- 1 Roger Bunce
- 2 Periods at the BBC
- 2.1 1965 until 1966
- 2.2 My First Mole
- 2.3 Great Mole Crashes, which were NOT my fault (although I was involved!)
- 2.4 1966 until 1985
- 2.5 Memories of "Doctor Who"
- 2.6 1966 until 1969
- 2.7 Work to Rule
- 2.8 Moon Landing
- 2.9 1968 until 2001
- 2.10 Blue Cyc Thinking
- 2.11 1968 until 1972
- 2.12 Memories of 'Z Cars'
- 2.13 1970 until 1972
- 2.14 The Story of Oi
- 2.15 Experiment with the Air Pump
- 2.16 1974 until 1982
- 2.17 Doing it with Flare
- 2.18 1975 until 1975
- 2.19 A Picture of Crew 14
- 2.20 1975 until 1979
- 2.21 An Unexpected Forecast
- 2.22 1978 until 2001
- 2.23 Part of the Union.
- 2.23.1 My Life as a Trouble Maker.
- 2.23.2 The Kindness of Strangers
- 2.23.3 Credit Where It’s Due
- 2.23.4 The Inter-Management Dispute
- 2.23.5 Political Bias - Theirs and Mine
- 2.23.6 Corporate Catastrophe
- 2.23.7 Corporate Cock-Ups: Part One, The Incompetence Begins
- 2.23.8 Christmas Cheer
- 2.23.9 Corporate Cock-Ups: Part Two, The Incompetence Continues - Company Cars
- 2.23.10 Glasnost
- 2.23.11 Save Our DOILs!
- 2.23.12 Corporate Cock-Ups: Part Three, the Incompetence Still Continues - The Communications Business
- 2.23.13 Equal Opportunities
- 2.23.14 Corporate Cock-Ups: Part Four, the Incompetence Gets Funnier - The Taskforces
- 2.23.15 Corporate Capers
- 2.23.16 Corporate Cock-Ups: Part Five, the Incompetence Escalates - Football - Viewing Figures - The Missing Millions - Luckham Park
- 2.23.17 The Human Cost
- 2.23.18 Dalek Invasion Earth: 1993 A.D.
- 2.23.19 Playing Shops
- 2.23.20 Corporate Cock-Ups: Part Six - the Climax of Incompetence
- 2.24 1995 until 1995
- 2.25 Hazardous Incident
- 2.26 Revelation
- 2.27 2001 until 2014
- 2.28 Leaving the BBC - and Afterwards
- 2.29 2010 until 2014
- 2.30 Memories of BBC Television Centre
- 2.31 2014 until 2016
- 2.32 A Page of Nostalgic Pictures
- 3 Clubs
- 4 Links
I was born in 1946. I began working at the BBC in 1965, my final year at the BBC was 2010.
Eltham Church of England (aka Roper Street) Primary School, 1951 - 1957, where the only subject for which I showed any talent was Art.
Then, Forest Hill Comprehensive School, 1957 - 1964, where I discovered the delights of Maths and the Sciences - and continued my interest in Art.
I was due to start working at the BBC in September 1964, shortly after leaving school. But the Corporation ran out of money, and my start date was delayed until January 1965. So, my Summer Holiday job was extended for 3 months - working for the City and Guilds of London Institute, selling past exam papers to schools.
How I joined the BBC
It all began with a visit to Aunty Kitty and Uncle Percy's house, when I was 7 years old. After tea, Uncle Percy rigged up a screen and a cine projector. With due ceremony, the lights were turned out, and we watched a silent, black-and-white, cartoon film. I enjoyed the film, but it was the projector that really fascinated me. Those two large rotating spools on top looked most impressive. I was intrigued by the mechanism and the way that a series of small, still pictures were converted into one large, moving picture.
After that I could think of nothing but projectors. I cut up a cereal packet to make a toy one, with Kraft Cheese boxes as the spools. Dad showed me how to draw a series of pictures on the corners of an exercise book and then flick them, so that they appeared to move. I understood the principle and enjoyed doing the drawings, but I was too clumsy to flick them properly.
That Christmas, Dad made me a projector. It was just a wooden box with a light bulb inside and a lens. With childish ingratitude, I was disappointed that it didn't have two rotating spools on top! It was an epidiascope. I used to cut out the picture strips from my comics, mount them on card, and slide them, frame at a time, through the projector, to give film-shows to my friends. Dad hadn't included a mirror, so the image was projected back-to-front. This didn't matter with the pictures, and trying to read the speech bubbles added extra comedy.
Thus began my interest in optics, and childish experiments with lenses: magnifying glasses, old spectacles, toy telescopes - even a huge, liquid filled TV magnifier, which I bought in a jumble sale, and could set fire to things with the efficiency of a Martian heat ray! At one point I made my own Planetarium, using a tin can, a light bulb and a magnifying glass. Accurate star patterns were pricked into a sheet of tin foil, and projected onto the ceiling. It only did stars, not planets, but at least I could rotate the constellations to their correct seasonal positions.
By the following year I had my first movie projector. It was called a Mini-Cine. It didn't show proper films, but had an ingenious system for projecting limited-animation cartoons. Its film was a horizontal strip of stiff celluloid, about a foot long and a couple of inches wide. The pictures were printed on it in rows and columns. As it passed through the hand-cranked projector, it would move rapidly up and down, and more slowly sideways. The up and down motion created cyclic animation with a scene, while the slow sideways movement progressed the story from one scene to the next. The mechanism fascinated me and, by studying the pictures, I learned a lot about the nature of animation. But I was still disappointed that it didn't have two rotating spools on top.
Meanwhile, for my eighth birthday, Aunty Kitty and Uncle Percy bought me my first camera: a Kodak Brownie 127, made of black bakelite; with eight pictures to a film; a fixed twenty-fifth of a second exposure and anything more than eight feet away should be in focus. The first photo I ever took still survives. Looking at it now, with the eye of a professional cameraman, it still seems a reasonably well-composed picture. This remained my only camera for most of my childhood, although I later saved up my pocket money to add a close-up lens.
In 1963, while in the Sixth Form, a group of us decided we wanted to make a movie. We founded the Forest Hill School Film Club. My friend Keith was the Producer and Cameraman, because it was his Dad's cine camera. I was nominally the Scriptwriter and Director.
[A technical/historical aside - When I was 7 years old, and had seen that first projector, the standard film gauge for home movies was 9.5mm (with sprocket holes, and therefore scratches, down the centre of the film). But this had fallen out of fashion and 8mm film was now the norm (with sprocket holes on one side). In fact, an 8mm camera held a two-minute spool of 16mm film, but only exposed half the width. It had to be turned over to expose the other half. During processing, it was split down the middle to become a four-minute spool of 8mm film. Later, when Super-8 film was introduced (smaller sprocket holes and, therefore, larger picture areas), the earlier version became known as Standard-8.]
As our school movie progressed, I found myself wanting to do more of the photography. This meant obtaining my own cine camera. Normally they would have been much too expensive, but the Soviet Union had recently introduced a range of cheap cameras onto the western market. They had good lenses and were sturdily built. With some financial aid from Dad, I bought a Russian-made Quartz cine camera. It had three speeds, a back-wind and stop-frame facilities, and came with filters, a pistol grip, cable release and carrying case. Later, I added wide-angle and narrow-angle lens attachments. I abandoned stills photography completely, and became an 8mm cine enthusiast. Now I had to learn about focussing, exposure, f/stops, etc. And, that Christmas, in order to watch my own films, I got an 8mm projector. At last, a proper movie projector, with two rotating spools on top!
It must be admitted that my preoccupation with movie-making was distracting me from my schoolwork. As a surviving school report notes: His filming activities have hindered his progress. Nonetheless, I managed to pass my A Levels in Maths, Physics and Chemistry. And, because I had taken Maths a year early, I had some free periods in the Upper Sixth, which I used to get A Level Art.
Some of my friends went on to University, but I was fed up with learning, and wanted to start doing. But what job could possibly want my eccentric combination of qualifications - Sciences and Art? I think it was in the Evening News that Dad found the advert. The BBC were recruiting trainee Technical Operators - a job title that included Cameramen. The essential qualifications they required were A Levels in Maths and Physics. But they thought that Art could also be useful, and an interest in photography.
- It seemed that someone was trying to send me a message.
My first impressions of the BBC
I think it was the scenery that first impressed me. Walk into any studio at Television Centre and you could be stepping into an entirely different world. It might be a suburban living room; a mid-winter forest; a pirate galleon, or an alien planetscape. Those studio doors were like Wardrobes leading to many different Narnias. It was just wonderful to wander between them.
- Sometimes I was impressed by the detail and meticulous historical accuracy of the scenery.
- Sometimes I was impressed that anything that cheap and tatty could look so convincing on a home tele!
Then there were all those costumed characters who could be found wandering the corridors or drinking in the Tea-Bars. They might be policemen, Tudor courtiers, Roman legionaries, space monsters or scantily-clad dancing girls. One early encounter was with giant insects, from the Planet Vortis, who were eating in the canteen at Riverside Studios. Later, at TV Centre, I once shared a lunch table with three ragged, white-haired hags, whose pallid faces were covered with sores and pustules. I think they were plague victims, or inmates of Newgate Gaol, or Bedlam Asylum. The make-up was very convincing, but not conducive to good digestion.
Most impressive of all was the sheer speed and efficiency of Television Centre. Its architecture was revolutionary and ingenious. Its layout and internal dynamics were ideally designed for the mass production of TV Programmes. The encircling Ring Roads facilitated the flow of scenery and equipment. The circular corridors and Assembly Areas funnelled the cast from their dressing rooms, via Wardrobe and Make-Up, into the studios. Everyone and everything arrived at the right place at the right time, ready to go. At the peak of its operation, one studio could mount a different programme each day, and could be completely reset and relit each night. Turnarounds were accomplished with all the slickness of a Formula One pit-stop. You could be working in a complex, substantial set one day. That night it would be stripped, dismantled and removed. Painted floorboards would be washed away and replaced with painted flagstones. A new set would be imported, erected, dressed, and lit. And an entirely different programme was ready to rehearse the following morning. There is a inspirational buzz and energy that comes from operating at that level of efficiency. I have worked in many Studio Centres during the course of my career, but none have ever functioned with the speed or the excitement of BBC Television Centre.
Broad BBC career
Television Cameraman, working mostly on multi-camera, studio-based productions.
- Not really a career. Just a job, but a job that was always challenging and exciting, and never became repetitive.
When I first joined the BBC, I wasn't sure whether I wanted to be a Cameraman or a Special Effects Man (making rubber dinosaurs, model volcanos, etc). By the time I was approaching retirement, I realised that I had compromised, by becoming a Cameraman who had specialised in effects photography. Model shots, glass paintings, false-perspective sets, foreground miniatures, Inlay, Overlay and Virtual Reality: these were the things I most enjoyed.
- It was the best aspect of my job - being an a complete and utter Con-Man!
Even without special effects, we Cameramen regularly deceive the viewing public, e.g. by convincing them that the living room in a Sit-Com genuinely has four walls and a ceiling, even that the Tardis is really bigger on the inside!
This may also be why I preferred to work in studios (apart from keeping out of the rain). On location, a Cameraman is mostly shooting things that are really there. Where's the fun in that? But the studio is a world of illusion and make-believe, where the Cameraman photographs unreal fantasies, and tries to persuade the viewers that they are believable.
My training at the BBC
First there was an Induction Course at the Langham. This was January 1965, at the height of the Cold War. There was a widespread belief that World War III could erupt at any time soon. The Cuban Missile Crisis had been only a few years earlier, while George Pal's classic science-fiction film The Time Machine had predicted the outbreak of Nuclear Armageddon on 19th August 1966 (which was completely believable at the time). We were told that it would be our duty to maintain a broadcasting service amid the post-Apocalypse ruins. A lecture by a Civil Defence spokesman warned us to beware the Foul Dust (radio-active fall out), and explained how Tinder-like Material could spread fires. There was a particularly graphic demonstration of the way a Fire-Storm would develop. Dozens of birthday-cake candles had been clustered onto a circular base. When those around the outside were lit, they created inward convection currents which ignited all the others. All the individual fires united into a single gigantic, pulsing flame, which almost reached the ceiling! The Civil Defence man was ready to blast it out with a CO2 fire extinguisher.
The Induction Course also included a visit to Crystal Palace transmitter. It was here that I first saw a 625-line television picture, just a test card, but I was impressed by its clarity. We only had a 405-line tele at home. It was all still black-and-white in those days, of course.
The primary training for all technical staff was a three-month residential course, at the BBC's Engineering Training Department, located at Wood Norton, Evesham. Normally, trainees had to pass their Evesham exams before being let loose in studios. But the intake of 1965 was a particularly large one. The opening of BBC2, had necessitated a dramatic increase in the numbers of operational staff. Eighty trainees had been recruited at the same time, too many to be accommodated in one course. So, the intake was split into two halves. Forty trainees went straight to Evesham, while the other forty, including me, spent our first three months in studios. Here we learned by observing, assisting and asking questions. There were also opportunities to practice with equipment, during quieter moments, and even to operate, under supervision, on simpler shows.
I was attached to Camera Crew 3, led by Senior Cameraman Eddie Stewart. My first day in the studio was an edition of Panorama at Lime Grove. I had just about introduced myself to the Crew, when we heard that the programme was cancelled, because of the death of Winston Churchill, so we all went home again. The main thing I learned that day was that I shouldn't have worn a suit (whatever my Mum said!) Camerawork, it was explained, was a physical, often dirty, job. Smart casual clothing would be more appropriate. These were the days when Cameramen still wore jackets and ties. Jeans were discouraged.
Each Trainee was issued with a Ration Book: a small booklet containing a list of topics and headings which we were supposed to find out about. They ranged from practical things, like how to book equipment out of Technical Stores, to artistic stuff about picture composition and perspective. We were supposed to discuss the various topics with the Camera Crew. Once they felt we had sufficient understanding of a particular subject, they would sign it off. I was attached to a nominated Cameraman, who was supposed to supervise my training, but he was often too busy (or insufficiently interested). Another Cameraman, Ian Perry, took over. Crew 3 specialised in large Light Entertainment shows, including The Black and White Minstrel Show, recorded at the Television Theatre, in Shepherds Bush. Ian was often on the high camera, up in the balcony. It was a convenient place for me to sit with him and work through my Ration Book, without disturbing the rehearsals. It is, therefore, to Ian Perry that I am indebted for most of my training during this period. But, during quieter moments, other crew members joined in. In the absence of paper and pencils, I remember the studio floor becoming a vast blank canvass on which marker crayons could be used to draw huge explanatory diagrams.
There were also dedicated Training Days. We Trainees would take over an entire studio for a day, rig various different types of camera equipment, and use them to simulate the making of a programme. We would go through the same script repeatedly, doing each of the different camera jobs in rotation, while our supervisors tried to pile on the sort of pressure that we would experience in real programme making. The two Managers who supervised these sessions, and were generally responsible for us Camera trainees, were Laurie Duley and Keith Blair. They were a wonderfully mismatched pair, both in stature and manner. Laurie Duley was short and rotund. He wore a bow tie and sometime mispronounced his words (Pitcher for Picture and Acrost for Across). He could be sharply sarcastic. Keith was tall, slim, well-spoken and a classic English gentleman. Despite their differences, they worked extremely effectively as a team. I look back on them both now with great affection, but it's difficult not to equate them with Capt. Mainwaring and Sgt. Wilson from Dad's Army. A 1967 Staff List gives their official titles as: Laurie Duley, Supervisor (Training) and Keith Blair, Senior Cameraman (Training). Their boss, and overall head of Cameras and Lighting, was Dave Bull, Asst. (Vision) to H.T.O. Tel. S.
Then it was my turn to go to Evesham. The BBC's Engineering Training Department proved to be a cluster of green wooden huts, resembling army huts, and concrete dormitory blocks, on a hillside, around the grand old manor house of Wood Norton Hall. There was a rumour of a nuclear bunker somewhere under the hill. And there was definitely a sewerage farm at the bottom of the hill! But the River Avon flowed through the meadow beyond.
During our stay at Wood Norton, we were housed in blocks of interlinked huts: sleeping two to a room. I shared with a young man named Dave Wilson. Both being quiet souls, we hardly exchanged a word. There were communal loos, showers and washing areas. It must be admitted that the accommodation was somewhat prison-like. Now, when the Count of Monte Christo was incarcerated in the Chateau D’If, he had communicated with the adjacent cell by tapping on the walls. In more modern prison dramas, the convicts are sometime shown tapping messages in Morse Code along the water pipes. Obviously, we didn’t do anything like that. That would be silly! We weren’t convicts. We were trainee BBC Technicians and, as such, we had developed a much more sophisticated method of communicating along the water pipes. (Not me! I’m not that intelligent) but some genius, before my time, had realised that all the huts were connected by two networks of metal piping. The first consisted of the central-heating pipes, feeding the radiators: which came up from the floor. The other was the metal tubing, or conduit, containing the wiring for the light switches: which came down from the ceiling. This meant that there were two complete circuits of metal conductors, linking all the huts, and all the rooms, but not touching one another. These could be used as the two halves, the ‘arial’ and the ‘earth’, of a transmission system. Simply by modulating the voltage between the two, it was possible to broadcast sound signals all around the compound. It was known as ‘Radio Conrad’, a portmanteau name taken from ‘CONduit and RADiator’, although, pedantically, no Radio was involved. Through this medium, we trainees were able to make our own audio programmes, and broadcast them to everyone else on site. I was never involved in the programme-making, but I was a frequent listener. For this, you needed a pair of headphones (known colloquially as ‘Cans’). We had all been issued with a pair of black, plastic, ST&C headphones when we joined the BBC. By removing the jack plug; separating the two wires; then touching one wire against a radiator, and the other against the lighting conduit, you could listen in to Radio Conrad.
In addition to its live, home-made programmes, Radio Conrad also broadcast those classic, clandestine tapes which had been created or preserved by former generations of BBC technicians. It was here that I first heard ‘The Fleet’s Lit Up’: Lieutenant-Commander Thomas Woodroffe’s lyrical, if repetitive, commentary on the 1937 Royal Navel Review at Spithead - performed while clearly in an advanced state of intoxication - and John Snagge, that most BBC of BBC voices, giving his rendition of the lewd poem ‘Eskimo Nell’. Another gem was the comedy ‘Radio Newsreel’ theme tune. It began with the announcers voice, which had been edited syllable by syllable, to say, “The British Broad-corp-ing Cast-eration presents R-ew-dio N-a-sreel”. There followed an extremely silly version of the signature tune, which had been intercut with sound effects and comedy noises, all perfectly matching the timing and pitch of the music. The ‘Sabre Dance’, ‘The William Tell Overture’ and ‘I’ve got Rhythm’ had been given similar treatments. They were all masterpieces of the Sound Editor’s art. Today, such effects can be achieved relatively easily, with a computer. At that time, however, they could only be created with a razor blade, by cutting quarter-inch recording tape into tiny sections, containing individual notes of music, or syllables of speech, and then splicing them together again with sticky tape. The people who had created them must have been amazingly skilled craftsmen, as well highly original, imaginative thinkers, with a great sense of humour. These recordings were a measure of the vast pool of creative talent which existed amongst the people that BBC Management regarded as ‘Technical’.
The other half of the 1965 intake had been well behaved at Evesham. They had happily accepted everything the lecturers told them. By the time my lot arrived, having spent three months assisting on real programmes, we felt we knew better. When the lecturers told us what should happen in theory, we had a tendency to answer back, That's not how they do it at Television Centre! etc. We must have been extremely annoying students. But the Lecturers could also be annoying. They seemed to treat us as School Leavers. Having left school at least six months ago, we felt much more grown up than that!
In years past, the BBC had not advertised for Cameramen. They had only recruited Engineers. Those engineering trainees who didn't do well enough in their exams to become proper Engineers, became Cameramen, and other Operators (Sound and Vision). This historical background influenced the nature of our training course, parts of which still seemed intended to turn us into Failed Engineers. For the first half of the course we were a mixture of Engineers and Operators, Radio and TV people. (For reasons unknown, the BBC allowed female technicians in Radio, but not in TV!) And the training was relentless, undiluted engineering theory, with lots of Maths and Physics. I had done well enough in both subjects at school but now, as we plumbed the deeper recesses of electrical theory, I found myself floundering. I passed the exams, but only by intense swatting. I have never needed such esoteric knowledge since, and forgot most of it as soon as the exams were over.
For the second half of the course, TV people were separated from Radio people, and Engineers were separated from Operators. The lectures now became more directly relevant to our intended jobs. There was still plenty of physics, but it was the sort of physics I understood and enjoyed: optics, lenses, drawing ray diagrams, etc. Then, in the afternoons, there were practical sessions. We were divided into pairs and allowed to perform various exercises with Camera, Sound, or Lighting equipment. My partner in these practicals was Barry Bonner. He understood the technical bits much better than I did. My excuse was that I was more the Artistic type. (I didn't say it was a good excuse!)
After the terrifying final exams came the Programme Exercise, a full-scale, closed-circuit television programme, created entirely by the students. We wrote it, starred in it, and performed all the production and technical jobs. For reasons inexplicable, I was an actor - playing a Vicar and a News Reader. We were so proud of our efforts that we had the soundtrack cut onto a long-playing, acetate, gramophone record. There were few other methods of domestic recording in those days. The downside of the Programme Exercise was that, even while we were on air, a few of our number disappeared without trace. These were those who had failed their exams. For fear that they might sabotage expensive equipment, they were cold-bloodedly sacked and immediately escorted from the premises, never to be seen again. We didn't even get to say goodbye.
Returning to London, I was now a trained, but inexperienced, Technical Operator. And I had yet to specialise. The lowest position on the Camera Crew was the Crew Relief, who might be called upon to to perform either Camera or Sound duties. There were always more people who wanted to work in Cameras, so there was Management encouragement pushing us towards Sound. I had to do a stint as Crew Relief - Mainly Sound. My policy with regards to this attachment was to appear very keen and enthusiastic - but utterly incompetent. That way, they couldn't complain too much about my attitude, but they wouldn't ask me back. It worked. I returned to Cameras. My old practical partner, Barry Bonner, who had vowed to became a Cameraman, finally submitted to pressure. He became a very talented and successful Sound Man.
- My contract with the BBC was still only a provisional one. I could be kicked out at any time. It required two years of consistently positive reports before I was allowed to join the Established Staff, and begin contributing to the Pension Fund.
For six more years I worked my way up through the three layers of Camera Assistant (then know as a Dolly Operator). I was tracking or swinging camera cranes on complex shows, operating cameras on the simpler ones. In jobs like this, training is a continuous, on-going process. It never ends. There's always something new to learn. No two shows are exactly alike, even the ones that appear formulaic. You are constantly encountering unfamiliar situations. Initially you rely on advice and guidance from more experienced colleagues. But gradually you learn to use your own initiative, inventing new ways of producing the desired effect.
And I had graduated from Trainee to Trainer. New Trainees were now being attached to me; I was working through their Ration Books with them, and signing them off (which meant relearning some of the technical stuff I had already forgotten!). My first two Trainees were both called Dave: David Carter and Dave Jervis. They both turned out to be excellent chaps, although that's probably no thanks to me.
- Then, in August 1973, I was promoted to the rank of Cameraman - still the most junior Cameraman on the crew - but a proper, Cameraman, none the less.
My initial Evesham course had only earned me the first part of the official T.O.T.S.I. qualification (Technical Operations Training Standing Instructions). Now that I was a fully-fledged Cameraman, I was supposed to go on a second Evesham course, an S.T.O. Course (Senior Technical Operations). Because I'd hated my first visit to Evesham, I postponed the second one for as long as possible. Eventually I was pressured into applying. Oddly, although I was obliged to go, I had to apply, and pass a board, before I would be allowed to go.
- It's alright, they told me, You can't fail the board.
- They were wrong. I failed the board!
It wasn't until 1979 that all the procrastinators, dodgers, malingerers and evaders were rounded up and ordered to Evesham, without a board. We would be S.T.O.5. Although I had disliked my first visit to Evesham, I really enjoyed the second one. I was there with a great bunch of people: all Cameramen. It was good to know that I wasn't the only one who had been avoiding this course for as long as possible. I wasn't even the oldest. The Lecturers, too, were now treating us as industry professionals, not schoolchildren. Occasionally they'd give us a guarded look and say, You're all Cameramen, aren't you? - as if to say - Cameramen probably won't understand this next bit. I'd better simplify it. I'm sure they dumbed down some of the heavier engineering theory specially for us. They now seemed to realise that Cameramen were one category of Techies who weren't very technical. Perhaps they were starting to recognise that we really were the Artistic types. But I remember some very interesting lectures about colour theory. When I last visited Evesham, the world had still been in black-and-white.
After more scary exams, came the Programme Exercise. Unable to come up with one big idea, we made two smaller ones. I was the presenter in the first, a documentary about Sod's Law, written by Jeff Naylor. I was the Director and Graphic Artist in the second, compiled by myself. It was during the later, that I gained an interesting insight into the nature of Cameramen.
I was directing a complex special-effects sequence, of my own devising. It was a simulated voyage through the Solar System, accompanied by Pink Floyd and poetry. There were overlays and superimpositions, and differential camera movements, and even sliding bits of cardboard (for the sunset over Saturn). I only had three cameras, and many of the shots used all three cameras simultaneously. This meant that alternate shots had to be prerecorded and played in on cue. I was on a mission to prove that such things could be achieved with much greater efficiency than we ever seemed to manage in real studios. I am pleased to say that we completed it all in a single as live take. The timing wasn't as slick as I had hoped to achieve, but it was good enough, and I had promised the crew a break. So, I stood them down, and sent them off to tea. Exhausted by the stress of it all, I opened the gallery door, only to find that the entire crew had gone on strike! They were refusing to go to tea. Confronting me with arms folded they announced firmly, We can do it better than that, Roger. We're going to do it all again! So we did, and it was much, much better.
- Which just proves that Cameramen are a stroppy, bolshie, bunch of mutineers, who don't obey orders . . . and I'm very proud to be one of them!
In 1965, the only way of preserving our Programme Exercise had been in sound only, on an acetate disc. Now, however, domestic video recorders were appearing. I bought my first ever VHS tape (although it would be a long time before I had anything to play it on), and a kindly lecturer made me a copy.
- This time, we all passed the exams. No one disappeared without trace during the Programme Exercise. We returned to London, and other bases, having earned our full TOTSI qualification.
- I'd unexpectedly enjoyed my STO Course so much, that I even went back to Evesham, a few years later, to do a spot of lecturing.
- So, my formal training was finally complete - but the learning never ends.
Periods at the BBC
1965 until 1966
Main memories of the period
Television Cameramen have trick memories. During the formative years of my career, programmes were either broadcast live, or recorded as though they were live, in one continuous performance. The cost of video tape editing was too expensive for most production budgets.
Generally, it took a day to produce half-an-hour of rehearsed television. For example, a half-hour Situation Comedy would require a twelve or thirteen hour working day; a fifty-minute Series Drama needed two such days, and a feature-length Television Play took three days. Most of this time was rehearsal. The Recording, or live Transmission, did not take place until the end of the final day. During rehearsals, the Cameraman might have cram a hundred or more shots into his short-term memory. He had a Shot Card, a printed extract from the script, on which he could make notes, but, when working at speed, there was often no time to read them. Each Cameraman would not only have to memorise all his own shots, he also needed to learn those of the other cameras which intercut with his own, and all his movements between shots. Also, he would need to remember all the Artists dialogue, movement and business that took place in those shots. Generally, the Cast would have a week of Outside Rehearsals to learn all this stuff. The Camera Crew would have only a day.
All these memorised rehearsals occupied a lot of brain-space, but became immediately redundant once that particularly programme was finished. Thus, as soon as the Recording or Transmission was completed, the Cameraman's brain became conditioned to do an automatic 'Bulk Erase': deleting everything it had learnt on that production, in order to clear mind-space for the next day's work.
The erasure process could happen abruptly and unexpectedly. I remember at the end of one drama, the Production Manager called, "That's a Clear, Studio! Clear for de-rig."
- The Camera Crew began to pin down their cameras. But then came another message,
- "Oh! Hang on everyone. We've just got to do Scene Two again."
And all the Cameramen were staring at one another in blank bewilderment, none of us having any idea of what happened in Scene Two. Only a few seconds before, we had remembered it perfectly, but now it was completely gone, and we were all desperately searching scripts and shot cards, hoping some partial memory might return.
As a result of this instantaneous amnesia, I could watch one of my own programmes being transmitted, only a few days after it was recorded, and have absolutely no idea which shots are mine.
All this is my excuse for having forgotten so much. My memories do not form a coherent narrative. They consist only of a series of isolated incidents. Only the very good moments; the very bad moments, and, above all, the very silly moments, have been preserved. I have tried to put these moments into chronological order, but the dates I have allocated are largely guesswork, and may be entirely inaccurate.
My First Mole
The old name for any kind of mobile camera mounting was a 'Dolly'. When I first joined the BBC, Camera Assistants, who spent much of their time driving such mountings, were known as 'Dolly Operators'. It was great job title, particularly in the mini-skirted, swinging Sixties, when the word 'Dolly' or 'Dolly-Bird' had acquired an entirely different meaning. Introduce yourself, at a party, as a 'Dolly Operator' and it was bound to get a laugh, and attract interest.
1965. I was a very junior trainee Dolly Operator, newly arrived at TV Centre. I hadn't been on the Engineering Training course, at Evesham, yet, so my ignorance of all things technical was profound. I was rigging in Studio E, Lime Grove, when I received an urgent call from Allocations. Could I go immediately to the Studio next door, where the Crew were short handed?
I hastened to Studio D. The programme was 'Blue Peter'. The Crew had rigged and rehearsals were just beginning. They urgently needed someone to track the Mole Crane.
For those unfamiliar with such things, the Mole was a large, but versatile camera mounting much used in BBC studios at the time. First developed in Hollywood, its official title was the Motion Picture Research Council (M.P.R.C.) Crane. In had acquired the nickname 'Mole' from its manufacturer: Mole-Richardson. It consisted of a motorised base, powered by a 110 volt D.C. electric motor. On this was mounted a long seesaw-like arm. The Cameraman sat, with his camera at the front end of this arm. At the other end was a metal 'bucket' full of lead weights, which served as a counterbalance. It was operated by a three-man crew: the Cameraman and two assistants. The assistant who drove the motorised base was known as the 'Tracker'. The second assistant, who manually manoeuvred the counterweight, in order to move the camera up or down, or to swing it from side to side, was known as the 'Swinger' - another job title which could cause amusement at parties!
I hurried to the Mole, and took up the Tracker's position. The Cameraman was Mike Figini. He was offering a Wide Shot of 'Blue Peter' presenter Christopher Trace, who was sitting in a mock-up of a tube train.
Even as I climbed aboard, Mike was signalling me to track in to a closer shot. I had never used a Mole before, nor even seen one, and, having missed the rig, I had had no opportunity to ask anyone about it. I quickly checked the controls. It all seemed straightforward enough: two throttle levers and a steering wheel.
Then I looked for the 'Dead Man's Handle'. The only dollies I had tracked before were the Heron and the Vintern Motorised. Both of these had a Dead Man's Handle, i.e. a pedal on the Tracker's platform, which had to be held down by the Tracker's bodyweight in order to activate the motor. It worked as a safety cutout. Should the Tracker dismount or fall off the platform, the pedal would be released and the motor would immediately stop. I saw a bar, just in front of my toes. I put my foot on it and it depressed satisfactorily. Clearly, this was a pedal. It must be the Dead Man's Handle.
Thus after a split-second's self-training, and feeling that I knew what I was doing, I attempted to track in. I put my foot down firmly on the pedal and pushed the throttles forward. The whole crane shuddered and trembled. Then it began to move forward, very slowly, in a series of jerks and twitches. Despite holding the pedal down with my full bodyweight and pushing both throttles fully forward, the Mole was only managing a very reluctant, stuttering movement. Everyone was staring at us, puzzled. Evidently there was a fault on the crane, but we would sort that out later. The priority now was to line up the shot.
After a long embarrassing judder, Mike Figini felt that the shot was tight enough and signalled me to stop. So, I took my foot off the pedal . . .
The Mole shot forward like a rocket!
Instinctively I stamped my foot down again, and pulled back the throttles. We stopped violently, but not before Mike's Mid-Shot of a smiling Chris Trace had crashed into a Big Close-Up of a terrified Chris Trace! We had almost pinning him against the set. To his credit, Mike held focus remarkably well. And, once he had recovered from the shock, Chris Trace thought the whole thing was very funny.
In this drastic way, I first learned that a Mole Crane does not have a Dead Man's Handle - just a brake.
Great Mole Crashes, which were NOT my fault (although I was involved!)
The Mole Crane was a regular feature at the BBC Television Theatre, in Shepherds Bush. It was mounted on a specially constructed ramp, which extended, like a catwalk, from the house-right side of the stage. Mostly, the Mole just drove up and down this ramp, in a straight line. Only occasionally did it travel further upstage. Distances were marked along the side of the ramp, like a ruler, so that the Tracker could take note of starting and stopping positions.
The one problem was the theatre balcony. It was the same height as the Cameraman’s head, when the Mole arm was fully elevated. As Directors called for ever higher and wider shots, there were occasional collisions. I was involved in one of them.
It must have been 1966. I was still an inexperienced Camera Trainee. There were two of us attached to Camera Crew 11, led by John Lintern, who was the youngest Senior Cameraman at that time. The programme was “The Billy Cotton Band Show”, which was then a peak-time, Saturday-night light entertainment programme.
One week, in order to accelerate our training, John decided to take a risk and allowed his two Trainees to operate the Mole Crane. John himself would be the Cameraman, on the front. I would be the Swinger. My fellow Trainee, who shall remain nameless, would be the Tracker. Neither of us had previously operated the main camera on such a high-profile programme.
Initial things went reasonably well. It took two days of rehearsals before the programme was ready for transmission. On the first day we blocked shots, positions and moves. It was now the second day. We had reached the point where we were rehearsing with the full orchestra, playing live, in realtime.
It was common practice, as a piece of music finished, for the camera to track back and crane up: ending with a high wide shot of the whole band. This was what we were about to do. The Tracker began to track backwards. I initially craned the camera down and then, as the music approached its climax, I craned it rapidly upwards. It looked good, Tracker and Swinger were perfectly co-ordinated, and in time with the music. On the final chord the camera reached maximum height and stopped. The backwards movement should have stopped at the same moment. It didn’t. The Tracker had overshot his end position. There was a sickening crash as we hit the balcony.
Fortunately, there was a tubular metal bracket, supporting a monitor, behind the Cameraman’s head. This had taken the force of the impact. But it had been bent forward so far that it had pushed John’s head into his viewfinder hood, trapping him there. I stood staring stupidly, until a more sensible voice shouted at me to crane him down. I did. By brute force we managed to straighten the buckled bracket, and John was released: remarkably unharmed.
I naturally assumed that we incompetent Trainees would now be relieved of our duties, and replaced by a more experience crew. But, heroically, John insisted that we continued. There was hardly a break in rehearsals, nor any word of rebuke, despite the fact that he must have been badly shaken. (Personally, I’d have stopped for a stiff drink!) John’s attitude to Trainees who made mistakes was, “Well, you know what it feels like now!” And he was right. The utter embarrassment of making a fool of yourself in front of the whole cast and crew (let alone in front of millions of viewers) was a far greater punishment than any formal reprimand. He was an excellent Cameraman and truly remarkable Crew Leader.
There were no further accidents, and the transmission went well. The only other detail I can remember from that programme is that the orchestra played Ron Goodwin’s theme tune to the film “633 Squadron”, which was an extremely exciting piece of music, especially when swinging a Mole Crane. As the camera swooped low over the heads of the musicians, accompanied by that machine-gun rhythm, it really felt as though we were dive-bombing and strafing!
- (In those days, when the camera swooped, the Cameraman swooped with it. He felt the G-forces in his belly and the wind in his hair - and the occasional thwack of skull against balcony. Nowadays cameras on cranes are remote controlled. The Cameraman just sits at a desk and twiddles knobs. Where the fun in that? It’s about as exciting as being an accountant!)
It is difficult to imagine an accident worse than that one, but a decade later I was involved in an even more embarrassing crash. Once again it was at the Television Theatre, but this time it happened during recording - a collision between two Moles - in front of a live studio audience.
It was an Olivia Newton John special, directed by Yvonne Littlewood. I think it was 1977. By now there were two Mole Cranes in the TV Theatre - one up on the ramp, and one down in the well, beside the apron, operating at right-angles to the ramp. I was on the Mole in the well. Once again, I was the Swinger, and the Tracker shall remain nameless. At the front, our Cameraman was John Hoare.
At one point, we had a fast reposition. This involved tracking forward, while I swung the arm sideways, out across the stage. There had been no problem on rehearsal. But, during recording, just as we started to move, a Sound Man darted into the angle between the stage and the ramp, in order to pay out a microphone cable. He hadn’t seen us coming and, on our intended course, we were going to hit him in the back of the neck, possibly causing a serious injury. A Mole arm has a lot of momentum (including the mass of the Cameraman; the camera and its mounting; the counterbalance weights, and the heavy ironmongery of the arm itself) and cannot change direction easily. Throwing my full weight against it, I managed to stop it hitting the Sound Man, who was still unaware of the danger. Then I tried to crane up, in order to swing our camera over his head. But we were still moving forward, and the other Mole was also moving, right across our path. We were heading for a collision. There was now nowhere I could put the arm safely, even if it had been possible to move it quickly enough. I waved at the Tracker, signalling him to stop moving, but he was looking down at his position marks, on the floor, and didn’t see me. Reaching back, I managed to grab his throttle level and pushed it into reverse. We came to a shuddering halt.
- Just . . . too late.
At the last moment, the Cameraman had spun his camera sideways, to avoid damaging the lens. There was a glancing impact between the side of his camera, and the counterweight bucket of the other Mole. It felt like only a gentle tap and, for a moment, I thought we had avoided any damage. Then I saw his focus handle spinning through the air. It had sheared clean off.
Everything had to stop. The Engineers at TV Theatre did not have a spare focus control, nor a spare camera. They sent off to Lime Grove, the nearest other studios, to get one. By the time it arrived, and repairs were made, over an hour had passed.
- For the Crew it seemed like an eternity of excruciating embarrassment, during which the audience watched us accusingly, and become bored, while Olivia Newton John struggled to maintain her charming smile.
1966 until 1985
Main memories of the period
Memories of "Doctor Who"
I was a 17 year-old schoolboy, studying for my A Levels. I was on the phone to my schoolfriend Keith, probably discussing an 8mm film we were making at the time. Suddenly, my Dad came running out of the living room. The Television had been shut down, he told me, because someone had just shot President Kennedy! 50 years later, having regained contact with Keith, I reminded him of this moment. He was surprised. He remembered being in a Cinema, when they stopped the film, and the Manager had come out the announce the Kennedy shooting. A third friend from the time was sure we had all been at a party together, when we heard the news. Which all goes to prove that Frederick Forsythe was right. Everyone remembers where they were when Kennedy was shot - but we don't necessarily remember it correctly!
But I remember where I was the following teatime, when my family sat down to watch a new children's series on the tele. It was called, Doctor Who - an unoriginal title, I thought - obviously cribbed from Dr. No, the first James Bond film, which had been released the previous year. But I liked the opening music - I still do - and I particularly liked the swirling abstract patterns behind the titles. It was the first time I had seen the electronics of television used to create dynamic abstract designs. Already a huge fan of Kinetic Art (Marcel Duchamp's Rotoreliefs; Alexander Calder's Mobiles, etc.), I approved.
The first episode had a pleasantly mysterious atmosphere - a schoolgirl with an uncanny knowledge of science, and seemingly first-hand experience of historical events - her grumpy old Granddad living in a junk yard - and a Police Telephone Box which was larger on the inside. Those swirling abstract patterns appeared again, as the Tardis travelled through time and space. The episode ended as it arrived on a barren landscape, and a sinister silhouetted figure appeared in foreground. It was enough to make me tune-in next week.
There followed a story of Cavemen, featuring burning torches inside human skulls. No teenage boy could fail to enjoy the sight of burning torches inside human skulls. At the end of the story, one Caveman picked up an unfeasibly large boulder to crush the skull of another. This was strong stuff for a children's teatime! I kept watching.
The Tardis next materialised on a blasted, radio-active world. Aha! I thought I could see the pattern here. We had travelled into the distant past to meet Cavemen, now we are travelling into the future, to the aftermath of the nuclear war. But No! This was not the Earth. It was an alien planet, called Skaro. At the start of Episode Two, we first met the inhabitants of Skaro. . .
And that was the point at which Doctor Who became cult, behind-the-sofa viewing!
O.K., those first Daleks had a Heath-Robinson quality, with their sink-plunger arm and egg-whisk gun: all evidence of budgetary restrictions. But other T.V. aliens were obviously actors in costumes. The legless, gliding Daleks were different and original. They were uniquely un-human, an inhuman. Their distorted voices, and the way their death ray turned its victims negative, represented imaginative use of the available technology. The design of the Daleks, with their domed heads and the decorative roundels on their polygonal bodies, reminded me of the Martian spaceship from Quatermass and the Pit: which also had a dome at one end, and a polygonal body decorated with roundels. Stand that spaceship on end; squash it down; splay out the base, and you'd have something closely resembling a Dalek. (Come to think of it - the internal walls of the Tardis, with their circular concavities, closely resembled the interior of the Quatermass spaceship.)
By the final episode, I had my 8mm cine camera pointing at the screen, ready to record. Somewhere, I still have a few minutes of blue-grey film, showing the climactic battle between Daleks and Tharls.
Inspired by the Doctor Who titles, my amateur-night experiments with 8mm film, included attempts to create dynamic, abstract patterns. Using a slide projector and an old turntable, I refracted light through rotating prisms (and other glassware), or reflected it from moving, irregular surfaces (including layers of coloured, transparent sweet wrappers). I achieved some aesthetically pleasing results, but none of them had the shimmering swirl of that Doctor Who opening.
Doctor Who was only intended to run for for a single series but, two years later it was still going strong, and I had started working for the BBC. My earliest close-encounter was in the canteen at Riverside Studios. At the lunch tables we were joined by actors dressed as giant insects. Only their face masks had been removed to facilitate eating. These must have been Menoptra (or Zarbis?), from the Planet Vortis. My Crew were working on something in Riverside Studio 2 (probably Playschool), while Doctor Who and the Web Planet was being recorded next door, in Studio 1.
Another early memory is of exploring the scene docks, outside the studios at TV Centre. There I found the model of a building. I recognised it at once. This small model had once been the mighty City of the Mechanoids - the flame-throwing, polyhedral robots who fought against the Daleks and the end of The Chase. Now it lay forgotten and abandoned in the Television Centre Ring Road. (My memory says that I found this model soon after arriving at TV Centre, and that I had seen The Chase long before, when I was a child at home - hence a sense of nostalgia. But research indicates that The Chase wasn't transmitted until June 1965, six months after I arrived at TV Centre. So this memory must date from later.)
Part of my training was a 3 month residential course at the BBC's Engineering Training Department, at Evesham. Here we had the opportunity to play with technical equipment. While others conducted more serious-minded experiments, I wanted to recreate those swirling, electronic patterns that were used in the Doctor Who titles.
I knew the principle. Point a Camera at a Monitor screen, and feed that Monitor with the output of the Camera. The image would now go round in a continuous loop, endlessly feeding back on itself, to create an indefinitely repeating pattern. The first thing I discovered is that it wouldn't work in total darkness. It needed some ambient refections on the Monitor screen. It was these reflections that would be continuously repeated to create the patterns. If the Camera shot was slightly tighter than the Monitor, the patterns would radiate outwards, expanding as they did so. If the Camera shot was slightly looser than the Monitor screen, the patterns would dwindle inwards, in ever diminishing trails, converging in a bright spot, at the centre of the screen. Because there was a tiny, but finite, time delay between each generation of the image, a slight movement of the camera would send a wave-like motion snaking along those converging trails. Reversing the horizontal scans of either the Monitor or the Camera would make the pattern symmetrical: each repetition becoming the mirror-image of those on either side. Reversing both horizontal and vertical scans would create a four-way symmetry.
At one point we managed to create a spectacular, spiralling whirlpool. I'm not sure how we achieved this. Left-right or up-down symmetry are easily explained, but not rotational symmetry. I was so impressed by the whirlpool pattern that I mentally began to compose a Doctor Who script, in which the Tardis is sucked into a space-time vortex, to a Sargasso of stranded spacecraft, all unable to escape. For many years I believed that my electronic whirlpool was a new discovery, and that I was its discoverer. Having seen the 50th Anniversary re-showing of An Uneathly Child, however, I now realise that the same whirlpool appeared in the very first episode.
(W) Jan/Feb 1966. Directed by Paddy Russell
This was the first Doctor Who I actually worked on. William Hartnell was still the First Doctor, and his companion was Steven Taylor, played by Peter Purvis. I was then on Crew 11, under Senior Cameraman John Lintern. The Director was Paddy Russell, and her P.A. was Pam Lintern, the charming wife of my Senior Cameraman, which is probably why Crew 11 often worked with Paddy Russell.
These were the days when Doctor Who stories alternated between Science-Fiction and fact-based historical dramas. This was a historical one, so no monsters. It was set in 16th Century France, immediately prior to the massacre of the Huguenots, on St. Bartholomew's Eve.
I remember nothing of my own contribution to the production, which was probably minimal. I remember a Supporting Artist called, Will Stampe, playing a passer-by, who was knocked over when Steven pushed one of the baddies into him. Leonard Sachs (better known as the host of The Good Old Days) played a leading Protestant, nicknamed The Sea Beggar. He was shot by an Assassin, codenamed Bondot. At the time, I wondered if this name was taken from history, or whether it was a tongue-in-cheek reference to another well-known Secret Agent, who also had a Licence to Kill. I still don't know.
At the end, the Doctor and Steven escape from the massacre, but are forced to leave their friend, a serving maid named Anne Chaplet, behind. They do not know whether she would survive, and the Doctor delivers a sermon on the impossibility of changing history. Returning to the 20th Century, however, they encounter a new companion - Dodo Chaplet. It is the same surname, and Steven concludes that Anne must have survived, and that Dodo could be a descendant. Even then, it occurred to me that Anne Chaplet could only have passed on her surname if she had an illegitimate son. But this was not a subject for discussion on a children's programme.
By now, the first two Dalek stories had reappeared as feature films - Doctor Who and the Daleks (1965) and Daleks: Invasion Earth 2150 A.D. (1966).
"See Daleks in Colour", boasted the posters, and they were true to their word. The Daleks looked magnificent in their new, brightly painted liveries - as did their metallic city. The film-makers obviously had more money to spend on sets and effects than their counterparts at the BBC. But I was disappointed that they didn't use the original music. Nor could they manage a colour version of those swirling title patterns. At least they aimed for something abstract and kinetic. The first film appeared to have used de-focussed glitter drapes - a old faithful method of creating a non-specific shimmer - but the colours were pleasingly vibrant. The second film used swirling clouds of coloured liquid, including a whirlpool motif, but the colours were more muted.
In the films, Peter Cushing played the Doctor. I had long been a fan of his work, both on television and in Hammer Films. But he was not William Hartnell, and he called himself Doctor Who, not The Doctor - Sacrilege! Nonetheless, I enjoyed his portrayal of a more doddery and kindly Doctor. He deserves to be included in the official Canon. (Both the Peter Cushing films are better than that awful co-production with Paul McGann!)
The Evil of the Daleks
(LL) May/June 1967. Directed by Derek Martinus.
The second time I worked on Doctor Who was to be my first encounter with his arch-enemies.
I was now on Crew 16, with Senior Cameraman Ken Major: a keen mountaineer and rock-climber, who could occasionally be seen halfway up the studio walls, or clambering precariously across technical equipment. Also on the crew was Brian White, who we nicknamed 'Black Jake', because of his full dark beard. Brian's claim to fame was that he had been the first ever Dalek! To explain - at the end of the first episode of the first Dalek story, the presence of a Dalek was first indicated by a shot taken from the Dalek's point of view, and Brian was the Cameraman who had taken that shot: advancing menacingly towards the terrified Companion, while a young Assistant Floor Manager squatted on his ped, holding a sink-plunger in the foreground of his shot.
By now Patrick Troughton had taken over as the Second Doctor, with Jamie McCrimmon (played by Frazer Hines) as his Assistant. And the programme had found a new home in Studio D, Lime Grove. The historical stories had now been abandoned, even if some of the Science-Fiction stories had a historical setting (which means that the "not changing history convention" must also have been abandoned - except when it suited the scriptwriters to re-invoke it!).
