BBC 2 Aborted Launch Night



When BBC2 launched on April 20th 1964, widespread power failure in Central London prevented the channel from broadcasting its intended schedule from BBC Television Centre, which was affected by the power cut.

Instead, the channel launched with a short news bulletin, read by reporter Gerald Priestland, from the BBC's news studios in Alexandra Palace, followed by an evening of test card music and "BBC 2 WILL START SHORTLY" captions occasionally interrupted by "MAJOR POWER FALIURE" captions accompanied by apologetic announcements explaining why people weren't able to watch Cole Porter's Kiss Me Kate or fireworks from Southend Pier.

Even this short broadcast was dogged with technical difficulties - the first two and a half minutes were broadcast in complete silence, with Priestland completely unaware we couldn't hear him.

BBC 2's first scheduled programme was in fact Playschool, broadcasting the following morning. A second "launch" programme, which featured the now famous scene of presenter Denis Tuohy blowing out a candle in the darkened studio was shown as part of the news bulletin later in the evening, which is just as well as it's now folklore that someone had forgotten to put hands on the studio clock for the intended first night!

Since all the recording equipment at BBC Television Centre were out of action, the only recordings of the aborted launch programme were believed to be amateur audio recordings made by enthusiasts in their homes. No video was believed to exist since video recorders were very rare in 1964, well out of the price range of a household (then, about �0,000).

Until now. Early in February 2003, an engineer was sorting out tapes in BBC Research & Development's modest tape archive at Kingswood Warren in Surrey when he came across a 2 inch Quad spool tape with associated paperwork reading "Opening of BBC 2" dated 20th April 1964. The archive itself comprises mainly of experimental HDTV recordings but it seems the 2 inch spool had been kept as an example of obsolete technology after an extensive clear out in the mid '90s.

Since the only Quad tape machines that now exist in the BBC in London are based in the main archive at Windmill Road, it was several days before it was indeed confirmed that the tapes did contain the original news bulletin in its entirety.

Documentation

The tape was made on Kingswood Warren's own Quad recorder on the evening of launch, off-air from Crystal Palace, and the recording was in very good condition - almost as good as the day it was recorded!

What's most remarkable about the tape is that back in 1964 (only 7 years after the first high-band video recorder had been invented), tapes were very expensive and were routinely bulk erased and re-used (I'm told that this spool would have costed around �0 in 1964!). The fact that this tape survived provides what's believed to be the earliest surviving recording off-air of a 625 line broadcast in the UK and probably the world.

The original spool
The original spool alongside a conventional VHS tape for scale comparison

The spool's label
A detail of the label on the spool

The recording gives a remarkable insight into what news broadcasts were like in the mid 1960s. Today, the production gallery communicates with the news reader using talk-back through an ear piece worn by the presenter, with the news usually being read off auto-cue.

In this recording, the news reader reads from cards on his desk, with a single card for each news item. Twice, breaking news items were brought in from a teletype by one of the men sitting behind him, and on more than one occasion, Priestland is interrupted by phone calls from the production gallery. The first phone call, like the broadcast had a technical difficulty and Priestland couldn't hear the other person!

The news stories themselves seem remarkably trivial by today's standards; the very first story we hear after the sound is restored is about a Yorkshire bus conductress who was sacked and then given her job back after she appologised to some Pakistani men to whom she'd made some racist remarks, which are repeated in full by the news presenter!

As news of the tape's discovery spread, Ariel, the BBC's in-house news paper took an interest and ran this story the following week:

Dusted down - a piece of BBC Two's history

By Clare Barrett

It's a well documented piece of broadcasting history: the major power failure that blacked out Television Centre, together with most of Central and West London, and scuppered the launch of BBC Two on April 20, 1964.

The channel did come to life briefly via a hurriedly rearranged broadcast from the BBC's news operation at Alexandra Palace in north London. But with TV Centre's recording facilities also falling foul of the power cut, no archive tape exists� or so it was thought. Thirty nine years on, staff at Kingswood Warren have stumbled across a recording of BBC Two's first moments in a dusty corner of their tape archive.

'It was unbelievable to find that an off-air recording of the aborted launch had been made at Kingswood - and that the tape still existed', said research and development engineer James Insell. 'It was even more remarkable that the tape had not been reused - the fate of most '60s VT. The quadruplex video tape claimed to be a high band 625 line recording - probably the oldest surviving UK example'.

Insell called on the BBC's film and video tape library in Brentford to verify the tape's contents. Senior technical operator Edwin Parsons ran the tape on one of the BBC's two surviving quad VTRs, transferring the contents to a modern digital format.

'After what seemed like hours of test signal, the screen went black', said Insell. 'Then, as if it was recorded yesterday, video appeared of a man at a desk, with a '2' on a large piece of card beside him.'

It was news reader Gerald Priestland, who explained what had happened and delivered a news bulletin - interrupted a couple of times by phone calls - from Ally Pally.

The recording may be no great shakes as entertainment - far from the promised launch line-up which included Cole Porter's Kiss Me Kate and fireworks from Southend Pier - but it does provide the missing piece of the jigsaw for the channel, celebrating its 40th birthday next year.




