Remembering when Arsenal become football’s first TV stars


So, Arsenal – and the rest – won’t be competing in a European Super League after all. But the Gunners do seem to have the knack of being around when new ideas are floated.

When they hosted Sheffield United in a First Division match on Saturday, 22 January 1927, only three weeks after the British Broadcasting Corporation received its Royal Charter, it fell to Arsenal’s Charlie Buchan to score the first goal ever broadcast on the wireless. The match ended 1-1 in front of a 16,831 crowd, who went home probably not quite realising the significance of that day.

The splendidly named Captain Henry Blythe Thornhill (Teddy) Wakelam had become the world’s first football commentator. It was quite a double for Wakelam. A week earlier, the former Harlequins RFC skipper had delivered the first-ever running sports commentary on BBC radio when he covered the England-Wales rugby match at Twickenham.

As at Highbury, to give listeners an idea what it was they were hearing, a plan of the pitch, divided in numbered squares, was published in the Radio Times. As Wakelam described the play, a background voice mentioned the square in which the play was happening. Some claim that this gave birth to the phrase ‘back to square one’.

On Thursday, 16 September 1937, Highbury was the setting for another piece of broadcasting history, an event that would eventually see the working-class Saturday heroes of the 1930s consigned firmly to history, while the players of the 21st century would become multi-millionaires.

It was the day that the BBC tried out the game of football on its fledgling television service. The wildest imagination, the greatest visionary, could surely not have foreseen where it would lead. Yet the world’s first live televised ‘match’ was a modest affair. Simply put, it was Arsenal’s players – first team and reserves; no one called them a ‘squad’ –training for the benefit of the cameras.

Two months earlier, for the benefit of cinema audiences, British Pathé News had shown Arsenal’s players in pre-season training at a sun-baked Highbury where the ball ‘sizzled’ and a hose was turned on perspiring footballers in an attempt to cool them down. Now the Manchester Guardian previewed the television broadcast: “The players will be introduced by Mr George F. Allison, manager of the club. The television demonstrations will show tactics on the field, shooting in goal, dribbling and goalkeeping. Three cameras will be used, one being on the stands to give a comprehensive view of the ground, and two others near the goalmouth to give close-ups of the play and players and visual interviews. No film will be used, transmission being by radio direct to Alexandra Palace which can actually be seen from the ground.”

The Gunners’ home was the obvious choice for the BBC to conduct the experiment. Highbury was the nearest stadium to the corporation’s studios at Alexandra Palace, and in its East Stand, which had been open for less than a year, the ground already had a gantry for television cameras.

The television audience, though, would be extremely limited. In 1937, only a few hundred homes close to ‘Ally Pally’ could have received pictures, and few of them boasted a television set which cost 55 guineas (£55.57) at a time when the national average wage across all sectors was not much more than £3 a week.

Football, though, was not the only event making its bow on the small screen in 1937. 

In May, the BBC’s outside broadcast unit was used for the first time, to televise the coronation of King George VI, who, only five months earlier, had reluctantly ascended to the throne after his brother, Edward VIII, had abdicated in favour of a life with the American divorcee Wallis Simpson. It was reported that 9,000 television sets had been sold in the London area in advance of the coronation.

Later that month there was a 30-minute excerpt of Twelfth Night, so far as anyone knows the first time that a play by Shakespeare had been aired on television. In June, Agatha Christie watched with growing reservations as Wasp’s Nest became the first – and, as it turned out, only – time that she adapted one of her plays for television. Three days later, on 21 June, play in the All-England Tennis Championships was broadcast from Wimbledon. 

On 16 September, it was the turn of football. A preview bode well. The Daily Herald’s Douglas Walters told readers: “A secret television broadcast outside normal programme hours yesterday proved conclusively that it is possible. Seated in the GEC television Theatre in the heart of London yesterday evening I watched members of the Arsenal football team practising at Highbury N.

“Even at 6pm, when the light was failing, one could see clearly the furthest touchline and spectators in the far corner. Not once did I lose sight of the ball. The players were distinct.

“Yesterday’s tests were preliminary to this afternoon’s advertised outside television broadcast from the Arsenal ground, where Mr George F. Allison, manager of the club, will introduce before the camera many Arsenal players. They will be accompanied by their trainer. Three cameras connected to the mobile television unit will be used and viewers will see field tactics, dribbling, passing, shooting and goalkeeping.

The day is not far off when you may be able to watch your favourite football team from your fireside. The BBC could televise a game today if it were to obtain permission.”

The live broadcast went out at 3.40pm and lasted all of 15 minutes before making way for the cartoon film Wayward Canary.

 The London Weekly Despatch reported: “The relay from the Highbury football ground seen on television during the week, while one of the most ambitious outside broadcasts the Alexandra Palace has attempted, was unfortunately damaged by bad weather conditions. At times the sky was so dark that it looked as though the Arsenal team practice was operating from the middle of a coal mine. The relay, of course, inspired the usual crop of rumours that football matches would be televised by the BBC. The actual situation is, as I indicated last week: there will be no television except perhaps for the Cup Final. League clubs have the curious idea that visual broadcasting would reduce gates, although how they arrive at this conclusion, in view of the fact that there are at most only 25,000 television fans, is a mystery.”

The Hartlepool Northern Daily Mail’s sports correspondent ‘M.C.’ was in agreement: “Bad light yesterday spoiled the first football television broadcast to be made in this country. Transmission took place from the Arsenal stadium, Highbury, and showed members of the Arsenal first and reserve teams at practice. As a prelude to a rainstorm, the sky grew steadily blacker, and the television picture became duller as the broadcast continued. It was a rehearsal for future transmissions of a complete match, though at present the Football League will not permit BBC broadcasts of League matches.”

The Observer, however, was impressed: “The football demonstrations from the Arsenal ground showed that, even on the small screen, television can give something worth seeing from a game covering so great an amount of ground.”

Undaunted by the weather, the BBC felt that it had established that football could work on the small screen and, within eight months, an England-Scotland international (‘A triumph for the engineers,’ proclaimed The Scotsman) and the 1938 FA Cup Final, between Huddersfield Town and Preston North End, had been shown live. George Allison was one of the commentators for the international.

Thanks to an unseasonably dark September afternoon, television pictures from Highbury may have been smudgy, but Arsenal had, not for the first time, made broadcasting history.  Twenty-seven years after the gloomy film of the Gunners demonstrating their skills at Highbury, the club was again helping to make television history.

When Match of the Day was first broadcast, on 22 August 1964, it was highlights of that afternoon’s Liverpool-Arsenal match that were shown on BBC2. The Anfield attendance was 47,620; the television audience an estimated 20,000. In January 2010, Arsenal featured in the first live broadcast of a sporting event shown in 3D when BSkyB featured Manchester United’s visit to the Emirates.

The experiment did not lead to regular 3D broadcast of sport – by 2017, 3D TV itself was officially dead – but, again, when it came to broadcasting football, Arsenal always seemed to be at the forefront of any new initiative

It’s just that not every one of them actually happened …