Those who were born in the post-war decades may sometimes refer to their memories and dreams as being in black and white. This is mainly because most popular media of the mid-Twentieth Century, beyond the glossy fashion magazines or Hollywood blockbusters, were produced in black and white, which today instantly dates such media to another time and culture.
Television, in particular, was broadcast exclusively in black and white for three decades, and in spite of its modernising powers, was arguably constrained by its monochrome technology. The launch of colour television by the BBC 50 years ago on 1st July 1967 therefore introduced an ontological shift in what television meant in our everyday lives.
To own a colour set was an aspirational, transformative, conspicuous luxury good. At £250 per set, colour television was beyond the finances of the majority of British households. Nevertheless, David Attenborough then controller of BBC2 emphasised that programmes would be “that more exciting and newer in colour”, enticing wealthier early adopters to invest in the new technology.
The BBC’s choice for its first colour broadcast was its annual sojourn to the Wimbledon tennis championships. Radio, and subsequently television, had played important roles in popularising the annual event from the All England Club, with continuous running commentaries on radio since 1927 and live coverage on television a decade later. Thirty years on from the BBC’s first television broadcast from Centre Court, its newly acquired colour cameras were now being installed for Europe’s first ever colour transmission.
For most people in the UK the main point of engagement with tennis is Wimbledon. Television, in particular, brought the ritual tennis fortnight in to British homes, fostering a shared national sense of its importance to British sporting culture. The centripetal power of television pulled in the characters and drama of Centre Court into British homes. At the same time, its centrifugal power promoted and transformed the Championships in to a sporting mega-event worth millions of pounds to tennis and its stars.
Tennis, in 1967, was predominantly a sporting pastime reserved for the suburban middle-class. However, at its elite level the sport was on the precipice of its own modern revolution: the collapse of the distinction between amateur and professional players. For traditionalists the thought of professionals entering the major tournaments such as Wimbledon was sacrilege. Although the 1967 championships continued to be contested by amateurs, the introduction of colour coverage and a subsequent professional tournament played on Centre Court, paved the way for tennis to go ‘open’, enabling the world’s best players, most of whom were professionals, to enter the French Open, Wimbledon and the US Open from 1968 (Australia, the fourth Grand Slam, went ‘open’ in 1969).
The BBC’s decision to use colour cameras came late in the day. Although the All England Club had given the all clear to introduce colour cameras, Attenborough and Paul Fox, controller of BBC1, were nervous of using an untried technology at such a major outside broadcast. A decision was made to continue the main coverage of the tournament on BBC1 in black and white, with the introduction of colour coverage during the second week of the tournament on BBC2. The compromise allowed BBC engineers time to run closed-circuit tests on the new colour cameras during the first week of coverage, before going live from 1 July 1967.
The colour operation on BBC2 was completely independent of the monochrome coverage on BBC1. Colour cameras were solely focused on the Centre Court and positioned at the opposite end to the black and white cameras. A second commentary team were employed by BBC2 which including disc jockey Keith Fordyce and former player Billy Knight, who took on the respective roles of Dan Maskell and Jack Kramer on BBC1. Two colour cameras were based at the back of the stand focused on the centre-line, a third was positioned by the base line for personality shots. A fourth camera was positioned outside Centre Court for linking and captions.
Click on the image below to view coverage on Youtube and hear Fordyce’s commentary on the 1967 men’s final between champion John Newcombe and Wilhelm Bungert.
The look and feel of Centre Court with the lush green grass, the whites of the players and the colourful spectacle of the crowd, held the attention like never before. The chief engineer of the colour transmission, Tommy Thomas, was reported as saying: ‘Black and white is never going to look the same after colour. When I get home I shall find it hard to even peep at my own black and white set.’ Others peered through the windows of TV rental shops to get their first glimpse of the technology.
There was a genuine sense of the revelatory nature of colour television. Television critic, Peter Black, noted how the ‘fascination of colour fastens on to the primitive’, and viewer letters remarked on the vivid colour of the bottles of Robinson’s Barley Water under the umpire’s chair, which caught the attention of those who watched the colour broadcast for the first time.
The success of the colour transmission spurred Head of BBC Sport Bryan Cowgill to negotiate another opportunity to use its colour cameras from the Centre Court. With the support of Jack Kramer, who promoted the professional game and went on to be co-founder of the Association of Tennis Professionals (ATP) in 1972, the BBC staged a one-off Wimbledon Pro tournament in August 1967, the first professional tournament hosted by the All England Club. In an interview I did with Cowgill in 2008 he explained how the tournament came about:
We did it over the August bank holiday weekend. Sixty thousand people turned up over those three days. Men like Pancho Gonzales, he’d never been on Centre Court in his life. There was Rosewall and Hoad, all former Wimbledon Champions. It was a huge success, and I knew what that success meant for Wimbledon. There was no turning back. And I said to Jack Kramer to assist the relationship with Herman David and Wimbledon, “If, as we hope now, tennis does become Open in the very near future, you’ve got to, through me, give Wimbledon a guarantee that all your professionals would take part in the first Open Championship, whatever the rewards.” He said, “You can have it in writing, I’ve been waiting twenty-five years for that day.” And of course it happened a year later. And all those things came together.
The event included eight of the world’s leading male professional tennis players, and was won by Australian great Rod Laver. The success of the event, filling the stadium and gaining media acclaim, led the tennis authorities to introduce the ‘open’ era of tennis in 1968, ensuring the world’s leading players appeared at the world’s major championships. Tennis would never be the same again.
Richard Haynes is author of BBC Sport in Black and White (Palgrave Macmillan, 2016)