As the clock ticked over from Thursday into Friday, that November of 1969, viewers in parts of England – those willing to stay up past midnight, at least – were able to watch, on BBC1, a recording of a Petula Clark concert.

The 50-minute-long programme, An Evening with Petula, featured many of her best-known songs, and was the second half of a concert she’d given at the Royal Albert Hall a fortnight earlier. Petula, during the Sixties, was a familiar face on television, but there was something special about this particular show: it was the first programme broadcast in colour on BBC1.

As it happens, the colour service was also launched on the ITV network that Friday, the 15th of November, bringing it and BBC1 into line with BBC2, which had been offering colour programmes for a couple of years, including the Olympic Games and the Eurovision Song Contest.

For the time being, however, viewers in Scotland were unable to see Petula – or, indeed, anything not on BBC2 – in colour. As the Evening Times critic, David Gibson, wrote on the Thursday: “Although your telly will be blethering all week-end about the marvels of colour, it’s not for us except, of course, for those who can get it already on BBC2. But for once Scotland won’t be far behind ... both STV and BBC report December 13 ‘approximately’ as the date for the colour launch in Scotland’.

David Coleman in the Match of the Day studio in 1969David Coleman in the Match of the Day studio in 1969 (Image: free)

Colour TV had had a long history before that particular Friday. As the website of the National Science and Media Museum, in Bradford, recounts, colour television had first been demonstrated publicly by John Logie Baird on July 3, 1928, in his London laboratory. The technology involved, explains the museum, was electro-mechanical, using a spinning mirror-drum and revolving disc that alternated blue-green and red filters, with early test subjects including a basket of strawberries.

The following month saw the same demonstration being given to an audience at a British Association for the Advancement of Science meeting in Glasgow.

Though the early experiments failed to lead to a viable colour system, Baird continued his research in the late 1930s, and in 1940 he demonstrated an improved version of colour television.

The world’s first public colour TV service, the museum adds, got underway in the USA, with colour television being made available in selected cities from 1954.

The BBC had begun experimenting in colour from 1947, and in October 1955 it was able to launch test transmissions after-hours at Alexandra Palace, the north London venue that played a key part in the Corporations’s early history and is renowned as the birthplace of television.

A great deal of research and experimentation went into the Corporation’s efforts – and this, of course, was an era in which black-and-white televisions were very much the norm – before it was announced in 1966 that the two-year-old BBC2 would be broadcasting in colour from the following summer. Britain thus became the first country in Europe to offer regular programming in colour.

The announcement was made in the Commons by the Postmaster General, Tony Benn. The new service was expected to cost the BBC between £1m and £2m a year, for an initial four hours of TV per week on BBC2, rising after a year to 10 hours a week.

It was emphasised at the time that the colour programmes would still be available on ordinary television sets in black and white. A colour receiver would cost about £250, and there would also be a supplementary licence fee.

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The BBC2 discussion programme, Late Night Line Up, was the first colour TV programme in Europe, while the 1967 Wimbledon tennis championships were a particular blaze of colour, presented by David Vine. “Everyone said, ‘oh, it’s wonderful - do you know we can see whether [the players] are having orangeade or lemonade when they drink!”, an amused David Attenborough, the Controller of BBC2, would recall.

Not everyone was sold on the idea, however. Bob Millar, reviewing the first weekend’s coverage of the tennis, observed: “Wimbledon in colour had BBC2 ga-ga over most of the weekend. Perhaps they were trying to make the have-nots feel deprived. But how many black-and-white viewers are going to be impressed by the economics of a service which would have its equivalent in cinemas charging five times over the odds for Technicolor films?

“Anyway”, he added, “Wimbledon was exciting enough in black and white, and at least it was possible to imagine that the courts were lush and green. For 35 [shillings] a week rental would have come only the disillusionment of discovering that the courts are parched yellow with dusty tracks where players and ball-boys tread relentlessly”.

When BBC1 splashed out on colour in November 1969, it preceded the Petula Clark concert with a special programme, Colourful One, in which Julian Pettifer spoke enthusiastically about the new attraction and Maurice Wiggin, a Sunday Times critic, offered an analysis of the pros and cons of colour broadcasting.

The BBC1 schedule the following day, a Saturday, included Star Trek, Dixon of Dock Green, The Harry Secombe Show and Match of the Day, and the feature film The Prisoner of Zenda. Also on the schedule was the latest edition of the ballroom competition, Come Dancing, with teams from Scotland West and Northern Ireland competing at the Locarno ballroom in Glasgow. ITV’s first programme in colour was the Royal Auto Club Road Report.

Jack Warner in Dixon of Dock Green, 1969Jack Warner in Dixon of Dock Green, 1969 (Image: free)

At first BBC1 was initially only available in colour to about 50% of households, because transmitter upgrades necessarily took time to install. By 1978, no fewer than 11 million British homes had a colour licence.

The late David Pat Walker, who retired from BBC Scotland as Assistant Controller, touched on colour TV in his book, The BBC in Scotland: The First Fifty Years.

Because altering studios to colour was, he writes, an expensive and complex business, and London was inevitably at the head of the queue. For a variety of pressing reasons, the Glasgow-based BBC Scotland was unhappy when told that conversion there would not happen until 1970/71.

Scotland executives did not sit on their hands, Walker notes: they “pressed hard for something better than 18 months of Scottish programmes in monochrome while the bulk of those from the networks were in colour." Their request was received sympathetically by the Corporation’s Director-General and the Chairman of the Board of Governors, and by the end of 1969, with BBC1 colour well established, a colour mobile control room and colour video-tape facilities had arrived at Queen Margaret Drive, to be used on a drive-in basis for Studio A in Glasgow.

The first colour programme on BBC Scotland was the Hogmanay celebration, Ring in The New Year, starring Moira Anderson, Bill Simpson, Chic Murray, the Corries, Stuart Henry and Alasdair Gillies.

By the following Christmas retailers were selling colour televisions. Biggars, in Sauchiehall Street, were offering models to “rent or buy on fairest terms”, while Vistacolour sets were on sale at the Vista Centre at 21 Renfield Street. There, customers were tempted with generous part-exchange terms on their old, black-and-white, sets. Nineteen-inch colour TVs could be theirs for an initial payment of £53.7.9, after which they would pay nothing more for six months then pay 24 shillings a week.

Spectra’s Glasgow showroom at 203 Argyle Street, next to Arnott Simpson, were also retailing colour TVs, as was D.E.R., ‘The colour people’, who were offering all-stations, 19-inch colour TVs for weekly rental equal to 23 shillings and five pence at their numerous stores. At Loyd’s, ‘the big new power in television and electrical appliances’, you could have colour TV installed for an initial payment of just £10. “Up to £40 off for cash on colour TV”, their advert said. “Choice of sets. Choice of screen sizes”.

Barely a year after colour had entered the mainstream thanks to BBC1 and ITV, the new attraction was evidently here to stay.