This one was set in Nineteenth Century England. A mad Victorian scientist has used static electricity and mirrors to create a Tardis-like time machine. It takes the form of a wooden cabinet, about the size of a loo cubical, with suitably elaborate Victorian ornamentation. The Camera Crew nicknamed it the Gothic Bog. (This memory prompts the thought that, if the original Police-Box design ever become too out-of-date, a Portaloo would make an inconspicuous modern alternative!)
But this antique time machine is under the control of the Daleks! There was a chilling moment when one of the Victorian gentlemen began speaking with a Dalek voice, indicating that he, too, was under their power.
I recall a device resembling a doorway. When people passed through it, they were transformed into obedient slaves of the Daleks. I remember we used Luminance Overlay (the Black-and-White ancestor of C.S.O. or Chromakey) to make people appear to be standing in the doorway. Then, I think, we used a Ripple Effect Generator to give their image a weird wobble as they were transformed. Unfortunately, the recordings of this story have been lost, so it is impossible to confirm my memories. Later, the Doctor would use the same doorway to humanise a number of Daleks.
This serial introduced the Emperor Dalek: a gigantic static robot, connected to various cables and ducts, which presided over the Dalek city like a huge pagan idol. Disappointingly, we never got to meet this colossus. It was built at one of the BBC's film stages, at Ealing, and all its scenes were shot on film.
The story climaxed in a battle between the two Dalek factions. The Emperor was blown to pieces in their cross-fire. The spectacular wide shots of the battle were filmed at Ealing. But, at Lime Grove, we recorded the closer shots of individual Daleks suffering gruesome deaths. As each Dalek exploded, it's top blew open and its gooey, organic innards belched revoltingly out of its head. The explosion was achieved simply with a piece of fishing line, which was used to yank the top off the Dalek. Inside was a sack filled with lumpy slime (wallpaper paste with irregular bits of foam). The Dalek Operator, crouching below the sack, pushed upwards, causing the slime to erupt, volcano-like, out of the top of the Dalek, and ooze viscously down its sides.
I remember one slime-spattered Operator, extracting himself from an exploded, slime-covered Dalek. He smacked his lips and paused thoughtfully, before deciding, Hmm . . . Not enough sugar!
The Tomb of the Cybermen
(MM) July 1967. Directed by Morris Barry
The following week, Crew 16 were back for an adventure with the Doctor's second most notorious enemy. It is the only time I have worked on two, consecutive Doctor Who stories.
Once again, those of us in Studio D, did not get the see the most spectacular piece of scenery: that five-storey-high edifice, within which the Cybermen lay ensconced in their individual cocoons. Like the emperor Dalek, this was built at a film stage in Ealing, and was shot on film. Only the lower part of it was replicated in our studio. As the Cybermen awoke; tearing out of their plastic shrouds. and clambering down the ladders, they were shown in slow-motion, which added an extra eeriness to their awakening. When they returned to their tomb, the film was played backwards, so that the torn plastic sheeting appeared to reseal itself. These scenes could only have been shot on film since, in those days, video tape could not be played backwards, or in slow-motion. Time-lapse photography was also used, as the tomb thawed out of its frosty covering.
But there was spectacle in Studio D too, including a large, vertically opening hatch, and a back-projection screen on which polarising filters were used to create pulsing, abstract patterns. There were also some spectacular smoke and pyrotechnic effects, as weapons were fired and Cybermen exploded, or were electrocuted. At times the studio smelled like Bonfire Night.
And there were some old-fashioned theatrical tricks, e.g. Toberman, the strong man, attacks the Cyber-Controller, dragging him out of shot. Moments later, he re-enters the same shot, carrying the Cyber-Controller high about his head, and hurls him down. During that brief moment, out of vision, the costumed actor, playing the Cyber-Controller, had been replaced by a similarly costumed dummy. It may not have been the most realistic of dummies, but the substitution had been accomplished with remarkably slick efficiency.
Equally slick were the rapid cuts between live studio action and film, e.g. a actor fires a gun (live in the studio) - cut - to stricken Cyberman or Cybermatt, squirting smoke (on film) - cut - straight back to actor with gun (in the studio). In those days this could not be done by editing, in post-production. It had to be done live, in real time, via the studio. This required very some precise timing. It takes 10 seconds for a telecine machine (basically, a film projector pointing at a camera tube) to run up to full speed. During rehearsals, that 10 seconds had to be back-timed, to identify some word or action cue, before the firing on the gun. Then, during recording, that cue would be the signal to run the telecine machine, so that the film hit full speed at exactly the moment the gun was fired, and the vision mixer cut. All very clever and skilful stuff.
At the time, this story reminded me of my favourite Hammer Film: The Mummy (1959). In both stories, archeologists discover a long-lost tomb, but their attempt to excavate it awakens the hidden menace within. The parallel was underlined by the casting of George Pastell, an actor with a talent for playing sinister foreigners. He played virtually the same role in both stories. In The Mummy he appeared as a fez-wearing Egyptian, a worshipper of the old gods, who was the protector, and controller of the Mummy - until it turned against him and killed him. In The Tomb of the Cybermen he played a member of a secret brotherhood, who tried to become the controller of the Cybermen - until they turned against him and killed him.
The only plot point I really remember is the sudden appearance of a Cyberman, as one of the explorers is killed. For a moment we believe that a Cyberman has come back to life. But then the Doctor shows that this particular pop-up Cyberman is just a target in an automated shooting gallery. So, we are lulled back into a false sense of security - until all the Cybermen come back to life!
The Web of Fear
(QQ) Jan/Feb 1968. Directed by Douglas Camfield.
Crew 16 returned to Studio D, early the following year, for an encounter with Yetis in the London Underground.
At the end of the previous episode, the Tardis had taken off with its doors still open, causing the Arch-Villain to be sucked out into nothingness. Now, the Doctor and his companions are in danger of being sucked after him, as the Tardis hurtles, out of control, through time and space. To give the correct impression of peril, the Tardis interior had to be sloping, so that the actors appeared to be sliding downhill, towards those open doors. To have built the scenery on a slant would have been difficult and expensive, and impossible to straightened up immediately afterwards. The alternative was to rotate the cameras, but, in the days when video cameras were large and heavy, this would have been almost as difficult. So, the illusion of slope was created by fitting 45 degree, front-silvered mirrors to the camera lenses. This made things complicated for the Cameramen, who had to aim their cameras at right-angles to the direction of their intended subjects. The pictures also had to be electronically reversed, left-to-right, in order to undo the mirror-image effect. But a rotation of the mirror would now make the whole set appear to be slanting. Combined with some desperate scrabbling from the actors, the sense of sucking and sliding was surprisingly convincing. When Jamie managed to reach the control panel and close the doors, a manual turn of the mirror set the Tardis back onto an even keel. In the script, the Doctor then explained that the villain had been sucked out due to the relative air-speed ratio, or similar pseudo-science, but those lines were now seen to be unnecessary, and were cut out.
The unfortunate Cameramen had to continued shooting through their mirrors until the end of that scene. As a result, I noticed one shot becoming momentarily unbalanced, until the confused Cameraman managed to re-orientate his mirror-image brain and correct the composition. It wasn't until the first film insert was being played that the mirrors could be removed; the pictures could be flipped back the right way round, and normal shooting could be resumed.
- [Technical Aside - These mirrors were known by the acronym PUMA (Periscope Upper Mirror Attachment). In the days before a lightweight camera could just be plonked on the studio floor, the only way to take a low-angle, floor-level shot, was by using a periscope. The upper mirror (PUMA) was fitted to the lens, and the lower, larger mirror was clamped to the base of the camera pedestal. On this occasion, however, the upper mirror was used in isolation. It was designed to fit onto the small, fixed-focal-length lenses used in the turrets of black-and-white cameras. When colour cameras were introduced, they were fitted with zoom lenses, which had a much larger front element. PUMA could no longer be used. Instead, BBC Mechanics developed a wedge-plate, known as a CHAR - Camera Head Attachment: Rocking - which fitted between the camera and its panning head. This could replace the normal Tilt action of the camera with a rotation.]
The scenery for this story was particularly impressive and, for once, Ealing didn't get all the best bits. Sections of a London Underground station and its accompanying tube tunnel were constructed in Studio D, Lime Grove. The platform had to be built up, above studio floor level, to allow space for the trough and rails. The accuracy and detail were amazing. It is said that the scenery was so realistic that London Transport bosses complained. They accused the BBC of filming in areas of the Underground network, for which no permission had been granted. They had to be shown the studio scenery in Lime Grove, before they would believe that it hadn't been shot at real locations.
Much of the set was covered in cobwebs (the Web of the title), but these fungal webs had been spun by Yetis, not spiders. This was probably the first time I had seen how cobwebs are made for film and TV productions. They use polystyrene cement: the same glue that is used for plastic construction kits. Those who have encountered this material will know of its irritating tendency to pull out into long sticky threads, particularly when accidentally stuck to a figure. It is this property which is used to create artificial cobwebs. A device resembling a handheld electric fan wafts skeins of gluey strands over props and scenery. Initially the strands are transparent and barely visible. They have to be dusted with talcum powder, to make them more obvious. Some of the webs were very large, blocking whole corridors. For these, a mesh of twine was constructed first, as a framework, before being covered with sticky threads and dust.
When working on a multi-camera production, everyone is concentrating hard on their own particular role. This makes it difficult for someone, like a Cameraman, to stand back and get an overview of how the completed programme is likely to look. An exception is when watching the prerecorded film inserts. These have been shot, edited, dubbed and generally completed before the studio day. They can, therefore, encapsulate the likely atmosphere of the finished programme. Nowadays, such inserts would be edited into the main programme during post-production, and the studio Cameraman would never see them. But in the 1960s, when there was virtually no post-production, the film had to be played in, via the studio, as part of a continuous performance. I clearly remember watching that first insert during rehearsals. A old man is extinguishing candles in a long dark gallery; a metal sphere is hovering at the window, and a Yeti is coming to life - all accompanied by some very creepy music. The atmosphere tingled with tension. If the rest of the story is as good as this, I thought, it's going to be a very scary story indeed. And it was! A BBC Announcer had to issue a warning before the transmission - something unprecedented for a children's teatime programme.
The makers of Doctor Who had long hoped to replicate the sense of nail-biting suspense that the BBC had created in its earlier Quatermass serials. Of all the early black-and-white stories, this is probably the one that came closest to achieving that goal.
- Trivia the First: This story marked the first appearance of an enigmatic army officer, called Colonel Lethbridge Stewart, played by Nicholas Courtney. The next time I worked with him, he had been promoted to the rank of Brigadier, and had become a Doctor Who regular, as the Commanding Officer of U.N.I.T.
- Trivia the Second: The co-author of this story was Henry Lincoln. I later remember him presenting some fascinating documentaries concerning the French village of Rennes-le-Chateau, and its mysterious history. His continuing researches led him to create a pseudo-historical conspiracy theory, concerning the Merovingian Kings of France and the bloodline of Mary Magdalene, which he published in the book, The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail. This, in turn, became the underlying theme of Dan Brown's best-selling thriller, The Da Vinci Code.
The Space Pirates
(YY) Feb/March 1969. Directed by Michael Hart.
I remember being in Studio D, Lime Grove, together with some other Cameramen. We are watching a studio monitor, which is showing a prerecorded film sequence for The Space Pirates. Model spacecraft are manoeuvring in the darkness. The models, as always, look like models. But, as Cameramen, we like the way they have been photographed. Model spaceships were often suspended from treads, like puppets, in order to move them about. This made their movement wobbly and unrealistic. On this occasion, however, the models were static and an illusion of motion had been created by moving the camera. Because of its greater weight and momentum, tracking the camera past a model will always create a smoother, more solid-looking movement than trying to dangle a flimsy model past the camera. The Film Cameraman has also used a wide-angle lens, skimming it very close to the model. This has created a differential rate of movement between different parts of the spaceship, and exaggerated the sense of scale. The disadvantage of this technique is that any star field, or model landscape, behind the spaceship will move with an unrealistic perspective. But the issue has been avoided by shooting the models against a plain black background. No attempt has been made to show stars or planets.
This, and Gordon Gostelow's masterful performance as a cranky old prospector, are all I remember of this story.
They are not enough to prove that I actually worked on it!
As a Cameraman, it is sometime difficult to know whether you remember a programme because you worked on it, or whether you just watched it on the tele at home. Even a memory which seems to come from a behind the scenes viewpoint may not be conclusive. There are three possibilities.
- A: You worked on it.
- B: You watched it on television; spent too much time wondering how they must have shot a particular sequence, or how they achieved a particular effect, and ended up with an implanted memory that you actually saw them doing it.
- C: You weren't working on that programme, but you were working nearby that day. You visited the studio (to see a friend, borrow a piece of equipment, etc.) when a particular scene was being rehearsed and, therefore, remember seeing it from a behind the scenes viewpoint.
The Doctor Who Production Guide says that only the first episode of The Space Pirates was recorded in Studio D, Lime Grove, (later it moved to TV Centre) and that it was shot by Camera Crew 13. I was never a regular member of Crew 13. In early 1969, however, I would have been on the Dolly Operator Pool, a pool of Camera Assistants who could be allocated to any crew on a day-to-day basis, as needed.
So, my best guess is that, although I didn't work on the whole of The Space Pirates, Crew 13 may have been short handed on the first episode and I was sent to assist them, for just that day. And that is how I came to be watching those spaceships on that monitor.
On the other hand - it is equally possible that I was working next door, in Studio E, and I'd just popped in for a visit!
And on the third hand - I'm sure I remember working with Gordon Gostelow in the studio, and he wasn't in Part One. So, maybe I worked on more than one episode.
(BBB) Dec. 1969 - Jan 1970. Director, Timothy Combe. Producer, Barry Letts.
I moved to Crew 9, with Senior Cameraman Paul Kay. Meanwhile, Doctor Who moved from Lime Grove to Television Centre; John Pertwee became the Third Doctor, and the series went into colour. For the first time those shimmering, swirling, abstract titles, would be seen in colour. I had been looking forward to this moment - but was disappointed with the result. I had hoped for scintillating iridescence - for a kaleidoscopic rainbow of dynamically shifting colours - as random and chaotic as the patterns themselves. Instead, it looked as though areas of plain, static and uninteresting colour had been plonked on top of the black-and-white patterns. But, at least, they included a whirlpool motif.
It was in conversation with a Make-Up Lady, in Lime Grove canteen, that I first heard that Jon Pertwee was to become the new Doctor. He was an actor I had always associated with comedy, and I anticipated a more humorous portrayal of the Doctor. But I was disappointed. Despite his flamboyant dress and silly car, Jon Pertwee played the role seriously. And most of his scripts were equally serious. During the same conversation I learned that his Companion, Liz Shaw, was to introduce a new level of sophistication and glamour. Here, too, I was disappointed.
The Silurians was the first Doctor Who adventure shot in colour at TV Centre. Some fans will point out that the previous story Spearhead from Space was also in colour. But that was shot on FILM, i.e. grotty, grainy, antiquated 16mm celluloid with sprocket holes, covered in scratches and fingerprints. So, from the viewpoint of an electronic Cameraman - It Doesn't Count. And it had to be played through our studio, anyway, to add the effects and other electronic magic that would have been impossible on old-fashioned film.
Video-tape editing was now cheaper and easier than it had been. This meant that whole episodes no longer had to be shot as a continuous performance. Scenes could be recorded out of order. This allowed the whole of TC1, the largest studio at Television Centre, to be converted into a vast underground cavern, complete with stalactites and stalagmites. The fibre-glass rocks had been manufactured by an outside contractor. I remember the Designer being unhappy about late delivery, which had prevented him achieving the detailed surface textures that he had hoped for. But it all looked pretty spectacular to me. Although, as a pedant, I noticed that some of the stalagmites looked more like upside-down stalactites.
This is probably the Doctor Who story I remember best. The Camera Crew became rather fond of the Silurians. There was a slightly ridiculous quality to their design, with their scaly, green rubber suits, big flat ears and hangdog faces. Sound Man and photographer, Dave Heddon, took photos of a Silurian wearing headphones and operating a camera, and another of a Silurian wearing a flat cap and muffler, smoking a fag.
One of the Silurians (i.e. the actor inside the costume) had the same name as one of our Cameramen: Dave Carter.
The original Silurians had a third eye, resembling a red lightbulb in the centre of their foreheads. With much dramatic head wobbling, it could be used to melt through solid rock. Our Senior Cameraman cultivated an impersonation of the Silurian lightbulb, and used it on his way to the canteen, as though trying to melt the walls that separated him from his dinner.
Even more endearing than the Silurians themselves was the large biped Dinosaur they used as a guard-dog. Almost life-sized, the rubber costume was so heavy that it had to be supported by a wire from above. Inside was a small, bald, white-whiskered man named Bertram, who wore ballet pumps and tights. He entered his costume through an opening between its legs. The sight of his re-emergence, via the same route, gave the impression that the Dinosaur was giving birth - to a most unnatural offspring! Once inside, Bertram's field-of-vision was very restricted, making it difficult for him to judge directions. An instruction to, Advance menacingly towards the Camera, was equally likely to send him advancing menacingly towards the Tea Bar. Being entirely surrounded by padded rubber, he also became very hot inside his costume. Two of his colleagues stood ready with a compressed-air cylinder. At intervals, they would direct a jet of air, steaming with cold, into the opening. When this happened, Bertram would relax, with the result that the Dinosaur's head lolled backwards and its jaws gaped wide. To a disinterested observer, there was an obscene quality to this performance: two men thrusting a long metal cylinder up between the legs of a Dinosaur; the hiss and steam of squirting gas, and the Dinosaur throwing back its head, mouth open, in an expression that can only be described as orgasmic!
Being the first Studio-based Doctor Who, in colour, this was also the first to make use of Colour Separation Overlay (or C.S.O., known outside the BBC as Chromakey, Blue Screen, etc.). An actor or object could be positioned in front of a blue (or other plain colour) backcloth, and an electronic key would remove the blue areas of the picture and replace them with an alternative background. The technology was still relatively new, and suffered from problems. The most obvious of these were the blue fringes which outlined the foreground subjects. My memory is that the blue discolouration was particularly bad on this programme. Sometimes there was a blue or purplish colourcast across the whole foreground. However, the surviving DVD version has been re-colourised from a black-and-white film recording, and the effects are now less noticeable.
Some Overlay experiments were more successful than others. At the end of the story, the main Silurian was supposed to be buried under a rockfall. This was to be done by dropping (model) rocks onto a blue background and then overlaying them on top of the stricken Silurian. For overlay keying to work well, the Camera has to see a clear distinction between the blue and not-blue areas of the picture. Areas that are partially-blue will create a ragged edge. Had the rocks simply been dropped onto a blue cloth, their shadows would have darkened the blue, changing its colour, and confusing the keying. To avoid shadows, therefore, the rocks were dropped onto a sheet of translucent blue plastic, which was lit from behind. Unfortunately, this didn't work either, because light from the back-lit blue shone onto the undersides of the rocks, turning them blue, and making them partially disappear. The rockfall idea had to be abandoned, and the dying Silurian finally disappeared behind a cloud of smoke.
(DDD) April/May 1970. Directors Douglas Camfield and Barry Letts.
In the early 1960s, scientists began drilling into the ocean bed, seeking to learn the deep secrets of the Earth's interior. It was called Project Mohole - a name derived from the Moho (short for Mohorovii Discontinuity), the boundary layer between the Earth's crust and the mantel. I remember reading about it when I was at school, and following its progress with great interest. Journey to the Centre of the Earth had been one of my favourite stories as a child, and this seemed to be going in the same direction. I was disappointed when the project was abandoned.
So, I was particularly interested in the Dr. Who story Inferno, in which fictional scientists were conducting a similar experiment: drilling deep into the Earth's interior. But a green subterranean slime is oozing out of the bore hole. Those who come into contact with it are transformed into monstrous Primoids. They are creatures of infernal heat and, as such, can be overcome by the icy blast of a fire extinguisher. Crew 9 had previously encountered the actor Dave Carter as a Silurian. Now he was back in the guise of a Primoid.
I remember thinking that the monsters looked wrong. They weren't hot enough. If they were supposed to be creatures of fire, they should have been fiery in colour: glowing red, orange and yellow. They shouldn't have had any hair; it would have burnt off. And their clothing should have been charred and smouldering. But these Primoids were hairy, fully dressed and had blue-green faces: a colour which was much too cool. Worse, they looked like the comedy monsters from Carry on Screaming! And that oozing slime should have been red-hot lava coloured, not green.
There was a sub-plot, in which an accident with the Tardis carries the Doctor to a parallel Earth, ruled by an evil, totalitarian regime. This provided an opportunity for the regular cast to play wicked versions of themselves. The Brigadier looked particularly good in a black patch. In the end, the alternative Earth is destroyed, as the drilling project unleashes the planet's internal fires. There was a memorable overlay shot of the doomed survivors facing a tide of molten lava. The Doctor escapes back to his own Earth, just in time to prevent a similar disaster.
I always had a vague feeling that I'd worked on Inferno, but I've been unable to conjure any memories from a behind-the scenes perspective. Everything I remember could simply have come from watching the transmission. It may have stuck in my mind because of my previous interest in project Mohole. After much thought, I concluded that I probably didn't work on it. But then I discovered a long-lost diary which proved that I did! . . . but only for two days.
My oldest surviving diary shows that, at the beginning of 1970, when Crew 9 were working on The Silurians, Dr Who was still being recorded in single days: one per week, every Monday. By May, however, it was being recorded in two-day blocks, Thursdays and Fridays, fortnightly. The first block of Inferno was shot by a different camera crew, so I wouldn't have worked on that one. The second block, on the 7th and 8th May, was allocated to Crew 9. In my diary, against those dates, I have written Doctor Who, in TC3 . . . But then I have crossed out the whole week, and written Annual Leave! Evidently, family holiday commitments had been allowed to override my interest in Science Fiction. The third block was recorded on the 21st and 22nd May, and this time my diary shows that I was definitely working on Doctor Who, in TC6. The Doctor Who Production Guide indicates that these dates correspond to Episodes 5 and 6 of Infern. A change of duties prevented me working on the final block.
I was back with Crew 9 later in the year. No more Doctor Whos, but we were able to maintain our interest in Sci-Fi by shooting the final series of Doomwatch.
(4A) May/June 1974. Director, Christopher Barry, Producer Barry Letts.
After working with the Open University, at Alexandra Palace, followed by a spell with a Light-Entertainment Crew, I joined Crew 14, a serious-minded Drama Crew, led by award-winning Senior Cameraman David Mutton. Having worked on the Third Doctor's first (proper) adventure, I now found myself working on the first story of the Fourth Doctor. The comedy element that I had hoped for, but failed to find, in Jon Pertwee, now arrived spectacularly with Tom Baker. His bulging-eyed stare worried me at first, but I soon came to accept it as part of the character, along with the impossibly long scarf and that packet of jelly babies. The script, by Terrance Dicks, wasn't the most original in its storyline (a Frankensteinian tale of a man-made monster, destined to destroy its creator) but the dialogue, particularly Tom's dialogue, was delightfully quirky.
With the new Doctor came new titles. The shimmering, swirling patterns that had inspired me in my youth were now gone, to be replaced by something called the Time Tunnel. In theory, I disapproved. The idea was unoriginal, being copied from the Star Gate sequence in the film 2001: A Space Odyssey, and using the same technology. Also, it wasn't electronic, and it lacked the chaotic spontaneity of generation. But, despite my misgivings, I liked it. There was a wonderful sense of hurtling towards infinity.
Tom Baker was a pleasure to work with, almost as eccentric in real life as his on-screen persona, but always a consummate professional when on set. He'd sometimes sit with the Camera Crew in the tea bar and entertain us with his anecdotes. I remember one intense conversation during which he recounted the sinister implications of a French art-house film. He seemed to think that I was familiar with the piece, and that I was generally more intellectual than I am. Fixed by that penetrating stare, I didn't dare to disagree.
After finishing an episode of Robot, the Camera Crew de-rigged their equipment and went home, as usual. We were due back in the same studio, early the following morning, to work on Blue Peter. Overnight, the Doctor Who scenery would be dismantled and removed; the studio floor would be washed and repainted; the Blue Peter set would be brought in, assembled, dressed and lit. Such was the incredible efficiency of Television Centre as a programme-making factory - and of the people who worked there. When we returned the following day, however, we discovered that the Doctor Who scenery was still standing. The overnight setting crew, normally so reliable, had been on strike. So, we had to make Blue Peter in the Doctor Who set. The ever adaptable Blue Peter team decided to make of feature of the fact. The programme opened with the Presenter stepping out of the Tardis. By coincidence, the main Presenter of Blue Peter�, at the time, was Peter Purvis, who had previously played Steven Taylor, one of the Doctor's early companions. So, this wasn't the first time he had emerged from the Tardis.
For reasons already explained, Cameramen rarely remember which specific shots are their own. But I recall taking great care over one particular shot during Robot. In the final episode, as a series of crises approached, there were two Countdown sequences, with the descending numbers, 10 - 9 - 8 etc., appearing on a display screen. For each of these, the Director wanted the camera to zoom in towards the screen in a series of one-second jerks: synchronised to the timing of the count. The first one was shot but a senior colleague of mine who, from the expression on his face, wasn't sympathetic to the Director's vision. He complied, but in a half-hearted, not-really-bothering sort of way. The result, in my opinion, was that his jerk-zooms were wobbly and ill-pivoted. The second countdown was on my camera, and I was determined to do better. I craned down, to a lower that normal angle, so that Sarah Jane appeared taller in the foreground. This enabled me to place the display screen in the exact centre of the picture, while retaining a balanced composition. My zooms would now be perfectly pivoted. If I had used the manual zoom control, I would have been unable to guarantee that the jerks matched one another, in speed and duration. Instead, I set up each of the zoom positions on pre-set memory buttons. Then, to ensure the correct rhythm, I began pressing an imaginary button on the side of the camera, for the earlier part of the count, before hitting the real buttons for the 10 - 9 - 8. There was a Trainee attached to our Sound Crew, at the time. Shortly after recording this shot, he came up to me. He had being watching what I was doing, and said that he was most impressed - which made me feel suitably smug. I watched that episode when it was transmitted, and I can honestly say that my very carefully lined-up Countdown shot . . . didn't look any better than the couldn't-be-bothered version! Oh well. At least I tried.
Normally, the exteriors for a studio-based production like Doctor Who would have been shot on film (Yes, grotty, grainy, antiquated, old 16mm celluloid, etc). This was because video cameras and recorders were not yet sufficiently portable. The visible result was an abrupt change of picture quality whenever anyone stepped out through a door - from a crisply clear video interior, to a dingy, hazy film exterior. It was an unfortunate effect, parodied in a Monty Python sketch (This room is surrounded by Film!, etc.) For this production, however, all the exteriors were shot in the same place, which meant that it was worth deploying an Outside Broadcast Unit. And BBC O.B.s now had a two-camera unit, with new light(er)weight cameras, specifically intended for drama work. So, for once, there was no grotty, grainy, antiquated film. The interiors and the exteriors were both shot on crisp, clear video. There was no change in picture quality as characters stepped in or out of doors.
The location chosen for Robot's exteriors was immediately familiar to all of us working on the studio floor. It was the BBC's Engineering Training Department, at Wood Norton, Evesham. Its mixture of green, wooden huts and concrete blocks had always given it the appearance of a military base. Now it became the headquarters of a sinister scientific think-tank, with plans for world domination.
At its climax, the story changed from Frankenstein to King Kong. Having killed its creator, the Robot grows to a gigantic size and strides across the green huts of Evesham. Unit soldiers open fire, ineffectually, only to be trampled under huge metal feet. The Robot even picks up Sarah Jane and places her on the roof of Woodnorton Hall.
This was all done using Colour Separation Overlay. The Robot, Sarah Jane, etc. were in the studio, in front of a plain colour backcloth. They were overlaid onto prerecorded backgrounds, which had been shot on location at Evesham. The Internet histories report that a yellow backcloth was used for this production, instead of the usual blue. (Yellow was often used when the foreground was unavoidably blue, e.g. the Tardis would be shot against yellow, as were police uniforms, and the planet Earth.) Barry Letts had chosen the colour, hoping to avoid the blue fringes that had bedevilled The Silurians. But yellow overlay also causes fringing, and they are likely to be larger fringes. This is because yellow is much closer to skin colour, so any attempt to reduce the fringes, by tighter keying, is likely to cause holes to appear in the actors' faces. The Production Team were evidently unaware that, a couple of years earlier, their Overlay Operator, Dave Jervis, had developed a technique for suppressing blue fringes. It involved removing the blue colour component from the foreground, after keying. This rendered the fringes colourless and virtually invisible. The fact that blue was also removed from the actors' faces was hardly noticeable, since there is very little blue in flesh colour. Unfortunately this technique doesn't work so well with yellow overlay. Removing the yellow component from actors' faces turns them an unhealthy shade of purple! Because yellow is a naturally lighter colour that blue, it creates brighter, more obvious fringes, and even after the colour has been removed, a luminous halo remains, outlining the foreground figures. When this technique was applied to shots of the Robot, it successfully suppressed the fringes but, as a side-effect, turned the Robot blue. At least, the yellow backcloth allowed Sarah Jane to wear a blue dress. (My own memory doesn't entirely agree with the Internet version. I'm sure I remember some of shots of the Robot being recorded against blue - but this may have been a remount day.) And there was another problem. The Robot was metallic and shiny. Inevitably, it reflected the colours of its surroundings. And when it reflected the overlay background colour, bits of it disappeared!
Despite all this, many of the overlay shots worked reasonably well - by the standards of the time. (The Robot's legs only disappeared once in the finished programme!) The fact that both foreground and background had been shot on video, helped to unify the two components of the picture. When shooting The Silurians studio foregrounds were overlaid onto film backgrounds, but the difference in picture quality created an unconvincing composite.
Robot also employed some innovative overlay trickery. Masks were used so that the foreground Robot appeared to walk behind the background huts. Some shots used multiple layers of overlay. E.g. one shot showed the Robot surrounded by Unit soldiers. In the foreground layer, two soldiers (in the Studio) were shooting upwards and away from camera; behind them, in the mid-ground layer, stood the giant Robot (also in the Studio), and behind that, in the background layer, more Unit soldiers were firing upwards and towards camera (on location at Evesham). This shot was reasonably convincing. Another three-level shot showed Sarah Jane being picked up by the Robot. Sarah (in the Studio), has fallen onto grass (on location); the Robot's huge hand (in the Studio) comes into foreground and pretends to take hold of her. The prerecorded background camera then pans up, as though she is being lifted off the ground. This shot was less convincing, but you had to admire the cleverness of the concept.
Some of the model shots were less successful than the overlay shots. E.g. there was a rather obvious toy tank, shot as a foreground miniature on location. And an equally obvious doll, representing Sarah Jane, when she was being carried by the giant Robot.
- BUT - Before we get too critical, let's remember that Special Effects, in those days, had much less time and money spent on them than they do today - nor did they have the computers. Remember too that there can be no success without failure. The stunning Effects we see today are the result of a learning process that began with those trial-and-error experiments way back then. Every effect that failed was an important lesson in that continuing education. If it hadn't been for risk-taking pioneers, like Barry Letts, who dared to explore the potential of new technology, and pushed the boundaries of existing technology, Special Effects would never have progressed to the extent they have.
Pyramids of Mars
(4G) May/June 1975 Director, Paddy Russell
The lurching Egyptian Mummy remained a classic theme in horror fiction. The original Hammer Film had spawned a number of sequels, although none of them lurched quite as meaningfully as Christopher Lee. The Curse of the Mummy's Tomb, in 1965, once again, featured George Pastell as a fez-wearing Egyptian. The Mummy's Shroud, in 1967, featured Roger Delgado, the Master himself, in a similar role, while Blood from the Mummy's Tomb, in 1971, didn't even have a proper lurching Mummy.
A separate Sci-Fi tradition suggested that there might be an Egyptian-style civilisation on the planet Mars. It had begun in 1877, when Italian astronomer Schiaparelli had observed long straight lines on the surface of the Red Planet. He called them Canali, meaning channels, or canals. The theme was developed, amongst others, by Percival Lowell, founder of the Flagstaff Observatory, Arizona, who drew detailed maps of the canal network. The polar ice caps were observed to get smaller during the Martian summer, while darker areas were thought to become greener. Thus developed the idea that the Martians had built their canals to capture the annual melt water from the poles and distribute it across their arid planet. This hypothetical civilisation had obvious parallels with that of ancient Egypt, where the annual flood waters of the River Nile were similarly used to irrigate a desert world. By the time that BBC radio's Journey into Space visited the Red Planet in the 1950s, it seemed perfectly reasonable that the inhabitants would be building pyramid-like structures. Sadly, when spacecraft photographed the planet's surface, they proved conclusively that the canals were just an optical illusion. But in 1972 the Mariner 9 orbiter photographed rock formations which looked uncannily like Egyptian pyramids!
It is against this background that the Doctor found himself in a adventure featuring an ancient Egyptian God; an undiscovered tomb; lurching Mummies, and a pyramid on Mars. There was even a fez-wearing Egyptian who, in time-honoured tradition, was a devout worshipper of the great god Sutekh, until it turned against him and killed him. He also played a pipe organ with a manic enthusiasm worthy of Captain Nemo or the Phantom of the Opera.
With its Edwardian setting and a wonderful cast of familiar British character actors, this is probably the Doctor Who story that most closely resembled a Hammer Film - and I mean that as high praise!
My 1975 diary records that I only worked on the first half of this story, on the 19th and 20th May, in Studio 3 at Television Centre. Although most of my work was still with Crew 14, I seem to have been attached to Crew 18 for those two days, under Senior Cameraman Colin Reid. The Director was Paddy Russell: probably the first time I had worked with her since The Massacre.
My limited memories include the face of the great god Sutekh superimposed over the Tardis interior; the talking sarcophagus which was the entrance to an overlaid time tunnel, and that undiscovered Egyptian tomb, with its glowing red Eye of Horus. This tomb must date back to the First Dynasty of the Pharoahs! exclaims the Archeologist. Huh! Even I could tell that the wall paintings were New Kingdom: Eighteenth Dynasty at the earliest!
The design of the Mummy/Robots worried me. They had sharp, projecting bosom ridges, which seemed slightly obscene - and extremely silly. One of their victims was crushed to death between two such bosoms. It should have been a moment of horror and tragedy, but just looked too ridiculous!
On the other hand, the pseudo-Egyptian helmet worn by the great God Sutekh was a design classic!
I remember hurrying home to my books on mythology, to see if there really was an Egyptian god called Sutekh. I thought I knew about such stuff, but I'd never heard of him. The Hammer film had invented a fictitious god called Karnak (actually the name of an Egyptian temple complex). But, on checking, I found that Sutekh was genuine. It was an alternative name for the god I had always known as Set or Seth. He was depicted with the head of an anteater-like creature, with strange rectangular ears. Originally he had been a god of desert storms, loyal companion to the sun god Ra, and heroic slayer of Apep, the serpent of darkness. But then he became a villainous character, the bother and murderer of Osiris. This change of personality only happened in later centuries, certainly not at the time of The First Dynasty of the Pharoahs.
A year after Pyramids of Mars, the first Viking space probe reached the Red Planet, and took more photos of its surface. One of them showed a rocky plateau resembling a human face - a Martian sphinx!
The Androids of Tara
(5D) August 1978
I didn't work on this one, but my son Robin, who has a memory for such things, tells me that this was the story that was being recorded when I took him on a tour of BBC Television Centre. Robin was not quite five years old at the time. I took him into the Playschool studio, where the cast saw him and hurried over to make a fuss of him. But Robin became shy, and hid behind my legs. I took him into the Blue Peter studio, where the same thing happened. I was beginning to feel that this trip was going to be unsuccessful, when we walked into the Green Assembly Area. There in front of us stood . . . The Doctor . . . Tom Baker, in his large floppy hat and long, colourful scarf. Robin's shyness was instantly forgotten. Abandoning me he strode straight up to Tom, as though he was a old friend, and stood to attention in front of him.
- Tom's reaction was wonderful. "Hello, young man", he said, in that magnificent voice, "and what's your name?"
- "Wobin Bunce," announced Robin, who had not yet mastered the letter R.
- Tom reached into his coat and took out that familiar crumpled paper bag. "Would you like a Jelly Baby?"
Even now, Robin has clear memories of his visit to the Doctor Who studio that day. He remembers a dungeon scene; that Mary Tamm was playing two roles, and that the camera had to be locked off, with strict instructions not to touch it, while she changed costumes, so that she could appear twice in the same shot. And he remembers being allowed (under supervision) to play with the very wooden levers and dials on the Tardis control panel. I remember none of this.
- This was how I first discovered that my son was a Doctor Who fan(atic).
Before long he was boasting to his nursery-school friends, "Anyway, I've met Doctor Who, and he gave me a Jelly Baby." He found an old sun hat of mine which, on his head, was suitably large and floppy, and persuaded my wife to knit him a long, stripy scarf. This became his regular uniform. At primary school, he won the Decorate a Packet competition by turning a box of chocolates into a Tardis (with some parental help) and adding a cardboard-cutout Doctor and K9. His drawings of the Doctor always showed that long, stripy scarf flying out horizontally, in both directions.
A couple of years later, I took my five-year-old daughter, Jenny, on a similar tour of TV Centre. She was equally coy when confronted by the cast of Playschool and Blue Peter. We entered the Doctor Who studio during a break. There in front of us stood . . . the Tardis. Jenny ran to it and flung wide the doors. I'll always remember the look of surprise and disappointment on her face, when she found that the interior was just a black wooden box. I had to explain that the Tardis wasn't really bigger on the inside. It was just a trick of television editing. You see people walking into a small blue police box, and - CUT - to those same people entering a large, gleaming control room. Against all logic, you are being told that the large control room is inside the small blue box. I hadn't previously realised how convincing that simple deceit could be. Fortunately we found the Tardis interior in another part of the studio, and Jenny was allowed a (supervised) play with the instrument panel.
My daughter Jenny never received a Jelly Baby from the Doctor. She has grown up to become a well-adjusted human being.
My son Robin has remained a life-long anorak. At secondary school he had problems with reading and writing, and required remedial tuition. Each evening I would take him into a quiet room and we would try to read alternate pages of a book together. But the only books he was willing to attempt were Doctor Who stories. In time, his literacy problems resolved themselves. He obtained a first-class B.A. at Kent University, and went on to gain his M.A. and Ph.D. at Cambridge, where he is now Director of Studies at Hommerton College. He often claims that he only wanted the Ph.D. so that he could call himself "The Doctor". He has contributed a chapter about Daleks to the learned volume Doctor Who and Philosophy: Bigger on the Inside. (published by Open Court, price £12.99) And, in 2011, he gave the best-attended lecture at the Cambridge Festival of Ideas, on the subject The Philosophy of Sci-Fi: From the Time Machine to the TARDIS.
- I've often wondered what they put in that Jelly Baby.
- To be continued!
1966 until 1969
Main memories of the period
Work to Rule
In the 1960s, a BBC Television Cameraman was completely incapable of independent thought. At least, that was what it said in his official BBC Job Description. He could not use his own initiative; he could not originate ideas; he could not react intuitively to a performance nor make any interpretation; he could make absolutely no creative contribution to the production process. He could do nothing but blindly follow the Director's instructions. This demeaning Job Description bore no relation to actual working practice, but it was used to justify the Cameraman's demeaningly low pay grade.
Irritation at the situation peaked in 1967 (or 66?) when there was a 'Work to Rule'. For the duration of the Industrial Action, Cameramen would obey their Job Description to the letter. We would do exactly what the Director told us, even if it was a slip of the tongue. No matter what the actors were doing in the shot, the Cameraman would only react if specifically instructed to do so. E.g. we would only pan if the Director told us to pan, and then we would not stop panning until he told us to stop. It was all very childish, but then the Job Description itself was very childish, and this seemed the only way of highlighting the problem.
It was also very hard work - both for the Director, who had to anticipate and vocalise every slight movement, however unrehearsed, and for the Cameramen, who struggled to suppress all their natural creative instincts.
Matters were even more complicated for the Number 4 Cameraman, who was the junior Cameraman on the Crew. He was on a lower pay grade than the others because, officially, he would only be required to perform 'Simple' camerawork. In this context 'Simple' was defined as only one camera operation at a time. Thus, he could pan, or track, or crab, or zoom, but he could not combine any two or more of these operations in a single shot. In reality, almost all camera movements require a combination of operations.
My crew was working on a comedy series 'The World of Wooster' at the time, starring Ian Carmichael as Bertie Wooster and Dennis Price as Jeeves. The Director was Michael Mills, who handled the Work to Rule with consummate skill and good humour.
I was the Number 4 Cameraman, sentenced to perform only 'Simple' camerawork. One of my shots required me to track in to a close-up of Ian Carmichael. Normally, this would be achieved by craning up as I tracked in. However, under the conditions of the Work to Rule, I was allowed to track and maintain focus, but I was not allowed to crane, tilt or in any other way reframe the shot as I tracked. The result would have been a track into Bertie Wooster's tie knot, rather than his face.
Fortunately, the Cast and Production Team all supported our action and were prepared to conspire to make the shot work. We arranged that, as I tracked in, Ian Carmichael would bend at the knees, in order to keep his face in the frame. It is a measure of his talent and professionalism that, without any distraction from his performance, he maintained a perfectly composed shot, throughout the move.
In July 1969 Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin first set foot upon the Moon. To commemorate this historic event, the BBC spared every expense by issuing cheap, tatty cardboard badges. I still have mine. It proves that I must have been amongst those working shifts in the 'Space Studio', with Patrick Moore, James Burke and their panel of experts. I'd love to claim that I was there at the precise "Eagle has Landed" moment, or the "One Giant Leap for Mankind" moment, but I can't honestly remember much about it.
The live transmissions from Apollo 11 were in black-and-white only, and of disappointingly poor quality. When the Astronauts moved quickly, their images became blurred, to the point of appearing transparent. This, I knew, meant that they were using a camera with a 'Vidicon' tube. We had learnt about the characteristics of different camera tubes during my Engineering Training Course, at Evesham. Vidicons had the advantage of being small and portable, but their inferior picture quality meant that they were more commonly used for industrial CCTV than for broadcast television.
When Apollo 12 set out for the Moon, however, it was announced that they were taking a colour camera. A conventional 3-tube camera would have been unlikely to cope with the G-forces, vibration and temperature changes of the journey. They had, therefore, developed a single tube camera with a rotating colour filter.
Keen to see live colour pictures from the Moon, and only having a black-and-white tele at home, I decided to go into TV Centre and watch it there. O.K., the lunar landscape isn't particularly colourful, but I didn't know that at the time. And, sometimes, even a monochrome subject looks better when shot in colour.
Even at TV Centre, colour teles were in the minority. Camera viewfinders and most gallery monitors were still black-and-white. (Thinking back, I had probably seen very little colour television at this point.)
I ingratiated my way into the Engineering Area, behind the 'Space Studio' Gallery. Some extremely hospitable Engineers provided me with a cup of tea and a biscuit, and we sat down together to watch the historic moment, live, on a good-quality monitor.
Then we saw it - the first live, colour picture transmitted directly from the surface of the Moon. The colour was wonderful - gleaming, sparkling gold. It was only a defocussed close-up of the protective gold foil, in which the camera was stowed, but I was impressed. Then came a fleeting glimpse of the Astronaut, in space-suit with darkened visor, as he unpacked the camera. Even the white spacesuit and black sky looked amazing in colour - so much clearer than those hazy mid-grey images from Apollo 11. I was looking forward to some really spectacular views.
- Then everything went white.
- Then everything went black . . . and stayed black.
Around me, the Engineers gasped in disbelief. Then, in unison they cried, "He pointed it at the Sun!"
They'd worked it out before I had, but I could see they were right. Whilst being unpacked, the camera had inadvertently been pointed towards the Sun. Unfiltered by clouds or atmosphere, direct rays of sunlight had shone into the lens, which had focussed them like a burning glass, and destroyed the tube surface. Some movement was still discernible in the corners, but the whole central area of the picture was a blackened, burnt-out smudge.
In the studio, Patrick Moore, James Burke etc. were puzzled by the fact that they couldn't see any pictures from the Moon. They speculated about this for some time, despite the fact that Engineers had run into the Production Gallery, telling everyone who'd listen, "He pointed the Camera at the Sun!" But a fact that had been immediately obvious to BBC Engineers, took rather longer to be understood by the panel of so-called experts.
The damage to the camera was irreparable. Apollo 12 never did send any colour transmissions back from the Moon.
1968 until 2001
Main memories of the period
Blue Cyc Thinking
Inlay, Overlay, Virtual Reality and other Special Effects
- Yet to be written
1968 until 1972
Main memories of the period
Memories of 'Z Cars'
My earliest memories of 'Z Cars' are of watching it at home, when I was a teenager. It had the reputation of being a hard-hitting, down-to-earth drama. But, being broadcast live, it was prone to technical errors, which sometimes provided unintentional humour. Scenes inside the Z Car were shot in the studio with back-projection screens outside the car windows. Mis-timing of the back-projection was a common cause of comedy. I remember once seeing the street scene suddenly disappear from the rear window, to be replaced by a flashing "10 - 9 - 8 etc." film countdown. On another occasion P. C. Lynch was riding in the passenger seat. The dialogue had reached the point where the car should have stopped so that he could alight. But the back-projected scenery was still travelling past at speed. As he opened the door and stepped out, Jimmy Ellis improvised the desperate line, "Don't bother to stop. I'll jump for it."
The 100th episode of 'Z Cars' was particularly full of cock-ups. As a home viewer, I got the impression that they had made the mistake of holding the celebratory party before the transmission. One shot showed Stratford Johns walking along a corridor with a very visible camera dolly following him all the way. The Cameraman was turning in concern to his Tracker. This was shortly before a figure in headphones went scampering across the foreground. It says much for the standard of the script and performances that all these technical blunders did little to reduce the dramatic impact of the episode. When P. C. Sweet died at the end, I still cried.
By the time I started working on 'Z Cars', it was no longer broadcast live, but it was recorded as though it were live.
My main memory of the studio sessions is that the cast didn't take anything seriously. They were constantly larking and joking. I remember Jimmy Ellis (I think he was Sgt. Lynch by then) delivering a serious address to his men, while wearing a back-to-front balaclava, and the others were struggling to keep straight faces. One of our Camera Crew once brought in a plastic police helmet, truncheon and whistle set, which he had found in a toy shop. This was immediately seized by the cast. For the rest of rehearsals, whenever as actor appeared in a doorway he would be wearing the helmet, swinging the truncheon and talking through the whistle.
While all this playfulness was great fun, it was sometimes frustrating for an inexperienced Cameraman, like myself, who was still struggling to get his shots right. Just occasionally it would have been nice to have a sensible rehearsal with actors in the correct positions and speaking the correct dialogue.
I remember one difficult shot which I particularly needed to rehearse. It started with a close-up of P. C. Bannerman (Paul Angelis) inside the Z Car. He was watching out for a suspect. With a sudden cry of, "There he goes!" he would leap out of the car and give chase. My camera had to crane up and track backwards rapidly, in order to cover his movement, taking care not to get hit by the opening door. Such was the speed and abruptness of the move that it was difficult enough just to keep the actor in frame and in focus. But there was an added complication in that the studio Z Car was just the sawn-off middle section of a car. It had no bonnet, no wheels, no glass in the windows, etc. As I hurtled backwards and my shot widened I had to ensure that only the believable parts of the Z Car were visible in the background. Timing and positions were critical, both for the camera and the actor. I had had problems with the shot during early rehearsals. Now it was the final run-through: my last chance to get it right before recording. I set up the opening of the shot, my lens poking through the side window of the Z Car. I braced myself ready for a rapid pull back as the door was thrown open. Tension mounted as the dialogue cue approached. It came. "There he goes!" cried P. C. Bannerman but, instead of flinging open the door, he pointed dramatically ahead, his arm extending through the glassless windscreen. Then, with remarkable agility, his leg followed his arm, and he stepped straight forward, through the windscreen!
So, I never did get my sensible rehearsal.
The studio Z-Car.
I first worked on "Z Cars" in the BBC's Riverside Studios at Hammersmith. The BBC had two studios there, known as R1 and R2. A nearby pub, 'The Chancellors', was so often frequented by BBC staff that it was nicknamed R3.
Summer lunches, however, were more likely to be spent in one of the other pubs, which fronted onto the Thames, near Hammersmith Bridge. Cast and Crew often occupied adjacent tables. I remember one such lunchtime when the Cast (led by Paul Angelis) were lazily tossing small change at the Cameramen, and demanding extra Close-Ups in return.
