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How the BBC took the news outside

image captionAn early outside broadcast van in Loch Lomond, 1932

Since the launch of television at Alexandra Palace in London by the BBC in 1936, reporters and producers have wanted to escape the four walls of a studio to report on the world first-hand.

Before the BBC even commissioned the first outside broadcast, the teams had attempted this at Alexandra Palace, taking the studio cameras, still attached by the studio cable, into the grounds.

One of the first programmes to use this technique was a gardening programme with CH Middleton, a broadcaster with the BBC.

image captionIn the grounds of Alexandra Palace

By 1928 the BBC had established the technology to design its first outside broadcast van, designated to cover events away from Alexandra Palace.

While television broadcasts were only just starting out, colleagues on the radio side of the BBC were becoming au fait with reporting on location and were coming live from an eclectic mixture of spots.

image captionRadio broadcast from the Drury Lane Theatre performance of Jack and the Beanstalk
image captionBBC engineers controlling the OB van at the Cenotaph in 1928
image captionOutside broadcast engineers setting up a broadcast from the sea
image captionSound effects of the zoo

By May of 1937, the BBC was committed to getting out to film more live events around the country and the sights for the first large outside broadcast were set on the Coronation of King George VI and Queen Elizabeth. Although most households didn't have a television, this was a huge moment for broadcasting.

Decisions had to be made. Filming at Westminster Abbey was denied so the cameras were to be set up at Hyde Park Corner. The big question though was how the television signals could get all the way from there back to the TV transmitter at Alexandra Palace. In the end a special cable, encased in a protective lead case, had to be made.

image captionThe Royal Coach passing the television camera at Apsley Gate
image captionControls of the microphone mixers for the Coronation in Westminster Abbey control room
image captionThe set-up at Hyde Park Corner

But two years later, after an exciting start of television broadcasting, it suddenly stopped as war was declared on Germany.

The outside broadcast trucks would not be used for the BBC again until 1946. In the meantime they served as vehicles for the war efforts, stripped of their electrical equipment.

image captionA microphone picks up sound of the crowd at the Victory Parade

By the 1950s the BBC was experimenting more with outside broadcast locations, and in August 1950 plans were made for the first outside broadcast abroad, in France for the Centenary of the first message sent by submarine telegraph from England to France.

It was the first time in history that a programme was transmitted across the Channel when viewers saw the town of Calais "en fete", with a torchlit procession, dancing in the square and a firework display.

image captionThe first outside broadcast abroad took place in Calais

It took almost two months to plan and five portable radio-link stations, designed to receive and send microwave signals, were set up temporarily along the 95-mile (153 km) route from Calais to London.

Previously the working range for outside broadcast units was just 25 miles (40km).

image captionRichard Dimbleby broadcasting from Calais

After the success of the France broadcast, the sights were firmly set on bringing the Coronation of Queen Elizabeth II to as many people via TV as possible. For much of the country this would be the first time they had watched television.

Before this ownership of a TV had been limited, but plans for the TV coverage of the Coronation alerted the British television manufacturing industry to a potentially enormous sales opportunity.

image captionThe carriage procession during the Coronation of Queen Elizabeth II

The Coronation was a success and viewers were able to see seven hours of footage including almost all of the service itself. It was estimated that 20 million people in the UK alone tuned in to watch.

The place of television outside broadcasting was secured, and the BBC's coverage of world news events continued with a move from Alexandra Palace to a bigger transmitter station in the grounds of Crystal Palace.

Colour television was just around the corner.

All photos from the BBC's archives. For more archive content visit BBC Rewind.

Related Topics

  • History
  • Television
  • Radio