Celebrating 90 Years of BBC Television: A Look Back at 22 August 1932

by Iain Logie Baird, 22 August 2022

It is a strange coincidence that today's article comes at the same time as London-based Cineworld, the world's second-largest cinema chain, is on the verge of declaring bankruptcy. Over ninety years ago, in early 1932, it was a major British film company (Gaumont British Pictures) that had invested to save the fledgling Baird Television company from a similar fate.

Since television broadcasts began in late 1929, it was soon discovered that the Baird company had experienced trouble selling enough of their electro-mechanical Televisor receiver sets to be profitable. The BBC had a monopoly on radio broadcasting and provided Baird's company with only very limited access to its transmitters. The limited bandwidth of the medium-wave radio transmitters in use at the time meant that picture resolution remained at only 30 lines.1 The Baird company nonetheless absorbed the cost of providing Britain's first television programmes, 'experimental', yes, but in large part simply to interest people in buying Televisors. It was clear that the business model that had worked so well for radio internationally over the past decade, (including for the BBC and its associated companies in Britain), was not yet delivering the same results for television. It was not going to without regular programmes.

Baird was not alone. In the USA, a number of different television companies began springing up across the country, including a satellite of Baird's company (based in New York City).2 While British radio was strictly regulated, the more commercial radio situation in the U.S. (not to mention much more land mass to accomodate separate stations) meant a larger market for television with significantly more participants. However, efforts were often duplicated and there was also no agreed-upon television broadcast standard. Bespoke television transmitters were required in order to be able to show more detailed images, and some U.S. transmitters were able to broadcast pictures with 48 or even 60 lines. Nonetheless, a complex range of issues—including the economic depression—kept the medium as it then existed on an 'experimental' footing there as well.

Today, in 2022, the beginning of British television broadcasting is usually presented disingenuously and parochially as the 1936 television trials held at the Alexandra Palace in London. Alexandra Palace is sometimes even described as 'the birthplace of television'. Looking more closely, however, its contemporary description as 'the world's first regular high-definition television service' includes the necessary adjective 'high-definition', the reason being that television broadcasts had been made on the original 'low-definition' Baird standard on a regular basis from 1929 until 1935 using the BBC's existing radio transmitters.3

Television from the Baird Studio

In September 1929, when regular television broadcasting started in Britain, there was only one BBC transmitter in London, 2LO, which was situated on the roof of Selfridges. The signal from Baird's studio at 133 Long Acre in Soho was channeled to it via land line. For the first six months, sound and vision thus had to be transmitted alternately, a most awkward situation. This did little to encourage Televisor sales, although it did mean that a major investment in programmes could be postponed. After six months of this, in March 1930, the BBC activated a second radio transmitter (Brookman's Park) which allowed simultaneous sound and vision transmissions.

By late 1930, 'programmes' as they then existed were being made at the Baird studio on Monday to Friday from 11.00 to 11.30 in the morning, in addition to thirty minutes at midnight on Tuesdays and Fridays after BBC radio went off the air. 1,000 Televisors were eventually sold. A greater number of 'lookers-in' purchased and built their own sets with built-it-yourself kits. Others chose to source only the essential parts and fabricate the rest. Even to receive both the vision and sound signals simultaneously at home, this required two wireless sets which was in itself a significant expense.

The BBC Studio Opens

The flying-spot scanner custom-designed by J.C. Wilson of the Baird company installed at Broadcasting House (with its side cover removed). It acted in effect as the 'camera' in reverse, with the scanning beam of light it sent out reflected from the performer's face and immediately picked up by photo-electric cells. Except for the scanning beam itself, the studio was in complete darkness during broadcasts. BBC photograph.

