A few more incidents and situations come to mind from my relatively short stay in BBC TV presentation department in the mid seventies.
I got a surprise when an outside broadcast involving royalty was scheduled to be transmitted during one of my shifts. I haven’t been able to track down what the occasion was, but I remember that I was told that I should leave the control room prior to the broadcast, to be replaced by a colleague.
Intrigued, I asked why, and I was told that only a member of permanent staff could take this responsibility, having been “vetted” as part of their appointment process. Presumably this meant cleared by MI5 or whoever looks after the Queen. I have to admit I did feel a bit miffed to be reminded that as a contract employee I was barred in this way. I have no idea to this day what the reasoning was, but I am reminded of an incident in New Zealand when the Queen visited Auckland a few years earlier, in 1970.
I heard about it only hours after it happened, because I was on duty in a phone box at the top end of Queen Street (sic) primed to call the duty presentation officer (aka transmission controller) as soon as the royal cavalcade appeared on its way to the town hall. Because it was running very late, “fillers” were being broadcast by AKTV2 to the Kiwi national audience. Shortly before the Queen did appear, viewers were treated to a scene featuring a troupe of chimpanzees leaping around in a wildlife park, accompanied by a popular orchestral music track called Elizabethan Serenade, chosen by the duty presentation officer and played in live from the presentation gallery in Shortland Street.
A few days later the duty presentation officer was invited to resign. Initially he refused, but when he was put on menial duties and required to sweep the floors, he changed his mind. He was British.
Otherwise known as T&DE (Travel and Duty Expenses) these came as a complete surprise. A colleague in the office approached me one day to ask why I had made no claims. I was bamboozled because I had never come across the concept before. He then explained that the BBC had an expenses system to recompense employees required to travel on BBC business, but for the life of me I could not understand how it might apply to me, as all my work was done at the TV Centre.
However, a hint was dropped in my ear that by not making claims I was somehow letting the side down. I ignored the implied suggestion. Since then BBC expenses have been the subject of occasional scandal, the most recent being associated with creative director Alan Yentob who allegedly “claimed £3,381 for a business class flight to New York in 2010 and £1,600 for an ‘executive Christmas dinner’.” [The Drum, 20 October 2015]
Despite such distractions, there were great benefits to the network director (aka transmission control) job, one of which was the standby shift. This meant simply that for a week every so often I was rostered to be on call, to cover for the duty network director either in BBC1 or BBC2 control room. Normally this was for scheduled meal breaks, so for most of the time I was left twiddling my thumbs. Because I still had my sights set on getting back to programme making, I took advantage of the situation to monitor current studio schedules and hang out in studio observation galleries when programmes were in production.
I particularly recall spending hours watching production of Z cars, partly shot in one of the big studios at the Television Centre, even though set in a fictional suburb of Liverpool. The sets were vast and intricate, with multiple settings representing various interiors in the fictitious Newtown police station, such as reception, the cells, canteen, interview rooms, offices etc., and other interiors such as pubs or homes, depending on the storyline.
I particularly recall scenes that were shot in a sawn-off squad car mounted on springs so floor assistants could rock it to simulate driving motion, while the static camera observed though the non-existent windscreen. These scenes look pretty phoney now, used as we are to car scenes being shot on location by video cameras mounted on car bonnets and inside vehicles.
The elevated observation gallery above the production gallery not only enabled me to watch the progress of entire operation through its huge soundproofed window and the visual output of the vision mixer on a large monitor, but also to follow what was going on by listening to talkback from the production gallery, rather like a radio commentary. For hours on end camera operators steered their dollies smoothly from set to set while actors, floor managers, microphone boom operators and assistants, floor assistants, lighting assistants and many others all got on with their jobs, under the control of the director in the production gallery. I could have done with the master script, but that was probably regarded as confidential until transmission.
This was the best free training course I could get short of actually being on the production team, and in some ways more useful because I had a continuous overview of the entire operation. And I was getting paid!
The Afternoon Shift
After a trial period I was rostered on the afternoon shift which included the lunchtime news bulletin and children’s programmes. The concept of afternoon programmes was also being considered and a prototype afternoon chat programme hosted by Michael Aspel was trialled just before I left, memorable for the time when a slightly tipsy tea lady bowled into the live studio rattling her trolley, only to be deftly included in the live discussion. She had been serving refreshments to the camera crew in Pres A studio for years, but nobody had told her that it was now live every weekday afternoon. So much for transmission red lights.
