What really did happen that day in 1939, when the BBC Television Service closed down “for the duration of the conflict”?
This article has been substantially revised since it was originally published.
The popular memory of 1 September 1939 is that, in the middle of the cartoon Touchdown Mickey, just as Greta Garbo says, “Ah tank ah go home”, the transmitter cut out and television went off the air for nearly seven years. The staff dispersed – into the forces, into radar development or back into radio. Alexandra Palace was mothballed and that was that.
This simple rendition of the “facts” is nice: the drama of the signal being cut marking the start of a world-changing war. But there’s a problem: it can’t possibly be right.
For a start, Greta Garbo (or rather a parody of her) doesn’t appear in Touchdown Mickey. She does appear in Mickey’s Gala Premiere (1933) and The Autograph Hound (1939), but not in Touchdown Mickey (1932). Since The Autograph Hound is a Donald Duck vehicle – and was released into cinemas in the United States on the same day the Television Service closed – the cartoon in question is not that one.
So which one of the two remaining is it? Touchdown Mickey was scheduled for that fateful Friday at 3.30pm; the reconstructions in later documentaries all show Mickey’s Gala Premiere as the cartoon. But these are reconstructions.
Mickey’s Gala Premiere is the first full programme to be shown on 7 June 1946, when the television service re-opened, the Radio Times noting that “[t]his cartoon film was the last item transmitted before the BBC Television Service was interrupted on Friday 1st September 1939.” This would seem to prove that Mickey’s Gala Premiere was the cartoon in question.
But notice the phrase “before the BBC Television Service was interrupted” – not the cartoon, but the service itself. In the anxious days immediately before war broke out, the sudden interruption of a programme could have caused panic. Therefore, it is unlikely to have been interrupted – and Garbo’s line “I tank ah go home” (or “I tank ah kiss you”) is the last spoken line of the cartoon anyway.
Neither cartoon, it should be pointed out, was scheduled for at noon on 1 September. That Friday’s daytime schedule in the Radio Times, for the week commencing 25 August 1939, was:
11.0am-12.0 ‘Come and be televised’
Interviewer, Elizabeth Cowell. Direct from Radiolympia.
3.0 Cabaret Interlude
with The Four Spallas (adagio)
Bennett and Williams (comedians)
O’Shea and Joan (tap dancers)
3.20 News Film
British Movietone News
3.30 Cartoon Film
The 1973 Radio Times 50th Anniversary book, whilst, it seems, wrongly stating that it was Touchdown Mickey, says the cartoon went out just after 12 noon. If this is so, the Radio Times itself doesn’t list it. Quite possibly the wartime changes were released after the Radio Times went to press, but that day’s issue of The Times shows a very similar listing, with the Cabaret Interlude replaced by a Mantovani programme lasting ten minutes longer, pushing the newsreel and cartoon out by that amount (see below).
This leads to more questions: If the cartoon wasn’t scheduled, why was it dropped in just as the Service was being closed for the duration? Did that day’s Outside Broadcast from Radiolympia actually take place? If not, was the OB cancelled, or was Radiolympia the victim? And if it didn’t go out, what replaced it, and why did the BBC run late by showing a cartoon after their scheduled noon closedown?
One explanation may be the timing of the order to close the Service. This is often given as noon. Without a doubt, the crew at Alexandra Palace would have been aware it was coming, or even that it had arrived; but the full impact of the order would have required someone from Broadcasting House to come to the hill and tell them. After all, the people working there were now redundant to all intents and purposes, so someone in officialdom needed to pay them off.
But that explanation goes against the way the BBC worked. The people in the control room at AP would have to be paid whilst transmissions were running. The transmitter itself cost money to run. There were strict rules on timings and on times available for broadcasting. Why would an organisation known, even then, for following rules pedantically to the letter beyond all reason suddenly break them with no good reason? Certainly no good engineering reason – possibly the only exception to a BBC rule being an engineering one.
We get one view of the timing from Asa Briggs, writing in The BBC: The First Fifty Years records:
“On the morning of 1 September 1939… Birkinshaw, the engineer-in-charge at Alexandra Palace, received a message at ten o’clock that the transmitter… should be closed by noon.” (p.171)
Douglas Birkinshaw confirms this himself (see below). So, contrary to popular belief, there was evidently plenty of time to arrange to end broadcasting for the day early, at the scheduled noon closedown. Thus one has to hesitate over the 1973 report – and the reports afterward that draw upon it – and hazard a guess that the scheduled OB was terminated early, or didn’t take place at all.
