Alexandra Palace's wartime television demonstrations (lost footage of private television transmissions; 1943, 1945)

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Alexandra Palace.

Status: Lost

On 1st September 1939, the BBC ceased all transmissions from its BBC Television Service following the outbreak of the Second World War. Until it officially reopened on 7th June 1946, BBC Television Service would remain inaccessible to the public. However, at Alexandra Palace, which housed the service in its fledging years, two television demonstrations were recorded in private during World War 2, including one in February 1945, and a more mysterious one in August 1943.


BBC Television Service officially opened on 2nd November 1936.[1] For its early years, the high-definition television service would be housed at Alexandra Palace, as its hilltop position made it effective in transmitting television across London and the surrounding counties.[2] However, as the Second World War loomed, the BBC would officially cease all television transmissions on 1st September 1939.[3] The rationale was that it would prevent the Germans from exploiting the transmission signals from the Palace so they could use them as a navigational aid.[4] The last coverage shown prior to closedown was the Mickey Mouse cartoon Mickey's Gala Premiere, which although was claimed to have ended abruptly mid-transmission, was known to have been fully run before television became inaccessible to the British public for almost seven years.[5]

Alexandra Palace's February 1945 Television Demonstration

While BBC Television Service would not fully resume until 7th June 1946, the Alexandra Palace would be host to two private television demonstrations during wartime.[6] The second of these, occurring in February 1945, is well-documented thanks to the efforts of the BBC Written Archive Centre and the Alexandra Palace Television Society.[6] It concerned a demonstration to the Commonwealth Broadcasting Conference (CBC), with the intention to showcase to Commonwealth members the programmes that were broadcast on the BBC Television Service in its early years.[6][7] The transmissions lasted 40 minutes and were produced by Programme Organiser Cecil Madden at Studio A in the Palace, with the delegates from the CBC viewing the footage from a closed-circuit in Studio B.[7]

Based on the surviving photos taken on the occasion, the demonstration began with commentators Freddie Grisewood and Jasmine Bligh introducing actress Phyllis Calvert in front of the television camera.[7] American singer and actress Evelyn Dall then made an appearance, being joined by her accompanist Joan Bird. According to the documentation, Dall earned 5 guineas (approximately £5.25), while Bird received approximately £1.80.[8][7] The next appearance came from Canadian comedian Robert Goodier. He was able to attend the demonstration for he appeared in the show "Meet the Navy" at the London Hippodrome.[7] Following his appearance, segments from the 1937 Television Demonstration film were shown, showcasing Corky the cockatoo with his keeper. The demonstration concluded with the play Julius Caesar, being performed by members of the BBC Drama Club, whose names were not listed in any surviving documentation.[7]

Alexandra Palace's August 1943 Television Demonstration

There was one other known wartime Alexandra Palace television broadcast, which occurred in August 1943.[6] Unlike the highly-documented February 1945 broadcast, little was known about the earlier demonstration, with no records of the display being available in the BBC Written Archive Centre or Public Records Office. Much of the information surrounding the broadcast comes from the notes of engineer Desmond Campbell, and the documentation from Alexandra Palace Television Society archivist Simon Vaughan.[6][4]

The photos stored at the Alexandra Palace Television Society were dated as being taken in August 1943, and show that a Mr Fuller and Mr A. B. Howe were filming the scenes in the television studio.[6] The engineers Wilfred Pafford and Douglas Birkinshaw could be seen in two of the photographs,[6][4] while others showcase a Mrs Fuller giving a demonstration of a flower arrangement, with presumably her daughter being seated in the studio. Mary Allen, the head of wardrobe and make-up, was also present in at least one photo.[6] Vaughan was able to validate the dates Desmond placed on the photos;[6] additionally, a The Leader article from 11th September 1943 was uncovered stating that BBC engineers were called to the Alexandra Palace to conduct an "important" television picture for a private purpose.[9][6]

