DIRECT TELEVISION from ALEXANDRA PALACE
Anecdotes from the early days
Gordon Waters, worked at AP before and after World War II. He was the first Senior Television Engineer (Telecine) from 1949-1952, when he left the BBC and emigrated to Canada, joining the CBC in its Engineering Dept.
During the latter part of 2001 he contacted me by e-mail and started to send me a few anecdotes about pre-war BBC television, which I am very pleased to reproduce here.
Jasmine Bligh and the Baird system
Initially an engineer would sit out of shot, wearing cans, and on cue would squeeze Jasmine's hand. On one classic occasion, having a long wait the engineer had let go of her hand. On receiving the cue to start talking the engineer made a wild stab to find Jasmine's hand and grabbed her knee. The viewers were treated to an opening "WHOOPS err, Good evening Ladies and Gentlemen ...."
A solution was quickly found, a small solenoid was strapped to the announcer's ankle which operated a vibrator which on cue would tickle !!
Baird colour + EMI colour = ....
On one classic occasion Make up and Wardrobe got out of step with the system in use. The occasion was the performance of the Dorchester Hotel Highkicking Chorus girls. Imagine the consternation in the control room when the girls started their routine and appeared to be absolutely nude, their red briefs appearing as skin tones.... Make-up and Wardrobe hastily changed the costumes and all was well before transmission. Had this actually gone out on transmission, and with the social attitudes of the 1930's, television might well have been set back 10 years! One more happening that would be impossible today (?).
The 1937 Coronation
The O.B. unit (there was only one) was set up at Hyde Park Corner to televise the procession after the coronation ceremony, and the pictures were to be sent back to AP by an equalised Post Office line. At AP the signals were being received up to about twenty minutes before the procession was due to pass, then the picture disappeared. Frantic activity in the O.B. van. When all hope had been given up the signal appeared again and the procession was successfully broadcast.
When the programme was over the engineers, led by I.M Bray, ripped off the back of the racks to find the trouble. It was discovered that the outgoing co-axial cable inner wire was just touching its contact but it was a dry joint. Miracles do sometimes happen!
Tea in bed, Sir?
Imagine my surprise when on Xmas morning a knock on the door came and my S.M.E. (later called S.TEL.E.) came in with a cup of tea. This from an S.M.E. who was universally disliked!
The Boat Race
Another Boat Race
The following day the public, no doubt, expected to see some photos of this unusual event. However the only pictures available were from the BBC recording which were far below the normal press quality. So a poor photo of the boats sinking was printed on the front page of many of the papers. Whether this added to television's reputation I have no idea!
[For those who are interested, the race was then rescheduled for Monday 26 March, when Cambridge won.]
Harry Champion 'dives' in
At the rehearsal things went off with no great expectations of a successful show.
Come the transmission time and the show plodded along, no doubt interesting the folk who could remember back to pre-war (that is the First World War). The last turn was to be Harry Champion. I was the vision mixer on the show so I had a birds-eye view of events.
As the time neared for Harry Champion to appear the producer was getting frantic as Harry was nowhere to be seen. Nevertheless "Bumps" (Hyam Greenbaum), the orchestral conductor started to play Harry's signature tune.
Suddenly the studio door burst open and Harry rushed onto the set and burst into his signature tune - "Any old Iron, Any old Iron, Any any any old Iron", all the time dancing to the rhythm (or rather shuffling to it). His performance lifted the whole show. Harry kept going for at least 5 minutes.
Apparently after the rehearsal Harry had adjourned to the 'Dive' for refreshment and only left when the Dive closed at 10pm.
So it could be said that Harry, who I was told was 78 years old, lifted the spirits of the show - and certainly of the producer! After the show was finished the studio crew dispersed and most of them were singing "Any old Iron".
The fact that I can recall this after over 60 years gives testimony to the effect it had on me!
The start of World War II
Bernard told me that as it was anticipated that London would be heavily bombed, the stock of Emitrons which we had brought from AP were to be sent to South Wales to be stored down a coal mine for the duration of hostilities.
The X-Ray Eyes
Anyhow he sat on a chair and his assistants placed large wads of dough on his eyes and then proceeded to wrap his entire head in bandages so it was impossible for him to see. He was then handed several different papers which it was impossible that he could have seen previously, and he read from them with no hesitation. He claimed to have seen several doctors and specialists but none could explain his unusual gift.
After the rehearsal was over several engineers, of which I was one, asked for a private demonstration and he was good enough to oblige. The leading light for the engineers was Jock Strathairn who produced a technical book for Kuda Bux to read. He reached out to take it but was prevented from doing so. Then he explained that he must touch it or he could not read it. He was given the text and started to read it.
Meanwhile Jock Strathairn had gone into the maintenance room and returned with a large sheet of copper which he placed between the text and Kuda Bux who reached out and touched it but it made no difference. He could not see through it.
