RCA recording of BBC Television Service (found footage of pre-Second World War BBC television broadcast; 1938)

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Screenshot of the RCA recording.

Status: Found

Date found: 26 Jun 1999

Found by: Andrew Emmerson and Maurice Schecheter

BBC Television Service (now known as BBC One) is a British television channel controlled by the British Broadcasting Company (BBC). It officially launched Britain's first public television broadcasts on 2nd November 1936, and its usage of both 240-line Baird and its eventual successor 405-line Marconi-EMI system meant that it was also regarded as the first regular television service to be broadcasting in high definition.[1] Prior to the Second World War, its broadcasts proved enticing for its audience, limited mainly by the high cost of owning a television back then.[2] After ceasing transmissions on September 1st, 1939 due to the outbreak of the War,[3] it resumed normal programming on June 7th, 1946 and continues broadcasting to the present day.[4]

Fate of pre-Second World War broadcasts

Despite the historic nature of BBC Television Service, almost all of its pre-Second World War broadcasts are now permanently missing. While some media presented on the channel like third-party cartoons and films indirectly survive to the present day, original programming was transmitted live. It would not be until post-World War 2 that direct recordings of live broadcasts were technologically possible. Some, like footage of the 1938 FA Cup Final survive only because a cine film camera recorded the footage alongside the TV cameras.

Most were not so lucky, and for these programs, they immediately became forever lost following their airings, with only still photographs and Radio Times listings providing evidence of these shows' existence. Media affected included Ann and Harold, the first episodic television series, and a television adaptation of the Agatha Christie short story The Wasp's Nest.

The 1938 RCA recording

However, while no direct recordings were possible, surprisingly one instance of a pre-World War 2 broadcast compilation remains publicly accessible thanks to an indirect recording. Additionally, the footage was recorded not in the United Kingdom, but in New York. Back then, a BBC television broadcast should not have been possible in America, because the original Alexandra Palace recordings could generally travel less than 30 miles before ceasing. However, in November 1938, unusual changes in the atmosphere commenced when sunspots affected the ionosphere, causing television broadcasts to be bounced off it. Consequentially, New York could receive broadcasts transmitted around 3,000 miles away, with the first reported instance of this occurring during an episode of Sea Stories.[5]

Meanwhile, the Radio Corporation of America (RCA) were researching commercial television development opportunities within America since 1929.[6] During their research in New York, RCA researchers came across the BBC broadcasts and began to view said footage from its own developed television system. It was decided that recording some footage would prove useful for furthering RCA's television development. Four minutes of footage was therefore recorded on a 16mm film through a camera placed in front of a TV screen.

For many years afterwards, rumours surrounding an American recording of early BBC television broadcasts were made, but without any footage being available, were unsubstantiated. Then, in the 1990s, British freelancer researcher and writer Andrew Emmerson began investigating the matter. He first contacted NBC if the footage was present in their laboratories, but searches came up empty.[7] He then contacted RCA, who could not find their recording within their archives. Finally, Emmerson requested that the American Vintage Wireless Collectors' Society mention the footage in its magazine, and to request any possible collector to contact them. Ultimately, Maurice Schecheter, a New York television studio employee and a television media collector, contacted the magazine, stating he had one of the RCA recordings. After a digital clean-up and video cassette transfer, the recording was sent to Emmerson. The recording was then shown at the National Museum of Photography, Film and Television in Bradford on June 26th, 1999. As of the present day, it belongs in the Alexandra Palace Television Society archives and is publicly accessible.

Contents of the recording

Another mystery surrounded what was recorded by RCA, given the poor quality of the surviving footage. The footage is confirmed to have included shots of Jasmine Bligh and Elizabeth Cowell, both of whom were BBC announcers.[8] Additionally, a costume drama, a cartoon and a BBC station identity card were also recorded.

Regarding the identity of the cartoon, a Web Archive reviewer by the name of D. G. Mavrov found that the recorded scene came from Walt Disney Productions' Silly Symphonies' film Mother Goose Melodies. In the scene, an illustration of Little Miss Muffet is shown, where a spider successfully scares away Miss Muffet from eating her curds and whey. The spider then proceeds to scare the viewer, before happily gulping down several spoonfuls of curds and whey from the bowl. It then uses its web as a rope to drag itself and the bowl up to the treetop, only for the web to break, causing the bowl to smash and the spider to be covered in curds and whey, much to its dismay. While the footage does indeed match up with the film scene in question, this also suggests the recording compilation was made beyond November. Indeed, Mother Goose Melodies was not shown in November, but a Radio Times issue lists it as being broadcast on the 4th and 6th of December.

Meanwhile, the identity of the costume drama has remained unconfirmed. A theory by one Web Archive reviewer by the name of Gina1957 suggests that it could be The White Chateau, a wartime play broadcast on 11th November.[9] Another likely candidate is An Elephant in Arcady,[10] a costume drama which was broadcast on November 28th, and on December 4th, the latter being the same day as a Mother Goose Melodies broadcast.



The RCA recording.

Mother Goose Melodies. The scene showcased in the RCA recording can be viewed from the 3:00 mark.


See Also

Early BBC Television

Early BBC Sports Television

External Links