While this confirms that a broadcast was establish in 1943, the transmission's purpose remains unclear.[6][4] However, a few other articles, including from the Gloucestershire Echo from 13th September 1943, and the Newcastle Evening Chronicle from 1st November 1943, a demonstration was called to investigate how to ensure pre-war television set owners were able to afford to have their sets be updated, with plans to make some televisions cost only £20 following the war, or just over £930 when adjusted for modern inflation.[10][11][12] Additionally, Vaughan met with Campbell's son Neil to discuss his father's account. According to Neil, he remembered that his father was called to an important meeting, even gaining permission to utilise petrol to drive to the Alexandra Palace. On the way back, Desmond was involved in a car accident, which was why Neil remembered the occasion. Neil also claimed that the television demonstration may have also been showcased either to Winston Churchill or King George VI.[6][4]

Vaughan was also able to meet Pafford at his home. Information from Pafford was limited, as he became increasingly upset regarding what was being discussed, stating that he had signed the Official Secret Acts, and thus could not tell about the secret activities that occurred at the Alexandra Palace during wartime. Pafford did state however that the RAF contingent and BBC staff situation at the Palace did conduct closed-circuit demonstrations for one another throughout the war, which could suggest further transmissions occurred prior to the end of the Second World War. Currently, Vaughan has been unable to further investigate the matter, as there is limited information on A. B. Howe, while all other sources have yielded no additional insights.[6][4]


Like all early television transmissions, the entirety of both demonstrations were televised live and there were limited viable means of recording television prior to the Second World War, with recording seldom having occurred until videotape was perfected in the late-1950s.[13] Thus, all footage of the demonstrations is likely permanently missing, although the Corky the Cockatoo segment remains as part of the recovered 1937 Television Demonstration film. Photographs of both demonstrations are available as part of the Alexandra Palace Television Society. Additionally, there were two PDFs containing the photos online,[6][7] although the August 1943 one has since been taken down, with no surviving Web Archive link of it.



The 1937 Television Demonstration film containing the Corky the Cockatoo footage.

See Also

Early BBC Television

Early BBC Sports Television


  1. BBC summarising the opening of the BBC Television Service. Retrieved 23rd Jan '22
  2. Royal Television Society detailing why the BBC chose Alexandra Palace to transmit television. Retrieved 23rd Jan '22
  3. BBC Handbook for 1940 extract published on Transdiffusion, discussing BBC Television Centre ceasing all transmissions following the outbreak of the Second World War. Retrieved 23rd Jan '22
  4. 4.0 4.1 4.2 4.3 4.4 4.5 Teletronic detailing the BBC's rationale for ceasing television transmissions, and Alexandra Palace's wartime broadcasts. Retrieved 23rd Jan '22
  5. Teletronic detailing the final day of broadcasting prior to ceased transmissions, debunking the claim Mickey's Gala Premiere abruptly stopped mid-broadcast. Retrieved 23rd Jan '22
  6. 6.00 6.01 6.02 6.03 6.04 6.05 6.06 6.07 6.08 6.09 6.10 6.11 6.12 6.13 Tech-Ops detailing Vaughan's research into the two broadcasts. Retrieved 23rd Jan '22
  7. 7.0 7.1 7.2 7.3 7.4 7.5 7.6 PDF containing the photos from the February 1945 transmission. Retrieved 23rd Jan '22
  8. Pathe Film detailing Dall's appearance on the 1945 broadcast. Retrieved 23rd Jan '22
  9. 11th September 1943 issue of The Leader reporting on the 1943 transmission. Retrieved 23rd Jan '22
  10. 13th September 1943 edition of Gloucestershire Echo reporting on the 1943 transmission. Retrieved 23rd Jan '22
  11. 1st November 1943 edition of Newcastle Evening Chronicle reporting on the 1943 transmission. Retrieved 23rd Jan '22
  12. Airfield Research Group discussing the August 1943 broadcast, and newspaper articles reporting on it. Retrieved 23rd Jan '22
  13. Web Archive article discussing how most early television is missing due to lack of directly recording television. Retrieved 23rd Jan '22