Dr Bert Gallon
I was born in 1936. I began working at the BBC in 1958, my final year at the BBC was 1995. Whilst at the BBC I was known as A.E. or Bert Gallon.
Full Technological Certificate, Telecommunications Engineering (Regent Street Polytechnic, London); Grad. IPM (Regent Street Polytechnic, London); BA History (University of Southampton); Ph.D. History (University of Reading).
Royal Air Force (National Service); Automatic Telephone and Electric Company, Liverpool (Technician).
How I joined the BBC
Life in the BBC began on 29 September 1958 with a London-based induction course. At the end of a week of talks and visits to BBC premises the 30 or so new trainees departed to begin practical training at selected BBC bases. I was informed that I had drawn the short straw. My base, along with two other trainees, was to be the short-wave transmitting station at Woofferton, located on the Shropshire/Herefordshire border, five miles south of Ludlow. Woofferton, we were told, had an excellent reputation for training new staff, and we would learn a great deal during our time there - if we survived! The problem, we would discover, was the Engineer-in-Charge, Mr. L.F. Ivin (no Christian names then). Known, throughout the Engineering Directorate, as ‘Ivin the Terrible’, he was described as a hard taskmaster, unpredictable and unforgiving. He sounded familiar, a reminder of the drill sergeants we had encountered during National Service.
I had started training as an engineer following National Service in the RAF. Initially I was a full-time student, then changed to part time when funds ran low, combining studies with work as a technician at a factory in Liverpool, where I had grown up. The Automatic Telephone and Electric Company made equipment for telephone exchanges, but the contract I was working on ran into difficulties and there was talk of it being cancelled. When the BBC advertised for trainee engineers and technicians I applied, although I was not too hopeful of being accepted. My reservations appeared to be well founded as I was clearly not among the more seriously-rated applicants. Weeks passed before the BBC responded and invited me to an interview, and the telephone exchange factory job had disappeared by the time I was offered an appointment as a Probationary Technical Assistant. The commencing salary was £565.00 per annum!
The gentle nature of the job interview in London had taken me by surprise, but the letter of appointment revealed that the interview was only the start of a lengthy joining process. For the first twelve months of service I would be on probation, I would have to demonstrate that I could acquire the practical skills of a BBC engineer, and I would have to pass the written and practical examinations at the end of a three-months long residential course. Failure to fulfill either requirement would result in my dismissal. Fulfilling both requirements would lead to a further twelve-months assessment after which, if I was considered suitable, I would actually join the BBC as an established (permanent) member of staff. I would also be eligible to continue training to engineer level.
The Woofferton Transmitting Station was used to broadcast BBC and Voice of America short-wave transmissions to the Soviet Union and the Middle East. The majority of engineering staff were employed on a 24-hours shift pattern and operated and maintained the station’s six 100kW transmitters. Shift staff where supported by small teams of maintenance engineers, technicians and rigging staff, who worked normal office hours. As trainees, we spent time with all groups of staff so we were provided with a thorough insight into the workings of the station. An experienced member of staff was designated to supervise our training. My supervisor was extremely helpful, ready to share his knowledge, and to spend time explaining and demonstrating how particular items of equipment worked. It was completely different to the "every man for himself" approach at the telephone-exchange factory.
Safety was an important aspect of work at transmitting stations and soon after arriving at Woofferton we were provided with a slim, red-covered booklet, entitled BBC Engineering Safety Regulations. We were told to read the contents, together with those in a folder containing some local safety instructions that applied specifically to Woofferton. When we had done so, we were required to sign a form confirming that we had read and fully understood the instructions and that we accepted that we were wholly responsible for our own safety. It was a simple and unambiguous arrangement, but it did not survive the later invasion of the BBC by the health and safety industry. Long before I retired the slim booklet and folder had been replaced by vast quantities of regulations and instructions packed into a shelf full of volumes the size of old-fashioned telephone directories. I can’t imagine that anyone had time to read this mass of instructions, let alone understand them, and I doubted that this mountain of paper had actually improved staff safety.
One of the more unusual features of our training was the climbing test, and for reasons never explained, not every trainee was subjected to this. Climbing masts and working at heights was not one of the conditions of service of BBC engineers, although it was a necessary feature of certain engineering jobs. The test, I was advised, was to check which trainees had what was described as, “a head for heights”, information which might be useful in the future. I was provided with a pair of suitable boots and a safety harness and set off, with the Rigger Mechanic Supervisor, for one of the masts in the aerial field. He explained how to fit the harness and how to secure myself to the mast, and we started our ascent. At about 15 feet we stopped. I was asked to look down and towards the horizon and then down again, and then asked if I felt comfortable? I said yes, and we continued our climb. I had passed the test! There were platforms fitted to the mast, where you could rest, at 100 feet, 200 feet, and 300 feet. The latter was at the top of the mast, and I eventually reached it I having taken considerably longer than the Rigger Mechanic Supervisor who was about forty years older than me! I was exhausted. I did climb masts on occasions during my BBC career, but not, thankfully, as a regular part of any job that I did.
