Television Outside Broadcast History: “The Roving Eye”.
Compiled by Richard Harris. Updated 2020-12-28.
To view the entire article in PDF format, please follow this link: The Roving Eye.
This brief history follows the development of the BBC facility providing real-time television pictures from moving vehicles to bring action pictures to viewers.
Mounting of a television camera on the roof of an outside broadcast vehicle has been done since the very early days of broadcasting, mainly to gain additional height.
Eventually it became a requirement to produce pictures with the vehicle on the move. This needed a mobile power generator, and a radio link as well as the camera and operator.
Part 1: The Early Years – Monochrome Cameras
1953 The Travelling Eye (Roving Eye I)
Vehicle registration: NGF 729. BBC plant No. M729.
Built in the winter of 1953 – 1954, with Marconi Mk IB Image Orthicon Camera.
Bob Matthews remembers: “The construction project was given to the team that became the Experimental Television OB unit within the designs department.
“The Unit was based on a Daimler ambulance chassis chosen for its suspension. A Marconi Mk IB camera was mounted in the roof – with the cameraman half in and half out of the van – with a Band V vision link to another vehicle carrying the receiving equipment. Other link(s) were provided for engineering control etc. In order that the vehicle could operate on the move, an air-cooled petrol-engine generator was installed at the rear. This item was provided by Max-Arc Ltd. of Walton-on-Thames, a company specializing in arc-welding equipment for use in countries where water is at a premium. This obviously heavy item was to prove embarrassing when the driver wished to accelerate, as a racehorse gallops at about 40mph in a few seconds from a (nominal) standing start. No commercial-type vehicle can cope with that!
“Pictures of RE-1 appeared in the intro film to the ‘Saturday Night Out’ series of programmes that went out in the 1950s.”
In the Saturday Night Out opening sequence of 1955-1956 it can be seen that the Marconi Mk IB on the Roving Eye had been replaced with a MkIII camera.
The Roving Eye at Buckingham Palace in 1954. “On top” cameraman Jack Hayward.
The Roving Eye used in static mode as a single camera and radio link unit at Chiswick for The Boat Race, 1956.
“On top” cameraman Don McKay (by 1967 he was a supervisor in Manchester):
The idea of producing pictures on the move captured the public’s interest. It was possible to make one’s own Roving Eye from a kit!
1957 Roving Eye II
Vehicle registration: SLW 966.
BBC plant No. K966.
Built in 1957.
RE-1 demonstrated that it was possible to originate broadcast-quality TV from a moving source, and hence approval was given for RE2. The same team from the designs department built this larger unit.
Operational use of Roving Eye I showed that there was a requirement beyond simply producing pictures while on the move, partly to optimise use of equipment.
What was needed was a complete mobile unit that could travel to site, contribute to a broadcast and then move on.
A Karrier Bantam with a petrol engine was chosen as the roving vehicle and a similar support vehicle, with 18-inch longer wheelbase and additional generator, was also built.
Roving Eye II carried two Marconi Mk IB 3-inch Image Orthicon cameras, which were lighter than the new Mk III. The vehicle also had a 42-foot pneumatic mast.
BBC Engineering Monograph No. 12, April 19571 describes the unit as follows: “The design was considered a compromise, but the best that could be done at the time.“
Below is a still from the 1959 BBC documentary film, This Is The BBC made by Richard Cawston. The 65-minute film premiered before an invited audience on November 12th 1959 at the Odeon, Leicester Square and transmitted on the opening night of Television Centre, Wednesday June 29th 1960, at 7.30pm. It won the British Film Academy’s award for best specialised film.
RE II is seen roving on a public road, covering The Lincolnshire Handicap, from Lincoln:
Roving Eye II:
The driver’s position: A commentator could sit in the passenger seat and view the camera output on the monitor above the driver’s head.
The cameraman’s position: The camera mounting ring is raised by three motor-driven screw jacks. The Band V vision radio transmitter can be seen in the background, nominal frequency 660 MHz.
Interior, looking towards the sound equipment at the rear:
Interior, looking forward: The producer and sound operator sat on the bench seat with the vision engineer between them.
