Alexandra Palace is known globally as the birthplace of television. In 1935 the British Broadcasting Association leased the eastern part of the Palace, from which the first public television transmissions were made. These early transmissions were famously introduced by one of the first presenters, Elizabeth Cowell, with the words “this is direct television from the studios at Alexandra Palace…”
Nowadays, Studio A hosts a mock studio set depicting a pre war television scene, story boards on the history of TV and an array of televisions and radios from the 1930’s onwards. Studio A opens to the public once or twice a year and can only accommodate small groups of visitors on these occasions.
Alexandra Palace: Birthplace of Television
“I found an old tyre, no roof, no doors and could see the sky. The smell of cat in the old banqueting rooms nearly made me sick and the whole thing looked the most dreadful mess.” Desmond Campbell, Lighting Engineer, BBC Television, 1935.
It was a rather inauspicious start to BBC television, but nevertheless the BBC did hire this “dreadful mess”, which encompassed the whole of the south-east corner of Alexandra Palace for conversion into television studios.
Over 73 years ago, on 2nd November 1936, the world’s first regular high definition public television service was transmitted from Alexandra Palace. The BBC chose its new home because it was high up, already built and available. But with only 18 months to prepare for its television debut, the race was on to convert Alexandra Palace’s banqueting and tea rooms in the south-east wing into two state of the art studios, make-up and dressing rooms with associated facilities. They were to remain in use for 45 years.
Originally in 1936 Studio A was equipped with the fully electronic system of the Marconi –EMI Company. Across the centre of the studio was a special lighting bridge for spot and flood lights: a replica can be seen today. High up at the far end of the studio was the plate-glass window of the control room with a panel to control sound and vision, monitor screens and desk for the producer in charge. Next door were racks of equipment for controlling the cameras and the equipment for the transmission of films on television.
Further down the corridor was Studio B – equipped with the varying systems of the Baird’s Company. This studio was exactly the same size as EMI’s but laid out quite differently because the BBC was exploring different ways of using television technology.
Less well-known is the role played by the TV Studios during the Second World War. Though television broadcasts were stopped during the war, BBC transmitters at the palace were used in a secret operation to jam radio signals used by German bomber pilots to identify their positions and targets. A directional beam was transmitted from various points in occupied Europe across Britain.
Specially trained Luftwaffe crews few along these beams that ultimately led them to their target over Britain. These signals were received on the southern coast, fed to the transmitter at Alexandra Palace and re-radiated on the same frequency.
This caused the pilots to lose their bearings and miss their target. As a result, around four-fifths of the raids using the German navigational aid called Y-Great aid were unsuccessful.
At the end of the war in 1945, the BBC was given the go ahead to reinstate the Television Service. Engineers wee demobbed early from the services to join their pre-war colleagues in commissioning the equipment in June 1946.
By the early 1950s the BBC had begun to move the bulk of television production to other centre’s in London, most notably Lime Grove studios in Shepherds Bush. In early 1954 the television studios at Alexandra Palace officially closed. But was this to be the end of television at Ally Pally?
On 5th July 1954 the first daily television news programme in Britain, Television News and Newsreel, began. In the months since the closure of the studios a great deal of work had been undertaken to transform Alexandra Palace into the headquarters of BBC Television News. For the next 15 years, until BBC TV News moved to Television Centre in west London, Ally Pally produced all news programmes on both BBC1 and, from 1964, on BBC2. The studios were re-equipped in 1967 for the advent of colour television and the first colour signals were transmitted from Alexandra Palace in November 1956.
When BBC TV News moved to the TV Centre in 1969, the studios at Alexandra Palace appeared to face yet another closure. But this was not to remain the case for long.
In 1970 the “university of the air” was launched – the Open University required a studio centre. Once again, the studios at Alexandra Place came into their own, and remained in constant use for another 11 years, until 1981 when the Open University relocated to Milton Keynes.
The studios were unaffected by the savage fire of 1980 and currently Studio A is the most inhabitable area of the south-east wing. Since the departure of the Open University, the empty studio space has remained locked away from public view. Various groups and organizations have developed schemes for the studio wing, from a fully fledged visitor centre to more moderate exhibitions, but none have materialised.