HISTORY OF THE BBC: A ROYAL OCCASION

Continuing ''A Personal Account of Television's Early Days'' - by Kenneth Baily

When the mobile cameras did move outside Alexandra Park they did so for an occasion which once and for all demonstrated television's power as a transmitter of history in the making. While his young men were getting themselves used to outdoor operations, Gerald Cock was putting all his determination into gathering together a mobile unit of equipment worthy of televising the procession at the Coronation of King George VI and Queen Elizabeth.

In this the BBC saw a great chance to establish the efficiency and reliability of television early in its career. And they scored a bull target- in fact some of the detailed results on the screen were better than those obtained ten years later when mobile cameras followed the cavalcade at Princess Elizabeth's wedding.

On that blue-skied day, May 12, 1937, three cameras were stationed at Apsley Gate, Hyde Park Corner, to pick up the complete procession as it passed down East Carriage Road and through the Arch. Other cameras gave views of the Park and the crowd scenes between Stanhope Gate and Hyde Park Corner.

Camera's film The Royal Coach bearing Their Majesties, as it passes Apsley Gate.
Camera's film The Royal Coach bearing Their Majesties, as it passes Apsley Gate.

This first major television outside broadcast was more than ample for that afternoon. But the evening transmission carried on the festivities. John Masefield, Poet Laureate, read his Coronation Ode. A "Music Hall Cavalcade" followed, and the next day Nicholas Bentley drew "Coronation Cartoons" before the camera.

For those justifiably excited viewers the week of celebration ended with an imaginative tour, by television cameras, of the Television Station itself. That dab hand at "television effects," D. H. Munro arranged this, and gave Leslie Mitchell the job of showing the place off to George Robey. Robey began at the beginning, at the Reception Desk in the entrance hall to the studios.

From there a network of camera, lighting and microphone cables enabled viewers to follow him through a studio rehearsal, into the transmitter, across the corridor to the restaurant, up the stairs to the make-up room, into the projection room and even the control room. It was, of course, the perfect occasion for the famous Robey catch-phrase, "I stopped, and I looked, and I listened !"

In the make-up room George Robey found Mary Allen, the Make-up Supervisor. Whatever happened in the hectic life which electrified those studios this was the one woman who maintained a calm and unruffled good humour, and by it saved many trying situations.

Television's broadcasters went to her in the nerve-racking half hour before facing the cameras. Her job, obviously, was to paint their faces; but while she did this they discovered that she also calmed their nerves. To her craft she added an intuition and psychology which were remarkable. She always found stage and film stars more nervous and temperamental than people outside the profession; ordinary folk usually treated the whole thing as a joke, an attitude she cleverly encouraged in them.

The make-up technique was then more complicated than in the theatre or film studio, though the grotesque heavy splashes of black and white, that had been used in Eustace Robb's 30-line studio, were already things of the past. In those days Mary Allen thought that her most beautiful regular visitor was Lisa Menghetti, the violinist, who had superb Titian hair. She had a way of closing her eyes as she played, and because of this her eyelids had to be painted grey. Artificial red-heads had to be wary; the television cameras could turn henna-dyed hair into black!

On the night of the George Robey tour viewers saw the Television Station on the threshold of its pre-war development. The staff was growing -though not as swiftly as Gerald Cock wanted Broadcasting House to build it up; producers were gaining a slickness and confidence about what could be done, and equally about what could not be done satisfactorily. Outside, most national sports events, and ceremonies like Trooping the Colour and the Armistice Day observance, came into the programmes.

Drama took a stride forward in December 1937 when the television page in the Radio Times was headlined, "Play That Lasts Ninety Minutes." This was the first television performance of a play at full-length. The piece was "Once in a Lifetime," the comedy burlesquing Hollywood life, and it starred Joan Miller. Of the producer, Eric Crozier, the Radio Times wrote excitedly: "The most envied producer at Alexandra Palace . . . As far as we can remember no television producer has yet sat on duty in the control room so long as an hour and a half."

The first Sunday television transmissions began the following April, with an afternoon outside broadcast from the River at Chiswick, reviewing the history of the Boat Race. This was followed in the evening by a tactfully restrained and mixed programme consisting of a violinist, a monkey cartoon film, and Clemence Dane's play, "Will Shakespeare." By 1939 plays were to the fore in programme planning, and most of them were given in full. Bridie's "The Anatomist" showed a lessening in restraint among the controllers down at Broadcasting House, who had previously been a bit touchy about visual representation of life in the raw.

Through their letters, the response of viewers to the programmes was being keenly measured. The number of viewers was not considered great enough for the BBC to carry out any regular survey of viewer opinion; but set owners wrote more frequently, and more constructively than did listeners to the sound programmes. The greater part of the listeners' mail was fanatical and axe-grinding. But among viewers there was growing the kind of warm enthusiasm which had accompanied the development of sound broadcasting at Savoy Hill. The intimacy of television, and its visual projection of personalities, such as the regular announcers, provoked a warmer and more tolerant approach on the part of the customers.

In the summer of 1939 the viewers, believed then to amount to 20,000, were asked to answer a television questionnaire. There were 4,806 applications for the questionnaire form, and only 700 failed to return the forms completed. (To a similar appeal made to sound listeners, the response was less than one per 1,000. ) The results of this first poll showed that there was an immense affection for the three announcers; that full-length plays were liked better than short ones; that studio noises, caused by scene shifting and so on, were extremely annoying; that continental films were disliked; opera and ballet only tolerated; and straight music strongly opposed. There was a big demand for a children's hour.

The percentage of viewers who liked the different types of programme was tabulated in this manner:

Studio ProductionsOutside Broadcasts
Picture Page92Theatre Relays93
Variety91Ceremonies, etc89
Full-Length Plays83Sports88
Demonstrations80Films
Talks74News Reels93
Short Plays70Cartoons82
Bands, Singers45English Features66
Sports talks43Shorts56
Operetta26Continentals23
Ballet25 
Music12 

The returns surprised the BBC in showing that television viewing was not confined to any one income group. Taking a sample of 1,200 of the questionnaires, it was found that 28 had been filled in by labourers; and scores were returned by shopkeepers, salesmen and school teachers. A great deal of time was then spent answering viewers' letters week by week. Care was taken to see that explanations were given of the studio difficulties which may have caused criticisms.

Throughout this pre-war period Gerald Cock was fighting for television's expansion. The theatre block behind the studio wing had been taken over, and was used to house the rapidly growing collection of scenery being made by the scenic department under Peter Bax. But Cock had known from the start that two studios, 70 feet long by 30 wide by 25 high, were totally inadequate for a technique of production in which it was essential to have space for movement, and room for quick scene setting and striking.

He also wanted more staff, more money and more equipment for television, purely to improve the three hours of daily programme, without any thought of extending it. In all this he was having to battle against the administrative bottle-necks through which Broadcasting House thought it best to control television.

"BBC TELEVISION IS NOW CLOSING DOWN."

Original article Kenneth Baily 1950. Adapted for Television Heaven.