Early Location Drama in Colour

By Dan Cranefield, Senior Engineering Manager, BBC Tel OBs.

“Survivors” on location.
Photo: Dan Cranefield.

Dan Cranefield looks into the beginnings of location drama shot on videotape instead of film.

In the early days of colour television, the early to mid-1970s, most BBC drama comprised studio sets with electronic cameras but with filmed inserts for outdoor scenes. Drama or comedy series tended to be of 30 minutes, 50 minutes or one hour’s duration.

The lighting and the sound in these filmed inserts used different technicians from those in the studio and some of these inserts, with BBC using only 16mm film, not 35mm, were not up to the same quality as the studio TV cameras and pictures often did not match.

If the programme was entirely on location production costs could be saved by not having to build studio sets and, if electronic cameras could do all the location work instead of film there would be more picture consistency. The average length of edited film using one camera was about 3 minutes per day so this meant that a 50 minute drama using film only could take three weeks to complete and then it then needed editing.

In the early 1970s BBC Television Outside Broadcasts converted a couple of redundant 4-camera monochrome OB vehicles into 2-camera colour OB units, and these were used for larger programmes which needed more cameras than usual or for sites remote from the main Colour OB unit. However, on many occasions one of these 2 camera units was used for individual location dramas or for a drama series but, as they used full-size studio-type cameras on substantial mountings their use was limited sometimes by lack of space on location and there was no hand-held ability. They were also cumbersome if moves were necessary.

In BBC Tel OBs, Vision Supervisors, who were in charge of each unit and responsible for picture quality, and engineers on the OB Units were not attached to each unit for more than about nine months at a time because the various repair rooms needed to be staffed by them on a rotational basis and, whenever the units had a few days between programmes there were always electrical and mechanical repairs needed. In order to cover leave and sickness it was important that Vision Supervisors and engineers could do whatever and wherever jobs were needed, often many miles away from the base in London.

I was the Vision Supervisor on one of these 2-camera units in 1972 and 1973 which was known as LO 21 (being ex-MCR 21) and this was used on many different sorts of programmes from remote cameras for horse racing, show jumping, golf as well as some individual drama programmes and some drama series. You may remember Z Cars and Softly, Softly, also a forerunner of Top Gear called Wheelbase, even a The Sky at Night with Patrick Moore. We once recorded one Gardeners World programme on site in sequence; it was edited after each shot and, at the end of the day, the programme was ready for transmission! This saved the cost of a long radio link circuit back to Television Centre and the producer took the tape back in his car.

In 1973 a redundant technical vehicle (Roving Eye 5) was converted into an experimental “Lightweight Control Room” (LMCR) and fitted out with 2 Fernseh KCR 40 cameras, one of the first type of lightweight camera which could do most of what a 16mm film camera could do i.e. use a full-sized camera mounting, be fitted to the side of a car for travelling shots or just be shoulder-mounted by the camera person. However, the cameras were not self-contained; each camera needed to be cabled to its “backpack” where most of the electronic circuits were using a multicore cable. The backpack was then cabled to the LMCR by another cable to each control unit mounted in the OB Unit. For recorded drama, sequences using both cameras at the same time and recorded direct to a helical tape recorder saved a lot of post-production editing time. With suitable scripts 10-minutes or more of final edited material could be shot in one day and therefor a 50-minute drama could be recorded in a week of 5 days. Some directors, it seemed, could cope with this type of shooting very well while others still preferred the single-camera-at-a -time technique.

I was Vision Supervisor on this unit from 1974 to 1976 and we did many important programmes, inserts for The Pallisers costume drama series, very many whole episodes of Z-Cars, Play for Today and the Eurovision Song Contest in 1974 at Brighton when ABBA won.

Another well-received drama series called Survivors, about groups of people who survive a virus epidemic, was recorded in Herefordshire and Monmouthshire and is still available to buy on DVD today.

“Survivors” on location.
Photo: Dan Cranefield.

This series was memorable for me because these cameras were quite unreliable, having numerous connection problems both inside the backpack and with the multicore cable connectors on it. Some of the 2-camera sequences had to be re-rehearsed because only one camera was working properly while the other needed repair. The cameras usually produced a picture but with all sorts of picture problems making the shots frequently unusable. In the second series a third camera, complete with an experienced engineer, had to be on site the whole time with the one and only spare camera the BBC owned, and it was a struggle to keep 2 cameras operational!

During one of the episodes, a coach which was booked to take most of the crew to the site skidded on a snowy road and collided head-on with a lorry. The driver unfortunately was badly injured and half of the passengers, but thankfully not me, had to go to hospital. However the remainder of us were told to “get on with the programme ASAP” in no uncertain terms once a replacement vehicle had got us to site!

One drama series we did took place in the Leeds area which was about a rugby team. One sequence required the 2 cameras to be mounted on tripods on the front of a specially built trailer containing the cab of a brewery lorry. This was then towed by the LMCR itself along the Kirkstall Road in Leeds recording to tape with the whole production and engineering crew inside! I think that this would be rather frowned upon today under the Health and Safety Rules!

The LMCR towing a brewery lorry for “The Wild West Show”.
Photo: Dan Cranefield.

Another sequence for this drama series we recorded at Twickenham Rugby Ground during an important rugby match where there was also a large BBC OB Unit covering the actual match for BBC Grandstand. Because we were working with actors, under the Equity Rules we were given full location catering, making the main BBC crew very jealous as they had to make do with whatever food they could find!

We recorded very many whole episodes of Z Cars, some episodes of Dr. Who, Jackanory and Scene. During one episode of Z Cars, on a Thursday, the LMCR was involved in a road accident on the way to site near Virginia Water so a large OB Unit had to be sent to replace it as quickly as possible to cover the shots that day and the next. Because the LMCR was going to spend the next month in a garage being repaired with no possible suitable replacement being available, I and the other engineer had to return to Base where, during that weekend, we re-rigged the cameras and all the other equipment into another old ex-monochrome unit (MCR 23) in order to continue with the next episode of Z Cars. We received congratulations from the BBC’s Chief Engineer and featured in an article about this in the BBC Magazine Ariel.

Ariel article MCR23 conversion.

From March 1976 these two Fernseh cameras were transferred to a new larger purpose-built vehicle known as LPU 1 (lightweight production vehicle) to carry on with the same sort of programmes and the LMCR was taken out of use. We used this vehicle to complete the second series of Survivors. Then, after a spell in Base, I was allocated to a main OB unit from then on.

It is interesting to note that three of the vehicles mentioned above still survive and all have been or are being restored; MCR 21 and 23 as monochrome units and LPU 1 in its 2-camera colour role.

Text and photographs © Dan Cranefield 2021.