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.
In a recent article marking the eightieth anniversary of the BBC television service, Professor Joe Moran states of the premiere broadcast on 2 November 1936: ‘No recording exists, of course, for all television then was live and died on the air as it was broadcast’ (‘TV’s First Day’, Radio Times, 29 October-4 November 2016, p. 22).
This is true of most of that day’s output, which included an official opening ceremony, a variety show and a ‘magazine’ programme, Picture Page, all transmitted as they happened and never recorded. But the other components of the day’s schedule were not live and still survive in archives: an edition of the British Movietone News (shown twice, in the afternoon and evening) and a short documentary about the setting up of the TV service, Television Comes to London (in his RT article Moran inaccurately calls this a ‘miscellany’, presumably confusing it with either the variety performance or Picture Page).
Both the newsreel and the documentary were shot on 35mm film, which is why we still have them. Television Comes to London was an in-house BBC production and was repeated several times over the next two weeks. But the news was acquired from Movietone, on the same sort of hire basis as with a cinema; later the same year, a deal was done with the other leading British newsreel company, Gaumont-British News, to allow the two newsreels to be shown in alternation. This arrangement lasted until the television service was closed on 1 September 1939; when it reopened in 1946, the BBC was unable to renew its contracts with the newsreel companies and was ultimately forced to provide its own news service.
The newsreels were among a great many acquired films shown on BBC Television in the prewar period. Typically these were shorts, including the dubiously named ‘interest’ films that filled out cinema schedules (mainly travelogues and mini-documentaries), along with animated cartoons that were more often an attraction in their own right. Among the few things widely known about the early days of television are that the last programme broadcast before the wartime shutdown was a Mickey Mouse cartoon, Mickey’s Gala Premiere (1938) – though it is not true, as urban legend would have it, that the transmission was cut off abruptly before the cartoon was finished – and that the postwar service started up with a repeat showing of the same title.
Between 1937 and 1939, some 118 Walt Disney cartoons were shown by the BBC, each of them on multiple occasions. Feature films, however, were rather scarcer. In part that was due to the limited broadcasting time available: television programmes were shown in two daily sessions of around an hour each, from 3.00-4.00pm and 9.00-10.00pm, Monday to Saturday. From April 1938 the evening broadcasts were extended slightly and Sunday transmissions were added, but in order to accommodate a feature film other items would have had to be dropped and the essence of television was variety. (It’s worth noting in passing that a third, unofficial daily session involved the morning transmission of a demonstration film aimed at trade dealers and prospective TV-set buyers, but that’s a story for another day.)
Another reason for the scarcity of feature films was the fractious relationship between the television service and the film industry. Already seeing TV as offering potential competition for audiences in cinemas (at least those in the centre and inner suburbs of London, the only catchment area the broadcast signal could reach from the BBC studio at Alexandra Palace), the major film companies largely refused to supply the upstart enemy with ammunition. Disney’s distributor RKO Radio Pictures was among the few licensors willing to provide shorts, but that was as far as any big renter would go for fear of alienating the cinema trade.
This left only the smaller distributors willing to cooperate: those minor companies that dealt in ‘B’ pictures for the matinee crowd (mainly low-budget series Westerns) or foreign-language films for the tiny art-house circuit, along with independents that had little to lose as they could rarely get a major-circuit release anyway. It was from these ranks that most of the first features to be shown on British television were drawn.
It took a little while to get going. Only one feature was shown in the whole of 1937 (there was none in 1936), but seven appeared in the space of just three months in 1938 and six more were shown in 1939: fourteen in total, all but two of them transmitted more than once. Had the BBC service not been curtailed due to war clouds over Europe there would undoubtedly have been more.
So what were these first features? They are discussed below in order of transmission, listed by the titles under which they were broadcast.
1. The Last of the Clintons (US, 1935)
First transmission: 9.00pm Monday 23 August 1937
Repeat transmission: 3.00pm Tuesday 24 August 1937
In view of the American presidential campaign currently under way as we go to press (if that is quite the word for online publication), the title of the first feature film to be have been broadcast in its entirety on British television could not have been more fortuitous. The reason for its being shown at all was purely pragmatic and had nothing to do with any desire BBC schedulers might have had to present cinema films on the TV service.
