HISTORY OF THE BBC: THE DAY THE BBC CLOSED DOWN

Mickey's Gala Premiere, 1933
"I tank ah kiss you" - Mickey's Gala Premiere

There is a popular myth that at midday on 1st September 1939, in the middle of the Mickey Mouse cartoon 'Touchdown Mickey' just as the cartoon Greta Garbo says, "Ah tank ah go home", BBC television suddenly went off the air in mid programme and didn't return until the end of the Second World War.

In fact, the story has been repeated so many times that for many it has now become 'established fact'. The truth is somewhat different.

The argument over which cartoon was being shown when the BBC engineers 'pulled the plug' on television has not been helped by a mixture of unreliable printed evidence and the inconsistent memories of the people concerned on that day. On closer examination it seems that even the boast 'I was there' can no longer be taken as substantial evidence of either the facts or the course of events as they unfolded.

The first doubtful piece of evidence exists in the claim that the cartoon being shown was 'Touchdown Mickey'. Clearly this is incorrect. For a start, Greta Garbo doesn't appear in 'Touchdown Mickey.' She does, however, appear in two Disney cartoons; 'Mickey's Gala Premiere' (1933) and 'The Autograph Hound' (1939) but the latter is a Donald Duck vehicle that does not feature Walt's famous cartoon mouse. So why was it thought to be 'Touchdown Mickey?' -the answer is quite clear when we see the BBC schedule for that day taken from the pages of the Radio Times for the week commencing 25 August 1939:

11.0am-12.0 'Come and be Televised'
Interviewer, Elizabeth Cowell. Direct from Radiolympia.

3.0 Cabaret Interlude
with The Four Spallas (adagio)
Bennett and Williams (comedians)
O’Shea and Joan (tap dancers)

3.20 News Film
British Movietone News

3.30 Cartoon Film
'Touchdown Mickey'

But the BBC changed its programming on the day when the mid-morning call came to shut down its transmitters by lunch-time. When the BBC television service resumed on 7th June 1946 'Mickey's Gala Premier' was one of the first full programmes shown - that weeks Radio Times reporting: '[t]his cartoon film was the last item transmitted before the BBC Television Service was interrupted on Friday 1st September 1939.' So, we have now established which cartoon was shown and now know that a 1973 'Radio Times 50th Anniversary' book wrongly stated that it was 'Touchdown Mickey', because the writer more than likely took his information from the original 1939 Radio Times issue. Also, the last line in this cartoon is not "Ah tank ah go home" as previously stated but "I tank ah kiss you, now", which dispels another myth.

The next question that has to be asked is - if the BBC were aware that they were going to close down there would have been no reason to end the cartoon in the middle. According to Asa Briggs, writing in 'The BBC: The First Fifty Years', 'On the morning of 1st September 1939, Douglas Birkinshaw, the engineer-in-charge at Alexandra Palace, received a message at ten o'clock that the transmitter should be closed by noon.' This would have been an hour before the BBC actually went on the air...therefore the engineers would have known two hours before closedown that programming was to cease. Why then would they need to end the cartoon in midstream? Birkinshaw confirmed Briggs' account himself, so contrary to popular belief, there was evidently plenty of time to arrange the end of broadcasting for the day early.

But even an official publication to mark the closure of Alexandra Palace years later did nothing to dispel the myth when it published the following:

Even after the war, when programming resumed, it seems that the true events of what happened have become muddled by some historians who report that Jasmine Bligh introduced programming with, "As I was saying when we were so rudely interrupted..." Again not true. Jasmine resumed programming with all the quiet stiff deportment of a BBC presenter and said to viewers, "Good afternoon everybody. How are you? Do you remember me, Jasmine Bligh?" The BBC did not begin immediately with the Mickey Mouse cartoon. It was, however, broadcast from the very beginning some twenty minutes into programming.


"Good afternoon everybody. How are you? Do you remember me, Jasmine Bligh...?"
The re-opening of BBC television: 3pm, 7 June, 1946

If confirmation of what really happened on that September day in 1939 were needed from an official source then as luck would have it one does exist. There is a document in existence at the BBC Archive microfilm library at Caversham, which was discovered by Television Heaven contributor Malcolm Bachelor. The document is a broadcast log called a 'PasB' (Programme as Broadcast) and gives the precise running order and programme information for that day. The original document, which is now a matter of public record is shown below:

So, the cartoon was indeed 'Mickey's Gala Premiere,' and it did go out in full and was the last programme. However, neither it, nor transmissions as a whole, ended at 12 noon. In fact, the cartoon didn't even start until 12.05 and it was followed by "Sound and vision tuning signals for 'test purposes' -although exactly what these tests were and for whom is still unclear.

The station didn't go off the air until 12.35, with, it would appear, no formal station closedown. This also explodes two other myths; one that Leslie Mitchell made the announcements on the closing day (his own claim) and the other being that Jasmine Bligh, who reopened the television service in 1946, had been the one to close it in 1939.

But this still leaves some unanswered questions. If Gerald Cock told Birkinshaw to close television down at noon, why did they stay on the air for almost fifteen additional minutes? And if the BBC was going to close for an interminable period what was the purpose of the 'sound and vision tuning signals'? Perhaps this will become clearer in the next chapter...

ALEXANDRA PALACE'S SECRET WAR

Laurence Marcus 2004 - with help from Simon Vaughan at APTS.