Robert G Pratt
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Mr Robert G Pratt
I was born in 1940. I began working at the BBC in 1965, my final year at the BBC was 1993.
My broadcasting awareness began when as a toddler my mother avidly listened to AFN; entertaining American forces in Europe. I vividly remember the pop music, and my mother complaining to the Daily Mirror when young housewives like her were stuck with the boring old BBC again.
Aged 13, I started at Bognor Regis and Worthing Technical schools. Then from the Post Office; Day release North London Day College and North London Poly Finally, Borough Poly 1964, City and Guilds Radio & Line Communications Full Tech Cert.
Post office Youth in Training. Post Office Overseas communications ( Electra House) Short wave Radio and Cable, telegraph communications, central control rooms. Many generations of equipment necessary for worldwide communications; lots of ink and pen recorders, brass and mahogany. The only data storage was punched tape in a bin; the first magnetic drum was a wonder, big with a capacity of a few kilobytes, I think. ARQ, automatic error correction over radio circuits, gave some protection but not much more than a skilled morse operator.
At the end of my BBC career I was lucky to be offered a job in maintenance at the Services Sound and Vision Corporation a charity, broadcasting to create normality for families in overseas military bases. Located in Chalfont St Giles, it made news and children's programmes and recorded and retransmitted UK terrestrial TV, also distributing recorded entertainment and training films all over the world. It was what the BBC would have called and island site, we maintained a range of equipment, it was very satisfying work. Eventually it was asset stripped, the bait being it's satellite facilities which had been fattened up in preparation for sale, with MOD money, allegedly.
How I joined the BBC
The BBC was recruiting in anticipation of the colour service I think, although it could have been general recruitment for a number of departments. The recruitment board I attended was mainly about TV.
My first impressions of the BBC
Having worked shifts to cover 24 hour services the BBC working day covering broadcasting hours seemed pretty civilised. I just tried to acclimatise and fit in initially, I was in no position to make judgements. In retrospect my supervisors in Film Recording at TVC were very strange. They were independent enough to switch off the powers and go home at the allotted time, leaving a studio, full of people, abandoned before every thing was in the can.
Broad BBC career
I started in Film Recording in the basement at TVC. Within a year I found myself in the Video Tape Recording department, just around a few corners in the middle of the basement.
There were staff who pushed the boundaries, quite compulsively, of what could be achieved with the current equipment, especially in ambitious video editing. In general personalised undocumented amateur mods. and additions were a pain to try and maintain though.
VTR operators routinely cut edited tape, mainly during Grandstand, just to get sports action together. It was OK making simple edits with lots of background crowd noise, the soundtrack edit was hardly noticeable, but anything more refined, I found a nightmare. Studio recordings were mainly planned to be continuous, recording breaks needing editing were avoided, although complicated editing was done even in the days of cut editing, but sometimes it was possible to see every cut edit coming for several seconds, due to the tape having been handled.
Durring the Mexican Olympics, as British successes got rarer, the meddle ceremony for a swimming event, involving a bronze for Britain, was very low key, accompanied by a PA announcement in French, so a sports PA produced a football match soundtrack to make it more interesting; there was no sign of this enthusiastic crowd in the swimming pool, but everybody seemed happy with the roaring approval of the presentation.
In 1970 I transferred to a dedicated VT maintenance team that was set up as part of the department. A lot of maintenance time was spent adjusting drifting analogue circuits and replacing discrete semi conductors and passive components, something much rarer in modern equipment. The limitations of analogue circuits, especially in enabling long processing delays, meant that as, throughout the 1960s, as the demands of television standards increased, Video Tape Recorders had progressively more units added to them, they needed a lot of looking after. The next generation of VTR technology was more sophisticated but the most cutting edge components were still relatively unreliable. As larger scale integrated circuits became available, digital processing became more practical and machines smaller, but still tape recorders. Eventually tape was totally superseded by solid state storage.
In the 1970s an impressive sight on a cold dry Sunday night, when audiences and actors were free for live recordings, were clouds of vapour above TVC, due to the heat of the intense lighting needed for the colour cameras and the number of audience members; more like heavy industry than Television studios,
The BBC's designed and built a lot of its's own equipment initially, but World Wide demand for ever more complex facilities, led to a rapid growth in commercial competition; progressively more sophisticated equipment appeared.
As electronic editing became easier, for example dance became more frenetic as fast actions were built up, a few seconds at a time. This trend continues to date, now productions are routinely busy with irrelevant vision effects and and loud sound bedding music to mask poor audio control. OU inspired science is not safe from pointless effects including people with interesting information being made to talk over their shoulder while walking down spiral staircases, for example, presumably this is a cost effective way of padding out running time. As television effects developed they were rarely used unless relevant, now some editors are addicted to using them continuously.
The BBC became a training ground for the whole industry, the turnover of staff in VTR could be 50 % in a year, at one stage there was a swing-meter chart recording the rate of staff resignations.
Around 1988 I attended a BBC staff symposium, we were addressed by different layers of management on their rolls; a group including Billy Cotton Junior explained the problem of countering the ongoing Murdock media attacks on the BBC; how to counter without overtly using BBC channels; they seemed seriously demoralised and foresaw the end of the BBC. Bill Cotton thought that the average BBC license payer was subsidising middle class viewer entertainment. He thought that every license payer was entitled to have something on their screens all day; characterised by production staff as the " one bar electric fire effect".
Another train of thought from management was "why should the BBC permanently employ creative staff for the occasional good idea, it would make more sense for creative input to be bought as required on the open market". It sounded as as though they had just undergone an indoctrination session on how the market economy functions.