The vision engineer position: The CCU for the camera is in the lower section of the picture and waveform monitor cabinet.
The rear-mounted petrol powered generator unit in its acoustic insulation box.
RE II at The Grand National in 1960:
The “Dinky Supertoys” Roving Eye model 968 is one of a set of three BBC vehicles, the others being No. 967 Mobile Control Room (MCR) and No. 969 Extending Mast vehicle.
The BBC had 4 MCRs of this type, Nos. 13, 14, 15, 16 were each fitted with three Marconi Mk III cameras.
Brian Balshaw wrote: “I was T.A. on RE2 when we did this stunt flying epic from Fairoaks Airfield, Chobham, Surrey in 1963. I’ve no record of the programme, maybe a short piece in ‘Nationwide’. The idea was for the wing-flying lady to shoot at the balloon on the ground and burst it! It worked, and Ronnie Pantlin, P.A., was ever so pleased! The viewers would have been less impressed if they knew that a piece of fuse wire was stuck to the balloon and wired to the car battery at a suitable distance away. A quick dab of wire to a battery terminal gave the desired result! Credit to RE2 special effects department.”
RE-II Roving – The SM leading the vehicle down the street is Ronnie Pantlin:
RE-II (non-roving) on the left at Churchill’s funeral in 1965:
Brian Balshaw with Marconi Mk IB camera on scaffold tower:
1957 RE3 and RE4
Bob Matthews: “It appears that the intention was to have three Roving Eyes in service, and during the construction period of RE2, approval was given for RE3 & RE4, together with Tender vehicles RET1, RET2 & RET3 (RET1 to service RE2). All cameras would be the Marconi Mk IB channels released from MCRs 9 & 10, these Units having been re-equipped with Marconi Mk III cameras.
“However, when RE2 entered service, the previous problems with RE1 re-appeared – the vehicle was too heavily laden to meet the necessary acceleration requirements and the remainder of the project was abandoned. This was the only case in my 29 years’ service I heard of a project being cancelled following approval, but by this time all the additional vehicles had been built (on a Commer chassis) and many of the smaller items purchased, so all had to be returned to Equipment Dept. stock, to be bought out for other schemes as they arose.
“Consequently, RET1 entered service with RE2. RET2 became Radio Camera (base) Vehicle RCV1 and RET3 became RCV2.
“Of the two ‘Eye’ vehicles, one became MCR18 and the other’s allocation is unknown.
“RE2 remained in use, with improved suspension, although transport department was worried about its safety – personnel on board a commercial vehicle carrying weights around its maximum and travelling at speed.
“Likewise, Television production was concerned that it couldn’t meet its programme requirements. This especially applied to Manchester, with its Aintree and Haydock Park, et.al. commitments. It was at that stage that Manchester began lobbying for a large estate-type car, which would be fitted-out using existing resources and local effort. Television OB HQ resisted this at first, on financial grounds, but Manchester got its way in the end with the Humber!“
1960 Humber Super Snipe, Marconi MK III Camera
Roving Eye II had many uses, but as well as the weight problem it was too high for racing; it obscured the view from the stands. A new vehicle was built, in Manchester, the Humber “Super Snipe” estate car, registration: 256 BLA (BBC plant No. 256H) fitted with a Marconi Mk III Image Orthicon tube camera.
The Series III Humber Super Snipe estate was introduced in 1960, distinguished by the twin headlights and wrap-around grille.
This picture was used in a BBC recruitment pamphlet.
Cameraman: Don McKay.
The generator, towed behind, was based on an Enfield air-cooled motorbike engine, which was reported to be quite noisy.
The Roving Eye was often used as a static single camera unit:
1965 Bedford Roving Eye 5
Bob Matthews wrote: “In 1963, against Tel OB requirements which included MCRs 19-23, we commenced work on RE5.
“The bodywork was carried out by Marshall of Cambridge, acknowledging their experience of the other MCRs. One departure from the previous vehicles was the need to operate 405/625; another that the roof-cameraman would sit on the roof rather than through it. The generator went back on board, again increasing the weight, but I cannot remember anything about this vehicle’s acceleration capabilities.
