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By Iain Baird on

The story of colour television in Britain

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.

40 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!

      1. you Know the strangest think to me was that is exactly, how i remember from an early time, to me our very first Colour TV was around 1970- 71, and that this to my Knowlidge was onlly a 24′ inch push button job.

    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.

    3. Your memory is correct.

      On June 2, 1953, the first color television telecast in England was conducted using an experimental field sequential system developed by Pye and Chromatic Television laboratory.
      Televisions with Chromatron tubes were set up in a children’s hospital to view the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II. The New York Times reported that a Chromatic representative concluded the test was a complete success.

      “ Recollection of Peter Ward as published in THE 1953 CORONATION OB PETER WARD, GUILD OF TV CAMERAMANS MAGAZINE SPRING l985.

      “Whilst 20 million viewers watched the transmission in black and white, 150 children and staff of the Hospital for Sick Children in Great Ormond Street watched part of the procession in colour. Pye of Cambridge were given permission to set up three colour cameras on the roof of the Foreign Office, and by using a portable transmitter beamed the signal to Ormond Street to display colour pictures on two 20″ sets. Twenty years later it would be standard practice for major OBs to be in colour. and today it is common place to deploy 20 to 25 cameras just for one programme ‘Match of the Day’ ”

      Vision4 Magazine.

    4. Hi Katrina
      I remember there was a programme (Nationwide I think) who said if you watched carefully you would see colours on a flashing screen. I shouted in delight at the colours.
      Regretfully my parents told me it was a trick – it was just my imagination.

  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

    1. Magical Mystery Tour was shown in Black and White 405 lines on BBC1 on Boxing Day evening. It was later repeated on BBC2 in Colour. The fact that it was seen by most reviewers in Black and White by reviewers led to more negativity in the reviews that perhaps watching in colour would have done. Whilst it has little plot and is an experience rather than a story, the addition of colour does add to the other worldliness of many scenes. Recently watching the Blu Ray I was pleasantly surprised it was not as bad as I remembered. At the back of my mind I have a memory that the BBC edited it down for BBC 1 transmission. Not sure if it was the Strip Club Scene or it might have been the army piece with Victor Spinetti. As my dad hated modern inventions (as a true engineer he preferred old and trusted solutions) we did not get Colour until 1972 but I remember this because I had to go to a Party thrown by friends of my parents on Boxing Day and as it was 6 years before I bought a Betamax I thought I would miss it. I was delighted when it was repeated on BBC2 though Dual Standard B/W Tv’s of the time tended to be set up to deliver a much reduced contrast compared to the VHF 405 signal.

  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.

    1. My bet would be Desert Fury TX as Midnight Movie on Saturday 26 August 1967 on BBC2. This is not certain a) because some output was tested by both the BBC and ITA companies as an unannounced Colour Transmission. There was a great deal of panic amongst engineers as the early version of PAL from Telefunken delivered very unrealistic skin tones under certain conditions and a great deal of off air testing was done by BBC engineering before the Colour switch on for Wimbledon. b) in the early days of Colour TV in the UK there were very few viewers and UK TV companies showed predominantly B/W films. Two reasons for this were first many UK films were made in B/W for cost cutting reasons in post war UK austerity and secondly because they were often cheaper and there was a legal minimum period between a film being shown in cinemas being shown on television. Additionally there was a long period where the BBC would show a B/W print of a Colour film particularly lesser known films like this. So it could have been screened in B/W. The practice continued with Widescreen and Cinemascope films often being transmitted from Full Frame prints long into the advent of 16×9 TV transmission. But as a betting man I would go for Desert Fury TX Aug 26, 1967.

  15. I’m almost certain I watched the 1966 World Cup Final in colour on a private TV in Stanmore. I thought it was a trial transmission from Alexander Palace transmitter. Was I dreaming?

  16. Mostly accurate however the political dimension is glossed over. There was capability established by testing in the London area to implement an NTSC A system in the 1950’s and this was supported by both BBC and the major ITA Stations. It would have saved the cost of new transmitters for UHF, it would have enabled existing tv sets to receive the colour signal but in Black and White and it would have kept the superior coverage which VHF gave. Many areas had to wait years to get a decent signal again after the move to UHF. It was squashed by the setting up of the Pilkington Committee which was under strong political pressure to recommend a European Solution to aid the British attempts to join the Common Market. This political decision had negative repercussions on the UK TV industry, programme makers, broadcasters and the electronics industries.

