The first public television programmed transmissions in the world were sent from the BBC studios at Alexandra Palace in north London. A picture of the transmitter mast would appear at the start of the day’s programmes which were introduced with the words ‘This is direct television from the studios at Alexandra Palace’. Well into the 1950s, the news was introduced by stirring music, Girls in Grey by Charles Williams, and the words ‘BBC News & Newsreel’ revolving around the top of the mast.
On 1 September 1939, a Mickey Mouse cartoon, Mickey’s Gala Premier, was the last television programme to be broadcast by the BBC before the service was suspended due to the imminent outbreak of the Second World War. There were fears that the single VHF transmitter at Alexandra Palace would serve as a direction-finder for enemy aircraft approaching London. Also, there were only about 20,000 viewing families in London and the Home Counties of the regular ‘high-definition’ service with 405 lines that had been first launched on 2 November 1936, and it was a luxury the nation could not afford.
When I was born on 13 January 1946, it was only eight months since the end of the Second World War in Europe. The previous November, David Lean’s film Brief Encounter starring Celia Johnson and Trevor Howard was released, and on the last day of 1945, Britain received its first shipment of bananas since the outbreak of war. Four days after I was born, the first meeting of the United Nations Security Council was held in London; a month later the American dance craze, the Jitterbug, swept Britain; and in early March, Winston Churchill delivered his ‘Iron Curtain’ speech warning of the Soviet Union’s intention to block itself and its satellite states from open contact with the west.
Even if my parents had not otherwise been occupied, they wouldn’t have been thinking about what was on the TV that night as television broadcasts were not resumed until 7 June 1946. One of the first programmes that was then shown, it is hard to believe, was the same Mickey Mouse cartoon from 1939. There again, my parents didn’t get a television until the late 1950s. But I can remember watching the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II on 2 June 1953 on a tiny rented set with a 9″ screen in a crowded upstairs room at my aunt and uncle’s house in Earlsfield, south-west London.
Left: a typical Radio Rentals set from the 1950s with a Bakelite cabinet. Right: a 1950 Bush black and white television set, model TV22, with a 9″ screen and again with a Bakelite body. There was only one channel, the BBC. This was the set from which millions of people watched the coronation in 1953. It was sold at a price between £36-2-6d (£36.12 in decimal currency) and £42 guineas or £44-2-0d (£44.10), about two month’s pay for the average worker.
So if they hadn’t been busy dealing with me or my older brother, they might have sat down to listen to the ‘wireless’. The BBC had been broadcasting on radio, though only in the London area, since November 1922, so by 1946 there must have been a good choice of programmes to listen to. So what was on, and how can I find out?
Luckily, the BBC has just launched a test version of an online searchable archive of the listings that appeared in the Radio Times from 1923 to 2009, which you read about here.
It’s called the BBC Genome Project. 4,469 back copies of the Radio Times have been scanned using optical character recognition software (OCR). The archive is still in its early stages as inevitably many scanning errors have crept into the data, and members of the public are being asked to let the BBC know of these errors, as well as changes to the advertised schedules that would obviously not have appeared in the Radio Times. Nonetheless it is an amazing resource for serious research, to check obscure facts for a quiz, or like me to find out what was on, on a notable date in the past.
Incidentally a genome is the genetic material of an organism, which is encoded in DNA, or in some cases in RNA, and the Human Genome Project is the huge international scientific research project with the goal of mapping all of the genes of the human genome. The BBC says it chose the name because the corporation likened each of its programmes to ‘tiny pieces of BBC DNA’ that will form a ‘data spine’ once reassembled in the archive. I think the BBC use of the word genome is misplaced. Anyway back to the 13 January 1946.
Here is the link to the archive. At the bottom of the page under ‘Browse the issue archive’, you are asked to either ‘Choose a year’ or ‘Choose a decade’. The latter option didn’t work for me so having selected the year 1946, I then selected issue 1163 dated 11 January, the London edition. The contents of this issue then appear, and I see that on 13 January, there are two stations, the BBC Home Service Basic and the Light Programme.
Left: this cover of the Radio Times from 23 October 1936 shows the new transmitter at Alexandra Palace. Right: this black and white cover from 17 March 1946, with the sub-title ‘The Journal of the BBC’, still shows the effects of post-war austerity. The top photograph is of HRH The Princess Elizabeth, the future Queen, who was due to attend the launch of the new aircraft carrier, Eagle, in Belfast.
The Home Service provided news, serious drama, discussion, classical music etc, and the Light Programme arose from the wartime success of the BBC Forces and General Forces Programmes and provided light entertainment such as popular drama, comedy, bandshows etc. The Third Programme, predominately classical music, wasn’t broadcast until September 1946. In September 1967, the Home Service became the current Radio 4, the Third Programme became Radio 3, the Light Programme was re-branded as Radio 2, and a new radio channel, Radio1, was added.
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