For the first 14 years of its life, the BBC had been synonymous with radio. But on 2 November 1936, the corporation launched the world’s first regular “high-definition” television service. And although it would take more than two decades for this new medium to become a mass social phenomenon, the meaning of the term “broadcasting” changed almost overnight. The BBC was now on the path of becoming supplier to the nation not just of sound but of sound and vision.

Shortly after 3pm at the Alexandra Palace studios on the slopes of Muswell Hill, the BBC Television Orchestra began to play.

The musical comedy star Adele Dixon then stepped out before the cameras to sing some freshly minted lines about “a mighty maze” of magic rays soaring through the sky. Soon after, the African-American song-and-dance duo Buck and Bubbles, plus Chinese plate-spinners the Lai Founs, also arrived at the studios for short turns before the cameras.

These performances were beamed out live from the 90-metre-high steel transmitter soaring from the building’s roof, and in several hundred living rooms across London and the home counties, the BBC’s “magic rays” served them up on strange-looking receivers around which were gathered the nation’s small but dedicated tribe of “lookers in”. There would be more entertainment later that evening, though not until the service had shut down for five hours: evening meals and children’s bedtimes were sacrosanct.

Though that day would go down in history as the official start of the television age, it was by no means Britain’s first experience of the new medium. Members of the public – some of them, at least – had been enjoying the spectacle of moving images in their own homes for several years. What it really marked was confirmation that, in the hands of the BBC, television finally had the long-term institutional backing it needed after more than a decade struggling to get off the ground.

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The first practical steps towards what some called “seeing by wireless” had been taken back in 1924 by the young Scottish engineer John Logie Baird. In his cramped Hastings workshop, Baird had lashed together an old tea chest, assorted cardboard boxes, several darning needles and a pile of scrap timber, all balanced precariously on top of a washstand and festooned with wiring.

After much testing and tweaking, he succeeded in using this bizarre contraption to send a beam of light through a rapidly spinning disc punched with holes and, by doing so, “scan”, transmit and display on a screen just yards away the faint and wobbly image of a Maltese Cross. Within months he was attracting investors salivating at the prospect of swiftly transforming this home-made technology into a lucrative product. Their money, along with Baird’s own perseverance and the support of several friendly engineers, ensured that over the next few years both picture quality and the distances over which an image could be transmitted slowly improved.

Transforming transmissions

Casting a beady eye over Baird’s operation, the novelist William Le Queux declared that very soon everyone would “be able to both see and hear a thousand miles away”. BBC insiders were more guarded. Most, including the director general John Reith, accepted that television was bound to come. The corporation even held out a helping hand for a series of experimental broadcasts. In 1929, it granted shared access to its transmitters, and three years later – only months after moving into Broadcasting House – it donated its lavishly equipped basement studio for a specially assembled team of Baird Company and BBC staff to transmit a series of hour-long programmes up to four times a week. This offered the chance to work out some of the techniques of the new television craft, including lighting, camera angles and make-up.

John Logie Baird working on a transmitter.
John Logie Baird working on a transmitter. (Photo by © Hulton-Deutsch Collection/CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images)

“Take-off” remained elusive, however, and the BBC’s engineers soon wondered if Baird’s own technology was approaching its natural limits. TV receivers were still pricey and the picture quality – with screens barely bigger than a postcard – still unsatisfactory. Worse, transmissions required the same medium-wave frequencies that the BBC used for its radio broadcasts, which meant that any further improvement in the picture – for just a few thousand TV viewers – would come at the expense of many millions of listeners to the National or Regional Programmes. For a corporation dedicated to what Reith called “the maximum benefit to the maximum number”, the public value in devoting more resources to what remained a service for a tiny, well-off minority was far from clear.

It was the prospect of an entirely new technological approach that transformed matters. In 1934, the BBC’s engineers became aware of a rival electronic system being developed by EMI and Marconi, involving cathode ray tubes, different wavelengths and much sharper images. It seemed the answer to the BBC’s prayers, and by the time its own fully fledged service was launched in 1936, the new system had already been installed at Alexandra Palace.

Something of everything

All the years spent collaborating with the Baird Company had not been entirely wasted. For a start, the Post Office insisted that, for now, the BBC had to continue using Baird’s mechanical method alongside the new electronic one. More importantly, all of those trial broadcasts had given programme-makers the opportunity to think about the actual content of their transmissions. After all, the general public would be enticed to buy a set only if there was something sufficiently entertaining to watch on it.

