Sheila Innes

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Sheila Innes

I began working at the BBC in 1953, my final year at the BBC was 1987.


Lady Margaret Hall, Oxford University, Modern Languages

How I joined the BBC

It was 1952: I was in my final year at Lady Margaret Hall, Oxford reading Modern Languages, when I was summoned to see the formidable Doris Fone, Women's Careers Adviser. I had planned to join the Foreign Office after graduation, but Miss Fone thought otherwise. 'I don't think so, dear' she said: 'No, you'll join the BBC'. However, I applied for both and in both cases sat a 2-hour written test and later attended a 'practical' day. The Foreign Office moved quickly and at their 'practical' I was asked to evacuate a small island with several hundred inhabitants. This seemed to me irrelevant but intriguing. Slightly later I attended the BBC's oral test, followed by an intimidating all-male board at 5 Portland Place. My first impressions remain vivid. Mr Day, a commissionaire whom I came to know well, but oddly formally (he followed my career over the years), sported a chestful of medals on his neat navy-blue uniform, showed me down into the bowels of the earth to a small cell-like studio furnished with just a chair, a table, a mic, several scripts, a copy of Radio Times and two Wharfdale speakers. I was quite alone, when a disembodied voice bid me good afternoon and asked me to read the news. (No wonder the previous candidate, also a young woman, came out in tears sobbing: 'But women don't read the news', which at that time was true). After reading a short bulletin, I was asked to turn to 'page 17 of Radio Times and introduce the Third Programme recital'. The first two sentences were plain sailing, featuring Liszt and Chopin. Then, to my horror, the billing for the piano concerto to follow was full of Polish names. I took a deep breath and had a stab at it. I recall the name Tashdidishvili posed something of a challenge, but I went on the attack and doubtless overdid it a bit! Invited to present myself upstairs, I entered a room with six or seven men seated at a rectangular table and I didn't fail to notice the predominance of Oxbridge ties. Good start, I thought. The Chairman read out my CV and asked why I had omitted to say that I spoke Polish. I said I didn't, but thought I'd make an imaginative guess at it. I added that on the way up I realised this was a risky strategy in case any of them did! They smiled and clearly were not displeased, as a couple of weeks later I was offered the job. The Foreign Office meanwhile took their time, so the BBC responded first. I was definitely delighted to accept. The reason? It was not so much a calling as that I was strapped for cash!

Broad BBC career

I joined the BBC in 1953, shortly after graduating from Oxford. In the course of 34 years, I progressed from studio manager to Controller of Educational Broadcasting, via a number of varied jobs: radio announcer/commentator; producer, North American Service; director/producer Afternoon Programmes, then Continuing and Further Education, Television; executive producer, head of Continuing Education, Television and finally Controller. I left the BBC in 1987 to set up The Open College, of which I was the first Chief Executive and later Deputy Chairman, working to Michael Green of Carlton Communications and ultimately to David (now Lord) Young, then Secretary of State for Trade and Industry and brother of the BBC's then Chairman of Governors, Stuart Young.

My training at the BBC

I was one of four successful applicants out of (we were told) 1300. The other three appointed were Roger Jenkins, Keith Hopkins and Jill Hicks. It was a new scheme to recruit graduate studio managers. As the scheme took off, the arrival of a number of confident, extrovert graduates caused friction, because we were in among Control Room engineers, whose promotion to studio management represented the high point of their careers; for us it was the beginning and many of the new intake made that plain. We were going places.

We received excellent initial training for six weeks from John Borwick, memorable for his encyclopaedic knowledge and love of radio, his soft Scottish voice, his wry sense of humour and his winning smile. He taught us the rudiments of radio engineering and production and what would be expected of us on our early placements. By the end of the six weeks the four of us jointly produced a radio programme: scripted it, chose the music and effects and played the various parts, including narrator/reporter. I recall our fondness for Gram Library's garden birds and lawn-mower effects. We were also taken on visits to BH, Egton, Bush House and 200 Oxford Street, home of the General Overseas Service, which was to be my base for the next 18 months; we were introduced to the various types of microphone and their properties; were taught about decibels and programme peak- meters and the fact that even when they 'peak' the same, music will sound louder than speech. We also learnt about reverberation times, were shown how to balance a single instrument then an orchestra. We were later taken to the RFH and shown the new cylindrical Philips slung mic, which was state of the art; we were taught how to correct a speaker's sibilance and how to mark up a script, take tight cues, spin in discs, operate the control panel etc. We subsequently 'trailed' experienced SMs and, after a couple of months, were let loose on spot effects and discs, including change-overs on 78 rpms, also importantly at Oxford Street, how to carry and handle slow-speed discs, known as SOX (good old BBC acronym!) as they were some 2 ft across and would barely tuck under the arm of someone not much over 5 ft! An outstanding BH memory is being put on grams for an episode of 'Mrs Dale's Diary', when Ellis Powell, playing Mrs Dale, was heard to exclaim: 'Christ! Where the hell did they find these kids?!'

