Today it’s hard to imagine life without television, let alone life without round-the-clock colour TV. But until this day in 1969, Britain’s most watched TV channel was broadcast exclusively in black and white.
An Evening With Petula, featuring a Petula Clark concert from the Royal Albert Hall, was the first colour programme shown on BBC One. It was broadcast at the stroke of midnight on November 15, 1969, a time chosen because it was when the Postmaster General’s colour broadcasting licence officially began.
BBC One wasn’t the first British channel to show programmes in colour. The story actually started two years earlier on BBC Two. BBC One’s sister channel was responsible for pioneering the use of colour TV in this country in 1967. In fact, Late Night Line-Up on BBC2 was the first colour programme in Europe. Colour TV was gradually introduced on BBC Two so that staff could familiarise themselves with the technical demands of the new medium.
After Petula had taken her bows, transmission stopped and didn’t start again until 10am. Colour programmes which could be enjoyed on that historic first day included Star Trek, Dixon of Dock Green, The Harry Secombe Show and Match of the Day.
The last of these shows proved significant in the take-up of colour television: suddenly people could follow a football match and know at once which team was which. Snooker was another sport which benefitted greatly from the advent of colour TV as audiences could finally see which ball was which, without the commentator having to describe it.
David Attenborough, then controller of BBC Two, recalls viewers’ reactions to the first colour broadcast of Wimbledon in 1967: “Do you know you can see whether they are having lemonade or orangeade when they drink?!” he said.
Despite the grand launch, it was only a lucky few who could actually view colour TV broadcasts. The range initially covered only about 50% of households in a geographic area which included London, southern England, the Midlands and the North.
Another barrier was cost. At this time most people rented, rather than bought, their TVs. In 1969, the monthly rental for a colour receiver was £8, not taking into account the set itself. That equates to about £124 a month today.
If you bought a set, it could cost you around £300 (£4,652 in today’s money), while upgrading to colour from black and white could cost £250 (£3,877 today). At the end of 1969, there were only an estimated 200,000 colour TV sets in use among a population of 55.4 million, and it was only in 1976 that the number of colour TV sales outpaced those of black and white TVs.
In an age of on-demand, HD TV, it’s hard to imagine how thrilling it must have been to see Liverpool’s red shirts for the first time, or to watch the brand-new Clangers skip across the surface of the moon in all their pink glory.