Telly Years

In this section, we take a look back at sample BBC television and radio schedules from years gone by, with listings from the BBC Genome Project. On this page we look back at the 1930s-1950s. On other pages: 1960s, 1970s, 1980s and 1990s.


BBC Genome schedule for Monday 2 November 1936

A truly historic day - the British Broadcasting Corporation inaugurates the world's first regular high-definition public television service. First broadcasts from Alexandra Palace had taken place on 26 August with an announcement by Elizabeth Cowell and the programme Here's Looking at You; these could be seen by visitors to the Radiolympia exhibition.

These early broadcasts were only receivable by those living within range of the Alexandra Palace transmitter, and had a potential audience of around 300 people who owned sets. So only the London edition of Radio Times even mentioned the word television. Initially there was just two hours of broadcasting a day - from 3-4pm, and 9-10pm. However for this opening day, the first hour was actually performed twice - first using the Baird system, and then again, using the Marconi-EMI system.

So what could the privileged few see on day one of the BBC Television Service? After a succession of speeches, including one from BBC chairman RC Norman who said, "We believe that these proceedings will be remembered as an historic occasion", there was a bulletin of British Movietone News, then variety from musical comedy actress Adele Dixon and American dancers Buck and Bubbles. Though billed to run from 3.30 to 4.00, this programme in fact ran from approx 3.23 to 3.31. Then the BBC Television Orchestra continued in sound only till around 3.50.

In the evening there was a short film Television Comes to London, which was repeated a number of times over the following days, then the first edition of Picture Page, which was to run until 1939, and again from 1946-54.

The second day of television got under way at 3.00pm with exhibits from the Metropolitan and Essex Canine Society's Show, described by A. Croxton Smith OBE. This was followed by a model of The Golden Hind made by L.A. Stock, bus driver, and more variety in Starlight with comedians Bebe and Ben Lyon.

Other early programmes included the first televised opera, Mr Pickwick, on 13 November; while it didn't take long for the first cookery programme to be shown, on 9 December.

For the first three months of television the Baird and Marconi-EMI systems were used on alternate weeks. Baird's system was used first (decided on the toss of a coin!), but was dropped on 4 February 1937.


BBC Genome schedule for Friday 1 September 1939

Following our look at the first day of high definition television, we now move straight to the last day of the pre-war BBC Television Service. Uniquely in this section, this is a line-up of programmes most of which did not actually make it to air.

Legend has it that television was suddenly pulled off air part of the way through a Mickey Mouse cartoon, and indeed the schedule shows that 'Touchdown Mickey' was scheduled for 3.30. However research carried out by the Transdiffusion website has shown that the truth is rather different. The mouse did indeed put in an appearance that day, but some three-and-a-half hours earlier, and in a different cartoon, 'Mickey's Gala Premiere'.

Transmissions that day had got under way as scheduled with 'Come and Be Televised', an hour-long outside broadcast from the Radiolympia exhibition with Elizabeth Cowell. Diverging from the published schedule, it was immediately followed shortly after midday by the Mickey Mouse cartoon which was in fact shown all the way to the end, before pre-war transmissions ended for good some twenty minutes later.

Scheduled programmes that never went to air later that day included a session with Mantovani and his orchestra, a trip to London Zoo, which had in fact already aired that week, and another visit to Radiolympia for a variety extravaganza.


BBC Genome schedule for Friday 7 June 1946

The BBC Television Service resumed on 7th June 1946, after a near-seven year break. At 3.00pm BBC announcer Jasmine Bligh walked towards the camera on the terrace of Alexandra Park and smiled, "Do you remember me?"

Following another opening ceremony, which included a dance by Margot Fonteyn, programmes resumed with 'Mickey's Gala Premiere', the same Mickey Mouse cartoon that was 'so rudely interrupted', in the words of announcer Leslie Mitchell, in September 1939. This was followed by another item postponed for seven years, a concert featuring Mantovani's orchestra. Television's first day back was also marked by two plays, George Bernard Shaw's The Dark Lady of the Sonnets and The Silence of the Sea.

The next day marked the first anniversary of VE Day, and the BBC provided television coverage of the Victory Parade held along the Mall. Richard Dimbleby and Frederick Grisewood were on hand to provide commentary on the event. However coverage of the evening celebrations was to be limited to fifteen minutes of the crowd assembling. Then television had to break away for an hour of 'cabaret cartoons' (whatever they are) and a guide on how to choose a hat.

When it returned in 1946, television was still a relatively modest affair; the service was still only available to viewers living within at least 40 miles of the Alexandra Palace transmitter, and programmes were only broadcast for around a total of three hours a day. However there was plenty to look forward to - the pre-war magazine Picture Page was revived, and a month after the resumption of television, the first regular children's programme, For the Children, was shown. Favourites such as Muffin the Mule and Richard Hearne also made their debuts this year.