Indeed, The Times for the following day, 2 September, notes, in News In Brief, “Radiolympia closed at 12:30 yesterday,” – presumably another result of the country being placed on a war footing. Perhaps, with the shadows of war looming so large, the invitation to “Come and be televised” didn’t attract, leaving poor Elizabeth Cowell desperately padding time until someone at AP took pity on her. Perhaps they were told that the exhibition was closing early, at 12:30, and as a result the OB could simply no longer continue. Or perhaps the BBC terminated the OB early as a result of the impending station closure.
In any case it is entirely likely that the cartoon was slotted in as a filler and run as the final programme item. At that point the Service also ended for the day as intended – and, this time, for the next seven years – as Birkinshaw had been instructed to arrange a full two hours previously.
The creation of a myth?
Here is a clip from the BBC documentary Magic Rays of Light (1981).
(Opens in a new window.) This is what you will see:
1. Douglas Birkinshaw talks about what happened on September 1, 1939. As noted by Briggs (above), he says that at about 10am he received a message from the Director, Gerald Cock, at Broadcasting House, that instructed him to “close down television at noon”. He told his staff, “The end has come. At noon, close it all down…” He says that they had shown a Mickey Mouse cartoon.
2. We see a clip from Mickey’s Gala Premiere, taken from Salute to A.P. (Alexandra Palace), broadcast on 19 March 1954, with commentator Leslie Mitchell. The voiceover says,“…the shutdown of television was so sudden than not even a closing-down announcement was made following this final Walt Disney Mickey Mouse cartoon.” (our emphasis)
3. At the end of the clip, the cartoon suddenly cuts to a rather unusual representation of dead air (you can see a faint pattern as if sync signals are leaking in from somewhere - in reality there would have been no other transmitters operating anywhere near the channel, and viewers would either have seen a blank screen or noise). The cut occurs even before the Garbo character speaks (ie before the frame shown near the top of this article). This edit is very likely the myth’s origin: neither Birkinshaw nor Salute to A.P. claim that the film was cut off like this (in fact the latter specifically says it was not): the 1981 documentary producer evidently chose to do it for effect.
Whatever the facts, it is therefore very unlikely that events happened how popular history – and even the BBC itself – now records them. It’s easy enough to see why.
Television has always liked to examine itself, though it seldom likes to be examined by others. Given any excuse, producers will run together clips of old programmes, newsreel footage and interviews with elderly former tea boys who once worked with Baird, to produce a programme about television. Viewers favour these programmes too. Executives, as ever wanting knowledge of what people really like, tend to announce loftily that the viewers (ie themselves only) don’t like these type of programmes, so they disappear for a decade, before creeping back.
Thus there have been several documentaries looking back at television’s development (the first can be found in the late 1930s, looking back no more than a year or so). These documentaries, once assembled and shown, go back on the shelf until the fashion for this type of programme recurs. At that point the dust is brushed off, they are re-edited and, with the hard work already done for the new producer, get repeated wholesale as part of a new production.
Thus a clip of a Disney cartoon cutting off in mid-stream to be replaced by noise or a blank screen, used solely for dramatic purposes in one early-1980s documentary, is repeated the following year in the BBC’s In Front of the Children (with a slightly more dramatic cut), and picked up by a Granada documentary a few years later, in which Cecil Madden (Programme Organiser 1936-9) actually claims, with apparent anger, that the cutting-off in midstream really happened, though we don’t know where he was at the time - probably in his office on the fifth floor, relatively far from the action.
By the following decade, the myth is reverently repeated as actuality. A decade after that, the second documentary is filleted for a third, the piece is repeated again, but now it is firmly a recording of the actual event.
When documents written the day after an event cannot be trusted because they reflect what the writer would have liked to have happened (or what the writer would like others to believe the writer would have liked to have happened) rather than the reality, what can we make of an anecdote intoned for the cameras three decades later?
Of course, anecdotes are the worst thing from which to try to establish history. Short, funny and attempting to put the teller into a good light, they hardly compare with the Domesday Book for veracity.
