be content to watch the ‘small screen’ in department stores or at ‘Radio Shops’, grubby noses pressed against windows in places such as Ealing, Esher, Coulsdon, Edgeware or Burnt Oak. A survey, printed in the March 26th edition of the Television Supplement described several responses from the lower orders. Two ‘gas fitters’ were ‘frankly sceptical’, refusing to believe that what they were watching was live ‘direct’ television, but instead a film. Some ‘Cockney’ ladies thought the picture ‘too good’ and now ‘we shan’t have an excuse to go out to the pictures, nor indeed get rid of the men on Saturday afternoons either’. An American viewer declared, ‘This is the swellest publicity thing I’ve seen for years! If we can put over sponsored television………’ Perish the thought. The conclusion of this admitted unscientific ‘survey’ revealed that although the actual programmes were not to every taste, the technical quality of the pictures was universally praised even though it was noted that tv receivers were still too expensive, the screen size too small and the hours of transmission too short. Those factors combined, I think we can agree that back then it was a veritable ‘television golden age’ never to return……………?

© Dicky Howett