50 years of BBC Television News was
celebrated in 2004
On that occasion Bob Taylor, a retired engineer,
submitted these personal memories
from between the years 1963
By 1954 the main BBC output had been
moved to Shepherds Bush and the two original studios at Alexandra Palace were re-equipped for use by the fledging tv News Department.
The operation of the cameras and the technical equipment was carried
out by engineers and trainee engineers (Technical Assistants). We were
divided into two shifts and three studio crews and rotated round the
I started in the telecine area along the corridor from the studios,
and within a couple of weeks was lacing up and running film into the news
programmes on BBC1 and BBC2.
We had a row
of six 16mm projectors and one 35mm projector pointing down the lenses of
vidicon cameras, manufactured by PYE and the BBC. There were several
separate Westrex sound bays that had to be linked to the projectors if
there was any edited sound. They didn't always run in sync.
There was a standing joke, "If the
sound is in the same programme, stop complaining, its in sync!"
We were still
in the black-and-white era. Colour television had not yet arrived and
was only being experimented with at Research Department.
The news film was shot in negative stock as
with most photography. It was edited like that (poor editor!) and any
sound editing was done on a separate magnetic track. Our telecine
machines could phase reverse the pictures from negative to positive at the
flick of a switch, but it took a few seconds to stabilise so we
didn’t do it on air. The negative film was later printed as a
positive copy, for archiving or use on the later transmissions. If a
news story needed any copied material, it couldn't be edited together and
ended up with the positive and negative sequences on different reels
because it was only acceptable to run a machine in one mode. So the
unfortunate telecine operator had to cope with one, maybe very short, news
item on two reels plus associated sound reels.
One got over this complication by numbering
the reels very carefully for each programme, the job of the duty Make-up
Editor. He spaced each sequence with a countdown leader and scratched
the film with cue dots four seconds from the end of each
sequence.. We put the reels on two separate machines and ‘motored’
from one machine to the other as it was called, stopping each machine and
re-setting on the short leader at the start of the next sequence, ready to
run it again when the next set of cue dots flashed by. Blink and you
missed it! The whole news story might last only 30 seconds. It
was a two-man job running these films but when things got busy you sometimes
found yourself running both machines.
On one occasion when we were working into
two studios at once for BBC1 and BBC2, two of us moved the chairs out of
the way and moved around one another to run five machines
whilst two people were lacing up stories and sound tracks as they
were coming in. If it hadn’t been for the simple numbering
routine for the reels and the calling and running of them from the
galleries by their numbers, it couldn’t have worked. The noise from
different programmes and talkback systems was a total cacophony .
In a short time you became a very
accomplished projectionist and could lace up a film projector in seconds in
the dark, without looking at what you were doing, and listening to more
than one set of talkback instructions at a time.
Telecine pictures : Geoff Rowlands
There were also two enormous videotape machines,
VTN1 and VTN2, down in the bowels of the building. The tape on
them was two inches wide. Editing the tapes involved a microscope
to view the magnetic tracks, a razor blade to cut the tape and sticky tape to
join it. At first the Engineer/Operator had the indignity of a Film
Editor standing over him dictating where he should edit it. It was a
few years before VT editors became specialists with the same standing as film
After a while I was moved to the studios and learned to mix sound
and be a vision mixer. Both of these jobs were quite difficult on
News broadcasts because of the live nature of the programmes and the
constantly changing running orders. You very rarely had the benefit
of a rehearsal. At the most you got a run through of any films that
were ready, but the norm was to have the programme develop on air as and
when items were ready. Many stories arrived too late.
In this picture are myself vision mixing,
David Darlow an Australian Director, and PA is Janet Gardner. It was
1966 in Studio B Gallery preparing for the 5.50pm National News on
We all took a turn behind studio cameras at this time. Studio
B for BBC1 had remote control cameras with two of you operating four
cameras from the back of the gallery. You set the shots up on rows of
knobs and switched between the rows.
The newsreaders of the day were Robert Dougal, Richard Baker and Michael Aspel.
Journalists as Newsreraders
Studio A was used for BBC2 and any other news
specials. It had four manned cameras and embarked on longer and much more
involved news programmes. It used newsroom journalists as
presenters and was the first place John Timpson,
Martin Bell and John Humphries appeared, to mention but three.