But the television service was hit again in February 1947 when a fuel crisis during the harsh winter cut programming hours back to evenings only; the Home, Light and Third radio services suffered a similar fate. The full service was resumed on 28th April 1947, but it would take until the end of the decade for television to finally break out of London.


BBC Genome schedule for Tuesday 13 September 1955

This was an important month for television. In less than two weeks the BBC Television Service would find itself facing competition for the first time in its history - from independent television. On 22nd September Associated-Rediffusion would begin a commercial television service for viewers in the London region.

Children now had an hour of programmes at 5.00, and there was now a fifteen minute news bulletin - just the one - each evening at 7.30. But there were changes on the horizon. Following on from the first television weather forecaster in 1954, Kenneth Kendall had just become the first in-vision newsreader (on 4th September), in direct response to ITN who would be using in-vision presenters.

Broadcasting hours would also be increased, from 36 to 49 hours a week, starting on 19th September, which would see a further hour of afternoon programmes from 4-5pm, and evening programmes now starting at 7.00. However airtime for both the BBC and independent television services were still very much restricted. Neither could transmit more than 35 hours between Monday and Friday, with a maximum of 8 hours on any given day. No broadcasts were allowed earlier than 9am or later than 11pm, nor between 6-7pm (the 'Toddlers Truce' - see the next page for more details on this). At the weekend airtime was limited to 15 hours, although religious broadcasting and outside broadcasts of special events were permitted outside these hours.

It's telling that at this point the BBC still considered television as subservient to radio - their attempt at spoiling Associated-Rediffusion's launch was to kill off Grace in The Archers...


BBC Genome schedule for Monday 18 February 1957

In this age of 24 hour broadcasting, it seems absurd that until February 1957, neither the BBC nor ITV was allowed to broadcast television between 6.00 and 7.00pm. The hours' break was known as 'The Gap', or 'Toddlers' Truce', and was imposed to enable parents to get their children to bed! The rule was finally relaxed in our featured week, and the BBC chose to fill the gap with an extra news bulletin, and Tonight - a new magazine show which promised us "interviews with people in the news; views from people who never get into the news; sporting comment; reviews of the day's papers; musicians and music; something about travel; stories, puzzles, and up-to-the-minute flashes from the newsroom." The programme, introduced by Cliff Michelmore, ran until 1965.

On Saturdays the gap was filled with a new pop programme, Six Five Special, presented by Josephine Douglas and Pete Murray which, aside from music, would also include comedy sketches, something for sports lovers, and items on rock climbing.

There was another magazine show on this day, this time for children, Studio E with Vera McKechnie, and featuring Tony Hart, which came from the Lime Grove studios in Shepherd's Bush which the BBC had bought at the start of the 1950s. At this point BBC television programmes were produced from Alexandra Palace and Lime Grove; Television Centre opened three years later.

Apart from the news, one programme survives to this day - 'television's window on the world', Panorama, and some other long-running shows would begin soon - The Sky at Night began in April and was presented monthly by Patrick Moore, almost without fail, right up until his death; October 1958 would see the launch of both Grandstand and Blue Peter.

Broadcasting hours were still very restricted; there was nothing before 3.00pm when the BBC's thrilling programming included a guide to vacuum cleaners, while it was bedtime after the news at 10.45.


BBC Genome schedule for Saturday 30 May 1959

A typical late spring Saturday from the end of the 50s. Harry Secombe was the star of Saturday night, with his show Secombe at Large. Your entertainment would also include detective drama in Charleworth, the inevitable western - Wells Fargo - and music in Drumbeat which this week featured the likes of Bob Miller and the Millermen, Adam Faith and Dickie Valentine.

Meanwhile the BBC were continuing with their Stereophony experiments, which were transmitted every two weeks or so throughout the late 1950s and early 1960s. Classical music would be broadcast simultaneously on the Television Service and on Network Three, with the television transmitter broadcasting the right hand channel of the sound, and the left hand channel broadcast on the radio. This of course meant listeners would have to shuffle their equipment round the room to get the full benefit of the broadcasts, and results were mixed, to say the least.

There was a lot of sport cluttering up the Light Programme - however for pop fans there was Saturday Club with Brian Matthew, which had begun in 1957, promising the 'best of today's 'pop' entertainment'. It would run for a further ten years. But destined to be even more durable would be Pick of the Pops. Having started in 1955, the show was currently shoved into a late night slot, and was presented by David Jacobs - it would be another two years before Alan Freeman would get anywhere near it. However at this point it was not yet a chart show; instead Mr Jacobs brought us 'a review of the current popular records as well as some of the latest issues'. After more than half a century POTP is still on the air - but now as a golden oldie chart show.

Next page: 1960s


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Text copyright © Robert Williams, images copyright © British Broadcasting Corporation