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Old Television Programming FAQs
The oldest surviving programmes and pre-war programming

What is the oldest surviving television broadcast recording?

As far as British television is concerned, the 30-line Baird system disc recordings described and displayed on Don McLean's website are the oldest; these date from the early 1930s. See . Film was used in Baird's intermediate film television process and had these films survived, they would now be a record of actual television transmissions. But financial circumstances meant that the film had to be processed afterwards to recover the silver and only a few inches of film survive, in the National Film & Television Archive (NFTVA).

Moving on to recordings of all-electronic television, the BBC has at least three programmes from the 1936/7 period (Television Comes To London, 1937 Demonstration Film and Televising the Coronation) but all three were made entirely on film; they are not recordings of programmes as they were actually transmitted. The only off-screen film recordings known of pre-war British television are (1) a four-minute composite sequence recorded (without sound) under 'freak' reception conditions during 1938 by RCA in New York and (2) an amateur home cine film shot from the screen during televising of the 1937 coronation (taken by Mr. J. E. Davies of the Marconi International Marine Communication Co.). Film (1) still exists but its images are full of ghosting (a copy will be lodged with the NFTVA). Film (2) was loaned to the BBC for screening on The Passing Show on June 1st and 8th, 1953 but they have no trace of the film now. Brief glimpses of programmes can also be seen in old newsreels showing television screens. [AE]

Exactly what is the oldest surviving British television broadcast is a bit difficult to answer. It depends if you count experimental sequences. As far as I know one of (if not the) earliest surviving Telerecording is a sequence (held at the NFTVA) from 1947 from a variety show which features Adelaide Hall singing two songs. This sequence was on 35mm Suppressed Field system (with no spot wobble). It was repeated on BBC2 some years back and I saw it at the time. Considering the technical drawbacks it was very interesting. For the first complete outside broadcast you have 'The Cenotaph Service' in November 1947. The earliest complete drama (January 1953). The earliest News Broadcast (1954). The earliest Colour is officially Men's Final Wimbledon in July 1967, however, there may be a 'Late Night Line Up' on tape before this (but not much before!). [Andy Henderson]

Tell me more about the very earliest television recording to survive?

The earliest surviving recordings are Baird television 30-line transmissions on gramophone records. One of the earliest sequences of images, is of a Miss Pounsford, recorded by Baird in March 1928. These are known as Phonovision discs. Extracts also survive from a home-made recording made in 1933 of a BBC transmission, Looking In, which features the Paramount Astoria Girls revue.

You can see these reconstructions for yourself on the Internet at URL

OK then, precisely what material exists of the pre war BBC TV service?

Apart from the mute and smeary off-screen film recording taken in the United States in 1938, not a single frame of live pre-war BBC television survives (except where coincidentally, you can see a TV screen in some newsreel or other). The only surviving pre-war programmes are (a) programmes made on film for television (e.g. Television Comes To London, the 1937 Demonstration Film and the film of the 1937 Coronation) and (b) bought-in programmes such as the cinema newsreels, Mickey Mouse cartoons and some short featurettes from the ACE Cinemagazine. That's all, sadly. 

Were cinema films shown on BBC television before the war?

Yes. The first Guinness film book (1980), which contains a section on television, describes:

British Sound Films - The Bride (GB 1929) with George Robey shown experimentally from the Baird Studios at Long Acre on 19th August 1929 (though the book does not mention that this was a short, and therefore invalid, but interesting!).

With little doubt the first feature film of any kind shown on high-definition BBC television was The Student Of Prague (Ger 1935) with Anton Walbrook and Dorothea Wieck, transmitted by the BBC on 14th August 1938. It wasn't the only feature shown either. Also shown in 1938 (According to Asa Briggs' history of broadcasting) was Parnell (1937) - surprising as this was an MGM 'A' Feature, but it really bombed at the box office and perhaps MGM were keen to get any money back on it! Also shown pre-war (and available on video recently following its restoration) was The Edge Of The World (GB 1937) shown on 22nd March 1939 (9.25 to 10.35pm) and also reshown on 1st April 1939.

It is worth noting that the cinema business saw television as a competitor and was reluctant for its films to be shown on television (with the exception of cinema newsreels and Mickey Mouse cartoons). Promoting its stars and new films on television's Picture Page programme was another matter of course! All the same, this extract from Television & Short-Wave World (September 1939) illustrates the general hostility -

A film entitled Galloping Dynamite was televised from Alexandra Palace on August 21. Although this was quite a small film and comparatively old the film trade feel that even this type of film should be withheld from the BBC, for television to them is still an important competitor.

[Andy Henderson and Andy Emmerson]

Some pre-war British domestic radios have a waveband marked 'TEL' or 'Television Sound'. Was this a common pursuit - people who could not afford TVs getting halfway there by using a radio to listen in? Or was the idea that you would use your radio in conjunction with your TV to provide better-quality audio (I'm guessing that the speaker inside the radio was bigger than most TV speakers)?

Neither. The superior audio bandwidth and hence quality of television's VHF sound channel was recognised early on and from about 1938 the BBC presented a number of concerts and other programmes in sound only on the TV sound channel. These were simulcasts of the same transmission on the National station but those with TVs or radios with TV sound would use this way of listenting by preference. The pre-war German television service in Berlin had exactly the same idea and on the "People's TV Receiver" there was even a sliding door to cover the TV screen aperture for when you were listening to a sound-only broadcast.

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