The Evolution of Television

By Alexandra Palace

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, Bbc, Alexandra Palace (1939-02) by William VandivertLIFE Photo Collection

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.

British Television's 2nd Birthday (1938-11) by Modern WonderAlexandra Palace

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.

Margot Fonteyn in Facade (1936-12-10)Original Source: Alexandra Palace Television Society

Ballet was an early success as visual performance had not worked on radio. Margot Fonteyn regularly danced at the Alexandra Palace studios. The Vic Wells and De Basil Ballet companies also appeared.

The Dorchester Floor Show programme (1936/1939)Original Source: Alexandra Palace Television Society

Grosvenor Cabaret Television Introduction

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.

©BBC Windmill Girls (1946-04-10)Original Source: BBC Photo Library

Experimenting with and refining the cameras began to create a visual language for television which was distinct from the theatrical stage or film.

British Television Pre-War Montage British Television Pre-War Montage (1987) by Cecil MaddenAlexandra Palace

A huge range of artists and performances were tried out in the studios.

Comet the Elephant on Television (1939-02-09)Original Source: Alexandra Palace Television Society

Escaping the Studios

A key success of the Marconi-EMI system over their rivals was the ability to transmit from outside. The lightweight cameras were mobile so early outside broadcasts were performed from the colonnade adjoining the television studios, looking out onto the terrace at Alexandra Palace.

Mr Middleton in Television Garden ©BBC (1937)Original Source: BBC Photo Library

Next wire trailed across the terrace took cameras outside. After golf and racing, an early success was the gardening programme, presented by Mr Middleton from a dedicated garden in the grounds.

Televising the 1937 Coronation (1937-05-12)Original Source: BBC

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.

Theatre Alterations - Studio C (1938-11-01) by M.T. Tudsberry M.I.C.E.Alexandra Palace

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.

Anti-Aircraft Demonstration for BBC Television (1939)Original Source: Alexandra Palace Television Society

However, the spectre of war hung over the studios. This anti-aircraft demonstration was transmitted live from the terrace of Alexandra Palace.

List of Prospective Programmes Cancelled by War (1939)Alexandra Palace


Although plans to expand the successful service were being developed, few people could afford a television set, and even then the signal could only reach London. Programming was abruptly halted in 1939 due to the outbreak of war. There was no closing announcement, these documents show the programmes planned for the following weeks. In the end the service went dark after the end of a Mickey Mouse cartoon - Mickey's Gala Premier.

Refugees during the Second World War (1940-05-20) by Graphic Photo UnionAlexandra 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.

BBC Tower (1939/1960)Alexandra Palace

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.

Beryl Hockley (1946)Original Source: Alexandra Palace Television Society

A New Start

BBC radio had played an integral part in the war effort, but television remained closed until 7 June 1946. Vision mixer Beryl Hockley faded up the returning television service when it eventually resumed broadcasting.

Women’s Engineering Division Switchboard Operator (1954-03-19)Original Source: Alexandra Palace Television Society

As the Second World War drew men to wartime 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.

Cabaret Cartoons 1936-1946 Cabaret Cartoons 1936-1946 (1946) by Harry RutherfordAlexandra Palace

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.

Jan Bussell and Ann Hogarth with Puppets (1946/1960)Original Source: Courtesy of Will McNally

New Audiences, New Technologies

The post-war service was quick to stride out in new directions and to develop the core technology. The first dedicated children's programme made a star out of Muffin the Mule. Puppeteers Ann Hogarth and Jan Bussell created the programme with Muffin's co-star, Annette Mills.

Muffin the Mule Theme Tune (1946)Original Source: BBC

Fragment of First Ever Telerecording (1948)Alexandra Palace

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.

Variety in Sepia (1947-10-07)Original Source: BBC

The cenotaph ceremony was the first telerecorded transmission and Adelaide Hall became the first performer to be recorded.

Cross-Channel BBC Cameras (1950/1960)Original Source: Alexandra Palace Television Society

Britain had pioneered television but the technology had spread around the world, and in 1950 the first successful cross-channel broadcast was achieved with Radiodiffusion-Télévision Française (RTF).

Grace Wyndham Goldie ©BBC (1958-02-01)Original Source: BBC Photo Library

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”..

©BBC General Election Studio (1950-02-23)Original Source: BBC Photo Library

The 1950 election broadcast ran until 2:13 am. The large maps, panel of experts and 'swingometer' for showing results are still used in election broadcasts today.

