50 years of BBC Television News was
celebrated in 2004
On that occasion Bob Taylor, a retired engineer,
recorded these memories
from between the years 1963
When I joined the BBC
straight from the RAF in 1962, my
first posting was to Queen Margaret
Drive in Glasgow.
A year later I was offered a transfer from BBC
Scotland to Television Centre in London.
When it was time to go, an urgent
telegram arrived telling me to report to Alexandra Palace
on Monday morning, not the Television Centre.
Thus began six happy and
unexpected years in this historic building, the home of television.
A few years earlier the main
programmes 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.
I remember many signs of the
earlier days there. The term ‘control gallery’ originated from the
control room above the original Studio ‘A’. It was still there, up a
vertical wall ladder. The seating in this dusty old gallery was in rows
like bus seats and the control desk about four feet wide. There was a
large control knob in the middle of it – probably signal level or Black
Level, it may even have been used for mixing between cameras,
apparently cutting was not possible at first. See article
from Practical Wireless March 1947.
Our maintenance workshop
between the two studios, A & B, used to be where the film was processed
in one of the early experimental systems . In this system there were film
cameras in the studio and the film was processed and scanned for transmission
In the basement were the
massive High Frequency Alternators that in the early days had produced
the power for the transmitters, and on the roof the imposing
steel mast that had radiated the World’s first regular television
transmissions. (We received a direct lightning strike on it one day.
The bang was enormous and the whole building was full of the smell of
burning. We were inundated with telephone calls asking if we were all
I was detailed to 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.
had a row of six 16mm projectors and one 35mm projector pointing down the
lenses of vidicon cameras. There were several separate 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 joke, "If
the sound is in the same programme, its in sync!"
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.
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.
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.
I also 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
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
Russian Pictures from
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. I once used it, shouting down a
primitive control line telephone to someone called Mel in New York. 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. I remember the lumbering
weight of the telecine van, driving it through London. On my first journey, I couldn't
find reverse gear and got closer and closer to the building everytime I
attempted to leave. The front bumper was actually touching the building when
I finally found it, and we set off like a circus convoy for Heathrow.
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.
conversion is done digitally and is quite transparent and no one gives it a thought.
405 lines & 625
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 (typical of the BBC!). I
also became an ‘expert’ in lining up the new equipment. It was a case
of being in the right place at the right time and being sent on an early
Colour Course at Wood Norton.
We 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 the News couldn’t wait usually and it was more
expedient to book a standards converter 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 in charge of the line-up 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
The Move to Television
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
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.
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
I was on duty the night
that 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 are an awful lot.” It was the Network Control studio
that cut away and made an embarrassing apology. The Press were at the
gates in twenty minutes and in those days came sweeping into the
building. We were forbidden to talk to anybody. I 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 was very unreliable.
After 13 years in BBC
Television News I transferred to
Regional News in Norwich, and that is another
For more information about Alexandra
Palace visit www.alexandrapalace.com
The Alexandra Palace Television Society www.apts.org.uk
BBC account of the
first 50 years of Television News
To contact Bob please do so via firstname.lastname@example.org