My first year at the BBC

Dan Cranefield

Dan Cranefield has written the following “prequel” to his 2020 article My “Palace of Arts” Days.

After World War II the BBC usually recruited male technical staff (engineers, cameramen, sound staff etc.) after they had completed their National Service but, around 1958, National Service for young men had ceased. This caused a problem for the BBC so it had to start recruiting staff for these jobs from those just leaving school or from University with the appropriate qualifications needed at the time. The BBC had lost a number of experienced staff to ITV when it started up in 1955. I was informed later on that the BBC were not very happy to take on people direct from school in these categories because they would have had no experience of life since school.

I was one of those school leavers that were fortunate enough to be selected for the first Probationary Technical Assistant Course which commenced in October 1958. I was still just 17. Although I wanted to be a cameraman I was selected to be an engineer. There was no teaching whatever at school of electronics but I had taken a postal course on “Basic Radio” with “International Correspondence Schools” before my BBC interview which may have helped me get the job.

Following a short introduction I was privileged to be sent to Lime Grove, West London, then the Headquarters of BBC Television. (BBC Television Centre did not become the Headquarters until completed in 1960.) Lime Grove was originally the Gaumont Film Studios before being taken over by the BBC and was a complete maze of studios, rooms and corridors and many people complained about “getting lost”. The building was on several floors and had four operational studios for transmissions (remember there was no video tape recording available in 1958 so programmes were always “live”, often with pre-filmed excerpts from Telecine.) These studios were lettered C, D, E and G, (Studios A and B were still in use at Alexandra Palace for BBC News.) Studio F was just a scenery store and Studio H was used for experimental colour-TV testing using huge American Marconi colour cameras and was “out of bounds” to unauthorised staff.

Photograph of TV studio
Sylvia Peters in Studio P. Photo: via Dicky Howett

I started in Studio P, the Presentation Studio, where the Presenters such as Sylvia Peters, Mary Malcolm and McDonald Hobley appeared in view introducing each programme. Studio P’s output went next door to the Central Control Room where all the other programme sources (each Lime Grove Studio, Telecine, each output from a Region, etc. were selected to go to the BBC Transmitters. On the other side of the Central Control Room was a room called “Quality Control” where a senior engineer would monitor the vision and sound output and, if there were any technical problems (quite frequent) he would phone the appropriate source and note the time it occurred and the reason for the problem. There was just one BBC “channel” just called BBC tv, not BBC 1 as BBC2 did not commence till 1964. There was no tape recording/replay available yet (as far as I was aware) – the first Tape Recording Machine, the BBC’s “Vera”, (Vision Electronic Recording Apparatus) was still in the experimental stage. It was not developed further because Ampex developed their superior Quadruplex system.

Studio P had two Pye Pesticon cameras, each had an iconoscope tube, not the later image orthicon, but they did have some advanced facilities such as remotely-controlled lens-change and remote focus which could be operated from the production “gallery” without a person at the camera. Engineers did all the jobs in this studio and all worked what was known as “the AP shift”. You worked a 12-hour day on a Monday, Wednesday, Saturday, Sunday, Tuesday, Thursday, Friday which was then repeated each fortnight, giving all workers two days off together each week. Remember that TV transmissions did not happen all day. I operated a camera on many occasions when needed and also occasionally did the sound. I particularly remember that, on Saturday evenings, I operated the sound desk for the predecessor of the football programme “Match of the Day” which, in 1958, consisted of edited film inserts from Telecine of a few minutes from three football matches cued-up for transmission by a Producer in Studio P. Other small programmes originated from Studio P including, at midnight on New Year’s Eve 1958, a model of the tower containing “Big Ben” was used to simulate the real thing! Much cheaper than putting on an OB from Westminster!

After a couple of months I was transferred to the Central Apparatus Room (CAR) where all the incoming vision and sound circuits from each studio, each Region, Telecine, BBC News from Alexandra Palace, etc. were dealt with as well as all the outgoing circuits to the transmitters around the country. I remember being taught how to solder there as I had had no practical experience of electronics whatever while at school. It was all “training on the job”.

During 1959 I also had a short spell at the BBC Television Theatre and at BBC Riverside Studios where the latter’s solid-state lighting circuits were controlled by thyristors which I think were the first use of these in this context.

In the summer of 1959 I was attached to the BBC News Division which operated from the original studios A and B at Alexandra Palace (AP). As well as these two main studios BBC News had three fully-equipped “remote” TV studios, one behind All Souls church adjacent to BBC Broadcasting House, a studio at St. Stephens House in Westminster and one at Heathrow Airport. These were usually operated by a particular Engineer and, while I was attached to News I was usually his assistant and the two of us drove from AP to each studio when required each on our Lambretta scooters! Those were the days!

Technical Assistants had to go on a course at the BBC Training Centre which was at Wood Norton near Evesham in Worcestershire and had to pass an examination at the end of the course to remain in the post. There were 24 of us on my course and, as ours was the first Probationary Technical Assistant Course (number 1) for school leavers, all of us were interviewed to see if any should be transferred to become a “Technical Trainee” instead.

This role consisted of a “Sandwich Course” at Hendon College of Technology (later to become Middlesex University) resulting in a Higher National Diploma in Electrical Engineering with a possible fourth year to achieve the Institute of Electrical Engineers Part 3 exam. I was one of only two chosen (I have no idea why I was one!) to change to this scheme which consisted of full-time college lectures during each autumn, winter and spring culminating each year in an exam which had to be passed. During each Summer all were allocated to different sections of the BBC in different Regions. This change of job involved a reduction in pay for me from £645 per annum to only £345 because the BBC was paying for one’s “education”. I do not remember if I was given a choice to accept this job change or not but decided that, if they thought I should do so, then I had better accept, and, since I could live at home the loss-of-money aspect was not so important.

So I started at Hendon College in October 1959 and in the Summer of 1960 six of us were sent to Daventry Short-Wave Radio Transmitter station for about six weeks. Each “sender” (transmitter) transmitted to different parts of the World for short periods of time each day on different radio frequencies and the frequency was changed by moving great coils about five-feet high mounted on trucks on “railway lines” into position within each huge sender while someone else, using a bicycle when necessary, went to the specified aerial array outside and altered its direction! It usually took about 5-10 minutes to change the Sender’s frequency and aerial direction.

Photograph of Daventry radio masts
BBC Daventry

Two of us then went to the BBC Cardiff Radio Studio Centre and also Radio Outside Broadcasts. I was an assistant at the re-dedication of Llandaff Cathedral by the Queen following reconstruction after war-damage. She passed through our operations room during the visit.

In Summer 1961 I was at Sutton Coldfield TV transmitter station for a few weeks. While I was living “in digs” there, but had gone home for the weekend, the landlord found an unexploded wartime bomb on the Saturday in his back garden. On reporting this to the Police he was told “There is no-one available to deal with this at present. Can you ring back on Monday?” I still have the Press Cutting from the local paper!

This was followed by a few months in Birmingham TV Studios and TV OBs.

The final Summer, 1962, I was attached to BBC Television Centre and then BBC Television Outside Broadcasts at the Palace of Arts at Wembley where I decided I would like to work after I had finished my course in March 1963. This was agreed and I stayed in this department till I retired in 1996 as an Engineering Manager and Lighting Director.