Later, Z Cars moved to Television Centre. And here, the programme had a close encounter with real-life crime.
We were working in TC1. I had a Trainee attached to me (who prefers to remain anonymous). He was a smoker, which is unusual amongst Cameramen. Having nothing to do on a particular scene, he went into Tech. Stores for a smoke. Smoking was forbidden on the Studio floor, but was (sort of) acceptable in the Technical Storage area. Whilst there, he heard loud and disturbing noises coming from outside. Leaving Tech. Stores via the back door, he went to investigate. In those days, the BBC Cashiers was located nearby. Advancing along the corridor, my Trainee found himself confronted by a large man, wearing a stocking over his face and holding a pick-axe handle. Their eyes met (as well as eyes can meet through a stocking). My friend reversed back into Tech. Stores. The first person he told was an Electrician, who immediately reached for the phone.
- "Are you calling the Police?"
- "No! The Sun. They'll pay good money for this!"
My Trainee spread the news to everyone he could think of but, by the time the authorities had mobilised, the robbers had made their escape. It seems ironic that the robbery took place next door to a studio full of fictional policemen.
My former Trainee still prefers to remain anonymous. He reasons that, somewhere out there, there may be an eighty-year-old bank robber, who might remember him.
1970 until 1972
Main memories of the period
The Story of Oi
In the days when camera cables were as thick as a man's arm and it took two strong men to drag a cable-eight out of Tech Stores: two such Cameramen were dragging such a cable-eight out of stores, one morning, when a teddy truck ran straight over it - bumpity, bump. The two Cameramen stopped abruptly, the unexpected weight of the teddy truck coming as a nasty shock to their spines.
- The Senior Cameraman, Paul Kay, observed this and called out, quite reasonably, "Oi!"
- He didn't get a chance to say anything else.
The teddy truck stopped suddenly. The Driver dismounted. There was something about his beetroot coloured complexion, trembling jowls and savage snarl that suggested he was not in a good mood. He launched into a passionate diatribe: "Who are you calling 'Oi!'? My name's not Oi! I've got a name, I have. I'm a human being, I am. Not just an Oi!" and similar sentiments, at great length, great volume and considerable venom.
- The Crew retreated before his onslaught. Paul Kay made consolatory gestures. The rest of us looked for somewhere to hide.
Eventually, our angry Driver ran out of breath, and bile. A deathly silence descended across the studio floor. It was a tense and terrible silence that only a very brave man, or someone who didn't understand the situation, would have dared to break.
It was broken by the Driver's mate. Having been out in the Ring-Road, he had missed all this. He now appeared in the Scene Dock doors and gave us a momentarily puzzled look, before calling out, "Oi! Are you coming?"
- A dispirited and crestfallen Driver slunk back to his teddy truck.
- Recognising the sensitivity of the situation, the Crew tried to restrain their laughter . . . but failed!
Experiment with the Air Pump
Alexandra Palace, 1972 (or possibly late 71). Today is to be one of those avant-garde, experimental, workshop sessions for the Open University. The subject is 'Learning through Play'. Three students (or junior academics) have been given a new 'Toy', and they are going to play with it in a spontaneous, imaginative, uninhibited sort of way. Three cameras will photograph them, also in a spontaneous, imaginative, uninhibited sort of way. And this will become the basis of a spontaneous, imaginative and uninhibited discussion about learning through play.
The 'Toy' consists of a pump which blows air upwards through a vertical tube. It comes with a selection of light-weight objects: corks, ping-pong balls, feathers and pieces of polystyrene, which can be made to hover on the rising column of air.
Two of the cameramen were David Carter and Roger Bunce, both on attachment from TV Centre. The Vision Mixer was Rhoda Carss (I think). All other names have been forgotten, but if anyone recognises themselves, please write in.
- For maximum coverage, the Director decides to shoot 'in the round', positioning his three cameras in a circle around the action, 120 degrees apart, all facing inwards. But the first attempt comes to a halt, because he doesn't like seeing cameras in shot. The chaos of eye-lines seems to be less of a worry. We reposition ourselves in a more conventional formation.
- The Director's other instruction to us is to be spontaneous, imaginative and uninhibited in our photography. We must take any shot, however unconventional, that we feel inspired to take at the time. "If you feel like taking a close-up of someone's left ear," he says, "then you must take a close-up of that left ear." We do as we're told, with the result that the next attempt also comes to a halt. All three cameras are pointing at the same student. The reason for this might not be apparent to the academic mind, but it probably arises from the fact that all three cameramen are male, and that only one of the students is a pretty lady. Once again, we abandon imaginative spontaneity and fall back on conventional coverage. We decide amongst ourselves who is going to shoot what, and the Director even calls a few shots.
- This also grinds to a halt. Nothing wrong with the shots this time, but the students can't think of anything imaginative or experimental to do with their 'Toy'. A gaggle of academicals descends upon the studio. The students explain that they feel inhibited by all the cameras looking at them, and by the lights, microphones and other technology. Also, that silly air pump isn't versatile enough. It allows insufficient scope for imaginative, experimental play. Students and academics go into a huddle in the corner. The discussion becomes very high-brow and intellectual. It continues for a long time.
David Carter and Roger Bunce run out of small talk and become bored. There has been no mention of a tea break. Rhoda (?) the Vision Mixer is also bored. She comes out of the gallery to join us, and we are all bored together - extremely bored.
In fact, we become so bored that we wander over to look at the 'Toy'. Idly, we turn it on an off, feeling the draught. Then in a half-hearted, purely-because-we-can't-think-of-anything-better-to-do sort of way, we try balancing objects on the rising air column. Some of them just fall off. The lightest ones, the feathers, flutter away. But, with a bit of skill, some of them can be made to hover. Depending on shape and weight, they hover at different heights. Some seem perfectly stable; others yo-yo up and down; while others rotate. It becomes more interesting when we start joining things together, to create compound flying machines. A piece of polystyrene with a single feather stuck into it might be expected to hover with the feather upwards, like a vertical wind-vane. In fact, it hovers horizontally, with the feather sticking out on one side, causing the whole thing to spin like a helicopter. What if we angle the feather, like a wing, can we change the direction of rotation? Maybe we should use two feathers, placed symmetrically, like a propeller? Can we balance two objects, one above the other, and set them rotating in opposite directions?
By now we are so engrossed in our experiments that we initially fail to hear the silence which has fallen over the studio. The intellectual huddle has broken up. Academics and students are now standing in a line, arms folded, staring at us.
Guiltily, we stop playing, and shuffle away.
Then one of the academics says, "There's only one thing to do. We'll have to record them!"
- And that's what happens. Some spare bods are found to operate the cameras and press the buttons, while David, Roger and Rhoda (?) play silly games with an air pump. It's not quite so spontaneous this time, since we have to start from the beginning, recreating our initial discoveries, before moving on to further experiments. I think we managed it convincingly. After all, we have a long experience of recreating our rehearsals.
I never did see the tape, nor do I know whether it was ever used as part of a broadcast programme.
There may be a deep meaning to all this: an insight into the mentality of Cameramen. I forget which review of which programme included the words, "Even the Cameraman were laughing!" The implication was that it was a major achievement to get any kind of reaction out of those cynical, world-weary technicians. This is the way the media portray us, on the rare occasions they remember our existence. In this story, we technicians start true to stereotype: bored, cynical; the custodians of convention; resistant to the imaginative, experimental ideas of the intellectuals. But, in the end, after avant-garde intellectualism has been defeated by a simple toy, it is only we techies who are sufficiently free-thinking and imaginative to actually play with it.
- I'm sure there's a moral there . . . somewhere.
1974 until 1982
Main memories of the period
Doing it with Flare
Back in the 1960s and '70s there were occasional clashes of artistic temperament between Cameras and Lighting. This was largely because some earlier Management empire-building had imposed a unnecessary hierarchy between the crafts. Lighting was deemed to be the 'Senior Craft'. The Lighting Man was also the Technical Manager One (T.M.1), the primary authority figure in the studio. Many Lighting Men felt that this gave them the right to dictate to Camera and Sound staff. Whereas, Camera and Sound staff felt that they should be responsible for their own crafts. This led to friction. Arguments developed over trivial issues, including Boom Shadows, Camera Shadows and Lens Flares. All could easily have been solved with a more cooperative, less hierarchical, relationship between the crafts. Cameramen were the lowest-of-the-low in this pointless pecking order. They received no screen credit, and were banned from planning meetings. The Lighting Man would make any necessary decisions about camerawork. When Production Teams insisted on inviting Cameramen, some Lighting Men stormed out in protest. In retrospect, it was all very childish and unprofessional.
There was also an inherent conflict between the two components within each craft: the Artistic and the Technical. Cameramen saw themselves as creative types, primarily responsible to the Director and the Production Team. At that time, however, many Lighting Men still viewed television from an engineering viewpoint. They rarely payed much attention to production talkback and were often unaware of what the Director and Cameraman were trying to achieve.
- This is an example of one such clash: only a minor one, but probably fairly typical. It illustrates the two different viewpoints.
1974. We were working on 'Churchill's People', a series based on Winston Churchill's 'A History of the English Speaking Peoples'. Scenes from English history were being dramatised in stylised (i.e. cheap) scenery. As the junior Cameraman, and newcomer to this crew, I had been lumbered with the Creeper: a rather makeshift camera mounting, built from Dexion and mounted on castors. It was designed to take very low-angle shots, and was incapable of anything else. It was also difficult to manoeuvre. As a specialist mounting, it had few scripted shots. Like any underemployed but enthusiastic Cameraman, I was keen to gain more shots - by nicking them from the rest of the crew. I was constantly searching for an artistic angle that my busier colleagues might have missed.
This episode was set in Anglo-Saxon times. Christian King Oswiu had defeated the pagan Penda, and was now presiding over the Council of Whitby. Celtic Christianity was locked in learned debate with Roman Catholicism. A group of stone-textured studio flats were trying to represent the grandeur of Whitby Abbey. They were not entirely convincing.
I had no scripted shots in this scene, but I poked my Creeper into the action, hoping to find an interesting and original viewpoint.
- That was when I found the Lens Flare.
It was a wonderful Lens Flare. It filled the top of frame. The scene was suddenly transformed. Burning torches lined the Abbey walls, and their smoke rose up to mingle lovingly with my Flare. Between them they completely concealed the absence of vaulted arches. Those skimpy bits of studio scenery had become a vast, soaring cathedral.
- The Director went into paroxysms of delight. "It's like the Light of Heaven breaking through!" he cried.
- I'd gained a shot, and it became the master shot of the whole sequence.
- All good, so far.
- But then the Lighting Gallery took notice.
- "Did you know you've got a Lens Flare, Camera Four?"
- "Yes. It's all right. It's a Good Flare. The Director likes it."
- No, they couldn't follow that idea.
- "Can you crane up and lose it?"
- "I can't crane up. I'm on a Creeper!"
- That stumped them for a while.
Walk-Through, Run-Through, Dress-Run and Recording. Each time I returned to the Abbey and sought my Lens Flare. It's easy to find one when you don't want one. But to recreate a Lens Flare, exactly a rehearsed, requires nanometer and split-second-of-arc accuracy, which is incredibly difficult - particularly when using something as cumbersome as a Creeper. But somehow, just before they cut to me, I managed to find it.
And each time, as I struggled for my art, Lighting were nagging - always talking across the Director, as was their way. First it was the Vision Operator, then he passed me up to the Vision Supervisor, and finally to the T.M.1, the Lighting Man himself.
Every time I explained that the Flare was intentional; that the Director liked it so much that he'd probably recommend their lighting for an award. I think I managed to remain polite. I resisted the phrase, "If you lot ever listened to Production Talkback, you'd know . . .", although, as the pressure mounted, I have a horrible feeling that my, "It's Art! You wouldn't understand," may have been muttered more audibly than intended.
But I was right. They didn't understand. The concept of a Good Lens Flare seemed inconceivable to them. And their interpretation of that shot was clearly quite different from mine, or the Production's. They tried persuasion; then they got angry; then they pulled rank, and finally, when all else had failed, they resorted to being helpful,
- "If you tell us the number of the lamp, we'll turn it off for you."
Fortunately, these were the days when Lighting Men never left the gallery, and the Electricians rarely left Tech. Stores, so my Heavenly Light remained to adorn the recording.
Cameramen sought self-determination. They wanted to escape from under the thumb of Lighting; to work more closely with the production; to gain greater artistic control over their own craft. By the end of the decade matters were improving. From 1978, Senior Cameramen began to get screen credits. Production teams, particularly in Drama, were increasingly insisting that Cameramen attended planning meetings.
Then, about 1980, there was a reorganisation. Managerial authority was taken away from the T.M.1 and given to the newly created 'Technical Co-ordinator' post, which replaced the old T.M.2 position. In practice, the T.M.2 had always been the authority figure but, in official theory, his authority was 'delegated' down to him from the T.M.1 - who was likely to be too busy Lighting. Now, the situation was rationalised, and, as an non-craft-specialist, it was hoped that the Tech. Co-ord. would be impartial between the three crafts.
The phrase, 'Aspirations of the Camera Staff' was much used by the Management at the time, when justifying these changes. The T.M.1s and many T.M.2s objected vociferously, and venomously. They couldn't understand why these upstart Cameramen were getting ideas above their station. Shouldn't they know their place, and be happily tugging their forelocks, while obeying the orders of their betters? There also seemed to be a paranoid fear that Cameramen wanted to take over lighting duties. They needn't have worried. Camera 'Aspirations' were of a purely artistic nature. We had no desire to invade anyone else's empire.
Even after the reorganisation had been forced through, many Lighting Men found it difficult to shake off their ingrained sense of superiority, and couldn't resist dictating to other crafts - which created continuing friction.
- Another example, which must date from the early 1980s. It was a much more serious clash, this time between Sound and Lighting. Fortunately a Cameraman was able to resolve the problem.
We were working on 'See Hear': a programme for the deaf and hard of hearing. There was to be a studio discussion with a number of guests. All would be using sign language, in addition to speech.
The Sound Supervisor explained that he would need to use a boom to cover this. Closer microphones would be adversely affected by the signing action. (E.g. personal mics would be affected by clothing movement, while mics on fixed stands would be affected by the proximity of the hand movements.) It was perfectly reasonable point.
The Director, equally reasonably, was concerned that the boom would be visible in the Wide Shot.
The Sound Supervisor assured her that if she gave a warning, just before cutting to the Wide Shot, the boom would lift, and drop down again afterwards. Correct sound perspective would be maintained.
But this was a completely ad lib discussion, and the Director believed that she might need to use the Wide Shot without having time to give prior warning.
The conversation was perfectly friendly, but a potential impasse was visible ahead.
At this point, the Lighting Man decided to resurrect his feudal authority. He told the Sound Supervisor that he should NOT use a boom. The conversation ceased to be friendly. The Sound Supervisor was offended that a Lighting Man had intervened in a matter of sound coverage: which was his area of expertise. The two men discussed their differences. The discussion rapidly became an argument, which degenerated into a blazing row. That row was conveyed, via talkback, to everyone in the studio. It all became deeply embarrassing, until the two combatants were persuaded to leave the gallery, and to continue their conflict out of earshot, somewhere outside the studio.
Inside the studio, rehearsals ground to a halt, and we waited in silence for the outcome. Vital time was being wasted. The Director was becoming anxious to start recording.
I was becoming bored. I wandered up to the Gallery. I had heard of a new device called a 'Slide File'. I knew nothing about it except that it was able to record a still picture from a video source. I asked the Vision Mixer if this studio had one of these newfangled gizmos.
- It did.
I asked if it would be possible to capture a still picture of the Wide Shot, with the boom out of shot, and then to create a Split Screen, with the still picture forming the upper part of the frame, and the live Wide Shot forming the lower part. The boom would then be able to operate invisibly, in the top of frame, concealed behind the boom-less Split Screen.
The Tech. Co-ord. assured me that this couldn't possibly work. "The colour won't match; you'll see the join," etc. (Clearly, a lowly Cameraman wouldn't understand such technology.) He had a better idea. Since the upper part of the Wide Shot was just studio cyclorama, he got one camera to zoom into a nondescript area of cyc, and put this at the top of frame, with a soft-edged wipe. It was wholly unconvincing. Various unsuccessful experiments followed with different bits of background, degrees of focus and softness of wipe.
Feeling a little peeved that my original idea hadn't even been tested, I dug my heels in. As politely as possible, I asked the Vision Mixer to demonstrate exactly why it wouldn't work.
- She showed me.
- It worked.
- "Run to record!" cried the now desperate Director, giving me barely enough time to run back downstairs to my camera.
But there was a further delay, as messengers searched the building for the missing TM1 and Sound Supervisor, who were still locked in mortal combat. I don't know if they ever learned that their conflict had been resolved by a lowly Cameraman. They certainly never thanked me.
1975 until 1975
Main memories of the period
A Picture of Crew 14
- Long before the Calendar Girls . . .
- even before the Chippendales . . .
- there was Crew 14.
We all remember it perfectly. The problem is that we all seem to remember it slightly differently. We know what happened. But we're not completely sure how it happened. The following is a composite, trying to reconcile my own memories with those of two key players: Cameraman John Henshall and Photographer Don Smith.
February 1975. BBC Camera Crew 14, led by award-winning Senior Cameraman Dave Mutton, and specialising in studio dramas, were about to start a new classic serial: 'The Girls of Slender Means'. This production was particularly memorably for a number of reasons: a superb script, by Ken Taylor, adapted from the novel by Muriel Spark; a wonderful Director, Moira Armstrong, and brilliant performances from a top-notch cast.
Some shallower observers may also remember that it involved an unusually large number of attractive young actresses taking all their clothes off.
Female nudity was not uncommon on television at the time, before the invention of Political Correctness. It was a product of the Swinging Sixties and, in BBC Drama Dept., the uninhibited, full-frontal Sixties were still swinging happily in the mid-Seventies. But, even against this background, 'The Girls of Slender Means' was notable for the number of naked ladies involved.
Our story began when Senior Cameraman Dave Mutton attended the Outside Rehearsal. There he was approached by one of the Actresses. "It's not fair," she had complained, "I'm expected to take all my clothes off in front of an all-male Camera Crew - when I haven't even been introduced to them!"
- It was a fair point.
- Dave did his best to introduce the crew, but there were too many names and faces for everyone to remember.
- It was Mary Tamm who suggested that we should have a crew photograph taken, with all our names on.
- Miriam Margolyes agreed. Not only should it have all our names on but, under the circumstances, we should also have no clothes on!
It was a joke, of course. No one imagined that a serious minded BBC drama Crew would do such a thing, although . . .
- on thinking about it . . .
- In addition to introducing ourselves, it might help to break the ice, set the cast at ease, make everyone feel more comfortable.
But there were practical reasons why we couldn't do it. We didn't have the facilities. We'd need access to a dark room, and the services of a professional photographer.
Enter Don Smith. In the canteen, at evening meal break, he had collected his dinner and was looking for somewhere to sit. By chance, he joined the table where Crew 14 were sitting. Don Smith was well known to all the crews at Television Centre. He worked for the 'Radio Times'. He was a photographer.
Don recalls that it was Cameraman John Henshall who told him our story and, somehow, by the end of that meal break, we had talked ourselves into it.
(For almost 40 years I've wondered who was responsible! At recent reunions both Don and John have told me that they may have been the prime movers. There is only one absolute certainty - It Wasn't My Idea!)
Tuesday, 11th February, 1975. TC3.
'The Girls of Slender Means' was set in 1945, at the May of Teck Club: a hostel for single young ladies with meagre incomes. Some of the more adventurous girls have discovered a secluded area of roof, where they can sunbathe unobserved. To reach it, they have to climb out of the bathroom window. It is a very small window, but they can just about squeeze through, provided they first take all their clothes off.
The story reaches its climax when the hostel is set ablaze by a war-time bomb. For the young women trapped inside, the best chance of escape is - through that small bathroom window . . .
Each episode required two days in the studio. At the end of Day One, after everyone else had left, the Camera Crew assembled in the roof area, where most of the nudity was to take place. Don supplied some pieces of caption card, on which we wrote our names. We took our clothes off but, in the best soft-core tradition, we kept our socks on. Then, we arranged ourselves in a suitably discrete pose. Being the quiet, shy one, I was cowering in the bottom corner. We held the name captions in front of us, to cover our . . . embarrassment,
- and Don took his photograph.
Crew 14: Richard Lennox, Peter Fox, David John, John Henshall, David Mutton, Roger Bunce and Dave Hunter.
- Only one Crew Member chickened-out.
- I wanted to chicken-out, but I wasn't brave enough.
Don went immediately back to his dark-room and worked late into the night, producing a batch of glossy 10 by 8 prints, to be distributed to the Cast, the following morning.
- It had seemed like a perfectly reasonable idea at the time. But . . .
Wednesday, 12th February, 1975. TC3
Doubts were growing. We didn't know how the finished photo would look. A naked camera crew wasn't necessarily the most aesthetic of subjects. In fact, we might look rather sordid. And how would the Cast and Production Team react? Would they be amused, or disgusted? Would we hear laughter, or cries of, "Get those Dirty Old Men off my production, and find me a proper Crew!" - followed by disciplinary proceedings? Even if some were offended, we hoped that they would recognise our good intentions, and laugh politely.
- I clearly remember being in the tea bar that morning, when the Actresses opened their envelopes . . .
The good news is that they laughed - and there was nothing remotely polite about it! This was proper squealing, giggling, riotously convulsive laughter. Under any other circumstances, such female hilarity at the sight of my bare body would have seemed deeply unflattering but, on this occasion, it was the best possible reaction. The photos were soon being passed around and discussion groups formed to assess our manly (or otherwise) physiques.
I hadn't seen the photo myself yet. A couple of Actresses helpfully showed me theirs. They wanted to know why some of us had smooth, glossy torsos, while others had a hairier, matt finish. Never having studied the anatomy of the naked Cameraman, I was unable to provide them with any explanation.
There was also great interest in how, and to what, John Henshall had attached his name caption - since it had no visible means of support.
- The ice had definitely been broken.
- For the remainder of the series, the relationship between Cast and Crew was very friendly - in a strictly well-behaved, professional sort of way.
Rumours of female nudity in any studio tended to spread, with great efficiency, on TV Centre's internal grapevine. As a result many male workers, who might not otherwise have felt any need to visit that particular studio, would suddenly find a vitally important reason to be there. I suspect that that particular bathroom window received more attention from painters and carpenters than any other item of BBC scenery before or since. And those responsible for studio temperature and humidity were particularly diligent in ensuring the comfort of our young ladies.
The interlopers could usually be seen, lingering around the fire lane, wearing brown or white coats, with arms folded, waiting for the cabaret to begin.
On one such occasion, the Production Manager made the usually polite call, "Could all those not involved in this scene please leave the set."
And Miriam Margolyes, less politely, yelled, "Will all the Dirty Old Men get out!"
John Henshall gave her an apologetic look, took off his headphones, and pretended to leave, but she called him back. "No! The Dirty Young Men can stay!"
Some of the cast felt they should reciprocate our gesture. They contacted Don Smith and invited him back to their dressing room that evening. Don arrived with his camera and more pieces of caption card.
Now, when the first photo was taken, the Camera Crew had arranged themselves in position, and - at the risk of giving away technical secrets - we had kept our pants on, concealing the fact with those name cards. (Pants and double-sided sticky tape are the answer to the John Henshall question!)
When Don arrived in the dressing room, however, the four Actresses simply stripped all their clothes off, and asked him how he'd like them to pose.
I've always imagined that his reply was delayed by the time it took him to get his chin off the floor. Don was not usually THAT sort of photographer.
Nonetheless, he manfully did his duty. He experimented with a number of different poses. The most successful composition involved the girls standing in a line, behind one another, with the largest sheet of caption card held in front of them. In order to give the correct period atmosphere, some items of clothing, e.g. curlers, stockings and suspender-belts, were retained.
Once again, Don worked late in the dark room and, on that blank caption card, he wrote a seasonal ode.
Friday, 14th February, 1975.
For the Camera Crew, one worry remained. How would BBC Management react to our behaviour, if and when they got to hear about it? They were not noted for their sense of humour.
After a day off, Crew 14 were back in TV Centre, working on the arts programme, 'Second House'. We were lounging around in the Production Gallery of TC4, when a formally uniformed BBC Commissionaire arrived. One by one he read out our names, and solemnly presented each of us with an stiffened manilla envelope.
With trepidation, we opened them. Was this Management's response? What would it be: a summons to a disciplinary interview? Summary dismissal? We should have taken more notice of the date. It was Valentine's Day, and inside those envelopes we found a Valentine's greeting from the Girls of Slender Means - courtesy of Don Smith.
The Girls of Slender Means: Miriam Margolyes, Mary Tamm, Patricia Hodge and Jane Cussons.
Decades later, I met John Henshall at a funeral. I hadn’t seen him for so long that, at first, I didn’t recognise him. As our friendship rekindled, we naturally reminisced about the old days, and Crew 14, and particularly ‘The Girls of Slender Means’. It soon became apparent how much we had forgotten.
John discovered that Mary Tamm had written an autobiography. It told the story of a crew who had taken their clothes off, but it was a different version from either of our memories. The book also included a picture of Miriam Margolyes' 60th birthday party. Most of the cast had been there, and they had taken a group photo, posing in a line behind Miriam: the same formation they had used for that cheeky Valentine’s greeting, 26 years earlier. It seemed that they remembered the incident as fondly as we did.
John re-established contact with Miriam and, as a result, 38 years after first working together, cast and crew gathered for a very pleasant reunion, at Patricia Hodge’s home.
Sadly, a number of the key players, including Mary Tamm and Dave Mutton, were no longer with us.
Dave Hunter, Richard Lennox, Don Smith (Photographer), Peter Fox, John Henshall,
Miriam Margoyles, Sarah Nash, Moira Armstrong (Director), Jack Shepherd, Rosalind Shanks, Roger Bunce,
Patricia Hodge, Marilyn Finlay, Jane Cussons, Juliet Mander, Marion Bailey, Tina Heath.
Tuesday, 8th January 2013
BBC Management, in their wisdom (or lack thereof), had wiped the original recording, but, through the efforts of John Henshall and 'Kaleidoscope', a copy was recovered from overseas.
On Tuesday, 12th August 2014, the whole serial was shown again. This time, it was on the big screen, at the National Film Theatre on London's South Bank. It was extremely well received by the audience - and it provided an excuse for a second cast-and-crew reunion. Domestic video recorders had been virtually unknown in 1975; so, this was the first time that most of us had seen it since the original broadcast.
Despite the fact that it was shot in the multi-camera, 'as live' style, which is now unfashionable, and the enlargement of its 4-by-3, 625-line pictures onto a cinema-sized screen, it looked incredibly good - an intelligent script; superbly cast and directed, with wonderful performances . . . and the camerawork wasn't bad!
'The Girls of Slender Means' remains a true classic of television drama.
1975 until 1979
Main memories of the period
An Unexpected Forecast
The following is as true as I can make it. I can no longer remember the names or faces of the other characters involved. Nor can I guess a date, but it was probably in the late 1970s.
Once there were two small Presentation Studios, called 'Pres A' and 'Pres B', at the end of a corridor, behind the South Hall lifts, on the Fourth Floor of BBC Television Centre. Pres A spent its days churning out Programme Trails and Weather Forecasts. One of its walls was entirely covered by the weather charts: large sheet-metal maps, decorated with magnetic rubber isobars.
The Technical Operations offices were also on the fourth floor. But today is a weekend. The Office Workers are all at home. The fourth floor of TV Centre is deserted. All is quiet . . . perhaps . . .
- Too Damn Quiet.
It is lunchtime. A couple of Cameramen are sitting in the gallery of Pres A, eating their sandwiches, dripping coffee into the mixing desk, etc. A figure appears in the doorway. It is the Weatherman. He seems surprised at the lack of activity.
- "Are we ready?"
- "Ready for?"
- "The Weather Forecast."
Er - well - everyone's gone to lunch. There's no Production Team, no S. Tel. E. (without whom we're not supposed to touch anything), no Vision Mixer, no Sound Crew, just a couple of Camera Blokes on their meal break.
We check the Daily Duty Sheet, which lists all studio bookings. There's no Weather Forecast scheduled until much later. But the Weatherman seems certain. Clearly, we must consult the 'Executive Document'! And in those days, as we all remember, the Executive Document was - 'The Radio Times'. In that more conscientious age, if we promised the public that we would do something at a certain time, we had to do it. A misprint in the Radio Times was a definitive misprint. Only the death of some serious Royalty could change this.
- We find a Radio Times. It says "News and Weathe . . .Err."
- Oh - Kay.
Somebody ought to tell someone. Can we find the S. Tel. E.'s phone number anywhere? No. Does the Weatherman know the number of the production office? No. Tech-Ops Management would be no help. Being a weekend, our office will be locked-up and abandoned. These were the days before Duty Managers.
- Oh - Kay.
Someone who knows what they're doing may arrive shortly but, in the meantime, it looks as if we might have to do this by ourselves: just two Cameramen and a Weatherman.
- It should be possible.
There are three cameras, but only one shot on each, and they're all side-by-side, pointing at the charts. I can hop between them and do all three: Camera One on the Atlantic chart, with possible zoom out; Camera Two panning from the Today to the Tomorrow charts; Camera Three on a summary caption. I can do this. (I know I can do this, because this is what we always did after the Management went home. Don't tell anyone!) My colleague can vision mix - just three buttons - all cuts - the Weatherman leaves one shot, cut as he enters the next - easy.
- We can do this.
It might look better if the studio wasn't in complete darkness. Can't be too difficult to turn some lights on. It must all be on one memory somewhere. Not that one. Nor that. Yes! That looks like the weather lights. And some sound. Again it'll just be one channel. And it's labelled! Fade it up. Better not touch the racks knobs. The pictures looked alright this morning. My vision-mixing chum can fine tune sound and pictures just before we go on air.
- We can do this.
I go into the studio; set the cameras in position; line up shots. We have a bit of a walk-through.
- "Any chance of any make-up?" he asks.
- Damn! I left my powder puff in my other trousers.
- "You look fine on camera," I assure him. There are limits to my abilities.
Network are on the phone. They confirm that they're expecting a Weather Forecast and give us the timings. I realise that I'll also have to do a little floor-managing. After doing the three cameras, I'll have to run round to the front of the lens and put my finger on the clock - to give the Weatherman his precise out-time.
- I can do this.
The studio lights are flashing, indicating that we have two minutes before going on air. Still no sign of anyone who knows what they're doing. But we're feeling confident now. Who needs a production team? Who needs a Director, a Producer, a P.A., an S. Tel. E., a Vision Mixer, a Sound Crew? All it takes is a couple of good Cameramen and we can drive the whole damn studio, live on air.
- What could possibly go wrong?
It is at this point that the Weatherman says, hesitantly, in a not-wishing-to-be-a-nuisance tone of voice, "Should I have a microphone?"
The man has made a valid point. My excuse is that I can hear him perfectly - being only six feet away. My colleague in the gallery hasn't mentioned the silence. Perhaps he's been assuming that I'd do something about it.
- Oh - Kay.
We need to rig a microphone. That can't be too difficult - if we can find one. Has the Weatherman noticed where they keep the mics? No. It'll probably still be hanging on the wall box. It isn't. Check round the studio. Nothing. Ransack the cupboard in the gallery. Still nothing. What's in that filing cabinet? Slam. Crash. Slam. Nothing. There is a panic-stricken search of all the areas we can think of, with no success. The clock is ticking. Let's hope the News is overrunning.
Someone in Pres B, the next-door studio, must know . . . but Pres B is locked-up and in darkness.
The Engineers are just down the corridor and they . . . are also locked-up and out to lunch.
Tech. Stores is four floors down and the far side of the building. Even if they would issue me with a mic, I'd never get there and back in the time.
- Oh - Kay.
There's just one slight hope. We're on the fourth floor. Our offices are also on the fourth floor. Even at the weekend there is one room they leave unlocked: the room with the crew pigeon-holes. We didn't have a crew-room in those days, but this was the one place that you might find a few techies sitting at lunchtime. If I run like hell, I might just get there, I might even get back again, before we go on air, and, if I'm very lucky, there might be a Sound Man there.
Hurtle down the Pres corridor - Crash through the fire-doors - Across the South Hall - Crash through the fire-doors - Run ninety degrees round the Circle - More fire-doors - Sheer centrifugal force hurls me sharp right into the side corridor - Skid to a halt at the pigeon-hole room. A Miracle! There are two Sound Men sitting there, shoving sandwiches into their faces.
- And I'm standing in the doorway going, "pant - gasp - wheeze - pant".
- "Wot? - munch - munch."
- "Pres A! - gasp - pant - Where do they keep the mics?"
- "You're a Cameraman - munch - munch - Why do you need to know that?"
- "Going on air! - pant - Weather Forecast - gasp - Haven't got a sound crew!"
- "Well that's nothing to panic about - munch - munch - They'll be there on time. When's it happening?"
- Fumble with watch. "About 49 - no, that's 48 now - 47 seconds - I mean 46 "
There is a spectacular explosion of bits of sandwich; a Sound Man becomes a blur, and I'm left talking to an empty chair. I'm running back round the Circle, but the Sound Man has left me standing. All I see of him is swinging fire-doors and a trail of breadcrumbs. I burst into the studio as he bursts out - having wired up the Weatherman.
- "And now it's time for today's Weather with . . .
- He is throwing himself at the sound desk, as I throw myself at Camera One.
- "Well, it's been sunny morning, but there's cold front coming in from the Atlantic . . . " (or whatever).
- We did it!
(I have since been told that the microphone would have been hanging on a stage-brace, behind the set.)
Presentation Studio A, in the days before computers, when the weather charts were sheets of metal, and isobars were magnetic rubber strips
1978 until 2001
Main memories of the period
Part of the Union.
My Life as a Trouble Maker.
As a youth, I didn’t approve of Trades Unions. I associated them with strikes, closed shops, restrictive practices and possibly even with Communist fifth-columnists! I had inherited these prejudices from my parents. I wanted to work in television, but I had been led to believe that it would be a hotbed of industrial militancy. I imagined that I would be forced to join a Union, against my will.
- The reality proved to be completely different.
Making television programmes in a multi-camera studio is an intensely co-operative process. Even those programmes which weren’t live, were recorded as though they were live: with several cameras operating simultaneously; a Vision Mixer editing them together; with music and sound effects being played in; scenery being moved, etc,. all in realtime. This can only happen if all the different craft skills work together as a closely co-ordinated team. There just wasn’t time for stroppiness or bickering about who-does-what. Everyone had to muck in to help everyone else.
The BBC’s primary union was the ABS (the Association of Broadcasting Staff), a mild-mannered staff association, which didn’t even call itself a union. There was no hint of a closed shop. I experienced no pressure to join, not even friendly persuasion, and I didn’t. No one seemed to mind. There were plenty of other non-Union people working around me. At the time, I couldn’t see any reason to join a Union. All the Managers I’d met seemed friendly and helpful. As ex-operators themselves, they knew what I was talking about and understood the issues I raised.
The ABS was not the only Union on the Studio Floor. The Scene Shifters, for example, mostly belonged to NATKE (National Association of Theatrical and Kine Employees). One of my earliest encounters with a Studio Scene Crew was also the most embarrassing. I was a very junior trainee. Parked in a quiet corner of the studio was a Heron (a hydraulically operated camera mounting). I had always found it a difficult contraption to operate so, with the rest of the Camera Crew busy, I decided to do some self-training. Unfortunately, the Heron had been parked hard against some scenery, and my very first, tentative movement was enough to bring a large studio flat crashing down. The Scene Crew arrived immediately. Silent with guilt and embarrassment, I just sat there. I was expecting to be rebuked, humiliated and even reported. Instead, the Supervisor just said, “Trainee are you, Mate? Never mind.” Without a murmur of complaint, and, with impressive efficiency, they set to work, rebuilding the fallen scenery. Fortunately, there were no irreparable breakages. Within a matter of moments everything was back to normal, and nothing more was said. This was how I first discovered what a great bunch of guys the Scene Men were! Helpful and co-operative, they were, like everyone else in the Studio, natural team players, not just in the way they co-ordinated their own operation, but in the way they worked with everyone else.
In the Studio, the only hint of restrictive practices came from the Electricians. They belonged to the ETU, a more militant union whose leadership, at that time, were said to have Communist sympathies. The Electricians objected to anyone else touching their equipment. (There were, of course, perfectly good reasons for this. An unqualified person tampering with electrical equipment could cause serious injuries to himself and others!) As a shy soul who hated to offend anyone, I used to worry about dealing with the sensitivities of the Electricians. But then an older, worldly-wise Cameraman explained the protocol, as follows. - If there’s a lamp in your way, and you need to get it moved, don’t move it yourself. Ask an Electrician to do it. They’re always happy to help. If there’s a lamp in your way, but no Electrician is within earshot, then move it yourself, but, next time you see an Electrician, tell him that you accidentally bumped into that lamp with your camera, and ask him to check that it’s back in its correct position. - This news would be greeted with a knowing grin. Everyone understood the code. It was just a case of being polite, and showing an a appropriate respect for other people’s craft skills. Once I got to know them, I discovered that the Electricians, too, were a great bunch of guys!
Today, many myths are repeated about the intransigent Unions who operated in the BBC, back in the ‘60s and ‘70s. In my experience, they are just that - Myths. I encountered only helpful, hard-working, low-paid and highly-skilled craftsmen. All were dedicated professionals, with a naturally co-operative, team-working ethos, and a fierce loyalty to their colleagues; to the production they were working on at the time, and to the BBC as a whole. Despite the fact that several different unions, and non-union staff, were working alongside one another, I never encountered any any friction or rivalry.
Some of these Myths may have originated from confusion with ITV. Here the mighty ACTT union held sway (the Association of Cinematograph, Television and Allied Technicians). Under their left-wing leader Alan Sapper, they were a genuinely militant union. It 1968 and 1979 they called strikes which blacked out the ITV network. The latter gained an almost 30% pay rise for their members. The ACTT were also powerful in the British film industry, and across the freelance market. They operated a rigid closed shop. No one got a job as a freelance film or TV technician, unless they could show their ACTT ticket. Their empire even extended to the BBC Film Department, based at Ealing. But the ACTT had absolutely zero influence in BBC Television Studios (which is probably why we were so poorly paid!).
Other Myths may have arisen from misunderstandings. It has become automatic to blame unspecified ‘Unions’, even when no Unions were involved. For example, I was recently told of a production on which “the Unions” refused to overrun. But I was working on that production and know that no Union action took place. It was the Producer who vetoed the overrun, because it would have overspent his budget. On another occasion I have been told that, “the Unions objected because of Health and Safety”. In fact, the Safety Officers who objected were BBC Managers working for the Studio Management department. They, together with uniformed BBC Firemen, regularly patrolled the studios, checking for potential hazards. We sometimes regarded them as spoilsports, and nicknamed them “Programme Prevention Officers”. But it was their job to protect the BBC from expensive litigation. A injured Cameraman wouldn’t cost too much, but if a highly-paid celebrity was injured in a BBC studio, the Corporation might have to pay out a fortune in damages and legal costs.
I was present on another occasion when the Presenter, unhappy with a performance, requested a second take. The Director told her that a second take would not be possible, because the Crew had refused to overrun. This was completely untrue, and was overheard by one of the Cameramen, who reported it back to me. The Director was an otherwise likeable character and, during a quiet moment, I confronted him, assuring him that the Crew were happy to continue working for as long as he needed us. Guiltily, he admitted that he had used the Crew as an excuse. He didn’t want a second take because he had been perfectly happy with the first one, and because he couldn’t afford the overtime payments for all the musicians. Overtime for the Camera Crew would have been peanuts but, for a whole orchestra, it would have been a serious overspend. Somewhere, that Presenter probably still believes that her programme was spoiled by a militant Camera Crew! This, perhaps, is how Myths are born.
Many of the Myths tell of Who-Does-What demarkation dispute. My enquiries have suggested that most of these were inter-departmental disputes, in which no unions were involved. E.g. the squabbles between Cameras and Lighting (see “Doing it with Flare”, above). These were not inter-Union issues. They couldn’t be, because Camera and Lighting people both belonged to the same branch of the same union - if they belonged to any union at all. The squabbles were between the management of two different craft sections. In the BBC, each department liked to draw clear borders around its petty empire, and jealously protected them against any potential incursion from another department.
A small and particularly silly example has stuck in my mind. In 1975, I was writing my first script. It was a retelling of the ‘Jason and the Argonauts’ legend for the ‘Jackanory’ programme. I had intended using a large, false-perspective map. It would be used at the beginning, with superimposed flying figures, to explain the origins of the Golden Fleece, and would reappear, in subsequent episodes, to show the progress of the Argo’s voyage. My Producer was generally happy with the script, but she told me that I wouldn’t be allowed to use a map. Why not? Because a map could be seen as ‘educational’. In the BBC, educational programmes for children were made by Schools Department. ‘Jackanory’ was made by Children’s Department. Schools Department would object if Children’s Department appeared to trespass into their educational domain. This struck me as extremely silly. I had spent a long time designing that map, and calculating a convincing perspective. I wasn’t prepared to abandon it. Taking back my script, I crossed out the word ‘Map’ and wrote ‘Aerial View’. This solved the problem, and my Producer was now happy. School’s Department could not claim exclusive rights to an ‘Aerial View’. It was a very trivial matter, and instantly resolved, but, to me, it provided an interesting insight into the way things were done in the BBC. Demarkation issues of this sort are often blamed on ‘The Unions’. In most cases, however, it had nothing to do with any Unions. The problem arose because of the way different BBC departments drew defensive perimeters around their own areas of operation.
I have only been able to trace one example of a genuine inter-Union dispute at the BBC. About 1979 (I think), the Electricians’ Union (now merged to become the EEPTU) decided that all electric appliances should be operated by a qualified electrician. This put them into conflict with the Scene Crews, who normally operated anything that could be described as scenery, or a prop, even if it had an electrical component. The dispute notoriously affected the “Playschool” clock, which had an electrically powered turntable and rotating petals. And “Blankety Blank” chose to use a manually operated turntable, powered by two Scene Men with crank handles, rather than risk anything electrical. The impasse continued for months, with BBC Management totally incapable of finding a resolution. Fortunately, the ABS came to galloping to the BBC’s rescue. A meeting of both sides was arranged at the TUC. There, ABS negotiators, led by a Cameraman John Barlow, exposed the illogical consequences of the Electricians’ case (Who should operate the electric typewriter in the Union office: a qualified electrician, or a qualified typist?), and the TUC ruled against them. The dispute was settled. Electricians and Scene Shifters could be friends again, thanks to the intervention of a Cameraman, and the “Playschool” clock could rotate once more, under the guidance of the Scene Crews.
More worryingly, some of the Myths may have been perpetuated by weak Managers, in order excuse their own behaviour, and portray themselves in a better light. “There might be objections from the Unions,” could be a convenient excuse for lazy Managers (without actually asking the Unions) in order to justify their own inertia. Worse, a cowardly Manager, who bullies his underlings, is likely to justify himself by saying, “I was standing up to the Unions!” It sounds so much more macho than, “I was a snivelling creep, who didn’t dare stand up to the big kids, above me, so I victimised the defenceless little kids, below me.” We all like to cast ourselves in the role of David, even if our stature and behaviour is really that of Goliath. Sadly, in my later years at the BBC, the latter attitude became all too common.
At some point, after completing my training, I did join the ABS. I no longer remember which particular crisis caused me to do this. But I know the general principle. Only one thing causes people to join Unions. It the same thing which caused Unions to be formed in the first place - Bad Management! By now it was apparent to me that the main obstacle to BBC Programme Making came not for the dedicated, creative workforce, nor from the amenable Unions. It came from people sitting in offices, who felt that they had the right to dictate to people who were far more talented than themselves. And that has always been the BBC’s problem: an incredibly skilled, enthusiastic and dedicated workforce, making superb programmes, but hindered by a bureaucratic and often incompetent Management. When you have workers who are naturally self-motivated, it is all too easy for a poor Management to conceal itself - and to expand unnoticed.
- Note One: This criticism does not apply to our local Mangers, who were well-intentioned people, doing their best. Unfortunately, they were obliged to obey instructions coming from higher, more out-of-touch levels of Management. That was where the problem lay.
- Note Two: However bad we felt the Management to be, at that time, it would become much, much worse later!
The Kindness of Strangers
The co-operative, team-working spirit, which I had encountered on the Studio Floor extended throughout TV Centre and other parts of the BBC. The whole organisation seemed to be full of skilled, creative people who were only too pleased to help others - even when it came to doing a personal favour for a complete stranger - like me.
- A couple of examples have stuck in my mind.
In the days of my youth, Cameramen were expected to dress smartly, if not always practically. I tended to wear a tie and a tweed sports jacket. Then, one day, I discovered that I had torn my jacket. I don’t know how it happened but, presumably, while rigging technical equipment, I had caught it on something sharp, and had been too busy to notice. It was a large, ragged tear, and the edges were shredded as though they had been wrenched asunder. It looked beyond repair, and with the money they paid probationary Cameramen, it would be a long time before I could afford a new jacket.Then one of my friends suggested showing it to the Wardrobe department. I took it to the local Make-Up and Wardrobe area, in the corner of the studio. They looked at it with expressions of dismay. A simple darn would be impossible because the edges were so badly frayed. They recommended taking it to the main Wardrobe area, and gave me a room number. I went up to the third floor of Television Centre where, in those days, there was a vast costume store. Here, my jacket was examined again, with further expressions of dismay. They thought it was irreparable, but they sent for the ‘Duty Seamstress’ (what a wonderful job title, I thought. I had no idea that TV Centre boasted a ‘Duty Seamstress’). She examined it solemnly. The only possibility she could suggest was to use different coloured darning threads, matching the colours of the jacket, and interweaving them, vertically and horizontally across the tear, to completely reconstruct the texture of the tweed. It sounded like an epic labour. I told her not to worry. I couldn’t ask her to go to so much trouble. But she said to leave the jacket with her, and she would see what could be done.
I collected by jacket that evening. The repair was a masterpiece. Although you could detect the different texture by touch, it was almost invisible to the eye. My jacket had gained extra years of life. That Duty Seamstress was a lady of incredible skill and talent - and of great kindness, to have gone to such an effort for a shy junior Cameraman that she had never met before.
- Another, later, example.
In 1975 (I think) I was commissioned to paint some pictures for the Soil Association. They were large colourful cartoons, to be displayed on their stand at the Chelsea Flower Show. Then, one lunchtime, I was sitting in a studio gallery watching the BBC News. There was a report from the Chelsea Flower show, and it showed my pictures - not just a wide shot, but close-ups, panning across the details within individual paintings. These were the days before there was any kind of domestic video recording, but I wondered if there was any way I could get a copy of that item. I wandered up to the News Room. The only people I recognised there were the Autocue Operators, but, with their help, I traced the Film Editor who had worked on that bulletin. I asked if I could get a copy of the film clip. He said there would be no problem. I’d need a Project Number, of course, and a Costing Code, and I’d have to get authorisation from someone-or-other, and a memo from my boss to his boss, and . . . I forget all the details, but, by this point I was throwing up my hands in surrender, and saying not to bother. It was nothing official. It was just for me.
- “Oh!” he said cheerfully, “In that case, I’ll run you off a print!”
That evening I collected a can of 16mm film. I had no means of watching it, except by unrolling the film and holding the individual frames up to the light. But how could I do this without the loose end dangling on the floor and getting dirty? I conceived an ingenious solution. A little later, my friend Dave Jervis and I could been seen on the seventh floor of Television Centre. We were standing at the top of the South Hall staircase, slowly unrolling the film to look at the pictures, while allowing the loose end to dangle down the centre of the stairwell. I don’t know whether it ever reached the basement! I still have my can of 16mm film and I still have no means of watching it.
I no longer remember the name of that Film Editor, nor that of the Duty Seamstress, which I regret. They both deserve to be credited here. They are just two examples of the wonderful, talented and helpful people who seemed to populated the BBC in those days. To this list should be added all those lovely Make Up ladies, who gave me free haircuts, in the days when I was working too hard to get to the barbers, and those equally lovely Autocue ladies, who typed out my memos, application forms and my many (unpublished) scripts and stories.
It seemed that you could get anything done in the BBC, provided you asked the right person. There were so many highly-skilled crafts’ people, all experts in their field, who enthusiastically used their talents for the benefit of others - even for an unknown nonentity, like me. It was a community of generous geniuses.
