Fifty Years of Colour Television

On Saturday 1 July 1967, at 2pm, if you were watching BBC2, coverage of the Henley Royal Regatta ended and switched over to Wimbledon. But there was something different. The first colour television transmission in the United Kingdom and in Europe had begun.

A copy of that first broadcast, a men’s fourth round singles match between Britain’s Roger Taylor and South Africa’s Cliff Drysdale, no longer exists. The number of viewers not watching in black and white was small, with estimates no higher than five thousand and possibly in the hundreds, not least because a colour television set cost £300, about a third of the price of a new car. Some of those who were watching were critics from the press especially invited to the BBC’s Television Centre for the occasion. Viewers who were watching in colour commented on the naturalism of what they were seeing, the texture of the grass of the tennis court, and even the bottles of orange and barley water given to the players between games. That broadcast may not exist, but here is the ending of the men's singles final a few days later.

Colour television had been anticipated for some time. John Logie Baird had demonstrated a form of it in 1928, using a mechanical system. The BBC launched its television service in 1936, initially alternating between Baird’s system and Marconi’s electronic 405-line one, both in black and white. However, soon they settled on the Marconi system, the high definition of its day – an interlaced 377 lines of picture, so 377i in today’s terminology. The USA, which had begun its own television service in 1941, used the NTSC system which had 525 lines (480i). It was the USA which made the world’s first public colour television broadcast on 1 January 1954, the Tournament of Roses Parade from Pasadena, California. However, over the next decade, takeup of colour sets was slow: they were expensive, and the majority of programmes continued to be made in black and white. Cuba became the second country to broadcast in colour, in 1958, though its service was soon shut down in the wake of Castro’s revolution the following year. Japan made its first public colour broadcast in 1960, and Mexico did so in 1963, though it did not broadcast in colour full-time until it hosted the Olympic Games in 1968.

Across the Atlantic, after a hiatus due to World War Two, the BBC recommenced broadcasting, with Queen Elizabeth II’s coronation in 1953 being the stimulus for many people to buy or rent their first television set. The BBC’s one channel was joined by ITV in 1955. Companies such as ITC (whose programmes were usually broadcast on ITV) started shooting their drama series on colour 35mm film, with an eye to sales to the USA, beginning in 1957 with the final fourteen of the thirty episodes of The Adventures of Sir Lancelot, with William Russell in the title role before he became one of the first Doctor Who companions.

Gerry Anderson began making his Supermarionation series in colour with Stingray in 1964, although anyone in its native country could only watch it in black and white on its first transmission. Other countries followed suit. Skippy (Skippy the Bush Kangaroo overseas) was made in Australia from 1966, rather farsightedly on colour 16mm film, long before the country itself could watch it in colour, as we will see. It remains Australian television’s most successful export.

The BBC launched its second channel in 1964. In anticipation that colour was on the way, BBC2 broadcast only at 625 lines (576i) using the German-developed PAL system, so requiring the purchase or rental of an inevitably more expensive dual-standard television set to watch it. The BBC had considered using NTSC but instead opted for PAL. The controller of the new channel, David Attenborough, was determined that the United Kingdom would be the first country to broadcast in colour in Europe, and so it came to pass on 1 July 1967. West Germany followed on 25 August, the service switched on by Chancellor Willy Brandt pressing a button live on air. (This is dramatised in the first series of Heimat.) . The next European country to go colour was the Netherlands in 21 September. Both of these countries, like the UK, used PAL. The next country was France, on 1 October, using its own SECAM system.

Following that first Wimbledon broadcast, BBC2 broadcast more and more of its schedule in colour, while the other two channels continued in black and white. At first, not all of the country had transmitters set up for colour broadcasting: initially, just England and not Wales, Scotland nor Northern Ireland. Because of this, much of the public were reluctant to pay extra for a colour television set just for one minority channel, so take up was slow. As of 1968 they would also have had to pay for a colour television licence, which then cost £10, twice the price of a black and white one. Early colour programmes shown on BBC2 included trade test films, and imported series such as The Virginian. BBC2 first broadcast its entire day's schedule in colour on Saturday 2 December, beginning with Billy Smart’s Circus, followed by the start of a dramatisation of Vanity Fair starring Susan Hampshire. Whicker’s World, the arts programme Late-Night Line Up, plus rugby and boxing, finishing with the 1953 Technicolor film Thunder Bay, the first film broadcast in colour on British television. A highlight of the following evening was The Black and White Minstrel Show, now in colour and brought over from BBC1 for the occasion.