The premiere transmission preceded the start of the annual National Radio Show at Olympia – popularly known as Radiolympia – which represented a major publicity opportunity for the BBC. Indeed, before the official launch of the television service in November 1936, there had been a preview of it earlier the same year at Radiolympia, where from 26 August to 5 September a 90-minute selection of items was transmitted several times a day. The programme included not only a live show but extracts from current and forthcoming theatrical films, mostly British. The total TV audience at the eleven-day exhibition was estimated to be substantially larger than the entire set-owning public once the official, regular service actually began two months later.
There was also to be a BBC Television presence at the 1937 Radiolympia show (‘Alexandra Palace on Wheels’, Radio Times called it), but resources were so overstretched that transferring broadcast facilities to the exhibition site was a major operation in itself. Not long before there had even been a total cessation of TV broadcasting altogether for three weeks to allow necessary engineering work to take place. To cover the lack of studio-based personnel in the move to Olympia it was found necessary to devote two whole days of television to film material. The items selected included five Disney cartoons (three of which were repeated across the two days), a live-action short intriguingly entitled Old-Fashioned Movie, the inevitable newsreel – and a feature film.
The BBC’s film buyer at the time was Major L.G. Barbrook. Tasked with acquiring a suitable feature, he had approached a small company named Exclusive Films, which had previously supplied him with several short subjects. Exclusive was a relatively new renter, set up in May 1935 as the distribution arm of a recently formed production company that would later become extremely well known: Hammer. In the 1930s Exclusive had only a few in-house pictures to distribute and so filled out its release catalogue with independently-made acquisitions, including a number of American B Westerns starring the veteran cowboy actor Harry Carey. Barbrook viewed several of these and at first chose Wild Mustang (1935); but on second thoughts he plumped instead for The Last of the Clintons, rented for two showings at a fee of £10 each. The two broadcasts took place on consecutive days, making The Last of the Clintons also the first feature film to be repeated.
2. The Student of Prague (Germany, 1935)
First transmission: 9.05pm Sunday 14 August 1938
Repeat transmission: 9.00pm Monday 5 September 1938
Google the question of the first feature film shown on British television and this is most likely the answer you’ll come up with. It was not the case, as I’ve demonstrated above, but to be fair it was announced as such on air. Contrary to some published accounts, however, the version of Der Student von Prag shown by the BBC was neither of the two silent productions (from 1913 and 1926) but the sound remake starring Anton Walbrook and Dorothea Wieck, directed by Arthur Robison, Jr. This was remarkable not only for being broadcast with subtitles – extremely hard to read on the small television screens then available, and sometimes cropped off at the edges – but for having been produced in Nazi Germany and shown at a time of increasing hostilities in international relations. Both factors drew public complaints.
The print of The Student of Prague was acquired from Denning Films, a small company specialising in European imports. The BBC anticipated hiring a number of titles from this source, as broadcast hours were being prepared for expansion and a regular feature film was now thought a realistic possibility. Besides the subtitles, another technical difficulty presented itself: the BBC’s telecine projector, a German-made Mechau, could only hold two double reels at a time, with no companion machine available for smooth reel changeovers. So in order to accommodate a feature running 77 minutes 34 seconds in the copy received by the BBC, it was necessary to interrupt the transmission with an interval, to be filled with pre-recorded gramophone music (this had also occurred nearly a year earlier with The Last of the Clintons, which had run just under an hour).
Its macabre subject matter meant that The Student of Prague was only suitable for evening broadcasts, and its two showings were spaced three weeks apart. Announcer David Hofman’s introduction to the first transmission was dictated personally by Director of Television Gerald Cock, and read as follows:
‘Good evening, this is the BBC Television Station at Alexandra Palace. For the first time [sic], and as an experiment, we are televising tonight the whole of a feature film, The Student of Prague. Unfortunately we are unable at present to run through this film continuously, and there will therefore be an interval of about three minutes while the film is being shown. Very soon the need for intervals will disappear, but tonight we can only ask for your indulgence.’