On a Royal Trip to Ethyopia John Timpson
brought back a three-pipe flute. When an Eagle escaped from Regents
Park Zoo and became headline news for a few days, he was filmed trying to
lure it with his flute. He reckoned if he blew one pipe it would look
at him, if he blew the second it would lift a leg. The idea was to blow
the third and see if it lifted the other leg and fell out of the tree.
It flew off!
Another journalist who appeared was Frederick Forsyth, since become famous as a
writer. He was sent to Biafra on a news assignment and I remember the
concern when he didn’t return. For some
reason he had decided to abandon his masters and set about writing “The Day
of the Jackall” which was his first bestseller.
Russian Pictures from the Moon
On the Sound Desk one night a tape was
recorded from Professor Lovell at Joddrel Bank to tell us about the first close
up pictures of the Moon’s surface he had downloaded, at the request of the
Russians, following the success of the first moon lander. In the heat
of the moment the tape machine was not set to remote-control and failed to
run when I started it. The newsreader went on to the next story before
I had time to swing round and sort it. The next morning the Daily Mirror
had a picture of the moon surface in the paper and the caption – “The Russians can get pictures from the Moon but the
BBC can’t get sound from Manchester.”
Satelites were still experimental. We got our film by
aeroplane and motorcycle courier. People used to
be stopped at airports around the world and asked to hand over tins of film
to the BBC office at Heathrow, and they did, and asked no questions -
probably felt pride in doing it.
BBC News co-operated with CBS News in New York and installed a slow-scan film scanner that they could use over the transatlantic
telephone cable. It was very slow and took 30 minutes to transfer 18
seconds of film, which in the end was of pretty poor quality anyway.
If film from America was really urgent, the
better routine was to fly it to Heathrow and process it there in a mobile
Film Processing Van, edit it and transmit it from a Mobile Telicine
Van, direct by landline into the news at Alexandra Palace. It was a
very cumbersome set-up in three heavy vans.
The satellite era
dawned with the Telstar satellite which
orbited the earth every 45 minutes and was only over your horizon for 19
minutes. It was occasionally used on our news programmes and we waited excitedly
for “signal acquisition” as it came over the horizon and we cut to it.
We were on 405 lines 50Hz standard and the
Americans on 525 lines 60Hz and the signals had to be converted in the very
crude way of pointing cameras at monitors.
The BBC Research Department had produced an
analogue Line Store which could convert picture standards, but it did not
convert the Frame speed. This resulted in a non standard display and though
it could be viewed it could not be recorded. Then they produced the World’s
first Frame Store which solved this. We sat in the studio late one
night feeding converted pictures by satellite to Hollywood for the Society of
Motion Pictures & Television Awards. Peter Rainger, the designer was
in our studio, and was awarded an ‘Emmy’ for his invention.
Nowadays standards conversion is done
digitally and is quite transparent and no one gives it a thought.
405 lines & 625 lines
To cope with BBC1 & BBC2 our system at Alexandra Palace could be switched between 405 lines and 625 lines. Every piece of
equipment could be remotely switched and had a pair of indicator bulbs on it –
orange for 405, blue for 625. The only other indication was that the
line whistle you heard from the monitors was higher on 625. I remember
one late BBC2 news bulletin on a Saturday evening, somebody realising towards
the end that the lights were the wrong colour and the whine was too
low. They gave a yell and the master switch was thrown. All the
monitors flashed and the scans then recovered and we were on the right
standard. Nobody said anything, not even Network Control at the
Television Centre. I guess their monitors just switched to whatever was
incoming too! Viewers at home would have suffered a screen full of
screaming lines, but nobody phoned in, and no mention in the Mirror this
We used to joke that BBC2 only
had 2 viewers and on this occasion they must have gone to bed.
Introduction of Colour
In 1969 when we started converting the BBC2
studio A to colour, I was involved in modifying all the colour monitors
before installing them (quite typical of the BBC!)
It was decided from the start that the
News studios should be able to operate in any of the International Standards
without the need for Standards Converters. This considerably
complicated the new installation and involved lengthy line up
procedures. In practice usually the News couldn’t wait and it was
more expedient to book a standards converter at the TVC when needed.
