Launch Night 1964: BBC Television Centre

This vignette was originally published in ‘Propland: Re-programming Television Centre, 2018

Television Centre is aglow with anticipation. The date is April 20th, 1964, and the BBC is about to launch a second channel, BBC2, dedicated solely to the arts, drama and comedy. Its mascot, oddly enough, is a kangaroo named Hullabaloo.

Meanwhile, Battersea Power Station too is aglow, in flames. As firefighters struggle to defeat the inferno, darkness falls upon West London. Homes are suddenly without power. Television screens abruptly mute and fade to nothing. Without light, without sight. Deprived of electricity, television is but a metal box, reflecting only the surprised faces of its viewers, who are not accustomed to the silence.

Back at Television Centre, a live Kangaroo, loaned especially from the Zoo for this momentous occasion, is not fond of the dark. He has to be locked in the elevator to prevent causing any damage. Reporter Gerald Priestland is broadcast from the newsdesk at Alexandra Palace which has not been affected by the blackout. He delivers the news bulletin for eleven minutes. In the ultimate gaff, the telephone rings, ‘just like Channel One’. Priestland picks up, but he cannot hear anything. ‘Unlike channel one, there’s nobody there’. Shrugging off this hiccup – for what else could go wrong? – The normally stoic presenter turns to his coworkers behind him. ‘Anything else?’ No reply. Silence, it seems, is the overarching force. Monty Python sketches, to which this night will be compared, could not have been better executed.

Candles, bright drops of flame, dot the studio. This prehistoric force which has foiled the launch of BBC has also become its only grace. Wax and rubber both melt with heat. Nature has triumphed briefly over the inventions of man. The show, it seems, cannot go on. There has been, after all, A MAJOR POWER FAILURE.

They launch the following night instead. Presenter Denis Tuohy introduces the channel. In his hand he holds a single candle, a single drop of flame balanced on a slender beam of wax. ‘Good evening. This is BBC2’. Tuohy glances at the camera. He blows the candle out.

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