The launch of television from Alexandra Palace in 1936 was a landmark moment of progress for entertainment and communication. However, far from being the end of the story, pioneers in engineering and programming evolved the medium over decades to create one of the most powerful and influential tools of the twentieth century.
Television had launched in competition between two rival systems in adjoining studios, the Baird Company and Marconi-EMI. Intrinsic flaws in the complicated Baird system appeared early on.
Marconi-EMI continued to refine their electric Emitron camera system and by February 1937 they had won the competition. Flexibility from the light weight cameras allowed for programming experiments.
Producers experimented with what worked on the new medium and scouted for talent across London. Cabaret shows from the West End were often brought up to the Palace studios.
A huge range of artists and performances were tried out in the studios.
The first major outside broadcast away from the site took place for the Coronation of George VI. A cable feed was trailed under London from Hyde Park Corner to capture the coronation procession.
The potential of television had been proven and already the BBC began looking for ways to expand the studio space. Plans were drawn up to turn the former Theatre into a third television studio.
However, the spectre of war hung over the studios. This anti-aircraft demonstration was transmitted live from the terrace of Alexandra Palace.
The studios were closed and the staff reallocated. Alexandra Palace once again became a site for refugees arriving from the continent, and in 1940 a staging area for troops returning from Dunkirk.
Many television engineers were reassigned to work on radar, with its similar technology. The transmitter mast itself was used to jam the Luftwaffe navigation signal during the Blitz.
As the Second World War drew men to war time posts women were able to take on greater roles. From June 1941 eight hundred women trained as BBC engineers, with many based at Alexandra Palace post-war.
Following opening speeches the first programme was the Mickey Mouse cartoon shown as television closed. Programming restarted in the cabaret and variety format as pre-war but quickly developed.
In 1948 telerecording was able to record the television image onto film successfully for the first time. It allowed live television programmes to be repeated without having to restage the production.
The cenotaph ceremony was the first telerecorded transmission and Adelaide Hall became the first performer to be recorded.
An early devotee of television, pioneering producer Grace Wyndham Goldie revolutionised the electoral process in 1950 by broadcasting results in real time, as they came in. The public learned the results at the same time as the politicians: "The privilege of the few had once again been extended to the many.” A hugely influential producer, she went on to create the current affairs television programme. Her thoughts on witnessing early tests in 1936 proved accurate: "the whole thing was terrible, the reception was awful and I was convinced this was going to become one of the most influential things that had ever been created”..
While the studios presented news throughout the day, after hours tests were started on colour television. Early experiments trialled the American format for colour, NTSC.
On 20 April 1964, the studios accidentally hosted the launch night of BBC2, when a power cut shut down other London studios, cancelling the gala night programming. ITV had started in 1954 giving BBC its first television competitor. As a reaction to the commercial interest of ITV, BBC2 focused on special interest programming. It went on to produce landmark series, The Forsyte Saga, Civilisation, Boys from the Blackstuff, but on opening night a man in a jumper sat apologising to viewers and waiting for the phone to ring. BBC2 also marked the next jump in television technology as it was broadcast at a higher definition, preparing for the launch of colour. (Warning - the beginning of this clip has no sound and has been edited for offensive content).
When the BBC News service moved to Television Centre in 1969 it looked like the television service from Alexandra Palace was over, however a pioneering new use of the medium was conceived...
The first graduation ceremony was held in the Great Hall at Alexandra Palace. The partnership between the BBC and OU rethought how television as a medium could be used.
OU left in 1980 and the studios were closed. In 1990 high definition trials at Alexandra Palace briefly reopened the studios. It took until the digital switchover for HD to become a dominant format.
Alexandra Palace continues to broadcast live sporting events, hosting the annual PDC World Darts Championships and the Masters Snooker.
And television has paved the way for streaming, with content hosted on YouTube. In 2016 Alexandra Palace worked with Apple Music to live stream Skepta, continuing the evolution of what television is.
Exhibition by James White, Curator
Special Thanks to:
Simon Vaughan, Alexandra Palace Television Society
Robert Seatter, BBC
John Escolme, BBC
Ruth Cammies, The Open University
Katie Meade, The Open University
Kirsten Forrest, Alexandra Palace