Obituary: T. H. Bridgewater

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The Independent Online
Tony Bridgewater encompassed in his own life and career the development of British television as we now know it.

Tony, or Bridgey as many BBC colleagues called him (not even his mother used his given name of Thornton), started working with John Logie Baird in 1928. He was involved with Baird's early experimental television transmissions of the 30-line mechanical system which went from his studio in Covent Garden via Savoy Hill to a BBC medium-wave radio transmitter on the roof of Selfridges.

They had to take place after the BBC's late-night dance music had closed down. Because there was only one transmitter available the crude flickering pictures and the sound could not be synchronised and had to be radiated in alternating two-minute bursts. In 1932 when the BBC took over full responsibility for these experimental programmes Bridgewater, with two other television engineers, joined the Corporation. The operation moved into the newly built Broadcasting House and Bridgewater often announced the programmes himself from a studio shared with Henry Hall's dance band.

In 1936 he led the studio team at Alexandra Palace when the world's first public service of high-definition television opened. Baird's mechanical system, by then on 240 lines, alternated weekly with the 405-line electronic system developed by EMI to establish which was the better. In a few months EMI was the clear winner. The mechanical system was dropped, to Baird's bitter disappointment.

Bridgewater supervised, and personally directed, the first BBC television outside broadcast: the 1937 Coronation procession of King George VI as it passed Hyde Park Corner. The brand-new mobile control room had been delivered from EMI only days beforehand. There was momentary panic when the equipment went dead just as the Coronation procession approached. There was no time for anything but that classic television remedy, a strong bang from the fist of one of the EMI engineers standing by. Fortunately it worked, and the King's smile to the close-up camera made the next day's press headlines.

Bridgewater was in charge of the engineering aspects of many BBC outside broadcasts remembered by older viewers with admiration: the 1948 Olympic Games, the first television programme from across the Channel, the Coronation of the Queen, her first Christmas television broadcast from Sandringham, the immensely complicated and moving coverage of Sir Winston Churchill's funeral and countless other ceremonies and great sporting events. He organised television broadcasts from submarines below the surface of the sea and from aeroplanes above the surface of the land.

Bridgewater was kind, considerate and courteous. One of his outstanding qualities as an engineer was his ability to explain electronic complexities in terms readily understood by non-engineers. I was particularly grateful for this when we were together involved in planning the introduction of BBC2 with its formidable problems of conversion to 625-line UHF transmission standards and as well as to colour capability. Bill Cotton used to say that before coming to work at White City he not only didn't understand television, he didn't even understand electricity, until Bridgey explained both to him.

Bridgewater retired from the BBC in 1968, having been the Chief Television Engineer for the previous six years. His work for television, however, was far from over. He lectured and wrote articles for various technical journals and also contributed a scholarly monograph on A.A. Campbell Swinton, a leading pioneer of electronic, as opposed to mechanical, television. This was published by the Royal Television Society, to which he gave outstanding service over a great period. He had been elected a Fellow of the Television Society in 1930, long before it became Royal. He was its Honorary Treasurer for 20 years, its Chairman of Council, and the recipient of its Gold Medal.

In latter years Bridgewater's long and unique personal experience of the development of television made him a particularly valuable founder member of the RTS History and Archives Specialist Group. He remembered all sorts of fascinating and sometimes horrifying details. One day when we were discussing the impermanence of recorded television material he casually mentioned that in the very early days of videotape he happened to know of at least one pre-recorded play and one pre-recorded opera which had been accidentally wiped before transmission.

Tony Bridgewater's interest in broadcasting began as a schoolboy in Canada where his family was temporarily living. He constructed first a crystal set, and then a better one with valves, and was thrilled to be able to pick up signals from the United States. On return to England he was trained in wireless telegraphy and at the age of 18 he went to sea as a wireless operator. He then worked for the Post Office on high power transmitters including those occasionally used for broadcasting to the Dominions, as they then were.

He read the technical journals avidly, and learnt of Baird's television experiments. In 1928 he managed to get an introduction to the Scottish inventor, who was beginning to expand from a one-man business. Baird engaged him and within weeks he was involved with Baird's first demonstration of recognisable, if very crude, colour television to the British Association, meeting that year in Glasgow.

On 1 September 1939 Alex- andra Palace abruptly had to cease transmitting television, for defence reasons. Bridgewater joined the RAF and worked on radar, for which he was mentioned in dispatches. On demobilisation, with the rank of Squadron Leader, he rejoined the BBC to help restart television in time for the Victory Parade in June 1946.

Tony Bridgewater's own considerable scholarship came, he used to say, from association with a well-educated wife. He married Jean Bartlett in 1934 and they had one son, Anthony. She died on 18 September 1985, a year after they had celebrated their golden wedding. In 1993, shortly after his 85th birthday, he was made a Doctor of Bradford University in recognition of his services to television.

Thornton Howard Bridgewater, television engineer: born 1 June 1908; engineer in charge of outside broadcasts, BBC Television 1946-62, Chief Engineer 1962-68; OBE 1965; married 1934 Jean Bartlett (died 1985; one son); died 28 February 1997.