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.

Beginning on Saturday 4 January 1964 and lasting until 18 April, a series of Trade Test Transmissions for engineering purposes was shown between 9.00am and 8.00pm for six days a week (excepting Sundays). Interspersed with the Test Card, these transmissions consisted mainly of short films which, according to some explanatory blurb in Radio Times (2 January 1964, p. 2), had ‘been carefully chosen for their high technical quality to ensure that the best possible pictures are transmitted during the tests’.

More significantly for this blog, each daily transmission also included a feature film, with an extra one shown on some days. All those chosen came from the library of RKO Radio Pictures, the defunct Hollywood studio from which the BBC had acquired around one hundred titles in 1957. The Corporation’s lease was temporary – much later, in 1979, the BBC would acquire in perpetuity the studio’s entire library of 740 features – but unlike most film package deals it had the advantage of permitting an unlimited number of screenings. In these terms, then, the first feature shown on the channel was Double Dynamite (1951) with Jane Russell – a pun on the number two, perhaps?

All the films used for the Test Transmissions had previously been broadcast on the main channel over the past six years and their lease was about to expire, so borrowing them for this purpose must have seemed like a good way of milking them for their last drop of value. Only two of the test films, Easy Living (1949) and One Hour to Zero (1952), appeared again in regular programme time following the formal opening of BBC2, though all were subsequently reacquired and continue to play a part in off-peak BBC schedules today.

In total, the Trade Tests involved 114 transmissions of 28 features over 16 weeks. Each film was shown up to five times, though their frequency was uneven. In the absence of any other information the choice of which titles were screened most often appears quite random, though print quality may have had something to do with it. Eleven films were broadcast five times, ten were shown four times, six three times, and one – Stage Door (1937), among the oldest – only twice.

Anyone owning a television set tuned to BBC2 was capable of receiving the test broadcasts which, like the official public schedule once it was launched, were available only in London and the South East. Details of the transmissions were published in London editions of Radio Times but do not seem to have been carried in daily newspapers, so it took a dedicated viewer to catch them.

But the most striking aspect of the four-month test period, at least from the vantage point of 2017, is that, with an average of one feature a day, more films were broadcast on BBC2 before it was officially launched than the channel transmits in a typical week today.

Next week at time of writing, for example (15-21 July 2017), six features are scheduled for the weekend (four on Saturday, two on Sunday) but none at all on weekdays. And the Test Card has gone for a burton, too.


The listing below includes the titles and broadcast dates of all the feature films shown on BBC2 in the pre-launch Trade Test Transmissions, in alphabetical order by title.

Affair with a Stranger (1953) Jean Simmons, Victor Mature

TX: 07/01/1964, 30/01/1964, 30/03/1964

Bachelor Knight (aka The Bachelor and the Bobby-Soxer, 1947) Cary Grant, Myrna Loy, Shirley Temple

TX: 27/01/1964, 20/02/1964, 11/03/1964, 27/03/1964

Badman’s Territory (1946) Randolph Scott, Ann Richards

TX: 10/01/1964, 06/02/1964, 29/02/1964, 17/03/1964, 03/04/1964

The Big Sky (1952) Kirk Douglas, Dewey Martin

TX: 08/01/1964, 01/02/1964, 13/03/1964, 08/04/1964, 06/04/74

The Big Street (1942) Henry Fonda, Lucille Ball

TX: 02/03/1964, 19/03/1964, 04/04/1964

Bringing up Baby (1938) Katharine Hepburn, Cary Grant

TX: 06/01/1964, 05/02/1964, 29/02/1964, 16/03/1964, 30/03/1964

The Company She Keeps (1951) Lizabeth Scott, Jane Greer, Dennis O’Keefe

TX: 22/01/1964, 15/02/1964, 09/03/1964, 26/03/1964

Double Dynamite (1951) Jane Russell, Groucho Marx, Frank Sinatra

TX: 04/01/1964, 23/01/1964, 14/03/1964, 01/04/1964

Easy Living (1949) Victor Mature, Lucille Ball, Lizabeth Scott

TX: 17/01/1964, 11/02/1964, 06/03/1964, 21/03/1964, 15/04/1964

Farewell My Lovely (aka Murder, My Sweet, 1944) Dick Powell, Claire Trevor

TX: 04/01/1964, 31/01/1964, 14/03/1964

The Fugitive (1947) Henry Fonda, Dolores del Rio

TX: 25/01/1964, 19/02/1964, 11/03/1964, 28/03/1964

Holiday Affair (1949) Robert Mitchum, Janet Leigh

TX: 20/01/1964, 14/02/1964, 07/03/1964, 25/03/1964, 17/04/1964

Lucky Partners (1940) Ronald Colman, Ginger Rogers

TX: 25/01/1964, 18/02/1964, 10/03/1964, 18/04/1964

Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House (1948) Cary Grant, Myrna Loy, Melvyn Douglas