“A sound desk was installed, so the unit was for all intents and purposes, a two-camera MCR. I went with it on its first OB, covering the 18th green at the 1965 Open at Royal Birkdale. I don’t recall any problems there, but we did have a few difficulties!“
The new Roving Eye, with registration DJJ 810C, was built mainly by Robert Matthews and Richard Hipkin, and came into use in 1965. Designated RE-5, it was coach built on a Bedford TK chassis, shortened by about a foot, to give an overall vehicle length of 18ft 8in (5.69m).
It was equipped with two Pye Mk 6 Image Orthicon cameras; one could be mounted on the roof and the other alongside the driver. The Mk 6 was customised for the BBC and used on all 10 of the MCR (Mobile Control Room) vehicles (19-28) in service at that time.
Bob Matthews said: “The vehicle was designed to rove, but I doubt if it ever did”.
In 1973 DJJ 810C was stripped and re-built as an experimental Lightweight Production unit known as LMCR. Dave Le Breton was involved in the build.
The design concept is described in BBC Engineering No. 962. It carried two Fernseh KCR-40 “handheld” colour cameras. A lot of experience was obtained but it was too small and did not carry an effective VTR.
On 21st August 1975 the cab was badly damaged in a road accident, but the unit was repaired and put back into service.
DJJ 810C rebuilt as the Experimental LMCR, on location at Kirkstall Road, Leeds, for a series called The Wild West Show in January 1975. Dan Cranefield was Vision Supervisor.
Part Two: Colour Cameras
1969 Humber fitted with PC80 Colour Camera
Robin Sutherland was at the Kendal Avenue OB base in 1969. He wrote: “The Humber had been transferred from Manchester and colourised with a Philips PC 80 camera. I do recall it was grossly overweight and chewed up back axles and half shafts regularly.”
Adam Cooper, Pete Thomas and Jimmy Trett fitted the PC80 camera, ready for Aintree.
1971 Citroen DS ELC 514J EMI 2001 Colour Camera
A replacement vehicle was needed and so a new generation of Roving Eye was built. This was the Citroen DS estate car, registration ELC 514J (1971), fitted with an EMI 2001 camera.
Here it is in 1974, in Frankfurt, for the World Cup:
Above: Jimmy Trett, Mike Farmer, Alan Hayward, Lou Lewis.
Left Picture: Drivers, Jimmy Trett and Lou Lewis. When not driving the Roving Eye, they drove and operated Power Vans.
Right Picture: Vision engineer Mike Farmer, cameraman Alan Hayward.
Derek Hooper wrote: “On the subject of CREs I believe the first Citroen ELC 514J was replaced after two years, by VGY 997M, because its performance was not great. The replacement had a larger or more powerful engine. At least that’s what I was told at the time.“
1973 Citroen DS VGY 997M EMI 2001
Another Citroen DS Safari was introduced, vehicle registration: VGY 997M (1973).
This unit is referred to in the BBC Engineering OB data book3 as CRE-1 and was initially fitted with an EMI 2001.
“Maritime Mobile”- The CRE was a versatile unit!
An Ampex VR3000 Quadruplex recorder could be carried on the passenger seat. The small monitor is a BBC design, attributed to Peter Tingey (Tingey’s Tiny Tele):
The CRE (Safari) was considered a flexible single camera unit and operational experience influenced the development of lightweight single and two camera units.2
Mike Jordan, Radio Links: “for most of the time it was a designs department Band V transmitter on usually 849 or 702MHz with the little yagi shown in the Citroen CRE picture. Radio Communications were VHF or UHF Storno radio sets.”
1978 Citroen DS VGY with 2001 used for Radio Links tests
Tests of a narrow-band FM system, to reduce interference problems, were carried out at Newbury race course, in 1978, using Safari VGY with a 2001 camera4.
