BEHIND THE HEADLINES
1938: the FA Cup Final is televised
A WIMBLEDON TENNIS MATCH HAD ALLOWED BBC STAFF TO TEST OUT THEIR EQUIPMENT
The BBC made history in April 1938 when it televised the Football Association Cup Final for the first time. Turning football into a domestic spectacle was revolutionary; people wanting to see a match previously had to queue for stands which were usually open to the elements, but now the national game was delivered to our forebears’ homes.
As a presentation announcer said in scarcely credulous tones: “We take you to an event, and nobody in the world knows who will win or what will happen. You see it for yourself, and thus share in the excitement of those who are actually present.”
But revolutions don’t come easily, and there were a series of significant milestones on the way to accomplishing this enormously demanding technical feat. A Wimbledon tennis match had been televised in 1937, which allowed BBC staff to test out their equipment on filming two players occupying a relatively small space. However, football presented a much bigger challenge, with 22 players plus a referee and a large playing area to cover. To prepare, the BBC rehearsed with a ‘friendly’ between Arsenal and Arsenal Reserves at the team’s stadium in Highbury, North London, conveniently close to the BBC’s headquarters at Alexandra Palace. This was the first football match to be on television, airing on 16 September 1937.
The Outside Broadcast equipment comprised a control van connected to three cameras; a van with the transmitter to send the images back to Alexandra Palace to be
broadcast; and another with the generator. This was a sizeable amount of equipment that had been only recently tested, with ample potential for a breakdown.
Early in April the technicians set up at Wembley and televised the England vs Scotland international. Most of the fans seemed to come from Scotland, the reporter from The Times noted, “judging by the gaiety of their bonnets and their accents”. They were pleased to see Scotland win 1–0.
With all of the BBC’s preparations complete, the FA Cup Final took place on 30 April 1938. More than 93,000 people attended with George VI and Queen Elizabeth (later the Queen Mother) as star guests along with a royal friend from India, the Maharaja Gaekwar of Baroda. But soon after kick-off the BBC’s system broke down and screens at home went blank. The frantic Outside Broadcast team fixed the glitch and the rest of the transmission went smoothly. The match, between Preston North End and Huddersfield Town, was reported to be dull, with both sides playing defensively. Excitement came only at the end, in the last 30 seconds of extra time when Preston scored the single goal of the match from a penalty and won the cup.
The audience at home would not have been large. At the beginning of 1938 there were only 2,000 television sets in use. At the 1938 Radiolympia exhibition of radio and television equipment the second generation of television sets was on display. The older, more expensive models like the Philips TEL61 at 120 guineas were still being produced, but new sets were being manufactured in an effort to increase sales by bringing down the price.
For the thinner wallet came the Pye 815 for 30 guineas. With a screen measuring 7 ½ x 6 inches, the sales literature boasted, “13 latest type valves are included in the combined circuitry, ensuring excellent picture brightness and generous sound volume”.
The television schedule that the newly named ‘viewers’ might watch after the referee’s final whistle was a 10-minute talk on spring flowers; Going Places, a travelogue presented by well-known actor Reginald Beckwith; Disney’s Monkey Melodies, a jungle-based musical animation; and Gaumont British News.
Other programmes included CH Middleton’s
A Television Garden which came from the grounds of Alexandra Palace where a garden was established and tended year-round; Friends
from the Zoo, an animal programme; and light plays such as James Bridie’s Tobias and the Angel.
Most broadcasts were live from a stage in Alexandra Palace; it was said that many artists resented the ‘long journey’ there of five miles from the West End. Broadcasting finished at 10.30pm, by which time most of the nation was in bed.
Meeting the threat
War was in the air and the nation was preparing for it. Bold people came to the fore including Lady Reading, Stella Isaacs, who this year founded the Women’s Voluntary Service. Isaacs was born wealthy but poorly educated because of childhood illness. When her family fell on hard times she started work as a secretary, eventually becoming secretary to Lord Reading and finally becoming his wife. She was described as a large woman who was forceful, practical and determined. She was the sort of person called upon to get things done, and the home secretary Sir Samuel Hoare duly called Lady Reading at home. He asked if, with her organising abilities, she would start a body that would recruit women into the Air Raid Precautions service which had been founded in 1937 in preparation for the effect on civilians of air raids. She came back with a detailed plan for a uniformed service that would be directly funded by the Government and local authorities.
Reading had a great deal of experience of voluntary organisations with their hierarchies, committees and fundraising drives, and decided that hers was going to be nothing like that. Doing away with bureaucracy and class-based attitudes, she made sure that the Women’s Voluntary Service had a minimum of committees and titles: everyone would ‘muck in’ with no class divisions. It was said to be the only organisation in which a duchess and a charlady could be found working side by side.
However, so much needed to be done that the service’s original objective was extended to include anything that the authorities required, under the slogan “The WVS never says No.” Within four years it was to mobilise the work of a million women.
The summer of 1938 was one of the wettest on record, but that did not deter the 12 million visitors to the British Empire Exhibition in Glasgow. The exhibition was used to boost the economy of Scotland, which had suffered badly in the depression. If your forebears visited, they might have made use of a camping ground at Pollok Estate, near Cowglen, for cyclists, hikers and motorists who brought a tent.
The best of the Empire
The exhibition was held in Bellahouston Park and featured pavilions such as the Palace of Engineering and the Palace of Industry. Countries of the British Empire had their own pavilions to display their produce and culture. Scotland offered displays of military precision, with two performances per day of a military tattoo by naval and army units.
This was a great year for literature, although the tone of new books reflected the unease of writers living in a nation on the brink of war. Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca had her innocent heroine newly married and living in a house full of secrets and sinister memories. Graham Greene’s Brighton Rock is set in the seedy world of crime around Brighton’s race track, and is full of the threat of violence. Evelyn Waugh’s Scoop is a satire on newspapers, partly based on Waugh’s own experiences of covering the Italian invasion of Abyssinia for the Daily Mail.
Relief from gloom came from the cinema. Almost half the population went to the cinema at least once a week, with some visiting much more frequently. Three cinema chains dominated the market: ABC, Gaumont and Odeon. There was an active British film industry, but the most popular films were almost all from the USA. This year Bette Davis sizzled as a Southern belle in
Jezebel, while the melodrama In Old Chicago, set at the time of the Chicago fire of 1871, was one of the most expensive spectaculars ever made. Another big-budget extravaganza was
The Adventures of Robin Hood, in which Errol Flynn swashbuckled around Sherwood Forest.
The Beano made its first appearance in July 1938. One of the comic’s most enduring characters was Lord Snooty, an ordinary mischief-loving schoolboy who just happens to be Marmaduke, Earl of Bunkerton, described as the “Son of a duke but always pally with the Beezer Kids of Ash-can Alley”. He was the leader of this group of street urchins who waged war on the ‘Gasworks Gang’. The strip showed a very British approach of making fun of the ruling class while also being affectionate towards them. The Beano is still published every week.
The programme from the 1938 FA Cup Final is worth a lot more than 6d to modern collectors Bette Davis, here pictured with George Brent, won an Oscar for her role in Lady Reading, founder of the Women’s Voluntary Service
Preston’s George Mutch scores the winning goal against Huddersfield
The Beano celebrates its 80th anniversary in 2018