Working for Auntie: BBC, London: 1973 – 1974

Warning: this post contains anecdotes and shameless name dropping………

1973 was not a good year to be in Britain, let alone to return there after six years in New Zealand. Return we did though, with very little money, no home and two lovely kids. My immediate priority was to get a job.

The first bite I got from hawking my CV around was at Scottish television in Glasgow. I had a couple if interviews there, and the company were keen to take me on, but there was a problem with the ACTT union closed shop. No ticket-no-job but no-job-no-ticket. After some negotiation they did offer me a trainee post, which I had to turn down, mainly because we could not afford to live on the trainee salary. Pity really; I liked it there, they seemed a friendly bunch. I recall being introduced to a genial up-and-coming comedy performer by the name of Billy Connelly. Maybe I should have accepted that offer.

At the same time I was trying my luck at the BBC.

I had only one contact there, a friend from student days in Leicester, then working in BBC World Service. He put me on to the Head of TV Presentation, who invited me to the TV Centre at White City for an interview based on my experience as a presentation and promotions director in Auckland, rather than as a programme producer. I didn’t know at the time that directors and producers from Australia and New Zealand had a reputation at the BBC for reliability, hard work and motivation. The result was an interview for a job in a rather weird department called Presentation Programmes, then headed up by a genial Londoner, Mike Fentiman, Executive Producer on Film Extra at the time, and later head of the BBC Community Programmes Unit.

As I understand it, Presentation Programmes had been born out of the rib of the legendary Late Night Line-Up, itself a consequence of the birth of BBC2 in 1964. Late Night Line-Up had been axed in December 1972, and Presentation Programmes filled the vacuum with various live spin-off arts and leisure programmes such as “Old Grey Whistle Test”, “Film Night” (Phil Jenkinson / Tony Bilbow), “Family Fare” (Delia Smith), “Real Time”, (TV criticism / review, Chris Dunkley?), “The Book Programme”  and “Edition” (magazines review).

My CV had apparently landed on Mike Fentiman’s desk at about the right time, and I was hired as a studio director on some editions of all these programmes, except Whistle Test, working on a three-month temporary contract. Despite the kind guidance of Tony Tyler, an experienced studio director, (later to be a founder member of the BBC2 “Arena” arts programme production team,) frankly I was terrified most of the time and made mistakes; mistakes on live programmes are usually fatal. I could not find affordable accommodation in London, so we rented a house near Maidstone, and having no car I commuted daily by bus and tube to get to White City; by the time these live programmes were aired I was usually a bag of nerves. I was way out of my depth and so I sank quite quickly.

I was also disappointed to discover I was not expected to have any creative input into the shows; indeed it was clear that I would be treading on toes if I tried. The formats were formulaic, with standard studio sets and lighting installed to fixed plans in the morning, requiring little input by the studio director. The production teams worked frenetically to finalise the scripts and visual inserts, also without my input. My job really consisted of ordering graphics, rehearsing in the afternoon and putting the show together on the night. Film sequences were always directed and edited by someone else.

However, it wasn’t all bad, and I did get to work with some really skilled performers, producers and technicians, from whom, with hindsight,  I learned a lot.  I was not there long enough to make many friends, but I remember a few people who took time to chat: Tom Corcoran, the mad but lovable genius director of OGWT,  Phil Speight, producer of “The Book Programme” and the editor of “Edition”, Will Wyatt, who went on to be Managing Director of BBC Network Television and Chief Executive of BBC Broadcast. (I understand Will’s book “The Fun Factory: A Life in the BBC” is a must for students of the BBC.) I regret having lost touch with them.

By the way, apart from Old Grey Whistle test, you won’t find much in the way of recorded evidence of  Presentation Programmes output, either because the BBC did not record them or because if they did, in those days, tapes were routinely erased.