1980 Upgrade Citroen DS VGY 997M (CRE-1) Philips LDK-5
In 1980 VGY 997M was updated and fitted with a Philips LDK-5 3 tube camera:
Regular driver Reg Excel and “on top” Cameraman Derek Wright:
Engineer Mike Farmer at the controls:
Here’s a personal testimony: “Hi, my name is Dave Taylor, last man on top, first man inside for the BBC CRE. (Mid-nineties I guess).
“The green Citroen rusted away the back door falling off only weeks after it was replaced by the grey one. (K690 EUL) (1992).
“Not the best car for the job really, as the much-vaunted suspension was always fully pressurised due to the weight it carried, nonetheless it was exciting whizzing down the back straight at Newbury at nearly 80mph to pick up the horses for their second circuit. Health and Safety where were you?
“The roof was strengthened and a level base plate fitted; then the camera mounting was the pivot and seat from the top of a Vinten Falcon Dolly, bolted through the plate to a heavier duty bit of metal beneath. Camera sat on the usual Vinten Mk 3 head.”
Inside BBC Television 19835 features VGY at Aintree races, and also at sea, with Derek Wright aboard, to cover raising The Mary Rose (1982).
1982 Citroen CX NYN 286Y Philips LDK-5
The Citroen DS was in production from 1955 to 1975, then it was replaced by the CX model.
Citroen NYN 286Y (1982) in BBC Bronze green Livery, new at Kendal Avenue 1983:
NYN at Kendal Avenue, 1983. Note air conditioning fitted on the roof:
NYN inside OB base at Kendal Avenue:
NYN fitted with Philips LDK-5 camera:
NYN way out in the country at Goodwood Racecourse, with the grandstand in the far distance – notice that the air conditioner has been removed:
“Roving” on grass could present problems. Sometimes the “going” got soft:
Dave Taylor: “The drivers were a bit of an unsung hero on racing, having to listen to the producer, bloke in the back (or on the roof), look in the mirrors to keep the basic pace right, too far ahead Jockey club (unhappy) for giving the horses a pace to chase, too slow similarly chastised, plus steer the car and avoid the odd punter or even press photographer who would run across to the running rail or jump landing area in front of us.“
(An aside): 1990 Citroen Mobile with Ikegami camera
This Citroen 2CV mobile, whilst not strictly a Roving Eye, was assembled to cover the London Marathon in 1990.
Derek Hooper says: “The Citroen 2CV with the roof modified was one of Kendal Avenue’s fleet, and that work was carried out by Cowlings of Acton. The BBC mechanical workshop then installed the camera mount etc.” The camera is an Ikegami (possibly HL95), on hire from Cine Video.
On Sunday 3rd February 1991 BBC Television outside broadcasts held an open day for staff and friends at their Kendal Avenue base. CRE NYN 286Y was an exhibit. Camera supervisor Ken Moir, wearing the kilt, is talking to cameraman Nick Roger.
The camera mounting supporting a Vinten pan & tilt head.
Derek Hooper continues: “NYN 286Y was the first CRE to have a trouble-free trailer generator. We had tried different installations over the years with varying success but ended up with a 3kW Honda. The problem that remained concerned the trailer wheel bearings. Coupled with being bounced around race courses and the driver’s tendency to get from A to B at warp speed shortened their lives considerably.”
1992 Citroen XM K690 EUL Sony BVP-T 70
BBC Engineering, Progress and Achievements 19926 reported: “A mainstay of OB operations is the ‘Colour Roving Eye’. There have been many versions of this vehicle over the years, the last being a Philips LDK 5 camera mounted on a Citroen Safari. This was replaced in November by a new unit based on the Citroen XM estate, (the current equivalent of the Safari), which is found to give the best ride across the bumpy terrain of race courses. The main bugbear of the old roving eye was the need to tow a power generator, but modern equipment and close attention to power consumption have allowed the generator to be dispensed with for normal roving operations. The vehicle is being fitted with the traditional pivoted cameraman’s seat but a Sony ‘split package’ BVP-T 70 camera is used in which only the CCD chip is fixed to the lens and the electronics are housed inside the vehicle. On-board VT and radio links are provided as before.“
The new Citroen pictured at Kendal Avenue:
Citroen XM, K690 EUL near a starting gate at Ascot. Derek Reid is driving with cameraman Gerry Ellis on top:
NYN 286Y, Citroen CX, in two tone grey livery, at the Kendal Avenue base in 1993 with the Citroen XM behind, registration K690 EUL (1992):
K690 EUL and NYN 286Y at Chepstow racecourse:
Developments continued. The link frequency was moved up to 2GHz and the Yagi aerial replaced.