The only time that it became more difficult to achieve things was when you went through the official channels. That was when you needed a Project Number, a Costing Code, and assorted paperwork. That was when Management interfered .Then nothing worked smoothly.
A few years later, I had another chance to by-pass the official channels - including the entire management structure of BBC Television - and talk directly to the one person who might be able to help. This time I remember his name. It was Alasdair Milne: the future Director General of the BBC.
Credit Where It’s Due
Credits were a source of irritation for many of us who worked in studios. Some people were considered important enough to be awarded a screen credit, others weren’t. Studio Cameramen were amongst those anonymous proles who weren’t.
The official BBC guidelines said that you would be entitled to a credit if your contribution to the production was ‘Artistic and Substantial’ - which seemed fair enough - but the interpretation of those two words was wildly random. For example, the Film Cameraman who shot one minute of a 25-minute comedy would receive a credit. The Studio Cameramen who shot the other 24 minutes would remain uncredited. Assuming both types of Cameraman were equally ‘Artistic’ , how could shooting 4 percent of a programme be more ‘Substantial’ than shooting 96 percent?! The Graphic Designer was given a credit, even when his only contribution was putting the lettering on the final roller caption - including his own name. Of the studio crew: the leader of the Lighting team received a credit and the leader of the Sound team received a credit, but there was no credit for the leader of the Camera team.
My first screen credit came in 1976, but not for being a Cameraman. I was on an attachment to the “Jackanory” programme, as a trainee Assistant Producer. My first project there was that “Jason and the Argonauts” story (see above), narrated by Martin Jarvis. At the end, for the first time ever, my name appeared on screen! In those days, before computer graphics, a credit consisted of a physical cardboard caption, with “Written and Directed by Roger Bunce” printed on it (I wanted to illustrate it, as well, but they wouldn’t let me!). After the recording, of course, I took that piece of cardboard home as a souvenir. I still have it somewhere.
- After completing the training attachment, and accruing several more cardboard captions, I returned to my regular job, as an uncredited Studio Cameraman.
A couple of years later, I was sent on a Seminar. A surviving memo shows that it ran from 20th to the 24th November, 1978. It was an unfamiliar experience for me. My day job involved standing upright, performing physical work, under conditions of high stress, often in total silence. Now, I was to spend a relaxing week sitting down and listening. I’d even be allowed to talk. While others took the opportunity to doze in their comfy chairs, I took an interest. We were about to be addressed by members of Senior Management. Normally there were multiple layers of bureaucrats to prevent people like me from talking to people like them. If they proved to be as approachable and helpful as everyone else I had met in the BBC, I might be able to communicate a viewpoint from the studio floor.
One of the speakers, I remember, was Peter Seddon, the head of the Scenic Design Department. I liked him. He seemed to have a very positive attitude towards the range of artistic (to the point of eccentric) characters who populated his department. My own, department, Engineering, seemed much less tolerant of creative individualism. I complained to him about the scenery for the ‘Nationwide’ programme, which currently included a large number of bright-red, vertical poles. They made it very difficult to frame aesthetically pleasing shots. Cameramen and Directors wasted too much rehearsal time trying to exclude them from shot or, at least trying to prevent them appearing to grow out of the presenters heads. What was the point of including a scenic detail that everyone was trying NOT to see? Couldn’t they be painted a more neutral tome? Pillar-box red just wasn’t a background colour! Unfortunately, everyone else seemed to think that my concerns were trivial. Didn’t they realise that the Cameraman’s shot was the window through which the viewers judged the BBC?!
On the final day Alasdair Milne, who was then the Managing Director of BBC Television, came to address us. During the Q&A session that followed, I asked whether the BBC was carrying too many Bureaucrats. It was a hobby horse of mine, at the time.
- Digression - There’s an old joke:
- Question: How many people work for the BBC?
- Answer: About half!
- It certainly seemed that way to me. You could see them streaming out of TV Centre, at 5.30, each weekday evening. What did all those Office Workers do? In the evenings, and at weekends, when only the sharp-end Programme Makers remained, the building was virtually deserted. It seemed to take more people to manage and administer the Programme Makers, than to actually make the programmes.
- Once, when confined to an office after surgery, I made the acquaintance of Phil Ward, a senior manager from my department. Not knowing how he fitted into the hierarchy, I asked him what he did.
- “I’m your boss,” he replied.
- I said that this didn’t really help my understanding. As the lowliest pleb in the pecking order, virtually everyone was my boss. The Senior Cameraman was my immediate boss; above him, the Camera Managers were my bosses; above them, the Head of Cameras was my boss; above him, the Head of Technical Operations was my boss; above him, the Head of Engineering was my boss; above him were countless individuals whose names and job titles were unknown to me; they were all my bosses. Phil Ward, apparently, was the Head of Technical Operations.
- A similar point was made to me by the renowned comedy producer Denis Main Wilson. In the old days, he complained, there had been virtually no one between himself, as a Senior Producer, and the Director General. But now extra layers of unnecessary managers, with meaningless titles, had interposed themselves between.
- How could anyone justify all those layers of Middle and Senior Management?
Meanwhile, back at the seminar -
In answering my question, Alasdair Milne disagreed with my terminology. “Would you call your Line Manager a Bureaucrat?” he asked. “Would you call your Personnel Officer a Bureaucrat?”
I wanted to shout out, “Yes!” but politeness restrained me. The room was probably full of Line Managers and Personnel Officers.
At the end of the day, there was an opportunity for social mingling. People gathered in groups. I infiltrated the group surrounding Alasdair Milne. There was some industrial disagreement simmering at the time, and I wanted to discuss it with him. I suffered from the innocent belief that if you talked to people face-to-face, as politely as possible, it should be possible to achieve a level of understanding, if not agreement. I forget the details of the unrest, but it certainly involved pay.
At first, I must have expressed myself badly. Possibly I was being too polite, or possibly Alasdair Milne didn’t expect underlings to disagree with him. He thought I was supporting the Management position. He hoped, he said, that I was explaining my views to colleagues and Union officials.
This forced me to clarify, perhaps less politely, that I fully supported the Union. The rest of the group fell silent.
One of his companions, Roger Chase (of Personnel) became irritated with me, and said some very rude things about the Union. (In fairness, I had nicked his chair when I joined this group, and I may have inadvertently referred to him as a Bureaucrat!)
But Alasdair Milne was more forthright. He agreed that staff deserved higher levels of renumeration, but the BBC just couldn’t afford it. As ever, the Corporation was chronically short of cash. At the time (many years before Senior Managers started syphoning Licence Payers’ money into their own pockets) this was a perfectly valid argument.
And it gave me the opportunity to suggest that there might be ways of rewarding staff which wouldn’t cost any money at all - for example - Screen Credits.
- I gave the arguments in favour (as above - general fairness - it was only the equivalent of saying ‘Thank You’ to people for their contribution.)
- He gave the usual counter-arguments (there’d be too many names - it would be difficult to read them all.)
- I gave the counter-counter-argument (it was only people in the industry who wanted to read them, and they’d make the effort to find the name they were looking for.)
- Suddenly he stood up. “I have to go now,” he said, adding, “I’ll recall the Credit Committee, on Monday, and tell them.”
I’d never heard of the Credit Committee, and . . . hang on . . . did he just say “Yes”? I think he might have done! I was astonished. I had assumed that all BBC Managers were issued with a decision-making dice, which had the word “No”, on all six sides. But now I had encountered the one manager in the whole organisation who was authorised to say “Yes” - and he had - I think.
I was so speechless, and he left so abruptly, that I never said a proper thank you - which I have always regretted.
Alasdair Milne was true to his word. As of Monday 27th November, 1978, Senior Cameramen began to receive screen credits, as did a number of other formerly unrecognised studio craft skills. I remained uncredited, of course. I was only a bog-standard Cameraman. But at least one member of the studio Camera Crew was now named on screen. My career as a polite, troublemaker had a achieved a small victory.
Our seminar was considered to have been so productive that it was subsequently recalled, for a progress report. Alasdair Milne was present again and, from the audience, I was able to call out a brief, “Thank you for all the credits!” But there was no opportunity to thank him personally, face-to-face, as I’d like to have done. I never met him again.
As for all those bureaucrats that I had complained about, nothing was done about them until after the departure of Alasdair Milne. Then, the situation became much, much worse!
But first there was a serious industrial dispute, and I was to find myself outside the gates. I was NOT on strike. I had declined the Union’s instruction to withdraw my labour. And then BBC Management had decided to sack me!
The Inter-Management Dispute
I don’t recall the precise issues, but it was a dispute between Technical Managers (T.M.s), who were the local representatives of Management in T.V. studios, and more senior levels of BBC Management. For the purposes of official irritation, I always referred to it as the “Inter-Management” dispute. At the time, many industries were plagued by Inter-Union disputes but the BBC, uniquely, managed to manufacture an Inter-Management dispute.
- The Union backed the T.M.s, so we all became involved. Cameraman and T.M.s were not natural allies, but I remember making cardboard “Support Your Local T.M.” badges.
It came to a climax that November when the Association of Broadcasting Staff called strikes. However, they gave permission for two studios to be exempted, on compassionate grounds. At T.V. Centre, on 19th November, the “Blue Peter” programme was allowed to continue, because they were broadcasting an appeal in aid of Cambodia. The following day, at T.V. Theatre, the “Crackerjack” programme was performed for the benefit of the schoolchildren in the studio audience, but was not recorded. The Corporation’s heavy-handed response was to lock everyone out, all very quaint and 19th Century. They sacked everyone who had been on strike and, with characteristic incompetence, they also sacked those who had NOT been on strike.
My primary objection to the lock-out was that, whenever the BBC transmitted a blank screen or a ‘Tom and Jerry’, etc., they broadcast an announcement saying something like, “We are unable to bring you the scheduled programme. This is due to industrial action by members of the Association of Broadcasting Staff.” A total lie! Most of those programmes had been cancelled by BBC Management, having sacked all the people needed to make them! But, no doubt they felt that trampling their own staff underfoot was far more important than providing a service to the Licence-Fee Payers.
This recently rediscovered photocopy of a handwritten letter tells my part in the story. I failed to date it, but it seems to have been my reply to a memo from Personnel dated 4th March 1980. It is a reminder of a time when the BBC had 19 Camera Crews; numerous studios including Television Theatre, at Shepherd’s Bush, and the Greenwood Theatre, at London Bridge; Allocations was on the 4th Floor, and Personnel hadn’t rebranded themselves as ‘Human Resources’ or ‘BBC People’ or whatever. And it demonstrates that there were blundering incompetents in BBC Management, even before the coming of John Birt.
- Room 4024 T.C. extn. 2921
- Dear Nina, 
- Thank you for coming to see me yesterday. Sorry I was too busy to have a proper chat.
- Further to the enclosed letter, I would like to re-stress the point made during my recent interview, that neither I, nor any member of my Camera Crew, withdrew our labour during last November’s Inter-Management dispute. Our absence from work during this period was entirely the result of being “Taken Off The Payroll” by deliberate B.B.C. policy.
- The details of the case are as follows: -
- On Tuesday 20th. November, at 14.30, we were working on “Crackerjack” at Television Theatre - when a Union Representative  asked us to withdraw our labour. We objected to this on the grounds that a live audience, mostly children, were coming to watch the show and would be bitterly disappointed. We persuaded the Union to consider this to be a “Special Case”, and allow us to work normally as a “Good-Will Gesture.” I understand that V.T. at Television Centre did not record the programme, but this did not affect the Camera and Sound crew at Television Theatre. We worked normally, both during the show and during the de-rig period that followed. (I calculate, from your figures, however, that you do not intend to pay me for this period.)
- The following Friday we reported for duty, as normal, at the Greenwood Theatre. We had been on duty for about a quarter of an hour when a VISION Manager  informed us that our “Good-Will Gesture” was to be repaid with summary dismissal. (One might have been less offended if a Manager from our own section had conveyed the news.)
- He read a set speech to the effect that we had withdrawn our labour (which was a fib) and that we were consequently deemed to be in breach of contract (please forward that section of my contract that says I must NOT work normally!). The BBC, therefore, demanded assurances from myself and my Union (a second fib. In fact we were neither asked for, nor given any opportunity to give any such assurance.) and that we had been taken off the payroll three days previously. (i.e. our sacking had been back-dated to 14.30 on Tuesday. Curiously, a CAMERA Manager , who had been with us at the time, had not been aware of this. Obviously, we would not have turned up on the Friday, had we known that we had already been locked-out for three days. Equally, the fact that a Manager was waiting for us, with a list of our names, indicates that we were expected to turn up.)
- When we pointed out that we had not withdrawn our labour, he simply read the whole set speech again. Unlike the Union Representative, he seemed to have no authority to make any decision. (In some organisations decision-making is a fundamental requirement of Management. In the BBC it is evidently frowned upon!)
- When we explained that we were quite willing to continue working normally - (we would have ignored the BBC’s lock-out instruction, just as we had avoided the Union’s strike instruction) - he told us that the programme had already been cancelled - by the Management - even though they knew that we would be reporting for normal duty. (He also told us that there was no food in the canteen, which was a third fib. The breakfast was very nice!)
- I realise, of course, that the whole incident could be a brilliant piece of biting satire - suggesting perhaps that Crew 6 working normally are indistinguishable from anyone else being on strike. If so, I would hate you to think that I don’t enjoy a joke at my own expense (Ho, Jolly, Ho). However, I suspect that the humour is unintended and that the whole shambles was just an other of those bits of BBC Bureaucratic Buffoonery that we have all grown to know and love.
- During the days which followed, Crew 6 remained ready and willing to work, but 6 of our programmes were cancelled due to the Corporation’s lock-out policy. If this ratio is typical of the 19 Crews, it means that a maximum of 19 programmes could have been sunk by Union action, while about 114 programmes were scuttled by the Management’s reaction. Assuming that the Management’s sole purpose in life is the disruption and prevention of programme making, one has to credit them with a impressive score! (It all seems to confirm my belief that there is a Trotskyite cell in central Management. Certainly with a bureaucracy like this we don’t need a militant union. They brought Television Centre to a standstill much more effectively that Arthur Scargill and a thousand flying pickets could have done! Is there really a Red under the Bett? )
- I hope I have described the situation in a style befitting its silliness.
- Best Wishes,
- Roger Bunce.
1: “Nina” was Nina Shields, our friendly and popular Personnel Officer of the time.
2: The Union Rep. was Dave Mutton - the award-winning and well-respected Senior Cameraman of Crew 14.
3: The Vision Manager was Bill Poole.
4: I can’t remember who this was, but evidently one of the Camera Managers was keeping an eye on us during the “Crackerjack” production. I’d like to believe that no Camera Manager was willing to perform the actual sacking, because they had too much integrity!
5: “the Bett” is a reference to Michael Bett, the BBC’s Director of Personnel, 1977-81. A personnel officer once described him to me as bearing a sinister physical resemblance to Doctor No. He was widely credited with having provoked the dispute, and introducing the ultra-reactionary lock-out policy. One of those career bureaucrats who never stayed in any one organisation for too long, he is alleged to have caused a trail of similar disputes wherever he went. He would become Sir Michael Bett C.B.E.
Personally, I’d have happily signed an undertaking to “Work Normally”. Firstly, because I consider legitimate Union activity to be part of normal work. Secondly, because having studied geometry, I know that “Normal” means “At Right-Angles” and, since Cameramen work standing-up, we always work normally!
I’ve also found a follow-up memo, written after the BBC had been threatened with legal action, both by the Union and by individuals.
- 27th August, 1980
- Dear Mr. Bunce,
- Industrial Action : November 1979
- The BBC has given further consideration to the position of those staff who actually worked on the ‘Blue Peter’ and ‘Crackerjack’ programmes on Monday, 19th November and Tuesday 20th November, 1979.
- As a result it has been decided to restore your pay for the hours you worked on the relevant programme.
- Yours sincerely,
- Nina Shields. Personnel Officer, Television Engineering.
Another couple of surviving memos show that they even managed to cock-up the refund!
Michael Bett left the B.B.C. the following year.
Political Bias - Theirs and Mine
In the late ‘60s or early ‘70s, I worked on an edition of “Late Night Line Up”. It was a discussion programme about political bias in BBC news coverage. One guest was a Tory M.P., who claimed that the BBC had a Left Wing bias. The other guest was a Labour M.P. who claimed that the BBC had a Right Wing bias. Tony Bilbow was in the chair, and was probably expecting an easy ride. His two guests would simply contradict one another, and he would not need to defend the BBC. In fact, Tony Bilbow found himself unexpectedly struggling as his two guests ganged up against him. They agreed with one another. Both believed that the BBC had a Right Wing bias in its home news coverage, and a Left Wing bias in its foreign news.
It hadn’t occurred to me before, but I could see the truth in this. In the event of an industrial dispute, BBC Journalists will alway blame the Unions, never the Employers - an example of a bias to the Right in home news. The BBC’s foreign news coverage tends to be dominated by anti-Americanism, which is usually seen as a racism of the political Left.
The incident has stuck in my mind, possibly because both of these biases run directly contrary to by own political prejudices. I tend to favour the Left in home news and the Right in foreign news - which may explain why I regularly shout at the television during BBC news analysis! My natural instinct is to support democracy against dictatorship. This may include supporting democratically elected Union officials against a dictatorial employer, or the liberal democracies of the West against the brutal dictatorships of the Eastern bloc.
Throughout the Cold War, BBC News was more critical of America and the West than it was of the Soviet Union. In part, this may be explained by the nature of free speech. When democratic governments misbehave it soon becomes public knowledge. Even when they try to organise a coverup (e.g. Watergate), the truth eventually leaks out. It is much harder to get negative news out of dictatorships, like the Soviet Union. They tend to silence leaks with lethal efficiency. But the BBC’s anti-Americanism often seemed to go beyond this, sometimes even descending into crude racial stereotyping.
In 1978, the Soviet ability to silence its critics extended to the BBC, in London. Giorgi Markov was a Bulgarian dissident, working as a correspondent for the BBC World Service. On his way to work one morning, while waiting at a bus stop near Waterloo Bridge, he was injected with a poison pellet, possibly fired from the tip of an umbrella. He died that evening. He had been assassinated by the Bulgarian Secret Service, under the guidance the KGB. It was their third attempt to kill him. Yet, other BBC Journalists continued with their primarily anti-Western stance, despite this blatant murder of one of their own on the streets of London . . . or was it BECAUSE of this blatant murder? One major advantage of taking an anti-American standpoint is that, however badly the C.I.A. might behave, they never murdered BBC Journalists in London.
When, in 1983, Ronald Reagan referred to the Soviet Union as ‘The Evil Empire’, I thought it was a reasonable description. But BBC Journalists reacted with horror, as though he had said something utterly blasphemous. Which of those two words could they possibly disagree with? Did they deny the Gulags, or the extermination of the Kulaks? Or did they really believe that the Iron Curtain countries were a free association of independent states, not an Empire? Wasn’t there was a clue in all that barbed wire and those goose-stepping, jack-booted border guards? (It had long annoyed me that the Soviets liked to describe the Western democracies as ‘Imperialist’. At the time, Britain and other western countries were dissolving their empires and giving independence to their former colonies. Meanwhile, the old Tsarist Russian Empire, despite a change of name and leadership, was doggedly clinging on to all its conquered territories.) Yet the BBC Newsroom seemed to think that Ronald Reagan saying the words ‘Evil Empire’ was a greater crime than the Soviet Union actually being an evil empire.
As for home news - the Unions were not always as democratic as they would later become. The 1970s were the time of the ‘Trade Union Barons’: leaders who were often unelected and acted like petty dictators. They could call workers out on strike without even bothering to consult them.
In the early ‘80s, Margaret Thatcher introduced legislation to curb the power of the Trade Unions. The closed shop was outlawed (quite rightly), and Unions were made more democratically accountable. No strike could be called unless approved by a secret ballot of Union members, independently verified. Generally, I supported these changes. They were designed to take power away from the ‘Barons’ and give it back to union members, where it belonged. A moderate, democratic Union like the ABS had nothing to fear from them. It is often said that this legislation broke the power of the Unions. I don’t agree. Margaret Thatcher did not break the power of the Unions by legislation. She did it by her disastrous mis-management of the economy. She plunged the country into a catastrophic recession. Manufacturing, the wealth-creating backbone of the nation, was virtually annihilated; there were widespread bankruptcies, and unemployment figures topped three million. A worker’s ultimate sanction is to withdraw his labour. But few were willing to do this when there was so little chance of finding another job. It was this that broke the power of the Unions. In 1979, the worst year for Trades Union militancy, almost 30 million man-days of production had been lost in a single year, due to strikes. Now, over a BILLION man-days were being lost every year (three million a day!) due to unemployment.
What should have happened, after the legal changes, is that the Trades Unions should have emerged less militant, but stronger than before. With a clear mandate from their members, and heightened moral authority, the new, more moderate, democratic Unions should have been taken much more seriously by employers, the government and even by the press. And there should have been parallel legislation to impose similar levels of democratic accountability upon employers, e.g no contractual changes unless agreed by a secret ballot of employees. A new, more collaborative relationship between workers and bosses should have begun. These things did not happened. Now that there was nothing to retrain their behaviour, cowardly bosses, who had once cringed pathetically before the Unions, now behaved like playground bullies. They proved that they could be just as dictatorial and corrupt as any ‘Baron’. In the past, the Unions had made excessive pay demands and ensured chronic overstaffing. In future, it would be the bosses who gave themselves excessive pay rises, while chronically overstaffing their own numbers. Those who had previously treated the working classes with contempt continued to do so, and this included BBC journalists. The only time that BBC news gave a fair representation of a Union case, in any dispute, was when that Union happened to be the NUJ!
In summary, it is my view that BBC bias is neither Left Wing nor Right Wing. It is not a political bias so much as a class bias. Comfortably-off BBC Journalists like to sneer down their noses at the working classes, and foreigners. They don’t mind impoverished workers, or impoverished foreigners. Being impoverished shows that they know their place, as natural inferiors, and may, therefore, be portrayed sympathetically. But when workers claim that they should be entitled to something better (e.g. Trade Unionists), or when foreigners have the nerve to be richer or more successful than we are (e.g. the Americans), then the BBC Newsroom regards them with arrogant contempt.
Margaret Thatcher wouldn’t have agreed with this interpretation. She believed that the BBC was full of trendy lefties and long-haired Trotskyites. Her prejudice was partly political and partly personal. In 1983 she appeared in a ‘Nationwide’ phone-in, only to be embarrassed by a caller who refused to accept her explanation for the sinking of the Belgrano. She blamed the BBC for her own inability to answer a member of the public. The following year, she was further offended by “Maggie’s Militant Tendency”: an edition of Panorama, which exposed far-right elements within the Conservative Party. Then there was the “Real Lives” programme which had interviewed spokesmen for Northern Irish terrorist organisations: presenting then as everyday people, rather that bigoted sectarian killers. My sympathies are with Mrs. T. on this one. Her close political ally and personal friend, Airey Neave, had been murdered by Irish terrorists in 1979. She herself had narrowly escaped death in the Brighton hotel bombing of 1984, which killed 4 people and injured 31 others.
In her antagonism towards the BBC, Margaret Thatcher had an ally, who was arguably even more powerful than herself. Rupert Murdoch was the founder and owner of ‘News Corporation’, a multi-national newspaper empire. Amongst the titles he owned in the UK were the ‘News of the World’, the ’Sun’, the ‘Times’ and the ‘Sunday Times’. Generally, his newspapers supported Margaret Thatcher and the Tories. He was now hoping to expand his media empire into satellite broadcasting. He saw the BBC as a potential competitor, which needed to be eliminated. He was unlikely to achieve this by fair competition. So, he resorted to sabotage. In early 1985, the ‘Times’ ran a series of editorials attacking the BBC and demanding an end to the licence fee. When Alasdair Milne, now Director General, mounted a robust and erudite defence of the BBC, exposing News Corporation’s agenda, Rupert Murdoch denied that he had any direct involvement with editorial policy. The fact that one of his newspapers was attacking the BBC, at exactly the time that it suited his own business interests, was, apparently, a complete coincidence.
By 1986, Margaret Thatcher had been in power for long enough to have stacked the BBC’s Board of Governors with her own appointees. Her opportunity to complete the process came with the unexpected death of the Chairman, Lord Young.
When appointing a new Chairman, Mrs. Thatcher consulted the BBC’s would-be saboteur, Rupert Murdoch. They chose Marmaduke Hussey: a strangely anachronistic character with pretensions of aristocracy. He liked to abbreviate his christian name to ‘Duke’ or ‘Dukey’, and was married to one of the Queen’s Ladies in Waiting. As a former Chief Executive of Times Newspapers, he had been a Murdoch employee, and had close links to the Tory establishment.
Within a few months, the BBC’s stalwart defender, Alasdair Milne, had been sacked. It was an act of cowardly and cold-blooded backstabbing. The Director General was given no advance warning, and no opportunity to defend himself. He would never truly recover, nor, in my opinion, would the BBC. Those involved should be eternally ashamed of themselves, as should BBC Journalists, who perpetuated the myth that he had, “Resigned for personal reasons”, neglecting to mention that he had been forced to do so.
The new Director General was to be Michael Checkland, Milne’s former deputy. As a Management Accountant, he had gained the nickname ‘Michael Chequebook’. And there was to be a new Deputy Director General, in the form of John Birt, who had been imported from London Weekend Television. They were two grey, uninspiring figures. Neither displayed the sort of charismatic personality which might normally be associated with the word ‘Leadership’ - particularly not the leadership of a creative workforce. Nor could either boast an award-wining reputation, which might have earned them the respect of BBC staff. In fairness, Michael Checkland had shown considerable talent in handling the Corporation’s finances, and was a loyal supporter of the BBC. John Birt was put in charge of News and Current Affairs. He didn’t seem to like the BBC at all, but he loved bureaucracy. Supported by Marmaduke Hussey, he was soon spreading an insidious empire into other parts of the Corporation.
As the grey men took control, the more ‘Show-Bizz’ characters within the Management team were leaving. Michael Grade, the entrepreneurial Controller of BBC One, who had originally recommended John Birt for the job, now found that he couldn’t work for his former underling. He became so desperate to escape that, in November 1987, he staged a bizarre disappearing act: pretending to go to America; going into hiding for a few days, and then reappearing at the new Chief Executive of Channel Four. Bill Cotton, the Managing Director of BBC TV, and Light Entertainment impresario, managed to survive until April 1988. He later described working under John Birt as a "Nightmare".
Our new bosses might have lacked personality but, instead, they had Jargon. Being followers, rather than leaders, they were copying the pseudo-business language that was currently fashionable amongst Marketing and Public Relations people. The BBC was no longer a “Public Service”. It was now a “Billion Pound Business”. The Licence Payers were no longer “Viewers” and “Listeners”. They were now “Customers”. Sometimes they were even “Shareholders in BBC plc”, but not the sort of shareholders who were allowed to sack the Management! Consultants were propagating this same Orwellian newspeak throughout the public sector. In the Health Service, “Patients” had become “Customers”. On Public Transport, “Passengers” had become “Customers”. No one bothered to ask the public if we wanted to be “Customers”. Most of us found it artificial and irritating. When travelling, I’d rather have been a “Passenger”. At least that word implied that I’d be given passage from A to B. “Customer” just meant that they’d taken my money! It must have been about this time that I was standing on London Bridge station, waiting for a delayed service. Then came the announcement that it had been cancelled, “Due to a Passenger under a train”. In these tragic circumstances, I noticed, they couldn’t bring themselves to call the victim a “Customer”. In death, the unfortunate soul had been allowed to regain the dignity of being a Passenger!
- The new jargon would alienate BBC Management from Staff and Public, but Mrs. Thatcher liked it.
Corporate Cock-Ups: Part One, The Incompetence Begins
Margaret Thatcher assumed that the BBC, like any public service, must be wildly overstaffed and inefficient. In this, she was perfectly correct. (I may have already mentioned all those layers of top-heavy management and unnecessary bureaucrats.) So, our newly servile bosses began a determined campaign of staff cuts. You may be surprised to learn (he says sarcastically) that they did not cut the managers or the bureaucrats. Instead they cut the people who did the useful work.
- I drew a cartoon of the situation, at the time, and pinned it on notice boards.
Cutbacks organised this way will always have the same result. If Managers are allowed to decide where the cuts fall, they don’t cut themselves. They cut the Workers who carry them. And, since Workers are paid less than Managers, they have to cut a larger number of Workers to achieve the same savings which could have been made by cutting a much smaller number of Managers. Inevitably, the result is an organisation that is much less efficient than before: a smaller proportion of productive staff carrying a larger percentage of non-productive staff.
With hindsight, I realise that my cartoon had failed to capture the full horror of the situation. The millstone shouldn’t have stayed the same size. It should have been getting larger! As low-paid but highly-skilled craftsmen were kicked out, they were being replaced by hordes of extra Managers, Administrators, Accountants and other bureaucrats, who were apparently needed to oversee the cuts.
Production budgets were also being cut. John Birt had decreed that BBC programmes were more expensive to make than equivalent programmes at ITV. He seemed unable to offer any proof of this. Oddly, Michael Checkland’s more rigorous accountancy had previously shown that the BBC made its programmes much more cheaply that ITV. Nonetheless, it was John Birt’s view that was parroted down to Staff by forelock-tugging Managers - only to be greeted by vociferous disagreement from the Staff. You didn’t need to be an accountant to know that it couldn’t be true. We all knew that Staff at ITV were paid much better than we were. We knew that ITV’s total income was greater than that of the BBC. Yet ITV only ran only one television channel, while the BBC ran two television channels; four national radio networks, and numerous local radio stations. It was therefore, completely impossible for the unit costs of BBC programmes to be higher than those at ITV.
A host of Accountants infiltrated Production Teams, seeking ways of making savings. There is a story, which may be apocryphal, of one particular Production Team, which consisted of just two permanent members: a Producer, who was also the Director, and his P.A. They regularly produced successful Situation Comedy series, and never overspent their budget. Then the size of the team was increased to three, as an Accountant was forcibly attached to them. After following them about, at great expense, and studying the way they worked, he produced a report, recommending that the size of the team should be reduced by one person. Everyone agreed. They got rid of the Accountant, and continued working as before! I would love this story to be true. It is entirely believable. Only the happy ending rings untrue.
Sometimes, the Accountants failed to see the bigger picture. I recall meeting two Producers in the tea bar. They were looking gloomy. Their budget had been cut. Last year, they had made a series of 12 children’s programmes. This year they could only afford to make a series of 10. The Accountants seemed happy with this. Everyone else could see that it wasn’t a genuine saving. Unless the BBC was going to transmit blank screens, someone else would have to make two extra programmes to fill the air time. Clearly, once a series is up and running, it would be much cheaper to make two extra episodes, than to mount two entirely new programmes from scratch.
Previously, there had been less interest in individual production budgets, and greater emphasis on the cost to the BBC, as a whole. This had enabled economies of scale. A range of different programmes could make savings by sharing facilities, e.g. scenery, props or costumes which had been paid for by one programme could be reused by another programme very cheaply. The new obsession with individual budgets made such savings more difficult, and meant less awareness of overall costs. An apparent saving in one area could lead to far greater expense in other parts of the BBC.
- Plus, of course, there was the huge extra cost of all those additional Accountants.
- When one of our Managers, addressing a staff meeting, said, “It is important that we know our costs.”
- a wiser voice than mine replied, “But how much more will it cost, to know our costs?”
The new leadership of the BBC might be Thatcher/Murdoch approved, but Staff and Press were soon raising doubts about their competence. As their programme of cutbacks took effect, they led the Corporation into a series of high-profile cock-ups.
In April 1988 there was an outbreak of Legionnaires’ disease in the West End of London. Its source was traced to a cooling tower on the roof Broadcasting House. Blame fell on the BBC. Seventy-nine people are know to have been infected, eighteen of them BBC Staff. There were three deaths. The Management denied that their programme of job cuts had reduced standards of maintenance or inspection, but few of us believed that. The coincidence of timing was too suspicious. The BBC attracted further condemnation when it spent Licence-Payers’ money on lawyers, in order to avoid paying compensation to the victims. There should have been sackings or resignations at the highest levels of BBC Management. But there were none.
A second health hazard arose at Television Centre. Like many buildings of its time, asbestos had been used in its construction, but it was believed to be safely encapsulated. Then Union Safety Reps discovered that asbestos dust was leaking into the studios. Keen to save money, the Management initially denied it. They even wasted money on independent contractors, in order to prove that there was no problem. But, during the refurbishment of Studio 6 (I think), the white powder which had settled on the tops of lighting barrels was too obvious to ignore. Managers and Union Reps now joined forces to investigate. They discovered the same problem in all the other studios, except for TC8 which had been constructed without asbestos. Then began a costly programme of studio closures, while the asbestos was removed or re-encapsulated. Studio staff were left not knowing for how long they had been exposed to a potential carcinogen, or how it was likely to affect them in later life.
Funds were being cut for staff and programme making, but there was no shortage of cash to be spent on the self-aggrandisement of Senior Management. Millions of pounds of Licence-Payers’ money were squandered on a brand-new Corporate Headquarters at White City. It was intended to be an iconic example of modern architecture; a worthy flagship for the BBC (and a massive ego boost for its Managers). In fact, it was a boring rectangular box: totally devoid of character or aesthetic merit. The Corporate Bosses belatedly decided that they didn’t want to move into their extravagant new status symbol. They preferred to stay at Broadcasting House, which might be old but, at least, it had personality, and it was in the heart of the West End, not out in the wilds of Shepherd’s Bush. As the money ran out, plans to build a new News and Current Affairs headquarters on the same site were abandoned. At vast expense, the White City building was left virtually empty. I christened it the ‘Corporate Carbuncle’. Other wittier minds called it the ‘White City White Elephant’.
- But still there were no sackings or resignations at the highest levels of BBC Management.
Fortunately, (by which I mean ‘unfortunately’) the BBC’s inability to control its own mushrooming bureaucracy meant that the building would gradually fill up with Managers, Administrators and Accountants. Amongst the units who moved in were the ‘Policy and Planning Unit’ and the ‘Corporate Affairs Department’: new, and previously unnecessary branches of management, whose titles sounded like the fictional inventions of “Yes, Minister” or “The Men From The Ministry”. BBC Management was starting to sound more ridiculous than its own comedy creations.
- Arguably, three of the BBC’s main London buildings may be seen as metaphors for three ages of BBC history.
- The art deco frontage of Broadcasting House was reminiscent of a 1930’a bakelite wireless set. As such, it was an appropriate metaphor for the BBC in the Golden Age of Radio.
- The futuristic, space-age design of Television Centre, with its dynamic curves, its light, energy and colourful mosaics, was an exciting metaphor for the BBC in the Golden Age of Television.
- And the uninspired, soulless slab at White City was a tediously appropriate metaphor for the BBC in the base-metal Age of the Accountants!
In Technical Operations Department, the duties of all Camera, Sound and Lighting Staff were published, each week, in a document called the T.O.D.S. - the “Technical Operations Duty Schedule”. Later, the department changed its name, from ‘Technical Operations’ to ‘Studio Operations’. No one seemed to have considered how this would affect the title of the duty schedule. There was a half-hearted attempt to call it the ‘St.O.D.S.’, but it never really caught on. No doubt many people felt that the ‘S.O.D.S.’ was an entirely appropriate name for many of the individuals listed within.
One of my unpaid, extra-curricula duties was to design a decorative cover for the Christmas edition of the T.O.D.S., and later for the S.O.D.S. My previous efforts had included Santa and Rudolf, and a camera crane in the guise of Cinderella’s coach. I was beginning to run out of ideas. But when I was asked to illustrate the 1987 issue, a year of budget cuts, job cuts and pay cuts, it was impossible to think Christmas thoughts without reference to Ebenezer Scrooge! My design showed a visitation from three jolly, skull-faced ghosts, in shabby Victorian costume. Accompanied by gravestones and scythe, they personified three components of our Pay and Conditions, which had been tragically snuffed out that year. Their message to readers was to, “Have a Traditional Dickensian Christmas.” Words like “Merry” or “Happy” would have been inappropriate.
Studio Operations Management did not approve. I had put a lot of detail into that picture, and considered it to be a significant work of art - but they banned it. Instead, they republished one of my earlier designs, showing Father Christmas flying over Television Centre, and dropping presents by parachute. It seemed totally inappropriate. No one at Television Centre felt that they had been showered with gifts that year. But photocopies of my three ghosts were soon adorning yuletide noticeboards.
One of my three skeletal figures was the ‘Ghost of New Year’s Diary’. All Staff had, until recently been issued with a BBC Diary. Now, in my department, that privilege had been taken away from irregular-hour staff. It was only a minor cutback. It didn’t cost us much to buy our own diaries. But it was the sheer hypocrisy! In our department, BBC Diaries were still issued to Office Workers - Yes - Office Workers - people who worked in the same place, for the same hours of the same days - nine-to-five, weekdays only - the people who least needed a diary were still given one! It was only the antisocial-hour workers - who worked across a range of different studios and locations, for unpredictable hours on unpredictable days - available for duty 24 hours a day for 7 days a week - the people most in need of a diary who were deprived of one!
The ‘Them’ and ‘Us’ divide was further highlighted by a survey from Premises Operations: the department who dealt with the fabric and function of BBC buildings. It was sent to all staff, enquiring whether we had adequate access to a range of facilities and services. Most of them were luxuries beyond the dreams of a lowly prole like me. E.g. Did I have adequate access to a colour photocopier? I wasn’t even allowed to use the black-and-white photocopier (unless no one was watching)! I filled in the survey with bitter sarcasm: complaining that, while some people in the BBC might be enjoying such extravagances, we workers were being deprived of even basic necessities. For example, I complained that drinking-water fountains had been removed from studios, without anyone bothering to inform us. I explained that I only discovered this when I burnt my hand, quite seriously, on a hot lamp. I hurried to where the drinking fountain should have been, intending to quench my wound in cold water, in the recommended manner, only to discover that the fountain had been removed! My injury received no first aid, until I had gone, in pain, all around the studio walls, searching for a non-existent water supply, before finally dashing outside to the loos. I still have the scar. Again, it was the hypocrisy that offended me. Those us us who performed strenuous jobs under hot studio lights, were being deprived of drinking facilities at the same time that those in comfortable, air-conditioned offices were treating themselves to posh, American-style water coolers. I also complained about the lack of BBC diaries. Many of my comments were intended to be satirically humorous but, in the anger of the moment, I suspect that they were just plain rude!
My tone offended the people who had sent the survey. They complained to my Head of Department, who rebuked me in a very severely worded memo. I snatched up the phone and demanded to speak to him. The voice at the other end of the line seemed curiously reticent . . . until I said that I was phoning to apologise. Then he became effusively friendly and - did I detect a sense of relief? Was my all-powerful big boss actually nervous that a lowly pleb, like myself, might pick an argument with him? It was a curious insight.
I received a reply from the Prem. Ops. people, which was much politer than I deserved. It answered the points I had raised, in detail, adding that they were still investigating why we were no longer issued with BBC Diaries. I thanked them profusely.
And, at the end of the year . . . we were all issued with BBC Diaries. One of my three ghosts had returned from the grave! Those enquiries by Prem. Ops. must have embarrassed my own departmental Management. It was another case where a minor victory could be achieved by talking to people directly - which would not have been achieved by using the correct management channels.
Despite the censorship of the previous year, at the end of 1988 I was again asked to illustrate the Christmas S.O.D.S. It had been another year of cutbacks and depression. And it was the time of the asbestos crisis in Television Centre Studios. How could I cheer up my colleagues? Thoughts of cascading white powder inspired me to draw a charming snow scene. Lots of jolly snowmen were performing studio related activities: rigging lamps and cables, operating cameras and microphone booms. And the whole winter wonderland was covered in a pretty pattern of fluttering snow flakes. It was all very sweet and innocent. There was nothing that could possibly offend the Management . . . unless . . . they looked at the block of text at the bottom of the page . . . and read only those letters which had a snow flake touching them . . . then they might find the secret message . . .
- “It’s Not Snow. It’s Asbestos.”
I submitted my design, and waited to see whether it would get past the censors. It did.
I had told no one what I had done. On my way into work, the morning after publication, I was anticipating explaining it all to my friends and colleagues. But I had underestimated them. As I arrived in the crew room, I was greeted with cheer and a round of applause. It says much for the intelligence of the average Camera Crew that they had, not only decoded the secret message, but also, before that, without any hint from me, they had worked out that there was a secret message there, waiting to be decoded!
- Our Managers had managed neither.
Corporate Cock-Ups: Part Two, The Incompetence Continues - Company Cars
BBC Staff were paid less than their counterparts at ITV, or elsewhere in the film and television industries. We had long accepted this. It was an honour and a privilege to work for the BBC. It was a vocation. The BBC was a national institution, and an international icon. It was a flag we were proud to wave: beneath which we would patriotically rally. We worked hard to ensure that our programmes were better crafted than anyone else’s. We enjoyed working on a range of programmes that was wider, deeper and more diverse than anything in the independent sector, and that we took pleasure in being a part of the most talented programme-making teams in the industry. These were the things that motivated us, not just money. We loved the BBC.
Then came the news that there were traitors in our midst: people who did not share our loyalty and commitment to the BBC, but were more concerned with lining their own pockets. They had been helping themselves to money belonging to the Licence Payers: money that should have been spent on programmes. These thieves were not highly-motivated, creatives. They were just office-bound paper pushers. They were the Corporation’s senior management!
It was announced that Michael Checkland and John Birt had been awarded (or had awarded themselves) a 30 percent pay rise. A further 140 Senior Executives had been awarded a 10 percent rise. In addition, five-million pounds of Licence Payers’ money had been spent to provide them with a package of perks and luxuries, including company cars and private health insurance. (Board members already had the use of chauffeur-driven cars, provided by the BBC. The company cars were a gratuitous extra.)
Up until this point, we had recognised that our leaders might be misguided, incompetent and devoid of charisma or leadership skills, but we had imagined that they genuinely believed the rhetoric they espoused. Now they were revealed as liars and hypocrites. The cutbacks and restraint they preached to others did not apply to themselves. They had shown themselves to be greedy, corrupt and disloyal.
Staff fury erupted, and the BBC was plunged into a disastrous pay dispute. By the Summer, it had escalated into strikes.
It could all have been settled immediately, at negative cost to the Corporation, simply by giving back the company cars and perks, and reducing executive pay to its former levels. That way, Managers could have shown the leadership that they lacked. They could have demonstrated their commitment to the BBC by a willingness to share the low-wage, perk-free environment of their Staff. But they couldn’t do it. Their own selfish greed was evidently more important to them that the well-being and cohesion of the BBC. (My earlier use of the word “Traitors” may have been an understatement!)
The usual excuse was made, “We have to give top rewards to get the best people.” But, given their track record of blunders and cock-ups (including this one), it was difficult to see these as being ‘the best people’. In fact, it was difficult to imagine worse people! And if non-productive bureaucrats felt they were entitled to be paid the external market rate, the same argument should also apply to the BBC’s world-class programme-making staff - the people who actually carried the reputation of the BBC.
This is how I expressed my feelings in a politely-worded memo to a Management committee, written in 1990.
- BBC Staff have been paid below the market rate for as long as I can remember, and might have continued that way for many years to come. What caused a dramatic change of attitude last year was a clumsy, ill-timed lack of understanding at the highest level.
- For many years, Staff had been lectured about the BBC’s financial shortages. My own department instituted a change in scheduling procedure which resulted in a Victorian-style pay cut for its Staff: already the lowest paid of a number of comparable departments. Needless to say, we were not happy about this, but there was no anger. The change was made with hardly a murmur from Staff or Unions. We genuinely accepted that the BBC was short of funds and that we would all have to make sacrifices. We consoled ourselves with the thought that we, and our families, were ‘doing our bit’ for the Corporation. We naturally assumed that others were making similar sacrifices and, indeed, there were many redundancies and pay-rises below the rate of inflation. Perhaps we even imaged that Senior Management would play its part, showing leadership by reducing their own salaries in line with our own.
- Then came the thunderbolt. BBC Bosses had been awarded up-gradings well beyond the rate of inflation. In addition, Senior Managers were awarded millions of pounds worth of company cars and other gratuitous freebies. At this point sorrow exploded into anger. It seemed that years of patient toil and self-sacrifice had been rewarded, not with gratitude, but with a vicious kick in the teeth; that the stories of financial shortage had all been lies; that there was plenty of cash to be squandered on luxuries for the ‘haves’, but none for the basic necessities of the ‘have nots’. The concurrent claim to be an ‘Equal Opportunities Employer’ rang particularly hollow! Evidently Senior Managers were ‘more equal’ than programme-making staff. Management had suddenly portrayed itself as corrupt, self-serving and dishonest. This is why the dispute erupted last year, and not in any previous year.
- I realise that there was no untended malice in this policy. It was as innocently out-of-touch as Marie Antoinette’s equally ill-timed remark about eating cake. And the result was hardly less disastrous.”
Another significant statistic was revealed at this time. Five million pounds worth of perks had been given to 140 Senior Executives - Yes - One Hundred and Forty of them! A dozen Senior Managers might have seemed a reasonable number, possibly two dozen. But how on earth could anyone justify ONE HUNDRED AND FORTY of the parasites?!
Michael Checkland eventually settled the dispute, by promising a general pay increase. It was a promise that, for many of us, was never actually kept.
Had an ordinary member of Staff stolen a couple of quid from petty cash, he would probably have been sacked. Now, millions of pounds had been stolen from Licence Payers. And still, there were no sackings or resignations at senior levels of Management.
Foreign News - Conditions were improving within the Soviet Union. The new President, Mikhail Gorbachov, had introduced a policy of ‘Glasnost’ or Openness, which allowed greater press freedom. In 1989, the BBC’s Martin Sixsmith had become the first western journalist to write an article in the Soviet newspaper Izvestiya.
Meanwhile, conditions within the BBC seemed to be moving in exactly the opposite direction. While our Managers were spouting the jargon of free-market business consultants, their actions were increasing those of a Soviet-style Politburo - centralised, bureaucratic, dictatorial, with an ever widening gulf between the privileged elite of the Inner Party and the downtrodden proletariat. Michael Checkland had even introduced a ‘Five Year Plan ‘. It was a phrase borrowed directly from the politically controlled economies of the Communist bloc.
It was this insight which led me to extend my trouble-making activities beyond my immediate department. My first act of public rebellion was a very modest one. I wrote a letter to Ariel, the BBC’s in-house newspaper. I doubted that it would be published. At the time, Ariel was widely regarded as a “Management Rag”. It had failed to expose any of the recent scandals, and was unlikely to print anything negative about the Corporate Centre.
- ARIEL Letters Page March 7th 1989
- Ariel Oppressor
- I was delighted to hear of Martin Sixsmith’s article in Izvestiya (February 14). It seems there are now only two publications in the world which have not benefitted from Glasnost. One is the Albanian People’s Oppressor. The other is Ariel.
- Ariel has always reminded me of Pravda in its Stalinist heyday: all those photographs of smiling peasants who who have fulfilled their work quotas, and the deposed party bosses, bound for Siberia, pretending that “It is an honour to make way for a younger man”. The parallel was evident even before the phrase Five Year Plan came into fashion!
- Do Ariel journalists really think that the BBC is such a boring place place that nothing really newsworthy ever happens? Surely not. This is Show-Bizz! Exciting things must be happening all around us.
- So where are all the tales of shock horror and scandal? Where are the in-depth, probing investigations into the legionella outbreak at Broadcasting House; the asbestos at Television Centre; the appalling state of staff morale; the Senior Managers who have granted themselves pay rises and company cars while asking programme makers to take pay cuts or redundancy and, of course, the private life of Dirty Den.
- The BBC, which prides itself on the skill and courage of its investigative journalists, seems curiously reluctant to probe the equally exciting scandals within its own organisation.
- Roger Bunce
- Studio Cameraman TC.
Much to my surprise, my letter was published, in full, and it occupied the leading position on the letters page. The title “Ariel Oppressor” had been added, and a cleverly worded reply from the Editor said, in more subtle language, “We’d love to, but they won’t let us!”
I don’t think Ariel had previously published anything quite so critical of Central Management. Perhaps they, and I, thought we could get away with it because my criticism of Management was thinly disguised as criticism of Ariel itself.
Looking back on this letter, with historical hindsight, I notice that I have used the word ‘Stalinist’. Much higher-profile commentators would later apply this same adjective to BBC Management. Was I the first? I have also drawn a comparison between ‘Ariel’ and ‘Pravda’. Within the BBC, ‘Pravda’ was often used as a nickname for ‘Ariel’. Did this begin with my letter, or was the nickname in existence even before then?
