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By Iain Baird on

Colour television in Britain

Beginning in the late 1960s, British households began the rather expensive process of investing in their first colour televisions, 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. Not helping things was the fact that for several years so many programmes were still only available in black-and-white.

Invention

Colour television was first demonstrated publicly by John Logie Baird on July 3rd, 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.

In the mid-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. 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 August 16th, 1944. Baird’s untimely death only two years later marked the end of his pioneering colour research in Britain.

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.

Broadcast

The world’s first proper colour television 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 Britain, several successful colour television tests were carried out, but it would take many more years for a public service to become viable here due to post-war austerity and uncertainty about what kind of colour television system would be the best one for Britain to adopt—and when.

On 1st 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 15th 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 15th 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 13th December 1969 in Central Scotland; in Wales on 6th April 1970 in South Wales; and in Northern Ireland on 14th September 1970 in the eastern parts.

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

Programmes

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 of the technology being made available. Snooker, with its rainbow of different-coloured balls, was ideal. On July 23, 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 14th/15th 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 9:30 am, followed at 9:35 am by The Growing Summer, London Weekend Television’s first colour production for children, starring Wendy Hiller. This was followed at 11:00 am by Thunderbirds. The episode was ‘City of Fire’, which 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.

Colour TV sets

Colour TV sets did not outnumber black-and-white sets until 1976, mainly due to the high price of the early colour sets. Colour receivers were almost as expensive in real terms as the early black and white sets had been; the monthly rental for a large-screen receiver was £8. 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.

2 comments on “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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