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HAPPY 50th, AUNTIE BEEB : BBC-TV Celebrates Its Golden Anniversary Worldwide

November 09, 1986|CECIL SMITH

Gerald Cock should rate at least afootnote in the history of broadcasting. In the year 1926, Cock, a tennis buff as well as head of programs for the fledgling British Broadcasting Co. wireless (radio) network, was so delighted with the All England tennis championships at Wimbledon that he felt all England should be able to follow the matches, shot by shot. He petitioned the board of governors of the tourney to allow him to build a booth and supply announcers to describe the games. Thus, sportscasting was born.

A decade later in the year 1936, Cock, again at Wimbledon watching Fred Perry's remarkable triumph, asked if he might bring in remote equipment to televise the Center Court matches. "To what?" the governors may well have asked. One could hardly fault them. But Cock had been commissioned by the British Broadcasting Corp. (as it was now known) to inaugurate the world's first regularly scheduled TV service. He did just that, launching the service 50 years ago this month with a program called "Looking at You," which wasn't looked at by very many people, as there were only about 250-300 sets in all England.

And the next year at Wimbledon, the BBC did indeed provide the first telecast of a sports event with a 25-minute unbroken transmission of Bunny Austin's championship match. One critic noted that not only could one follow the action on the court but "even the marks of the passage of the lawn mowers over the grass were distinctly visible." There were then about 2,000 sets in England. By contrast, the Wimbledon matches last summer were viewed on TV by hundreds of millions in 90 countries.

One is so used to regarding television as an American institution that we forget that the Brits were receiving regular daily TV transmissions from the BBC a full 10 years before the Americans got in on the act. With justifiable pride, the BBC is celebrating the Golden Anniversary of the birth of TV with various observances around the world, including a series of events in this country, including:

On Friday, the prestigious Museum of Broadcasting in New York will begin 100 hours of BBC telecasts with "Behind the Scenes at the BBC," a package of four BBC specials. On Nov. 17, the museum will hold a lavish, black-tie party as part of its salute, which will continue through Jan. 31. On Nov. 18, Michael Grade, director of programming for BBC-TV, and controller Graeme McDonald of BBC-2 will host a seminar on BBC programming and scheduling, the first of 10 seminars exploring history, issues and other topics related to the network.

The Academy of Television Arts and Sciences will host a black-tie dinner here at the Cocoanut Grove Wednesday night, with the networks and major studios joining the BBC tribute. More than a dozen BBC executives are expected to attend.

A banquet Friday in Washington given by British Ambassador Sir Antony Acland will mark the opening of a BBC exhibit at the Library of Congress.

She has come a long way has the Beeb--or Auntie, as she is sometimes called, not always with affection. (Witness the current row with the Conservative government.) In those prewar Depression years, there were only two hours of television a day, six days a week, but such stars as Laurence Olivier, Danny Kaye, Margot Fonteyn and Greer Garson lent their talents to this infant art. One of its first noteworthy events was the coverage of the coronation of King George VI; the coronation of his daughter Elizabeth II 15 years later with the first interior shots of Westminster Abbey was a milestone when millions of Britons bought sets. From the beginning, TV made an impact--soccer balls, for instance, are now checkered because they would show up better on the tube.

Those early years ended abruptly in September, 1939, in the middle of a Mickey Mouse cartoon with the realization that the BBC's transmission tower on the Alexandria Palace was a splendid homing device for Hitler's Luftwaffe bombers. BBC-TV stayed off the air until World War II ended in 1945 and then returned to the air with typical British aplomb with the second half of the Mickey Mouse cartoon.

Looking back over the years since the war ended, it's hard to argue with the observation that British television--and the BBC, in particular--is, in Milton Shulman's oft-quoted phrase, "the least worst television in the world." But it is also valuable to note in the light of such triumphs as "The Forsyte Saga," Kenneth Clark's "Civilisation," Jacob Bronowski's "The Ascent of Man," "I, Claudius," "Glittering Prizes," "War and Peace," David Attenborough's "Life on Earth," "Monty Python's Flying Circus," "Elizabeth R," "Pennies From Heaven"--scores of others--that we in America see the cream of the British crop.

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