I think there was an assumption that this shift was somehow easier than transmission after the evening news, but my experience was that it was actually harder, not just because we had to hit the news bang on the second, but because we were liable to be hindered by the antics of one famous live children’s programme, notorious for over-running. In fact a state of de facto warfare simmered between Blue Peter and presentation. Because we could monitor the production gallery talkback (but not vice versa,) we could usually tell when the programme was going to overrun, but sometimes only seconds before its agreed out-time.
The decision whether or not to chop the end of Blue Peter or trim some other programme so as to meet the news on time was entirely in the hands of the duty network director; there was no time to refer up the chain of command. The first time I got into difficulties, it caused such a mess that the next time Blue Peter overran their agreed slot when I was on duty I decided to chop out of the end credits and the famous Sailor’s Hornpipe. All hell ensued in the Blue Peter production gallery and a complaint was made subsequently. To their eternal credit those above me in the pecking order backed my judgement. To be fair this situation was unusual – other live children’s programmes always managed to run to time, give or take a few seconds.
Anther task for network directors was to “direct” weather bulletins. It might come as a surprise that weather forecasts needed to be directed, but in those pre-digital days they were recorded in Pres A studio, using a real weather map equipped with magnetic symbols, manipulated by the forecaster of the day. The forecast was shot by a studio camera and involved the forecaster moving from one area to another, so in theory at least it required a director. To be honest, with experienced forecasters and camera operators I reckon the outcome would have been the same without a director.
Bill Giles reigned supreme at the time, but during my time in presentation, at least two new forecasters appeared on the scene, Barbara Edwards and Michael Fish.
Barbara was the BBC’s first woman TV weather forecaster but unfortunately, she didn’t stay long, (1974 – 1978) mostly because, quite unfairly she became the butt of some disgraceful public bullying, based entirely on her appearance, rather than her ability as a forecaster.
According to one source: “During this period she is said to have disliked the criticism of her dress sense, which the male members of the team did not have to contend with, but was no doubt accentuated by being the first woman in the role. In this, her career route to television presentation through being a professional meteorologist clearly contrasts with subsequent stereotypes of a ‘weather girl’. This Wikipedia account is a rather an understatement; Barbara was very hurt by the way she was insulted by many viewers, even though she made light of it years later.
Michael Fish was a survivor, and a snazzy dresser. I remember that on one one of his first forecasts, someone in the studio seemed to be giving him instructions off camera during the rehearsal. It turned out to be his wife. How she got in there I never found out.
I found Michael to be a modest and good-humoured man, deserving of his subsequently abiding fame, which survived despite (or perhaps because of) his alleged blooper regarding the hurricane of 1987. Here’s a rather odd tribute to Michael, made when he retired in 2007:
The Evening Shift
In due course I graduated to one of the four teams who ran BBC1 evening transmission, which started during the early evening news right up to close down. This was a quantum leap in terms of responsibility, as this included peak viewing time, with audiences running into the millions in those days. Not only that but the job now involved the production of sophisticated trailers covering a selection of programmes to be transmitted on each network director’s evening shift. For me, this was familiar ground, a re-run of my New Zealand experience, but with the difference that by now the BBC had elevated the making of trailers to an art form. (There was to be an unforeseen consequence of this expertise as some of those who had developed it went over to work on the launch of Channel 4 which opened in 1982, notably Pam Masters, who was appointed as their head of presentation. She rejoined the BBC in 1988 as director of broadcasting and presentation, introducing concept of branding to the BBC – and its first automated transmission system.)
Each team worked a four-week cycle:
- Scheduling and viewing programmes to be promoted
- Trailer making (mostly post production)
- Transmission (6 x 12 hour consecutive shifts!)
- 8 days off to recover (much needed)
Looking back I realise that this period was among the happiest and most creatively satisfying of my life. Crack teamwork was crucial, and you didn’t survive if you could not stand the pace or the pressure. Obviously nobody died if you made a mistake, but it really did feel like it sometimes.
Most of the time, trailers were made in the video editing area, in the bowels of the Television Centre, compiled from clips taken from the chosen programmes. Technically the process of video editing at that time was one of machine-to-machine sequential copying, which I had played around with in Auckland. This was another seminal experience. One of the huge advantages of the BBC was that I worked with some of the best technicians in the world. Often the video editor could improve on my plan; after all they were highly skilled people, working on the medium day in day out. The secrets were meticulous preparation, accurate timings, efficient use of editing time and flexibility.
