Opening of the BBC Television Service (partially found coverage of inaugural day of high-definition television service; 1936)

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Adèle Dixon singing The Magic Rays of Light.

Status: Partially Found

The 2nd of November 1936 marked a historic day in television, when the BBC launched the first regular high-definition television service, named BBC Television Service. Throughout the two hours of broadcasting, consisting of Variety, a BBC film and British Movietone News, and a magazine show called Picture Page, several other television milestones would be made.


The BBC had been influential in the early development of television since November 1929, when it worked with John Logie Baird and his Baird Television Development Company in producing experimental broadcasts.[1] Among milestones met prior to 1936 included broadcasting the drama The Man With the Flower in His Mouth on 14th July 1930, to producing the first outside television broadcast, consisting of live coverage of the 1931 Epsom Derby.[2][1] It also broke further ground by starting an experimental regular television service on 2nd August 1932.[3][1] Back then, these broadcasts relied upon a primitive 30-line system produced by Baird.[4][1] But in May 1934, the British government was keen to begin a public television service, with the committee producing the Selsdon Inquiry that tasked the BBC to create a high-definition television service.[3] By September 1935, the 30-line broadcasts ceased,[3][4] because the BBC were looking to work on this new objective, televising from Alexandra Palace, whose hilltop position made it effective in televising across London and the surrounding counties.[5] For 1930s standards, a television service was deemed "high-definition" if it utilised at least 240 lines, with the additional criteria that it must produce at least 25 pictures per second.[6][3]

Six months before the BBC Television Service launched, the BBC tested two different systems to determine which would be ideal for regular high-definition broadcasts.[6] Baird had upgraded his mechanical system to 240 lines, but now faced competition from EMI-Marconi, whose electronic system was capable of producing 405 lines.[6][7][4] The two systems had the opportunity to prove their effectiveness on alternate weeks.[6][4] In the meantime, the BBC would also be busy in selecting the first television announcers for service, with the aim for them to have “a pleasant personality and informed manner”.[4] Leslie Mitchell was chosen out of over 600 men, after meeting criteria that included being handsome, but lacking "gay goings on" which was said to have eliminated half of the candidates.[8] Two women were also chosen; Jasmine Bligh and Elizabeth Cowell met the criteria because, among other factors, they were unmarried and had no red hair.[9]

Several test transmissions were produced to the Radiolympia Exhibition to allow for rehearsals;[4][8] among the broadcasts included a darts game between Mitchell and Bligh.[10] Mitchell was also responsible for introducing the system during its first demonstration, on 26th August 1936.[3] Approximately 300 people were able to view these broadcasts, although the reception was rather negative, with Grace Wyndham Goldie, a radio critic for The Listener, deeming that "the whole thing was terrible".[4] Nevertheless, even the most negative of critics accepted television's potential, which according to Joe Moran in the book Armchair Nation: an Intimate History of Britain in Front of the TV, helped ensure the sustainability of television on "the dreams of its future".[11][4]

One aspect that would eventually improve matters was to exclusively utilise the Marconi-EMI system from February 1937 onwards.[4][7][6] While there were other technical issues, including having images be shown upside down, or the inability to produce camera cuts back then, the usage of two television systems as imposed by the Selsdon Inquiry meant the need for two studios, two camera sets and two means of broadcasting images.[4][7][1] Eventually, the Baird system, already deemed inferior for a long time by BBC officials, would be dropped not long after the first high-definition broadcasts.[7][6][12][5] This was compounded on 30th November 1936, when a fire at the Crystal Palace burned down all of Baird's facilities.[7][12] Nevertheless, the 240-line system would be responsible for television history, as thanks to a coin toss, it was chosen to transmit the opening first, followed by the Marconi-EMI system.[13][12][6]

Opening of BBC Television Service

Thus, on November 2nd, 1936, at 3 pm, the BBC Television Service would commence broadcasting.[14][15][6] The first program, titled Opening of the BBC Television Service by issue 683 of Radio Times,[14][15] had BBC Chairman R. C. Norman provide the first speech, stating how proud the BBC were to be entrusted by the government for this new service, and how television, although more complex than radio broadcasting, would provide unique opportunities for entertainment for the community. Postmaster-General Major George Tryon spoke next, noting that despite the primitiveness of the first broadcast, it would mark a historic occasion, based on how successful sound broadcasting had been up to that point despite naysayers a decade ago believing that almost 8 million+ listeners would be impossible. Lord Selsdon then spoke, noting the potential for the new media platform, and promising that the Alexandra Palace would continue transmitting for the next two years, to avoid fears the service would be put out of commission.[12] This was likely in response to the loss of the 30-line broadcasts in 1935, which had made the many 30-line Televisors obsolete.[7][4]

Following this, a weather report commenced at 15:15, before a British Movietone News segment was showcased.[14][15] These were critical, as the BBC lacked a television news department.[16] At 15:30, arguably the most famous part of the service's first day of broadcasting began with the program Variety.[14][15] It featured musical comedy star Adèle Dixon singing The Magic Rays of Light, a song about television and its full potential.[16] Also featured were the duo Buck and Bubbles, whose appearance made them the first black people to appear on television.[17][18] Also scheduled to feature were the Lai Founs, a group of Chinese jugglers,[16][14][15] although they ultimately did not appear in the broadcast.[18] Finally, the BBC Television Orchestra made their first of many appearances on the service.[14][15][7]