Save Our DOILs!
Of necessity, those of us who did the physical work of programme-making, were required to work long, irregular and anti-social hours. There was no shift pattern. All was chaotic and unpredictable. I could be called in at a moment’s notice and often worked 12 to 14 hours a day. And there was constant time-shifting, from one day to the next, which left us with the symptoms of permanent jet-lag! Our Managers and Administrators, however, worked comfortable nine-to-five, Monday to Friday, office hours. The difference in work patterns created a cultural divide and a lack of understanding between the two groups. They regarded us as anarchist upstarts, who failed to understand our place in the pecking order. We regarded them as underemployed layabouts, with overpaid, cushy jobs. From our side of the divide we could see the comedy potential of all this, but our office-bound superiors took it much more seriously. They often seemed to look upon us as an enemy who needed to be crushed. (I forget which Manager was once heard to say, “We must do something about these Cameramen. They laugh loudly in the canteen!” He evidently objected to the natural effervescence and enthusiasm of creative people.) Although we could do no harm to them, they periodically felt the need to launch unprovoked attacks against us. (Perhaps because they had nothing better to do?) In 1989, they hatched a dastardly scheme to rob us of our DOILs.
The DOILs were nine extra day’s leave, given each year to Irregular Hour Staff, but not to Office Staff. Clearly, it was wrong for one group of staff to receive more leave than another. Therefore, the DOILs were to be abolished. That, at least was the allegation. It was a pack of lies, of course.
D.O.I.L. is an acronym standing for ‘Day Off In Lieu’ - specifically, a day off in lieu of a Bank Holiday. All Office Workers were entitled to eight Bank Holidays a year. BBC Office Workers received an additional ‘Corporation Day’. Irregular hour staff, who might be required to work on all nine of these days, were allowed to take nine DOILs in compensation. The DOILs were, therefore, not EXTRA leave. They were the same Bank Holidays that everyone else was entitled to.
Originally, staff would not be credited with a DOIL until after the specific Bank Holiday it related to. Later, for ease of administration, all nine DOILs were credited at the beginning of the year. Some critics complained that a DOIL would be credited, even if the staff member did not work on the actual day of the Bank Holiday. The counter argument was that, in the week of a Bank Holiday, an Office Worker would work one day less than usual, whereas an Irregular Hour Worker would still complete a full week’s work. In the interests of parity, therefore, a compensatory day off was still owed.
The plan to take away our DOILs caused much anger. We complained to our Line Managers. They completely agreed with our point of view, but were unable to do anything about it. The decision had been taken at a much higher level. Nor did the Union seem able to help.
- Clearly, it was time for me to go blundering in.
By sheer coincidence, there had recently been a piece in Ariel, on a completely different subject, written by a man named Phillip Kipping, who was described as ‘Head of Pay and Conditions’. Prior to this, I didn’t know that the BBC had a Head of Pay and Conditions. To my shame, I confess that I sniggered slightly at his surname - I mean ‘Kipping’, isn’t that what most BBC Bureaucrats do all day?
It seemed to me that DOILs were a matter of Pay and Conditions. So, I decided to write a letter directly to Mr. Kipping, explaining (as above) that we Irregular Hour Workers received no more leave than anyone else. On the contrary, we were allowed far fewer days-off than our office-working colleagues. For example: -
- In addition to their leave entitlement, BBC Office Workers could guarantee 113 predictable days off every year: 52 Saturdays, 52 Sundays, 8 Bank Holidays and the Corporation Day. An Irregular Hour Worker, who had to work on every one of those 113 days, would receive just 9 days off in compensation.
- For an Office Worker, a Bank Holiday was not just a single day off. It was a three-day long-weekend (four days at Easter, and longer at Christmas), time enough for an excursion with the family. A Irregular Hour Worker, who worked all three days of the Bank Holiday weekend, would receive just one day off in compensation. Even if I put in a DOIL for Good Friday, and another for Easter Monday, I was still likely to be working on the Saturday and Sunday. So, no chance of an Easter outing with the family.
- Irregular Hour Workers also received less Annual Leave than their office-based colleagues. Theoretically, all BBC Staff were entitled to four weeks’ Annual Leave. But a week’s leave for an Office Worker automatically included two weekends: making a nine-day continuous break. A week’s leave for an Irregular Hour Worker was just seven days long, with a return to work the following Saturday. If someone like a Cameraman wanted to go on holiday with his office-working wife, he had to put in two extra day’s leave to cover the same period.Putting these and other points in my letter, I sent it off to the Head of Pay and Conditions. I also pinned a copy to the Staff Room notice board, together with Phillip Kipping’s office address, and a suggestion that some of my colleagues might also like to write to him. Many did, and the unfortunate Mr. Kipping found himself bombarded with unexpected correspondence.
I must also have written to Roger Chase, the Director of Personnel. I don’t remember doing this, but I still have a copy of his reply.
- From the Director of Personnel
- 23rd November, 1989
- Dear Roger,
- I have not replied before to your letter of 17th April 1989 since the point which you drew to my attention has been the subject of active consideration since then. As you will know, the BBC has now decided to withdraw its proposals to do away with DOILs for Irregular Hour Workers.
- Thank you for the trouble which you took to let me have your views on the issue at the time.
- Yours sincerely,
- Roger Chase.
Our DOILs were saved!
Phillip Kipping and his colleagues were clearly good, reasonable people who, when correctly informed of the situation, could make a sensible decision. Sadly, I never met the man himself, and I now regret sniggering at his name.
It’s another example of the way you could get anything done in the BBC, provided you could find the right person and approach them directly. But you were unlikely to get anything done if you used the official channels.
I was widely credited with organising the ‘Save the DOILs’ campaign. This was totally unfair. I am incapable of organising anything. All I had done is to write a letter, and encouraged my friends to do the same. Credit should go to them, and to Phillip Kipping for listening. But I now found myself under pressure to become a Union Rep.
Much against my own instincts, I was persuaded to attend my first ever meeting of the local Union branch, TV5. An old diary suggests that this must have been 17th November 1989. Unfortunately, this was the meeting at which new officers were being elected. By the end of the meeting, I found that I had been chosen as Branch Secretary. The vote was almost unanimous. Only one person voted against me - and that was me!
I had no idea what a Branch Secretary was supposed to do, and I never found out. It became apparent, however, that, whatever it was, I had absolutely no talent for it.
Corporate Cock-Ups: Part Three, the Incompetence Still Continues - The Communications Business
The Union had undergone a number of name changes, since I first joined. In 1984, the ABS had amalgamated with NATKE to become BETA (The Broadcasting and Entertainment Trades Alliance). Later, in 1991, the once militant ACTT would join our moderate alliance to create BECTU (The Broadcasting, Entertainment, Cinematograph and Theatre Union).
The days of, “Down tools, Brothers! One Out All Out!” were long gone. Liaison meetings between the Union branch and local Managers were generally collaborative affairs. We discussed a wide range of issues, from staff training needs to problems with new equipment. Mostly they were non-controversial matters, so Union and Management could work together, with constructive results. Problems only arose when it came to industrial relations. Our local Managers remained decent people, who were doing their best, but their scope for independent decision making was increasingly restricted by top-down diktats coming from the Corporate Centre. Somewhere up there, there were minds which still lived in the 1970s, and still regarded the workforce as an enemy to be crushed.
Not knowing what a Union Rep was supposed to do, I decided my role would be communication. When Management proposed something, I would conduct a survey of staff opinions and communicate my finding back to Management. When a Member of Staff raised a concern with me, I would find out how widespread that concern was, and then communicate it as far up the Management chain as possible. Either way, when communicating the Staff viewpoint, I would delete the expletives and tone down the language, but I would try to accurately convey the strength of feeling. Often I would present my findings as a written survey, with verbatim, but anonymous quotes from Staff. If I asked someone to grade a Management policy from A to D, and they shouted, “Z minus”, as was often the case, that is how I would report it.
When my Head of Department complained that I was not showing leadership to the Staff (i.e. not leading them in the direction he wanted them to go), I explained that I saw myself as a servant of the Staff, not a leader. Did he really want to return to the bad old days of Arthur Scargill and the Trade Union Barons? It was his job to be the leader but, if he felt that he lacked adequate leadership, perhaps he should not have become a Manager.
In the days of Union power, the feeble bleat of weak Managers had been, “Management must have the right to Manage!” which should have been qualified by the words, “If competent to do so.” It was a particularly pathetic cry, since no Manager with adequate personal leadership qualities would ever have needed to make it. Now that Union power was gone, and Managers were in full control, many still expected unpaid Union Reps to do their jobs for them!
My communications were occasionally successful. Sound and Camera Staff had always been allocated together, as two halves of the same crew. Then, in a moment of craft nationalism, Sound Management decided they wanted an independent Sound Section. They proposed to separate the two crafts. I conducted a survey and found that the overwhelming majority of studio-floor Sound Staff, with a few exceptions, wanted to remain part of a unified crew. This seemed to come as a surprise to their Managers. But they were sensible people, and withdrew their proposals. It was a minor victory for team working.
“Corporate Internal Communication” had now become a fashionable phrase in Management circles. After the company cars cock-up, even the most out-of-touch senior levels were becoming aware that BBC Staff had a very low opinion of their policies, their competence, and their honesty.
- There were two possible reasons for this.
- A: Management policies, competence and honesty were deserving of a very low opinion from Staff.
- B: The Management had failed to communicate its message to the Staff.
Naturally, from a Management viewpoint, option ‘B’ was the only possible explanation. While I agree that their communication skills were lamentable, I personally felt that option ‘A’ deserved more serious consideration. And, anyway, doesn’t failure to communicate count as a lack of competence?
The BBC should not have had a problem with communication. We were in the communications business. We were a world leader in our ability to communicate with viewers and listeners. Our Producers, our Directors, and all the staff who made and broadcast the programmes, were experts in communication. It was only within Management that there was a problem.
Managers wanted to know how they could improve their communication with Staff. If they’d asked me, I’d have suggested that they should get off their backsides, and out of their Ivory Towers for a few days; take a casual stroll around the studios, the offices, the canteens, the tea bars, etc. and have face-to-face conversations with their Staff. It wouldn’t have been too difficult, and wouldn’t have cost anything. But this isn’t the way that BBC Management does things. So, instead . . .
They formed a Committee . . .
Yes . . . they formed a Committee, consisting entirely of Managers, who only spoke management-jargon to other Managers, in order to discuss ways of improving communication with the Staff. The fact that they couldn’t see the irony of this situation says much about the nature of their problem.
Amongst their recommendation were -
- That Managers should receive communications training. (Why would anyone be promoted to a Management position if they were incapable of communicating?)
- That Managers should have more meeting with other Managers, in order to aid communication within the management team. (The amount of time Managers wasted in meetings was already restricting their opportunities to talk to Staff!)
- That a ‘Small Specialist Staff’ should be established, responsible for communications between Management and Staff. (In time they would undoubtedly become the nucleus for yet another bureaucratic empire, and a further barrier to communication!)
At vast expense, they also installed a network of full-colour Teletext monitors, throughout BBC buildings, all relaying the Management viewpoint at Staff. These were poorly received, particularly at Television Centre, where a similar system had been installed experimentally, a few years earlier, but abandoned because no one ever read them. Those of us who work on the studio floor tend to be fully occupied. We rarely have any spare time in our working day, certainly none that we could waste standing around staring at text monitors.
Such was my genuine concern for communication within the BBC, that I wrote a letter to that Committee. I have recently rediscovered a copy. It was a labour of love: thirteen pages of single-spaced typescript. I can’t include the whole letter here. There is too much of it, but here are some quotes -
- Your admission that the training of BBC Managers needs to be improved is most welcome, but it does not confront the primary problem. The primary problem is not the QUALITY of BBC Management, although there is certainly room for improvement. The primary problem is the QUANTITY of BBC Management.
- For the most part, the Management structure has no difficulty in coping with DOWNWARD communication. It requires neither courage nor talent to for a Manager to parrot the views of his superiors down to a workforce who have little opportunity to answer back. Indeed, we hardly need a Management of this purpose. . .
- It is when we consider UPWARD communication that Line-Management reveals itself to be a completely unsuitable medium. The problem is that most Managers see themselves, not as communicators, but as ‘filters’, whose job is to parry or stonewall unwelcome information rising from below. Sycophantic comments, of course, find it easier to pass through the filter than critical ones. When Staff views are unfavourable to Senior Management policy only a brave Manager would dare to argue their case upwards. We must remember that each Line Managers occupies a rung on a promotion ladder. Any Manager who supports the views of his underlings, against those of his superiors, is likely to damage his own chances of promotion.
- The idea that BBC Managers could be trained to communicate sounds suspiciously like British Rail’s idea of sending its platform staff to ‘Charm School’, in the hopes of making them more polite to customers! The inability of BBC Managers to communicate, like the inability of BR Staff to be charming, is a function of motivation, not something that can be taught. Honest, upward communication is against the fundamental self-interest of any Line-Manager . . . Even if an individual Manager were suddenly to become brave enough and selfless enough to argue the interests of his staff upwards, it is unlikely that the entire chain of command would all do so at the same instant. There must be an inherent conflict of interest in any communication chain that is also a promotion ladder.”
It was fairly obvious that this Committee wasn’t really interested in Upward communication but, without it, I argued, Downward communication would never be credible. I still innocently believed that the BBC Decision Makers were not stupid people. The reason they made stupid decisions was that they were isolated from the practical realities of broadcasting by all those layers of Middle Management. Policy decisions made in abstract isolation were likely to be completely impractical, but they would be happily relayed downwards, through all those obedient layers. Only when they reached the people who did the actual work, in the very lowest layers, would those decisions be recognised as problematic, unworkable, or just plain laughable. And it was only at this level that people were likely to be brave enough, or independent-minded enough, to speak out. But then there was no mechanism for communicating the nature of the problems back up the chain. If Upward communication had been working efficiently in the first place, and the Decision Makers had been receiving reliable information from below, stupid decisions might have been avoided.
Twice in my 25 years as a Cameraman, I explained, I had managed to bypass all those layers of management, and make direct contact with someone who could actually make a decision (Alasdair Milne and Phillip Kipping). On both occasions I had been able to explain the situation, and a sensible outcome had been achieved. I therefore urged the need for greater face-to-face contact between Staff and Senior Management. And I made a number of proposals, which were intended to be positive.
- 1: There should be regular staff meetings, at which Local Managers were REQUIRED to gather Staff feedback (preferably verbatim) and communicate it up to the highest levels.
- 2: The system of Seminars should be reintroduced, in which a cross-section of Staff, from different areas of the BBC, were brought together, and given the opportunity to speak directly to Senior Managers.
- 3: Staff who had an interest in a particular policy decision should be encouraged to write directly to the Managers responsible. To facilitate this, the identities of Senior Managers, their office addresses and areas of responsibility should be made public.
- 4: Similarly, Staff should be encouraged to write, or give personal testimony to committees. Preferably, the membership of committees should no longer be restricted to Managers, but should include practical Staff with specialist knowledge of the areas under discussion.
But these were just short-term measures, intended to bypass the communications blockage that was Middle-Management. The only long-term solution was the surgical removal of that blockage. This would mean a drastic reduction in the number of management layers and, inevitably, a drastic culling of the number of Managers. Unlike Management communication initiatives, all of which cost a lot of money, my solution would save a fortune!
In support of my argument, I appended a recent newspaper comment by Michael Parkinson.
- Auntie’s Top-Heavy
- . . .The problem, when you talk about people who are employed at the Beeb, is you must be careful to differentiate between those who make programmes and those who constitute the BBC bureaucracy.
- The first category is important and must be kept happy if the BBC is to survive. The rest contribute little except to ensure the supply of paperclips, the distribution of passes to the car park and to decide the highly contentious issue of which kind of executive gets what kind of carpet in his office.
- If I exaggerate slightly it is simply to make the point that all of the BBC’s problems could be solved by a judicious culling of bureaucrats. . .”
I outlined my dream of a new, horizontally-structured BBC, in which communication between departments no longer had to travel all the way up to the top, and then back down again, but could pass sideways, on an egalitarian basis, without the inhibitions created by hierarchy. In this way the team-working ethos of the studio floor, which was so effective when making programmes, could extend throughout the whole Corporation.
- Those of us who make programmes find any form of hierarchy difficult to understand. The whole concept of pecking orders is alien to us. We work, of necessity, as a co-operative team. . . Cameramen, Designers, Editors, Sound, Make-Up, etc. are all specialists in their particular fields. The Director seeks and listens to their expert advice. It is this intimate teamwork between experts from many divergent disciplines which has given BBC Programme-Making its well-deserved reputation for excellence. . . ‘Above’ the Studio Floor, however, many Managers hold themselves aloof from any concept of teamwork or co-operation. . . They neither seek, nor listen to, advice coming from ‘below’, however expert that advice may be. Not surprisingly, BBC Management does not share the same reputation for excellence which is enjoyed by BBC Programme-Makers.”
But there were some more immediate barriers to Communication: barriers which even hindered Downward Communication.
First, there had been the Company Cars fiasco, which had left a deep residue of distrust, disillusionment and cynicism. It was not going to dissipate quickly. The damage had been done now, and could not be undone. Staff no longer believed what Managers told them. It would take several years of utterly honest and transparent communication before trust could be restored.
Then there was that incomprehensible jargon that Managers were now hiding behind: full of empty cliches and platitudes. If people wish to communicate with one another they really needed to speak the same language. If Managers genuinely wanted to talk to the Staff, they would have to translate their Management-speak into plain, straight-forward English. In doing so, they would probably discover how much of it was completely meaningless, or self-contradictory.
Managers also seemed to think that they could get their message through to Staff by dressing it up in fancy packaging. I explained why this was a mistake. Those of us who did the physical work of television were expert communicators. We were also expert fraudsters. For years we had fooled the viewers onto believing that actors were real characters; that studio sets were real locations; that the living room in that Sit. Com. really had four walls and a ceiling; that that the interior of the Queen Vic was really inside the exterior of the Queen Vic; even that the Tardis was genuinely bigger on the inside! We understood the arts of illusion, and knew how to see straight through them. Management had sometimes used expensive PR companies to convey their message, using colourful, glossy leaflets and videos. The results had been pathetically unconvincing. Those highly-paid consultants were amateurs compared with us!
As for all those expensive full-colour Teletext monitors -
- The appearance of the ‘Telfax’ network has been greeted with scorn and anger. Staff feel that they are being communicated AT, not communicated WITH. The ubiquitous screens radiate an Orwellian ‘Big Brother’ atmosphere. How much does it cost? is the frequently asked question. How can an organisation which fails to pay its Staff adequately, waste so much Licence-Payers’ money on colour monitors, post-office lines, editorial staff, etc? The cynicism is all the greater at Television Centre, where a similar system, known as ‘BBC Fax’ was abandoned some years ago, because everyone ignored it. I have yet to see any member of Staff reading the screens, even if it were possible to do so without ricking one’s neck.
- The decision to install the system is, itself, a measure of how badly out-of-touch Senior Management remains. Any understanding of Staff psychology, particularly in its current demoralised state, should have warned that the process was a waste of time and money. It is also an insult to our intelligence. We may not be great philosophers on the studio floor, but we are wise enough to understand the differences between ‘doing’ something and ‘being seen to do’ something. The television monitors, glossy Ariels, colourful D.I.G. handouts, all make a bright display - an expensive show of communication - but do not communicate anything.”
Then there were all those bloody Meetings! It is difficult to believe that there was a time before Meetings dominated Management timetables. But there was. Not so long ago, if I popped in to see my boss; he’d be working in his office, and would make time to see me. Communicating with his staff was part of his job. Nowadays, however, if I popped in to see my boss; I was more likely to be told, “He’s in a Meeting.”
The sudden proliferation of Meetings was much satirised at the time. A cartoon appeared on the internet, with the motto - “Hold a Meeting - the Practical Alternative to Work.”
The ‘Dilbert’ comicstrip was currently ridiculing the absurdities of corporate life. In one edition, a Meeting is called to discuss the fact that no one is getting any work done, because they are all spending too much time in Meetings!
Meetings are an inevitable consequence of having too many Managers. Below a certain optimum number, Managers can keep one another informed, on a everyday basis, without the need to call specific Meetings. But when the number exceeds a critical mass, Meetings become necessary. And the more time Managers spend in Meetings, the less time there is for actually work, therefore, more Managers are needed to meet the workload, and they need yet more meetings to keep in touch with each other, leaving less time for work, creating a need for more Managers, who need more meetings . . . and the whole thing becomes a runaway bureaucratic chain reaction! In time, a generation of Managers would arise who thought that Meetings WERE work!
And from Meetings, I got onto Committees -
- It is a long standing joke, amongst Staff satirists, that the BBC’s way of making any decision (or avoiding any decision) is to set up a committee. The news that the BBC’s answer to the current crisis is to set up twelve simultaneous committees, however, has been greeted, not with laughter, but with gawps of disbelief. It has gone beyond a joke. The BBC appears to be making a parody of its own worst caricature.
I no longer remember what these Committees were all about, but I evidently felt strongly about them at the time of writing.
- The news that one Management committee could think of nothing better than to set up another twelve sub-committees (none of them involving the Staff), has done nothing to dispel our prejudices about a top heavy, underemployed bureaucracy.”
Of those twelve sub-committees, I have noted -
- Four of the Cobham sub-committees are currently looking into ways of reducing programme-making costs.
- None of them is looking into ways of reducing management and administration costs.
- Another committee is encouraging Programme Makers to be more aware of “sound management skills”.
- No one is encouraging Managers to be more aware of, and more relevant to, programme making skills.
- Yet another committee is examining ways of charging management overheads to programme budgets.
- None of them is examining ways of reducing those overheads.”
The last of these was the most sinister: an overtly dishonest, premeditated plan to falsify the accounts, by concealing management costs within production budgets. This way, Managers would be able to claim that they were putting more money into programmes while, in reality, they were putting more money into their own pockets. These were the beginnings of the flagrant money laundering exercise that would later reappear as ‘Producer Choice’.
I must have spent several days composing my letter; writing it out longhand; laboriously typing it up with two fingers, and printing it out with my Amstrad dot matrix printer (with a ribbon that needed re-inking after ever five pages!) As a studio floor worker, with no access to a desk, stationary, a typewriter, etc., I did all this at home, on off-duty days. It is dated 16th March (my birthday!) 1990. Evidently, I cared deeply about internal communication.
- I don’t remember ever receiving a reply.
BBC Management had announced that it was an “Equal Opportunities Employer” - a singularly hypocritical title at a time when the inequality between Management and Staff was being deliberately widened. It was another respect in which the BBC’s policies resembled those of Soviet Communism: a sanctimonious preaching of the concept of equality, while ensuring that members of the Politburo and the Inner Party remained a privileged elite.
- The Management of the BBC remained largely white, male and middle-class (except for Marmaduke Hussey, who probably counted as upper-class!) I remember going to a Union meeting, with a slightly higher level of management than usual. The management team entered the room as a precession of white males, all in similar suits. In fact, the people inside the suits all looked similar. (For a while, when it was fashionable, they all sported matching designer stubble!) Right at the end of the precession there was one woman: the representative from Personnel. I never understood why Managers were almost exclusively male, while Personnel Officers were mostly female. It probably dated from the days when Personnel people were ‘Welfare Officers’ and expected to play a caring role towards the staff, possibly even defending Staff against Managers. Now, however, personnel were very much a part of the management team, and just as uncaring as the rest. Yet the stereotype of the Male Manager and the Female Personnel Officer lingered.
BBC Management sought to create at least an illusion of Equality Opportunities. So, . . . Can you guess what they did? . . .
Yes! They set up a Committee! It was called the D.I.G. (the ‘Directorate Implementation Group’ for Equal Opportunities).
From the start, there were concerns about the composition of the DIG. Like all BBC Committees, its membership had been drawn from managerial grades, with no representation from the people most likely to have suffered discrimination. There had already been a letter to Ariel complaining about the lack of Engineers on the DIG. I wrote in support, widening the argument (and adding a quote from Peter Sellars).
- To the Editor, Ariel.
- I would like to second the views of Denis Gale in Ariel, 14th Feb. It is not only Engineers who are missing from the Equal Opportunities Directorate Implementation Group. It is Camera Staff, Sound Staff, Scenic Staff, Electricians, Film and Video Tape Editors, Vision Mixers: indeed anyone involved with the nuts and bolts of Programme Making. The individuals mentioned in Ray Bell’s reply may once have trained as engineers, but they no longer work in that capacity. They are managers and bureaucrats, as are all the members of D.I.G. To borrow a much abused phrase, “What About The Workers?!” It seems that a worthy idea is to be flawed from the start by that oldest and most British form of inequality - Class Prejudice!
- The Victims of discrimination are not to be found amongst the elite echelons of BBC Management. They occur amongst the low-paid, dirty-handed workforce of the studio floor. How can D.I.G. seriously consider the problem without any input from this most vital group of staff? I realise that those of us who work at the ‘Sharp-End’ of broadcasting are often too busy to sit on committees and pontificate, a problem which does not seem to afflict our managers, but, if the B.B.C. is to pay more than lip service to equal opportunities, they will have to include those staff who have been most frequently discriminated against.
- Yours Faithfully,
- Roger Bunce.
I sent copies of my letter to members of the D.I.G. and, this time, I received a reply. A note arrived, saying that someone, with an important-sounding job title (including the word ‘Equality’), was trying to get in touch with me. I phoned her back. She seemed a nice friendly person, but she couldn’t talk for long, because she was expecting a taxi . . . Hmm . . . This was another area of inequality. I was too polite to mention it, but we Workers weren’t allowed to use taxis! We had to use public transport, or walk, even when we were working late at night, or in the early hours of the morning. Only under special circumstances, when nothing else was available, were we allowed to take a taxi - and, even then, our Managers were likely to quibble about the cost. However, if you had an important-sounding job title (including the word ‘Equality’), you were evidently allowed to use taxis, even during office hours.
I was invited to attend a meeting of the DIG. An old diary suggests that this may have been 10th April, 1990, in room 6013, at Television Centre. I had never previously mingled with the exalted world of BBC Committees. So, I approached the event with trepidation. I had even sacrificed one of my precious days off to attend. Not knowing what might be required of me, I’d written down my thoughts in the form of a speech. I argued against the ‘Politically Correct’ view, that Equal Opportunities need only apply to certain designated groups of people, e.g. women and minorities. To be genuinely ‘equal’ they had to apply to everyone. The equals sign worked in both direction. If A=B, it must also be true that B=A. Equality for Women must mean equality WITH Men, and equality for Minorities must mean equality WITH the Majority. Equality must be universal, or it was not true equality. The neo-feudal divide now being manufactured between Management and Workers was as big a threat to Equal Opportunities as racism or sexism. I noted, of course, that the Senior Management remained largely male and white, while much larger numbers of women and ethnic minorities were to be found amongst the Workers.
- I got about half-way through my monologue before they shut me up.
The Committee was chaired by Cliff Taylor. I liked him. He seemed to belong to the old school of BBC Management, in that he didn’t speak pretentious jargon. He could shut me up in plain down-to-earth English. In fact, I liked all the people who were there that day. They seemed to be well-meaning people who genuinely cared about Equal Opportunities. It was apparent, however, that even this high-powered, much-publicised committee had little influence over the anti-egalitarian policies coming from the Corporate Centre. Cliff Taylor noted, pointedly, that Alasdair Milne had been sacked for daring to stand up to Marmaduke Hussey.
At another point, when discussing morale, he also said, “There’s only one thing that causes bad morale, and that’s Bad Management!” I could see that this was true: self-evidently so. It hadn’t occurred to me before. But I would quote him on many later occasions, in discussions with local managers.
I remember expressing particular concern about the current policy of outsourcing. A number of activities, previously performed by BBC Staff, were now being contracted out to private companies. The staff involved were either losing their jobs, or being transferred to the new employer. This was having a damaging effect on the ethnic and gender balance within the BBC. Most of the BBC’s ethnic minority staff, and many of its female staff, worked in low-paid areas, such as cleaning and catering. But these were the areas now being contracted out. The inevitable result was that a disproportionately large number of female and minority staff were being expelled from the BBC. The consequences of this policy might not have been deliberately racist or sexist, by they would certainly appear that way in the statistics. Even if the Management only wanted to maintain the pretence of being an ‘Equal Opportunities Employer’, they should surely be concerned at such a dramatic fall in the percentage of ethnic minority staff they employed.
I sensed that some of the committee shared my sentiments, but they were not prepared to challenge the policies of the all-powerful Accountants. Accountancy, it seemed, took priority over Equal Opportunities.
In the past, the Management had admitted that too many of its female and minority staff were employed in low-paid jobs. But, they had argued that there were promotion opportunities for them, throughout the Corporation. Once contracted out, however, all promotion opportunities would immediately disappear. At the very least, I suggested, any private company bidding for a BBC contract should be required to sign up to the BBC’s Equal Opportunities policy. But even this modest suggestion was, apparently, beyond the powers of the DIG.
As the meeting disbanded, a couple of the female members told me that I had been very brave to speak out. This hadn’t occurred to me. I probably wouldn’t have done it, if I’d known I was being brave!
- They didn’t ask me back.
But I now found a new role for myself on our local union Branch. I had given up being Branch Secretary, without ever really knowing what I should have been doing. I was replaced by Mark Baynes, one of my Camera colleagues, who had a much greater understanding of such things. But I now became the TV5 Equality Officer. It was a subject on which I had strong views, and was keen to express them - without resorting to Political Correctness.
As for the DIG, they shot themselves in the foot by producing a glossy, full-colour leaflet. It featured a photograph of Lenny Henry, dressed in the uniform of a BBC Commissionaire. It was intended to encourage ethnic minority candidates to apply for BBC jobs. The authors were apparently unaware the the BBC had already kicked-out all its Commissionaires, and were now hiring them back from a private company. They could have avoided this faux pas, if they had listened to my advice.
Corporate Cock-Ups: Part Four, the Incompetence Gets Funnier - The Taskforces
The BBC Charter was due for renewal in 1996. At the beginning of 1991, Corporate Management began to make preparations. What they should have done, of course, was to ensure that they were providing the best possible service to Licence Payers, i.e. stop squandering their money on unnecessary luxuries for unnecessary Managers, and start spending it on high-quality, enjoyable programmes. Provided the BBC remained popular with the majority of the population, even the most vindictive government would have been reluctant to do much harm. It is through its programmes that the BBC courts public opinion.
- But the current Management didn’t know much about programmes and, anyway, that’s not the way they do things. So, instead, . . .
- They set up a Committee . . .
- Actually . . . That’s not the whole truth . . . It’s worse than that . . .
- They set up Fifteen Committees!
- And these were no ordinary Committees . . .
- They were “Taskforce Committees”!
The news was broken to us at a Union meeting. The Head of Studio Operations announced that Corporate Management were setting up 15 Taskforce Committees to examine all aspects of the BBC, in preparation for charter renewal. He spoke in perfect seriousness.
On the Union side of the table, we were avoiding eye contact with one another, and struggling not to laugh. I mean, FIFTEEN committees! It seemed to confirm all our most negative caricatures of BBC Management: too many bureaucrats sitting around, with nothing better to do than to form committees and have meetings with one another.
- I couldn’t resist one slight jibe, “Don’t you mean Sixteen committees?”
- “No, Fifteen.”
- “But there must be another committee to co-ordinate the work of the fifteen committees?”
- Failing to detect the sarcasm, he said, “You mean the Steering Group?”
Straight faces were no longer possible. The Union team dissolved into giggles, to the apparent incomprehension of our Managers. We had sometimes succeeded in persuading them that their policies were unpopular, but I don’t think they ever really understood just how absurdly funny their antics appeared, from the viewpoint of the practical folk on the studio floor.
There was further comedy in the details. Not content with the pomposity of calling themselves “Taskforces”, each committee had given itself a self-important title, e.g. -
- ‘The BBC - the Standard Setter.’
- ‘The BBC - the Information Provider.’
- ‘The BBC - as Cultural Patron.’
- ‘The BBC - the Entertainer.’
Worse, each committee had a ‘Mission Statement’, couched in the fashionable, but meaningless new-speak of the time. They included, “promoting standards that must derive from clarity of vision which carries conviction in the application”; “identify the most appropriate economically sustainable range of cultural commitments that the BBC should make”; “institutionalising ethical targets”; “enabling individuals to share common experiences, so promoting a sense of community in an increasingly complex world”; etc.
Almost 200 people were to be involved in those 15 Committees. Mostly there were just bureaucrats, of course, but, the good news was that there were also some Producers. The voice of Programme Makers might be heard. The less-good news was that only a handful of those 200 had any experience of mainstream broadcasting, e.g. Drama or Light Entertainment. The whole thing was heavily biased towards John Birt’s News and Current Affairs empire.
Personally, if I’d ruled the BBC, I’d have announced the formation of the 15 Committees, and asked for volunteers to sit on them. I’d have waited for all the crawlers and toadies to step forward, and then sacked the lot, on the grounds that they clearly weren’t working hard enough in their day jobs! It is probably a good job that I never ruled the BBC.
But I was no longer the only one suggesting that BBC Management might be a trifle top-heavy.
Sir John Harvey Jones was a highly respected British industrialist. As Chairman of ICI, he had turned a loss into a billion-pound profit, and doubled the share price. Now he had become the country’s best-known Management Expert, thanks to his starring role in the BBC TV series, ‘Troubleshooter’. In each episode he would visit a struggling company; study their working methods, and advise them on how to make improvements. Commonly he found that the problems were in management, not amongst the workforce. One of his sayings was, “There are no bad troops, only bad leaders.”
Inevitably, someone asked for his opinion of BBC Management. He said, “The BBC has far too many layers and a very complex management structure. The people at the top create work for the people at the bottom . . . A decision is taken and retaken many times at different layers. The place is stuffed with people who say ‘No’. . . .To put it unkindly, the BBC confuses Management with Administration. I think they feel management is about controlling things, and administering”. The only true Managers, in his opinion, were the Producers: in that they managed a budget and produced a product. All those layers of bureaucracy above the Producers, might call themselves ‘Managers’, but they were really just administrators, and there were far too many of them. He estimated that their numbers should be halved, with posts from Deputy Director General (John Birt) downwards being abolished.
BBC bosses liked to pretend that they were businessmen. They spoke the American-style jargon of the business world. They boasted that they were running a billion-pound business, and had used this as an excuse to give themselves extravagant pay-rises. Whenever Staff dared to criticise their policies, their standard reply was, “You just don’t understand business!” It was all playacting, of course. None of them had ever really run a business, nor were they capable of doing so. They went on expensive courses to learn the language and the rituals, but their civil-servant mentalities had no instinct for the market. Their policies remained more Kremlin than Capitalism.
But now, a genuine businessman; a Captain of Industry, with a proven track record; who spoke plain, jargon-free English, was telling them that they were just over-paid admin clerks, and that there were twice as many of them as there should be!
Christmas was approaching, and I was no longer being asked to illustrate the seasonal SODS. Instead, I wrote a satirical piece for our local Union newsletter, ‘Talkback’. It was a spoof scenario for a Situation Comedy series. (With hindsight, Episode 2 is is rather poor taste.)
- TALKBACK 18th December 1991
- Good News! An Independent production company has chosen Studio Operations to service a new Situation Comedy series. Entitled ‘Corporate Capers’, it deals with the zany antics of a bunch of bungling bureaucrats as they mis-manage the affairs of a major public Corporation.
- In Episode 1, ‘The Corporate Carbuncle’, our Mad-Cap Managers hit upon a wacky plan to bolster their own egos. They decide to squander millions of pounds of their customers’ money on a monstrous new office block. Imagine their surprise when their brand-new status symbol is universally condemned as an architectural eye-sore and even our heroes cannot think of any sensible use for the thing!
- Episode 2: In an attempt to save money, our Corporate Comedians accidentally start a legionella epidemic in the heart of a major city. Oops! The consequences are so hilarious you could die laughing! Fortunately, by squandering millions of pounds of their customers’ money on lawyers’ fees, our Desk-Bound Dunces are able to keep themselves out of gaol and prevent all those wicked widows and orphans from getting any compensation.
- Episode 3: Once again those Clock-Watching Clowns are out to save money, this time by cutting staff pay and reducing pay-rises below inflation. But, at the same time, they accidentally squander millions of pounds of their customers’ money on company cars, BUPA payments and other gratuitous freebies for themselves! Imagine their surprise when those whinging workers fail to see the funny side, and millions more pounds are squandered on a pointless strike!
- In Episode 4, our Pen-Pushing Pals just can’t imagine why no one ever believes a word they say. After forming lots of committees, they discover the word ‘Communication’ in a dictionary, so they set up a lot more committees to decide how to achieve some. Their hilarious solution is to squander millions of pounds of their customers’ money on Teletext monitors, which no one who actually works for a living could possibly have time to read!
- In Episode 5, there’s more fun with those Silly Suits when a leading industrialist and management expert turns his attending to the Corporation, with hysterical consequences. Imagine the surprise of our Bureaucratic Bozos when he announces that at least half of them are a total waste of space and should be sacked!
- Episode 6: This time our Jovial Jobsworths discover the word ‘Flexibility’ in a dictionary and decide that everyone should have some - except themselves, of course. They decide to play a good natured prank on their staff. First, they spend two years promising everyone a substantial pay-rise, a buy-out, consolidation, and a package of ‘Conditions of Service’ which are simpler and less anomalous than before. Then they squander millions of pounds of their customers’ money on cowboy management consultants and jolly junketing in posh hotels. Finally, those Nine-to Five Funsters cry, “Fooled You”, and reveal that they have been joking all along. They announce a package of ‘Pay and Conditions’ which are less flexible, more complex and more anomalous than before, with no buy-out, no consolidation, and a substantial pay-cut for everyone - except themselves, of course. Imagine the surprise of our Inflexible Friends when all those stuffy staff fail to join in the good-hearted laughter and . . .
- The authors have not revealed the source of their material, but seem certain that there will be plenty more for another series next year. Some critics, however, have suggested that the storylines are too preposterous to be believable, Surely, no one could be that incompetent in real life?
That was how I viewed matters at the end of 1991. As predicted, it all became even sillier in 1992.
Corporate Cock-Ups: Part Five, the Incompetence Escalates - Football - Viewing Figures - The Missing Millions - Luckham Park
BBC Management continued to behave like something from behind the Iron Curtain. This was curious, because the Iron Curtain was no longer there. The Berlin Wall fell in November 1989, and the Soviet Union was formally dissolved in December 1991. Freed from the fear of poisoned umbrellas, even BBC Journalists began to admit that it really had been a fairly Evil Empire.
BBC Management continued to toady to Margaret Thatcher. This was also curious, because Margaret Thatcher was no longer there. The fall of the Iron Lady coincided with the fall of the Iron Curtain. She was deposed by her own party in November 1990. Her personal animosity toward the BBC disappeared with her. The new Prime Minister was John Major. He actually liked the BBC. Unfortunately, the people and policies at the top of the Corporation were now geared up for one purpose only: grovelling surrender to Margaret Thatcher. They were unable to change direction, even though there was no longer any threat. John Birt had established review procedures, whereby politically sensitive items were checked at the highest level. All programmes which might be even slightly critical of the Conservative government continued to be watered-down, heavily edited or banned completely. External journalists referred to this policy, with pithy elegance, as the “Pre-emptive Cringe”: i.e. a cowardly, premature surrender, even when no attack was likely.
But, even if Margaret Thatcher had gone, there was still her formidable ally, Rupert Murdoch.
He had launched his ‘Sky’ TV network in February 1989. It was a financial disaster. It was losing millions of pounds every week. Left to free market forces, it would have folded. But Rupert Murdoch was too rich to be affected by market forces. His worldwide newspaper empire could provide almost limitless subsidies. Thus, despite having no money, Sky TV could easily outspend its competitors. His only real rival was BSB (British Satellite Broadcasting) in which both the BBC and ITV had a stake. Both companies were struggling and, in November 1990, they decided to join forces. In theory it was a equal merger between ‘BSB’ and ‘Sky’, to become ‘BSkyB’. In practice, the combined company was soon being marketed simply as ‘Sky’. Satellite broadcasting in the UK had become a monopoly, with Rupert Murdoch as its primary stakeholder. The Conservative government had long preached the virtues of free competition and market forces. But, apparently, they had no objection to an anti-competitive monopoly controlled by their benefactor Rupert Murdoch.
The BBC continued its policy of kicking out low-paid, highly-skilled Programme Makers, and replacing them with highly-paid, less-skilled bureaucrats. Those who departed were generally happy to go. The BBC was an increasingly oppressive place to work, and they escaped with substantial redundancy payments. Some took early retirement. Others became freelances, setting up their own businesses, very successfully competing against the BBC’s in-house operation. The primary beneficiary of all this was - surprise, surprise - Rupert Murdoch! Sky TV was expanding and needed to recruit more staff. Thanks to the BBC, they were able to employ some of the most talented and experienced craftsmen in the industry, without having to pay for their training. One senior camera colleague of mine took redundancy, intending to retire. Just as a hobby, he started doing a few days as a freelance, for Sky. Before long, he was working there so regularly, that they couldn’t afford to pay him as a freelance, any longer, and insisted that he joined the salaried staff!
Exactly why the BBC was being so helpful to a competitor was unclear. Personally, I assumed it was just routine incompetence. But a growing band of Conspiracy Theorists were starting to imagine that certain Senior Managers were working in cahoots with Rupert Murdoch, and that their loyalty to him was greater than their loyalty to the BBC.
Traditionally, the British public (or, at least, the male British public) had sat down on a Saturday afternoon to watch the football, on BBC or ITV. It was live, and it was free to view. But Rupert Murdoch planned to take control, and force everyone to pay for it. He put in a bid for exclusive rights to Premiere League matches. Sky TV was still losing money but, with his generous subsidies, they were able to submit a much higher bid than anything either of the terrestrial broadcasters could afford. BBC and ITV responded by combining forces. They put in a joint bid, hoping to preserve free football for the public. Negotiations were nearing completion when, suddenly, the BBC switched sides. Without warning, they abandoned ITV and stitched up a deal with Sky. ITV were furious. The BBC’s treachery had handed Rupert Murdoch a virtual monopoly of live Premiere League football coverage. All the BBC had gained from selling out was the right to show recorded highlights on ‘Match of the Day’. The real losers were the viewing public. The vast majority had no Sky receivers, and would no longer be able to watch live football. The small minority, who did have Sky receivers, would be forced to pay an exorbitant premium to watch something that had previously been free. The deal was a turning point in the fortunes of Sky TV, and it wouldn’t have been possible without the BBC contributing its ‘Thirty Pieces of Silver’.
At a press conference, Marmaduke Hussey was asked whether he had colluded with Rupert Murdoch on the deal. The Chairman, who could do a surprisingly good impression of a bumbling old duffer, is said to have turned red; banged the table with his walking stick, and refused to answer any further questions.
- The Conspiracy Theorists felt that their case had been proved.
While the endless committees of BBC Management indulged themselves in the abstractions of Corporate Internal Navel Gazing, the practical realities of broadcasting were being neglected. The Accountants and bureaucrats seemed to imagine they could make any administrative changes they chose, without hindering the ability of BBC Programme Makers to provide a service to the Licence Fee Payers. They were mistaken. Cuts in production budgets; the expulsion of talented staff, and a repressive management style, which stifled creativity: all were damaging the quality of BBC programmes. This became quantifiable in the falling viewing figures. In the first half of 1990, BBC1’s ratings tumbled to about 37 percent. A management ‘Strategy Meeting’ discussed the matter but, predictably, did nothing to help. By the beginning of 1992, BBC1’s percentage had fallen into the lower 30s. The figures for BBC1 and BBC2 combined were barely reaching 40 percent. This was critical. It would be impossible to justify the Licence Fee unless at least half the viewers were enjoying BBC programmes. No amount of snivelling to the government could alter that.
- In the days of Alasdair Milne, BBC programmes had been good; the viewing figures had been good, and the budgets had balanced.
- Now that the BBC was run by Accountants, it was perhaps understandable that programme standards had deteriorated. But, at least, we could be confident that the budgets would still balance.
- Except . . . They didn’t.
At the end of the financial year 1991/92, it was admitted that the BBC was heading for an unprecedented deficit of one hundred million pounds! Worse. Over the past two years, sixty million pounds had been ‘lost’ - not ‘lost’ in the sense of negative profit - but ‘lost’ as in accidentally mislaid - gone astray - not accounted for. No one knew where they had gone. The new, rigorous accountancy systems, which boasted they could keep track of every last paper clip, had allowed sixty-million pounds to slip, unnoticed, off the balance sheet. The press called it the scandal of the “Missing Millions”. It appeared that our all-powerful army of Accountants weren’t very good at adding up!
A vast expense, external consultants were called in to check their sums. One of the problems, it later transpired, was that BBC Accountants had allowed the same money to be spent twice. The BBC was now required to buy-in 25 percent of its programmes from Independent Producers. Funds had duly been allocated for the purchase of independent productions, but no equivalent funds had been subtracted from in-house programme making. It was a double-spend. Once again, the obsessive concentration on the minutia of individual programme budgets meant that no one was monitoring the overall cost to the BBC as a whole.
- And yet, there were still no sackings or resignations from the Corporation’s Senior Management.
- And how did they respond to this particularly catastrophic Cock-Up?
- For once, they didn’t even have time to set up a Committee, before plunging straight into yet another Corporate Cock-Up.
They all climbed into their chauffeur-driven cars and swanned off to an exclusive hotel at Luckham Park, near Bath. Marmaduke Hussey bagged the most luxurious suite, with an antique four-poster bed, which seemed an entirely appropriate setting for his antique four-poster personality. Here they held a conference, i.e. a junket, fuelled with fine wines and posh nosh, all generously funded by the Licence Fee Payers. Glasses of champagne were even served to the Union pickets, outside, who were protesting about low pay and job cuts. It is unclear whether this was intended to be patronising, or to be gloating.
Amongst the gobbling and the guzzling, the Board of Management and the Board of Governors wallowed in further Corporate Internal Navel Gazing. Speaking their pseudo-business-speak, they discussed “Programme Objectives” and “Market Repositioning”: anticipating the multi-channel future of the 21st Century. Mostly their emphasis followed the Pre-Emptive Cringe pattern: planning to cut BBC services in grovelling surrender to potential new competitors, rather than actually standing up and competing against them. The Sunday Times had been demanding that the BBC should be restricted to making arty, intellectual, worthy programmes, which were good for the nation’s soul, but no one actually wanted to watch. This would allow the profit-making channels, for example - Sky - to transmit the more popular genres, and charge a small fortune for allowing the public to watch them. The fact that the Sunday Times was owned by Rupert Murdoch, was just another of those coincidences. It must have been a further coincidence that the anti-BBC campaign ceased after the BBC had helped Sky win the Premier League football.
Most of the boozy bureaucrats at Luckham Park had little knowledge of programme making or broadcasting. The Channel Controllers were allowed to speak, but not to stay in the hotel. They were far too low down the pecking order! So, it is no surprise that all their discussions, and expensive banqueting, reached no real conclusion, other than a vague reaffirmation of the idea that BBC programmes should be “Distinctive”.
Predictably, the BBC’s reputation plummeted, as newspapers reported the financial squandering; the decadent behaviour, and the total failure to achieve anything.
- “How much did it all cost?” Journalists demanded (express your answer in Pensioners’ Licence Fees).
- “Why didn’t you meet at one of the BBC’s buildings, and eat in the Staff Canteen?”
- “If you needed somewhere out of London, why not use the BBC’s residential accommodation at Wood Norton?”
The Managers who were supposed to answer these questions, made a pathetically poor job of it. Highly-paid PR consultants, hired to defend the ‘BBC Brand’ proved equally useless. It was a publicity disaster.
The press criticism was entirely justified, of course. My only complaint was their usual inability to distinguish between “The BBC” and “BBC Management”: the one being a world-renowned programme-maker and broadcaster, the other being a bunch of overpaid parasites.
The Board of Management and Board of Governors had scored a massive own goal against the BBC. They had undoubtedly “Brought the BBC into Disrepute”, which was considered a sacking offence for any other member of staff. Yet, still there were no sackings or resignations from the Corporation’s Senior Management.
- But criticism was growing.
I still claim to have been the first to have compared the governance of the BBC with that of U.S.S.R. (Letter to Ariel, March 7th 1989). But others were beginning to agree with me. In a Guardian article of January 1992, Alasdair Milne noted that BBC Staff were now talking of the increasing “Sovietisation” of their management. In August that year, Michael Grade addressed the Edinburgh Television Festival. He described BBC Management as “Pseudo-Leninist”, and said that insiders were afraid to speak out because of the internal “Thought Police”. He received hundred of letters of support from BBC employees, both staff and celebrities. There was even criticism from that most likeable of BBC personalities, David Attenborough. In a speech at the British Association Science Festival, he said that Accountants now controlled the BBC; that they had depressed staff morale and were destroying those very qualities which had given the BBC its unique stature and strengths.
