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BBC Two's 50th anniversary: Disastrous launch remembered

By Ian Youngs
Entertainment reporter, BBC News

media captionThe 50th anniversary of BBC Two

Fifty years ago this weekend, BBC Two went on the air for the first time. Or rather, it was supposed to go on the air. In fact, a massive power cut wiped out the entire launch schedule and led to one of the most disastrous nights in broadcasting history.

It was supposed to be a spectacular opening night for BBC Two. In the end, it was a spectacular shambles.

The channel was due to appear at 19:20 on 20 April 1964.

It was to begin with a brief preview and news bulletin, followed by a special programme featuring comedy duo The Alberts ("direct from the Alberts' Television Centre") featuring, according to the Radio Times, Ivor Cutler, David Jacobs, Adolf Hitler and Birma the elephant.

image captionCards like this one appeared on screen as viewers waited for normal service to resume

There was to have been a performance of Kiss Me, Kate, starring Howard Keel and Patricia Morison, then Arkady Raikin, "the Soviet Union's leading comedian", with the night finished off by fireworks from Southend Pier.

BBC executives gathered with journalists and politicians at BBC Television Centre in west London in expectation.

"Half of Fleet Street, the House of Commons and the officer corps of the BBC itself were to christen the new network in gin and champagne," presenter Gerald Priestland later wrote in his autobiography.

Kangaroo 'went berserk'

For weeks, the corporation had been running a publicity campaign featuring a young kangaroo emerging from its mother's pouch, and so had transported a live kangaroo to BBC Television Centre for the event.

But just after 18:30, disaster struck.

A fire broke out at Battersea Power Station and, at the same time, a fault arose in a 60,000-volt cable carrying electricity south from the Midlands at Iver in Buckinghamshire. West London and parts of the city centre were cut off.

image captionKangaroos called Hullabaloo and Custard appeared in a marketing campaign

"Producers cursed, public relations men wept, Fleet Street cheered and jeered and the kangaroo - stuck in a lift - went berserk," Priestland wrote.

The presenter was himself not at Television Centre but at Alexandra Palace in north London, however.

image captionArkady Raikin, billed as the Soviet Union's top comedian, was due to appear

Here, the BBC's original TV studios still had power and Priestland was preparing to deliver the opening news bulletin before handing over to Television Centre. Sitting behind a desk with typewriter and telephone, he duly appeared.

A lean man in a shirt, tie and pullover, he could have been mistaken for John Cleese in a Monty Python sketch. But a sound fault meant it was two minutes before his voice could be heard.

Unaware of the audio problem, he read his news summary regardless until the sound was fixed. So the first words heard on BBC Two were from a story about a bus conductress who had been sacked for insulting Pakistani passengers, including the very phrase she had used.

Priestland continued with stories about a pay rise for chemists, a decline in the collection of trading stamps, football match-fixing and a court hearing for Nelson Mandela.

Unlike modern newsreaders, he had no earpiece with which to receive messages from producers and directors.

Sitting behind him were five besuited men monitoring news wires and writing scripts on cards. Towards the end of his round-up, one of them handed him a card with an update on the power situation.

Then the phone on his desk rang. No-one was on the other end. It rang again. Priestland put it down and announced that he would be repeating his news summary again in one minute.

image captionKiss Me, Kate was postponed to the following night, along with the rest of the opening line-up

Until then, accompanied by gentle music, a caption appeared reading: "BBC2 will start shortly."

After a minute, Priestland reappeared, repeating the bulletin, but this time adding his own occasional droll comments after stories.

Eleven minutes into his broadcast, he looked to the men behind him in desperation. "Anything else?" he asked. There was nothing else.

"After what seemed like an eternity of ad-libbing... I was taken off the air," he later wrote. The caption and music returned.

Back at Television Centre, hopes were fading that the power would be restored in time to salvage the rest of the opening night. After 21:30, the schedule was abandoned.

'Wonderful publicity'

Afterwards, BBC director of television Kenneth Adam said: "When I got to reception, after negotiating the stairs with a flickering candle to guide me, I was surrounded by sympathisers, including large numbers of actors released from their vigil - and actresses, two of whom I lifted home in my car.

"It was like the Blitz all over again."

image captionPlay School was the first full programme on BBC Two on 21 April 1964

BBC executives decided the stories on the following day's front pages were a good thing.

BBC engineer Robert Longman later recalled: "Although BBC Two was known, it wasn't terribly well-known, and all the following day's papers had headlines, 'BBC Two Fails - Corporation to try again tonight'.

"It was wonderful publicity and made sure people tuned in."

Power was restored in time for the channel to launch properly the following day. Play School was the first proper programme to go on air.

That evening, presenter Denis Tuohy introduced the postponed opening night programmes from Television Centre. He did not mention the previous evening's disaster, but referred to it simply by blowing out a single flickering candle.

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