Today is the anniversary of the most disastrous channel launch in television history. On 30 September 1963, a publicity campaign had been launched for the new channel, BBC2, using the symbol of a Joey kangaroo emerging from the pouch of its mother, who were given the unlikely names of Hullabaloo and Custard (no one was sure which was which). They appeared in trailers and on posters with the underwhelming slogan, ‘BBC-2 – it’s new’, cardboard cutouts were displayed in shops and squeaky kangaroo toys sold to attract children. On the eve of its launch the new channel had a service of dedication in Westminster Abbey.
The main anxiety about the opening night, 20 April 1964, was that the rain might ruin the planned firework display from Southend Pier, billed as ‘Off with a Bang’, to be shown on BBC1 and BBC2 simultaneously. At the BBC’s Lime Grove studios, the first warning that something was wrong was a flickering light in the staff bar 25 minutes before the launch. The power went and George, a real kangaroo brought from the zoo for the launch, was stuck on the fourth floor because the lifts stopped.
Gerald Priestland, appearing from the Alexandra Palace newsroom, initially without sound, explained what had happened. An electrical transformer at Iver had blown up, causing the collapse of the entire power supply in west London. Priestland appealed to his Uncle Jock, an engineer, ‘to nip out and see if he could fix the Iver transformer – but he only watched television with the sound turned off’. The Lime Grove engineers opened a book on when the lights would come back, but they never did. ‘I ploughed on through every scrap of unedited Reuters tape they could feed me,’ Priestland wrote in his autobiography. ‘After what seemed like an eternity of ad-libbing about Japanese fishery disputes and trains de-railed in Tunisia, I was taken off the air.’
An evening of test card music and BBC2 WILL START SHORTLY captions followed, interrupted by apologetic announcers explaining why viewers weren’t able to watch Cole Porter’s Kiss Me Kate. At 9.45pm, BBC2 abandoned its schedule. The next morning, Play School became the first programme on the new channel. That evening BBC2 opened with the announcer Denis Tuohy blowing out a candle in a dark studio, symbolising the previous night’s events.