Kuda Bux was a trifle miffed, perhaps because he could see a danger to his claims. But they were genuine enough for me.
John Summers was on cameras at AP from a month before programmes were transmitted in 1946, and moved to White City when it opened.
My first Television experience!
I then ascended to the sixth floor in the little lift, to report to Mr Baker, E.i.C. After a short lecture from him, he told me to report to Mr Whiting, S.Tel.E. in charge of Studio A. Mr. Whiting said to me, "Well Summers, what do you want to do - sound or cameras?"
Full of excitement I replied "Cameras please Mr Whiting". "There's a boom - you're on sound!" was his reply. Up I climbed, was quickly shown the controls, and donning a pair of "cans", my operational experience of television began.
Very soon a distraught voice came over the cans "I can't hear a word - for Christ sake get the mike closer!" This was followed almost immediately afterwards by a somewhat annoyed Director - "Get that mike out of shot!".....
So it went on - for the rest of the afternoon - either the Sound Supervisor couldn't hear what was being said - or I was being told off for having the mike in shot. I felt boom operating was not really for me.
The following morning, before rehearsals started, Mr Whiting came up to me and said, "Report to Ted Langley, Summers. You're on Cameras!"
So I became a "dolly operator" on Crew 2, under Senior Cameraman, Ted Langley. He was a really macho type, and did much to create the prestige of camera operation in TV. He demanded 101% concentration from his trackers, and big close ups and fast tracks were his hallmark.
He was a scourge to incompetent directors, and would sometimes become very exasperated with them. Once in a while he would get so annoyed that he would throw off his cans, and rush up the stairs to the control room, to give a luckless director a piece of his mind. We lads on the floor would push our headphones a bit closer to our ears so that we didn't miss a word!
One day we were in Studio A rehearsing a variety programme. A knife-throwing act had just finished on camera and we were waiting for the next turn to arrive. Ted leaned forward from his camera, and asked the knife thrower if he would throw at him.
He agreed, and Ted replaced the lovely girl in front of the target and had five knives thrown at him - all landing behind Ted jolly close to his body. Can you imagine this happening today in TV?
Well nothing untoward occurred, and afterwards Ted got back on his camera, and we carried on rehearsing. Of course we lads were all very impressed with Ted.
The next day we were rehearsing a play. The action took place in a hospital with a blood donor, and Ted set up on a still shot of blood dripping into the bottle. Although the scene in the viewfinder was upside down - it was in colour.
After a while it proved to be too much for Ted - he fainted!
Help! I'm dying
The emitron camera was set up on Test Card "C". I had used my headphone lead to measure the distance from camera to the testcard, and made sure it was squared up. The focus check had been finalised, and racks had said that I could mark in the limits. Remove viewfinder ground glass screen, apply liquid soap from the "gents", and use "bronco" loo paper to wipe off the "old" limits.
Back to the Studio, mark in the "new" limits with pencil, after inserting the glass screen and focusing viewfinder. Having "capped up" I was just leaving the Studio for a quick coffee, when Dickie Meakin came limping over to me from racks. His face was ashen, and what seemed unbelievable he had a 3ft long spike sticking out from both sides of his blood-soaked trousers!
"I ve had a terrible accident Bo, see if you can get Nurse to come up and help me" I heard him say. With out any hanging around I rushed along the corridor, down the back stairs to her surgery.
Nurse was sitting comfortably, sipping her coffee and reading the newspaper. "Come quick Nurse, Dickie Meakin has had a terrible accident!" I blurted out. Nurse looked at me calmly, glanced at her watch, and said "Tell Dickie I'll be up in a few minutes".
I could not believe what I was hearing, but I was far too young and inexperienced to argue. I just dashed back as fast as I could to see how Dickie was.
Studio deserted, no Dickie. Into racks, and there he was, sitting on the high chair, smiling. He saw the look of total disbelief on my face, and slowly pulled his trouser leg up, above his shoe, to reveal the latticework of an artificial leg!
Using some "stage" blood, and some white powder from makeup, old trousers from wardrobe, and a spike from the "stagehands" he had completely fooled me!
As the programme starts the viewer is in a moving taxi. It stops and we see out of the window the "Cafe Continental". A Major Domo in uniform comes forward, salutes and opens the taxi door. We step out, look at the billboard on the right of the Cafe entrance and read the names of the stars. Pere August comes through the Cafe door, welcomes us and beckons us to follow him into the Cafe. The programme then continues with the cabaret. The end sequence is the reverse of the beginning, we leave the Cafe, look at the billboard once more, move back and into the taxi.
You can imagine all the things that could go wrong (and they did!) with this opening and closing sequence to the programme, all live and on one "iron man" camera*.