TX: 09/01/1964, 01/02/1964, 13/03/1964, 07/04/1964

Never a Dull Moment (1950) Irene Dunne, Fred MacMurray

TX: 11/01/1964, 10/02/1964, 20/03/1964, 10/04/1964

One Minute to Zero (1952) Robert Mitchum, Ann Blyth

TX: 28/01/1964, 21/02/1964, 12/03/1964, 28/03/1964, 16/04/1964

Sealed Cargo (1951) Dana Andrews, Claude Rains

TX: 21/01/1964, 15/02/1964, 09/03/1964, 25/03/1964

Sons of the Musketeers (aka At Sword’s Point, 1952) Cornel Wilde, Maureen O’Hara

TX: 15/01/1964, 08/02/1964, 04/03/1964, 19/03/1964, 09/04/1964

Spirit of the People (aka Abe Lincoln in Illinois, 1940) Raymond Massey, Gene Lockhart, Ruth Gordon

TX: 13/01/1964, 04/02/1964, 21/03/1964, 13/04/1964

Stage Door (1937) Katharine Hepburn, Ginger Rogers, Adolphe Menjou

TX:  14/01/1964, 08/02/1964

The Story of Vernon and Irene Castle (1939) Fred Astaire, Ginger Rogers

TX: 18/01/1964, 07/02/1964, 02/03/1964, 17/03/1964, 04/04/1964

Suspicion (1941) Cary Grant, Joan Fontaine

TX: 29/01/1964, 12/03/1964, 31/03/1964

Tall in the Saddle (1944) John Wayne, Ella Raines

TX: 05/03/1964, 23/03/1964, 11/04/1964

The Three Musketeers (1935) Walter Abel, Paul Lukas

TX: 16/01/1964, 12/02/1964, 07/03/1964, 24/03/1964, 14/04/1964

Till the End of Time (1946) Dorothy McGuire, Guy Madison, Robert Mitchum

TX:  11/01/1964, 03/02/1964, 16/03/1964, 02/04/1964

The Toast of New York (1937) Edward Arnold, Cary Grant

TX: 18/01/1964, 13/02/1964, 03/03/1964, 18/03/1964, 06/04/1964

Two Tickets to Broadway (1951) Janet Leigh, Tony Martin, Ann Miller

TX: 24/01/1964, 17/02/1964, 10/03/1964, 26/03/1964, 18/04/1964

The Velvet Touch (1948) Rosalind Russell, Leo Genn, Claire Trevor

TX: 04/03/1964, 24/03/1964, 11/04/1964

9 thoughts on “Pre-launch feature films on BBC2”

  1. Do you have any information on when the trade test films were first broadcast on BBC2 in colour?

    From the dim and dark recesses of my memory it feels like I first saw a colour TV in a department store in 1966 (when I was 5 or 6) – there was a huge crowd gathered around it.

    But if I’m right that would have been well before the official colour launch date of 1st July 1967.

    • Please accept my apologies for the very long delay in replying. The short answer to your question is that I’m afraid I don’t know. As you may be aware, colour broadcasts were launched on BBC2 on 1 July 1967, with selected programmes in colour, the full service not commencing until 2 December. It seems likely that there were trade tests broadcast well before either date, but if so I don’t think Radio Times listed them. When trade tests were broadcast in the run-up to the BBC1 colour launch in November 1969 they were noted in RT but without the detailed listings of these early BBC2 trade tests. Some research at BBC Written Archives Centre would probably be needed to give an authoritative answer!

  2. There were colour test transmissions on BBC-2 well before July 1967. I stumbled across them in 1965 (only in b/w, of course) and continued to watch regularly until the early ’70s. The 1966 memory is interesting as it’s possible you may have seen some of the colour tests specially put on for the Earls Court TV & Radio Show that year. There was a week of increased tests with trade test films being shown throughout the day. This happened in August and each film was preceded by a caption explaining it’s purpose. Happy days!

  3. You’re welcome! As a kid, I watched that week of tests myself with great enthusiasm on our black and white set! In more recent years, I’ve paid visits to BBC written archives and verified many facts about what I used to watch back then. BBC-2 were running tests for colour in both NTSC and PAL in 1965 and it was only announced officially in 1966 that the BBC were coming down in favour of the PAL system for UK transmissions. The Earls Court week in August would have been the first official time the public would have been able to see PAL colour though (earlier tests would have been internal affairs only, for engineers and people connected with that side of things).


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