The BBC’s monopoly on British television came to an end on this day in 1955 when its new independent rival began broadcasting – and Britons saw TV adverts for the first time.
Britain’s move into commercial television came with the Television Act of 1954, which created the Independent Television Authority and put six Independent Television Network franchises out to tender.
The first of these to broadcast was Associated-Rediffusion, which had won the London weekday franchise – and it kicked off proceedings on the evening of September 22, 1955.
The launch night began at 7.15pm, with a four-minute trailer announcing “Commercial television is here!” and promising “variety, drama, features, sport, pageantry, children’s programmes, women’s programmes” and “personalities”.
The channel then broadcast a five-minute opening film about London and the history of British broadcasting, announcing grandly: “It is our desire and hope… that in the years to come, we may preserve one of the proudest boasts of England: the rights of free speech, fair play, our own particular brand of decency and tolerance, our own particular brand of humour and common sense.”
After wishing the “citizens of London godspeed” and “good luck, all!” to its team, ITV then moved to a live broadcast from London’s Guildhall, where a gala dinner was being held to celebrate the start of independent television and where speakers included the Postmaster General and the Lord Mayor.
The rest of ITV's schedule that night included an hour of drama excerpts starring Sir John Gielgud and Alec Guinness, a variety show featuring entertainers such as Hughie Green and Harry Secombe, a boxing match, and news broadcasts. A five-minute religious programme called Epilogue brought the night to a close at 11pm.
What everyone was really interested in seeing, however, were the adverts. ITV featured 23 in all – promoting everything from Cadbury’s chocolate to Esso petrol – and the very first one went out at 8.12pm. It was a minute-long commercial for Gibbs SR toothpaste: “the tingling fresh toothpaste that does your gums good, too”.
The toothpaste commercial's place in British TV history was somewhat random - it had won a lottery against 23 other advertisments to be shown first that night. The response to this innovation was anything but universal praise: with Labour MP John Wilmot warning the Commons that "the nightly poison of advertising which boosts the sale of goods to the working class is against the national interest".