Spelling Bee (lost early BBC game show; 1938)

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Listing of episode 4 of Spelling Bee in Radio Times.

Status: Lost

Spelling Bee is an early BBC Television Service and game show. Based on the radio show of the same name, five episodes were broadcast throughout 1938. It is listed by Guinness World Records as the first television game show.[1]


The show's name showcases its premise, pitting contestants to spell a series of words that increase in difficulty as the game progresses. The television show got its origins from its radio version, which began when BBC paired with National Broadcasting Company (NBC) to broadcast two United Kingdom vs United States spelling matches in January 1938. Here, the show was around 45 minutes long, with contestants receiving 30 seconds to spell out the given word to score points. Any errors were signified by a bell, with the opposing player being offered the chance to correct said error for a bonus point. According to UK Game Shows, the radio version of Spelling Bee was itself the first British radio game show.[2]

With the radio show a critical success, the BBC were convinced that a television program could be established from this concept. Therefore, in issue 763 of Radio Times, a promotion from The Scanner invited members of the public the chance to appear on the show, providing they regularly viewed television and had a talent for spelling. Selected individuals would team against a set of television stars in a spelling bee competition held at Alexandra Palace.[3]

In total, five episodes were broadcast, starting from May 31st, 1938, where viewers competed against television artists. The 18th June and 10th July episodes also featured regular viewers against television artists. In the 7th August edition, viewers faced a set of television musicians.[4][5] Finally, on 1st September, an Inter-Schools Spelling Bee was broadcast, direct from Radiolympia.[6] Freddie Grisewood reprised his radio show role as the spelling master in at least the first three episodes, with E. Powys Mathers as a Master of the Dictionary for the third episode, and Mary Adams and Philip Bate being presenters of the third and fourth episodes respectively. The episodes also ranged in length from 10 to 30 minutes. No further episodes were produced, most likely due to a decline in popularity as the inevitability of World War 2 began to loom over by the start of 1939.


Like other early BBC television broadcasts, Spelling Bee was broadcast live in an era where direct recordings of the show were not possible. Therefore, all five episodes are permanently missing. While photographs and footage of the radio version exist, none concerning the television counterpart have resurfaced.



Surviving footage of International Spelling Bee between Great Britain and the United States, broadcast on radio.


See Also

Early BBC Television

Early BBC Sports Television

External Link