The service would then cease transmissions from 16:00 to 21:00,[14][15] because of budget constraints and on the insistence of Director of Television Gerald Cock, who wanted a cease in transmissions to help prevent eye strain.[16][5] The extended break also helped ensure mealtimes and children's bedtimes could also be accounted for viewers,[16] known as "lookers-in", the term used based on a newspaper competition to describe a television viewer.[7] Approximately 400 people were able to view these broadcasts, due to the expense of VHF Band I receivers, estimated to be between £100 to £150 in 1936,[7] which today is roughly between £7,700 to more than £10,800 when adjusted for inflation. Programming resumed with the BBC film Television Comes to London, a documentary detailing the history of television, and how it operated and was produced within the Alexandra Palace.[14][15] This also contained Dixon singing just a few hours earlier, with a detail description on the technical staff and studio equipment responsible for making the transmission a reality.[16][14][15]

Following this, at 21:20, the final original program for the day was shown, with the first episode of Picture Page.[16][14][15] It was a magazine and variety show showcasing people of interest. Joan Miller, a Canadian actress, was the Switchboard Girl, responsible for cueing each person to be televised.[5] Oddly enough, the process proved to be a painful one for Miller, as she was cued in by a wire attached to her ankles, where every time she was shown on-camera, the wire would provide her with a mild electric shock.[5] The encore for the first day of BBC Television Service was another British Movietone News segment lasting for ten minutes, with the service ceasing at 22:00.[16][14][15] Following this, the BBC would regularly televise programs until ceasing the service on 1st September 1939 following the outbreak of the Second World War.[19] Programs resumed on 7th June 1946,[20] and have remained so since, broadcasting 24/7 in the modern time period under the name of BBC One.[21]


There are no direct recordings of the Opening of the BBC Television Service.[16] Like all early television programs, the entirety of the 2nd November 1936 broadcasts was televised live and there were limited viable means of recording television prior to the Second World War, recording seldom occurred until videotape was perfected in the late-1950s.[22] Nevertheless, the British Movietone News and the Television Comes to London film indirectly survives to this day.[23] Thus, while the direct recording is missing, Dixon's singing in Variety is contained within the film.[18]



Television Comes to London.

Video providing facts about the launch of BBC Television Service.


See Also

Early BBC Television

Early BBC Sports Television


  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 1.3 1.4 BBC detailing BBC's time working with Baird Television Development Company that allowed for the production of the 30-line television service. Retrieved 22nd Jan '22
  2. Baird Television detailing how the 1931 Epsom Derby was broadcast. Retrieved 22nd Jan '22
  3. 3.0 3.1 3.2 3.3 3.4 Teletronic detailing the prelude to the opening of the BBC Television Service, and how it was chosen to establish the first high-definition television service. Retrieved 22nd Jan '22
  4. 4.00 4.01 4.02 4.03 4.04 4.05 4.06 4.07 4.08 4.09 4.10 BBC detailing the prelude to the opening, including the 30-line system, selection of television presenters, and the Radiolympia broadcasts. Retrieved 22nd Jan '22
  5. 5.0 5.1 5.2 5.3 5.4 Royal Television Society detailing why the BBC chose Alexandra Palace to transmit television and providing the Picture Page story. Retrieved 22nd Jan '22
  6. 6.0 6.1 6.2 6.3 6.4 6.5 6.6 6.7 BBC summarising the "first hi-definition television service", noting how the Baird system opened proceedings via a coin toss. Retrieved 22nd Jan '22
  7. 7.0 7.1 7.2 7.3 7.4 7.5 7.6 7.7 7.8 BFI Screenonline detailing the opening, as well as the expense in buying television back then and the reasoning behind dropping the 240-line Baird system. Retrieved 22nd Jan '22
  8. 8.0 8.1 Teletronic detailing the test transmissions, and how male television presenters were selected. Retrieved 22nd Jan '22
  9. Showreel detailing criteria for female television presenters. Retrieved 22nd Jan '22
  10. BBC Genome Blog noting the Jasmine Bligh-Leslie Mitchell darts match during a test transmission. Retrieved 22nd Jan '22
  11. Armchair Nation: an Intimate History of Britain in Front of the TV detailing how television ensured sustainability due to "the dreams of its future". Retrieved 22nd Jan '22
  12. 12.0 12.1 12.2 12.3 Terra Media detailing the Opening of the BBC Television Service, providing each man's dialogue in it. Retrieved 22nd Jan '22
  13. Transdiffusion providing BBC press releases from October and November 1936. Retrieved 22nd Jan '22
  14. 14.00 14.01 14.02 14.03 14.04 14.05 14.06 14.07 14.08 14.09 14.10 Issue 683 of Radio Times detailing programming on 2nd November. Retrieved 22nd Jan '22
  15. 15.00 15.01 15.02 15.03 15.04 15.05 15.06 15.07 15.08 15.09 15.10 BBC Genome archive of Radio Times issues listing the programming on 2nd November. Retrieved 22nd Jan '22
  16. 16.0 16.1 16.2 16.3 16.4 16.5 16.6 16.7 16.8 BBC detailing the content broadcast on the opening day. Retrieved 22nd Jan '22
  17. Guinness World Records noting Buck and Bubbles as the "First black performers on TV". Retrieved 22nd Jan '22
  18. 18.0 18.1 18.2 Television's Opening Night: How the Box Was Born documenting the opening of the BBC Television Service and some other milestones it achieved. Retrieved 22nd Jan '22
  19. BBC Handbook for 1940 extract published on Transdiffusion, discussing BBC Television Centre ceasing all transmissions following the outbreak of the Second World War. Retrieved 22nd Jan '22
  20. BBC detailing the resuming of programming following the end of the Second World War. Retrieved 22nd Jan '22
  21. Mayfield Memories noting the change from BBC Television Service to BBC One. Retrieved 22nd Jan '22
  22. Web Archive article discussing how most early television is missing due to lack of directly recording television. Retrieved 22nd Jan '22
  23. British Universities Film & Video Council providing British Movietone News from 2nd November 1936. Retrieved 22nd Jan '22