Finally, even Michael Checkland cracked. Throughout his tenure as Director General, he had been bullied by Marmaduke Hussey and the Governors, while being undermined by John Birt. Yet he had never criticised them in public. Delivering an address to the Royal Television Society, that October, he remained loyal to the official line. But when answering the questions that followed, his mask began to slip. He complained about the elderly, out-of-date attitude of the Governors, and their ignorance of modern broadcasting. He famously added that he couldn’t be certain that they knew that ‘F.M.’ stood for ‘Frequency Modulation’, and not ‘Fuzzy Monsters’!
- Michael Checkland stepped down at the end of the year.
- The BBC’s new Director General was to be John Birt.
The Human Cost
But first, there was to be yet another round of job cuts. And this is when the comedy of BBC Management descended into abject tragedy.
The Accountants’ masterplan for the BBC was called ‘Producer Choice’. Each production would be allocated a budget, and Producers would have ‘Choice’ how to spend it. They could purchase staff and facilities from within the BBC, or from external, commercial sources. It was prophesied that, since some Producers would use external suppliers, BBC staff and facilities could be cut back in anticipation. These cutbacks would take place before the introduction of ‘Producer Choice’, thus ensuring that the prophesy fulfilled itself. Many of the Producers who might choose to use BBC resources would be unable to do so, because they had already been cut! ’Choice’ had been taken away from Producers even before it was given to them.
In the past, all redundancies had been voluntary. This time, however, Corporate bosses insisted that there must be compulsion. Managers would decided who could stay and who should be kicked out. Our Managers were office-bound bureaucrats who rarely visited the studio floor and had no opportunity to study our work. But, in the new BBC, preservation of the hierarchy was all that mattered, and decisions were rarely taken by those who were competent to do so.
Union negotiators persuaded managers to give priory to volunteers, and there were plenty of them. Even so, it was decreed that there should be three compulsory redundancies in the Camera Section. The number was so small that there was clearly no financial necessity. It was just a routine piece of workplace bullying: the classic policy of “We’ll string up a handful of ‘em, to encourage the others.” It is sadly the case that, when those charged with the leadership of an organisation lack the ability to lead from in front, they resort to this type of cowardly bullying from behind. There was additional sadism in the way that the numbers were announced, but not the names. It was the old prison-camp trick of announcing, “Three people from this hut will be executed in the morning, but we’re not telling you which three!” - in order to prolong the pain and maximise the intimidation.
Our local Managers worked through a complex formula, couched in meaningless management jargon, with which they analysed the various qualities of their staff, in order to determine who should be kicked out. Meanwhile, those of us who were potential victims were expected to carry on making programmes, performing high-stress, artistic jobs, often live on air, despite the Sword of Damocles hanging over us.
There was further cruelty in the way the results were announced just before Christmas - and cowardice. By the time that victims learned their fate, the Managers would be at home, enjoying their Christmas breaks, far away from the angry protests. When they returned to work, in the New Year, much of the initial fury would have died down. Meanwhile, those of us who worked at the sharp-end of television, and therefore continued working over the Christmas period, were left to cope with the heartbreak. The job of a TV Cameraman, working on live or ‘as live’ programmes, is physical, creative work, performed under conditions of heightened nervous tension. All decisions must be instantaneous and accurate. Any lapse of concentration may be seen by millions of viewers. It is a job fuelled by art and adrenaline. It is not the sort of job you ‘do’. It is the sort of job you ‘live’. That is why Cameramen accept the long, anti-social hours and irregular sleep patterns. The knowledge that this job-life is about to be snatched away from you must cause considerable psychological distress. Yet those three Cameramen, who now knew they were doomed to redundancy, continued to work conscientiously throughout the Christmas and New Year period. They continued to create aesthetically crafted television pictures, under high-stress conditions, despite the emotional damage they had suffered. In this they showed a level of professionalism far beyond that of their management.
The official histories of the BBC are mostly concerned with the childish boardroom squabbles of corporate executives. They rarely tell of the people who do the real work of the BBC, and are unlikely to mention those three unfortunate cameramen. So, I shall name them here: Mark Baynes, Keith Lea and Peter Larkham.
Mark Baynes was a young cameraman, with a love of new technology. (He understood computers!) He had succeeded me as Secretary of our Union branch, TV5. As a negotiator, he was particularly good at analysing and presenting the technical and statistical aspects of a case. He seemed to have all the facts and figures at his fingertips. He was undoubtedly victimised because of his Union role. Discrimination against an employee because of activities on behalf of a recognised union was not legitimate behaviour, but amongst so many other redundancies, it was very difficult to prove.
A long time before this, I had mentioned to Mark that some managers seemed to regard us as the enemy. This genuinely surprised him. Liaison meetings between Managers and Union Reps always seemed friendly and positive. He naively assumed that when he gave constructive feedback, about the practical failing of their policies, that he was giving them helpful information. He was - but they didn’t always want to hear it! He (and I) had difficulty believing that there were still people within the management team whose mind-set was stuck in the 1970s, who were unaware of the changed role of Trades Unions since Margaret Thatcher’s reforms. These days we spent most of our time playing peacekeepers - trying to find common ground between an angry workforce and a management team who often didn’t understand the problem. And we were now the only mechanism for upward communication within the BBC.
Then, at a mass meeting on Shepherds Bush Green, we heard a rumour, that management were going to use the compulsory redundancies as an excuse to weed out Union Reps: specifically the Chairmen and Secretaries of local branches. The information was said to come from a supervisor who had witnessed clandestine management meetings. In the case of Mark Baynes, the rumour proved to be perfectly correct.
The second victim was Keith Lea: a conscientious and competent young Cameraman, a hard worker and a good team player, whose only fault was a naturally quiet, modest personality. No doubt this made him seem easy to victimise.
Perhaps the most tragic case was that of Peter Larkham. He was an extremely talented, enthusiastic and popular young Cameraman. He was to lose his job for one reason only - he suffered from Multiple Sclerosis. (The claim to be an Equal Opportunities Employer rang particularly hollow at this point!)
Up until now Camera Management had treated Peter extremely well. As his condition slowly degenerated, they had always scheduled him to duties that were still within his capabilities. When he was no longer able to drive, they had provided him with a taxi into work. Now, he was very unsteady on his feet, and heavily dependant on a walking stick. He could not stand for long, but there were some camera jobs which could be performed while seated, and he continued to be allocated to these roles. Being able to do the artistic job he loved was very important to Peter. It helped to maintain his spirits and, perhaps, slowed the progress of his condition.
No doubt Peter would have continued to receive benevolent treatment, but now Camera Management were under orders to kick people out (not something of their own choosing). One of the criteria by which staff were to be assessed was “flexibility”, i.e. the ease with which an individual could perform a wide range of different duties, across a wide range of programme genres. Clearly, it would be impossible for Managers to criticise anyone else for lack of flexibility, while they continued to make allowances for Peter. He had to be sacrificed, before they could sack anyone else.
Peter Larkham asked me to be his representative. I was reluctant, knowing that I’d be out of my depth. This was a much more serious issue than anything I had previously tackled. I pleaded my lack of experience and general uselessness, pointing out that there were highly experienced, professional Union negotiators who were ready to handle his case. But Peter seemed to have confidence in me, and I could not refuse him. I just wish I could have lived up to his expectations.
On 1st February 1993, I accompanied Peter to his first appeal hearing, with my Head of Department. (John Lightfoot: the Head of Studio Production Resources). My contribution to the discussion was minimal. Fortunately Peter was very articulate in arguing his own case. We were told that the BBC’s Chief Medical Officer had declared him to be 100% disabled from his current job. But Peter had researched the advanced schedules and found that, for the foreseeable future, there were still 12 man-days of work, each week, which were within his abilities: more than enough to keep him fully employed. Concerns were also expressed for Peter’s safety. It was claimed that he had suffered a number of falls at work. Peter explained that he had only fallen once, not in the studio, but outside Television Centre, where he had tripped on some uneven paving: something which could have happened to anyone. He had no difficulty working in the studio, but walking any distance to get there was a problem. However, he was now hoping to obtain a motorised wheelchair, which would give him greater mobility around the building, and eliminate the danger of falling. Head of Studio Production Resources seemed to react positively to this news. He said that he would consider the possibility of Peter using a wheelchair at work, and give us his decision in writing.
The appeal was rejected. The letter reached Peter on his birthday. This was no one’s fault, but it was extremely upsetting for him, to pick up an envelope which should have contained a cheery birthday greeting, only to receive a kick in the teeth.
We were given permission to take the appeal to a higher level.
Until recently, a second stage appeal would have been dealt with by the Director General, or his Deputy. But the rules had suddenly, and conveniently changed. They called it “Devolving Power to the Directorates”, which is a pompous way of saying “Passing the Buck”, and inserting yet another barrier to upward communication. The Directorates didn’t really gain any power. Imperious diktats continued to flow from the Corporate Centre, but feedback concerning the consequences was not allowed to rise beyond Directorate level. The Corporate Centre no longer wanted to hear about the damage their policies were causing. Directorate management would have to sort out the mess.
We objected to the changes, but to no avail. My experience with Alasdair Milne had taught me that the only way to get a “Yes” decision out of BBC Management was by talking to the person at the top. All other layers of management were only empowered to say “No”. Since the insistence on compulsory redundancy had undoubtedly come from the Corporate Centre, they should have taken responsibility for the outcome. But our protests were ignored.
I went with Peter to his second appeal hearing on 11th March 1993. This time it was heard by Michael Lumley, Controller Production Resources Television. This was as high as we were allowed to go. The second interview followed much the same pattern as the first. And the second rejection letter used similar wording to the first, but slightly stronger. Whereas the first letter had spoken of a “potential” safety hazard, the second had escalated this to a “genuine” safety risk. We objected to this, since Peter’s condition had not changed between the two appeals. The second stage decision also said that it was relying on advice from the first stage, which rather negated the point of taking it to a higher level. At least we gained a stay of execution. Peter’s enforced retirement date was extended until 31st May.
The Union’s Equality Officer, Jane Paul, now took up the case: citing procedural errors in the appeals process, and the failure to implement the BBC’s own Equality/Disability Policy. Meanwhile, I was also trying to find some alternative work for Peter, elsewhere in the BBC. Peter was strongly resistant to this idea, but I was beginning to believe it was now his best hope.
There was a unit at the BBC called the “Job Shop”. Their role was to match job vacancies to available staff. My Personnel Officer said that she would arrange for Peter to visit them. When I popped into her office, later, to find out why nothing had happening, she told me that an appointment had been booked, but Peter was refusing to attend. She acted as though there was nothing she could do about it. Feeling frustrated, I asked if he was still on the payroll. He was. “Then schedule him!” I said. I am not usually a bossy person, but I immediately picked up her phone and rang Peter. I told him the date and time of the appointment, and asked if they were convenient for him. He happily agreed to be there, without any hint of objection. I can only imagine that he was willing to take instructions from me, because I was NOT BBC Management.
Sadly, Peter’s visit to the “Job Shop” achieved nothing. He filled in a questionnaire, detailing his qualifications, talents and experience. The answer came back that the ideal BBC job for him was . . . Television Cameraman. It must have been another moment of hurt and disappointment.
My main hope now lay with N&CA (News and Current Affairs), who were a separate Directorate. They employed their own Cameramen, and other technical staff, independently from mainstream television. Many of my colleagues, who had been made redundant, had found new jobs with N&CA, either as staff or as freelancers. While the rest of the BBC had been suffering swingeing budget cuts, N&CA had been John Birt’s spoilt favourites. They still had money. And they were now using robotic cameras, controlled remotely by an operator seated at a desk. This was the sort of work that Peter could do. He would still be at TV Centre, he would still be doing camerawork, and could still meet his old colleagues. He now had his motorised wheelchair and could scoot around the building with great efficiency.
Talking to N&CA Managers, I sensed that they were unenthusiastic. It is easy to call yourself an “Equal Opportunities Employer”. It is harder to take responsibility for an employee who is already disabled, and whose condition will gradually become worse. They were concerned that Peter’s wheelchair could become a safety hazard, in the cramped gallery space available. But they gave me permission to bring Peter in, for a day, to see how well he could cope with the work.
Our day at N&CA proved disappointing. Personally, I enjoyed playing with the controls, learning how to program complex camera moves. It was a challenge to make those robotic camera movements look less robotic. But my attempts to enthuse Peter were ineffectual. He wasn’t interested. These remote-controlled cameras lacked the sense of hands-on artistry that motivated him. He was losing hope.
I also took him to meetings of the Union’s Disability Group, hoping that he would meet some kindred spirits there: people with similar BBC backgrounds, and similar problems. But, again, Peter wasn’t interested. He was becoming increasingly unsocial.
Peter’s own personality was part of the problem. He had learned to cope with his condition by a dogged determination and stubbornness. This had created a defensive shell around him, which was difficult to penetrate. His former charm and affability were now buried deep, and this had isolated him from friends and colleagues. The way the BBC were now treating him had added layers of bitterness and depression. I found it difficult to get through but, just occasionally, I was able to make him laugh, and it was a delight to see something of the old Peter in his smile.
Ultimately, my efforts all ended in failure. It is a memory about which I feel sad and guilty. Those more experienced, professional Union negotiators were unable to do any better for Mark Baynes or Keith Lea. The Management were determined to force them out, and would accept no arguments to the contrary.
I cannot bring myself to blame our local managers for all this. As previously noted, they were decent people, doing the best they could. They had never had any desire to sack people. At that time, the Camera Section had two particularly good, in-touch and popular Managers. But they were forced to obey orders coming from far above. Had they objected, they would have been sacked themselves. In other departments, this had happened. My Head of Department was also a well-meaning character, who was clearly concerned about what was happening. He once told me that he had considered resigning, but was sure that he would be replaced by some conscienceless apparatchik with no understanding of our department’s work, and no consideration for the Staff or their talents. He hoped that, by staying in place, he could help to minimise the damage.
Later in the year, I was sent on an ‘Extending Choice Workshop’. This was not the sort of Workshop where anyone did any work. It was just a seminar, one of a series that all BBC staff were required to attend. We had to endure a presentation from a PR company, who told us all about the latest management fashions, but seemed to have little understanding of broadcasting. They spoke about ‘Delayering’ and ‘Flatter Structures’ and ‘Empowerment’ and ‘Open Management’ and other excellent ideas - which were the exact opposite of everything that was happening in the BBC. They tried to be jolly about it, but mostly succeeded in being tedious. No doubt their presentation style would have been seen as entertaining in any other organisation. By the standards of the entertainment programmes that we regularly worked on, however, they were amateurish in the extreme. I wondered how much Licence Payers’ money had been wasted in hiring them. Once again, the Senior Management seemed unaware that their own staff were much better communicators than any overpaid PR consultant.
At the seminar, I met a lady named Olga, who said she reported directly to John Birt. (A lady named Olga? In a management team often compared with Stalinist Russia? I did not snigger.) She was a nice lady: a former producer, with a strong belief in public service broadcasting. I told her that a very talented colleague of mine was being kicked out of the BBC, for the crime of suffering from Multiple Sclerosis. She was genuinely horrified when I explained the details. I asked if she could mention the case to John Birt, personally. I’ll always remember her reply, “I was lucky to get this job!” It seemed that all those layers of middle management were not the only barrier to upward communication. Even those who met John Birt face-to-face were reluctant to tell him anything he didn’t want to hear.
Never mind. John Birt had promised that he would attend each one of these Workshops in person, because he wanted to meet all his staff. So, I would be able to confront him myself. But he didn’t appear. Instead, two singularly uninspiring members of the Board of Management took to the stage. I can’t even remember their names. Questions from the floor were carefully vetted. There was no spontaneous conversation. And they disappeared abruptly at the end, without stopping to socialise. There was no chance of direct contact.
The next act of the tragedy was entirely predictable. Those decent local Managers, who had been forced to do the sacking, against their will, were themselves sacked. Had they initially refused to do the sacking, they would have been sacked immediately. Within the year, having obeyed orders, they were sacked anyway. The Camera Section lost two of the best managers we had ever had.
The Head of Studio Operations now said that he wanted to “Draw a Line” under the unfortunate business. It was as though he expected the departing Managers to take all the blame and distrust with them. But none of us were that gullible. We knew where the real blame lay, and trust was unlikely to return. It was like one of those poorly scripted B-movie plots, in which the arch-villain does not commit the murder himself; he blackmails some sympathetic lackey into committing the murder, and then murders the lackey, to cover his tracks. No doubt someone at the Corporate Centre thought they were being cleverly and subtly Machiavellian, but it was all too pathetically transparent. Any BBC scriptwriter could have invented a more convincing narrative.
In his enforced retirement, Peter Larkham’s condition continued to deteriorate. It is impossible to know whether his decline was accelerated by the way BBC Management had treated him. It is equally impossible to believe that it did him any good. I kept in touch with him by telephone, but not as often as I should have done. He remained positive, always hoping for a cure, or a successful treatment. And, just occasionally, I was able to make him laugh. He died in 1997. He was 48 years old. Mark Baynes also died young. I don’t know what became of quiet, modest Keith Lea.
The Human Cost is one cost that never appears on the balance sheet of the Accountants.
Dalek Invasion Earth: 1993 A.D.
Many things have been said about John Birt. . .
[Yet to be written.]
Spool back a year or more - even before the compulsory redundancies, or John Birt’s accession as DG - the BBC was preparing itself for the introduction of an ‘Internal Market’. For those unfamiliar with the term, an ‘Internal Market’ was a device used in large public bodies, such as the NHS and the BBC and . . . nowhere else . . . when trying to create an illusion of commercialism. The idea was that the BBC’s various departments, who used to work co-operatively, in order to make programmes, should now start to compete destructively against one another - as though they were rival companies - each trying to put the others out of business. It is the corporate equivalent of an auto-immune disease - in which the organs within the human body start to destroy each other.
The logic of starting an ‘Internal Market’ within a single organisation may also be compared with that of starting an ‘Internal War’ within the British Army - ordering the various regiments to stop uniting against the enemy, and to start shooting one another instead! The primary beneficiary will, inevitably, be the enemy. In the case of the BBC, that was likely to be Rupert Murdoch. The other beneficiaries were the Senior Managers, who had previously been content with modest civil-servant salaries, but now renamed themselves as Chief Executives and gave themselves huge pay rises, in the pretence that they were now running commercial businesses - while ensuring that they were still feather-bedded from the rigours of the genuinely free market. In reality, no truly commercial organisation would ever be stupid enough to introduce an ‘Internal Market’.
An ‘Internal Market’ was introduced into the NHS at the beginning of the 1990s. Subsequent reviews showed that it had led to an increase in deaths, but a reduction in waiting lists. (Possibly - he suggests cynically - because people were dying before they had waited too long?!)
The BBC’s ‘Internal Market’ was called ‘Producer Choice’. At least, that’s what the Management called it. We, the Staff, called it ‘Playing Shops’, since it appeared to be nothing more than a childish game of buying and selling: intended to keep all those superfluous bureaucrats occupied. Unfortunately, it was a game that would do irreparable damage to the BBC. It also proved to be a job creation scheme for otherwise unnecessary accountants.
When I first heard the words ‘Producer Choice’ they suggested something positive. They implied that power would finally be taken away from the BBC’s hopelessly out-of-touch management and passed to those, like Producers, who actually understood something about programme making and broadcasting. In the past, I had had arguments with my Manager, when a Producer had asked me to work on his programme, but my Manager had refused it allow it: insisting that it was a management responsibility to decide which staff were allocated to which production. I had sometimes had to arrange complicated personal swaps with other Cameramen, to keep both my Manager and the Producer happy. Now, if ‘Choice’ was genuinely going to be given to the programme makers, it should be possible to make cuts in that top-heavy and unnecessary management.
But the truth was the exact opposite. I sent a critique of the situation to managers at the time.
- In order to convert themselves into ‘Businesses’, each BBC department had to employ a multitude of additional bureaucrats - Finance Managers, Marketing Managers, Commercial Managers - all duplicating the work of identical bureaucracies in every other BBC department. This massive expansion of management, in a corporation already notorious for its overstaffed bureaucracy, was widely criticised in the press. One newspaper spoke of “One bureaucracy replacing another”. This was untrue. The new commercial bureaucracy had certainly arrived, but the old civil-service bureaucracy hadn’t gone away. But even this wild overstaffing wasn’t enough to cope with the complexities of ‘Producer Choice’. Millions more pounds of Licence Payers’ money was squandered on Management Consultants, hordes of whom took over whole floors of BBC buildings, on a semi-permanent basis. Under their guidance, our Managers went on courses, where they learned to perform the rituals of running a business - without really understanding why they were doing it. We called it ‘Playing Shops’. They produced ’Mission Statements’ and ‘Vision Statements’ and ‘Business Plans’ and a whole mountain of formerly unnecessary paperwork.
To us practical, technical people, it all seemed like airy-fairy nonsense, and a waste of Licence Payers’ money, but our Managers seemed to be enjoying themselves, and they evidently had nothing better to do. Unfortunately, when they came back from their jolly away-days, they insisted on telling us all about it, which was irritating. We DID have better things to do - like Making Programmes! I remember one of their presentations, to an audience of staff in a studio. They lectured us about the latest fads in business theory, including how to draw an Ishikawa Fishbone Diagram. They were being very serious, but we were already in a giggly mood, partly because of the self-important silliness of what we were being told, but also because a number of overhead projector slides had been up-side-down, or back-to-front, or both. These were the days before Powerpoint. Then, at a critical moment, a slide appeared, announcing in bold, important lettering that, “BOM reports to BOG”. Giggles gave way to unrestrained laughter and applause. It became impossible to take any of it seriously after that. I had never thought of the Board of Management and the Board of Governors as BOM and BOG before.
My one success in opposing the advent of Producer Choice was in dissuading them from using a particular job title. It was at another Management presentation, in front of a studio audience rostrum filled with bored Staff. The Mangers were explaining that the BBC would be divided up into a large number of separate ‘Business Units’ who would compete against one another. At the head of each ‘Business Unit’ would be a ‘Business Unit Manager’ , , ,
- I put up my hand and asked, “Is that an actual job title?”
- “Business Unit Manager? Yes.”
- “You realise that, in the BBC, job titles tend to be known by their initials?”
There was a split-second pause while everyone worked it out, and then the whole audience dissolved into laughter. The Managers were left looking awkward and embarrassed. Some were trying not to smirk. Up until now, they hadn’t noticed the problem. (I probably wouldn’t have noticed it either, except that I remembered an old Kenny Everett sketch involving a “Broadcasting Under Manager”.) So, the title ‘Business Unit Manager’ was never used, which is a shame. Perhaps I should have kept quiet. Sometimes the BUMs need to be clearly identified as such. And there might have been an overhead projector slide, explaining that, "The BUMs report to the BOG."!
Staff were inundated with literature, extolling the wonders of Producer Choice. It was all very expensive and glossily packaged. But it failed as information, and it failed as propaganda, because it was written in incomprehensible Birtspeak. Most of it remained unread, and went straight into the waste bin. I made the effort to translate some of it. I knew we were doomed when I read the phrase, “Corporate Governance will be Exempted”, i.e, while everyone else in the BBC would be required to earn their own living, the Senior Management would be given a free ride. With no commercial pressures to restrain them, their numbers and salaries were likely to expand exponentially.
Meanwhile, people like Producers and Cameramen, who had formerly seen themselves as ‘Programme Makers’, were to be divided into ‘Customers’ and ‘Service Providers’.
In the past, I had regarded Producers and Directors as colleagues, and even friends. We worked closely together, when making programmes, and frequently enjoyed ourselves doing so. The fun was likely to continue in the BBC Club afterwards. In those days my job had been simple: to provided the best possible service I could to the production. It was what came naturally to me and I was proud of it. Under the rules of Producer Choice, however, such friendly collaboration was to cease. A commercial relationship was supposed to replace the creative one. I was now to treat Producers and Directors as ‘Customers’ and, as their ‘Service Provider’, I was to provide them with a slightly worse service - in that I wasn’t supposed to give them any help unless they had paid for it. Previously, if a Producer had approached me in the corridor, or the Club, or the Canteen, and asked my advice on what camera mounting to use for a particular shot, or how to provide camera coverage for a particular scene, I’d happily have given my opinion without counting the cost. But now, if I gave help that wasn’t paid for, my department could lose money. But it was a cleft stick because, if I suddenly stopped giving free advice, my ‘Customers’ might go elsewhere, which would also cause my department to lose money. Fortunately, the dilemma was resolved by the fact that Cameramen are naturally cooperative people. It would have gone against all our artistic instincts to be less helpful than before. So, we didn’t do it.
Delving deeper into the Producer Choice literature, I discovered something much more interesting. I was supposed to treat Producers as my ‘Customers’ but, by the same logic, my Managers were supposed to treat ME as their ‘Internal Customer’! The definition came from the direction the money flowed. Producers paid money for my services, which meant that they were my ‘Customers’. But it was the money that I earned which paid for my Managers, which meant that I was their ‘Customer’, and they were my ‘Service Providers’. I explained this to my Managers on a number of occasions, often showing them the passage in the text. But they just couldn’t bring themselves to do it. They had become accustomed to seeing themselves as ‘Bosses’. All their natural instincts were to boss people about, not to provide a useful service. One Manager once made the mistake of trying to end a discussion with the words, “That’s what I pay you for!”. I very patiently explained that, under Producer Choice, he didn’t pay me. I paid him. He didn’t make any money with which to pay me. It was the money that I earned that paid for him. I was, therefore, his Customer, and I wasn’t particularly pleased with the service he was providing! The poor soul didn’t really understand and, although I was supposed to be a ‘Customer’, I wasn’t allowed to shop elsewhere.
As I noted at the time.
- In fact, the new language contained many sensible ideas. Sadly, those who spoke the language did not seem to understand those ideas. Their actions were diametrically opposed to their words. Thus, they spoke of ‘Delayering’ even as the management structure became larger and more complex. They spoke of ‘Open Management’ while using ‘Commercial Confidentiality’ as a brand-new excuse for greater secrecy. They spoke of ‘Empowerment’ while using threats of job cuts to ensure an intimidated, subservient and totally disempowered workforce.
My ‘Business Unit’ was to be known as TSPR: ‘Television Studio Production Resources’ (spot the offensive word here?)
I didn’t mind being a ‘Customer’, and I took an professional pride in being a ‘Service Provider’. But now they also wanted to call me a ‘Resource’. The word was incredibly insulting and dehumanising. It made me sound like some inanimate quantity: like coal of oil. No doubt some American Management Consultant, somewhere, had decided that if Bosses saw their Staff as valuable resources they would treat them better. But it didn’t work. The more our Managers thought of us as ‘Resources’, the less they thought of us as people. To make matters worse, at the same time that skilled craftspeople were becoming Resources, the Personnel Department were renaming themselves ‘Human Resources’ . So, if they were Human Resources, what sort of Resources were we? Inhuman Resources? Subhuman Resources?
My department might be sacking staff because they didn’t have enough money, but they had plenty to splash out on luxurious new offices. These were to be located in the basement, at the exact centre of Television Centre’s iconic circle. This had once been the video tape recording and editing area: in the days when video tape was two inches wide and a recorder was the size of a sideboard. Located beneath the statue of Helios, and his malfunctioning fountains, the area had been notorious for its damp, so much so that it was nicknamed ‘The Swamp’. But now that smaller, more portable recorders were installed in each studio, the area was vacant. At vast expense, TV Centre’s central, circular lawn, where secretaries had once sunbathed in the summer, was dug out and replaced by a vast and complex glass roof. The area beneath became a spacious, circular, open-plan office, known as ‘The Hub’. It was to be occupied by the Allocations staff of TSPR. So - spot the joke - they had filled ‘The Swamp’ with Allocators! The management offices were located around the circumference of the Hub. The reason that the management offices were arranged in a circle, humorists suggested, was that a circle was the natural direction of travel for headless chickens!
In order to become a pretend ‘Business’ it was decided that we needed a logo, to advertise our services. At further vast expense, an outside agency was commissioned to design one. I happened to be in my Head of Department’s office, discussing something else, shortly after the design was completed. Knowing that I was inserted in art and illustration, he showed it to me. I was polite. Seeing his obvious enthusiasm, I couldn’t bring myself to say what I actually thought of it. It resembled a whirlpool. It was meant to be a lens iris, but had been drawn by someone who had never seen one. A lens iris normally has five leaves, possibly six. This one had twelve. One of my colleagues suggested that it had been copied from the opening of a James Bond film! O.K., a lens iris might be a reasonable way of representing the work of camera and vision staff, but what about all those other skilled craftspeople in our department: sound staff, engineers, etc. Why weren’t they represented? But there was a worse problem. Our whirlpool logo could be interpreted as a lens iris, but it could equally be interpreted as a plughole! (I’m being polite.) It invited the motto, “Down the drain, with TSPR!” A spoof leaflet soon appeared (Not one of mine!), showing money draining away down our plughole logo. Worse still, it didn’t just look like any old plughole . . . It looked worryingly like the drain hole at the bottom of a Gentlemen’s urinal! A camera crew were discussing this observation in the tea bar, one day. I suggested that, to complete the image, it really needed an old cigarette-end floating around it. There was much laughter, until we noticed something odd. . . There were Lady Cameramen present. . . Why were they laughing?
Our plughole logo was etched into the glass doors of our brand new offices. It also appeared on the carpet outside those doors. When Staff stood on it, they couldn’t resist spinning round while bending at the knees, as though being sucked down into the whirlpool. . . . What? . . . Oh . . . That was just me then, was it?
It was also felt that our Business Unit needed a Marketing Department, to sell our services. At further vast expense, marketing people were recruited from outside industry. The dictated wisdom, at the time, was that the commercial sector was much better at doing such things that we BBC folk. Unfortunately, it soon became apparent that our new commercial marketeers had no concept of the chaotic, fast-moving world of broadcasting. They issued a glossy leaflet, making a number of promises to customers. One of them was that all telephone enquiries would be answered within two working days. “No!” I wanted to scream, but I think I explained it politely. “In broadcasting all days are ‘Working Days’. It’s a 7-days-a-week, 24-hours-a-day business. If you receive a phone call at ten o’clock on Saturday night, asking for an extra Cameraman for a recording on Sunday morning, they need an instant decision. It’s no use saying that you’ll give them an answer next Tuesday!” But our expensive new Market Department were just extra bureaucrats. They had no concept of working outside office hours. Our ‘Customers’ were soon making very rude remarks about them. And they were soon insulting both Staff and Customers by telling us how to do our jobs. A spoof version of their leaflet appeared (Again, not one of mine!) giving alternative promises such as - “We are always in a meeting”; “Your feedback will be lost in the system”; “Call our Customer Service Line - 9.30am to 5.30pm Monday to Friday (Wasting your breath at all other times - What? - Do you really? . . . What after 5.30? . . .)” It also pointed out that the Resource Coordinators and Duty Managers, who had previously handled this type of work, had done so perfectly well.
Staff, e.g. Cameramen, and ‘Customers’, i.e. Producers and Directors had always enjoyed an intimate working relationship. Our Managers and Marketeers were not part of that relationship, and would cause irritation, on both sides, as they attempted to interpose themselves between us. Our Head of Department decided to call some of our regular customers to a meeting, to canvas their views on ways of improving our service. It was a well-intentioned exercise, but he could have obtained the same information by talking to his own staff, who exchanged views with Producers on a daily basis. But that was not the way the hierarchy worked.
I remember meeting a Producer in the corridor. He looked concerned. Our conversation went something like this -
- “Here, Rog. I’ve got a meeting with your boss. What’s all that about?”
- “He just wants to know if there’s any way we can improve our service to production.”
- “Oh, I see. Well everything’s fine as far as I’m concerned.” As the conversation continued, an idea occurred to him. “Since I’ll be talking to your boss, is there anything you’d like me to tell him?”
- “Morale is pretty bad at the moment. Is there anything he can do to improve it?”
- “Good idea, Rog. I’ll mention it. Cheers.”
I had an almost identical conversation with another Producer, on White City tube station, the following day. No doubt other members of staff had similar encounters.
Subsequently, our Head of Department called a meeting of Staff, to tell us what he had learnt from our ‘Customers’. Apparently, they all thought the service we were giving them was very good . . . but . . . there was just one thing . . . They said we didn’t smile enough!
Er . . . Yes . . . Well, that was roughly the message I had tried to send. Saying, “You don’t smile enough” means much the same thing as “Morale is bad”. Unfortunately, he was not prepared to do anything that might actually cheer us up. Instead, his solution was to tell everyone to smile more! I wasn’t convinced that Camera Crews wandering around with forced, imbecilic grins on their faces would necessarily solve the department’s ills. It certainly wouldn’t convince the Customers. But, since this was the only feedback received, it became the new departmental mantra. It was management’s job to maintain good morale, by showing leadership, motivation, inspiration, etc., But, since our managers lacked the ability to do any of these things, they insisted we should cover for them, by pretending to smile.
- Staff were heard singing, “Smile Though Your Heart is Breaking”, and someone (not me) wrote on the Crew Room noticeboard, “The Beatings will continue until Morale improves!”
The Head of Cameras and Lighting, at that time, was an unsmiling Scottish smoker. He knew little about camerawork, but was an enthusiastic supporter all the latest management theories. Despite his own dour features, he was a champion of the ‘Smile More’ campaign. On one of his courses, he had learnt an explanatory example. We called it ‘The Parable of the Happy Carpet Fitter’. Whenever a member of staff visited his office, he would test it on them. It went as follows - “You are having a carpet fitted. You have a choice of two Carpet Fitters. One is the best Carpet Fitter in the country, but he is a miserable, unsmiling character. The other is not quite as good, but has a naturally cheerful and smiling nature. Which one would you choose?” He expected to hear a preference for the more smily Carpet Fitter. In fact, everyone he asked said that, if both men charged the same, they’d choose the better craftsman. They didn’t care whether he smiled or not.
I felt some sympathy for that particular Manager, as he gradually become disillusioned. He was aware that morale was crumbing around him, but was unable to understand the reason. I think he was even beginning to doubt the management theories that he’d once accepted unquestioningly. In a private moment, he asked me whether I believed in ‘Bad Building Syndrome’. It was a fashionable excuse of the time. I didn’t and, anyway, TV Centre was a wonderful building. But I told him that I believed in ‘Bad Management Syndrome’. To my surprise, his normally solemn features brightened into a smile of understanding. He escaped from the BBC shortly afterwards.
TSPR Management were reluctant to share their ‘Business Plan’ with Staff. They hid behind ‘Commercial Confidentiality’. Did they really imagine that their own Staff would leak trade secrets to the enemy? To Rupert Murdoch? Who did they think we were? The senior management?
When details of the ‘Business Plan’ did leak out (often via Producers) they did not inspire Staff confidence. For example, we discovered that the intended scale of charges for studio hire included no seasonal adjustment. Television studios tend to be busy in the winter months, and slacker in the summer, when productions prefer to be out on location. Either our new marketing team were unaware of this, or they hadn’t bothered to do anything about it. Staff and Unions protested - pointing out that any genuinely commercial organisation would have a sliding scale of charges: with higher rates during the peak season, and lower one during off-peak times. But we were ignored. Maybe that hoard of Accountants just couldn’t cope with the more complicated sums!
TSPR Managers and Marketeers also announced plans to ‘Target’ big Light Entertainment programmes who wanted to use large studios. “No!” protested Staff, Unions and me. “Don’t ‘Target’ anyone. If a Producer wants to use our studios, just say. “Yes!” You don’t want to insult the Producers of smaller programmes by telling them that you’re more interested in the larger ones. Remember that a Producer who is working on a small programme, this year, may be working on a large one next year.” ’Targeting’ is something that only happens when there are too many managers, who feel they should be doing something.
Again, Staff protests were ignored, but our views proved to be prophetically accurate. Because programme budgets were still being cut, many programmes, which had previously used large studios, were no longer able to afford them. There was an increase of demand for smaller studios, but these were the ones that our managers had decided to close! Smaller programmes ended up being made in cordoned-off areas of larger studios. They had to surround themselves with drapes, in an attempt to minimise the acoustic problems caused by all that empty space.
One claim, perpetuated by apologists for Producer Choice, is that this was the first time that the BBC had tried to measure it’s true costs. This is a myth . . . actually, no . . . It’s a bloody lie! I am aware of at least three previous accountancy systems, all of which claimed they could identify the BBC’s costs - right down to the last paper-clip.
At one time, the BBC’s accounts were only concerned with ‘The Bottom Line’, i.e. the cost to the Corporation as a whole. External Spends, i.e. Licence Payers’ money being used to buy services from outside the BBC, were precisely monitored. There was less concern about Internal Spends, i.e. the cost of one BBC department buying services from another. Such monies could circulate within the Corporation without incurring any real cost to the Licence Payers. At that time, the logic was that, once something had been paid for by one BBC programme, it became the property of the BBC, and could be reused by other BBC Programmes at minimal cost. Thus, programmes with small budgets, e.g. Children’s or Schools’ Programmes, could use expensive scenery, props or costumes, which had previously been paid for by big-budget programmes. Johnny Ball, the children’s presenter and writer, recalls that, when seeking inspiration, he would wander around the scenery store, to see what was currently in stock. Finding, say, a Victorian chemists’ shop, left over from a Dickensian serial, he would write a sketch set in a Victorian chemists’ shop, knowing that the scenery was available, and that the corresponding costumes would be in the costume store. This system enabled the BBC as a whole to keep its costs to a minimum, and to precisely account for all expenditure outside the BBC. However, since some costs were shared between programmes, it was harder to be precise about the cost of any individual programme. Not all the accountants were happy with this. They didn’t like the fact that Internal Spending was treated differently from External Spending.
The only time I was directly involved with production budgets was in the mid-1970s, when I was attached to the “Jackanory” programme, as a trainee Assistant Producer. By now, another costing system was in place which, once again, claimed to be able to identify the Corporation’s true costs, down to the last paperclip. Each programme was allocated a budget, and that budget was itemised in fine detail. It was broken down into sub-budgets for each of the various services: Wardrobe, Make-Up, Design, Graphics, etc. which the production might incur. (There wasn’t actually a column for paper clips!) Sums were allocated for Internal Expenditure on a equal basis with those for External Expenditure. It was a rigorous but very rigid system. The Jackanory budget included a sub-budget for Scenic Projection: a service which was never used. When my Designer asked if he could take some money from the Scenic Projection allowance to spend on extra scenery, it seemed a sensible idea. But I was told that moving money from one column to another was utterly verboten! The system was completely inflexible. Each sub-budget stood alone There must be no overspend in any one of them, even if there were significant underspends in others. Children’s Programmes prided themselves in never exceeding their budgets. So, on another occasion, when one of my sub-budgets was nearing its limit, I warned my Producer. Seeing that this particular total was purely Internal Spending, she laughed, and told me not to worry. “That’s just Mickey Mouse Money!” she said. To the abstract, arithmetical minds of the Accountants, Internal and External Spends were now treated equally, but the practical common-sense minds of Producers still recognised the difference.
Then, at the end of the 1970s, a brand new accountancy system was introduced,. It was announced with a great fanfare, and caused an industrial dispute. It was called “Total Internal Costing”. I attended a seminar, about this time. We were lectured at length about how wonderful the new system was going to be. I think I stayed awake. Once again, it would account for every last paperclip, and would finally abolish the distinction between Internal and External Spending. I was cynical about this. I quoted the “Mickey Mouse Money” line to a couple of the proponents who were there. They assured me that no Producer would ever think like that. I suspect that they had never met a Producer.
Each new system seemed determined to prevent the sharing of costs between programmes - despite the obvious economic advantages of doing so. One of the BBC Weatherman told me the following example - Weather Forecasts were broadcast from Pres. A, a small studio on the 4th Floor of TV Centre. The three weather charts were sheets of painted steel, to which magnetic rubber isobars and other symbols could be attached. Because of budgetary constraints, they had been made on the cheap. To have made the Atlantic Chart, the largest of the three, from a single steel sheet would have been too expensive, so two smaller sheets had been joined together, with a weld down the middle. The weld wasn’t particularly ugly on camera, but it was enough to irritate the Weathermen. Then, “The Two Ronnies” did a spoof Weather Forecast sketch. They built precise replicas of the weather charts in one of the main studios. Being a major Light Entertainment show, they had a larger budget for a two-minute sketch than the Weathermen had for many years of Forecasts. So, they made their Atlantic Chart properly: a single sheet of steel with no weld. Naturally, the real Weathermen asked whether they could use the new, superior chart, once ‘The Two Ronnies’ had finished with it. The production team had no objection. In the old days this could have been done with the flash of a project number. But the Accountants said it was impossible! It wasn’t physically impossible, of course. It was an eminently practical and sensible thing to to. But it was administratively impossible, because the current accounting system had no way of transferring property from one programme to another. So, after only a day’s use, that brand-new, very expensive chart had to be wastefully scrapped, and the Weathermen were forced to soldier on with their old, inferior version.
No doubt many other costing systems have come and gone, over the years: mostly unnoticed by a humble Cameraman. The only consistent logic seemed to be a belief that Programme Makers would have to change their methods (and be less efficient), in order to make the arithmetic easier for Accountants. No one seemed to feel that the accountant should adapt their arithmetic to reflect best practice in programme making. The administrative tail was determined to wag the creative dog.
- And, no doubt, each one of these systems will have claimed to account for every last paperclip. (A puzzle: why are paperclips always chosen as an example of expenditure? The BBC never had an in-house paperclip manufacturing facility, which means that the purchase of paperclips was always an External Spend. Since even the earliest accountancy systems could account for External Spends, with great accuracy, paperclips were never a problem!) Curiously, under Producer Choice, paperclips were specifically exempted.
Those who still believe that Producer Choice was an attempt to identify the BBC’s true costs are, perhaps, unaware of the sheer scale of false accounting involved. This is how I calculated the figures in 1994.
- In a genuine free market, competition would hold no fears for BBC Staff. Traditionally the lowest paid in the industry, we should easily be able to undercut any competitor. But the Accountants were doing their sums somewhat differently. Under ‘Producer Choice’, a Producer who hires a Freelance Cameraman need only pay the cost of the Cameraman, but a Producer who hires a BBC Cameraman has to pay not only the cost of the Cameraman, but also a proportion of the cost of BBC Management. To explain: My managers charge £25 per hour for the services of a Staff Cameraman. The market rate for a Freelance Cameraman is between £17 and £20 per hour. The BBC rate is, therefore, above the top end of the market rate. However, the actual wage of a BBC Cameraman is only about £14 per hour, well below the bottom end of the market rate! The difference between the £14 which the BBC pays me, and the £25 which it charges for me, goes to pay for my Manager, his Manager, all the layers of Management above them; the Personnel Department; the Finance Department; the Marketing Department; countless other Managers, Administrators and Accountants - all of whom draw large salaries and have awarded themselves company cars, free health care, perks and bonuses - and none of whom generate any income for my department. In corporate jargon, these costly extras are known as ‘Overheads’. Staff prefer the terms ‘Millstone’ and ‘Parasite’. Thus, while each Cameraman had to justify his own existence - earn his own income or be made redundant - the bureaucrats were given a free ride. Worse, they were given a free ride on the backs of Cameramen - on My Back!
Those Managers who were instructing us to wear insincere smiles, assured us that Freelance Cameramen smiled more than we did - which was probably because they were paid more than we were, and didn’t have to carry the deadweight of BBC Management! . . . Oh . . . and no one ever called them a ‘Resource’!
Three years earlier, one of those 12 Cobham Sub-Committees had been examining ways of charging management ‘Overheads’ to programme budgets. This was their final solution. All those layers of unnecessary, top-heavy, over-paid bureaucrats, together with their perks and freebees, would magically disappear from the balance sheet, fraudulently concealed within the budgets of individual programmes. John Birt would now be able to claim that he was paying more money into programmes while, in reality, production budgets were being cut. If there was any extra money, it was being laundered, via programme budgets, into the pockets of self-serving managers.
This was not the only way in which the accounts were being falsified. A new army of Accountants and Consultants were exploring BBC buildings: analysing costs and comparing them with commercial equivalents. Where no direct comparison was possible, or where the BBC’s in-house operation incurred zero cost, fictitious costs were being invented. For example - BBC departments had to pay fictitious rental costs for properties which the BBC already owned freehold. Fictitious hire charges were imposed for BBC owned equipment, which was so old that it had paid for itself by depreciation years before. It was alleged that these fictitious costs were necessary in order to create a “Level Playing Field” with the outside market. It is impossible to imagine that any real business would deliberately make itself less competitive for the benefit of its rivals!
- Some of the more astute departmental managers realised that they, too, could falsify the figures. They could avoid paying rent by roping off a work area and promising not to use it - at least, while the Accountants were watching. The false logic of the time seemed to believe that a facility which stood idle was more viable than one which was in productive use. By renaming or renumbering, facilities could be made to disappear from the paperwork, even though they remained operational in reality.
‘Producer Choice’ was first introduced, on an experimental basis, in a limited number of areas. One of these was the Scenic Manufacturing Department at Television Centre. Their workforce was cut by more than two-thirds. 120 highly skilled craftsmen were kicked out. The result was that a department, which had previously broken even, was now producing a deficit of £707, 000. It is unclear why this experiment was conducted, since no one took any notice of the results. Just as the end of year figures showed that Producer Choice was likely to be a financial disaster, it was extended across the rest of the BBC.
Corporate Cock-Ups: Part Six - the Climax of Incompetence
On April Fool’s Day, 1993, ’Producer Choice’ was fully implemented, about the same time as the compulsory redundancies. It was an immediate disaster. Programme Making rapidly ground to a halt. Later commentators would claim that this was a result of the previous years’s ‘Missing Millions’ cock-up, and that the BBC had run out of money. But that’s not how I remember it. This is how I described that first year, at the time.
- Producer Choice was imposed, against the will of Staff, particularly Producers, in April 1993. The sheer inertia of red-tape and paperwork brought programme-making to a virtual standstill. The accountancy systems, designed for static, predictable retail situations, were too inflexible to cope with the rapidly-changing, unpredictable world of broadcasting. For most of that Summer, staff, studios and other facilities stood idle, waiting for the bureaucracy to sort itself out. The lack of work not only affected the BBC’s in-house resources, but also those external facilities which had hoped to benefit from BBC business. Meanwhile, BBC Television was widely criticised for transmitting unprecedented numbers of repeats.
It was reported that the new financial control system required 14 separate levels of authorisation before it could settle a simple invoice, and that administrators had to be issued with a flow-chart in order to understand it! Creditors, including all those new freelancers, contractors and independents, were soon protesting about late or non-payment.
For anyone who wasn’t there, it will be difficult to appreciate the sheer cumbersome inefficiency of Producer Choice. In an attempt to illustrate matters, I wrote a spoof episode of ‘Star Trek’. Here is an extract. It imagines that an ‘Internal Market’ operates aboard the Star Ship ‘Enterprise’, and that an Accountant sits beside the Captain on the bridge. We join the story as the ‘Enterprise’ is attacked by an enemy battle cruiser.
- SULU: We have suffered several direct hits, Captain. Shields are down to 70 percent.
- CAPTAIN: Fire photon torpedoes - broad spread pattern!
- SPOCK: We can’t. The armament budget is already overspent for this year.
- CAPTAIN: You mean we have no photon torpedoes?!
- ACCOUNTANT: Don’t worry Captain. We have plenty of photon torpedoes - thousands of them. It’s just that we can’t fire then on this year’s budget. If you wait until the beginning of the next Financial Year, you’ll be able to fire as many as you like.
- CAPTAIN: But . . . if we’ve already paid for the torpedoes - how can we possibly save any money by NOT firing them?
- ACCOUNTANT: It’s a different budget! You obviously don’t understand modern accountancy techniques.
- SULU: Shields at half strength and failing!
- CAPTAIN: Engineering! Give me warp factor nine - immediately!
- SCOTTY: It’s nae good Captain! Ye canna change the laws of accoontancy. Mae spending limits cannae take nae moore. The dilithium crystals have been downsized, and mae capital plant budget’s gunnae blow!
- SULU: Captain! We are suffering sustained bombardment. Shields are collapsing!
- CAPTAIN: Can we divert surplus power from the warp-core and feed it to the shields?
- SPOCK: Not easily Captain. The warp-core is now under the management of a separate Business Unit. . .
