At 7.15pm on 22 September 1955, the first flickers of independent television appeared on the screens of the relatively small number of suitably converted Band III television sets in the London area. Test transmissions had been capable of reception for some time, and there had been a preview of forthcoming programming from Associated-Rediffusion and ABC. But now the station was coming on the air for real.
Viewers saw a tuning signal in the form of a cross, accompanied by tone. This was followed by a card bearing the legend. “Opening Night Independent Television Service Channel 9,” over which viewers heard a piece of music consisting of variations on the traditional tune ‘British Grenadiers’, building slowly to a climax.
Leslie Mitchell, the former voice of the BBC Television Service, announced for the first time, ‘This is London.’ A fanfare by Charles Williams was heard as Associated-Rediffusion’s Adastral logo, with the company name and channel number beneath, formed up for the first time.
Mitchell went on, ‘This is Channel Nine, on Band III, which brings you programmes by Associated-Rediffusion, every week, from Monday to Friday.’ He was followed by an excerpt from Sir Edward Elgar’s ‘Cockaigne Overture – In London Town’. The station clock reached 7:15 pm – and Independent Television was on the air.
Then followed a short film, with voiceover by Associated-Rediffusion’s Deputy Controller, Cecil Lewis, telling the history of London – and of broadcasting itself, the pictures showing images of London, brief shots of Marconi and Alexandra Palace, Television House under reconstruction, and ultimately the face of the Guildhall with its Latin inscription, “Domine, dirige nos!”.
Lewis, on film, called the A-R outside broadcast staff to readiness, and ‘handed over’ to the live coverage, which focused initially on the guests filling their seats in the Guildhall.
The Hallé orchestra, conducted by Sir John Barbirolli, played Elgar’s overture live, in its entirety, followed by the National Anthem. And at 7.45pm, the speeches began, regarded by some commentators (notably the Daily Mirror the next morning) as the low point of the evening.
The Lord Mayor of London, the Postmaster-General Sir Charles Hill and Sir Kenneth of the ITA all said their pieces, and finally things livened up as control was handed over to the then-ABC at the Wood Green Empire for a variety show, “Channel Nine”, produced by Bill Ward, formerly of the BBC and later to become a major executive producer of ITV sports programmes.
There were drama sketches. A boxing match. Four-minute-miler Chris Chataway read the first news from ITN in record time, which included coverage of the trial of Jack Spot at the Old Bailey – another first in British broadcasting history. Live coverage of the opening night party, “Gala Night at the May Fair” featured Leslie Mitchell and Shirley Butler talking to attendees including Pat Weaver, head of NBC, who called the opening “fantastic”. At 11.05,Independent Television closed down with a solemn prayer.
A-R management – and in particular Roland Gillett, the company’s first Controller of Programmes – breathed a sigh of relief. All had gone to plan. The country’s first television advert – for Gibbs SR toothpaste – aired (complete with countdown – oops), and the night was a success. Previously A-R and ATV had agreed to give the proceeds from the evening’s commercials to charity. All that remained was to tot up the figures for this successful night.