Current status of More Frequent Updates: okay, a bit of a delay while I had to type in a load of listings by hand. But all worth waiting for, especially if you’ve a 1930s tennis coverage-shaped knowledge gap in your brain.
(Shown 2304 times, 1937-2021)
Okay, bit of an arguable one here. If other single-sport coverage is lumped together, shouldn’t this be lumped in with ‘Tennis’? Well, no. It’s all about the programme title, and this particular tennis tournament is billed as Wimbledon. For the record, standalone Tennis coverage places 117th in the list, with a total of 744 broadcasts on BBCs One and Two.
Now, as far as Genome goes, BBC Television coverage of Wimbledon began in 1939. Which to me, felt a bit ‘late’. And indeed, there are a number of weeks of Radio Times missing from Genome for those very early years – including the fortnights of Wimbledon from 1937 and 1938.
Now, of all sporting events, Wimbledon would be an obvious target for the early Television Service. Even one static camera would have done the job, really. Plonk it in place on Centre Court, and capture what’s happening in front of it. Not even a lot of travelling involved. Plus, as mentioned in 1938’s BBC Yearbook, 1937 saw “a new field […] opened up with the purchase by the BBC of a mobile television unit, constructed by the Marconi- E.M.I. Television Company Ltd., which made television possible from practically any point within 20 miles or so of the transmitting station.” Only 20 miles? Well, given the size of London, maybe live coverage from Wimbledon wouldn’t be possib-
Ooh, okay. (Yes, radio signals generally don’t use the A406, but it’s a nice coincidence. So shush, you’re ruining my thing)
But, sadly, with those key issues of the Radio Times missing from Genome, there’s no way of confirming any early airdates.
…Is what a loser would say. To the press archives!
Okay, back in the inter-war years, neither TV listings nor newspapers were what they are now, but here’s a page of The Times from Friday 25 June 1937:
The incredibly eagle-eyed may have spotted something of interest right in the bottom-left corner of the page. And that’s the first ever TV coverage of Wimbledon.
Curiously then, there wasn’t any standalone programme covering the action, but rather viewers would be whisked from any planned programming between 3pm and 4pm in those first few days to enjoy “short relays” from the All-England Lawn Tennis Club Championship Meeting. Even this limited coverage (seemingly) came on the fourth day of that year’s championships, but that was to soon change.
On Friday 2 July, TV listings included the first standalone programme consisting of coverage from Wimbledon:
However, the first televised coverage most likely came about on the first day of the tournament. A report on the history of televised Wimbledon coverage on the Wimbledon website refers to a match between Bunny Austin and George Lyttleton Rogers being the first to be televised, with coverage running to 25 minutes in total. That match certainly took place on the first day of that year’s Wimbledon – Monday 21 June 1937 (as confirmed with a glance at the following morning’s newspapers). And yet, it certainly wasn’t billed in the television listings for that day.
There’s certainly little doubt that the Wimbledon.com report is correct – it adds additional details on the event, and most telling of all, the Lost Media Wiki hosts an off-screen photograph of that very match between Austin and Rogers.
However, as mentioned, the published television listings for that day don’t make any mention of tennis coverage. Here are a couple more listings from that same day.
So, what does this mean? Well, while the full issue of the Radio Times from that week is missing from Genome, there is a helpful snippet on the superb History of the BBC subsite. It seems that BBC engineers were still a little wary of how their sporting experiment would fare, and as such their inaugural Wimbledon coverage wasn’t fully featured in the Radio Times. However, there was a little info-box informing viewers of the potential for coverage.
And, as it turned out, the experiment paid off. There’s no great mention of the coverage in the subsequent BBC Handbook, but the image hosted on Lost Media Wiki confirms it was at the very least a partial success.
It’s a bit of a shame that such a landmark didn’t warrant a mention in the Television Service listings for the day. After all, how would viewers have known to tune in for it? The closest viewers of the day without that week’s Radio Times would have had to an EPG was asking their butler to phone Ally Pally to ask for details then scribble down the name of the next programme on a piece of card.
