BBC television barely had time to say hello in the 1930s before shrugging its shoulders and muttering a frustrated au revoir. The little matter of another world war getting in the way. Radio was the priority as the established medium.
Television programmes, in black and white, could only be seen with tolerable reliability within a 40-mile radius of the sole transmitter (and studio) at Alexandra Palace, up on a north London hill.
Those pre-war few who tuned in regularly saw plenty of live studio-based music-making of various genres. Classical music performers included the likes of harpist Sidonie Goossens and Austrian violinist Lisa Minghetti.
Lighter classical offerings came, for example, from the BBC Midland Orchestra. The performance on 5 June 1937 of part of Gounod’s Faust – complete with rickety set – was the first opera to be televised in the UK… possibly, in the world.
In 1938, a number of Proms were relayed to TV subscribers in sound only via the ‘seven-metre television wavelength’, which offered an ‘exceptionally high standard of sound-reproduction’. So much for that experiment, as Hitler intervened.
A Mickey Mouse cartoon cheekily heralded the re-launch of BBC Television in June 1946. Transmitter-reach was still feeble. Cash was tight. ‘Compared to radio, television was a Cinderella operation,’ recalls Harold Beck, a pre-war Promenader and avid listener to the concerts on the wireless. ‘Sets were expensive for most people. Only around 15,000 TV licences had been sold. I remember how large and cumbersome the cameras were, and tricky to operate.’
The BBC authorities hesitated before making only a late decision to give the Proms a television debut in 1947 – on the Last Night, 13 September. Threadbare resources were stretched to the point of embarrassment. A camera had to be rushed from the Oval when cricket coverage (of Middlesex versus The Rest of England) concluded. That doubled the camera count at the Albert Hall.
Why the reluctance to follow through on the initial success of Proms televising? There was feedback from sweaty members of the BBC Symphony Orchestra that the television lights were too hot, too bright – objections that were duly noted. Members of the BBC Music Department whinged that radio was a superior medium for superior music, and hadn’t televising the Proms encouraged Promenaders to be even more tastelessly boisterous than usual?
There continued to be internal BBC spats over the alleged intrusion of television into Prom goers’ personal space, elbowing ostentatiously into what some continued to reckon should be considered ‘concerts for radio’.
Although UK television transmitter coverage improved, a must-see event of national significance was urgently needed to whip up public interest. Famously, the Coronation of Queen Elizabeth II in 1953 provided just that. Despite their midget screens, TV sets flew off the shelves.
Television coverage of the Proms has progressively played a significant role in establishing the BBC’s cultural identity in the UK and worldwide. It can be argued that far from disseminating perceptions of the elitism of classical music, Proms televising has dissipated it.
Purists may huff and puff, but who would not celebrate the fact that the power of television has encouraged thousands of rookie concertgoers to get off their sofas and smartphones and come to the Albert Hall? They may clap between movements and cough at inopportune moments, but that’s hardly anything new in the history of concerts. And for those who can’t hope to be Prom goers themselves, television remains a brilliant alternative for experiencing the magnetism of the Proms.
This article originally appeared in the July 2017 issue of BBC Music Magazine.