In 1993, NYN 286Y was transferred from the Park Western building in Kendal Avenue to Pebble Mill for work on Top Gear. Derek Hooper says: “It never returned to Kendal Avenue, not on a permanent basis“:
Part Three: Small Cameras and Remote Heads (The Balls)
Dave Taylor wrote: “The version I used no longer towed a generator and indeed the camera was a Sony BVP-T 70 in a custom-built tin box on a lens frame, with a box lens and proper viewfinder.
I did about a year on the roof before the balls came into use. The Citroen was then cobbled up to accommodate an operator position in the rear passenger seat, with various mountings on the roof being tried for the different balls auditioned. This was then replaced by the 4-wheel drive Volvo for a couple of years, before being replaced by the Discovery to give greater lens height and thereby losing the running rail from shot.”
Citroen XM re-fitted with remote heads
Dave Taylor continues: “The shot of the ball on the grey one demonstrates the early problems with balls, i.e. they were originally made to go underneath the carrier, until one of the hire companies turned one upside down internally, we only had about 270 degrees of pan range.”
K690 EUL in car park 3, next to the links truck, at Ascot, June 1996:
1998 Volvo 4×4 S939 SLC
Volvo registration no. S939 SLC (1998).
Dave Taylor wrote: “The other reason for the Volvo, with much more grass roving the Citroen XM didn’t grip; the Volvo being 4×4 just sat down and went. Safety was also a consideration, 4×4 became essential going into bends at up to 30 mph. The Discovery never felt as safe as the Volvo but Steve Docherty insisted on higher lens height.”
The Volvo 4×4 at Royal Ascot in 2004:
Citroen CX NYN 286Y re-modelled for remote camera head
Dave Taylor wrote: “NYN has been to the Beeb chop shop to be used as a links test bed, the Balls were all 24v so large batteries were used to power it”.
2004 Land Rover Discovery V8 CRE
According to Derek Hooper: “The Land Rover Discovery, in dark metallic green, was bought second-hand from a dealer in Reading with, I think, 3 to 4000 miles on the clock. By the time the powers that be had decided on a Discovery, Land Rover had ended production and were changing the assembly lines for the new model – Discovery 3 – which would not be available to buy for several months, so a used vehicle was the only solution. I also obtained the number plate V8 CRE, to both identify it and to hide its age, although it was only 6 to 7 months old“.
Land Rover Discovery in operational mode at Goodwood in 2006:
Dave Taylor: “It was quite cosy, Last thing you wanted was too much space to go flying around in on a bend.”
Part Four: SIS
BBC Outside Broadcast division was sold to SIS, 1st April 2008.
The Discovery roving at Dorney lake near Windsor. It was used for the 2012 Olympics:
The Discovery on the road. Notice the SIS cover over the camera.
The Discovery at Ascot in the TV compound.
Land Rover Discovery, registration no. V8 CRE. Sold as a private car when OBs closed.
Postscript: The Citroen VGY 997M, known as CRE-1 was sold to a cameraman, Bob Everitt, after it was de-commissioned from BBC service. It was re-painted a light blue colour.
Robin Southerland remembers travelling many miles in it with him as they were on the same crew and lived quite close.
DVLA records show the vehicle still exists. The last V5C logbook was issued in June 1991, but the vehicle hasn’t been taxed since December 1991. Where is it now?
Part Five: The End
For many people the Citroen DS remains the Iconic “Roving Eye”:
The BBC Outside Broadcast base in London at Kendal Avenue was sold in 2007.
BBC Outside Broadcast division was sold to SIS, 1st April 2008.
SIS closed down Outside Broadcast operations in March 2014.
