The BBC Television Service officially began regular broadcasts on this date in 1936 from a converted wing of the Alexandra Palace in London. The big live offering of that first night was Picture Page – a visual version of Radio’s In Town Tonight. It was billed as a ‘magazine of topical and general interest’, a talk show with a quirky, faked element of viewer participation. Joan Miller would introduce guests from a telephone switchboard, pretending to receive calls.
On 1 September 1939, two days before Britain declared war on Germany, the station was taken off air with little warning. The government was concerned that the VHF transmissions would act as a beacon to enemy aircraft homing in on London. BBC Television returned on 7 June 1946 at 15:00. Jasmine Bligh, one of the original announcers, made the first announcement, saying, ‘Good afternoon everybody. How are you? Do you remember me, Jasmine Bligh?’. A Mickey Mouse cartoon of 1939 was repeated from an original broadcast twenty minutes later.
The BBC held a statutory monopoly on television broadcasting in the United Kingdom until the first Independent Television station (ITV) began to broadcast on 22 September 1955. The competition quickly forced the channel to change its identity and priorities following a large reduction in its audience. The 1962 Pilkington Report on the future of broadcasting noticed this, and that ITV lacked any serious programming. It therefore decided that Britain’s third television station should be awarded to the BBC.
The station, renamed BBC TV in 1960, became BBC1 when BBC2 was launched on 20 April 1964 transmitting an incompatible 625-line image on UHF. The only way to receive all channels was to use a very complex “dual-standard” 405- and 625-line, VHF and UHF, receiver, with both a VHF and a UHF aerial. Many households, including mine, did not have a UHF setup, so could only receive BBC1 and ITV. Takes me back to think that in those days 2 channels were enough. BBC2 was for “toffs.” For us, BBC1 was about all we watched. ITV’s programming was rather inane, and the constant commercial interruptions were annoying. I still find commercial television irritating. Old 405-line-only sets became completely obsolete in 1985, when transmission in that standard ended.
BBC1 was based at the purpose-built BBC Television Centre at White City, London between 1960 and 2013. Television News continued to use Alexandra Palace as its base—by early 1968 it had even converted one of its studios to color—before moving to new purpose-built facilities at Television Centre on 20 September 1969. In the weeks leading up to 15 November 1969, BBC1 unofficially transmitted the occasional program in its new color system, to test it. At midnight on 15 November, simultaneously with ITV and two years after BBC2, BBC1 officially began 625-line PAL color programming on UHF with a broadcast of a concert by Petula Clark. Color transmissions could be received (in monochrome) on monochrome 625-line sets until the end of analogue broadcasting.
In terms of audience share, the most successful period for BBC1 was under Bryan Cowgill between 1973 and 1977, when the channel achieved an average audience share of 45%. This period is still regarded by many as a golden age of the BBC’s output, with the BBC achieving a very high standard across its entire range of series, serials, plays, light entertainment and documentaries
I have never watched a lot of television. In England as a young boy in the early 1950’s we did not own a set. My grandparents did but I seem to remember that programming by the BBC was not very interesting. In South Australia there was no television until the late 1950s and we did not get a set right away. When we did, I saw some BBC programming (notably the first series of Dr Who https://www.bookofdaystales.com/doctor-who/ ), but most of the programming came from the U.S. In England in the late 1960s I had a few favorite programs, but then from 1970 to 1999 I did not own a television and did not miss it. Then, when my son was 8 years old he agitated for a set and I caved. But he was the main viewer in the house. Since he went to college in 2008 I have not bothered to watch – in Argentina, China, or Italy. I can’t, therefore, be said to be terribly knowledgeable about BBC programs. I am not a huge fan of the current iteration of Dr Who. Quite by accident one evening in 2014 when I was worn out from a hike around Otmoor in Oxfordshire, I turned on the box and saw the first episode in the latest series. I lost interest and turned off. I do try to catch episodes of Sherlock when I can, I will admit.
That all being said, I do think that BBC television productions have been of a high standard for many years, and have influenced programming globally. In the ‘80s when U.S. stations wanted to improve the quality of their shows, they looked to the BBC as a model, and PBS in the U.S. still airs BBC programs regularly to counteract the atrocious local diet of mindless sitcoms and such. What also impresses me is that BBC television is commercial free, funded by the proceeds of television licenses that viewers are required to have.
Nowadays BBC cooking shows tend to be as dreary as those in other countries, although some of them have a certain lightheartedness, such as Two Fat Ladies, and their successors, the Hairy Bikers. “Celebrity” chefs worldwide bore me. But Philip Harben who is arguably the world’s first television celebrity chef (or even first television chef), was a favorite of mine when I was just beginning to learn to cook. Harben’s first television appearance was on BBC television on Wednesday, 12 June 1946 in his new show called simply, “Cookery.” The program aired at 8:55pm and was just 10 minutes long. He showed how to make lobster vol-au-vents in the first episode. The show aired until 1951.
Harben tended to focus more on technique than recipes, which is what appealed to me at the time as I was just learning basic methods and ideas. Fault me for my excellent memory, but I still remember him doing a whole show, in around 1967 (probably a weekend re-run), on the fallacy behind the notion of searing meat to seal in the juices. He’s right, “sealing” was a poor word choice and an erroneous notion. But browning meat is perfectly legitimate culinary practice, because the process enhances flavor. Nevertheless, I did buy his The Grammar of Cookery (1965) at some point.
I could not find any of Harben’s cookery shows online but here is a video of him doing commercials at a food show in Cardiff. You get the idea of the man’s style anyway, and a sense of why I loved his shows.
Extolling the virtues of pure lard is priceless, as is the whole mood – so very earnest and sincere. Not like modern food shows at all. I miss those days.