It was not until 22 August 1932 that the BBC finally took over television programme production from the Baird company. At this time, the vision signal was being sent out on 261.3 metres (London National) with the corresponding sound on 398.9 metres (Midland Regional).4 The studio the BBC had assigned to television was studio BB, located in the basement of Broadcasting House. During that summer, it had been outfitted for television by Baird and BBC engineers. The Baird company had also agreed to permanently transfer three of its engineers to the BBC to operate and maintain the studio, Tony Bridgewater, Douglas Birkinshaw, and Desmond Campbell.

Representing Baird Television Limited on 22 August was John Logie Baird (left), Baird's publicist, the journalist and writer Sydney Moseley (middle), and Sir Harry Greer, Chairman (right). Note the Broadcasting House decor. BBC photograph, author's collection.

Baird holding a copy of his notes to introduce the new programme of television. BBC photograph.

The broadcast began with a few words from the BBC's Director of Programmes, Roger Eckersley,5 then a few words from Baird, which had been composed for him by the BBC.6

I wish to thank the BBC for inviting me tonight and express the hope that this new series of television transmissions will lead to the development of broadcasting, increasing its utility and adding to the enjoyment of the great listening public.7

Miss Betty Bolton (standing) and Miss Betty Astell putting on their make-up before the broadcast. The make-up required was dead greyish-white on their faces, blue lips and eyebrows, and blue shadows on each side of the nose. The unusual make-up was necessary due to the photoelectric cells being overly sensitive to the red part of the spectrum. BBC photograph.

The Show Begins

In the show, which lasted from 11.02 pm until 11.35 pm, Betty Bolton sang and danced. A home viewer later remarked, '...when the extended screen was used for a girl dancing, her movements and the details of the various dresses were clearly discernible'.8 A magician, Fred Douglas, 'was not only able to show how conjuring tricks are performed, but to show them in execution'.9 Betty Astell then performed some 'light songs'. All of these performers would appear in future broadcasts.

I have not yet discovered the names of the songs Betty Bolton and Betty Astell performed that night, but one of several that had been recorded by Bolton in recent years for 78 rpm records was this one, 'Everything I do, I do for you', 1929. It is also possible that Bolton sang one or two of the more recent numbers that, in 1931, she had performed with Jack Payne and the BBC Dance Orchestra.10

Betty Astell would later recall:

The next day in the Daily Express, there was a huge thing about this invention that had gone to the BBC and how it had been seen on various screens. They mentioned all the important people and then finished up by saying: 'And then there was Betty Astell, a baby-faced blonde who could be clearly seen making movements.' So much for my singing and dancing.11

Louie Freear in the BBC television studio, wearing her maid costume for 'A Chinese Honeymoon', a role she first performed in 1901. A bank of photocells at left. BBC photograph.

The veteran comedienne and stage actress Louie Freear also appeared. I have been able to confirm one of the songs she sung in front of the scanner that night—'The Twiddley Bits'—part of the British musical A Chinese Honeymoon which had been extremely popular at the start of the century and had featured Freear for many of these years. Playing the character of Fi-Fi, she had sung three of the musical’s many hits, all in the music hall style.12 In 'The Twiddley Bits', she expresses her swooning for her piano teacher and the way he tickles the keys. It was the first time that one of her performances had been broadcast.13

Below you can enjoy the song as performed almost a half-century later (in 1979, I believe) by Sheila Steafel for the long-running BBC programme, The Good Old Days. The distorted off-air VHS recording is perhaps serendipitous in that it helps to give a slightly better feel of what it might have been like to watch a similar performance on the old 30 line system.

