How Did the Birth of Television Make Sparks Fly at Alexandra Palace?

Alexandra Palace and Alexandra Park
Muswell Hill, Haringey, London

Registered: 1995
Listed: 1996
Grade: II
NHLE entry: Listing details for Alexandra Palace and listing details for the Park

In the mid-1870s, a former dairy farm became the site of Alexandra Palace - a vast iron and glass structure, described as the 'People's Palace' and known affectionately as 'Ally Pally'. Initially it was a pioneering exhibition venue, but some sixty years later, in 1935, the BBC began transforming it from an outdated Victorian oddity into a modern centre for the world's first regular television transmission service.

Today Alexandra Palace has secured its place in history and still rises majestically above north London. It is both listed as a rare example of a multi-use entertainment venue with surviving Victorian fabric, and registered as an elegant park with extensive views over the capital. Yet its conversion into Britain's first broadcasting centre was far from smooth, with sparks flying, water supplies failing, viewers complaining - overall, a "most dreadful mess".

Transforming Ally Pally

On paper, Alexandra Palace was the perfect site for television broadcasting. The transmitter needed to be 600 feet (183 metres) above sea level, and the Palace and the hill on which it stood already provided 400 of those feet.

However, the aura of glamour that had surrounded Ally Pally in the late 1800s was, by the 1930s, fading. One lighting engineer involved in transforming the building remembered how, on his first day, he had found 'an old tyre, no roof, no doors … The smell of cat in the old banqueting rooms nearly made me sick and the whole thing looked the most dreadful mess.'

Detritus and bad odours aside, the technicalities of broadcasting caused disagreements as no one could agree on the best method of broadcasting. Instead of opting for one method, the BBC trialled two rival systems at the same time, one created by the Baird company, the other by Marconi-EMI. In practice, this meant doubling up on almost everything: the banqueting and tea rooms were converted into two studios and there were two control rooms and different types of camera and lighting equipment in operation.

An alarming lunchtime lightshow

In addition, in August 1936, technicians conducting initial test transmissions were treated to an alarming lunchtime lightshow: as staff tucked into their meal in the canteen, sparks began to fly from their cutlery. Technicians investigating this unsettling incident realised that the sparks were caused by the huge surges in electricity needed for the test transmissions that came from the 213-foot (65 metre) antenna tower (still perched on top of the Palace today).

As the BBC began their programming schedule in the autumn, the surges continued to play havoc with camera equipment, resulting in the occasional electric shock for newly hired camera operators.

Watching history being made

The television transmitter's range was limited to the Greater London area, and since a television set cost around £100, the medium was a prohibitive luxury for most households. As a consequence, the audience who watched the first official broadcast on 2 November 1936 was estimated to be as low as 500.

Those who did watch history being made were treated to a red carpet ceremony that featured the chair of the Government's television committee, the postmaster general, the chair of the BBC governors and Baird and Marconi-EMI executives. Having booked a short holiday, the BBC's director general, Sir John (later Lord) Reith, missed this momentous occasion!

The announcer for the official opening was Leslie Mitchell, a moustachioed smoothie with the required British accent, who was quickly dubbed 'the television Adonis'. Viewers also enjoyed a performance from a black American song and dance act well liked at the time called Buck and Bubbles; and Adele Dixon, a popular singer of the day, performed a specially commissioned song simply entitled Television.

Teething problems at the Palace

Predictably, more catastrophes blighted Alexandra Palace's efforts to bring television to the British public. After the first broadcast, the main water supply was accidentally cut off, and there were so many technical hitches that the BBC cancelled all programmes that week. Broadcasts then alternated between the Baird and Marconi-EMI systems, with viewers adjusting their sets accordingly. In 1937, it was decided that Marconi-EMI's method was superior.

Even in those pioneering days, viewers wrote to the BBC about repeat programming and the quality of shows on offer. Just a fortnight after the grand opening, a programme with the less-than-exciting title Laundry Demonstration, featuring a 15-minute guide to ironing, was transmitted from Alexandra Palace's famous antenna twice on the same day. This generated more sparks inside the Palace and from the furious pens of disgruntled viewers writing in to complain.

Simon Goretzki, BBC Series Producer.

Visit the BBC website for more information about the history of the BBC