Coronation Of Elizabeth Ii by Frank ScherschelLIFE Photo Collection

Television's Crowning Moment

The transitional moment when television overtook radio as the most important entertainment and communication tool came in 1953. Additional transmitter masts had been placed throughout the country, beginning in Sutton Coldfield in 1948. A greater proportion of the population were now in reach of the television signal. The Coronation of Queen Elizabeth II saw viewing figures for television higher than radio for the first time.

©BBC Coronation Broadcast Presenters (1953-06-02)Original Source: BBC Photo Library

In the studio, presenter Sylvia Peters followed the route of the Coronation procession. On location commentary was provided by Richard Dimbleby, and cameras were allowed into Westminster Abbey.

Coronation on Monitors at Alexandra Palace (1953-06-02)Original Source: Alexandra Palace Television Society

The invention of the zoom lens allowed for close-up images of the ceremony. At Alexandra Palace the event was filmed from three television screens.

Helicopter Taking Coronation Footage to Airport ©BBC (1953-06-02)Original Source: BBC Photo Library

The footage was then flown by helicopter from the Park to Heathrow, where a specially adapted plane processed the footage en route for broadcast in Canada and the United States.

Journey’s End Crew (1954-03-19)Original Source: Alexandra Palace Television Society

By 1954 the television service had outgrown the studios at Alexandra Palace. Journey's End was the last drama before production moved out to Lime Grove and still under construction Television Centre.

News and Newsreel Crew (1954-05)Original Source: Alexandra Palace Television Society

Breaking the News

From 1954 Alexandra Palace became the home of the first dedicated television news service. It presented daily news bulletins and newsreels reporting on events from around the world. The transmission mast became the recognisable logo for television news.

BBC Television Newsreel (1954)Original Source: BBC

©BBC TV News Studio (1961-05-30)Original Source: BBC Photo Library

Kenneth Kendell became the first onscreen news reporter in 1955. Development of remote control cameras allowed greater control over programmes and paved the way for crew less news studios used today.

BBC Experiments in Colour (1954)Original Source: BBC

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.

Mufax Picture Receiver (1956/1969)Original Source: Alexandra Palace Television Society

Breaking news came in from around the world. Images and reports were faxed to the studios and a fleet of outside broadcast vehicles were poised for local current events.

Newsroom Two (1956/1969)Original Source: Alexandra Palace Television Society

Breaking news stories were called in to the studios by correspondents, including the assassination of President Kennedy in 1963.

Opening Night of BBC Two (1964-04-20)Original Source: BBC

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).

©BBC Wimbledon 1967 Broadcast (1967-07-01)Original Source: BBC Photo Library

Having experimented for over a decade, colour television finally launched in the UK at Wimbledon in 1967. Advancing from early trials it opened on the new higher definition system, PAL.

Viewing Theatre (1956/1969)Original Source: Alexandra Palace Television Society

Every major world event passed through the studios. Footage was sent to labs at Alexandra Palace for developing and viewing. Here staff are preparing to view footage direct from conflict in Vietnam.

BBC Studio Floor Painting (1971/1980)Alexandra Palace

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...

Open University Broadcast ©BBC (1971)Original Source: BBC Photo Library

University of the Air

The Open University was founded in 1969 to open access to higher education and learning. The revolutionary idea allowed students to study distance learning. The unique partnership with the BBC created course materials broadcast on television direct into students homes.

Open University Maths Programme (1970/1979)Original Source: The Open University

The first students enrolled in 1971 and the studios were reopened to create course content. Lecturers and experts were brought in to discuss a wide range of subjects.

Open University Television Studio (1969/1980)Original Source: The Open University

Programmes accompanied course materials sent through the post, allowing students to study at home. The invention of home video recording allowed students to record programmes for later viewing.

Open University Graduation (c.1973)Alexandra Palace

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.

High Definition Television Trials with Open University (1990)Original Source: Open University

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.

BBC Transmission Mast (2017) by Lloyd WintersAlexandra Palace

What Next?

Following the arrival of digital, and the completion of the digital switchover in 2012, television has become increasingly merged within a greater media landscape.

Mosconi Cup 2016 (2016-12-12)Alexandra Palace

Alexandra Palace continues to broadcast live sporting events, hosting the annual PDC World Darts Championships and the Masters Snooker.

Skepta on Stage (2016-12-02) by Sam NeilAlexandra Palace

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.

Credits: Story

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

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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