My contract was not renewed, but I was offered a series of short-term contracts in presentation department proper, so I ended up working for BBC1 and occasionally BBC2 as a production assistant (later called an assistant producer) until 1976. This turned out to be a lucky move as most of BBC2 late night programmes were short-lived, except Whistle Test, and I think Presentation Programmes itself fell victim later to some kind of BBC reshuffle.

At that time, the job involved controlling transmission as a network director, producing trailers and directing weather forecasts. The business of ensuring that the right programme appears on  viewers’ screens at the right time is now mostly automated, but back then the whole transmission stream was controlled manually by the network director and the announcer, supported by experienced technicians, and responsible to a network editor. The team’s prime objective was to transmit all scheduled programmes on or shortly after the times published in the Radio Times, and always to hit the main news programmes exactly on time.

So here I was, lucky to still be in a job but back to where I had started out, in presentation, controlling transmission and making programme trailers. The BBC version of the network control job was in some ways similar to the New Zealand equivalent. The main difference was that the network director (e.g. me) handed over control of the junctions (i.e. the stuff you see in between programmes,) to the continuity announcer, who operated a “Self-Op” booth, mixing vision and sound while reading the script out of vision. In the network control room, aided by a network assistant, a vision-and-sound mixer and a technical director, the network director lined up and ran the next programme, and communicated with other BBC regional control rooms when necessary.

Fortunately someone on “Did You See”, the long-running British television review programme which began in 1980, has made a short feature on the work of the BBC presentation department. This clip from it shows the editorial process and the complex operations involved in a typical junction, leading up to the evening Network News at 5.40pm, including a trailer and a regional “opt-out”:

Even though this film was probably made after I left the Television Centre, it’s a very accurate portrayal of the department as I remember it, and this excerpt does also get across the atmosphere of BBC1 network control without undue dramatisation. Watching it I still feel a bit nervous, especially as I recognise several former colleagues in the film.

I fitted in well here and enjoyed this very responsible job. I made some good friends, including Michael Dean, who had made his name as presenter of Late Night Line-Up, but now working as an announcer. Michael was a New Zealander with a good sense of humour, who once told me how he fell asleep on the last train home after an evening shift. He lived somewhere in Suffolk and he had an arrangement with the train crew to wake him up in time to get off at his station. What could possibly go wrong? The inevitable happened one night  – they forgot to wake him so he was taken on to the terminus. Ipswich I think. When the guard did his routine check through the train, there was Michael, still fast asleep. Undeterred the driver simply changed ends and they took him back.

So what had I learned so far, working for auntie?

For starters, compared to the NZBC, the beeb was rigidly hierarchical, with a byzantine bureaucracy and its own myths and traditions, but paradoxically sympathetic to those way down the pecking order.

A trivial example: Because on the evening shift we routinely worked beyond 11.30pm, we were entitled to free transport home for safety reasons after someone had been attacked on the way home. The free entitlement counted up to a certain distance from central London, measured as the crow flies. Beyond the invisible boundary you had to pay for any excess mileage, albeit at a token rate. We had by now managed to buy a tiny in a cottage in mid Kent, a few miles beyond the free limit, surrounded by hop gardens and apple orchards.

The transport turned out to be one of a fleet of posh limousines retained mainly for ferrying celebs, run by a company ingeniously called Miles and Miles. No choice, it was a limo or nothing, complete with uniformed driver. At first it was fun giving a fake royal wave to denizens of the night as the limo glided over Westminster Bridge, but that childish pleasure soon palled.

I did have a choice of methods to pay the excess fee – pay at any cash office at the TV Centre, or have the fee deducted from my salary. No credit or debit cards then of course. I opted for the salary deduction but it never happened, and after a few months I was called into my boss’s office to explain myself. Not my problem, I said. After a few memos (remember those?) it seemed that the BBC Transport Office had no way to deduct money from a contractor’s salary, and would I please settle up at the cash office asap?

I pointed out that I didn’t choose to be on a lousy contract anyway. Things rumbled on for months until my boss finally lost patience and pleaded with me to stop messing about and pay up in cash. I had made my point, he said. Fair enough – I liked my line manager, Hugh Shepherd, and I didn’t want to try him further so I rang the Transport Manager, as requested.