Instead of the promised BBC 2 launch line-up, including fireworks and Cole Porter's Kiss Me Kate, a resigned looking Gerald Priestland had to deliver the bad news on that fateful, in between fielding calls from Alexandra Palace.


The article isn't clear on the origin of the broadcast - it came from studio A at Alexandra Palace, where the original experiments on television were made using Baird & EMI Marconi camera equipment. BBC 1 also switched over to emergency cover at Alexandra Palace, showing films instead of the scheduled lineup.

There was another news bulletin from Alexandra Palace at around 10:35 that evening. It is believed that no copies of this exist and the engineers at Kingswood Warren had given up and gone home long before then.

Since the Ariel article was published, the engineer who made the original recording, now retired, has been in touch with the BBC and I have since had the opportunity to meet him. He informed me that the recording itself was an achievement against adversity! Although the power hadn't failed at Kingswood Warren, the power cut in the centre of London had caused the power supply in the south east of England to alter by several volts and more significantly for the sensitive video equipment, the phase had also significantly changed and was continually changing meaning the equipment had to be re-calibrated on the fly. He described this process as operating the machine "like a spinning dervish with a screw driver"! I can confirm he did a superb job - the recording only loses lock once briefly during the entire broadcast. I've been told that a more recent transfer from the tape has even managed to correct this problem.

The effort however was worth it and 39 years on, a significant event in British television history has been recovered for the archive. The broadcast has now been transferred to digital tape meaning that deterioration of the original spool is no longer an issue. It's remarkable that it has remained in such good condition for as long as early Quad tapes were known to deteriorate quite badly over time, depositing chunks of oxide on the spinning head.

Personally, I hope this will be shown to the public soon as it gives a wonderful view of how current affairs programmes appeared in the 1960s and also how the BBC coped with a disaster which put all it's major broadcasting facilities out of action in London.

The First Public Screening

The "world premiere" screening of this recording took place on September 3rd 2003 at an annual gathering organised by the Alexandra Palace Television Society and the Test Card Circle for their members.

Coincidentally, the screening not only took place in Alexandra Palace where the broadcast originated, but it was shown in Studio A, the very studio used by BBC2 on the night of the power cut! The projection screen was even situated roughly where the news desk was originally situated!

This of course added a lot of atmosphere to the event!

The Screening

Being in the studio where the world's first regularly scheduled television service started on September 2nd 1936 was a fantastic experience. Today, the studio looks very much as it did then, though most of the lighting has now been removed and the walls are now lined with antique television and radio equipment.

Although both studios and associated machine rooms are now closed to the public, Studio A is part of the regular conducted tours of Alexandra Palace. See their web site for more details. Studio A is the only part of the building now accessible as the rest of the "BBC Area" including the original Baird Studio B is now quite derelict.

"Where can I see it? Is it going to be shown on television?"

Extracts of this historic broadcast are going to be shown on television for the first time since the original broadcast in 1964 on BBC2's anniversary programme "Happy Birthday BBC2", being shown on 20th April 2004 (8pm - 11pm on BBC 2 - where else?). That week's Radio Times even has a picture of the "BBC 2 WILL START SHORTLY" caption shown above.

Radio Times


The Alexandra Palace screening mentioned above was given to members of the aforementioned societies only, but the first time it was shown publicly in its entirety was during The 10th Anniversary Missing Believed Wiped event at the national Film Theatre in London on 29th November. This event proved so popular that it's being re-screened there (again in its entirety) on the 17th April as part of a special presentation about the history of BBC 2.

On BBC2's 20th birthday, BBCi put a short Real Media clip of the broadcast online. The clip consists of the first 6 minutes of the broadcast (the second half is essentially a repeat of the first - with sound!) Unfortunately, for some inexplicable reason, the clip has been cropped down to 16:9 losing quite a bit of detail on the top and bottom of the picture. You can see the clip here, or from following the link on this page. The clip is quite obviously captured from a DVD presentation originally made to show to staff at Kingswood Warren (I recognise the "don't adjust your sets" caption!).

What's your involvement in all this?

I was one of the people involved in the tape's discovery and the one who first realized the significance of the find. It's been known for some time that a tape of BBC2's launch night existed in the Kingswood Warren tape archive, but it was either believed to be the Dennis Tuohy re-launch on the 21st April 1964, or its significance wasn't realized by the people who handled it. In February 2003, a colleague showed me the tape after finding it during a routine clear up of the archive (no, nothing was being thrown away!!). As soon as I read the label, I realized that if what the label said was true, we had something that "didn't exist" in our hands. I rushed the tape to another colleague who has contacts in the main BBC archive, who still have video machines capable of playing the QUAD format. Within a few days, the tape had been transferred to a digital format for preservation and confirmed that it was in fact the aborted launch of the 20th April 1964.

I've always dreamt of finding a "lost episode" of a series such as Dr. Who or Dad's Army, but I never thought I'd be instrumental in finding something so integral to the very history of broadcasting in the UK - a tape of a broadcast that's gone down in UK broadcasting folklore as never have been in existance in the first place...!

6th March 2003
Updated: April 20th 2004

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