The exception to the video editing norm came about when I was assigned to make a trailer for a Miss UK competition. Up to then trailers for this show had been montages of the previous year’s event, edited to a catchy music track and voiced over in an upbeat kind of way. I came up with the idea of actually filming this year’s contenders just before their big day, and to my amazement my boss agreed. I researched the competition schedule and discovered the girls were due to appear at a press photo shoot at the Pleasure Beach amusement park in Blackpool the day before the competition. Because I had virtually no above-the-line budget, I booked a BBC Manchester film cameraman for the job, who I met off the early train from London.
By the time we arrived on location some of the girls were in tears of sheer terror as they had to climb on to a horrendous ride called the Monster, but we somehow managed to get shots of the happier ones, lots of crowd shots and so on, working our way round the lumbering TV outside broadcast cameras, cabled up to the OB van. The shoot probably only lasted less than half an hour, and by then we only had maybe five minutes of film in the can, so after a brief chat with the genial cameraman we headed of to shoot cheesy shots of the tower, donkeys and trams, making liberal use of the zoom control. Job done, grabbed the unprocessed film and ran for the next train to London.
Bear in mind this was before the hand-held video camera revolution, so we were filming on a 16mm news camera, in the hands of an expert news cameraman. I got back to the Television Centre in London late at night and edited the processed film to a music track through the night, bleary-eyed. The editor was just great, throwing in ideas and really doing a great job with limited footage. The end result was upbeat and visually exciting, using “cut zooms” as a gimmick. First thing next morning the edited film was transferred to videotape along with captions, and it went to air that afternoon and evening. Pity I can’t show you the trailer; very few programmes or trailers from those days have survived the bulk eraser.
The trailer was praised by my peers, but there was an interesting and memorable sequel. A few days after the Miss UK show itself went to air I got a phone call inviting me to drop by at the office of Ken Griffin, one of the BBC’s top outside broadcast producers. When I sat down, he looked at me, grinned, and said “You bastard!”.
As I was thinking here ends my career, he followed up by saying it was the best trailer his show had ever had, but it had totally upstaged the show itself, which was true I guess. He went on to admit that you just could not beat the good old mute 16mm film camera for fast-moving action shot grabbing. He was as pleased as Punch, and after that we used to occasionally run into each other by the tea trolley and relive the day he was upstaged by a trailer.
Twenty or so years later, there was yet another strange sequel to this episode, as I and my good friend Bill Pass were commissioned to devise and run several retraining courses for BBC outside broadcast camera operators, who up to then worked with fixed television cameras, cabled up to OB vans. Bill, originally trained as a studio cameraman and retrained to work as a news cameraman at Yorkshire Television and Meridian, had recently switched from ITV to an administrative job in BBC Outside Broadcasts at Hangar Lane. He saw a need for OB camera operators to retrain as mobile video camera operators, unhindered by cables – the video equivalent of the old 16mm news camera operators. Bill and I had already retrained many ITV employees during the multi-skilling revolution of the late eighties and early nineties, through my company, Script to Screen Ltd.
The Escape Tunnel
Trailer making was fun, and more creative than you might think, but throughout my time in presentation I was determined to get back into programme making. I applied for every job I thought I was qualified for, but I was at a seemingly crippling disadvantage because of the BBC system of career advancement. The normal process of getting into another department was to apply for a fixed term attachment. This meant that you were on loan to the department you wanted to join, on a trial basis. If you did well you might be offered a full-time post, either straight away or when the next vacancy occurred, or sometimes attachments were extended. My problem was that I was barred from applying for attachments because I was on contract, rather than already in a staff post.
Fortunately I came across an ally. After a dismal litany of rejections, I was referred back to appointments department, where one officer took me on as a personal case and determined to get me out of this ridiculous bind. She recommended that I should apply for a job in an English region, where the attachment system did not apply. At first I wasn’t keen, and I started looking around once more for a job in ITV, but this kind officer had tipped me off that a whole tranche of new jobs was coming up in the English regions. She persisted, and eventually I applied for an assistant producer (i.e a programme director in non-BBC speak) post in either Norwich, where my parents and sister lived, Bristol or Southampton. Applicants had to nominate three regions, and I did manage to visit Norwich to prepare myself for the interview there, but just before I was called in the appointments officer whispered in my ear that I had got the Southampton job. Not exactly by the book, but in this officer I recognised the human side of Auntie-ism, and I am forever grateful to her.
And so in 1976 we moved for the eighth time in nine years, this time to Southampton, home to BBC South, a very different kettle of BBC fish altogether.
To be continued…………..
Guardian Interview with Pam Masters: “Headmistress in the broadcasting engine room”
Weather Forecast Documentary Broadcast on BBC1 11 January 1994: