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The history of colour TV in the UK

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Find out about the history of colour TV in the UK, including the inventions that led to its introduction, the first broadcasts in Britain, and how people watched early colour television programmes.

Colour heralded a new era of television and while popular programmes like The Avengers, Z Cars and Dad’s Army embraced the new medium, viewers were slower to switch to the new technology. It would be many years before all programming finally switched from black and white.

The arrival of colour television in the UK was a long journey that saw domestic innovation and international influence bring colour images to viewers’ screens.

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, using a spinning mirror-drum and revolving disc that alternated blue-green and red filters. An early test subject was a basket of strawberries.

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’s research

The early experiments did not produce a viable colour system but, undeterred, Baird continued his research in the late 1930s by financing it from his own personal savings—including cashing in his life insurance policy.

Despite the Second World War temporarily ending the BBC television service, Baird demonstrated an improved colour television in 1940. With images made of 600 lines, the quality was far greater than the black-and-white pre-war television service that would return in 1946.

John Logie Baird giving a television demonstration to the press © Science & Society Picture Library (SSPL)
John Logie Baird (fourth from left) giving a demonstration of his television system at his home in London, 20 December 1940

On 16 August 1944 Baird gave the world’s first demonstration of a fully integrated electronic colour picture tube, the Telechrome. Unlike previous camera tubes, this device had two sensor guns which scanned the image, which not only created colour pictures, but also produced images in 3D. Far ahead of its time, only one example remains, which is now in our collection.

In his experiments with broadcasting images, Baird used wax dummy heads as the heat from the studio lights was too intense for live performers. One of these heads, known as ‘Eustace’, was used in colour trials and is also now part of our collection.

Baird’s untimely death in 1946 marked the end for this route of pioneering colour research.

The only surviving example of John Logie Baird’s Telechrome, the world’s first colour television picture tube, 1944
© Science Museum Group Collection More information about The only surviving example of John Logie Baird’s Telechrome, the world’s first colour television picture tube, 1944
John Logie Baird’s test subject ‘Eustace’, used in colour television experiments in 1943
© Science Museum Group Collection More information about John Logie Baird’s test subject ‘Eustace’, used in colour television experiments in 1943

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.

Early colour broadcasts in the USA

The world’s first public colour TV service began in the USA. Colour television was available in select cities from 1954 using the NTSC (National Television Standards Committee)-compatible colour system championed by RCA.

A small fledgling colour service was introduced briefly by CBS in 1941. Although it won the public colour licence in 1951, it 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, which were owned by the majority of American households at the time.

This service used the ‘field sequential colour’ system. Similar to Baird’s earlier two-colour revolving disc, the system used three filters for red, green and blue. Although the technique was not adopted for mainstream television, the technology was used for later applications, including broadcasting the first images from the surface of the Moon during NASA’s Apollo Program.

Prototype of CBS-Columbia RX-28 field sequential colour television receiver © Science Museum Group Collection
Prototype of CBS-Columbia RX-28 field sequential colour television receiver, 1946–48

The first colour broadcasts in the UK

Meanwhile in the UK, colour television tests were being 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 for Britain to adopt—and when.

Viewers eager to experience colour images could buy crude solutions like the colour filter pictured below. Bands of blue, pink and green would give an illusion of colour; however, the filters only worked for certain outdoor settings and reflected only one type of skin tone.

Colour TV screen filter in box © Science Museum Group Collection
‘Television Colour Screen’, c.1953

The BBC began experimenting in colour from 1947, and on 10 October 1955 began test transmissions after-hours at Alexandra Palace, from the same studios where the early BBC television trials had taken place. Using the American NTSC system, the cameras used in the tests were nicknamed ‘coffin’ cameras for their huge size and shape.

Marconi BC848 ‘Coffin’ television camera © Science Museum Group Collection
Marconi BC848 ‘Coffin’ television camera
Experimental GEC colour TV monitor Image credit: Alexandra Palace
Experimental GEC colour TV monitor, 1950s

Two of the American 525 line monitors shown here were used by BBC technicians to tweak the colour levels and perfect the saturation during the trial colour broadcasts.

Following the nightly close-down of the public television service, the signal would resume to showcase live broadcasts and film recordings to test audiences equipped with colour television sets. These colour transmissions were recorded—but only in black and white!