The work and progress of trainees during the probationary year was monitored by the Senior Maintenance Engineers and they submitted written reports to the Engineer-in-Charge at regular intervals. Some eight months into our training and within two or three weeks of the start of the residential training course at the BBC’s Engineering Training Department at Wood Norton in Worcestershire, we underwent a practical examination conducted by the Engineer-in-Charge. There were two parts to this: a tour of the station, during which we were asked to describe the purpose of particular items of equipment and explain how they worked; and a question and answer session in his office. It was a nerve-racking experience, but thanks to the very thorough briefing provided by my supervisor and a helpful Senior Maintenance Engineer, I survived. I set off for Wood Norton shortly afterwards.
I passed the examination at the end of the course and was advised that my Engineer-in-Charge had recommended that my employment should continue. The “probationary” tag was removed and I became a Technical Assistant with a salary of £675.00 per annum. I was not yet, however, a permanent (established) member of BBC staff. That would have to wait until the end of my second year of service. There was no formal training or examinations during this year but assessments continued as establishment was conditional upon work and conduct again being satisfactory.
Despite the dire warnings at the induction course, I was never on the receiving end of any of the forecast assaults, verbal or otherwise, from “Ivin the Terrible” during my time at Woofferton. He was generally tolerant of trainees, at times encouraging and helpful, but he could become aggressive very quickly when something upset him. The Senior Maintenance Engineers usually bore the brunt of this aggression. They were blamed for anything that went wrong on their shifts and, on occasions, outside of their shifts. Not surprisingly, few of them survived at Woofferton for very long. The average stay was said to be about two and half years. L.F. Ivin’s mood could change in an instant and he would lose patience very quickly with anyone who appeared hesitant and uncertain. Locating an equipment fault in his presence was very stressful as he invariably began shouting that it was taking too long. He made life particularly uncomfortable for those, and there were some brave souls, who dared to express views contrary to his own. This, inevitably, included the local union branch officials. My supervisor was the union branch secretary at the time and I watched him being subjected to a torrent of abuse on two occasions. I was astonished at the manner in which he calmly stood his ground, but later learned that he had been a wireless operator/rear gunner in Bomber Command during World War Two and had been awarded the DFC. The rantings of an enraged Engineer-in-Charge obviously paled into insignificance when compared with his war-time experiences.
Despite the odd uncomfortable moments, I thoroughly enjoyed my time at Woofferton. Our training had lived up to expectations. L.F. Ivin did take the training of new staff very seriously and we were provided with the opportunity to gain a wide range of experience through “hands-on” practical involvement with the equipment, and we spent time with the standby diesel engine installation staff, the aerial staff, and the station workshop staff. There was a real spirit of togetherness among the staff, perhaps because we had a single enemy in the Engineer-in-Charge, and the staff included a number of amusing characters. There was a cricket team and two table tennis teams, and I played in a local football team, and although shift working imposed certain restrictions, it did not interfere too much with social life. It was always possible to arrange “shift swaps”.
As my second year of service drew to a close I was advised that I had been appointed to the established staff. My salary was increased to £715.00 per annum, but it would be reduced by the requirement to join the BBC Pension Scheme. My contributions would be 4.0% on the first £400.00 of my salary and 7.5% on everything above that - a sizeable sum each month. I was not happy as retirement seemed to be such a long way off. It was, of course, and yet it arrived surprisingly quickly and I was then very grateful.
I also became eligible, at this time, to embark on the final stage of training to become a BBC engineer and so returned to the Engineering Training Department for a second residential course. The Worcestershire weather in the autumn and winter of 1960 was not as kind as it had been during my earlier stay during the summer of 1959. It was just as well. The work was much harder and there was rather more of it than had been the case on the earlier course. Having completed the course and passed the final examination I became an engineer, but without an immediate increase in salary. It had been decided that I should move to the Wenvoe Transmitting Station in South Wales to gain experience of television equipment. My expected salary increase – to £1,335.00 per annum – would be deferred until the local Engineer-in-Charge was satisfied that I was capable of performing engineer duties at Wenvoe. I did not have to wait too long, and in the summer of 1961 the joining/training stage of my BBC career was confirmed as having been completed. The big adventure was about to begin.
I had been advised at my initial interview that, if I joined the BBC, I should not expect to become rich on a BBC salary, but if I was prepared to move round the Corporation and pursue opportunities that were offered, I could enjoy a career that was rich in experience, and I could expect a good pension at the end of it. That is precisely how it turned out.
My first impressions of the BBC
Everything was very well organised, staff at all levels were very knowledgeable, committed, and helpful. It was a major improvement on the telephone-exchange factory where I had worked previously.
Broad BBC career
Maintenance engineer, Transmission Group; Assistant/Senior Assistant, Central Personnel Directorate (included secondment to the McKinsey Company); Middle management roles, Transmission Group Headquarters; Company Manager, Caribbean Relay Station, Antigua (secondment); Head of Programme Services and Engineering, Northern Ireland; Chief Engineer, World Service; Chief Engineer, Transmission; Chief Engineer, Resources.
My training at the BBC
In addition to the original BBC engineering training at Wood Norton in 1959 and 1960 I attended a number of short courses on various technical developments, including stereo broadcasting and digital technology. Also attended a number of management courses, including one of two months duration at the Cranfield School of Management, and the Senior Management course at the Henley Business School.