- ACCOUNTANT: Why do you always act as though there is a problem? Don’t you even understand the basic concept of an Internal Market? It’s quite simple. In this situation, we can think of the Warp-Core Business Unit as the “Supplier”, and the Shields Business Unit as the “Customer”. If Shields need to purchase extra power from Warp-Core, they simply need to diarise a meeting with Warp-Core’s Marketing Team, in order to negotiate a sales contract. Of course, since this is an urgent situation, and Shields are desperate for the power, but Warp-Core is a monopoly supplier, market forces may drive the price so high that Shields can’t afford it.
- SPOCK: It’s logic, Captain . . . But not as we know it.
- ACCOUNTANT: I realise that saving the Galaxy is important to you, Captain, but that should not prevent us from introducing a properly audited system of internal cost recovery.
- SULU: Too late! Shields have failed . . . AAARGH!
- CAPTAIN: Medical Emergency! We have suffered a direct hit and severe casualties! Doctor McCoy to the bridge, now!
- VOICE MAIL: Doctor McCoy is in a meeting, right now . . .
- As enemy boarding parties swarm aboard, it is revealed that the Enterprise’s security guards have been ‘outsourced’ - to the enemy! I called the episode, “Doomsized”.
At the end of April, a survey form was issued to a random third of BBC Staff. Given the current ‘Climate of Fear’, we regarded it with suspicion. It was supposed to be anonymous but, searching the pages, we found ‘invisible’ dots, which would only appear under ultra-violet light. They were probably quite innocent, but some of my colleagues tore them off or obliterated them: such was the level of paranoia. Personally, I found an ultra-violet marker pen, and wrote, invisibly, “Don’t Be Nosey!” across them. Anonymous or not, I filled in my survey form with enthusiasm, as did 4,818 of my colleagues. And 93% of us added additional comments, since the questions were phrased in a manner which made it impossible to be adequately critical of management. Nonetheless, when the results were published, in July 1993, they were unequivocal. They showed a clear distinction between Staff attitudes towards ‘The BBC’ and their attitudes towards ‘BBC Management.’ Generally, Staff showed a very positive attitude towards ‘The BBC’ and their colleagues, but a distinctly negative attitude towards ‘BBC Management’.
- Of the BBC, Staff said - that they were proud to work for the BBC; that it provided an excellent public service, and that it produced high-quality, distinctive programmes.
- Of BBC Management, Staff said - that it was too bureaucratic; that it was centralised, top-down and controlling; that it could be described as a system of ‘baronies and territories’ (i.e. feudal); that Senior Management made little effort to keep in touch with Staff; that they failed to inspire or show leadership to their Staff; that Staff couldn’t trust what Managers told them, and that there was no means of upward communication.
- Of each other, BBC Staff said - that they were dedicated to excellence; that they had interesting and important jobs; that they used high levels of initiative and skill; that there were high levels of mutual trust and respect between team members - BUT - that, under the current management, they did not feel that it was safe to express their views, nor did they feel secure in their jobs.
Staff attitudes cannot have been influenced by the comments of Mark Tully or Dennis Potter, since the survey was completed months before either. By ironic coincidence, however, the results were published just four days after Mark Tully’s speech. Thus, just as John Birt was starting to defend himself against his critics, the overwhelming majority of his Staff were announcing their wholehearted agreement with the critics!
Line Managers were instructed to consult their Staff about the survey results. My Head of Department called a lunchtime meeting but, since Cameramen often suffer curtailed meal breaks, there was little time to discuss anything. So, I put my views into writing and sent them to him (I seem to have done a lot of writing that year).
- We discussed the problem of management jargon, the cliche-ridden ‘bureaucrat-speak’, which conveys no intelligible meaning to those of more practical disposition. (Actually, it is even worse when Managers try to mimic the language of Programme Makers, and only succeed in revealing how out-of-touch they are!) Even once the language is translated, Senior Managers seem to be talking about an organisation that few of us recognise. It is notable that Sir John Harvey Jones, after only a brief look at the Corporation, delivered an address which accurately summarised everything that is wrong with BBC Management. All the problems he identified were immediately recognisable to most Staff. Now, Mark Tully has spoken with equal accuracy. His account has far greater credibility than anything that comes from our Senior Managers. Despite all the money wasted on Consultants and Accountants, the Board of Management still seem to have less understanding of what is actually happening at Television Centre and Broadcasting House than a correspondent based in India!
John Birt liked to claim that anyone who opposed Producer Choice was simply “resistant to change”. It was an excuse commonly used by poor Managers who have failed to give adequate leadership to their Staff. It is a myth often quoted and, occasionally, actually believed, but it doesn’t really accord with human nature. Most of us are very happy to embrace any change which makes our lives better. It is only change for the worse that we resist. The argument was particularly ridiculous in a work area like mine, where continuous radical change was the status quo - where no two working days were alike; no two programmes were alike; artistic trends and fashions were constantly changing; technology was constantly being updated, and innovations were embraced enthusiastically; and each day was likely to bring unfamiliar challenges, requiring entirely novel solutions. Compared with the exhilarating pace of change that was our normal workaday routine, the tedious, yawn-inducing, purely administrative changes of Producer Choice were virtually no change at all. I endeavoured to explain.
- It is unfortunate that the current differences within the BBC are portrayed as a dispute between those who favour Producer Choice and those who oppose change of any kind. I suspect that most Programme-Making Staff would welcome radical change. It is the direction of change that is the problem. We would all welcome greater efficiency, less bureaucracy, more emphasis on Programme Making and less on Corporate Management. All of these things conform to the words of Producer Choice. But the practical reality is the exact opposite. . . . which is unfortunate because most of the Staff would wholeheartedly agree with the words. . . .
- We were promised that vast expenditure on Management Consultants and Accountants would would help to get our finances into order. In fact it has led to the BBC’s worst ever overspend.
- We were promised that the BBC would discover its true costs. Reasonable enough but, again, quite contrary to reality. . . . Accountants were politically required to fiddle the figures to create a ‘level playing field’ for the benefit of our competitors. As a result, fictitious costs were imposed upon activities which incurred no TRUE costs to the Licence Payer (e.g. rents on freehold property), while wasteful activities (e.g. selling off BBC property and renting it back again!) were made to appear financially viable. As a result, many local Business Units now feel obliged to dishonestly ‘interpret’ the figures they submit to the Corporate centre as the only way of conserving irreplaceable skills and facilities. The chances of producing TRUE costs from this tangle seem remote.
- We were promised that all this was necessary in order to get the BBC into good shape for the Charter Renewal. In reality, as a result of this Management’s policies, we are now approaching charter renewal having lost our position as the industry standard setter; having lost our reputation for quality and efficiency of Programme Making; having worsened our reputation for bureaucratic waste; with our worst ever audience figures; our worst ever morale; our worst ever press coverage; with studios standing idle, and several scandals involving Senior Managers. Is this good shape?
One aspect of the Staff Survey, which seemed to puzzle our Managers was the way that Staff attitudes varied according to pay grade. As might be expected, those on the higher salary bands, i.e. Managers, were less critical of management, although, when it came to questions about ‘Leadership’, even very high pay grades couldn’t bring themselves to be positive about the leadership they were receiving from above! More interestingly, the most negative views of management came, not from the very lowest grades, but from Salary Band Two (my own level) and, to a lesser extent, from Band Three. At this level, all the graphs showed a distinct trough. I offered three possible explanations for this.
- Firstly: Those below Salary Bands 2 and 3 are mostly secretarial and clerical staff. Those above are mostly managerial grades. Both are sedentary office staff, primarily concerned with paperwork. Bands 2 and 3 contain a high concentration of the people who actually DO things: the practical, hands-on people who do the physical work of Programme Making. We down-to-earth folk are naturally more sceptical about nebulous ideologies, particularly those expressed in ‘management-speak’. We will also be the first to notice when a policy, which sounds reasonable on paper, is failing to work in practice.
- Secondly: The secretarial and clerical grades, together with the management grades, are day workers: working 9-to-5, Monday-to-Friday office hours. Bands 2 and 3 contain most of the people who work antisocial shifts or completely irregular hours. Since 1990, the Management have imposed a number of changes to conditions of service. These have been consistently designed to give pay-rises to those who work office hours (including Managers), while inflicting pay-cuts on those of us who work antisocial shifts or irregular hours. Naturally, we tend to be distrustful of a Management that has been so systematically stealing money from us.
- Thirdly: Many Band 2 Staff enjoy excellent management. Unfortunately, it doesn’t come from THE Management. It comes from Producers, Directors, Production Managers, Designers, Camera Supervisors, Sound Supervisors, Lighting Directors, Floor Managers, etc. All of these exhibit the very highest standards of Leadership, Accountability and other Management skills. (Programmes would not get made without them.) Those of us who follow such excellent leadership inevitably find that Corporate Management suffers by comparison. I note that the only point at which Band 3’s response dips even lower than Band 2’s is Question 26, concerning the value placed on excellent leadership. This is hardly surprising considering the number of excellent but unappreciated Leaders in Band 3.
I urged my Head of Department to pass my writings upwards, through the management chain. I doubted that this would happen. Even if it did, my views were unlikely to penetrate the phalanxes of Managers and Consultants with which John Birt defended himself against reality. But, at least, I was making an effort to overcome those institutional blockages to upward communication.
Returning to my contemporaneous history of the financial year 1993/4, and the bureaucratic logjam which had brought Programme Making to a standstill during the Spring and Summer -
- As the Autumn schedules loomed perilously close, the only way to avoid blank screens was to make programmes without waiting for the Accountants. Staff found themselves working on a hurried backlog of productions, despite the fact that no budgets had been allocated, no contracts had been signed, no costings had been computed, etc. It seemed that the only way to cope with Producer Choice was to ignore it completely!
In December, I found myself working in two Elstree studios . . . which didn’t exist . . . on paper. My department had padlocked them, and promised the Accountants that we wouldn’t use them. Now, they were sneakily reopened, for a week, then sneakily re-padlocked after use. It was the only way to accommodate the workload. Fortunately, the Accountants rarely left their offices, and certainly never ventured as far afield as Elstree!
Christmas was approaching. I was no longer illustrating the Christmas Duty Schedule, but I occasionally managed a hand-drawn Christmas Card for my colleagues. This year, I couldn’t resist making reference to the delays and inefficiencies of Producer Choice; the mountains of superfluous paperwork, and to our wildly overpaid Director General. The front cover of my card was blank, apart from the words, “Owing to a backlog of Producer Choice paperwork, there has been a slight delay in sending out greetings cards this year.” Inside, the greeting was “Happy Bonfire Night!”
I also drew a cartoon for the Union newsletter. It showed Father Christmas being summoned to John Birt’s office.
Financially, my department was doing reasonably well. So far, the number of programmes we had lost to commercial competitors was exactly . . . zero. And external production teams were starting to bring their programmes into our studios. The only people who didn’t understand this, were the Accountants. Because of the lack of programme-making in the early part of 1993, they were making wildly inaccurate predictions at the start of 1994. As I wrote at the time -
- Towards the end of the financial year, the Accountants predicted that my own department, T.V. Studios, would make a loss of over a million pounds. A further programme of job cuts and studio closures was announced with undue haste. Within a month, however, it was evident that the Accountants had been behind with their sums. T.V. Studios had actually made a first-year profit of three million pounds! But the job-cuts and studio closures had already been announced, and Management could not be seen to change its mind. More staff were made redundant. Fortunately, there was no shortage of volunteers amongst the demoralised workforce. Two more studios were threatened with closure. In fact, production teams banded together to keep one of them open, but the other, despite loud protests from Producers, was padlocked to gather non-productive dust.
The large number of volunteers for redundancy, at the end of the financial year, were a reminder that those compulsory redundancies, at the beginning of the financial year, had been completely unnecessary.
- Not all the Resource departments have made a profit. Generally, those who have managed to retain larger numbers of in-house staff have been the most successful. Those departments who blindly obeyed the orders of the Accountants, shedding excessive numbers of staff and facilities, have rendered themselves economically unviable. The Film and Design Departments have made particularly large losses, and will have to be subsidised from profits made by Studios and Outside Broadcasts.
Managers and Accountants seemed to assume that Business Units could save money by sacking Staff and closing facilities. But, in the game of Producer Choice, Staff and facilities were their only source of income. You can’t Play Shops unless you have something to sell, and it needs to be something that Customers want to buy. Most Resource departments only had one thing worth selling, and that was the skill of their Staff. The Design Department, for example, earned its income by hiring Designers to productions. But now, they had made far too many of their Designers redundant. Managers seemed to imagine that they could hire them back again, as freelancers, whenever they were needed. But all that remained of their Business Unit was an empty ‘Shop’. There was nothing on the shelves. Not surprisingly, there were few Customers. Producers no longer needed to go through the BBC Design Department, where they would be charged exaggerated management overheads. Instead, they could go to those freelance, ex-BBC Designers, who they knew well and had worked with for years, and hire them directly. Inevitably, the BBC Design Department was doomed to closure. The same fate hung over the BBC Film Unit; the Make Up Department; the Wardrobe Department; Scenic Construction; etc. Saddled with artificial overheads and rents, and having lost too many of their most saleable assets, they could not compete. One by one, they would be forced to close. And as each department closed, an incalculable wealth of highly-trained, highly-experienced and highly-talented creative artists were forever lost to the BBC.
My own department had done better than most. Although we had undoubtedly dismissed too many staff, we had managed to retain a solid core of in-house craftspeople. So, in the game of Playing Shops, we still had a product to sell - a product that customers wanted to buy, and were unlikely to obtain from other suppliers. We were still doomed, of course. The whole system was aimed at the ultimate destruction of the BBC’s in-house craft base. But, for us, the final implosion would be delayed by at least a decade. This is how I described matters in 1994, at the end of my contemporaneous diatribe.
- At the time of writing, TV Centre Studios have had more work than they can cope with. The prediction that BBC Producers would choose external resources has proved untrue. On the contrary, external Producers are using BBC Studios, or taking BBC Staff to external studios. Having lost too many Cameramen, we no longer have enough staff to handle the workload. Many of those who were made redundant are now back working full time as freelancers. But we are gradually losing them as they get better offers. . . The idea that there was a large pool of freelance Cameramen in the outside market, who could be used to cover the shortfall, has also proved untrue. The number of qualified freelance Cameramen is far fewer than had been estimated, and they are reluctant to work for the low rates of pay offered by the BBC. In desperation our Mangers have been calling in unqualified individuals to act as ‘Camera Assistants’. But even with all the staff working excessive overtime, and all the outside help we can pull in, we are still shorthanded. The schedules are in chaos, with Allocators still trying to find Cameramen less than 24 hours before a programme is due to be recorded.
- In spite of this, the hopelessly out-of-touch Bureaucrats at the Corporate Centre still think that giving us another Pay-Cut is a good idea!
That first year of Producer Choice had revealed a number of problems, most of which were entirely predictable.
It was claimed that the changes would save money but, in reality, the opposite was true. Everything was becoming more expensive. There was the obvious increase in management costs: all those extra Accountants, Marketing People, P.R. People and other Bureaucrats - not to mention all those Management Consultants, without whom BBC Management now seemed incapable of managing anything. But even the costs directly connected to Programme Making were forced to rise. Previously, when the BBC operated as a single, coherent organisation, it had been able to buy in bulk, at discounted prices. But now purchasing was the responsibility of individual Business Units, or even individual programme budgets. Economies of scale were no longer possible. Everything had to be bought at the full market rate. In part this was premeditated: intended to create that “Level Playing Field” - a deliberate reduction in the BBC’s economic viability, for the benefit of our commercial competitors. (But NOT for the benefit of Licence Fee Payers!) The Senior Management were still toadying to the ideology of Margaret Thatcher, despite the fact that she had left office three years earlier.
And there were more double-spends, of the type that had caused the Missing Millions crisis. Every time a Producer chose to use external staff or facilities, the equivalent in-house staff were left idle, on full pay, while in-house facilities stood empty, but still incurring overheads. This, too, was partially premeditated, since any evidence of underemployed staff or under-utilised facilities could be used as an excuse for more job cuts and more closures - thus creating an ever greater market share for our commercial competitors.
In the Old BBC, the various departments had worked together, cooperatively, rather than competing against one another. This had enabled them to share costs, staff and facilities. As previously mentioned, props, scenery or costumes, which had been created for one programme, would be put into storage, and reused cheaply by other programmes. But now that each individual programme was required to balance its own books, it was no longer possible to share costs with other productions. Inevitably, programme making became more expensive. Storage also became uneconomic, because fictitious rental costs were now being charged for storage space (even though it was freehold property). The BBC’s magnificent Costume Store was located on the third floor of Television Centre. It was an Aladdin’s Cave of exotic creations, from all lands and from all ages of history. Scenery and Properties were stored in TV Centre’s Scene Block. Here, too, were magical wonderlands, where one might find artefacts from the ancient past, or from the science-fiction future, or from phantasy lands which had never existed. But now, these three remarkable treasure troves were being deliberately rendered unviable by the imposition of artificial overheads and rental charges. One by one, they would be forced to close. The treasures that they contained - which had been designed by BBC designers - which had been handmade by BBC Craftsmen - which had been paid for by the Licence Fee Payers, and which were the rightful property of the Licence Fee Payers - were thrown into skips or sold off to commercial suppliers. From now on, whenever BBC programmes needed to use those costumes, props, scenery, etc., the Licence Fee Payers would have to pay for them again, at full market rate, to hire back their own property.
Once these storage areas were closed, however, and their premises were left standing empty, all those overheads and rental charges magically disappeared (which proved how completely fraudulent they had always been!) By the topsy-turvy logic of Producer Choice, a space which stood idle was of greater economic value than an area that was in productive use for BBC programme making.
The sharing of facilities between different programmes and departments had even extended to studios and camera crews. When two small programmes did not need a whole studio each, they could build their scenery at opposite ends of the same studio, provided they recorded at different times of day. For example, the Children’s programme “Jackanory” had once shared Studio D, Lime Grove, with the Current Affairs programme “Midweek”. “Jackanory” was recorded in the afternoon. “Midweek” was transmitted in the evening. (This was memorable because of an occasion when the future Prime Minister, James Callahan, came in to be interviewed on “Midweek”. While waiting, he could find nowhere to sit, and was forced to retreat into the “Jackanory” set, which took the form of a barn, and tried to make himself comfortable on a bale of straw!) But now these programmes belonged to different Business Units, and even different Directorates. It was no longer possible for them to save money by sharing studios and crews. Once again, programme making costs were forced to rise and, sadder still, there would be no more senior politicians sitting on straw bales!
Many criticisms of Producer Choice cite the case of the Gramophone Library. Part of the BBC’s Public Service duties was to act as the national archive for sound recordings. These were stored in the Gram Library, and could be hired out, at notional cost, for use in BBC programmes. Now, like all other service departments, the Library had become a stand-alone “Business Unit”. It was expected to balance its own books, while being lumbered with having to pay management overheads and fabricated rental charges. The Library’s only source of income came from hiring out sound recordings to BBC Producers. But now, to cover the cost of those exorbitant overheads, hire charges had to be increased to the point where Producers could no longer afford them. Since most Producers were only interested in popular, commercially-available music, it was cheaper for them to go to a local shop and buy the CD, than to hire it from the BBC Library. But this left no means of funding the historic archive. It was a absurd situation. Left to the logic of Producer Choice, the Library should have closed down, like so many other BBC Departments, but then the BBC would have failed in its duty as the nation’s archivist. In fact, the Gram Library lingered on in a ridiculous loss-making limbo, until after the departure of John Birt, when it was rescued by the new Director General. But there was no such happy ending for all the BBC’s other archives - of scenery, costumes and props - or for the many classic video recordings which were destroyed because of the false rents, which made storage space unaffordable. The only one to survive into the longer term was the Make Up Department’s Wig Store, which was absorbed into my own department.
So far as the Viewers and Listeners were concerned, the most obvious consequence of Producer Choice was the damage it did to BBC Programmes. There was a general feeling, amongst Producers and other Staff, that the quality of our programmes had deteriorated. External critics agreed. This was a matter of opinion, of course, but the viewing figures were not. Audiences for BBC programmes had been low ever since the reign of the Accountants began. But in the first summer of Producer Choice they plummeted abruptly to the lowest they had been in eight years. By July, BBC One was only claiming a 30 percent share, far below the figure needed to justify the Licence Fee. ITV were getting 40 percent, while the ratings for BBC2 were less than those for Channel 4.
It had long been the BBC’s role to maintain a ‘Quality Threshold’ for the broadcasting industry. Left to its own devices, competitive commercial television was likely to race downmarket, seeking the cheapest, most dumbed-down, populist programmes. But, with its historical dramas; serialised classic literature and intelligent documentaries, the BBC had always managed the difficult balancing act of making programmes which were extremely popular, without any loss of quality or intellect. In doing so, a standard was set for the rest of the industry. But now it was ITV that was winning the plaudits and the audiences: setting a new standard for high-quality, popular programmes, while the BBC crippled itself with internal reorganisation. Even when BBC Producers finally untangled themselves from the managerial straightjacket, and started to make programmes again, they failed to compete. Their best efforts resulted in a series of forgettable flops: even in areas like popular drama, where the BBC had once reigned supreme. Despite good casts and high production values, BBC programmes seemed to have lost their edge - their spark - that indefinable quality which gave them audience appeal. Commentators spoke of a collapse in the ‘Creative Culture’ at the BBC. Some people blamed the compulsory expulsion of so many talented programme-making staff. Others blamed the stultifying deadweight of bureaucracy, and low morale. Yet others blamed cuts in production budgets, as Senior Managers sucked money out of programmes and into their own wallets - while claiming that they were putting more money into programmes! All blamed Producer Choice, and John Birt.
In October, I was sent on that “Extending Choice” Workshop, where (at vast expense) a PR Company bombarded us with management propaganda. It began with a 10-minute corporate video, intended to indoctrinate us with the need for Producer Choice. (Allegedly, it had been commissioned, at further vast expense, from Thames Television: BBC film makers having refused to be involved with anything so biased!) The video spoke of the need for ‘high-quality programmes’. Their list of current examples included, “The Darling Buds of May”, “Inspector Morse”, “Prime Suspect”, etc. - all of which were ITV programmes. Apparently, even propagandists working on behalf of the Management had been unable to think of a single high-quality BBC programme which had been made under the current regime!
As audience figures nose-dived, other, less welcome, statistics were rising sharply. There was a marked increase in the number of accidents and injuries suffered by staff. The Incidence Rate (the number of injuries serious enough to be reported to the Health and Safety Executive, per 1000 employees) had been running at 229 in the last quarter of 1992. But, for the first quarter of 1993, it leaped up to 390: an abrupt increase of over 70 percent. And this was not a one-off blip. The figure continued at the higher level throughout the year. The average for 1993 was 55 percent higher than for the previous year. Worryingly, this was happening at a time when the workload was abnormally low, due to the bureaucratic shambles, when it might be expected that the injury rate would also be lower. As the workload increased, in the Autumn, the accident and injury rate increased yet further. The figure for the final quarter of 1993 was 420: a 83 percent increase on the same quarter of the previous year. Many people blamed Producer Choice; staff cuts and changes to conditions of service. Personally, I blamed the change in nomenclature. Once we had been appreciated as skilled craftsmen, and treated like human beings. Our Managers had actually understood the advantages of keeping us healthy and safe. But now we were just dehumanised ‘Resources’ - objects - departmental chattels. So, no one really cared if a few more of us got broken.
And then came the allegations of corruption. When the BBC had been run as a low-pay, no-perks, public service there had been few opportunities for Managers to accept bribes and kick-backs. But now that they were being encouraged to ‘Embrace the Market’, it was inevitable that some would be seduced by of the Dark Side of commercialism. The BBC’s ‘Internal Market’ might only be the pretence of free-market capitalism, but those Managers who wanted to be lured astray soon found ways of doing so. A Sunday Times ‘Insight’ investigation focussed on one BBC Fat Cat, noted for his love of champagne and cigars. His luxurious lifestyle, funded by the Licence Fee Payers, had included a “conference” for Managers, which had run up a drinks bill of £2,200! He had previously chaired one of those ‘Taskforce’ committees, which had encouraged large scale sackings of BBC Staff, in areas like cleaning, catering, transport and security, and replacing them with private contractors. Now he was the Manager responsible for awarding lucrative BBC contracts, for services like cleaning, catering, transport and security, to private contractors. The Sunday Times claimed that he was not just a highly-paid BBC Executive, with a company Mercedes, he was also the director of a number of private companies, and was using his BBC office, staff and position to further his outside business interests. It was further alleged that he and his departmental managers had received generous inducements, including expenses-paid overseas jaunts; that he had paid thousands of pounds of Licence Payers’ money in fees to his own business associates, and that he had awarded BBC contracts, worth millions of pounds, to commercial businesses in which he, or his close personal friends were involved. These allegations, coming so soon after John Birt’s tax avoidance scandal, gave the impression of something fundamentally rotten at the heart of BBC Management. More press stories would follow, of sleaze and decadence at the “Loony Beeb”: including that of the newly arrived Managing Director of Radio, who had squandered over £10,000 of Licence Payers’ money on decorating her own office, in the colours of snooker balls! The Old BBC Management had been noted for its puritanical, straight-laced moral ethos. It was a reputation which had begun with Lord Reith and continued until the time of his fellow Scot, Alasdair Milne. But the market is amoral and, as BBC Managers tried to imitate its vices, they were now gaining a new reputation, for personal greed and financial waste.
A number of long-standing BBC traditions would be abolished as a result of Producer Choice. Only once they were gone did we appreciate just how vital they had been - but, by then, it was too late.
There was, for example - Training.
BBC training courses, particularly in craft and technical areas, were intensive, rigorous and followed by instant dismissal for those who didn’t make the grade. They was widely regarded as the best in the industry, if not the world. BBC trained technicians and craftsmen could be found in all the independent companies. Some people joined the BBC, just to get the training, and then deserted for larger salaries in ITV. (Those who were motivated by the art, rather than the money, tended to stay in the Beeb!) Effectively, the BBC provided training for the whole broadcasting industry. It was accepted as part of the Public Service remit. But now, under the logic of the Internal Market, training was a non-recoverable cost. It had to go. Craft departments had no income other than that which they could earn from Producers - their ‘Customers’. Producers were willing to pay for the service they received on a particular production, but they had no money with which to fund long-term requirements, such as training. BBC training courses were gradually phased out.
Much of the training in operational areas was ‘on the job’. Trainees would assist experienced operators, learning from them in the process. In time, the roles would reverse. The trainees would be allowed to perform increasingly complex operations, closely supervised by the experienced operator. Under Producer Choice, however, there were no funds to pay for supernumerary staff - neither for trainees, nor for trainers. Also, in the past, some of the less complex productions, particularly Children’s Programmes, had been willing to work with trainees or inexperienced operators. It was part of their duty towards ongoing training within the BBC. But now, every production had to pay the full rate (plus those inflated overheads) for each operator, and were understandably reluctant to use anyone who wasn’t fully qualified. Thus ‘on the job’ training, together with the more formal training courses, was forced to stop.
The division of the BBC into “Business Units” also prevented the interchange of staff between departments.
In the past, when the whole BBC worked together as a coordinated organisation, staff had been able to move from one department to another. This had provided efficiency savings. For example, Television Studios tended to be busiest in the winter months and slack in the summer. The opposite was true in Outside Broadcasts, who were busiest in the Summer, when studios were slack, and slack in the Winter, when Studios were busy. This seasonal variation in workload had been evened-out by an interchange of staff between departments. Each year, a number of Studio staff would be transferred to Outside Broadcasts for the Summer, and return to studios for the Winter. But under Producer Choice such elegant efficiencies were longer possible. Studios and Outside Broadcasts had been made into two separate ‘Business Units’ (Why?). Under the new feudalism, their Staff had become bonded serfs, the financial property of their own department, and could not be allowed to work elsewhere. Interchange of Staff between departments now became impossible. It wasn’t physically impossible, of course. It would still have been a practical and very sensible thing to do. But it was administratively ‘Impossible’, because the Accountants had not allowed any mechanism to account for it.
The inability of staff to move between departments also impacted on training and promotion. Until now, the BBC had operated a very successful system of attachments. Each year, staff from one department could apply for six-month training attachments in other departments. Those who proved their worth during the attachment might then apply for permanent positions. It was an intensely competitive process, at both stages, but it was the main mechanism by which talented staff could obtain promotion throughout the BBC. It was particularly useful for staff in those half-technical-half-artistic areas who wished to move into production. Through the attachment system people like Cameramen, Vision Mixers, Editors and Studio Management staff could progress to become Directors and Producers, and production teams would benefit from their practical and technical insights. But, under Producer Choice, there was no funding for training attachments. To or feudal-minded Management it was inconceivable that a lowly vassal, like a Cameraman, might have the effrontery to rise out of his allotted caste to become a Producer. It would have overturned the fundamental philosophy of ‘Playing Shops’ to believe that a ‘Resource’ could ever turn into a ‘Customer’.
Thus my generation of highly-trained, highly-skilled BBC craftsmen and technicians, who had been the backbone of programme making in the Golden Age of television, would be the last. We were destined to grow old in our jobs, until we retired or popped our clogs - and then we would be gone. For us there would no longer be any opportunities for promotion, and there were no young trainees coming on-stream to replace us. For people like me, the future had been abolished.
[To be Continued.]
1995 until 1995
Main memories of the period
Have you noticed the way that, after you've read a few, all Accident Report Forms start to sound like Gerard Hoffnung's 'Barrel' story? The following is the actual wording of a Hazardous Incident Report submitted by me after an episode of 'Pets Win Prizes', in TC6, on 7th June 1995. The literary style may be frivolous, but the factual details are all perfectly true.
- During a recording of 'Pets Win Prizes', I was operating a hand-held, underwater camera in a tank full of ravenous, flesh-eating Moray Eels: in order to obtain detailed close-up shots of bone-crushing jaws lined with razor-sharp teeth.
- Everything perfectly safe so far, then.
- The first eel posed dramatically, menacing the lens with a set of dentistry which would have made a barracuda jealous. I moved on to the second specimen: a long, mean, leopard-spotted killing machine, by the name of - 'Fang'.
- So, still no obvious safety hazard.
- "As long as you keep your fingers out of the water," I was advised, "he won't be able to smell you and won't try to eat you."
- Unfortunately, this simple principle had not been explained to Fang, who attacked immediately. My wide-angle Big Close-Up of vicious, predatory jaws developed into a rapid track-back and crane-up, without those jaws becoming noticeably smaller in frame - nor any less predatory. Most Cameramen would have given their right arm to take such a spectacular close-up. But I moved faster than most Cameramen. Nor did Fang understand that he was supposed to stop where the water finished. Rows of needle-like teeth erupted through the surface, followed by ravening jaws - and head - and body - - and tail! A full three feet of writhing, snapping carnivore was suddenly airborne. I suspect that Fang had recently seen the film 'Piranha II: The Flying Killers' and felt inspired. Amid a shower of spray, it hurtled out of its tank, narrowly missed the Common Edible Cameraman, and landed with a wet slap on the studio floor. This was followed by much slimy thrashing and a round of applause from the studio audience.
- The intrepid aviator was netted and safely returned to his tank. It is to be hoped that he has now learned the essential difference between a fish and a bird. But the incident could have been dangerous because he had made the floor paint wet and someone might have slipped.
Thus is not an anecdote - nor a story. It is just a moment in time. But it is a moment of Revelation - the moment that, after 30 years as a TV Cameraman, the true nature of my job was suddenly revealed to me.
- It is Thursday, 7th September 1995.
I am lying on a mattress. Beside me lies a charming young Camera Lady wearing short shorts. It's all perfectly respectable. We are on the floor of Studio One, at Television Centre. We are exhausted to the point of collapse. The rest of the Camera Crew, equally exhausted, lie collapsed on other mattresses nearby. All around us, between us and beneath us, the studio floor is splattered with puddles of green, purple and orange slime.
- Just in case the reason for this isn't immediately obvious . . . I will explain.
We are working on a series called 'Run the Risk'. It is a children's games show. The contestants are racing around a complex, elevated obstacle course. Below them are large tanks full of purple, green and orange slime, into which they are in danger of plunging. Overhead are dump-tanks, full of purple, green and orange slime, threatening to drench them from above. As the Children race, the Camera Crew race with them, up and down stairs, along perilous gantries, following their every move. By the end of the game, the Children are breathless and exhausted. So, are the Camera Crew. The Children collect their prizes, and go home for was well-earned rest. The Camera Crew set up for the next show, when they will have to do it all again. We have been doing three or four shows each day, for a fortnight. We are now beyond exhaustion. We are physically and mentally shattered. We no longer know what day it is, or what planet we are on. We can barely stand upright. Fortunately, there are a number of mattresses scattered around the studio floor. They are crash mats, positioned to catch any child who falls off the race track. At the end of each game, I attempt to position my camera immediately in front of one of these mattresses. Then, when there is a break for a reset and tidy-up, I can simply topple backwards - crash onto the crash mat - and lie there, brain empty, until I am called to get up again.
So, this is how I come to be lying, semi-conscious on a mattress, beside a charming young lady in short shorts; in the middle of Studio One; surrounded by puddles of green, purple and orange slime.
- But the Camera Crew are are not entirely inactive. What we are doing is - sipping champagne from BBC paper cups . . .
- This, too, may need some explanation.
My charming companion, wearing short shorts, is a talented baker. Whenever we do a series, she bakes a cake, for the cast and crew. This time her cake is a singular masterpiece: an edible, scale replica of the 'Run the Risk' set, including its three pyramids and central volcano. The Presenter, Peter Simon, is so impressed that he has bought the Crew a bottle of champagne.
So, this is how I come to be lying, semi-conscious on a mattress, beside a charming young lady in short shorts; in the middle of TC1; surrounded by puddles of green, purple and orange slime; sipping champagne out of a BBC paper cup.
- Oh, and there's one other thing I should mention.
- Bombs are falling all around us.
Not high-explosive bombs, obviously! These are water bombs, plummeting from the darkness high above and bursting on the floor, with a repetitive - "Whee - Splat" - "Whee - Splosh".
- Yet another explanation may be needed.
The Visual Effects Crew are working overhead. They have been refilling the dump-tanks with purple, green and orange slime. Less physically exhausted than the Camera Crew, but equally brain-damaged, they are now amusing themselves by throwing water bombs at one another. But, since gravity tends to act in a downward direction, most of the bombs are missing their targets and then tumbling towards the studio floor - "Whee - Splat" - "Whee - Splosh" - where the Camera Crew lie collapsed.
We are taking no notice of this aerial bombardment. We have learned to ignore such things. But then I am splashed by a near miss, and I hear myself saying, in my best upper-class-twit accent, "I say. Careful Old Bean. That nearly went in my cham-pine!"
- Then I get the giggles.
And it is at that moment that it came to me - The Revelation. It dawned like a shaft of clear light, penetrating my dark and fuddled brain. Suddenly, I realised . . .
- This is what I do for a living!
- This is my routine Day at the Office!
- This is my equivalent of the humdrum, nine-to-five, daily grind!
- And someone is actually paying me to do it!
Over the past 30 years, the sheer bonkers absurdity of my job has crept up on me so slowly, so incrementally, that it is not until I find myself lying semi-conscious on a mattress; beside a charming young lady in short shorts; in the middle of TC1; surrounded by puddles of purple, green and orange slime; sipping champagne from a BBC paper cup; ignoring the water bombs that are bursting - "Whee - Splat" - "Whee - Splosh" - all around, that it suddenly dawns on me . . .
- Isn't this a funny way to earn a living?
2001 until 2014
Main memories of the period
Leaving the BBC - and Afterwards
I only met John Birt twice while he was Director General of the BBC. The word 'met' may be an exaggeration. Twice, he visited my studio and walked past me on the way out. On both occasions he directed a single word to me. On both occasions it was the same word -
- I suspect that this word encapsulated his attitude to all the technical and artistic staff within the BBC.
So, one of the 'Objectives' at my last Annual Appraisal was to stay in the BBC longer than John Birt. (Oddly, my Line Manager would not accept it as an 'Agreed Objective'.) John Birt left the BBC in 2000. I attended Greg Dyke's inaugural address to Staff. His common sense, plain English and approachable manner were a welcome change. But it would take him a long time to unravel the mess he had inherited. In the meantime, his predecessor's primary policy continued - kicking out low-paid craftsmen, who did useful work at the sharp-end of programme-making, and replacing them with overpaid office-dwellers with incomprehensible job titles - characters who would become known as 'Empty Suits' (and have been parodied with painful accuracy in 'W1A').
The grotesque pantomime of 'Producer Choice' had already forced different parts of the Corporation to compete destructively against one another. It had destroyed the team-working ethos, so essential to programme making, by pitting natural allies against one another. It has also taken away most of the joy and excitement. We Cameramen were no longer respected as an integral part of creative process. We weren't even human beings. We were just 'Resources': commodities to be bought and sold, so that Bureaucrats could amuse themselves 'Playing Shops'. The separation of BBC Resources into a 'Wholly Owned Subsidiary' further reminded us that we were under-valued, unloved and unwanted. (They called it 'BBC Resources Limited'. We called it, more accurately, 'BBC Limited Resources'!) All those aspects of my job that motivated and inspired me for so long had now been surgically removed, in order to make life easier for Accountants. I might as well go freelance, and work purely for the money.
- So, having achieved my 'Objective', I decided it was time to escape.
My memory is no longer sure of the exact numbers, but the Camera Section were asking for something like 8 redundancies. They received 28 volunteers. This must have been almost half he department. Such was the state of morale. The morning that applications opened, a long queue of Cameramen assembled at our Personnel Manager's door. All wanted to be the first to volunteer. But she was late (an option not available to Cameramen). We had to get back to the studio before she arrived, so we resorted to leaving hand-written notes. My Post-It was the first to be stuck to her computer screen. Having spent many years cultivating the image of a Union trouble-maker, I had every hope that my offer would be accepted.
- It was. Many others were disappointed.
Financially, the offer was a good one. Not only was there the lump sum redundancy payment but, at my age, I qualified for 'Redundancy on the Grounds of Early Retirement', which meant I would also get a full pension. I was even entitled to a percentage of my 40 year bonus. And there was the possibility of freelance work in future. O.K. all of this amounted to peanuts, when compared with the astronomical pay-offs that Senior Executives would later award themselves (when found to be completely useless at their overpaid and unnecessary jobs) but, by the standards of a humble Cameraman, it was wealth indeed.
It was now 2001: a year that shares its name with an iconic EMI colour camera, and with a classic science fiction movie. I created a new desktop for my work computer. It depicted an HAL 9000 series computer, and flashed the message, 'Career Functions Terminated'.
I was sent on a two-day BBC Retirement Course. Sadly I was unable to pay much attention to what they were saying. I was directing a poetry video at the time, and some complications had arisen during the edit. Having no mobile phone in those days, this meant running to the nearest phone box, whenever there was a break, to check on progress. Later, owing to a cancellation by a colleague, I was able to attend a second Retirement Course. Those who say that there is "no such thing as a free lunch" have evidently not been on a BBC Retirement Course. Having been on two such courses, I have had four free lunches, and very pleasant they were. We were given good financial advice. I understood it perfectly, as I listened, but not at all when I tried to recall it later. It was all too complicated for me. For simplicity, I used my spare cash to buy the maximum extra pension from the BBC Pension Fund. We were also lectured about avoiding boredom in retirement. Boredom?! I had a huge backlog of projects waiting for me, things I had been unable to achieve while working the long, anti-social hours of a TV Cameraman. There were novels to finish, learned treatises to research and animated movies to make. I was intending a very creative retirement.
Out with a Bang
Destiny made one last attempt to prevent me collecting my redundancy. On the night of Saturday, 3rd March 2001, I was working on 'Match of the Day'. The programme was due to be transmitted live. I was scheduled to finish work, and to be stepping out of Television Centre, via the main entrance into Wood Lane, at half-past-midnight - exactly the right time and place to be blown to pieces by the car bomb! ( http://youtu.be/wbqR43vb6T4 )
One of the more stupid decisions made by BBC management when they built that new Reception area, was that they put the Newsroom directly above it. No doubt this gave journalists nice views over Wood Lane (if there are any nice views over Wood Lane), but it also provided an invitingly insecure target for any terrorist who disagreed with BBC News coverage.
A recent 'Panorama' programme had named suspects thought to be responsible for the Omagh massacre. A dissident Irish republican group, the 'Real' I.R.A., had taken offence. They bought a maroon London taxi, in Edmonton, North London; loaded it with up to 20 lbs of high explosive, and parked it in Wood Lane, immediately outside TV Centre. It was destined to detonate at the exact moment that I was due to leave the building. (Had they read my diary?) One of the reasons that I wasn't injured was that there had been a last minute change of plan. Most unusually, 'Match of the Day' was not broadcast live, but was pre-recorded. I was able to leave work early, and was well on my way home by the time of the explosion. I must have walked straight past that red taxi, without noticing it.
Another reason was that a coded warning had been given. The taxi had been found and the Bomb Squad were attempting to disarm it, with the aid of a robot, when it detonated. The fireball filled Wood Land and badly damaged the front of Television Centre. The unfortunate robot was thrown about 50 yards, narrowly missing its operator. The blast also hit White City tube station, on the far side of the road, where a London Underground worker was injured by flying glass.
The police had cleared Wood Lane, and the front of TV Centre, but no one had warned people in other areas. Some of my Scenic colleagues, who were working the night shift in the Ring Road, knew nothing about it, until there was a deafening bang and the ground shook. Bits of red taxi flew right over the top of TV Centre and clattered around them.
My main complaint against the Real I.R.A. is, not that they tried to kill me, but that they didn't use enough explosive. TV Centre's Main Reception area is a hideous architectural eyesore, totally out of keeping with the rest of the building. It was a product of John Birt's tasteless rebuilding extravaganza, and well deserved to be blown up. I had written to Ariel, to complain when it first opened, and received emails of support from the unfortunate souls condemned to work there.
Television Centre is a beautiful building: efficient of function and aesthetic in design. It dates from a time when architecture was space-age and futuristic, before modernism degenerated into ugly, brutalist slabs of concrete. It is an exciting, inspirational place, an ideal setting for imaginative people doing creative work. It's original reception area, later renamed 'Stage Door', is a delightful space, full of light and colour: dominated by John Piper's vibrant mural. It is spacious, but on a human scale. In contrast, the new Reception is a vast, soulless cavern: depressing, unimaginative and void. The gratuitous Henry Moore sculpture did nothing to lift the gloom. Grandiose yet meaningless, it is the architectural equivalent of an empty Armani suit - and, therefore perhaps, an appropriate metaphor for the whole John Birt era. Sadly, that taxi bomb only damaged the frontage, and didn't entirely demolish the place!
We enjoyed a very pleasant leaving party, in the sixth floor hospitality suit at Television Centre. Since a number of Camera, Sound and Vision staff were leaving at the same time, we decided to pool our allowances and have a collective party. There were no formalities: no Managers making tedious speeches, no embarrassing readings from personal files - in fact, no Managers. We had traced large numbers of old colleagues, many of whom had left years before and lost touch. The only problem was that there were so many familiar faces that I wanted to talk to, and not enough time to talk to each for as long as I would have liked. One memorable moment was when an ex-Manager greeted an ex-Cameraman with the words, "Hello, I haven't seen you since I sacked you!" Such was the success of our party that rumours of it spread throughout the building, even reaching the basement, where some Engineers were having a much duller retirement gathering in B209. Abandoning their own party, and following the sounds of jollity, they gate-crashed ours. They were most welcome, even if their alcohol consumption exceeded anything we Operators could manage!
It was the time of the 'Revolving Door Syndrome'. Large numbers of BBC Staff were taking redundancy; leaving TV Centre; making a half-circuit of the revolving door, and coming straight back into the building, to continue working as freelancers. The Management were keen to reduce staff numbers but, strangely, did not want to cut the superfluity of Mangers and Administrators. Instead, they were forcing out the people they actually needed - people who they would have to hire back again almost immediately. Exactly why they thought this was a sensible use of Licence Payers' money is unclear.
My friend Dudley Darby and I claim to have made the fastest ever turnaround between leaving the BBC as staff, and coming back again as freelancers. Our last day as BBC staff was Saturday, 31st March 2001. Our contract was due to terminate at midnight, exactly. Once again we were working on 'Match of the Day'. This time it was transmitted live. We were scheduled to finish work at five-to-midnight - but the transmission overran. Dudley and I were still on camera and, as the hands of the studio clock clicked vertical, we exchanged a quick smirk. Just as the stroke of midnight had changed Cinderella's coach back into a pumpkin, so it had changed Dudley and me into freelancers, without any perceptible pause in our camerawork. We hadn't even bothered to go around the revolving door.
After two days off, my first full day as a freelance was 'This is your Life', on the Tuesday; followed by 'Question Time' on Wednesday; then 'Watchdog' on Thursday, and 'Weekend Watchdog' on Friday: a full working week, as though nothing had changed.
The problem with being made redundant and then going back to work for the same employer, even as a freelance, is that the Inland Revenue insist on taxing your redundancy lump sum. (Fair enough, since the redundancy was clearly spurious.) The way to avoid this was to become an employee of some other organisation, e.g. an agency, who could then hire you back to your original employer. The BBC were currently kicking out most of the Studio Electricians. Two of their number, Alex Hambi and John Nixon, were setting up an agency, to hire redundant electricians back to the BBC. Rather than establish an agency of our own, we asked if we could join them. And, after negotiations, it was agreed. (The Electricians were surprised to discover how little Cameramen were paid!) So far as the BBC were concerned, I was now a freelance employee of the 'Keylight' agency.
I had done my sums before applying for redundancy. Allowing for my pension, and the fact that I would no longer be paying fares or meals away from home, it appeared that I only needed to work one day a week to earn as much as I had been earning as staff. This was my intention. Now I would have the free time to tackle that backlog of creative projects that I had been saving up for my retirement - But no - No yet. The BBC were calling me in so often that I was almost working full time. And, without any effort on my part, I was also picking up plenty of freelance work outside the BBC. I even found myself lecturing about camerawork at Ravensbourne College.
Working for the BBC as a freelancer was much more relaxing than being a member of staff. I could take leave whenever I wanted it, without argument. If I didn't want to do a particular show I could simply decline the offer. I no longer had to worry about bureaucratic nonsense like 'Objectives' or 'Annual Appraisals'. Producer Choice and the follies of Senior Management no longer affected me. And, with my pension, I was earning far more money than ever before. O.K. working as a Cameraman on live programmes is still a high-stress situation, but it is a positive, creative stress that is ultimately rewarding. The entirely negative, artificial stress, created by the high-handed diktats of BBC Management, was a burden lifted from my shoulders. When irate Staff Members accosted me in the crew-room, demanding to know how the Union was going to resist the latest Management outrage, I could shrug calmly and point out that it was no longer my problem. If they wanted to sort out the BBC, they'd have to become Union reps themselves, and fight the battles I used to fight on their behalf. I no longer worked for the BBC. I worked for 'Keylight', and they were a very good employer.
It was true. Somehow those two Electricians and their Secretary were able to organise the inherently chaotic, irregular schedules of Cameramen, with a friendly efficiency that the whole administrative hierarchy of the BBC had been unable to achieve. They always acted as though it was their job to provide a service to me, whereas the BBC management had always expected me to serve them. We had only intended to stay with 'Keylight' for the 30 days (or whatever) necessary to avoid tax. But we were so comfortable there, and everything worked so well, that we stayed. Their modest percentage was well worth it. After a couple of years, however, local BBC Managers began a vindictive campaign against 'Keylight' (for very questionable reasons). BBC Allocators announced that they were no longer prepared to hire us through the agency, and insisted on booking us directly. We resisted, out of loyalty to John and Alex, but were overruled. The work continued to roll in, much as before, but it was never quite the same. I still have a smart and comfortable fleece, emblazoned with the 'Keylight' logo. I wear it with pride.
One of my last duties as a BBC Staffer had been to train up a new generation of college leavers. I assumed that, within a few years of my departure, my former trainees would have become fully competent cameramen, and my services would no longer be required. I was wrong. Ten years passed and I was still being called in to work on BBC programmes, although the workload was gradually declining.
In 2011, I discovered a shadow on my vision. I had macular degeneration: not a good thing for a Cameraman. The condition was treated and has stabilised, but my eyesight is not a clear as it was. The surgeon says that I am the worst type of patient. Because my vision was so sharp before, I am aware of minor imperfections that wouldn't bother others. Most people, he tells me, would be very pleased with eyesight as good as mine. I can still read some of the bottom line of the opticians' chart, provided I wait for the blotches to clear. Unfortunately, when working as a TV Cameraman, you don't have time for the blotches to clear. You have to be able to focus instantly. Also, I had now reached my 65th birthday. My original contract with the BBC had only required me to work until I was 60. Having given them an extra 5 years, and having reached the conventional retirement age, I decided it was time to stop working. Next time the phone rang, and the BBC asked for me, I told them that I (Roger Bunce, Staff Number 119760P, Pension Number M33790A, after 46 years with the BBC, staff and freelance) had finally retired.
