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 - 1976


Alexandra Palace
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 different areas.

 

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.
 

 

 

 

Newsfilm
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

 

 

 

Early Videotape
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 editors.

The Studios

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 BBC1.
 
 

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 time.
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 1969
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 Peter Woods.)

 In 1976 I moved to Regional News at BBC East in Norwich.

LINKS 

For more information about Alexandra Palace and its TV history …there’s a wealth of information on these sites:   

http://www.alexandrapalace.com/hidden-gems/bbc-studios/

Detailed history of early BBC TV broadcasts, with archive photos 2003-09-14

Unofficial History of BBC Television at Alexandra Palace

Pictures and Information About Alexandra Palace History

Alexandra Palace Television Society

BBC account of  the first 50 years of Television News


To contact Bob please email  bob.taylor@bawdeswell.net