The development of Colour Television went hand-in-hand with the development of television itself with ideas for such technology being proposed as far back as the late Nineteenth Century. John Logie Baird demonstrated the first colour transmission in 1928 with the first regular, albeit very limited, broadcasts (using a different system to Baird’s) being made by CBS in the USA beginning on 12th January 1950 for the remainder of that month. The colour system eventually used in that country until 12th June 2009 (NTSC) was launched on a limited and experimental basis by NBC on 31st October 1953 and the amount of colour programming increased until 1966 when full colour programming was the norm.
In Europe, the BBC was the second station to launch a limited colour service (aside from test transmissions) on Saturday 1st July 1967 with coverage of the Wimbledon tennis tournament on BBC2. Initially only one or two hours a night of colour programmes were transmitted. This was due to the high cost of studio and transmitter conversions from the old 405-line VHF system (which BBC1 and all the ITV companies used) to the 625-line PAL UHF system which the British Government had decided would be the UK standard as it was technically superior to the NTSC system and others that had been proposed to them. BBC2 then upgraded to a full colour service on 2nd December 1967 as the number of colour studios at the corporation's studios in London began to increase. The ITV companies were equally keen to move into colour, seeing an opportunity for increased advertisement and programme sales revenue. The Postmaster General agreed in May 1969 that BBC1 and ITV could launch their colour services on Saturday 15th November 1969. All ITV companies faced the high costs of conversion of studios and transmitters to colour (which eventually ran into several million pounds); this factor alone meant that the launch of colour across the country was staggered.
Launch dates of ITV in colour
The table below details the launch of colour in each of the ITV regions which then existed and the first episode of Coronation Street to be broadcast in colour in those regions. (It should be noted that the date quoted is when the first transmitter in that region was switched on. Within a region, there could be a large gap of time between the first and last transmitter or relay station being switched over to colour.)
- Note: Thames Television held the weekday franchise for London and London Weekend Television held the franchise for programming in the region from Friday evening to Sunday night. It was therefore this latter company that launched the full colour service there on 15th November. Due to the days of the week that London Weekend broadcast, the first episode of Coronation Street that LWT ever transmitted was Episode 2981 on Friday 20th October 1989.
It should also be noted that ownership of colour television sets in the UK was not widespread in the late 1960s or early 1970s. One estimate for the 1967 BBC2 launch is that there were only 1,500 sets in existence in the UK. JICTAR (who handled viewing figure collation for ITV) estimated that on 1st July 1969 there were now 155,000 sets, rising to 183,000 by 1st October. They expected 235,000 sets by the end of 1969 which equated to just over 1% of homes with television at that time. Half a million sets were estimated to be in existence by end June 1970 but by October 1971 still only 6.1% of homes with ITV had colour sets. It was 1976 before ownership of colour sets exceeded black and white sets (some sources say 1977) but whatever the date it is true to say that the majority of viewers in the 1970s saw the majority of Coronation Street episodes in black and white.
Coronation Street in colour
There is some confusion surrounding the start of Coronation Street in colour. Various sources have stated that executive producer H.V. Kershaw intended Episode 923 to be the first episode made in colour but it was also always intended for that episode to be made on film on location and also to be transmitted on 29th October 1969 - several weeks before the official launch of the colour service. In the end colour film stock supposedly couldn’t be found for the cameras (despite the fact that Granada had already been in colour production for other programmes for several months) and so normal black and white stock was used.
The following four episodes (924 to 927), videotaped in studio, were in colour, but with the 1964 title sequence, "End of Part One" caption, "Part Two" caption and end credits all in black and white. Filmed location inserts in Episode 924 were similarly in black and white - the other three episodes were entirely studio based - and these four episodes were also advertised as being transmitted in monochrome. The first two of these episodes show notable differences in scenery (particularly the shades used on walls of the Rovers Return Inn set and character make-up) from the latter two.
While it is possible that these episodes were videotaped in colour and transmitted in black and white to allow designers and technicians to see how stock sets and costumes appeared in colour and make the necessary adjustments prior to the recording of the first advertised colour transmitted episode (Episode 928 (17th November 1969)), there is also strong evidence that these four episodes were given a limited and unadvertised transmission in colour as a test for the new service. In London, tests in colour for ITV began on the 8th September 1969 from the Crystal Palace transmitter on a different channel to that used by Thames/London Weekend. The BBC's tests began on 4th October from the same transmitter however The Times of Thursday 2nd October 1969 carried a story that the BBC and the Independent Television Authority had had an unwritten agreement that test transmissions would not be advertised but the Radio Times published that week carried those details for the Corporation, thus breaking that rule. The Independent Television Authority (ITA) responded by announcing the test transmission in colour of Doctor in the House and Frost on Sunday on Friday 10th October and Saturday Crowd and Please, Sir! the following day. On Saturday 15th November, the Daily Express's television critic James Martin wrote a piece about the launch of the new medium in which he stated that he had watched Elsie Tanner in colour as part of his viewing over the past few weeks. Also, in the Manchester Evening News of Friday 14th November, their critic Keith McDonald said "Apart from red telephones in Coronation Street [thus making a specific reference to Episode 925 (5th November 1969) in which the phone was seen] what other surprises has colour tv in store? There have been so many test transmissions in colour during the last week or two that the weekend has been robbed of any great sense of occasion." It should be noted that the individual ITV stations did not possess a licence to transmit in colour prior to midnight on 15th November and any transmissions were made by the ITA who had a colour control room in each region, fed from the local broadcaster, and colour programmes were shown without any continuity announcements, or adverts but a test card in their place with overlaid classical music.
When it came to the recording of Episodes 928 and 929 the new colour title sequence film wasn't ready and instead those two episodes began with the photocaption usually used for the "Part Two" opening in the early 1970s being utilised instead for the main programme opening.
Television cameras for many years were erratic pieces of equipment and skilled hands were needed to ensure that the picture that the viewer saw was of a suitably high standard. Even in black and white certain shades and hues needed to be avoided if the picture was to be stable. Normal white shades would cause a flare on black and white television and these were avoided by set, make-up and costume designers (for instance, the "white" coats worn by the doctors in Emergency Ward Ten were in fact yellow). Different problems faced television production staff when colour started, especially with the older valve cameras and extra recording time was necessary to re-set cameras which became misaligned during shooting. For this reason Coronation Street, which had previously been in studio just on the Friday of each week was now recorded on both Thursday and Friday with videotape editing, previously a rarity, becoming the norm.
ITV Colour Strike
With one notable exception Coronation Street has remained in colour since 1969. The exception is the period of the ITV Colour Strike which came about because of a dispute between the ACTT union and the ITV companies over a pay rise for technical staff working in colour. It had previously been agreed between the two sides that if no agreement had been reached by the time that the colour service was three months' old then staff would revert to working in black and white (and this included not just the recording but the transmission, even of colour material). Many months after this time had passed, on Friday 13th November 1970, ITV returned to being broadcast in black and white and the dispute was only called off on Monday 2nd February 1971 although it took until 8th February for colour transmissions to resume again and even then material recorded in black and white during the dispute would have to be transmitted in that format afterwards. During this period Coronation Street had one episode made in colour which was shown in black and white (Episode 1025 (16th November 1970)), twenty five episodes made and transmitted in black and white (Episode 1026 (18th November 1970) to Episode 1051 (10th February 1971)) and after a week where the episodes were back to being in full colour, two episodes which contained black and white film inserts (Episode 1054 (22nd February 1971) and Episode 1055 (24th February 1971)).