Part Six: New Beginnings
It was planned to re-create CRE1, a Citroen DS, fitted with a Philips LDK-5 camera.
A 1973 Safari vehicle has been obtained. Much of the technical equipment is available. Unfortunately, a detailed survey showed the cost of restoration as a vehicle to be prohibitive.
A Citroen XM has been found, to be used as the base for re-creation of a Roving Eye.
The Citroen XM, designed by Bertone, succeeded the CX and was launched on 23rd May 1989. It was October before it was available in UK with the estate version introduced in Spring of 1991. Production ceased in June 2000. The shape was similar to the CX but with the “distinctive staggered beltline” and different grille and front styling.
The Citroen XM is now a rare classic vehicle. Only 300,000 were produced. The best estimate is that some 161 remain taxed, of these it is not known how many are estates.
The BBC XM Roving Eye, Reg. No. K690 EUL, was put into service in 1992. It was probably in use until 1998, when a 4 wheel drive Volvo was introduced.
The previous Citroen CX (NYN 286Y) remained in active service until 1993. It carried a Phillips LDK-5 camera on top, and towed a generator. It was subsequently used for Top Gear then structurally modified for further development of remote operated cameras.
The XM vehicle was first fitted with a Sony BVP-T-70 camera and box lens in a custom built housing. The operator was seated on the top. The power system was such that it was not necessary to tow a generator and the vehicle did not have a tow hitch.
That configuration was in use for about a year before various remote controlled cameras were introduced (The Balls). The camera operator sat in the back seat.
The XM Estate to be used for re-creation was registered in 1997 as R729 JKV and is a Series 2 model. The upgrade was introduced in June 1994 and included driver’s airbag, suspension improvements and interior and exterior styling and trim changes. The vehicle is fully roadworthy and carries an MOT certificate.
It is intended to create a Roving Eye vehicle with interchangeable equipment so that it can be configured as the CX version with LDK-5 camera or either of the XM versions, with lightweight camera or remote operated camera.
CX and XM at Kendal Avenue 1993:
Dave Taylor, Mike Jordan, Robin Sutherland, Robert (Bob) Matthews, Dan Cranefield, Dave Le Breton, Brian Balshaw, Derek Hooper, Brian Summers, Norman Green, Barry Sandford, Pat Jessup, Tony Nuttall, Harwood Hilly, the BBC Tech-Ops group and others who provided information and the pictures, which remain their copyright.
Dave Hill and Ruth Slavid for editing, proof reading and formatting.
Rev. 14 Compiled December 2020 by Richard Harris.
Copyrighted articles and images on this site are the property of the original owners. Data presented here is for reference and historical research and analysis, as permitted by ‘fair use’ rulings. The images and articles in this web site are the sole copyright of the owners of those pictures and articles.
Permission must be obtained from original copyright holders before reproduction or re-posting of any material on this site. Wherever possible this site has attempted to recognize the original copyright owners. Contact concerning copyright of the images will be addressed, and if required withdrawn on copyright holder’s request.
- T. Worswick M.Sc., A.M.I.E.E and G. W. H. Larkby; April 1957; An improved “Roving Eye”; BBC Engineering Division Monograph No. 12; Designs Department, BBC Engineering Division.
- G. D. Cook F.I.E.E. Asst. Chief Engineer, Television Operations; November 1973; “Lightweight Colour Mobile Control Rooms”; BBC Engineering No. 96; BBC Publications; London; ISBN 0 563 12645 0.
- BBC Engineering Data Book; Television Outside Broadcasts; Specification and Operational Notes on CRE 1.
- N.H.C Gilchrist B.Sc. C.Eng M.I.E.E; July 1978; “Narrow-Band FM system for Television Links”; BBC Research Department Engineering Division; BBC RD 1978/22 UDC621.397.6 : 621.391.812.7.
- Inside BBC Television, A Year Behind the Camera; 1983. Published by Webb & Bower Ltd. ISBN 0-906671-77-9.
- BBC Engineering Progress and Achievements 1992 Page 13, “Colour Roving Eye”, BBC Engineering Information, White City, Wood Lane, London