The following day, 23 August, some of the newspapers published reception reports. For example, in Birmingham, video interference from a German station on a nearby wavelength had been an issue, but overall there seemed to have been an improvement in the quality of the pictures, '...it was quite evident that the transmission from Broadcasting House was of an improved standard compared with that of [from] the Baird Studios in Long Acre, London'.14 This was likely attributable to the brand new state-of-the-art flying-spot scanner and related studio equipment. The viewer, S. Jones, remarked, 'Birmingham is really well out of the effective range of the London National transmitter, and fading was very bad at times, as also was slight distortion. Despite all these handicaps, the picture was at certain moments very detailed, almost as good as a photograph in fact'.15

Goodbye Broadcasting House

In February 1934, television production was relocated to larger premises nearby, at 16 Portland Place. Despite the first threat of a shut down of the BBC's 'low-definition' television service being made less than a year after it had started, broadcasts continued on a regular basis until 11 September 1935 although towards the end, they were reduced to only two per week. Until then, hundreds, and sometimes, thousands of enthusiasts continued to look in. In addition, anyone with an ordinary wireless could tune in to the sound portion of the televised programmes. Due to the propagation characteristics of medium waves, both sound and vision could be received anywhere in the UK if atmospheric conditions were favourable.

There was considerable controversy when the 30 line broadcasts shut down. The BBC had leased a section of the Alexandra Palace in north London and was rapidly converting this into a production and transmission centre for a new 'high-definition' television service. It would commence regular broadcasts the following year and serve the Greater London area. As it turned out, BBC television would not be receivable in the other parts of the UK again for almost two decades. High definition television required bespoke television transmitters, and the BBC's plan to expand the Alexandra Palace service beyond Greater London was delayed very significantly by the war with Germany and post-war austerity.


Special thanks to the BBC for permission to use these photographs and the Sheila Steafel off-air video recording, my father Professor Malcolm Baird for comments, and YouTubers Gira78giri and 136sean.

Further reading

See Iain Logie Baird, '1932 Television Demonstrated in 1952', on this website. https://www.bairdtelevision.com/1932-television-demonstrated-in-1952.html

1 Baird first demonstrated television images with 90 lines in 1931, and used a similar system to televise the 1932 Epsom Derby on a 90-line 'closed circuit' to a London cinema. See Iain Logie Baird, 'Televising the Derby (1932): from 30 lines to 90 lines' on this website. https://www.bairdtelevision.com/televising-the-derby-1932.html

2 See Malcolm Baird, 'John Logie Baird in America', on this website. https://www.bairdtelevision.com/john-logie-baird-in-america-1931.html

3 Some will argue that this was in reference to the pre-existing (1935) German television service, which was on 180 lines and not considered high definition by the Selsdon Committee, which had decided that a minimum of 240 lines was necessary for a television system to be classified as high definition.

4 BBC Genome, 'Television Transmission by the Baird Process', 23.00 Monday 22 August 1932, Radio Times, Southern edn. (19 August 1932) 36(464), p. 28. https://genome.ch.bbc.co.uk/150fa8ba20f54f7aac8ddf1eade8606f [accessed 24 February 2021]

5 'First Television by BBC', The Western Daily Press and Bristol Mirror (23 August 1932), p. 10.

6 T.H. Bridgewater, Just a Few Lines: The Birth and Infant Years of BBC Television—a Personal Memoir, British Vintage Wireless Society, 1992, p. 12., cited in Antony Kamm and Malcolm Baird, John Logie Baird: A Life, NMS Publishing, 2002, p. 224.

7 Bruce Norman, Here's Looking at You: The Story of British Television 1908–1939, British Broadcasting Corporation and the Royal Television Society, 1984, p. 82, cited in Kamm and Baird, p. 224.

8 'Television Era Definitely Begun: Regular Programmes', Birmingham Daily Gazette (23 August 1932), p. 7.

9 Ibid.

10 One of Betty Bolton's later performances on 30-line television was video recorded. See Donald F. McLean, 'Betty Bolton', The Dawn of TV: The Mechanical Era of British Television, http://www.tvdawn.com/earliest-tv/the-marcus-games-discs-1932-35/betty-bolton/.

11 Norman, Here's Looking at You, p. 82.

12 Thomas S. Hischak, The Mikado to Matilda: British Musicals on the New York Stage, Rowman & Littlefield, 2020, p. 60.

13 'First Television by BBC'.

14 'Television Era Definitely Begun'.

15 Ibid.