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Find out about the history of colour TV in Britain, including when it was invented, the first broadcasts in the UK, and what early colour television programmes looked like.

Beginning in the late 1960s, British households began the rather expensive process of investing in their first colour TV sets, causing the act of viewing to change dramatically.

Larger screens, sharper images and of course, colour, meant that the television audience experienced a feeling of greater realism while viewing—an enhanced sense of actually ‘being there’. Programmers sought to attract their new audience with brightly-coloured fare such as The Avengers, Z Cars, Dad’s Army, and The Prisoner.

This change, which was important, was difficult to recognise because it was so gradual; many households did not buy colour sets right away. Plus, for several years after colour TV was introduced, many programmes were still only available in black and white.

The invention of colour TV

When was colour television first demonstrated?

Colour television was first demonstrated publicly by John Logie Baird on 3 July 1928 in his laboratory at 133 Long Acre in London. The technology used was electro-mechanical, and the early test subject was a basket of strawberries, ‘which proved popular with the staff’.

The following month, the same demonstration was given to a mostly academic audience attending a British Association for the Advancement of Science meeting in Glasgow.

John Logie Baird working on a television system
John Logie Baird and his first publicly demonstrated television system, 1926. Source: Wikimedia Commons

What happened next?

In the mid-to-late 1930s, Baird returned to his colour television research and developed some of the world’s first colour television systems, most of which used cathode-ray tubes. But the effect of World War II, which saw BBC television service suspended, caused his company to go out of business and ended his salary.

Nonetheless, he continued his colour television research by financing it from his own personal savings—including cashing in his life insurance policy. He gave the world’s first demonstration of a fully integrated electronic colour picture tube on 16 August 1944. Baird’s untimely death only two years later marked the end of his pioneering colour research in Britain.

The only surviving example of John Logie Baird’s Telechrome, the world’s first colour TV picture tube
The only surviving example of John Logie Baird’s Telechrome, the world’s first colour television picture tube, 1944. Science Museum Group Collection

What happened to colour TV research after Baird’s death?

The lead in colour television research transferred to the USA with demonstrations given by CBS Laboratories. Soon after, the Radio Corporation of America (RCA) channelled some of its massive resources towards colour television development.

The first colour TV broadcasts

Early colour broadcasts in the USA

The world’s first proper colour TV service began in the USA. Colour television was available in select cities beginning in 1954 using the NTSC (National Television Standards Committee)-compatible colour system championed by RCA. A small fledgling colour service introduced briefly by CBS in 1951 was stopped after RCA complained to the FCC (Federal Communications Commission) that it was not compatible with the existing NTSC black-and-white television sets.

Meanwhile in the UK, several successful colour television tests were carried out, but it would take many more years for a public service to become viable. This was partly due to post-war austerity, and also uncertainty about what kind of colour television system would be the best one for Britain to adopt—and when.

The first colour broadcasts in the UK

On 1 July 1967, BBC2 launched Europe’s first colour service with the Wimbledon tennis championships, presented by David Vine. This was broadcast using the Phase Alternating Line (PAL) system, which was based on the work of the German television engineer Walter Bruch.

PAL seemed the obvious solution, the signal to the British television industry that the time for a public colour television service had finally arrived. PAL was a marked improvement over the American NTSC-compatible system on which it was based, and soon dubbed ‘never twice the same colour’ in comparison to PAL.

On 15 November 1969, colour broadcasting went live on the remaining two channels, BBC1 and ITV, which were in fact more popular than BBC2.

Only about half of the national population was brought within the range of colour signals by 15 November 1969. Colour could be received in the London Weekend Television/Thames region, ATV (Midlands), Granada (North-West) and Yorkshire TV regions.

ITV’s first colour programmes in Scotland appeared on 13 December 1969 in Central Scotland; in Wales on 6 April 1970, in South Wales; and in Northern Ireland on 14 September 1970 in the eastern parts.

Colour TV licences were introduced on 1 January 1968, costing £10—twice the price of the standard £5 black and white TV licence.

