The Birth of TV

A black and white image, showing five dancers. Three women stand with their hands clasped over their heads, while two men kneel on the ground. The women wear similar costumes, flounced lace skirts, bare midriffs, and halter neck tops, while the men wear striped trousers and floral shirts.
Ballet at Alexandra Palace ©BBC

The BBC launched the world’s first regular ‘high-definition’ television service in 1936. This edition of Voices of the BBC explores the story of the BBC’s involvement in early television, from John Logie Baird’s mechanical experiments in the 1920s through to 1953, when the Corporation’s Television Service covered the Coronation of a new queen.

‘The Birth of TV’ features clips from the archive interviews with: Tony Bridgewater, Harold Bishop, James Redmond, Cecil Madden, Grace Wyndham Goldie, Stuart Williams, Peter Dimmock, Ian Jacob, Norman Collins, George Campey, and Joanna Spicer. There are also interviews with several former members of the ‘scenic design’ staff, recorded by the Alexandra Palace Television Society.

Together, these interviews provide detailed personal accounts of the BBC’s early dealings with Baird, the first trials with the new technology, experimental transmissions, and how many of the most famous pre-war programmes were made at Alexandra Palace. The website has special features on Cecil Madden, early TV sets, the first attempts at international TV broadcasting, the history of Test Cards, pioneering outside broadcasts, working life at Alexandra Palace, and the 1937 and 1953 Coronations. It provides several examples of rarely seen archive footage, including film of John Logie Baird experimenting with his mechanical TV system in 1929, a recreation of the first ever TV play, newsreel coverage of Alexandra Palace in 1936, footage of the 1937 Coronation broadcast, and clips from several pre-war TV drama productions and talks programmes. Documents from the BBC’s Written Archive Centre include one of the earliest audience research reports into TV viewing dating from 1937, and those from Mass Observation include a 1949 report that asked correspondents to reflect on how TV might affect their ‘home leisure pursuits’. A downloadable copy of Edward Pawley’s book, BBC Engineering 1922-1972, is also available through the website.

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Header Collage

A selection of interviewees in the Connected Histories of the BBC catalogue. Top Row from Left to Right: Joan Bakewell, Asa Briggs, Deborah George, John Tusa, Mamta Gupta, Olive Bottle / Bottom Row from Left to Right: Julia Zapata, Esther Rantzen, Venera Koichieva, Suluma Kassim , John Birt, Olive Shapley, Mike Phillips

This collage contains a selection of interviewees from the Connected Histories of the BBC catalogue. Top row from left to right: Joan Bakewell, Asa Briggs, Deborah George, John Tusa, Mamta Gupta, and Olive Bottle. Bottom row from left to right: Julia Zapata, Esther Rantzen, Venera Koichieva, Suluma Kassim, John Birt, Olive Shapley, and Mike Phillips.