However we did occasionally transmit to America in their own NTSC
Standard -– notably on the night of Neil
Armstrong’s landing on the Moon. I was the line-up
engineer that night and witnessed the excitement of those first steps.
As part of a World roundup of reaction for the American networks, we had in our
studios various dignitaries including Rev Ian Paisley and another Irish
MP of the time Bernadette Devlin. She was very young and a reactionary,
but it was interesting that she never answered a question until her minder
spoke in her earpiece and told her what to say. Normally she had a lot to say in public.
For more information on Alexandra Palace history and memories, see the LINKS at the bottom of the page.
The Move to Television Centre
For some years they had been promising that TV
News would move into the Spur of Television Centre – it was always ‘next
year’ ! At last in 1969 things began to move. I was
seconded with a few others to help with the final installation and do the
acceptance testing. This was a very hard but enjoyable six months.
We were going to have to move the offices
and quite a lot of the equipment over to the new premises over a Friday
night, to give us the weekend to be ready for work as usual on Monday.
Scaffolding was erected outside every
upstairs window of Alexandra Palace, with motorised lifts every few
yards. Everything was carefully marked with a coloured sticker to
indicate which area it had to end up in. On
the night of 22nd September1969, sixty-five removal pantechnicons lined
up, and the contents of Alexandra Palace were transferred across London to Television Centre. I was on the receiving half of the workforce and
spent the whole weekend, nights and all, sorting out the equipment and
getting the essential bits installed. We had to be ready to do a Newsroom
summary into Grandstand on Saturday and short evening bulletins on BBC1
& 2 over the weekend. But on Monday we had to be in full swing with
all the normal bulletins including the 9’oclock News on BBC1 and the 30
minute Newsroom on BBC2. It all went well thanks to the tremendous team
work. Some of us had not had a day off for five weeks and the last few
nights had grabbed what sleep we could on camp beds in a Conference
Room. The work had been going on round the clock for months.
TV News’s arrival at the Television
Centre was not really welcomed. We were an invasion , about five
hundred of us , and we kept to ourselves and only mixed with the Network
studios at times like General Elections when we became part of the bigger
team. There was at that time a large Current Affairs Department
situated at Lime Grove Studios and working quite separately from News.
Today it is quite different. News and Current affairs are one and they
have all but taken over the television centre. (In 2013 the entire News
and Current Affairs operation moved to central London to the
refurbished Broadcasting House. Television Centre was sold to developers.)
First Teletext Trial
Teletext had its first trials in our news Apparatus Room. I remember a young
engineer from Research Department bringing along a board of plywood covered in
dozens of microchips interconnected by a birds nest of pins and wires.
He was allowed to insert it into our programme chain to see if it worked.
We were very impressed, because for one thing
electronic character generators were still rare. For subtitles or
captions we used black card with Lettraset, or printed with a
typewriter using a silver ribbon, we even employed caption artists.
Peter Woods Incident
One night in 1976 Peter Woods was allowed to go on the air when
he had had a little too much to drink in the Club. He usually drank
there all evening but always managed to face the camera when the red light
went on. On this occasion he had taken some pills for hayfever. We
couldn’t believe the director would go ahead and put him on air, but
he did. Peter was very slurred and when it came to the monthly Trade
Figures, he just gave up trying to read the numbers and said, “...and the trade
figures have an awfully big gap.” It was a current affairs programme
at Lime Grove that cut away and made an embarrassing apology. The
Press were at the gates in twenty minutes and in those days, with no
meaningful security, came sweeping into the building. We were told to
talk to nobody. We removed the VCR recording we always did, and
thinking of Peter, erased it. Of course there was a demand to
see the tape by his editors and bosses, but we blamed the VCR machine which
in those days were very unreliable. (Made elsewhere a sound recording survives.
You can listen to several copies
overlaid by video reconstructions on YouTube. Just search on YouTube for
In 1976 I moved to Regional News at BBC East in Norwich.
information about Alexandra Palace and its TV history …there’s a wealth
of information on these sites:
of early BBC TV broadcasts, with archive photos 2003-09-14
History of BBC Television at Alexandra Palace
and Information About Alexandra Palace History
Alexandra Palace Television Society
of the first 50 years of Television News
To contact Bob please email bobtaylorBBC@gmail.com