So, I no longer had to go to work, and the children had left home. Now, surely, I could begin to tackle that backlog of creative projects? - No - Not yet - The children had left home, but now the Grandchildren had arrived! In an age when both parents have to work, it is we grandparents who have become unpaid, full-time childminders. Romping on the carpet with a toddler was a pleasure when I was a young parent. Now that I am older, and my joints are stiffer, it is not so easy. But I still do it - and enjoy it.
Even that phase of my life is now ending. Our youngest Grandson has started school, giving us some free time during the day. So, I am beginning to tackle that creative backlog. My gothic horror novel is completed, but yet to find a publisher. I have written up a couple of my learned treatises (crackpot theories I have developed over the years) and am researching others. My theory about the nature of Gravity, and other fundamental forces, predicted that the Expansion of the Universe was accelerating, long before astronomers confirmed this. My studies of Ancient Egypt have concluded that Moses was a New Kingdom Pharaoh! Still at the research stage, are projects as varied as a theory about Bronze Age contact between Britain and Mycenaean Greece, and a history of the English V-Sign. I have no idea what I'll do with them all when I've finished, but at least all those abstract ideas, that have been buzzing around in my head for so long, are achieving a more tangible form, in writing. I am also teaching myself the art of animation. I am aiming for a style of computer animation that doesn't look like computer animation. Two of my early experiments may be see on YouTube. 'The Battle of Beckenham' is an epic with a cast of thousands, and no plot ( http://youtu.be/pRIYv6nvS9Q ), while 'Cameraman: The Movie' is a surprisingly accurate impression of life at BBC Television Centre, in the 1970s ( http://youtu.be/Hgu-S9kSik0 ).
Despite having left the staff in 2001, I still see myself as a loyal BBC person. I still refer to the BBC as 'Us' not 'Them'. I often find myself arguing in support of the Licence Fee. I regularly attend reunions of former colleagues, where we reminisce about our contribution to the Golden Age of TV. And I still get bloody furious at the idiotic antics of those corrupt, self-serving parasites who overpopulate the senior levels of corporate management! The BBC must be one of the greatest assemblages of talented, creative, imaginative people in the world. And despite the hard work and low pay, it was always a very happy and humorous assemblage. It has been a pleasure and an honour to have shared their company, and to have played my small part in their success. It was only the management who let everyone else down. They didn't seem to belong to the same organisation. The phrase 'Lions led by Donkeys' springs to mind. The Public Accounts Committee has now exposed some of the greed and incompetence which has long been evident to staff. I wish Tony Hall every success in sorting them out, but fear that the problem my be too large, and too deeply entrenched. I was particularly angered by the decision to sell and demolish much of Television Centre. It is a appalling act of cultural and architectural vandalism, and a colossal waste of public money. Only £200-million was made from the sale, while over £2-billion has been squandered on moving into inferior substitute premises. Only BBC management could 'sell the family silver' and make a loss on the deal. I have been playing an active part in the campaign to save TV Centre: writing to the press, M.P.s, etc. (See www.savetvcentrestudios.co.uk/arguing-the-case/ ) No doubt we will fail. Too many dodgy business interests stand to benefit from the deal. But cultural historians must eventually recognise that it was a disgraceful blunder, and I want to be on record as having opposed it at the time.
And now I'm paying another visit to YouTube, and listening again to Mitch Benn's wonderful song, 'I'm Proud of the BBC' ( http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=p3q2iZuU5WM ) My sentiments, exactly.
2010 until 2014
Main memories of the period
Memories of BBC Television Centre
The following section consists of three personal reflections on BBC Television Centre, written, for various reasons, between 2010 and 2014. (Some phrases may be repeated!)
Television Centre at 50
- This first piece was written in 2010, shortly after an event at the NFT had celebrated 50 years of Television Centre. The original, illustrated, version may be found on the Tech-Ops History web-site, on Page 171
This year BBC Television Centre reached its 50th anniversary - a fact recently commemorated at the NFT. Here is a brief personal tribute to the old place - when it was a young place - even before I started there. (Is it possible to feel nostalgia for a time before your own memories begin? I think it must be, but they may not have invented a word for it yet.)
The brand new TeleCentre was an iconic example of that futuristic, space-age design of the late 1950s and early 60s: an architectural style that falls somewhere between the Festival of Britain and Tracy Island. That same design style could be found in the Science Fiction comic strips of the period. This is the sort of building where Dan Dare or Jet Morgan might have made their headquarters. Amonsts the central sculptures is a great, concrete saucer, which looks just like the spaceship from 'Forbidden Planet'. And, to me, the main circle will always seem incomplete without Thunderbird Three coming up through the middle.
At the NFT, Esther Rantzen recalled meeting a senior Personnel Manager, while TV Centre was still under construction. He was a man who had formerly worked in the Colonial Service. He explained that the layout of the building, with its concentric corridors and ring-roads, was primarily intended to preserve the BBC's internal caste system: to prevent the important people ever having to mingle with the riff-raff. The Artistic Types would enter the studios from the inner circle, via the smart Assembly Areas, while the dirty-handed Scene Shifters and others would come and go through the outer Ring-Road: a sort of 'Tradesmen's Entrance'. Their paths need never cross. Meanwhile, the Production Teams could look down their noses at both from the elevated isolation of their first-floor galleries. And the Producers had their own booths, with glass to protect them even from other members of their own team.
- And you thought it was all about being a hyper-efficient programme-making factory?
- I suspect this explanation says more about the attitudes of the BBC Personnel Department, than about the workings of TV Centre.
Amongst the few failures in the original design were the centrepiece fountains. They were intended to play radially across an elevated pool, from which a hollow, cylindrical waterfall cascaded into a lower pool, between the allegorical sculptures of 'Sound' and 'Vision' - the two components of the television signal. Old film and photos show that they made an aesthetically pleasing display. Sadly, the fountains were only allowed to play on special occasions. There were two problems.
- Firstly, they leaked into the basement below, which contained the video tape editing suites. The area was so notorious for its damp, that it became known as 'The Swamp'. The entire site had once been marshland. Decades later, VT moved out, and the Allocations Department of Studio Resources moved in. So - yes, - they filled the Swamp with Allocators (everybody groan).
- Secondly, BBC Secretaries, working in inward-facing offices, found that the sight and sound of continually cascading water, played havoc with their bladder control.
Another thing which offended the more sensitive BBC Secretaries was T.B. Huxley-Jones' magnificent statue of the sun god Helios. Its golden and very masculine anatomy lacked the traditional fig leaf. Some members of staff gave it the crude nickname, 'Golden Balls'. More elegantly, Frank Muir is said to have christened it, 'Cock d'Or'. (From 2007-2009, 'Golden Balls' became the knowing title of a daytime game show, fronted by Jasper Carrot. It was shown on ITV, but recorded at BBC Television Centre.)
Two of my favourite tales of old TC involve Michael Bentine and his programme 'It's a Square World' (1960 - 1965). Bentine loved TV Centre so much that he liked to destroy it catastrophically at the end of each series (with the aid of Jack Kine's Special Effects department). On one occasion, with guest star Jack Hawkins in the studio, it was torpedoed and sunk by a German U-boat. On another, it was attacked by Red Indians. It was even blasted into space, enabling Bentine to look back at the world and say, "See, I always said it was square!" Patrick Moore then appeared in the 'Sky at Night' studio and explained that the new object in the night sky was BBC Television Centre. "It is believed to contain life, but it is unlikely to be intelligent."
Humourless BBC Management were so concerned by this disrespectful use of 'their' building, that Michael Bentine received a stern memorandum, informing him that, "Under no circumstances must BBC Television Centre be used for purposes of entertainment." It was a memo which he treasured for the rest of his career.
BBC staff came to accept that whenever surreal mayhem broke out around TV Centre, it probably had something to do with Michael Bentine. On one famous occasion, this assumption proved incorrect. There was a real armed robbery at the BBC cashiers. As the robbers made their getaway, with stockings over their faces, a helpful security man opened the gate for them, greeting them with a cheery, "Good to see you, Mr. Bentine."
In the early 1960s, BBC staff and talent were escaping to better-paid jobs with the new-fangled Independent Television. 'It's a Square World' satirised the situation by portraying TV Centre as a prisoner-of-war camp, with inmates tunnelling their way to ITV. This skit was re-shown at the NFT commemorations. It included a memorable shot of Dick Emery, dressed as a German airman, climbing into the cockpit of something that appeared to be an aircraft, until a wider shot revealed it to be a Messerschmitt bubble car!
Michael Bentine did escape to ITV in 1966. His reason for leaving was that BBC programme budgets were being cut. And you thought that sort of thing only started when the Accountants took control? No, they were making the same mistakes even back in 1966.
The mismanagement of the last couple of decades has done tragic damage to a once magnificent building - not just through neglect, but through ill-judged rebuilding. The new Reception area on Wood Lane is a vast, soulless eyesore, as are many of the open-plan offices which have disrupted the internal dynamics. The policy of privatisation has led to a lack of maintenance; the virtual abandonment of the Canteen and reduced the Assembly Areas to a pointless mess. Now, having wasted millions of pounds of Licence Payers' money on vandalising a classic piece of design, they are planning to waste millions more by abandoning it completely: although even this idea seems to lack any clarity of purpose.
This second piece, concerning some of the peripheral areas of Television Centre, was written for an internet forum, also in 2010 (I think).
After the Studios, the most important part of the building was the Club. Back in the Golden Age of Tele, when TV Centre was the most efficient programme-making factory in the Universe, the Club was its main ideas factory. This is where people from different disciplines would hold impromptu planning meetings, exchange thoughts and cross-polonate their ideas. People from different departments tended to gather in their own particular areas of the club. This meant that, if you wanted to talk to someone about scenery, costumes, lighting, sound etc., you'd know exactly where to go to find the appropriate experts (even if you just wanted a free haircut from the Make-Up department). And you didn't have to pay, or have a project number, or do any paperwork, to pick their brains. Everyone was naturally helpful and willing to share their experience (the alcohol helped, of course). Because everyone was BBC Staff, they all felt themselves to be part of the same team. There was none of the defensiveness or secrecy which are understandable amongst a freelance workforce.
Equally, if you had an idea for a programme, or a joke for a comedy sketch, you knew where to find the appropriate production teams. Light Entertainment always used to drink in the side bar on the left (the name of which I've forgotten). Here, in the good old days, Dennis Main Wilson used to hold court, jabbing you in the chest with his finger as he announced that he had just discovered the greatest new comedy talent since Hancock. He was a wonderful character. A small man of boundless energy, whose enthusiasm and optimism were never dampened by age, or even by BBC Management. His office was on the fourth floor, directly opposite the entrance to the Club. He claimed to have chosen it for that reason. Most Light Entertainment offices were sited as close to the Club as possible.
One of the worst thing that ever happened in the history of TV Centre was the refurbishment of the club. Carpets, curtains and drapes were removed - all the soft bits that absorbed the sound. The resulting acoustics were appalling. Those quiet, serious (if slightly giggly) chats in which so many programme ideas were born, were no longer possible. After that, the Club is only suitable for people who want to drink a lot and shout.
That Side Bar, beloved of Light Entertainment, was later converted into a Gym: which tells you a lot about the changing nature of the BBC Workforce. Originally, the majority of BBC Staff had done strenuous physical work, shifting scenery, rigging lamps, operating cameras, etc. - standing up jobs. Such people had no need of a gym, since they had plenty of exercise during their working day. They needed somewhere to relax. But under John Birt, the low-paid workers were replaced by over-paid managers, administrators, accountants and other bureaucrats, who lived in offices and meeting rooms, and sat on their backsides all day. Such people had no need of any additional relaxation. They needed a gym!
This was another melting pot. Actors and performers didn't have time to remove their costumes during meal breaks, so you were quite likely to share your dinner with Victorian sea-faring men from the Onedin Line, or Doctor Who monsters, not to mention scantily-clad dancing girls. On one occasion I shared a table with three white-haired hags, whose faces were covered in sores and pustules. I think they were meant to be in-mates of Newgate Gaol, or Bedlam Madhouse. Their make-up was very realistic, but not good for the appetite.
When TV Centre was working at maximum efficiency, the canteen extended over four floors of the Restaurant Block. There was Grill and Salad on the Third Floor, and 'Works Canteen' fare on the First Floor. For a while there was even a burger and hot-dog bar on the Ground Floor. But posh people, with larger salaries and longer lunch breaks, ate on the Second Floor, where they had waitress service, and even things like a wine list. A Camera Crew once decided to save up their Luncheon Vouchers and blow them all on a Second Floor meal. A waitress offered them the wine list but then, noticing that they were rude mechanicals, hesitated, "Or would you rather just have lagers?" Huh!
The Second Floor Canteen had a balcony which overlooked diners on the First Floor. We used to imagine that this was so that the posh people could do their Henry VIII impressions: tossing chicken bones down onto the peasants below.
Also worth mentioning
The gorgeous John Piper mosaic in the old Reception area (later called 'Stage Door'). I've no idea as to its title, or what it is supposed to represent. It's an abstract. It seems to say 'Colour Television' - even though it was made in black-and-white times. Possibly the texture of the mosaic tiles has accidentally captured the pixel structure of a colour TV picture. Echoes of that mosaic work may be seen in columns and wall coverings around Television Centre's central circle.
The original Raoul Dufy painting on the sixth floor (now moved to Broadcasting House).
The South Hall staircase - the largest cantilevered staircase in Europe (I think?) When you stand at the summit, there appears to be nothing underneath to support you - which creates a wonderfully perilous sense of altitude. The vertical perspective is exaggerated by the backlit flutings of the side walls, and by the glazing bars of that huge six-storey-high window.
The massive costume store that used to be on the third floor.
The scenic construction areas, where those vast back cloths were hand painted.
The sheer efficiency of the building when working at its peak - a different programme in every studio, every day - and a reset and relight in every studio, every night. It all ran at the speed of a Formula One pit-stop. And the sheer buzz - the sense of excitement and creativity - of art and adrenalin - that came from working at those speeds - on mostly live programmes. And much of that efficiency was down to that brilliant original design - the circular hub, with its two concentric ring-roads - the inner circular corridor, with its three Assembly Areas, named after the three primary colours of the television picture. It wasn't just a hyper-efficient programme-making factory. The whole building was a living, functioning work of art.
This third piece was written as part of the 'Save TV Centre Studios' campaign of 2013
Arguing The Case
In this article Roger Bunce makes the case for retaining as many of the TV Centre studios as possible
1: The Architecture.
BBC Television Centre is a design classic - an iconic example of that futuristic, space-age architecture of the late 1950s and early 60s. It belongs to an exciting, experimental period of design that gave us the Festival of Britain, Coventry Cathedral, Brasilia and Tracy Island. Modern construction techniques, involving gleaming glass and steel, are blended with traditional treatments, including brick, tile, timber and mosaic, to create forms that are entirely original. There is sculpted concrete, but it is used sparingly, with none of the dingy, graffitied slabs that became fashionable in the later 1960s. The whole building is a work of art, and the staff within are motivated and energised by the aesthetics of their surrounding. Those who wish to demolish such an imaginative vision, are taking philistinism to a level unknown since the days of Goliath.
It is clear from the original documents that the architects were not just building a studio centre, they were deliberately creating a permanent monument. They describe it as 'A new London landmark' - hence the sculptures and fountains. They succeeded. From the start, programme-makers were so inspired by TV Centre's art and architecture that they were using it as a backdrop for their productions. From the 'Opening Night', via 'Square World', 'Record Breakers', 'Top of the Pops' and 'Blue Peter', right up to the closing night 'Madness' concert, Television Centre has starred as a location in its own productions. Broadcasts from the central circle or the front car park became such common occurrences that exterior plugging points were installed for cameras and microphones. And, as a result, the architecture of BBC Television Centre is known to viewers all over the country - and overseas. It is an immediately recognisable symbol. There is no other building quite like it. The uninspired structures at Salford Quays will never be used in this way, nor will they ever gain such widespread public recognition. They are just bland rectangular slabs, like so many others. As for the gaping, pointless void of the New BH Newsroom, it looks like a singularly ill-favoured shopping mall!
Another of the original concepts of TV Centre is that it could be endlessly adaptable. It could be extended, or contracted, re-equipped or rebuilt, in accordance with operational needs. It would never be necessary for the BBC to leave!
2: The Efficiency of the Building.
Behind the sculptures and the mosaics there is another TV Centre; the functional TV Centre; the programme-making machine. And this is another masterpiece of design. When TV Centre was being planned, the Senior Management of the BBC included Senior Producers and Chief Engineers: people with an intimate understanding of programme-making: both from the creative side, and from the nuts-and-bolts practical realities. They had learned how studios work from their experiences of Alexandra Palace, Lime Grove and Riverside. Working with the architects, they were able to design a complex which was ideally laid-out for speed and efficiency of operation. Everything is in the right place. The dynamics work. The encircling Ring Roads ensure the delivery of scenery and equipment. The Assembly Areas funnel the cast from their dressing rooms, via Wardrobe and Make-Up, into the studios. Everyone and everything arrives at the right place at the right time, ready to go. At the peak of its operation, one studio could mount a different programme each day, and could be completely reset and relit each night. Turnarounds were accomplished with all the slickness of a Formula One pit-stop. And there is a natural buzz and excitement that comes from working at that level of efficiency. As Victoria Coran has said, "I didn't realise, until making a film about it closing down, what a fantastic building this is - how purpose built - how fit-for-purpose - or how loved." (Did you notice the phrase 'Fit-for-Purpose' there?)
One might have expected that the BBC's new studios, at Salford and New BH, would have improved upon TV Centre and be even more 'fit-for-purpose'. Sadly, it is not so. Stories of bad layout, poor planning and lack of foresight abound. It is as though no one had ever built a television studio before; no one had learnt from past experience. But, the Senior Management of the BBC no longer includes Producers and Engineers. Today it consists of career bureaucrats, who have only minimal understanding of programme-making, television or broadcasting. Worse, they don't believe that they need to have any such understanding. Had the BBC progressed from TV Centre to something even better, I might have shrugged sadly and accepted that this is the nature of progress. The fact that the BBC is regressing from TV Centre to studios that are less well-designed and much less 'fit-for-purpose' cannot be justified by any argument.
3: The Meeting Place of Talents
One of the advantages of having so many studios, and different types of programmes, at one site was that Television Centre became a meeting place for talented people from different genres and different disciplines. Children's Programmes could talk to Drama; Quizzes could talk to Comedy; Production people could take advice from Technical People (without having to pay for it!). All knew that they were talking to experts in their field. And because everyone felt that they were working for the same organisation, experiences and advice were shared freely. It was in these exchanges that new ideas were born. If you have two geniuses, each with a good idea, then you have two good ideas. If you let the two geniuses talk to one another, then three, four or five good ideas will emerge from the conversation between them. When half a dozen geniuses meet up, preferably with a glass in their hands, the ideas explode exponentially. And that was how Television Centre worked. It was not just a programme-making factory, it was an ideas factory - an imagination factory. (N.B. This is an argument, not just for the preservation of the Studios, but also for the Club, the Canteen, the Tea Bars, and all the communal areas where those impromptu planning meetings took place, and where the programme ideas cross-fertilised.)
The current Senior Management of the BBC is sadly lacking in any understanding of the creative process. Their dystopian vision of the future places different genres at different sites. The geniuses will never meet and their ideas will not be exchanged. Meanwhile, a largely freelance workforce will naturally be protective of their knowledge and unwilling to share advice.
4: History and Heritage
Many of the celebrities who have deplored the sale of TV Centre have done so from a nostalgic point of view, quoting all the classic programmes that were made there. It is not an argument that should be dismissed as too emotional. Heritage matters. The reason that most public buildings are preserved is because of the history that was made there. BBC Television Centre was first purpose-built TV studio complex in the country - and in the world. As such it is a historic monument of national, and international, importance. It is a heritage site. As Michael Parkinson put it, "It's as culturally important, in my view, as the Royal Opera House, or the National Theatre." Arguably, this is an understatement. Only a small proportion of the population have ever enjoyed a production at the National Theatre: even fewer at the Royal Opera House. Yet productions from TV Centre have been enjoyed by virtually everyone in the country, and by millions all over the world. There are other, older opera houses in the world. There are other theatres. But there is only one BBC TV Centre, and it was the first of its kind. To demolish it would be an act of cultural, historical and architectural vandalism comparable with simultaneous bulldozing of the National Theatre, the Royal Opera House, the Palladium, the British Museum and many other venues of education, information and entertainment.
Historians will doubtless look back on this loss of a national asset and compare it with Dr. Beeching's railway closures - another misguided attempt to save money, which actually succeeded in wasting money, and did irreparable damage to the country's infrastructure.
5: The sheer financial waste
The BBC sold TV Centre for about £200-million pounds. This figure is not profit. The cost of moving BBC Programmes and facilities out of TV Centre needs to be subtracted. In order to move Sport and Children's Programmes to 'the North', the BBC has invested over £800-million in Media City at Salford Quays. This figure does not include the cost of staff relocation, nor the continuing travel and accommodation costs of staff and cast who are still commuting from London, nor the ongoing cost of hiring studios that the BBC doesn't own. We must also subtract the reported £1-billion spent on moving the news operation from a virtually brand-new newsroom at TV Centre, to a much larger, and uglier, newsroom at New BH. Together, Children's, Sport and News represent only a minority of the programmes made at TV Centre. For all the others there is the cost of hiring and modifying temporary studios, until some of them are able to return to TV Centre. Finally, CCA is still located in TV Centre. (Did the Management even know it was there?) It is due to be moved to other locations at an estimated cost of a further £50-million. Nor should we forget the money paid to Management Consultants, without whom the overstaffed, overpaid bureaucrats of BBC Management seem incapable of actually managing anything. At a very conservative estimate, the the sale of TV Centre has wasted over £2-billion of Licence Payers' money. Only BBC Management could 'sell the family silver' and make such a massive loss on the deal.
6: No consultation with the Licence-Fee Payers
Those who decided to sell TV Centre were not its owners. They were only temporary custodians. Boris Johnson, during his tenure as Mayor of London, would not be expected to bulldoze Trafalgar Square and build flats on it. Nor should a short-term Director General of the BBC have been allowed to sell a national landmark, without consulting its true owners. TV Centre was paid for by the Licence Fee Payers. They/we are its true owners. The Licence Fee Payers are now expected to cover the billions that have been lost. Yet they/we were never consulted. (Nor were the staff or the Programme Makers.) It may be too late to prevent the financial squandering, but it is not too late to demand a Public Enquiry into how this mis-management occurred; to ask for full publication of the accounts; to name and shame the individuals responsible, and to take measures to reduce the ongoing waste.
7: The loss of studio capacity
If BBC Management has any consistent vision for the future, it seems to be that they no longer wish to own studios. They would rather rent or lease them. But this leaves them extremely vulnerable to market rates. Any reduction in supply will cause an increase in demand and a reduction in competition. Prices will go up. The closure of Television Centre means the loss of 8 large to medium-sized broadcast studios, and 4 or 5 smaller ones. Teddington Studios are also due to close. Together, they represent a substantial proportion of the studio capacity in the London area. Such an abrupt reduction in availability will create an anti-competitive situation in the market, enabling the remaining suppliers to significantly increase their prices. The BBC may, therefore, have scored a massive financial 'own goal'. Their cunning plan was to sell studios because it is cheaper to rent, but the loss of those studios will, itself, make renting more expensive! If, however, Television Centre studios remain available to programme-makers, albeit under different ownership, they will increase the competition in the market and help to keep prices down.
8: The creation of a near-monopoly
Two of the studio centres likely to gain work from the closure of Television Centre, and therefore benefit financially, are Pinewood and Shepperton. Their chairman is Michael Grade, who was chairman of the BBC until about a year before the closure of TV Centre was announced. Pinewood and Shepperton are owned by The Peel Group (formerly Peel Holdings), who also own Media City at Salford Quays and are, therefore, the primary financial beneficiaries of the BBC's 'move to the North'. The Peel Group also owns Teddington Studios, but intend to close them, thus reducing competition and driving more work to their other centres at Pinewood and Shepperton. Personally, I suspect that the BBC's role in the creation of this near-monopoly is more cock-up than conspiracy. But questions need to be asked. Any enquiry should demand to know why BBC bosses have used Licence Fee Payers' money to give The Peel Group a disproportionate share of the market - particularly since this will be of benefit to a former BBC Executive. I note that during the BBC's evening of programmes about TV Centre, the primary spokesman supporting the closure, both on 'The One Show' and on 'Goodbye Television Centre', was Michael Grade. He did not declare his financial interest.
9: Studio operation incompatible with residential property
Current plans involve converting much of the TV Centre site into a hotel and flats. But studios and residents may not make comfortable neighbours. From the studio viewpoint, public access will create security problems. From the residential viewpoint, studio programme-making is a 24 hour operation, and is rarely quiet. The rumble of lorries, the off-loading of scenery and technical equipment (and the familiar clang of scaffold poles) late into the night will be a constant irritant. And that's before we think about loud music programmes, rioting rock-stars and over-excited audiences. Some of the noise nuisance could be reduced by insisting that all resets and re-rigs take place during daytime, but that would immediately double the number of studios needed to make the same number of programmes.
10: Studio operation incompatible with a building site
It gets even sillier. I had assumed that the BBC were going to abandon the site between 2013 and 2015, because this was the period during which the rebuilding was due to take place. There would be obvious problems trying to make programmes on a building site: the constant noise and vibration of bulldozers, pneumatic drills, excavators and demolition, creating an atmosphere full of cement dust (and newly liberated asbestos). But I now learn that the bulldozers aren't due to start until 2015 about the same time that the BBC Studios are moving back in! Cue predictable disaster. Which poses the question, why did the BBC decide to leave in 2013, and waste a fortune hiring and modifying temporary studios for a couple of years, when 8 of their own perfectly functioning studios were still available to them?
11: The total absence of any reason to leave
Maybe the strongest argument of all is simply that there is no rational reason for the BBC to leave Television Centre. It is a colossal waste of License-Payers' money, and a major disruption to programme makers which achieves nothing whatsoever. The decision to leave seems to have been an obsessive, compulsive urge amongst certain members of the Senior Management team, most of whom have since been required to leave, clutching generous 'rewards for failure'. The reasons that they have given for the move are listed below. It will be seen that none of them bear much relation to reality.
Reasons given by BBC Management for the abandonment of Television Centre
1: To make money
It sounds like a sick joke now, but this was the original reason given for selling TV Centre. It was announced on 18 October 2007 that, because of a £2-billion shortfall in funding, the BBC would 'reduce the size of the property portfolio in west London by selling BBC Television Centre by the end the financial year 2012/13.' Translating management jargon into English, this means simply that they were selling the building to raise cash. With the Westfield Shopping Centre anticipated, and property prices in the area likely to rise, BBC Management thought they could make a once-only, short-term profit on the sale. We now know that they have actually managed to make a catastrophic loss. The cost of moving out of TV Centre must be over ten times the income from the sale. Any other homeowner, selling a valuable property in London in order to downsize to a cheaper place in the country, might expect to have had some cash left over. Only BBC Management could fail so disastrously.
2: To make the BBC less London-centric.
Because of lower approval ratings in the North of England than in the South, the BBC decided to move some of its operations from London to Salford Quays. This is often given as a 'Politically Correct' excuse for closing Television Centre. But the sums don't add up. Most of the mainstream programmes produced at Television Centre have not gone to to the North. They have been scattered to various temporary studios, around London and the Home Counties. Sport has been sent to Salford, but that could only be used as a excuse for closing TC5, one of the smaller studios. Children's Programmes have also be ordered to Salford, which might excuse the closure of TC9, an even smaller studio, and half of whichever studio Blue Peter might be using that week. The movement of News to the New Broadcasting House might also justify the closure of TC7, another of the smaller studios, and the TV Centre Newsroom. But this leaves absolutely no excuse for closing any of the large or medium-sized studios at Television Centre - TCs 1, 2, 3, 4, 6 or 8. All the comedies, light-entertainment, chat-shows, quizzes etc. which were made there, have been left with no alternative home.
3: Television Centre is getting old and needs maintenance.
Yes, most buildings of a certain age need a lick of paint and a dollop of filler occasionally. But no one has suggested bulldozing the Albert Hall, the Palladium or the Houses of Parliament just because they need maintenance. At Television Centre the problem has become worse because, since making the decision to leave, routine maintenance has been badly neglected. So, if we put the metaphorical horse and cart in the correct order, and cause before effect - It is true that Television Centre needs maintenance because of the decision to leave. It is NOT true that the decision to leave was taken because Television Centre needed maintenance. Even if it were true, it would be the equivalent of buying a new car because the ash tray was full in the old one!
4: Programme-making has been moving out of studios onto location.
This argument is about 20 years out of date. In the early 1990s, BBC Drama Department, decided that they wanted to make 'Films' not 'Television Plays'. They abandoned the old-fashioned, multi-camera, 'as live' style of shooting, in favour of the even older-fashioned, single-camera, 'as film' style. The last major studio drama series, 'The House of Elliot' ended in 1994. As drama and documentaries left, the BBC needed less studio capacity and therefore closed down Lime Grove, TV Theatre and the Greenwood. They even mothballed some of the studios at TV Centre. But fashions swing in both directions. Programmes were soon moving back into TV Centre. The mothballed studios were reopened, and additional studio space had to be created around the building. TC0 and TCs 9, 10, 11 and 12 were opened. Shows were being shot in offices, dressing rooms, galleries and even corridors. The success of 'Strictly Come Dancing' brought glossy-floored, big studio spectaculars back into fashion. Budget cuts forced smaller programmes back into studios, since working live, or 'as live' saved editing and post-production costs. High-definition led to a need for more detailed, more substantial scenery, with the result that more studio time was occupied with scenic construction and standing sets, which created a need for yet more studio space. Even after the departure of Sport, Children���s and News, TV Centre studios were as busy as they had ever been - right up until the time that they were forced to close.
5: Television Centre has problems with asbestos
More old news. This argument is about 25 years out of date. Asbestos problems were identified in TV Centre studios in 1988. Since then the asbestos has been stripped out or encapsulated. It is no longer a problem, (unless, of course, someone does something incredibly stupid, like knocking the place down and building a hotel). There are still asbestos and structural problems in the East Tower, but few people would complain if that was demolished.
6: Television Centre has out-of-date technology
Does anyone know who coined the phrase, 'Television Centre is an analogue dinosaur in a digital age.'? It would be nice to know, if only so that they can be publicly pilloried. It is difficult to know whether the Senior Management of the BBC were really so badly out-of-touch with their own business that they actually believed this, or whether they were resorting to desperate lies in order to justify an obviously stupid decision. Just because TV Centre was opened in 1960, does not mean that it is only capable of producing black-and-white, 405 line television! Anyone who has worked there, or anyone who has ever turned on a Tele, knows this to be untrue. The technology has been constantly updated - to 625 lines - to colour - to stereo - to digital, hi-def widescreen. A number of studios were equipped for Virtual Reality, and one (TC6) was even capable as broadcasting in 3-D. Up until its forceable closure, TV Centre contained some of the most up-to-date, state-of-the-art equipment in the world.
7: Television Centre is not Fit for Purpose
You know they're getting defensive, when they resort to meaningless managerial jargon. Those who say this are either lying, have never worked at TVC, or are desk-bound bureaucrats. No one who has ever worked at the sharp-end of TV could believe it. An endless succession of Cameramen, Engineers, Directors etc, could be produced to explain exactly why TVC is entirely 'Fit for Purpose' and, more importantly, why it is much MORE 'Fit for Purpose' than either Salford Quays or New BH!
8: If they get really desperate they may even claim the TV Centre has been tainted by Jimmy Savile (Didn't he live in Salford? Better cancel the move to the North!)
The decision to leave TVC was taken years before the scandal arose, and cannot, therefore, have been a true motivation. Actually, most of Jimmy Savile's programmes were made at TV Theatre. Stricter security would have made abuse much less likely at TV Centre, although some must have happened. But no one has suggested demolishing Stoke Mandeville Hospital, and ending all the good work that is done there, just because of the behaviour of one nasty, creepy man.
One question we are certain to be asked, and it has been puzzling me, is why it has taken us so long to start this protest. I can only answer for myself. I think it is because I couldn't believe that it was really going to happen - even BBC Management couldn't be quite that stupid.
There has always been a comedy element to the leadership of the BBC. It dates far back to quotations like, "What is this 'Go On Show'?", or the memo telling Michael Bentine that, "BBC Television Centre is not to be used for purposes of entertainment."; or the apocryphal story that some executives believed that 'Monty Python's Flying Circus" was a documentary about aerobatics. I particularly liked the 'Ariel' headline, which explained how important it was for Sports Department to be established in their new home at Salford, in time for the London Olympics! As a fan of the 'Tintin' comics, the knowledge that the most senior figures in the management were called 'Thompson and Thomson' (one with a 'p', one without) seemed entirely appropriate - even if they didn't wear bowler hats. But the announcement in 2007 that they were planning to sell TV Centre seemed to take corporate idiocy to an entirely new level. Even their cartoon namesakes wouldn't do anything that ridiculous.
At each stage of the process, new evidence arose which should have convinced any sentient observer that the policy was misguided. In 2009 the central parts of the building were Grade 2 listed by English Heritage. Surely, the bureaucrats would take note and realise that they could not sell off a national treasure. Yet, they carried on. It soon became apparent that the cost of leaving the building would greatly exceed any income from the sale. At this point even the Accountants should have recognised their mistake. The most innumerate bean-counters would surely notice that they were about to lose over two-billion beans. Yet, they carried on, with blinkered determination. Comedy gave way to complete farce when, it was announced that the BBC, who had vowed never to return, would need to lease back three of the studios they had just sold. At last, it seemed, they were admitting that they had got their sums wrong. It would only be a matter of time before they realised that they would need all the main studios. But no, they steamrollered on with their pathological obsession. Then the Trust finally stepped in. Thompson and Thomson were paid to leave, followed rapidly by their successor. Now the destruction that they had begun seemed certain to stop. Yet, it blundered relentlessly on: a now headless and pointless juggernaut. BBC Television Centre closed it gates on 31st March 2013 - one day before the new DG took over.
The unbelievable had actually happened, despite all the evidence that it couldn't possibly. This, for me, was a tipping point. Another was watching the 'Goodbye Television Centre' programme, and hearing a succession of celebrities condemning the sale. We 'Techies', who work behind the camera, always thought that closing TV Centre was a stupid idea. But no one has ever listened to us. Now, however, I discovered that the on-screen talent was of exactly the same opinion. These were people who had only seen TV Centre from the 'front'. They had never experienced the behind-the-scenes magic of the ring-road operation, or an overnight set and light. Yet they felt the energy and atmosphere of the place. Nor was it only the mature celebs who spoke out. The youngsters, who had far less reason to be nostalgic about the place, were equally vehement.
I suppose that is when I ceased to be sad, and became very, very angry.
2014 until 2016
Main memories of the period
A Page of Nostalgic Pictures
In 1967, I was working on a series of dramas, based on the short stories of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. These were recorded at the BBC's Riverside Studios, Hammersmith. There were two television studios at Riverside. 'The Chancellors' pub, just over the road, was so often used by BBC Staff, that the Saloon Bar was labelled 'Studio 3'. Photos of the stars adorned its walls. For many years, one of those photos was this one, of my crew - Camera Crew 16, led by Senior Cameraman Ken Major.
Crew 16, in 1967, when Techies still wore jackets and ties: Cameramen to the left, Sound Men to the right.
John Smith, Ken Major, Stuart Lindley, Brian White ('Black Jake'), Rob McFarlane, Roger Bunce - John Hayes, Dave Denness, Keith Bowden, John Corby and Ed Brandon.
More Pictures of Crew 14
It was while working with Crew 14 - led by award-winning Senior Cameraman, Dave Mutton - that my longstanding habit of doodling silly pictures on scraps of old script paper was put to more practical use. The primary blame for this rests with my camera colleague, John Henshall, who encouraged me to design a Christmas card for the crew. He understood how to get things printed, and introduced me to the use of 'Lettratone'.
Thus, at the end of 1973, I produced my first professionally printed Christmas Card, on behalf of Camera Crew 14.
The following Christmas, I created a more ambitious card. This time it included portraits of the whole crew, dressed as pantomime characters (and probably using the same sheet of Lettratone!)
It was also while I was on Crew 14 that I began writing and illustrating ‘The Adventures of CameraMan’ - a comicstrip based on the weak joke that the word ‘Cameraman’ sounded a bit like a super hero - Superman, Batman, Spiderman, etc.
My ‘CameraMan’ was grim faced and firm jawed. He used a panning handle as a club, and carried a small, hand-held version of an EMI 2001 camera. He fought battles against arch-villains with names like ‘Lighting Man’, ‘Sound Man’ and ‘Scene Man’. All were of monstrous appearance. ‘Lighting Man’ was portrayed as the Devil, since ‘Prince of Darkness’ was a common nickname for to certain lighting men, who were felt to give insufficient illumination. ‘Sound Man’ was depicted as a werewolf, purely so that he could ‘Howl Round’. Much of my inspiration came from the 1960s, tongue-in-cheek TV series, ’Batman’, and from Monty Python’s ‘Bicycle Repair Man’ sketch. When the television Batman struck his enemies, stars appeared, containing words like ‘POW’, ‘BIFF’ and ‘ZAP’. My hero produced similar stars, but they contained camera terminology: ‘ZOOM’, ‘PAN’, ‘FOCUS’, etc.
Cameraman’s faithfully sidekick was ‘Tracker’ - an alternative name for a Dolly Operator or Camera Assistant - but it was a word which also conjured the image of a buck-skinned backwoodsman, in a Davy Crocket hat. His long hair, glasses and droopy moustache reflected the fashionable look of many junior staff, at that time.
Like any true hero, Cameraman rescued glamorous, scantily-clad heroines, including Autocue Girl and Make-Up Girl, while stoically ignoring their amorous advances. Autocue Girl was the primary heroine. Autocue was a television prompting service. They had commercial competitors, but the name ‘Autocue’ had become generic, and their staff were mostly young and female. Because the prompting equipment was attached to the cameras, the prompter operator had to work alongside the Camera crew, and was often the only woman on the studio floor. In those days, the crews (Cameras, Sound, Scenic, Electrical, Engineering, etc.) were all exclusively male. There were female staff in the galleries, and in the Make-Up and Wardrobe Departments, but they could retreat into their own work areas, leaving the Autocue Girl as a lone woman within conversation range of the Cameramen. It has sometimes been suggested that my portrayal of the female characters was slightly sexist, but I would argue that the skimpy costumes they were wearing (or falling out of) were true to the fashions of the time. This was the age of the mini-skirt, of hot pants, of kinky boots, and of a feminist-approved lack of bras. I was also parodying the comic book art style of the time.
The original comic was just three pages long, and carelessly scrawled on the backs of old scripts. But photocopies began to circulate. I knew it was a success when people started telling me about it, without knowing that it was my creation.
As with so many other projects, it was John Henshall who persuaded me to produce a more carefully drawn version, which could be professionally printed and included in the Guild Journal. The Guild of Television Cameramen was newly founded, and its Journal needed material. So, my improved, but still amateurish, comic reached a wider audience, outside the BBC. It was well received. Unfortunately, I was then expected to produce more adventures. But I had put all my jokes into that first episode! I did manage to squeeze out another three stories, although only two of them appeared in the Guild Journal. These sample pages are taken from one of the later adventures, when the jokes were fewer but, I like to think, the artwork was getting better.
Camera Man’s expedition to the Lost Studio was prompted by my own attachment to the Open University, at Alexandra Palace, a couple of years earlier. There I had found an antiquated world of black-and-white television, long after the rest of broadcasting had moved into colour - a bit like Dorothy’s visit to Oz, but in reverse! This episode also introduced a new female character, ‘Cable Basher’, reflecting the news that the BBC had just appointed its first female camera trainee. It was an initial step in a slow progress that would gradually see women moving into all the operational and engineering areas. Autocue Girl would no longer be the only female on the studio floor.
Some 35 years later, in my retirement, I produced a full-colour animated version of that first comic strip: “Cameraman: the Movie”. I have attempted to retain the 1970s period feel. It can be found on YouTube, here - http://youtu.be/Hgu-S9kSik0
The Studio of Earthly Delights
In the mid-seventies I had become fascinated by the weird and wonderful visions of Hieronymus Bosch (1450 - 1516). He was a surrealist, long before anyone had invented that word. I particularly liked his dreamlike Garden of Eden triptych, “The Garden of Earthly Delights”. Its strangely shaped centrepiece reminded me (very slightly) of the fountains and sculptures at the heart of Television Centre. For reasons inexplicable, I found myself wondering what a television studio might have looked like if it had been painted by Hieronymus Bosch.
It is unlikely that the project would have progressed very far, except that John Henshall took an interest in my preliminary sketches, and offered to buy the finished painting. Ker-ching! A cash commission.
Thus developed “The Studio of Earthly Delights” by Hierogermus Bunce: a Renaissance masterpiece in ball-point pen, kiddies’ water colours, blue-black ink, felt-tip pens, snowpake, and anything else I had to hand.
For those who were there, in the Golden Age of Television, most of the symbolism may be self-evident (even if you weren’t abusing the fashionable substances of the time). But, for those who would like a guided tour: -
In the distance, on an impossible rocky crag, stands Alexandra Palace: Television’s own Garden of Eden. The bizarrely misshapen tree on the right is a typical piece of Bosch design, but has been festooned with lamps and slung monitors. It is encircled by a gigantic headset, and is transfixed by a fishing rod. The statue of Helios holds, not his hollow sun-disc, but a hollow Ampex clock, while a huge reel of camera tape twines around his column.
The population of naked people, including slender ladies with long, crinkly, blonde hair are taken from Bosch. Most of their activities are copied directly from his triptych, but have been given a televisual twist. The couple doing something strange under a fire board are based on a couple doing something similar under a muscle shell. The figures under a huge cue-light are based on a similar group under a large translucent flower head. The naked lady doing an erotic dance with a camera cable is based on – er – actually she’s probably just a fantasy of my own.
Others are engaged in typical studio activities: rigging, operating, reading a book while sitting on a ped base, or taking a clandestine smoke in the entrance to tech stores, under the “No Smoking” sign. (No one’s sitting on the yellow rail. How could I have missed that?) The figures in the gallery are all behaving stereotypically. The TM2 is answering the phone (isn’t that all they ever did?), the Vision Mixer is knitting (certain of the more mature, female Vision Mixers were noted for their ability to knit and mix simultaneously – knit one, pearl one, cut one etc.), the Director is ranting and waving his arms (as some still do), while the P.A. provides a touch of glamour.
The Boschian menagerie of birds, beasts and mythological characters are all visual puns, based on camera terminology: e.g. Pan, Crab and Crane. Most of the birds bear the names of Vintern camera mountings: Heron, Fulmer, Snipe, and the deceased Peregrine (one of their less successful ventures). The East-European figure, with fur hat and pointy stick, is Vlad the Impaler, representing the VLAD or Vintern Low-Angle Dolly. (Maybe I should have added a giant bottle of brown sauce, in honour of the H.P. Ped!) The characters from Greek myth bear the names of Chapman camera cranes: Nike, Titan and Hercules. And, of course, there‘s Mole-Richardson’s M.P.R.C. crane, known to everyone as the Mole.
Many of the details are now period pieces: - the EMI 2001 cameras; the HP ped; the black plastic ST&C headset; the BBC designed vision mixing panel, with its quadrant faders; the old zebra-striped wooden fire-board, beside the newfangled orange fibre-glass one; the standard BBC issue paper cup (ideal for drinking VT Tea), and the blackboard-and-chalk Ampex clock. The blue Autocue equipment of the time used an electro-mechanical system. Previously, there had been a purely mechanical system, using giant typewriters and carbon paper to create two identical copies of the script, on large rolls of sprocketed paper. Later, it was all done by computer. In the 1970s the script was typed onto a narrow roll of paper. This was scrolled beneath a camera on the operator’s consul, and the output was fed to a monitor below the camera lens.
In front of the line-up chart poses the Studio Line-Up Girl (a title which created the unfortunate acronym S.L.U.G.). In the early days of colour TV great efforts were made to achieve realistic flesh tones. Other colours could afford to be slightly inaccurate, but if the faces looked unnatural then the whole picture would be unconvincing. Experiments were made with layers of translucent, pink plastic, attempting to create something that had the colour, texture and reflectivity of human flesh. Some of them were revoltingly realistic. But nothing was ever as effective as lining up the cameras on a real human face. That face was usually provided by an attractive young lady, much to the delight of the all-male studio engineering department, who finally had someone female to talk to, and point their light meters at. The Studio Line-Up Girl was later replaced by a high-quality photograph.
In the gantry may be seen a Cable Hoist. These were the days when camera cables really were “as thick as a man’s arm”, and very heavy. There was official concern about the welfare of cameramen as they dragged them in and out of tech. stores. One solution was to coil them on a drum in the gantry, and use an electric winch to raise and lower them. These hoists may have been falling into disuse by this time since, on the other side of the painting, a pair of figures may be seen manually dragging out an eight of cable (and another naked lady).
John Henshall left the BBC in 1976, taking the painting with him. It initially hung in his offices in Richmond, and then in Brentwood. This photo was taken in 1994 (half the painting’s lifetime ago), for the magazine “Digital Imaging Plus”, which John was editing at the time. The digital technology of the time has given the picture a granular patina, which seems somehow appropriate for a pseudo-Renaissance work.
Since then the original colours have faded, as is the way with water colours, and the painting has been damaged in a flood. But it survives, and currently awaits re-framing.
1979: Working on "Enchanted Castle", a children's drama serial, based on the story by E. Nesbit, and directed by Dorothea Brooking.
1983: A guest appearance on the front cover of ‘Ariel’, due to the Great Fire Alarm of Lime Grove.
When a Fire Alarm sounds, the official instructions are that you should leave the building immediately, via the nearest Fire Exit, and go straight to the Assembly Point. You should NOT go back into the building to collect your belongings: bags, coats, etc. In fact, Dudley Derby and I went back to the studio floor and made sure that the camera equipment was stowed as safely as possible. Then, obediently innocent chap that I am, I obeyed instructions and went straight out of the building. Everyone else had the common sense to disobey orders. They went back and collected their coats. It was freezing cold outside! My short-sleeved shirt was intended for working under hot studio lights, not for the arctic night of Shepherds’ Bush.
While we waited for the fire brigade, Peter Snow sat on the pavement, with a portable typewriter on his lap, and, purely for the benefit of a film crew, pretended to type up a story (the News Must Go On!), while my shivering plight attracted the attention of a photographer.
My crew-mates were unsympathetic to the point of being scornful. It was all my own silly fault for naively obeying the rules, and not having the sense to collect my jacket when I could have done. But then a group of charming young ladies from Autocue took pity on me, and invited me to sit with them, in their car, until the danger had passed. I consented. It was tight squeeze, but it kept me warm.
Afterwards, my crew remained unsympathetic, but less scornful, accusing me of having pre-planned the whole thing!
1983: Production Team and Crew on the Current Affairs programme "People and Power", in Studio D, Lime Grove.
1984: A rare appearance in front of the camera - and on ITV!
Winning the whodunnit-based quiz programme "Murder in Space". Seen here with Roger Cook and Anneka Rice, at Central Television's studios, in Nottingham.
1984: The Camera Crew working on "The Hot Shoe Show". Something suggests that this might have been the Christmas edition.
John Longley, Roger Bunce, Chris Miller, Julian Penrose, Colin Hazelwood, Chris Glass, John Thompson and Dave Lee
1990: Cast, Crew and Production Team on the Situation Comedy, "Don't Wait Up": staring Tony Britton, Nigel Havers and Dinah Sheridan; created by George Layton, and directed by Harold Snoad
1991: Camera Crew 12, working on Eastenders, in a snowbound Albert Square
Roger Bunce, Kevin Coe, John Corby, Ann Larkham, Geoff Oliver
1992: Cast, Crew and Contestants, on the pan-European quiz, 'Going for Gold', presented by Henry Kelly and Directed by Mike Catherwood.
The winner of this series was called Attila, and came from Transylvania. You may be able to spot him.
1995: Cast and Crew of 'Pets Win Prizes'