A sports broadcast had kicked off BBC2’s colour service and the possibilities that the new technology offered directly increased the popularity of one sport in particular when BBC2 first broadcast its single-frame snooker tournament Pot Black in 1969. During one match, commentator Ted Lowe made an infamous gaffe when he said “For those of you watching in black and white, the pink is next to the green.” Percy Thrower had been presenting gardening programmes since 1956, but Gardener’s World, first broadcast in 1968, showed the full hues of his own garden. A new music programme, aimed at a more “serious” audience than those who watched bBC1’s Top of the Pops was significantly called Colour Me Pop. Here's an extract from a surviving episode, featuring the Small Faces.

It was only a matter of time before the other two channels started their own colour service. BBC1 was making many of its new programmes in 625-line PAL, though still in black and white. For example, most of the first series of Adam Adamant Lives! had been shot in 625-line in 1966. Doctor Who upgraded to 625-line in December 1967 with the six-part serial The Enemy of the World, though was not made in colour until new Doctor Jon Pertwee’s arrival in 1970. By 1968, all of BBC’s new drama productions were being made in 625-line, and by 1969 BBC1 was transmitting some programmes, such as the first episodes of Monty Python’s Flying Circus, unofficially in colour. This became official for both BBC1 and ITV on Saturday 15 November 1969. BBC1 started on the stroke of midnight with a Petula Clark concert, An Evening with Petula, from London’s Royal Albert Hall. ITV waited another nine and a half hours before launching its colour service in a rather more low-key manner with a Royal Auto Club Road Report, followed by a children’s drama The Growing Summer. Later that morning, during Thunderbirds, there was the first colour television commercial, for Birds Eye peas. Colour was here to stay, though sets were still in a minority – an estimated 200,000 were in use at the end of 1969.

Not everyone welcomed the new technology. What may have been tasteful shades of grey previously suddenly could clash and look unsightly. The new cameras could be unkind to facial blemishes and at least one television performer (Dick Emery) invested in a new set of crowns for his teeth for when he was appearing in colour. Oddly enough, colours which had been difficult to render in black and white and white, and items intended to look that way were often a different colour altogether. The Doctor's TARDIS console was one such, and when we saw it in Jon Pertwee's first season it was actually a shade of pale green. Industrial action by ITV technicians over three months in 1970 and 1971 meant that they would not work with colour equipment, which explains why several shows had individual episodes made in black and white in the middle of a run of colour ones, Upstairs, Downstairs and Coronation Street among them.

During the end of the 1960s and into the 1970s, country after country launched its own colour service, including those in what was then the Eastern Bloc. Australia was a relatively late adopter, While it was making some of its programmes in colour by the early 1970s, and had experimentally broadcast the Pakenham Races back in 1967, it didn’t officially transmit them in colour from 1 March 1975, hence the advertising slogan “March first into colour”. Again, the service began on the stroke of midnight. However, on ABC, Grahame Bond brought back his popular comic character Aunty Jack to welcome (if that's the word) the new service. The sketch, which lasts five minutes, started three minutes before midnight. Here it is: Aunty Jack is the one with the moustache in a dress.

One effect was the decline in the perceived value of black and white cinema films being shown on television. Monochrome film production had been in decline anyway, and in 1967, the Academy for the last time awarded separate Oscars for black and white and colour cinematography, art direction and set decoration, and costume design, for films released in 1966. In 1967, the US major studios released just nine new black and white films, including In Cold Blood, which earned Conrad Hall an Oscar nomination in the now-combined Cinematography category against four colour films. In 1968, there was just one black and white major-studio release - the British film Inadmissible Evidence - and in 1969 there were none. So black and white film production, at least as an unbroken tradition for commercial major-studio releases, came to an end, though independent productions and foreign-language arthouse films continued to use it for a few years more.

