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TV Technology 4. Here's Looking at You by Richard G. Elen


Early TV announcer Elizabeth Cowell

Early BBC TV announcer Elizabeth Cowell

The gap between the publication of the Selsdon Report on 31 January 1935 and the first test transmissions of the world's first high-definition television service was little more than eighteen months.

The first task for the new BBC Television Service was to choose a location for the new London television station. Despite press support for it, the use of Baird Television Limited's extensive facility at the Crystal Palace in South London was politically out of the question. It was also a difficult drive from Broadcasting House and quite a distance, which would mean additional cable expense linking the two locations. Another high altitude site had to be found. VHF waves need line-of-sight for reception - even in Band I, around 45-49 MHz, as these transmissions would be - and that meant that the London Station had to be sited as high up as possible.

There was really only one possibility, sites in Hampstead being ruled impractical, and it was decided to use 30,000 square feet at one end of the decaying Victorian entertainment complex, Alexandra Palace, atop a hill in Wood Green, North London. The BBC was to provide the 215-foot mast and antennas (one for sound, one for vision, commissioned from EMI), and the sound transmitter. The impressive 'turnstile' antennas were over 600 feet above sea level - not quite as high as Baird's on the South Tower at Crystal Palace, but they radiated extremely well: the intended range was just 25 miles, but reception was in fact achieved in Manchester and occasionally on the Continent. On one occasion, broadcasts were even received in New York.

In a spectacularly wasteful duplication of effort, BTL and Marconi-EMI provided almost everything else, each with its own studios, production equipment, vision transmitters and even artist dressing rooms. The EMI end of the building, adjacent to the mast and offices, included its main studio plus a telecine facility and control room; the Baird system had its main studio with a large bay window through which the Intermediate Film camera looked, a smaller 'Spotlight Studio' that used the flying spot scanner, a telecine room, and a control room.

Equipment began to arrive in spring 1936. EMI promoted its flicker-free 405-line, 50 interlaced fields per second system with its multiple, mobile Emitron cameras and the ability to capture truly instantaneous images, in contrast with the 64-second delay suffered by BTL's Intermediate Film Technique, with its heavy, fixed camera.

BTL, with its 240-line, 25-frame sequential approach, emphasised the superiority of its telecine system - which, despite fewer lines and half the effective frame rate, became the basis of subsequent telecine techniques - over EMI's, which needed careful 'tilt and bend' adjustments in the course of rapid changes of image shade. During the summer, BBC engineers familiarised themselves with the equipment - particularly the EMI technology, of which they had no previous experience: it was deliberately installed late to avoid potential copying. Because of the two different systems, early receivers were dual-standard, and had a switch or knob to select which one was in use.

Meanwhile, Gerald Cock was assembling the production team, and appointed the BBC's first Television Announcers. Leslie Mitchell was chosen, along with two women, Jasmine Bligh and Elizabeth Cowell.

The BBC had advertised only for blondes and brunettes: the photocells of the Baird flying spot system were overly sensitive to red, and it was thought as a result that redheads would cause a problem. As it was, special blue and black makeup had to be used, while for the BTL Intermediate Film and EMI studios, standard movie makeup was employed. This also reduced production flexibility as performers could not move rapidly from one BTL studio to the other.

Test transmissions began on 12 August, but Cock decided to put together a full demonstration transmission prior to the official launch, to be received at the Radio Show at Olympia later that month. The show, called 'Radiolympia', was an annual exhibition held by the Radio Manufacturers' Association. Cecil Madden, Programme Director, was in charge of putting the broadcast together.

Thus it was that at 11:45 am on 26 August 1936, a Duke Ellington disc was heard, accompanied on-screen by a caption card reading, 'BBC Demonstration to Radiolympia by the Baird System'. It was followed by another ten minutes of music, including Eric Coates' 'London Again' suite.

The two female announcers had been taken ill, so it was Leslie Mitchell alone who was on hand to make the first announcement at the top of the hour, sitting in the dark of the Baird Spotlight Studio, reciting the introduction to a short documentary shown via telecine.

The highlight of the demonstration, starting half an hour into the programme, was a variety show. Its working title was originally simply 'Variety', but someone had the ingenious idea of calling it 'Here's Looking At You'. The show included a song of the same title by Ronnie Hill, performed by Helen McKay.

Here's looking at you
From out of the blue
Don't make a fuss
Just settle down and look at us...

The studio items were live and, as the main BTL studio was not ready, the show had to go out from the tiny Spotlight Studio, direct descendant of Baird's original transmission system. This inevitably seriously cramped the show's style, as there was room for only a couple of performers at a time. Leslie Mitchell, in his autobiography, describes the experience of announcing from the Spotlight Studio. Announcements had to be memorised: it was pitch dark except for the blinding, flickering light of the scanner beam. Cues were given to the announcer by means of taps on the shoulder or knee.

It was not until the next day - when everything was repeated using the Marconi-EMI system - that the show was seen in its full glory: with three cameras, two mobile and one fixed. The main EMI studio was divided into three across its length, with a different act performing in each section one after the other, the cameras and lights moving down the studio as the show progressed.

"Hello Radiolympia," said Leslie Mitchell, standing in front of the first set of curtains. "Ladies and gentlemen, 'Here's Looking at You'."

The 30-minute show that followed went out twice a day for two weeks, with the two competing television systems alternating on a daily basis. On September 5, the Marconi-EMI team, with its mobile camera, was able to include some shots from outside the building. BBC engineers monitored reception quality at Radiolympia and noted audience response there, and in a viewing room at Broadcasting House where BBC staff could watch the broadcasts.

The programme was received as far away as Bournemouth and Nottingham. A great deal of excitement surrounded the demonstrations broadcast to Radiolympia, although they showed up severe problems with the competing systems, especially on the BTL front, where the limitations of the equipment seriously compromised the content of the programming.

There were even some attempts at sabotage by parties who apparently believed that the new medium would represent a serious threat to their livelihoods, and receivers at the Olympia show had to be placed under guard.

Following the close of Radiolympia, October saw the resumption of test transmissions, leading up to the official inauguration of the BBC Television Service, which had been brought forward to early November - three months from its originally-planned date.

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