The day the lights went out

An Irishman’s Diary on the wobbly start of a great British institution

Sat, Apr 19, 2014, 02:00

The television screen showed a dark and empty studio. The main source of light was a flickering candle on a corner table. A sign on the wall read “BBC2 Opening Night”. An orchestral medley reached its climax as the second hand of a wall clock inched towards twenty past seven. When it got there a young man approached the table, picked up the candle and turned to camera as all the studio lights came on.

“Good evening,” he said, “this is BBC2.” He then blew out the candle and announced that his name was Denis Tuohy.

That was the curious ritual that launched my British network career on an April evening in 1964, a ritual that made unspoken reference to the disaster that had befallen the BBC 24 hours earlier on what should have been the channel’s opening night.

At around a quarter to seven on April 20th those of us involved in Line Up , the introductory programme, were invited to the Television Centre bar by our editor – those were the days – for a nerve-steadier before going on air in half an hour. We had rehearsed more times than enough. We were ready. Somewhere downstairs the great and the good were already working their way through celebratory bubbles.

I left my colleagues and made my way back to the studio. There was no else there nor in the production gallery, where I took a seat and watched the monitor screens which were showing BBC1, ITV and the empty studio where we would shortly be making history.

Suddenly it happened. All the screens went blank. Not just grey, as though no picture was being received, but completely blank, as though unplugged. As I watched and wondered I heard voices in the corridor, worried voices. Line Up ’s editor burst into the gallery.

“There’s a fire at Battersea power station. Most of west London’s blacked out and that includes us. The building’s being lit from its own generators.”

“What can we do?”

“Nothing unless or until the power comes back.”

To the rescue, to some extent, came Alexandra Palace, where BBC news was based, well clear of the stricken grid. It took over responsibility for putting out BBC1 programmes that evening but couldn’t handle BBC2 as well, apart from a hastily organised news summary which explained what was going on and what was therefore not going on.

As we waited and wondered whether the show would ever get on the road, adjusting scripts to meet new circumstances, there were quite a few disconsolate visitors to the Line Up studio.

I overheard an extraordinary conversation between two executives, one of whom had clearly moved on from disappointment into paranoia.

“Makes you think,” he said.

“About what?” said the other.

“About those bastards at ITV.”

“What about them?”

“Remember the night ITV got started, in the fifties? Remember what BBC radio did that night ?”

“You mean The Archers ?”

“Exactly. Grace Archer was killed off in that night’s episode and next day the story completely upstaged ITV’s launch. They were furious, weren’t they?”

“Yes, but so what?”

“So how did Grace Archer die? She died in a fire. And what happened to wreck BBC2 tonight? A bloody fire!”

The other man searched for a smile but could find none. “Are you saying that ITV may have set fire to Battersea power station?”

“I’m saying it’s too much of a damn coincidence!”

Soon after nine o’clock, with the house lights faltering and no hint of good news from Battersea the inevitable decision was taken to evacuate Television Centre. Security staff escorted us downstairs by torchlight and out into exterior darkness.

Next morning, as the Line Up team met to plan the revised launch, it was clear that the blackout had generated more newspaper coverage than a press officer could dream of. This included pictures of the show that did go on. The VIP champagne celebration had nothing to celebrate but that hadn’t stopped partygoers from making the most of it by moody candlelight.

“Let’s not say much in words,” said someone, “but do something with candles.”

“Just a single candle,” said someone else. “There’s pathos in a single candle.”

And that’s how the candle ritual came about, which would earn for its presenter the nickname “BBC Tuohy”.

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