Uncovering Lost Films Feature

Posted on April 12, 2011 by


This is Alexandra News’ first guest feature from Simon Vaughan, Archivist for Alexandra Palace Television Society. If you’d like to write an article like Simon, then get in touch either by email (localnewshub@gmail.com) or by leaving a reply to this post at the bottom of the page.

I’m an archaeologist – not in the usual sense, as in excavating holes in the ground, but a televisual archaeologist!  I have the fortunate position of being in charge of the Alexandra Palace Television Society Archive – which contains a wealth of television memorabilia, ranging from photographs, written accounts, original documents, magazines, newspapers and original film footage.

In 1999 I was alerted to the existence of a collection of film cans that had been stored in a garden shed for the best part of 40 years.  These were all taken by Desmond Campbell who had been a Lighting Engineer for the BBC Television Service, from its inception in 1936 until he retired in 1961.  “Cam” as he was known to his follow colleagues took the films as a record of his own work in television lighting.

These films provide a 20 minute insight into the formative years of the world’s first regular, public, high-definition television service, which began at Alexandra Palace in 1936 and who’s 75th anniversary will be celebrated this November.  Such highlights from the films include colour footage of the first anti-aircraft battery in the defence of London (this was 1938 after all, and war with Germany was only just around the corner), a brief glimpse of actress Greer Garson, before she left Britain for the bright lights of Hollywood, a Bank Holiday fair in Alexandra Park, television’s first pantomime, and the public’s keen interest in television at Radiolympia – and all this before the service closed-down for the duration of the Second World War.  Post-war delights include Britain’s first black ballet company, Felix Mendelssohn and his Hawaiian Serenaders, and what is believed to be Tommy Cooper’s first television appearance in 1950, for which he received the princely sum of £21!

Identification of the programmes featured in the footage has taken many years and hundreds of hours of painstaking research.  It is like fitting together a huge jigsaw puzzle, some bits fit straight away, while others just don’t fit at all.  Items from the APTS Archive holdings have all been crucial in the identification of the film sequences, as well as a variety of other sources.

No method of recording television programmes existed before the late 1940s and so these films open a window for us and take us on a journey back in time, to a glimpse of what television programmes were like during the inter-war years – and a fascinating journey it has been.  You too can share in this journey when the films of Desmond Campbell will be presented at the British Film Institute in October in a joint APTS/BFI evening of “Television from the 30s & 40s”.

Simon Vaughan


for and on behalf of

Alexandra Palace Television Society.

Posted in: Guest Feature