Another, unforgettable experience was being sent to trail the Kings of Spot-Effects, who had a magical hideaway behind the magnificent marquetry lifts in the Langham. Having helped them load a few hooters and Heath Robinson gadgets for a Light Entertainment show, we set off for Aeolian on the tube. Once we'd sat down a bell went off inside one of the boxes, sounding just like a telephone. One of them opened the box, picked up the receiver, listened then said, to the utter astonishment of the other passengers: 'It's for you, Bert'. Very impressive 50 years before mobiles were invented! They were great practical jokers. As a linguist I loved the General Overseas Service as, having some Latin as well as the main Romance languages, I was able to understand quite a number of foreign language programmes and learnt a lot about people as well as languages. I recall a lad from the Polish Service setting fire to the script of a colleague who was on-air reading at the time!

Periods at the BBC

1954 until 1955

I was a Trainee Studio Manager earning 218.4. We were based at Broadcasting House, Bush House and 200 Oxford Street.

Main memories of the period

After a year, the first four were called in to give Aidan McDermott, Jack Brownfield and Personnel officers our feedback. Asked how we rated the scheme, I recall saying that it was pure coincidence if you had good academic degree as well as rapid reflexes. The latter were the more important when spinning in discs on cue, with as many as 47 inserts in five minutes on a Radio Newsreel for North America! The far from an unqualified success the new scheme gave rise, some time later, to the General Trainee Scheme.

BBC Buildings

BH was immediately imposing, with its curved 30s architecture, looking like a great ship beyond All Souls on the approach from Oxford Circus. Anyone lucky enough to have a car could park, chevron- fashion, down the middle of Portland Place. On the third floor of BH, when the lift doors occasionally opened on the way up, the blue carpet and wood-panelling marked out DG's domain. The curved corridors on every other floor looked bewilderingly similar to a newcomer. Then there was Yarner's for really good coffee just down the road, and opposite BH was the great Langham Hotel, shared with the Metal Box Company. It housed a lofty canteen, the Club, lots of offices and behind those beautiful marquetry lifts, Spot Effects.

Bush House had an impressive classical entrance with a flight of steps and columns on the Aldwych side, and I remember reading for the first time, with some emotion, as WW2 was not far in the past, the inscription above the portals: 'Nation Shall Speak Peace Unto Nation', later amply illustrated through EBU and Council of Europe meetings, in which I played an active part. The breakfasts served all night in the canteen by motherly Mary, a well-rounded, very kind person who cooked us egg, bacon, sausage, fried bread, tomatoes and sometimes mushrooms, all for 2/6d, were memorable. On the canteen walls was the then ubiquitous portrait of a Eurasian woman and another of an orchid dropped on a lonely flight of steps.

200 Oxford Street With several storeys of offices above ground, all the studios were below stairs. This was my initial base, once training was over and before the move to Bush House. As SMs, we worked long shifts of 12 hours, including one night-shift each week, which was pretty disorientating and made the subsequent three days off less of a holiday, as our sleeping patterns were disrupted. It was difficult on night-duty to enjoy a main meal around 2 a.m. Sometimes we had a nap in the rest-room between programmes, usually worried in case the alarm failed to go off.

Our shift-leaders included Dick Evans, Viv Perry, Peter Francis, Fred Hickman and Paul Tilley (the latter always a delight to chat with, as he was very musical, with catholic tastes, as well as being a leading authority on windmills!). We, the graduate intake, continued to be teased and sent up by anyone who had risen from Control Room. One occasion at Bush House is memorable: I was to open the Arabic Service in the small hours with a slow-speed disc of the Holy Qur'an. My shift- leader told me: 'Just make sure you're facing Mecca'. Down in Red Continuity I hadn't a clue as to which way I was facing, so I kept my eye on the native announcer and tried to copy whichever way he moved. It was quite difficult, given a huge disc to handle and a massive turn-table to edge round and still reach the stylus, while hopefully facing Mecca. It wasn't till I emerged around 8 a.m. to go home that I saw Mecca Ballroom opposite!

