The story of BBC Television -
Memories of Ally Pally
Bob had an eventful 18 months at Alexandra Palace before war broke out.
"A local weekly outside broadcast would be Harry Middleton's garden (Middleton presented the first television programme about gardening). This was a plot of ground just below Alexandra Palace tower. It was a nightmare to engineers. It meant taking out nearly 1000 feet of camera cable that had to be joined every 20 yards or so. It was always troublesome. Often when the camera was joined on there would be no picture – not an enjoyable show but a nice man!"
"Outside shows were exciting. Rather late in the proceedings it was thought to be a good idea to interview Chamberlain arriving at Heston after his last meeting with Hitler. So an OB van was rushed to the site and just before the plane's arrival signals were received at Alexandra Palace and his piece of paper declaring peace in our time was duly televised. I was vision mixer that day."
Ron arrived at Alexandra Palace in March 1938 at a time when television reception was only officially possible within a thirty mile radius. Following the close-down of television, Ron returned after war service in January 1946, along with other BBC staff. He said: "One never knew who was coming back, but, happily, most of them did." The early post-war days were "challenging, worrying and exciting times," with producers trying to embrace the output of two studios in one live studio. They sometimes had cast and orchestra running up and down the corridor as they left one studio to appear in another and then, "with luck" return as needed.
Peter Dimmock recalls lying in the road cuing Jasmine Bligh's introduction to the first programme after the war. "Good afternoon, everybody. How are you? Do you remember me? Jasmine Bligh."
He described post-war Alexandra Palace as being in a deplorable state. When it came to office space it was very much a question of who got there first – "the rats or us."
Audiences built slowly after 1946 and it wasn't until the Queen's Coronation in 1953 that television really took off. Peter was the architect behind the BBC's landmark coverage of the Coronation, which led to a dramatic increase in demand for television sets.
Beryl Hockley was a transmitter engineer, one of a number of women recruited and trained to replace the men away at the war. She was also the vision mixer who faded up the pictures of Jasmine Bligh to announce television's return. Beryl says these were exciting times. "I remember the pioneering spirit, how we all got on and the indifference of Broadcasting House."
Sylvia Peters was at Alexandra Palace during those formative years from 1947 through to 1953 when she was the first face on screen to introduce the coverage of the Coronation. She has warm memories of those years. "It was a wonderful, friendly place with probably no more than 500 people. You knew everybody."
These were the days when the BBC judged that women were potentially too emotional to read the news, but the truth was continuity announcers had to be made of stern stuff. There were no teleprompts. Continuity announcers had to learn the text and remember it. There were challenges aplenty, but Sylvia remembers Alexandra Palace as a place full of laughter and a great place to work.
"It wasn't the pay," she says. "That was very poor."
"My first taste of television was in 1948. I was transferred from Bush House to Alexandra Palace. Introductions were short, we were given one hour to decide whether to start our new careers on sound or cameras. Over a cup of coffee we made our decisions, reported back to meet the senior cameraman …and the best of luck."
On one occasion, the luck didn't hold. "I was setting up a lazy-arm microphone above a seated Sylvia Peters, who was in full evening dress, ready for an in-shot announcement. She rose – I was slow – bump – my first operational error: the one you never forget."
"When I first joined TV OBs the cameras took a whole day to set up and rigging needed two men. Everything was live and I enjoyed that world where we tried harder with no chance of let's do it again."
"The camera cables were as thick as my wrist. We had only one preview picture, one on transmission so out of three cameras we could only see two at any time."
"For the rehearsals for the 1949 Boat Race, John Bliss and I found ourselves in a tower at the top of the Harrods Repository in Hammersmith. We had been asked to evaluate a new camera with a long focus lens and received a call asking us to show pictures from the new camera to senior management in Broadcasting House."
"John positioned the camera to look across the river to give a close-up of a lamp-post in a back street in Hammersmith. An excellent and detailed picture was being viewed by the invited audience in BH when, to our shock and horror, a youth appeared in the shot and proceeded to relieve himself against the lamp-post. The reaction and comments of the assembled dignitaries were not recorded."
Alan Martin started work as an assistant film editor at Alexandra Palace on 1 April 1950.
"I was led to the basement film cutting rooms through a maze of dark passages. The air was damp with a strong odour of drains. Management supplied us with a milk allowance. Presumably to pacify our coughing fits from the continual stink! We all said that gas masks would have been a more practical proposition. It was a fascinating start for me in television. Hard work, little money, but learning all the time and enjoying it."
Sir Paul Fox
"The death of King George VI in 1952 had the Television Service in a tizzy. When the news flash of the King's death came through to Alexandra Palace, we waited for radio to make the formal announcement. But there was no obituary of the King: nothing had been prepared. Eventually, the decision was made to close down the service. Officially, it was a mark of respect: the fact was there was no suitable programme to be screened."
"Three of us worked on an obituary for showing the following day. We had the last pictures of the King at London Airport a few days earlier. The newsreel library found a lot of other footage and by 6am we had a decent and respectful programme."
"48 hours later, Television Newsreel cameras brought the first pictures of the new Queen's return to London."
"In the early Fifties I was an announcer on the Third Programme but I also played a young naval lieutenant in a serial called Spanish Gold which was transmitted live from Alexandra Palace. Then I was a member of the Home Service newsreading team and mine was the first voice to be heard on the first BBC TV news programme on 5 July 1954.
Richard Baker "It had been decided that newsreaders should not appear on screen for fear we might sully the pure stream of truth with inappropriate facial expressions, so we sat in front of a small monitor screen at a baize-covered table, and were cued to speak by the subs, who had written the stories, with a tap on the shoulder. A tap which sometimes became a thump at moments of tension and one had to resist a cry of pain.
There were disadvantages in being some distance from central London, but we enjoyed a happy independent life on London's northern heights."