The first colour TV programmes in Britain

The BBC and ITV sought programmes that could exploit this new medium of colour television. Major sporting events were linked to colour television from the very start. Snooker, with its rainbow of different-coloured balls, was ideal.

On 23 July 1969, BBC2’s Pot Black was born, a series of non-ranking snooker tournaments. It would run until 1986, with one-off programmes continuing up to the present day.

The first official colour programme on BBC1 was a concert by Petula Clark from the Royal Albert Hall, London, broadcast at midnight on 14/15 November 1969. This might seem an odd hour to launch a colour service, but is explained by the fact that the Postmaster General’s colour broadcasting licence began at exactly this time.

The first official colour programme on ITV was a Royal Auto Club Road Report at 09.30, followed at 09.35 by The Growing Summer, London Weekend Television’s first colour production for children, starring Wendy Hiller. This was followed at 11.00 by Thunderbirds. The episode was ‘City of Fire’; it also became the first programme to feature a colour advertisement, for Birds Eye peas.

The 9th World Cup finals in Mexico, 1970, were not only the very first to be televised in colour, but also the first that viewers in Europe were able to watch live via trans-Atlantic satellite.

Early colour TV sets

Colour TV sets did not outnumber black-and-white sets until 1976, mainly due to the high price of early colour sets. The new colour TVs were almost as expensive as early black and white sets had been; the monthly rental for a large-screen receiver was £8 (more than £100 in modern terms).

Sony 'Trinitron' colour television, 1969-1970
Sony ‘Trinitron’ colour television, 1969-70. Science Museum Group Collection
Keracolor spherical colour TV receiver, 1970
Keracolor B772 spherical television receiver, 1970. Science Museum Group Collection
Philips colour television and stand, 1970-75
Philips colour television and stand, 1970-75. Science Museum Group Collection

In March 1969, there were only 100,000 colour TV sets in use; by the end of 1969 this had doubled to 200,000, and by 1972 there were 1.6 million.

30 comments on “The story of colour television in Britain

  1. Our first colour TV was a Decca CS2032 bought new in 1974
    This had the series 30 hybrid chassis
    The weak point with the set was the sound output stage with a PCL82 output valve instead of a more
    robust PCL86
    Other than this it was a reliable set.

  2. I was a TV engineer during those days, remember the first colour TV I repaired, convergence errors and needed degaussing….

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  4. It was NOT a service that was introduced on BBC2 in July 1967 – it was still ‘experimental’ along with the ‘trade test’ transmissions and unannounced experimental colour programmes. The ‘service’ began on December 2nd 1967 and was opened using Marconi MkVII colour cameras at Television Centre. Germany, France and the USSR were slightly ahead of the UK with their colour services and the BBC must stop trying to frig this date by pretending that the Wimbledon coverage was part of a full service – it wasn’t and not even claimed at the time.

    Can ADAPT please stop propagating this misleading information.

    1. this is true. in july 1967 the BBC were TESTING colour on bbc 2. such a shame that it took many years for the uk population to be able to get colour as the build of 625line transmitters were so slow. ie orkney 1975 and shetland 1976 as was channel islands.

  5. I rented a Baird colour tv from radio rentals for £7 month in 1968 with the door closed it looked like a cocktail cabinet, the tuning dial was round like a radio would have it was excellent when the day came for BBC one and Itv to start colour broadcasts

    1. Are you sure about that date? I only ask as my dad worked for radio Rentals in a fairly senior position, and we had one as a field-trials test prototype, and I can remember it. I was not born until the end of 1964, so I would have thought that would have been 1969 at the earliest.

    2. I am absolutely sure l watched the coronation of the Queen in 1953 in colour at our milkman’s parents dairy. In Henley on Thames.

      1. You watched that on a normal black and white TV, however we watched it on my uncles TV as it had an add on filter which fitted over the normal black and white screen, you could buy these but they weren’t very popular It gave an impression of colour although it was predominately blue not proper colour but it looked exotic.

  6. Walked into rumbleows arnos grove in the summer of 1978- bought a washing machine and rented a GEC color tv for £8 a month (plus government mandated 10 months down payment-£80). Great set!