For the record, the three-minute intermission came at 9.43pm; the music chosen to accompany it was the Overture to Heuberger’s The Opera Ball.
3. Aces Wild (US, 1933)
First transmission: 9.30pm Wednesday 17 August 1938
Repeat transmission: none
One of the functions of feature films in television is to serve as last-minute replacements for scheduled programmes that have had to be cancelled for one reason or another. In later years, when the BBC kept a large stock of features on hand, certain titles were designated as ‘standby’ films and kept in reserve for this purpose. But in the prewar period, when there was no call for a long-term library, each film was hired for particular transmission dates and returned to its supplier after use. If a substitute was needed at short notice, a film had to be specially acquired and brought in without delay.
This was the case with a second Harry Carey Western, Aces Wild (also known as Aces High), which like The Last of the Clintons was hired from Exclusive Films. Only three days after the first transmission of The Student of Prague, a film was needed for an evening slot whose scheduled lineup had been subject to late change. The day before broadcast, Major Barbrook made the deal to acquire Aces Wild for a one-off fee of £30 (prices were already going up). The title was so late in being confirmed that even newspaper listings on the day of transmission were vague about what was to be shown: The Times billed only an unnamed ‘Western feature film’.
Aces Wild was not broadcast again in its entirety, but selected excerpts from it and other Westerns (all supplied by Exclusive, including The Last of the Clintons) were shown in two ‘Western Cabaret’ programmes, broadcast twice and three times respectively between March and August 1939. Neither of the two Carey films seems to have reappeared on television in the postwar period – as is also the case with most of these 1930s features, the majority of which have long since receded into obscurity.
4. Jack Ahoy (GB, 1934)
First transmission: 11.00am Saturday 27 August 1938
Repeat transmissions: 5.00pm Monday 29 August / 5.00pm Wednesday 31 August / 5.00pm Friday 2 September 1938
5. Aunt Sally (GB, 1933)
First transmission: 5.00pm Saturday 27 August 1938
Repeat transmissions: 5.00pm Tuesday 30 August / 5.00pm Thursday 1 September / 11.00am Friday 2 September / 5.00pm Saturday 3 September 1938
It was probably the publicity value of Radiolympia that persuaded Gaumont-British – at that time the largest domestic film corporation – to allow the BBC to broadcast two of its films several times each on alternating days during the second week of the 1938 exhibition.
Jack Ahoy and Aunt Sally, separately starring the married showbiz couple Jack Hulbert and Cicely Courtneidge (the British Brangelina of their day), were old enough at four and five years respectively to have exhausted their value as popular product for cinema release. Their television broadcast under the special conditions of Radiolympia therefore posed little threat to theatrical exhibitors. For the BBC the films helped to fill an unusually crowded fortnight, with the usual restrictions on programme times seemingly abandoned for the duration of the National Radio Show, at which television was now firmly established as a regular attraction.
Long before BBC Television had gone on the air, from the time in early 1935 when it had been announced that the service would be assigned to the Corporation, BBC staff had hoped to strike what would now be called an ‘output deal’ with Gaumont-British. Despite negotiations lasting more than a year it never came to pass, largely because the film company’s executives were exceptionally obstructive and demanded a price that Gerald Cock eventually deemed far in excess of what he considered the company’s back catalogue to be worth. In the event, then, these two were the only films acquired for television from a major commercial distributor in the prewar period. After their multiple transmissions in 1938, neither Jack Ahoy nor Aunt Sally was broadcast again until they were revived by Channel Four in the 1980s.