    As to superiority of systems, NTSC in its early versions suffered from Phase distortion of colour particularly using long range transmitters as the USA and the French both did. This was overcome by VIR which was essential a swing burst like PAL to cancel out the offsets and produce less distortion. PAL was far from perfect, it was prone to Chroma Noise on long distance reception and Hanover Bars where spurious colour came from v bleed into U signal. SECAM got around these issues and was by far the most superior for transmission. However in Production and Post Production NTSC was the most flexible then PAL then SECAM. As a result Secam adoption was limited to France and Russia and countries under their influence. Both needed reliable long range reception which PAL could not provide. Most SECAM content ended up being produced in PAL and transcoded to SECAM for broadcast.

    Whilst the technicalities of the systems are of little interest to the person in the street I think it is important that readers today understand the UK Government hobbled the UK TV industries for political reasons not to offer a better service to viewers and secondly that PAL had some transmission advantages over NTSC but was in major part NTSC with the swing burst added and itself was far from ideal. It is much the same with TV itself, the British say it was John Logie Baird, the Americans say Philo T Farnsworth and subsequently RCA Labs and the European say Paul Nipkow. All three systems improved over the years but none of them compare to the pictures achieved with the current HD signals in the various world standards today let alone the 8K HDR signals that the Japanese are transmitting.

    1. I’m not sure that compatibility with 405 line resolution and long range transmission in exchange for a variable hue colour window would have led to a larger people*sharpness*programme-count product over any marked period. Possibly not at all. I’m thinking not just of the wonders of never-the-same-colour but also of how our institutions react to being able to get away without forward investment. I wonder how long most of us would have been watching variable palette extra-low definition VHF signals..
      I ought to treat this thought sequence as the trigger to sparking up the Hitachi CFP-470 “All-Transistor” “Full-Colour” “Transportable” TV my parents inherited from my grandparents in 1975/6 :-) Can’t believe I kept it and have an even harder time believing I still have it!

      That little telly was my first introduction to American colour modulation techniques because as an approx 8 year old I couldn’t figure out what this strange ‘Hue’ knob was for on the front (and which I was strictly not allowed to touch – hence my discovery of what it did! ;-)) I can still remember twiddling it and wondering why it wasn’t hidden away in the back for service technicians because although I could see why you might need to adjust it when you built the box I couldn’t get how it could ever need twiddling by joe-fireside-tellywatcher..

      Although my Dad gave a hazy description of the way a ‘different transmitter standard’ required adjusting different things it was a long time later before it sank in that in this country the palette was built in to the modulation scheme and you could /never/ need that strange ‘Hue’ knob :)

      Bottom line though UHF 625 Line on its own is surely enough of a leap from fuzzy 405 line VHF to make us glad they pushed for the upgrade even if it was for reasons with a dubiously nationalistic pong. On top of that you have the colour system that worked and motivation for introducing a multitude of high bandwidth low power stations to replace the scattering of ‘ok for a 1940s valve tuner’ 405 line masts..

  17. Dad took me to a Tacolneston TV transmitter open day in the late 1960s, and this is where we first saw the wonders of colour TV on a tiny screen. Dad was smitten. Fancy watching Morecambe and Wise in colour at Christmas- that would be such a treat. We all knew it was a dream, and we had to wait until the early 1970s until our TV repairman Don Standforth sold Dad a second-hand Baird, resplendent in its teak cabinet. It stood proudly, taking up a quarter of our living room.

    The first programme we watched was a rather dull documentary about London buses, but … oh the colour! The buses were red, not shades of grey.

    But the major problem was that this giant wonder would break down regularly. My sister, Rose and I would cry out:

    “Telly’s broken again, Dad,”

    Dad would come and fiddle with the knobs and look as if he knew what he was doing in a way that men do. Then he would thump the top. Hard.

    If nothing happened, he would say:

    “I’ll call Don.”

    We were so excited to see Don- he was the man who meant we could get back to our fix of “Bewitched”, “The Munsters”, “Green Gables”, and “Hogan’s Hero’s”. Don would dive into the back of the set, and my sister and I would watch – fascinated. Our hero at work. Then Don would hold up the offending valve for us to cheer and clap before delving into his leather repairman’s case to find a replacement. He would often invite Rose and me to slip around the back of the TV to see the warm yellow glow appear and smell the dust roasting on the valves. This meant Don had fixed the TV, and normal service could resume. He had saved the day (again), but nobody doubted that he would be back very soon.

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