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Birth pains

11 November 2016

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HOW did it all begin? Eighty years to the day, BBC4 did its best to reproduce Television’s Opening Night: How the box was born (Wednesday of last week). In 1936, this was not just BBC TV’s launch: it was the first regular domestic service in the world. Only a very few wealthy Londoners had TV sets and were able to receive the broadcast: in fact, they had to have two systems, because two different technologies were competing.

Marconi/EMI were trying to perfect a cathode-ray tube camera, while the original British pioneer John Logie Baird’s “flying spot” method was an astonishing combination of electrical and mechanical, with at its heart a huge spinning disc punctured with a spiral of holes.

None of his cameras has survived; so the production team challenged Dr Hugh Hunt, of Cambridge, to make one — without any technical specification — in only six weeks. I go on at length about the technicalities because this vital aspect of the programme was surprisingly absorbing, if secondary to the remarkable experience of meeting the handful of survivors who were tracked down.

None of the original performers is with us, nor any of the film stock, but the recording script and running order are in the archives. Baird’s engineer, at 104 years old, is sprightly in his recollection of their researches.

The programme’s selling-point was the contrast between today’s omnipresent medium and its inauspicious birth. The announcer had to sit, made up almost like a clown, in a darkened box, in front of powerful lights, to achieve enough contrast for the cameras to pick up; the show was a vaudeville variety offering.

The Director General, John Reith, hated it, convinced that this populist rubbish had no place in the BBC’s edifying mission to educate and elevate. The programme made a good theological point: as a stern Presbyterian, he was happy with radio’s expositions of the word, but anything visual smacked of Rome.

Dr Hunt succeeded, of course, in getting his camera to work, in a classic British make-do-and-mend kind of way; but the original competition lasted only three instead of the planned six months, as it was clear to everyone that the future lay with Marconi’s cathode ray.

Reith might have paused in his disapprobation had he seen The Moonstone. BBC1’s latest classic costume drama is as significant for its manner of broadcast as its inherent virtues, because it went out not on successive Sunday evenings but rather on five consecutive weekdays (Monday to Friday last week) at 2.15 p.m. — an ideal time for care-home viewing, but not one at which it is easy to imagine who else they thought might be free to watch it.

If this curious scheduling was born of any anxiety — was it good enough for evening prime time? — then they should be ashamed of themselves; for it was magnificent. Perhaps they hoped to avoid offending religious sensibilities: the work contains, in grasping and vindictive Miss Clack and the dissembling villain Godfrey Abelwhite, two of literature’s most egregiously offensive proselytising Christians; so Reith would have hated it, after all.

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