They are more amusing, of course: it’s something of a bore to be told that the first words on the re-opening of television in 1946 were not “As I was saying when we were so rudely interrupted” (those being the words of Cassandra – Bill Connor – on his return to writing his column in the Daily Mirror after being demobbed at the end of the war) but the more prosaic “Good afternoon everybody. How are you? Do you remember me, Jasmine Bligh?” The cartoon that followed – some 20 or more minutes in, and thus not the first programme at all – was shown from the beginning, not from halfway, which is logical after seven years if you think about it.
That, clearly, is what has happened here with this piece of broadcasting mythology. But the waters can be muddied further.
In one of these documentaries, a member of the Alexandra Palace crew recalls the last day, and specifically an announcement after the morning programmes, listing what is in the afternoon segment – a segment that staff know will never go out.
This itself is a nicely dramatic story: if the picture didn’t just cut out, having an announcer read the schedule - despite there being no chance of it actually running - is a nice replacement.
But did this happen? It seems like something the BBC would do. It is certainly what broadcasters have often done despite, for example, knowing that tomorrow’s schedule won’t happen due to strike action. It even seems the human thing to do: if this talk of war is to be a repeat of the Munich Crisis a year ago, then nothing will come of it. If so, the Television Service will be back on in no time – and perhaps war can be avoided simply by pretending it isn’t going to happen.
Unfortunately, no other source corroborates this reminiscence. If they don’t cut the cartoon halfway, other sources always fade gently to black at its end. People’s memories are very fallible. What happened that day, 30 or 35 years ago, when you believed death was about to rain from the skies and your job had just evaporated? Did you make or hear an announcement about that afternoon’s hour and half of fluffy, light middle-class programming?
But, as luck would have it, there is one other source - and what should, by rights, be an extremely reliable one. Soon after we originally published this article, Transdiffusion contributor Malcolm Bachelor provided us with a copy of the original “PasB” (Programme As Broadcast) log for 1 September 1939, sourced from the BBC Archive microfilm library at Caversham.
The first thing we notice is that, according to the above, almost everyone is wrong - even the account in the Radio Times 50th Anniversary book (though it is correct about when a cartoon was broadcast). Birkinshaw, speaking in 1981, is wrong. Madden, on Granada’s Television documentary series in 1985, is more wrong. Even our own earlier conceptions of exactly what happened, built up as we put this article together, were slightly out. Because it’s evident from the PasB that the OB from Olympia actually overran. The cartoon was indeed Mickey’s Gala Premiere, and while it did apparently go out in full and was the last programme, neither it, nor transmissions as a whole, ended at 12 noon. In fact, the cartoon didn’t even start until 12.05; it was followed by “Sound and vision tuning signals (for Test Purposes)” (why, and for whom, we don’t know).
The station didn’t go off the air until 12.35, and as Salute to A.P. confirms, no doubt with reference to this log, “No Closing Announcement [by which is probably meant the standard, formal, station closedown announcement, not some special one] was radiated.” The reference to “announcements by Fay Cavendish” likely refers to the duty announcer that day, and not to some last announcement of the never-to-be-transmitted afternoon schedule being made. It also suggests that Leslie Mitchell’s memory was incorrect when he later said that he had made the announcements on the closing day. Another myth is also exploded here: that Jasmine Bligh, who reopened the Television Service in 1946, had been the one to close it in 1939.
But this still leaves some questions. If Cock told Birkinshaw to close television down at noon, why didn’t it happen? Not only did they not close as apparently ordered by BH, they stayed on the air for almost fifteen additional minutes of actual programming, adding an unscheduled programme to the scheduled one and over 20 minutes of tuning signal before finally going off the air 35 minutes later than scheduled – and ordered. It’s almost as if everyone wanted to stay on the air, and kept going as long as they possibly could. If, that is, the PasB is correct – and we can perhaps assume that it is, not only because it was written as close to the time as possible, but for the very fact that it doesn’t record what was supposed to happen: either what was printed in the Radio Times or the newspapers, or what Birkinshaw was told to do.
So where are we on this journey through myth and rumour? Quite a lot further on, in fact. The popular memory of 1 September 1939 can be turned into a likelihood of something different, but a touch less dramatic: at 12.35, over half an hour after the noon shutdown Birkinshaw had been instructed to carry out, after the end of Mickey’s Gala Premiere and following some test signals, television went off the air for nearly seven years, without a formal Closing Announcement. The staff dispersed – into the forces, into radar development or back into radio. Alexandra Palace was mothballed… and that, after all is said and done, was that.
Malcolm Bachelor, Martin Fenton and Richard Elen contributed additional material to this article.