6. Man of the Moment (France, 1937)
First transmission: 3.00pm Monday 12 September 1938
Repeat transmission: 9.15pm Tuesday 13 September 1938
The only official broadcast listings for the prewar television service were initially carried by a Television Supplement to the BBC’s programme journal Radio Times. From November 1936 the Supplement was published in special London editions of RT and usually consisted of two pages of listings accompanied by feature articles and a Television News column pseudonymously signed by ‘The Scanner’. From August 1937 the idea of a separate Supplement was dropped in favour of coverage in the main body of a designated RT Television Edition. The listings indicated scheduled programming but did not, of course, take account of late changes to the schedule. Users of the BBC Genome site will look in vain there for some of the earlier broadcasts discussed in this article, but PDF scans of the Television Supplements and TV pages can be found online in the Pre-War Television section at the Radio Times Archive: http://www.radiotimesarchive.co.uk/television.html
In the case of Man of the Moment (original title: L’homme du jour, also known as Man of the Hour) even these sources are of little use to the researcher. RT‘s programme listings for both its consecutive days’ transmissions read simply: ‘Full-Length Film’. Clearly the schedulers had been stuck for something to show in those slots and confirmed their final choice after the magazine had gone to press. Only daily newspaper listings and internal BBC records exist to authenticate the title actually shown on those dates.
A subtitled vehicle for the popular French singing star Maurice Chevalier and directed by Julien Duvivier, Man of the Moment was distributed in the UK by Unity, which also supplied the BBC with the following film.
7. La kermesse héroïque (France/Germany, 1935)
First transmission: 3.00pm Friday 7 October 1938
Repeat transmission: 9.15pm Tuesday 11 October 1938
Jacques Feyder’s historical satire La kermesse héroïque (also known as Carnival in Flanders) is one of the few titles televised in the 1930s that is still likely to be known to modern film buffs. By the time it was made available to the BBC it had already been recognised by contemporary critics as a classic of its kind and had gone through three prints in a long run at the Everyman, a London art house. Following its prewar broadcasts the film was reissued to cinemas in 1952 and later revived on television when BBC2 showed it in 1972 and 1974. It is currently available to buy on DVD from the British Film Institute, a sure seal of cultural approval.
La kermesse héroïque was among the possibilities that had been under consideration for the slot eventually taken by The Student of Prague; one of the reasons for its postponement was that Major Barbrook was not convinced of its suitability for screening on a Sunday. By the time it was eventually shown, other concerns had arisen regarding the screening of foreign-language films following complaints received from viewers about both The Student of Prague and Man of the Moment, particularly the unreadability of subtitles. Nevertheless, the BBC schedulers persisted in including them in both evening and afternoon programme slots.
8. So Ended a Great Love (Germany, 1934)
First transmission: 9.10pm Friday 21 October 1938
Repeat transmission: 9.15pm Friday 4 November 1938
A second German production rented from Denning Films following The Student of Prague, director Karl Hartl’s So Ended a Great Love (original title: So endete eine Liebe) was a brave choice in view of widespread public antipathy not only to subtitles but to Germany. By the the time it was transmitted the BBC had equipped itself sufficiently to run feature films uninterrupted, as Radio Times (from which the poor-quality illustration seen here was taken) explained:
‘On Friday, October 21, Paula Wessely and Willy Forst will be seen starring as Marie Louise and the Duke of Modena in So Ended a Great Love, a film of Napoleonic times, noticeable, among other things, for the absence of Napoleon.
‘The film is nearly 8,000 feet long. In the early days at Alexandra Palace such a length would have been a nuisance, as it would have necessitated an interval to change the reels. But nowadays a long film can be televised without a break, because of the duplicate continuous-motion projector in the teleciné room.
‘Surrounded by the control room and studio No. 1 the teleciné room is comparatively unexciting – just a long rectangular room with whitewashed walls. At one end is a projector connected to an Emitron camera, specially adapted for the purpose. At the other end of the room, ditto.’
(The Scanner, ‘Showing How It’s Done’, Radio Times, 14 October 1938, p. 17)
9. The Edge of the World (GB, 1937)
First transmission: 9.25pm Wednesday 22 March 1939
Repeat transmission: 3.00pm Saturday 1 April 1939
Of all the films discussed here, probably none is better known or has been more frequently broadcast than Michael Powell’s The Edge of the World. Produced by the independent Joe Rock, the film flopped on its limited theatrical release, which helps to explain its relatively rapid appearance on television. It was the director’s first ‘personal’ work after several years directing quota quickies, an open-air melodrama shot on location on the remote Scottish island of Foula. Powell recounted its production in a book, first published in 1938 and later reprinted as Edge of the World: The Making of a Film (London: Faber and Faber, 1990).