    1. I used to have a black and white ‘ portable ‘ Marconiphone tv in the 70’s, it weighted a ton !

  7. I am seeking information and confirmation of, a technique that demonstrated what a colour television, would look like, this then was broadcast to all black and white sets. I think there was three or four colours shown. I am not certain of the word used, something like Chromatic? There is no one who remembers this event. Did I dream this or, was this true.
    Thanking you in anticipation of a reply. Katrina.

    1. I remember that Radio Times gave away a free cardboard disc that had to be spun at a certain rate to strobe showing a coloured image on a black and white set. I guess this must have been circa 1967.

      1. Gee, I vividly remember watching this exact edition of Tomorrow’s World as a child. It seemed like magic at the time!

    2. You’re not dreaming. I can remember those tests, just not exactly when they were. We rented our first colour tv in early 1971.

  8. We rented our first colour tv in 1975 when I started work, I shared the cost with my dad, not sure how much, but I know it was from D.E.R, 26inch in a wooden cabinet.

  9. In my Rose coloured memory it says that the moon landing was shown in colour but that was months before Pet Clarke party piece.
    Help someone, or is it the dreaded onslaught of old age…..
    yet again heehee.

    1. no colour tv cameras on the 69 moon landing but the astronauts took plenty of colour film which was developed when they got back home. Later missions used a colour TV camera as technology progressed.

  10. Channel Television didn’t receive colour until the (hot) summer of 1976.
    This was due to engineering issues with getting a signal from the UK mainland to their main transmitter at Fremont Point in Jersey.

    The IBA and BBC had to design a new aerial and transmitter capable of getting a signal from the main land.
    Obviously- due to how the ITV Network operated – this had to be a 2 way system – so signals could be sent from the Channel Islands.

  11. The date of July 1st 1967 is correct in terms of the beginning of BBC2’s scheduled colour output. A few weeks prior to that, some of the regular studio output such as the programme Late Night Line Up was broadcast in colour, but unofficially.

    Once the government’s confirmation finally came in 1966 that the UK would use 625 line PAL colour, TV set manufacturers began production. By late 1966 shops had demonstrator sets available and the BBC was broadcasting colour trade test films during the day.

    I remember a huge crowd gathered round a colour TV set in a department store in Gloucester (probably late 1966 or early 1967) – they were spellbound by the technological miracle of the clear images they were watching – they were in (for their time) ‘high’ definition. The colour trade test film showed aerial shots of two cars racing through the bush. The future had arrived.

  12. Here are some other early milestones for colour TV in Britain:
    (1) The 1953 coronation was broadcast via closed circuit TV to a children’s hospital using three separate signals each of red, green and blue. The images were then recombined to give a colour picture.
    (2) Many colour film series were made by ITV contractor ATV for export to the USA from 1962 onwards – most notably Stingray and Thunderbirds.
    (3) The earliest live BBC colour broadcast viewed by the public was the 1966 general election – though this was only seen in colour by viewers in America.
    (4) The earliest surviving colour videotape of a British programme is from 20th March 1966 – a 525 line NTSC recording of The London Palladium Show made by ATV as a promotional tape for US TV executives to see. The show featured The Seekers and Roy Orbison. It was broadcast in 405 lines in monochrome in the UK.

  13. It was common practice in the mid sixties for programmes made in America and in the UK for export to announce that they were in colour presumably to encourage the purchase of colour televisions .I remember shows like The Avengers,The Fugitive ,Lost in Space and Peyton Place announcing their change from black and white to colour although here in the UK we could still only see them in black and white .The Beatles Magical Mystery Tour was shown in colour on BBC2 on Boxing Day 1967 but most of us saw it for the first time a few days later in black and white

  14. Hello,
    I wonder if you can help me ? Does anyone know for definite the name of the first feature film that was broadcast in colour on British T.V ?
    I am not asking about a short information film or a documentary type film of an event, I am asking about a commercially released movie such as James Bond or The Music Man.
    Many thanks.

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