The nightly debt was less than a pound, and the total by then added up to only a few pounds. Having listened to this affable and reasonable Transport Manager – we can’t make exceptions, blah blah  – I asked him what the internal administration cost was so far of all the reminders, memos and phone calls. Long silence………then, you know what, let’s just forget it but please don’t tell anyone. (I then went to the cash office and paid up the debt and continued to pay my dues thereafter.) Moral – sometimes you can beat the system, but do make sure it’s about something trivial and don’t push your luck.

I had also seen for myself why the BBC used to be called Auntie. It was not just because of her reputation as self appointed  moral guide, but equally to do with how she looked after her own. Despite the vagaries of employment arrangements, if you fitted in, you stayed in, even if you did irritate a manager or two now and then. In essence it was a family affair; while you were clasped to auntie’s ample bosom you would tend to defend her when she was under attack – which was most of the time.

To my amazement, Aunty’s generosity ran to an in-house watering hole, the famous TV Centre bar, where celebs and wannabees hung out, along with the likes of us unknowns. This was a new one on me; at the  NZBC if you wanted a drink, you went to the nearest pub. If you were found to be under the influence, you were out on your ear.

For presentation folk, the bar was a bit too convenient because it was sited right opposite our main office. I was not really a big drinker then or since, having learned that lesson in Wellington, but I did sometimes relax with colleagues there at the end of a daytime shift before my homeward trek. It was not such a good idea though; on one occasion I very nearly fell into the Michael Dean trap myself on the train to Paddock Wood. I don’t think British Rail would have taken me back home somehow.

Late Night Line-Up on BBC i-Player



8 thoughts on “Working for Auntie: BBC, London: 1973 – 1974

  1. Great stuff Peter I wonder what the situation is now at BBC and ITV. All automatic solid state timed switchers I guess.
    I remember when ITV’s network controller was the station feeding the network was the station on air feeding the current programme. When Kennedy died it was Tyne Tees and the TC decided that the nearest person to him was the Queen and the instruction was “shut down the net” so he did and played solemn music! Oh dear a lttle station shuts down all money from commercials and programmes for ITV.

    Liked the article where is the rest of it?

    Kind regards

    Don Atkinson and Family

    • I guess you are right Don, but I bet the chain of command principle still holds good. I know that opt outs are still handled manually, and it must be the same for live programmes surely. Just before I left TVC a gadget the size of a large fridge appeared in pres b control room. I think it was the first UK attempt to automate transmission. They had introduced something of the sort in NZ too, but it just stored the next few events, so had to be continuously updated. Apparently these made the operation even scarier because the transmission controller was always on tenterhooks waiting for the box of tricks to make a mistake. I have noticed that when things do go wrong on some other UK channels, they stay out of kilter for ages, with no apologies or captions. Anyway, glad you liked the article – more to come!

  2. I do have friends who are still in the playout area but are employed by Erricson one of the phone companies. When YTV studios were closed YTV was threatoned with having to pay the owners of the playout system something like 10 million which I think was part of the reason of moving Emmerdale back into the studio.
    When I appoached the playout people about low audio levels on local output. I was told that the playout people were not allowed to be critical of the YTV technical quality as it would be seen as inter company interference, despite being in the same building! So qualty checks are dead and gone! The guy monitoring pics and sound has five monitors to watch at the same time along with listening, sadly the person only has two ears!

    Good to hear from you.

    Have a good festive season

    • I recognise the out-sourcing thing, mainly because one of my former students has a job like this in London. The audio quality and levels issue drives me nuts too. Not helped by the crap sound reproduction on TV sets these days.
      I do plan to continue the story, but I have to fit it in other stuff. It’s all in my head – getting it out is the problem.
      Anyway, have a good Christmas and don’t watch too much telly next year.

  3. Pingback: Working for Auntie in the seventies (continued) | Peter Dewrance

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