Ri historian Rupert Cole looks at the history of the CHRISTMAS LECTURES on television, 80 years after they were first broadcast.
Until very recently it had been common knowledge that the Royal Institution’s historic CHRISTMAS LECTURES were first televised on the BBC in 1966. As it turns out, this television tradition began three decades earlier.
The first surprise was unearthed in the Ri’s and the BBC’s archives. A letter dated 2 November 1948 contained the first BBC proposal to bring their outside broadcast cameras to Albemarle Street to televise ‘one of the schoolboy Xmas lectures’. This was realised in January 1949, when the BBC mounted a special lecture for television by Frederic Bartlett, a Cambridge psychologist, based on his 1948/9 CHRISTMAS LECTURES series, ‘The Mind at Work and Play’.
The BBC’s Television Service was then still young and marginal relative to radio – only 45,000 television licenses compared to 11,000,000 sound licenses were held at this time. The outside broadcast generated much of the initial excitement for television, relaying to homes such sporting occasions as the FA Cup Final and the 1948 London Olympics. Bartlett’s lecture from the Ri stands as one of the earliest science outside broadcasts.
In October 2014 an even bigger surprise came in an email from a producer of the current CHRISTMAS LECTURES, who had discovered from searching on the BBC’s then newly-launched Genome service, a digitalisation of Radio Times listings, that a ‘Royal Institution Lecture’ had been televised on 22 December 1936. The listing for the lecture read:
The Royal Institution lectures are a feature of the children's Christmas holidays. This year they are about ships. G.I. Taylor, F.R.S., is giving the series this year. This afternoon he will explain, with actual experiments, why ships roll in a rough sea.
We have so far been unable to find a record of Taylor’s 15-minute television lecture in the Ri’s archives, though the BBC archives do hold references to the broadcast – probably because the Ri had little involvement given it was broadcast from the BBC’s studio in Alexandra Palace, as the 1937 BBC Yearbook confirms.
This broadcast took place just 7 weeks after the opening ceremony of the BBC’s Television Service. At this time, there were only two-hours of television programming each day. Taylor’s lecture was very possibly the first science programme on television and almost certainly the first to show scientific experiments.
After Bartlett’s television lecture, the BBC returned every year for further Ri broadcasts based on the CHRISTMAS LECTURES, each consisting of a sort of greatest hits of the lecturer’s experiments. The correspondence from this period reveals an interesting collaborative relationship between the BBC and the Ri. It would continue up until 1953, when the BBC backed off following an acrimonious and controversial episode involving the Ri’s then scientific director and resident professor, Edward Neville da Costa Andrade (or Percy to his friends).
Andrade had been forced to resign over power disputes with the Ri’s Managers. A difficult character and a bit of a prima donna, he had tested the BBC’s patience during his own CHRISTMAS LECTURES broadcasts in January 1951 – a BBC producer wrote in a report that he was at times ‘unproduceable’ and had to be ‘tactfully flattered’.
Andrade’s successor, Sir Lawrence Bragg, went to considerable efforts to re-establish the Ri’s relationship with the BBC, succeeding in 1959 by bringing about two series of television programmes from the Ri, The Nature of Things, which were very similar in format and approach to the CHRISTMAS LECTURES, though Bragg as lecturer performed in front of an adult audience.
In 1966, Bragg’s key BBC contact and friend, Philip Daly, put forward a proposal to David Attenborough, then Controller of the new channel BBC2, to televise a complete series of CHRISTMAS LECTURES at the Ri. Attenborough was very keen, alluding to the ‘glamour and stature’ of the Ri.
The electrical engineer Eric Laithwaite was selected as the lecturer. His series, ‘The Engineer in Wonderland’, marked the start of a tradition of televising the lectures in their entirety that continues to this day, but remarkably has its origins in the 1930s.
Rupert is a PhD student working at the Ri and UCL on the history of the Ri's role in communicating science to the public from 1945-1985. Watch his talk on the history of the televised CHRISTMAS LECTURES here: