By Dan Cranefield, Senior Engineering Manager, BBC Tel OBs
After the war BBC Television Outside Broadcasts (Tel OBs) operated from their base at the Palace of Arts in Wembley, one of the substantial buildings which were built there specially for the British Empire Exhibition in 1924. Some of these buildings were put to other uses later on.
Before I started work there a regular live outside broadcast took place every Saturday evening using one of the OB units. Called “Saturday Night Out” this took place from a different location each time which was never disclosed to the viewers till it was on the air. The opening sequence showed the presenter Robert Beatty answering a phone call and saying “BBC Outside Broadcasts……We’re starting now”. This was followed by a filmed insert of the appropriate vehicles leaving the Palace of Arts premises1.
One famous event in 1956 was a staged rail crash but it went wrong because, as told to me later by the Engineering Manager, they had decided to lash the whistle down at the start when the driver jumped off. The engine gradually ran out of steam so was only going slowly when it went off the rails! It is a great pity that a similar programme does not happen today but I expect the location would be leaked beforehand by the media or people on social media. Also BBC Tel OBs does not exist anymore, being closed down many years ago.
I joined BBC Tel OBs there in June 1963 after I had completed my four-year BBC Technical Trainee Course which consisted of six months at Hendon Technical College then 6 months each at different BBC premises around the country.
The first three months in OBs were spent in a section devoted specially to the operation and servicing of radio microphones, which were used on some of the programmes where they were necessary. Staff in this department also dealt with big international programmes involving commentators for each country taking the international output. Each “Foreign Commentator”, as they were known at that time, had a small cubicle with a lip mic and monitor and cable communication with BBC staff who were in a room or vehicle housing the necessary equipment to transmit each commentary to the outside world.
One of my first programmes was the LTA Tennis Championships at Wimbledon and a line of about a dozen of these boxes were at the rear of the seating on the Centre Court. Our equipment was derigged into a room under number 1 Court which was immediately adjacent to the Centre Court at that time. As my home was in Wimbledon I used to go home for lunch each day on my scooter! This was years before catering was supplied there for the staff! As the working day for most of these commentators used to finish earlier than play on the outside courts I occasionally used to sit in the seating area on number 2 or number 3 court to watch some of the tennis. Once a ticket holder was in the ground there was complete freedom to go onto any of the courts except Centre and Number 1 and there was plenty of spare space in the evenings.
My last programme with this section was the British Grand Prix in August 1963 at Brands Hatch where the radio mics worked fine on the rehearsal day but suffered severe interference on the programme day!
In August 1963 I transferred to Radio Links Dept. which dealt with the all the communications needed for an outside broadcast. The video signal usually needed to travel by line-of-sight radio links to the receiving points which, for the London area, were at Swains Lane, Highgate or the Crystal Palace transmitter mast. The BBC rented vision circuits from the GPO (later to become BT) from these two sites to Television Centre. The OB sound output and communications were normally by GPO lines. The first programme I did was from Folkestone for Songs of Praise where the radio link was rigged on a high roof. There was one programme from the Hippodrome at Golders Green which, at a later date, the BBC rented on a long term basis.
All the engineers on Radio Links needed to be able to drive BBC Land Rovers which also towed a trailer-generator on many occasions for midpoints and each of us had to pass a “BBC Driving Test”. I had a car driving licence but no car and had not driven a car since passing my driving test two years earlier in Birmingham. The BBC driving test was conducted by the Transport Manager and consisted of driving a Land Rover just “round the block”. I think you passed if you brought it back to base without hitting anything! Driving a Land Rover, with double-declutching needed, especially when towing a one-ton generator was not easy and once I had to drive this combination for a “Top of the Form” programme in Dumfries, Scotland.
On one occasion I had to spend a week sitting in a Radio Link van at Broadcasting House with a radio link to Television Centre because one of the permanent vision circuits between the two buildings was faulty. At one point the van was reversed into by a car, but the car came off the worse!
In April 1964 I had to climb to the top of the mast at Swains Lane, (90ft high with vertical ladder, shades of Fred Dibnah!) because the Senior engineer decided there must be water in one of the waveguides because he could not achieve the correct signal-noise ratio for that circuit. He was wrong because, after dismantling, it all it was quite dry!
In 1964 I was on a mid-point at Laindon in Essex for the Southend fireworks which was an insert for the opening day of BBC 2, the opening programme having to be aborted because of the infamous power cut at Television Centre, caused by a fire at Battersea Power Station. So we had to do it all again the next day.
Another programme in May 1965 involved rigging a camera in an RAF Argosy aeroplane at RAF Benson in Oxfordshire which had to try to keep up with a formation of jet fighters flying low over London. The vision circuit for this camera needed a radio link to the receiver on the ground, but I do not remember what the programme was, possibly the 20th anniversary of VE day?
In October 65 I transferred to scanners and to MCR 21, one of a number of similar monochrome OB Units and actually one of two being restored to working order, the start of my “scanner” career. In 1966 I was at Wembley Stadium for the World Cup matches and the famous Final. The Vision Supervisor on my unit did not cheer for England as he was Irish! It seemed that, despite the number of football matches we covered, most of the crew were not interested in football. At one FA Cup Final I heard that the Vision Supervisor, who was not a football fan and used to love to “wind-up” the Producer said “Well, who is playing today? I know one team must be Wembley but who are they playing?”
© Dan Cranefield 2020