Following its two prewar transmissions and a 1944 theatrical reissue, the film went back into the vaults and re-emerged on television forty years later in the guise of Return to the Edge of the World. Powell had filmed a new prologue, directly financed by the BBC to the tune of £15,000, in which he and actor John Laurie returned to Foula and were reunited with many of the island’s inhabitants who had appeared in the original cast. In this extended form, the film was broadcast three times on BBC2, in 1979, 1985 and 1992 (when Radio Times billed it as the first showing on British television!). A restoration of the original film has been shown a number of times in recent years on Channel Four’s free film channel Film4 and both versions are currently available on Blu-ray and DVD from the BFI.
10. The Fighting Texan (US, 1937)
First transmission: 9.30pm Monday 29 May 1939
Repeat transmission: 3.00pm Friday 16 June 1939
Three of the six feature films broadcast in 1939 were Westerns, all hired – like The Last of the Clintons and Aces Wild before them – from Exclusive. Major Barbrook acquired the films for two showings each, with hire fees of £30 per title for the first transmission and £15 for the second.
There was another common factor linking the films: all three starred Kermit Maynard, a cowboy hero now largely forgotten and overshadowed even in his heyday by his brother and fellow Western star Ken Maynard. By the end of the 1930s both brothers’ careers were already on the slide and the more prolific Kermit drifted into bit parts and uncredited walk-ons (or ride-outs), though he continued to appear in films and on television until the early 1960s.
Two more of Kermit’s vehicles were shown on BBC Television after the war, along with five of Ken’s, but even their small-screen stardom did not outlast the 1940s.
11. Deuxième Bureau (France, 1935)
First transmission: 9.00pm Wednesday 21 June 1939
Repeat transmission: 3.00pm Sunday 25 June 1939
Deuxième Bureau was a further title acquired from Denning Films and another French production. The sole user review for the film on the Internet Movie Database is from a contributor who recalls seeing one of the BBC’s prewar transmissions:
‘I was ten or eleven years old. A TV receiver was far beyond the means of my family in those days, but an aunt who spoke French took me with her to the television room for guests at the Mount Royal Hotel in London. It was not only the first telecast I saw but also my first foreign-language film.’
The writer also notes that an English-language version was made at the time and expresses surprise that the BBC should have chosen the subtitled original. However, the reference is most likely to a British remake, Second Bureau (1936), released in the UK by RKO Radio, rather than a simultaneously filmed alternate version, and this would not have been available to television.
The film appears to have been the first of a series based on the novels of Charles Robert-Dumas, with Jean Murat (who is also in La kermesse héroïque) as Captaine Benoît of the French intelligence agency Deuxième Bureau. Murat subsequently played the character again in L’homme a abattre (1937) and La captaine Benoît (1938) while Roger Duchesne took over the role in Les loups entre eux (1936).
12. Whistling Bullets (US, 1937)
First transmission: 9.40pm Tuesday 4 July 1939
Repeat transmission: 3.00pm Tuesday 18 July 1939
The second of Kermit Maynard’s Westerns shown by the BBC has the following note in the ‘Trivia’ section of its IMDb entry:
‘The first documented telecasts of this film took place in New York City Saturday 5 June 1948 on WATV (Channel 13) and in Los Angeles Saturday 1 July 1950 on KTTV (Channel 11).’
Now you know better.
13. Le patriote (France, 1938)
First transmission: 9.00pm Friday 4 August 1939
Repeat transmission: none
In mid-1939, a BBC survey of viewers’ preferences returned 4,027 completed questionnaires (from an estimated 20,000 total set-owners), in which viewers expressed their opinion of nineteen different types of programme. Strongest approval (93%) was given for outside broadcasts of plays and variety and for film newsreels; strongest disapproval for studio musical features (12%) and Continental feature films (23%). Cartoon films were liked by 82% of respondents, short films by 56% and British or American feature films by 65%. There were demands for more British films to be shown and for an earlier start to evening broadcasts of 8.30pm rather than 9.00pm.