In later years "Producer Choice" was promoted; a government idea to divert license payers money into making, private TV facilities companies more profitable. Traditionally a planned amount of Television facilities were allocated to each production in the BBC: this was thought of as part of a "command economy"; deplored by the Tories.
In the spring of 1993 I was made redundant; one of the minority of people to benefit from Thatcher's de-waging of industry. What made this particularly welcome was that the interest and satisfaction of working in VT was destroyed by it being taken over by the film department, presumably because film had more artistic and romantic association that video tape. There was also, one day, a very ominous and peculiar enigmatic messages from upper management, delivered to an assembly of TVC staff in a Studio, they seemed to want to demonstrate that they were in charge, but conveyed no vision about the future whatsoever.
One of the benefits on retiring was the promise of being given life long membership of the BBC club, this was reneged on within a short time; having retired staff and current employees regularly mixing was perhaps seen as a threat to the new order.
My training at the BBC
Initially a Direct Entry Engineers course DE15 at Wood Norton, December 1965. Later as television developed there were many courses at Woodnorton, each step forward was a technical innovation that had to be embraced, the standards that are accepted now took decades of development. Once a dedicated maintenance team was set up, manufacturer's courses on the latest generation of equipment, became routine.
Feelings about the BBC whilst I worked there
The BBC seems to have survived remarkably well over the last few decades considering how our social environment has changed. Perhaps it has retained it's place because it provides a stable reference point. The toleration of the destructing of the fabric of social support; for example the systematic asset stripping of the old and the sick by the Care Industry, and the running down of the NHS in preparation for privatisation, is very depressing.
It seems that looting by Thatcher inspired Carpet Baggers hasn't finished yet.
Despite the poor performance of many of our companies, executives pay themselves grossly inflated salaries, because they can. This culture has spread to public services where new brooms take advantage of job insecurity and unemployment and are paid obscene amounts of money to create schemes that reduce jobs and wages. Even BBC executives are grossly overpaid, justified because "its the only way of getting top talent'; really! so where is the programme schedule to prove it; I hope celebrity amateur talent competitions aren't cited. There are lots of traps that they can fall into though, like being held responsible for the behaviour of celebrities accused of misconduct, who have ever been employed by the BBC. Other institutions guilty of the same failings are not criticised by the private media as severely as the BBC, for obvious reasons.
The level of institutionalised corruption hasn't been so high in Britain since the 18C.
Britain now has millions of under employed people in our low wage service economy, resulting from the Thatcher and Reagan regime's export of tens of millions of manufacturing jobs and capital investment to low wage unregulated China. The reaction of western electorates has been slow in coming and blindly misdirected.
Clawing back some of the wealth, made from us, by the twenty first centurie's Robber Barons, has become an urgent priority.
In this environment I wonder if the BBC will be able to survive with any of its public service values intact?
Non autobiographical notes and facts BBC about the BBC
A memorable recording was an interview conducted by one of the Dimbleby boys with Harold Wilson. Harold obviously thought that he was not being treated with respect and stopped the proceedings; " you wouldn't talk to one of them like that" he said, he meant a Tory minister I suppose, " I want this interview wiped" or words to that effect, " and make certain that you do it, I know you lot", Dimbleby sat looking sheepishly on, like a scolded school boy, it was very memorable
Having seen this happening I was hopeful of being able to save the recording for posterity, unfortunately the worst jobsworth in the department was the supervisor that day; soon I heard him running towards us; he whipped the tape away and wiped it.
This was entirely different to the sound track of the 1971 interview, currently on U-tube, where Harold took much the same line. Was Harold always automatically defensive when being interviewed at the BBC?
I remember the hype around the development of Local Radio, it was to be a dynamic forum for engaging communities; giving them a voice. It rapidly developed into private capital ventures, but the BBC saw it as a potential threat and had to get into it. Lord Reith must be turning in his grave at the narrow patronising parochialism of BBC Local Radio.
The BBC should concentrate on providing quality programmes that are relevant to the whole nation, even if that means clearing out the whole smug London egocentric feel of news and current affairs, if they haven't gathered any real news they should shut up and not speculate to fill time.
In 1982 the BBC allowed a member of the public in a TV programme, to corner Mrs Thatcher over the sinking of the Argentinian war ship The Belgrano; this event led to the BBC being victimised by the Thatcher government. Any pretence of BBC independence was further reduced in 1988 when the DG Alistair Milne was sacked by Mrs Thatcher for allowing the reporting of the activities of the IRA, he was accused of giving them "the oxygen of publicity"
Another mystery was the role of what was announced as the new Corporate Headquarters on the site of the old stadium next to TVC; when opened it was policed by morose private contracted security guards; BBC staff using it, reputedly had to get their department to pay for having the air conditioning switched on, I never heard of anyone important in BBC management using it, what was it for?
The shiny new extension of BH maintained the BBC's prestige and presence near the centres of power, so the loss of TVC and the abandonment of the White City building was unimportant I suppose.
What were the reasons behind TVC being closed, somewhere so influential in the BBC's history; symbolically desecrated when it was still a useful TV facility?
Feelings about the BBC today
If the BBC, in it's pursuit of audiences, becomes indistinguishable from any other broadcaster it will no longer be able to justify it's existence.
At the moment the overcrowded market has reduced the output of most broadcasters, in their bid to make a profit, to the lowest common denominator. This leaves the BBC Head and shoulders above the competition. There is consequently continuous pressure on government to restrict the BBC and stop it competing for audiences effectively. So far the British public have been discerning enough to value and support the BBC, lets hope this continues.