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