These results were reported in the Radio Times of 7 July. In the following week’s issue ‘The Scanner’ had cause to return to the subject:
‘Seventy-seven per cent. of viewers – yes, I am quoting from the questionnaire again – do not care for Continental films. All the same, Le Patriote, a French production, will be televised on August 4 – against the apparent wishes of more than three-quarters of you.
‘The reason? First of all, the old difficulty of booking good English and American films; and then the fact that Le Patriote, with Harry Baur as Paul I, a Tsar of eighteenth-century Russia, is a fine piece of work.’
(The Scanner, ‘French Film’, Radio Times, 14 July 1939, p. 18)
The viewing public need not have worried about any more foreign films for the time being (though there would be other things to worry about). Directed by the veteran Maurice Tourneur, Le patriote was not to be repeated; whether a second showing was planned before war intervened is unclear.
14. Galloping Dynamite (US, 1937)
First transmission: 9.30pm Monday 7 August 1939
Repeat transmission: 9.30pm Monday 21 August 1939
The last feature film to be broadcast before the war unusually (especially for a Western) had two evening transmissions. This suggests a certain amount of desperation on the BBC’s part, possibly at the unavailability of anything more substantial in the English language.
A note on IMDb about its subsequent American broadcasting history is again worth quoting:
‘This film is one of over 200 titles in the list of independent feature films made available for television presentation by Advance Television Pictures announced in Motion Picture Herald 4 April 1942. At this time, television broadcasting was in its infancy, almost totally curtailed by the advent of World War II, and would not continue to develop until 1945-1946. Because of poor documentation (feature films were often not identified by title in conventional sources) no record has yet been found of its initial television broadcast. It’s earliest documented telecast was Sunday 30 May 1948 on WATV, New York City.’
15. Marie-Louise (Switzerland, 1944)
First transmission: 8.45pm Monday 28 October 1946
Repeat transmission: 3.00pm Thursday 1 May 1947
Following the end of its enforced wartime hiatus, BBC Television resumed broadcasting on 7 June 1946. Its relationship with the film industry was if anything even worse than before the war, with almost blanket resistance to cooperation from commercial interests. Walt Disney cartoons were again included in the programming, but only until the end of the year, after which the supply was cut off due to union action in America. British Movietone and Gaumont-British News declined to renew their contractual agreements to provide newsreels. Feature films were almost impossible to obtain, even from independent sources. Plans to present a regular series of film-society classics in association with the British Film Institute’s National Film Library (now the BFI National Archive) came to nothing.
In the first twelve months of the postwar television service, only a single feature film was broadcast. Perhaps inevitably it was a foreign-language picture, albeit a prestigious one. Marie-Louise, a Swiss production directed by the Austrian Leopold Lindtberg, was supplied to the BBC by a new company, Film Traders. Despite its title the film was not the further adventures of the central character of So Ended a Great Love but was instead about a displaced war orphan. It had won the American Academy Award for Best Screenplay a few months before being broadcast and was thus the first Oscar-winning picture to be shown on British television.
The circumstances of its premiere transmission were less than happy, however. The BBC’s telecine equipment had not been updated since before the war and the broadcast of Marie-Louise was interrupted no fewer than three times – not to change the reels but because of technical failure. The first interruption came only 58 seconds into the broadcast, the second after a further 16 seconds, and the third after another 9 minutes 20 seconds. According to the BBC’s official record of Programmes as Broadcast (PaB), the breakdowns were filled in with three ‘Recorded Apology Announcements’, a live apology from announcer Winifrid Shotter and two ‘Record Fill Ups’ (Mozart and Beethoven). Following this humiliating performance it was more than six months before a second transmission of the film – or any other feature film – was attempted.
The supply situation improved somewhat thereafter and a steady trickle of titles began to be shown on television from June 1947 onward. But nearly two decades were to pass before British broadcasters came to an understanding with the film industry about their regular availability. The full story will be told in my forthcoming book, Armchair Cinema: 80 Years of Feature Films on British Television (to be published next year by Tomahawk Press).
BBC Written Archives Centre, Caversham: files T6/110, 135/1, 138, 153, 334; Programmes as Broadcast
Radio Times Archive, Pre-War Television: http://www.radiotimesarchive.co.uk/television.html
The Times Digital Archive, 1785-2009 (online)