From the turn of the decade, black and white films were occasional exceptions to the norm notable for being exceptions, made by filmmakers with sufficient clout to be able to do so. There’s a probably-inadvertent period touch in J.G. Farrell’s novel A Girl in the Head (published in 1967 so presumably written a year or two earlier) where the protagonist goes to the cinema and notices the film is in colour. Increasingly the reverse would be true, that you would notice if colour were absent. I’m old enough to remember watching television on a black and white set. My family had its first colour set in 1973 and one of the first broadcasts I remember watching that way was Princess Anne’s wedding in November of that year. Some regional programmes, in areas not yet able to transmit in colour, continued to be made in black and white into the 70s, along with some schools and Open University programmes. In 1976, colour sets outnumbered black and white ones for the first time in the UK.

Not every filmmaker welcomed colour, and David Attenborough suggested that certain dramas could continue to be made in black and white for particular artistic reasons. In practice, though, this did not happen. However, there were some exceptions, including Alan Bennett’s first play for TV, A Day Out (first shown on Christmas Eve 1972), directed by Stephen Frears, in monochrome no doubt because of its pre-World War I setting. Another example was the adaptation of Bertolt Brecht’s play The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui, directed by Jack Gold, and first shown on 7 November the same year. As late as 1979, Jack Fletcher was made in black and white as part of an anthology series, Turning Year Tales, again because of its historical setting, this time the Middle Ages. In 1983, the third of new channel Channel Four’s comedy series The Comic Strip Presents... was The Beat Generation, again in black and white to evoke its period (1960s) setting. Across the Atlantic, the final episode of the fourth season of M*A*S*H was The Interview, in which a newsreel cameraman interviews the team. A later American example was the broadcast-live 2000 TV movie Fail-Safe.

But these were very much exceptions. While in the early to mid 70s, you could still see black and white films and some repeated programmes on the main channels in prime time (I know, as I watched many of them), as the decade progressed networks were increasingly reluctant to do so, conscious of viewers complaining that they hadn’t bought a colour set and a colour licence to watch something in black and white. So you would increasingly see such material at off-peak times, such as during the daytime, or on the minority channels of BBC2 and, as of 1982, Channel Four. It was noticeable that latter day black and white feature films, including such Oscar nominees and winners as Manhattan, The Elephant Man and Schindler’s List, all premiered on BBC2. By 1982, when Ken Loach’s Looks and Smiles (his only cinema feature in black and white) premiered on ITV, after festival showings but before its UK cinema release, the network went out of its way to avoid mentioning that this film was in black and white, with the TV Times listing not advising this was the case, until just before the broadcast when the continuity announcer told us that the film was made in black and white “for dramatic impact”.

As I’ve mentioned above, colour sets outnumbered black and white ones in the UK by the late 1970s. Black and white sets, portable ones especially, were often used as second television sets in other rooms, or by students living away from home. Other users were visually-impaired viewers. In 2009, as a result of the scandal over Members of Parliament’s expenses claims, it was revealed that Chris Mullin, then the MP for Sunderland South, was one of the now five-figured number of people still with a black and white TV licence. His set was old but still worked, and he only used it to watch the news.

In the cinema, there are countless tales of directors and cinematographers wanting to make their films in black and white but not being allowed to, for commercial reasons. These days, most such films are either shot on colour film stock or digitally, one reason for this being that a colour version could be available for those who wanted to buy the rights to distribute it. This is less so with television productions, and probably even less likely as HD television makes way to 4K UHD. But black and white has its own aesthetic, and there are reasons why people might still want to use it, to evoke a sense of period, or of deliberate abstraction or unreality – not that colour is necessarily realistic anyway. If future black and white programmes are made, they will undeniably be a small part of the output, but let’s hope that they could still be a part of it, fifty years after colour began in this country.

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