[EDIT: Dr Steve Arnold of the splendid Radio Times Archive has posted a comment below this article with additional information about that very H.W. Austin v G.L. Rodgers match, plus the Radio Times’ treatment of television in general at the time. A very worthwhile detour, I’m sure you’ll find.]
As it was, as far as billed standalone Wimbledon coverage goes, I’m taking 2 July 1937 as the inaugural Wimbledon broadcast. Live coverage was also offered, in the same 2.30pm slot, on the following day, meaning (most likely) viewers were able to enjoy action from both the Women’s and Men’s finals.
For 1938 – again, with coverage falling into a Genome gap, but another one filled by looking at newspaper listings of the time – the television coverage was a little more generous, with action totalling at around two full hours per day – even if it was rationed to a few days at the start and the final three days of the tournament.
For 1939, we’re able to go back to Genome data, which makes it easier to spot the occasional Wimbledon-adjacent curio. Tennis itself had been broadcast on the nascent Television Service from February 1937, albeit the table-based variant of the sport (“An Exhibition Re-Play of the Finals of the English Open Championship (Men’s) as played at the Empire Pool and Sports Arena, Wembley”). Table tennis would receive a few more airings on BBC-tv before appearances of its outdoor cousin became commonplace, but this was hardly the wall-to-wall coverage the Corporation would later become known for. Aside from Wimbledon matches (along with occasional Davis Cup footage from… Wimbledon) tennis fans only had a few other chances to enjoy hot man on court action (and, as far as billed matches go, it seems to have been a Men Only affair). For example, 12 April 1939 saw a single fifteen-minute “Tennis Demonstration” by W. T. Tilden.
To be fair, that wasn’t the worst introduction to the sport for the casual viewer. American “Big Bill” Tilden had been the world’s number one amateur tennis player between 1920 and 1925, and went on to become the top-ranked professional between 1931 and 1933. By the time of that particular demonstration, Big Bill’s star might be been shining a little less brightly, but by then he did have three Wimbledon championships under his belt, putting him joint-tenth in the current all-time list of men’s Wimbledon champions. Not too shabby.
Elsewhere (and away from SW19), tennis offerings appeared such as ‘Indoor Professional Lawn Tennis’ televised direct from the Empire Pool, Wembley, beaming footage of the singles and doubles matches between W. T. Tilden, Ellsworth Vines, Donald Budge and Hans Nusslein.
With 1939’s Wimbledon looming the Corporation prepared to ramp up coverage even further. Not that there wasn’t time for at least one more Tennis Demonstration for the channel, with the schedule for Saturday 3 June promising a demonstration from none other than ‘Dan Maskell, Head Professional to the All-England Lawn Tennis Club, Wimbledon, and coach to the British Davis Cup team’, who would later go on to become the BBC’s very own Voice of Wimbledon.
And so, on 1 July 1939, the main event hit the screens of Britain’s (well, Greater London’s) televiewers, for the last time before concentrations drifted toward mainland Europe. But before that opening match, coverage of, actual tennis was preceded by a tantalising taster to whet the appetite.
Yep: Percy Ponsonby Goes to Wimbledon. A comedy short featuring Charles Heslop’s talkative barber character, written by Reginald Arkell, who’d seemed primed to be television’s first comedy star. The Radio Times promoted the third of his comedy shorts In The Barber’s Chair with the following:
Sound radio has produced any number of ‘characters’, people like Mrs. Feather and Mr. Walker, but until the arrival of Charles Heslop as Percy Ponsonby television could make no claims at all. Percy has been well worth waiting for, however, and it is hoped that he will be in his shop with his lather and brush at regular intervals.Radio Times, Page 14, Issue 809, 2nd Apr 1939 – 8th Apr 1939
It’s that level of popularity that led to a special episode of Percy going into the first round of Wimbledon 1939, itself a sequel to another topical outing for Ponsonby: June 1939’s Percy Ponsonby Goes to the Test Match, which aired just after live coverage of England vs The West Indies, proving the character had a life outside of his barber’s shop. That was followed by a couple of other themed episodes, Percy Ponsonby Packs for Bank Holiday airing in time for the August Bank Holiday, and Percy Ponsonby Catches the 9.15 airing in August 1939.
