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Pre-launch feature films on BBC2

When did BBC2 begin broadcasting? And what was the first feature film that it showed?

The easily-Googlable answer to the former is of course Monday 20 April 1964 – although famously the opening night did not exactly go according to plan, and after a technical breakdown the service was relaunched the following evening. A bit of additional research will reveal that the first film officially broadcast on BBC2 was Charlie Chaplin’s The Gold Rush (1925), previously shown on Christmas Day 1963 by BBC1 – or, as it was known at the time, BBC Television – to a record audience and repeated in the new channel’s revival slot Encore on 22 April. However, these are not the only possible answers to the questions.

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The classic films produced by Hollywood independent Samuel Goldwyn are currently revisiting us on Talking Pictures TV. Now therefore seems a good time to assess the treatment by television of this important library, which played a crucial role in helping to make cinema films more readily available to British broadcasters.

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As the major studios gradually opened up their vaults to British broadcasters, the feature films acquired for showing on television became ever more numerous. They grew to include some real blockbusters, which often became the centrepieces of holiday schedules when competition for viewers was particularly fierce. Many of the big films of the past which still revisit us on our TV screens today made their domestic debuts on Christmas Day in the 1960s and 1970s. Here we look at a selection of them.

See here for Part 1 of this article.

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Christmas is traditionally the time for traditions, and in Britain that includes the big film on the box after the Queen. For five decades British television has taken Christmas Day as the occasion for the small-screen premiere of a major feature film. This year it’s Disney’s Frozen on BBC1. But when did this tradition begin, and what are some of the other films that have featured down through the years? What follows is a year-by-year selection of them.

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The first 15 feature films broadcast on British television


One of the myths about pre-war television is that it no longer exists. Before the advent of videotape in the 1950s, everything was live and therefore ephemeral – so the story goes. In terms of material made for television that’s mostly (but not entirely) the case: the vast majority of the BBC’s own early output is gone with the wind. But a great deal of what was shown on television between 1936 and 1939 was neither live nor made by the BBC itself; nor is it lost. Around one quarter of the programmes broadcast were acquired films, and a small – very small – number of those were feature films. For the first time, this article identifies all of them and tells the stories behind their scheduling.

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