Before going on air the painted plywood cut-out of the side of a taxi (mounted on castor wheels) would be put in front of the camera. On cue the camera and the cut-out pushed by a scene hand, would move sideways and then both stop opposite the Cafe entrance, simulating the taxi stopping. We would see the Major Domo through the window, he would step forward and open the taxi door. The taxi cut-out is in two halves, joined in the middle. As the camera moves forward to follow, the scene hands pull the two halves of the taxi apart, to allow the camera through. After that it is simple. Go in, pan right onto billboard. Pan down to read names. Cue Pere to come out. Pan left onto him and follow him in. Cut to mainstage cameras and start the Cabaret with compere Helene Cordet.
The ending was shot in the same way, camera on Cafe door, Pere says "Au Revoir - hope you enjoyed the show!" Pan right onto billboard, pan down names, pull back to marks on floor, hope the scenehands have got the cut-out in front of the camera and on its marks, pull back to second mark to reveal (hopefully) the taxi window. Cue Major Domo to step forward, salute, smile and wink as he closes the taxi door.
Now for the really tricky bit! A scene hand would be lying on the floor, in front of the camera, out of shot. He has a lady's long white evening glove over his hand and lower arm, and on cue he reaches upwards, grasps the tassel of the window blind, pulls it down to reveal "The End" tastefully written on it.
We did this opening and closing sequence for every "Cafe Continental" and I can't remember it ever going completely smoothly. You think what could go wrong attempting this routine, and I assure you that it happened at some point!
Perhaps the worst mistake occurred in the end sequence. The long white evening glove was necessary to hide the hairy, tattooed arm of a burly scene worker. On one occasion the arm came a shade too high�..
I can still hear Henry Caldwell's irate voice coming down my cans, using some very choice expletives!
* An Iron Man was the name given to a camera mounting at AP. It had a triangular base, with three small diameter wheels. It was BBC grey, and had a small wheel to adjust the height of the camera. It was not designed to be moved in vision because it tended to be "bumpy", and only intended to be moved between shots. Cameras one and two in Studio A would be mounted on trackable "dollies" with camera assistants to track them. Cameras three and four were mounted on "iron men", and only operated by the camera-men. I think they were alternatively known as Vinten (the manufacturer) pedestals, but I may be confusing two different mountings (it was a long time ago!).
Jack Clayton was one of two Sound Supervisors in BBC Television News at AP from July 1956 to 1967.
The 'silent' BTR/2
On my first bulletin with a tape insert, the script called for the newsreader (Robert Dougall, Frank Phillips or similar) to introduce the tape with the BTR/2 in shot and I would switch on the BTR/2 remotely when he mimed pressing the start button. As he reached the end of the intro, I grabbed the switch casing to pull it towards me. Unfortunately, a Sound Assistant trying to be helpful had already unscrewed the casing and it was free to move downwards. So as the newsreader stretched out his hand, I started the machine. Hearing the clonk and seeing the spools rotate, the newsreader reacted visibly and pulled his hand away; I stopped the machine.
We started a short sequence when neither of us knew what to do and he made a couple of tentative mimed starts and I operated the switch accordingly. Eventually I switched on the BTR/2 and let the insert run.
In those days things went wrong all the time and there was no aftermath. It was a real learning experience for me, though.
The early news was about 6.00pm and it was followed by a programme of topical interest. One evening the programme consisted of two regional studio inserts and two pre-filmed items. As it was self-contained, the newsreader was told he wasn't needed and could leave the studio once he'd read the news.
The sound circuits from the remote studios were not available before the news bulletin started and I was required only to make sure that they were working from the switching centre to the sound desk.
The newsreader read the introduction, the first film was run, and the studio went dark. The opening film concluded with the cue to the first remote studio insert. Up came the picture of the speaker, he opened his mouth but there was no sound. The S.Tel.E. got on the telephone but achieved nothing.
As this first speaker was due, at the end of his contribution, to introduce the speaker in the second studio, there was a lot of hair tearing, but eventually a message was passed to tell the second speaker to begin. His picture appeared, but there was no sound either. He was due to introduce the second film insert so the decision was taken to abort the programme and the Presentation staff at Lime Grove were told to fill the remaining 15 or so minutes.
Once we were off the air there was a lot of heated discussion. I didn't feel I'd failed in any way but was attacked by one of the senior news staff. "It's all your fault", he claimed, "everyone knows the sound was there all the time. It's got to be: it runs down the side of the picture!"....
I don't know if he ever learnt that television wasn't like film (combined optical or magnetic stripe), and that the vision and sound circuits followed separate paths across the country. I heard later that someone had failed to ensure that the people who manned a switching centre somewhere knew not to close down at the usual time.
Perhaps somebody learned that evening that 'live linking' keeps things flexible!
First published 1999 Second edition 2002/2003..... Page created by Arthur Dungate