Sadly, for fans of the character, a few weeks after Percy Ponsonby caught the 9.15, the Television Service was suspended due to the outbreak of war. When television returned in 1946, Ponsonby didn’t. Not that that was the end of the road for the man behind the character – Charles Heslop would continue to appear on television – plus in a variety of film roles – until shortly before his death in 1966, including featuring in Marty Feldman-scripted Comedy Playhouse ‘Nicked at the Bottle’ and Norman Wisdom flick ‘Follow a Star’.
This, I’ll admit, is a bit of a distraction from talking about Wimbledon. But after having a nose at the Wikipedia entry for the character, and seeing it close with the faintest of praise on the entire internet, I felt compelled to keep Percy’s spirit alive a little bit more.
Anyway, where were we? Oh yeah, Wimbledon 1939. After those first couple of years, there was vastly increased coverage for the tournament. Pretty much as much coverage as the BBC Television Service could reasonably muster, in fact, promising that the action “will be televised from the Centre Court every day except Sunday”, the Sabbath still being a no-go area as far as the television was concerned at the time.
Even better, an upgrade from the previous two-camera system, with “a new camera position giving an end-on view of the court, instead of the oblique one you can see above, should give even better results than last year.”
And as such, with a camera position still used today, and live coverage (almost) each day, the modern era of Wimbledon TV coverage had truly started.
Just a blasted shame about that whole war thing, really.
As time went on, Wimbledon would be the launchpad for more British TV landmarks. It was one of a select few programmes welcoming (non-test) colour television in the UK in July 1967, which changed the landscape of television forever.
Wimbledon was also chosen to debut the BBC’s first foray into 3D broadcasting in 2011. This changed the landscape of television for about eight months, but well done for trying.
NOTE: You may notice the massive shortage of Wimbledon coverage from 1948 and 1949. That’s because the BBC’s limited outside broadcast capabilities couldn’t cover the Test Match from Lord’s and Wimbledon at the same time, so a compromise had to be found:
Plus, part of the coverage (presumably with tennis highlights captured on film) was billed as “Cricket and Tennis”, which DOES NOT COUNT HERE.
(Shown 2433 times, 1999-2012)
The first truly big show for the then-new CBeebies channel, and as proven by the position on this list, also enjoyed a mammoth run on the legacy BBC channels. Now most frequently remembered for, um…
Well, that. At the time though, Will Brenton and Iain Lauchlan’s creation was astonishingly popular with the pre-school audience (if less so with their parents).
Even thirteen years after first airing, it remained popular enough to become the thirdmost CBeebies popular programme on a given week. As was the style at the time, it grew an audience away from CBeebies — it originally started on BBC1 and BBC2 in 1999 — but repeats of the shows 390 (crikey) episodes were essential for the fledgling digital channel, and the original digital TV generation of young viewers lapped it up.
The popularity of the show even troubled the pop charts — five spin-off singles reached the UK Top 20 between 2000 and 2002 — leading to inevitable appearances on Top Of The Pops. Look out for those on BBC Four in about 2027. In fact, there was an entire mini-multimedia empire based around Bella, Milo, Fizz and Jake.
You had several CD-ROM titles (look, it was the dawn of a new millennium),
Way too many VHS tapes:
And even a PlayStation game:
Which didn’t exactly push Sony’s hardware as much as Wip3out or Gran Turismo, let’s say.
