History of the BBC - Part 6

BBC Television Closes Down

The Royal Academy - 1937

The BBC never allowed television its head independently of sound broadcasting. It was, until the 1950s, regarded as a mere department, among a number of others, in the Home Broadcasts Division.

In those three years before the war, Gerald Cock was responsible to the Controller of Programmes at Broadcasting House; but his chief executive officer, Leonard Schuster, was responsible to the Controller of Administration at Broadcasting House. The whole of the engineering and technical side of his domain, whose rapid development was vital, was even further removed from top-level control. Douglas Birkinshaw, the Engineer-in-Charge, had to act through a chain of superiors before he reached the Controller of Engineering; and though Cock could speak direct to the Engineering Controller, he could rarely short circuit the administrative machine.

In this tight control by Broadcasting House there was implicit the notion that Gerald Cock would spend much of his time at the BBC headquarters in Portland Place. From early on, I believe, Cock showed a fine contempt for the endless meetings of controllers and planning boards to which he was called. More often than not he stayed at his post. As a result, many of the decisions and negotiations upon which television programmes were built were achieved in defiance of the "usual channels," and argued about after the event. This did not suit Broadcasting House, and eventually it sent up to Alexandra Palace an assistant to Cock, with the prime idea of forming a closer tie. This was Tony Rendall, who had been BBC man in Palestine, and later became Controller of Talks. From that time on it was Rendall who spent most of his life in the official car, flitting between meetings at Broadcasting House and the Palace, while Cock, though unable to disregard the closer link, battled on with superb faith in his conviction that television must eventually be left to plough its own furrow.

The summer of 1939 drew on. The front pages of each morning's newspapers headlined grave reports from the Berlin correspondents. Down at Broadcasting House an official, specially recruited from the War Office, was already at work, behind a veil of secrecy, drawing up "security measures" which were to be put into force "in a state of national emergency."

At Alexandra Palace the programmes went on, and though Gerald Cock returned from Controllers' meetings cognisant of the emergency plans being made at Broadcasting House, he said nothing to his staff.

Personal anxieties about the future were lost in the zest and camaraderie which was the spirit of the Television Station. One producer has since told me how glad he was to get to work each morning, during those weeks, and how reluctant to leave the studios at night; the work prevented him from thinking about the clouds gathering over his own future. The work there was always so full of promise. A big tomorrow lay ahead; whether war came or not, the television pioneers had their hands on the future.

Shall We Join the Ladies? - A 1939 BBC TV play

Nova Pilbeam played in "Prison Without Bars," and Diana Churchill in "Private Lives." Elizabeth Cowell conducted the cameras round Kensington Gardens, in an afternoon of shimmering heat. The mobile unit spent days at the Oval for the final Test Match with the West Indies. Paul Robeson, then in London, televised a song recital. The Kentucky Minstrels took their simple and melodious show before the cameras. On Wednesday, August 30, the evening's programme closed with Harold Brighouse's one-act grotesque, "The Happy Hangman." The next night "Picture Page" presented its 262nd edition. Joan Miller was still at its switchboard; Leslie Mitchell was its Interviewer; but its producer was now Denis Johnston (who was to be back after the war as Programme Director).

On Friday afternoon, September 1, a Mickey Mouse cartoon film was shown. In it slinked a cartooned Garbo, saying "I tank I go home." Within an hour the television staff had gone home. Just before the film had started, Gerald Cock had received the message from Broadcasting House ordering him to close down the Television Station. The little figure of Mickey Mouse was the last viewers saw on their screens. That night there was no television; nor the next day; nor for six years after that. (Television Heaven Comment: Research shows that Kenneth Baily has in fact repeated an error that seems over the years to have become 'established fact.' The article on the next page The Day The BBC Closed Down will set the record straight.)

The BBC headquarters had issued its marching orders to all staff that Friday morning. From Broadcasting House, departments were evacuating by the afternoon. At Alexandra Palace so suddenly did the staff leave that for months afterwards the Station had a "Mary Celeste" atmosphere about it. Papers and files were left on desks. Unfinished documents stuck up out of dust-gathering typewriters. Forsaken cups of tea remained on office tables.

The staff had gone to report to war services, or to wait at home for instructions as to wartime duties with the BBC. Gerald Cock left, looking tired and grey. He was, in fact, unwell. The struggle to start the first television service in the world had worn him out. He was not to return.

To the viewers, closing up their television sets, it had appeared an easy struggle. Daily programmes had come to them for nearly three years, with increasing slickness and improving quality and taste. In those first three years they had seen 380 plays, 138 variety presentations, 165 special studio features, eight relays direct from West End theatres, 262 "Picture Pages," and 56 outside broadcasts.

On Sunday morning, September 3, families from Wood Green sat in circles on the lawn outside the Palace. Children raced up and down, oblivious of the message which Neville Chamberlain was then broadcasting from Downing Street. The television aerial mast, soaring into the cloudless sky, had already been marked down on a top-secret plan for the radar defence of London . . .

Part 7: The Day The BBC Closed Down


Here's Television by Kenneth Baily 1950

Radiolympia 1938
Rare colour stills from outside Radiolympia in 1938
Radiolympia - colour film 1938
Leslie Mitchell colour film
BBC Presenter Leslie Mitchell in 1938

All in this series...