Cy Grant was a regular performer and actor on television and radio in the 1950s. He was known for his appearances on current affairs programme Tonight, where his ‘topical calypso’ provided musical commentary on the day’s news. Grant regularly featured in the BBC’s colour television trials.

How was colour TV launched in the UK?

After many years of experimentation, the BBC were able to begin public transmissions. The first were coverage of the 1966 elections to viewers in America via the Early Bird satellite, where colour was more widely adopted; however, the UK still only received black-and-white coverage.

Finally, on 1 July 1967, BBC2 launched colour television to the British public 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. The channel had launched in black and white in 1964 at a high resolution of 625 lines in preparation for the PAL colour system.

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, which was soon dubbed ‘never twice the same colour’ in comparison to PAL.

Philips PC 60 (LDK 3) television camera head © Science Museum Group Collection
Philips PC 60 (LDK 3) television camera head, c.1966

Although colour television had arrived, not all programmes were ready to make the switch, and colour programming was introduced gradually.

After the BBC2 launch in 1967, colour broadcasting went live on the remaining two channels—BBC1 and ITV—on 15 November 1969.

Only about half of the national population was brought within the range of colour signals. Colour could only be received in the London, Midlands, North-West and Yorkshire TV regions.

ITV’s first colour programmes in Scotland appeared on 13 December 1969; in Wales on 6 April 1970; and in Northern Ireland on 14 September 1970.

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, and 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, a series of non-ranking snooker tournaments, was born.

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.

Gerry and Sylvia Anderson with Thunderbirds puppets © Science Museum Group Collection
Gerry and Sylvia Anderson with Thunderbirds puppets, c.1965–66

Forward-thinking producers benefitted from the arrival of colour television. Gerry and Sylvia Anderson had filmed all episodes of Thunderbirds in colour at enormous expense four years before colour arrived on ITV. Their foresight allowed the show to appear on the first day of ITV’s colour service. The episode ‘City of Fire’ also became the first programme to feature a colour advertisement, for Birds Eye peas.

The 9th World Cup finals in Mexico in 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.

How did people watch early colour TV?

Colour TV sets did not outnumber black-and-white sets until 1976, mainly due to the high price of early colour sets. In March 1969, there were only 100,000 colour TV sets in use in the UK; by the end of 1969 this had doubled to 200,000, and by 1972 there were 1.6 million.

TV sets gallery

The arrival of colour also saw a new name enter living rooms around the UK: Sony’s Trinitron television receiver, first launched in the UK in 1969. It introduced a new technology for displaying colour images. Rather than using the ‘shadow mask’—which needed three electron guns shooting colour signals at related phospors in the internal screen coating—it used a single gun with three cathodes fired at an aperture grill of fine wires.

The Trintron’s flatter screen was brighter and clearer. The set was reliable and, crucially, could be mass-produced at an acceptable cost. It signalled the arrival of Japan as a world-class source of electronics and marked the decline of British television set manufacturing.

How has colour television developed?

Developments in colour have continued to be a draw for consumers. New technologies like LCD (liquid crystal display) introduced flatscreen televisions and improved picture quality, facilitating the introduction of high-definition broadcasts.

‘Colour like no other’ was the tagline for a series of award-winning commercials produced to advertise Sony’s BRAVIA LCD televisions. ‘Bouncing Balls’ premiered on 6 November 2005 during a Manchester United and Chelsea Premier League game advertising break. It featured 250,000 coloured balls bouncing down a San Francisco street, filmed by 23 camera operators over three days.

The following year, on 27 May 2006, the BBC launched their HD service. Sony’s follow-up ad, directed by Jonathan Glazer, featured 70,000 litres of coloured paint exploding over Glasgow’s Toryglen estate.

Developing technologies have seen continued improvements to colour on television, from even higher picture quality in 4K UHD (ultra-high-definition) broadcasts to HDR (high dynamic range), which enables a deeper contrast of colours on screen. Both were demonstrated by the BBC’s test broadcasts of Planet Earth II in 2018.

It took a long time for colour to reach British television screens, and—despite 4,450 black and white television licences still in force as of 2021—there is no end in sight for colour television’s continuing development.

Further reading

Online

Books

  • Asa Briggs, The History of Broadcasting in the UK, Vol. 5: Competition, 1995
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