For kids with an incredibly high headache threshold, there was even a set of (unofficial) Windows 98 themes
The programme event warranted a number of spin-off series on the BBC. Tweenies Christmas Countdown was a daily advent calendar airing throughout December 2001, each short episode presenting a daily treat all the way up to the big day. 2002’s Tweenies Songtime ran alongside regular episodes of the series, and saw the loveable characters  perform a traditional children’s ditty (think legacy agriculturalist Old McDonald) in front of an animated background for a few minutes. 2003 saw Tweenies Count to Christmas, which was the same as Christmas Countdown but with a different name. Finally, 2005’s Be Safe with the Tweenies saw Bella, Milo, Fizz and Jake offer friendly advice to dangers inside and outside the home, such as matches, roads and canals.
I mean, all credit for that last one, and hopefully it did help save lots of tots from disaster, but an entire generation missed out on being shit-scared by grainy film PIFs, and that’s a shame.
Attempting to watch an entire episode of Tweenies for the first time (I became a parent in 2015, by which time the show had fallen out of the CBeebies schedules), I can probably sum it up with the following phrase: bloody hell, Hey Duggee really needed to happen.
There we go, another installment safely filed. Next up on the list… another sport that has been airing continuously since at least 1938, and another long-running kids TV series.
I might just change my name to Phil Connors.
2 responses to “BBC100: The 100 Most-Broadcast BBC Programmes Of All Time (38 and 37)”
When the ‘high definition’ television service started the reach was only around London so Radio Times took the view that they should only really incorporate television listings in editions distributed in the area it could be received and RT announced that there would be a special page within those editions, replacing a page about regional news in the standard edition. (https://genome.ch.bbc.co.uk/page/b7e10805407c4929b5ebdfe04c37f8ec?page=6)
They also had the jolly wheeze of a picture heavy, smartly printed supplement that would bring in advertising revenue to suppoort it – and Wimbeldon is covered in the last few editions of it, including the illustration that you highlighted.
The Television Supplement wasn’t the commercial success that it was hoped to be, so it got progressively smaller until there was a reasonable excuse to put it out of its misery. The closure of the supplement didn’t mean television was abandoned by the Radio Times though – the television page in the London area editions continued until the service closed on the outbreak of WWII.
There had already been a Shiers Trust funded project prior to Genome that sourced as many pre-war television schedules as possible, digitsed them, and make them freely available. They remain available as downloadable PDFs, all with the text OCRd, embedded and easily searchable, at http://www.radiotimesarchive.com and on the history section of the BBC website. The data was given to the Genome team.
The magazine didn’t identify whether it was a ‘TV’ or standard edition though and, as they looked identical apart from that single page, the majority that were ultimately bound for reference were standard editions. Occassionally the odd TV edition crept in, just to hint of what was being missed. Genome utilised what was available to scan and I made the decision to disbind sub-standard volumes and preserve those in better condition on the archive shelves. Where there were obvious major problems (pages or whole editions missing) single copies were sourced from collectors and archives but as I had already searched as many copies as possible for the television schedules and pages and they were already digitised, it wasn’t a consideration when choosing what went for digitisation for Genome.
Radio Times didn’t always get information before the printing deadlines, so Genome presents what was intended for broadcast, not necessarily what was actually broadcast. Newspapers and on-air announcements would have kept audiences up-to-date, and everything that was broadcast was meticulously logged by the BBC and is held in their Programmes As Broadcast (PasB) records. For early television these have all been transcribed and researched by Andrew Martin (also on the Genome/Programme Index team) and published by Kaleidoscope: https://www.tvbrain.info/shop/books/sound-and-vision.
At 3.0pm Big Ben Chimed, followed by a Wimbledon programme summary, and then the All-England Lawn Tennis Club was relayed from Centre-Court (first OB televised by wireless link direct from the site. This was the H.W. Austin v G.L. Rodgers match with commentary by Col. R.H. Brand and F.W. Grisewood, lasting about 13 minutes, with an interval signal and a record following until the billed entertainer, Buddy Langley, performed at 3.18pm. There was more coverage a bit later, but I’m not going to give all the contents of the book away.
Superb knowledge there, Steve. Very good to get that additional information – definitely going to amend the article to point everyone towards your comment.