ALEXANDRA PALACE TELEVISION SOCIETY

 

First live BBC recording

 

The four-minute compilation from 1938 exists only because of a technological fluke and the enthusiasm of two television buffs, one in Britain and the other in America where, thanks to freak atmospheric conditions, it was picked up and recorded on a cine camera placed in front of a television screen as the images came in.

Andrew Emmerson, the British enthusiast, spent five years tracking down the recording and believes it is the only surviving example of pre-war live high-definition British television. The flickering black-and-white footage includes Jasmine Bligh, one of the original BBC announcers, and a brief shot of Elizabeth Cowell, who also shared announcing duties with Jasmine, an excerpt from an unknown period costume drama and the BBC's station identity transmitted at the beginning and end of the day's output.

It was made at a time when no technology existed to record live broadcasts directly. Video tape was not perfected until the late 1950s and "telerecording", the quality copying with a cine camera mounted in front of a television screen was not developed until after the Second World War. There are other recordings from the pre-war era, but they are all cine film shot from a camera alongside the television lens, or as in the case of the Demonstration Films, recreated scenes in a shot in a film studio.

Jasmine Blight as seen on the television monitor in New York - November 1938

Studio portrait of Jasmine Bligh

Jasmine Bligh as she appears in the television recording and in the studio

Click on either of the screen images to see the 1938 footage

 

Studio portrain of Elizabeth Cowell

Elizabeth Cowell as seen in New York and a photograph taken in the studio at about the same time.
 

 

Steve Cummings, of the National Museum of Photography, Film and Television, plays the tape of the oldest 'live' high-defintion broadcast, with Jasmine Bligh on the screen.

The American recording was shown on 26 June 1999 at the refurbished National Museum of Photography, Film and Television in Bradford.

Mr Emmerson, 50, a freelance researcher and writer on the television industry, said: "Rumours of a recording existing in America have circulated for years, but no one had ever got to the bottom of them. It was known that about this time there had been tremendous sun spot activity, which had a dramatic effect on the ionosphere. Broadcasts from the BBC Television Station at Alexandra Palace travelled less than 30 miles, but because of the sun spots they were being bounced off the ionosphere and picked up 3,000 miles away on the East Coast of America."

"There were reports that RCA, which was working on its own television system, had conducted an experiment to film the broadcasts. About five years ago I decided to check it out, but with no success. RCA could not trace anything, nor could anyone else. Then last year a friend at the American Vintage Wireless Collectors' Society agreed to mention it in their magazine."

One of the respondents was Maurice Schecheter, who worked in a New York television studio. He had a collection of television material and among it was one of the RCA recordings on 16mm film.

"He cleaned it up digitally and transferred it to a video cassette for me," Mr Emmerson said. "I was astounded. This was the oldest and probably the only example of live high-definition television from the pre-war period."

Adapted from The Times 25 June 1999

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