In 1930, Baird had enlisted Harold Bradley – in effect, the first television “director” – to arrange a stream of studio-based puppet-shows and piano recitals. Two years later, transmissions from Broadcasting House’s basement often featured performers who had just done a turn in the BBC’s radio studios. Among those who ventured down from the upper floors were singers such as Josephine Baker, ballet dancers from the London stage, and a motley array of exotic animals including a boa constrictor, an alligator and Sally the Seal, brought before the camera to blow a saxophone.

A viewer enjoys a show on a Marconi television set at Radiolympia in 1936.
A viewer enjoys a show on a Marconi television set at Radiolympia in 1936. The exhibition allowed visitors to trial the latest technology. (Photo by Daily Herald Archive/National Science & Media Museum/SSPL via Getty Images)

The most ambitious productions came during the months immediately preceding the first official broadcasts from Alexandra Palace, when the BBC was asked at short notice to produce programmes for the August 1936 Radiolympia exhibition of new broadcasting equipment held in Earl’s Court. Three regular “hosts” had been recruited to act as comperes: Jasmine Bligh, Elizabeth Cowell and the debonair Movietone News commentator Leslie Mitchell. It was Mitchell who introduced the BBC’s first TV variety show for Radiolympia, Here’s Looking at You, which featured Helen McKay singing a specially written theme song, a male trio from the Cole Porter show Anything Goes!, a pair of Chilean dancers and Pogo the pantomime horse. The Radiolympia schedule also featured occasional newsreels and extracts from British or American films. But the overall flavour was one of fast-changing variety, with plenty of pleasant conversation and vaudeville.

All this provided a ready formula for the service launched in November. It was also familiar to millions who had tuned in to radio variety shows such as Music-Hall or In Town Tonight – what the Listener’s critic Grace Wyndham Goldie later referred to as “something of everything and nothing for long”. In the months that followed, dedicated viewers would be offered a talk by the artist John Piper one moment, and witness a man tearing a telephone directory in half the next.

Senior figures at Alexandra Palace – such as the director of television, Gerald Cock, and his right-hand man, Cecil Madden – were old BBC hands and, while they talked passionately of putting the stamp of difference on their latest venture in Alexandra Palace, they inevitably brought with them all sorts of ideas and practices picked up from years working in the older medium. The Reithian “rich mix” – with entertainment as important as edification – was in their bones.

It would be less than three years before a declaration of war demanded the complete suspension of activities at Alexandra Palace. But by then the team gathered there had accumulated more television programme-making experience than anyone else in the world. The number of viewers was nearly 20,000 and growing fast. And perhaps most significantly of all, British television was on the way to being a popular medium formed very much in the BBC’s own image.

The black performers who added stardust to BBC Television’s early years

Josephine Baker’s appearance in those early experimental transmissions from Broadcasting House offered a tantalising foretaste of the distinctive role that black performers would play on British TV screens in the years either side of the war. 

Between 1936 and the sudden closedown in September 1939, the list of artists appearing before the cameras included actor Nina Mae McKinney, singer and entertainer Elisabeth Welch, and jazz singer Adelaide Hall. Baker herself appeared on more than one occasion, as did stage and screen actor Paul Robeson. When TV returned in 1946, Trinidadian actor Edric Connor was chosen  to introduce a performance by Europe’s first black dance company, Les Ballets Nègres.

One factor driving the presence of such stars, especially in the 1930s, was the sheer quantity of high-class American entertainment then being staged in London’s West End. The BBC’s Cecil Madden recalled a capital city “packed with cabarets… Every hotel, the Berkeley, the Ritz, Quaglino’s, anywhere you like, they all had acts which could be bought quite cheaply at the times we wanted.”

Madden proved adept at drawing on this reservoir of Broadway and off-Broadway talent to add a generous sprinkle of African-American stardust to the Television Service’s evening schedules. Yet senior staff at Alexandra Palace had plenty of blind spots when it came to race – and sometimes showed themselves rather too willing to bend to the prejudices of viewers. 

In 1950, the controller of television, Norman Collins, responded to complaints about Black Magic, a variety show that featured a black artist singing to a white woman. “Love songs between white and coloured artists must be very scrupulously considered,” he told colleagues afterwards. “Such acts are not expressly forbidden, but are better avoided.” 

Eight years later, the BBC would launch The Black and White Minstrel Show. Despite numerous complaints from inside and outside the corporation about the offence it caused, the show went on to run for another 20 years.

Trinidadian actor Edric Connor
Trinidadian actor Edric Connor. (image by Alamy)

David Hendy is emeritus professor at the University of Sussex. His latest book is The BBC: A People’s History (Profile, 2022)

This article was first published in the October 2022 issue of BBC History Magazine