At Oxford Street we had a lot of fun. As the scheme expanded and more graduates joined, such as Ron Smedley, Humphrey Burton, Elizabeth Brewer, Clifford Brown, we became more adept at what we were doing and whenever we were allocated to any of the Continuity suites had a joky time with many of the announcers: Trish Hughes, Peter King, Derek Baker, Dorothy Logan. She in particular would chat and giggle until a disc was nearing its end, when she would always say: 'Coming up!' and we obediently fell silent as she prepared for a sexy delivery of her next announcement. Clifford Brown, who remained a good friend until he died some ten years ago, was fresh from the English College in Rome, where he had been choirmaster. He still looked the part, was always referred to as 'Father Brown' and when he came into the Continuity suite he would invariably make the sign of the cross and intone loudly: 'Bless you, my children'. We sometimes knelt! On night-duty those of us who thought we could sing would make recordings and re-recordings by accompanying ourselves with every kind of harmony. Once, the engineer on duty made a splendid unofficial recording down the line from the Café de Paris of Noel Coward singing a newly-minted, particularly blue version of 'Let's Do It!' Our copies were much prized.

We were keen, committed and honest. I recall one occasion when our shift-leader asked if anyone could type the Latin-American schedule. Before joining I had done a shorthand and typing course at St Godric's College in Hampstead, as preparation for the Foreign Office. I was about to put my hand up when Liz Brown, across the room, gave a meaningful look that caused be to stroke my hair instead. Only afterwards did she explain that I might have ended up in the admin stream rather than programmes. She became a very close friend and remained so for all her life.

Honesty came to the fore when I was playing discs on a programme in a language I didn't know. There were several change-overs from one 78 disc to the next. The last half-inch of disc 1 was repeated on the first half-inch of disc 2; the skill was to spot the same word or phrase on both discs preferably followed by a breath pause, and stop the stylus on the incoming disc at the pause, then manually wind it half a rev back, the idea being to fade up pot 2 before whipping out pot 1, thus maintaining some background atmosphere rather than have it go dead. I still remember the word I spotted on this occasion, but not the language. After the programme, the language supervisor praised my change-over at which, with great honesty, I felt obliged to point out: 'No, I'm sorry but I distinctly heard "bangsa" twice', to which he replied with a smile: 'Is O.K. is plural of "bangsa"!' Was it Hausa? The occasion at least remains very vivid!

The successive graduate intakes were interesting and friendly. We socialised and spent many good evenings together. The fifties were fun and parties happened with amazing frequency. Everyone brought along a bottle (of plonk!) and we sat on the floor on cushions in rented accommodation in either Hampstead, Notting Hill or Camden Town and talked, argued, drank and laughed a lot; just that!

The great appeal of the BBC was that we had a good job with prospects: a job always challenging, often exciting, to which we were totally committed. Although at the outset we were paid only 4 guineas a week, which even then was impossible to live on, we always added: 'Don't forget the free copy of Radio Times!' We often had to work out whether, after night-duty, we could afford to go home by tube or bus, or whether it would be cheaper to walk and wear out the shoe leather. Nevertheless, the many sunrises we saw over Oxford Circus were beautiful. It was all so enjoyable and engrossing that many of us were secretly surprised and pleased to get paid as well!

1955 -

I was a Studio Manager.

Main memories of the period

We were called in at the end of 12 months and told we were now 'permanent staff. Reassuring then and simply astonishing today! However, many of us felt we knew the ropes by then and wanted to move on. I fancied commentating, so on my days off I would first research the subject, then take a portable L2 and record a commentary with effects on location. I visited a chocolate factory in Watford, did a scene-setting piece and some interviews, and later covered the Changing of the Guard in Whitehall, the latter preceded by a study of Horse Guards and Household Cavalry gear, pantaloons, plumed helmets, cuirasses, insignia, horses, drill and precise timings, so that the bell- tower clock chimed at the right point! I took the resulting tapes to 'Lobby' the Head of Outside Broadcasts (more correctly Anthony de Lotbinière) who thought them good enough to put me on the reserve list of Royal Wedding commentators, as Audrey Russell was about to retire and Jean Metcalfe was pregnant with Guy. So Cliff Michelmore was also looking for a replacement to be the London end of Forces/Family Favourites. I auditioned (we were in separate studios), enjoyed the patter and the banter, and those important personal messages for the families and the troops, and Cliff said he'd be happy to work with me. I gained further experience by occasionally standing in for Margot Davies, the regular presenter of 'Calling the Falkland Islands'. I enjoyed it. Had I found my métier?

At the same time a radio production job was advertised in the North American Service. It was ideal for me, as it involved producing the output in French for French-speaking Canada, giving the London view and purveying British culture. I applied for it and luck was on my side, as it was vacant for the first time in 13 years. I then had to decide whether I wanted to be in front of the microphone or behind it. I decided that, in the longer term, production had more potential and more room for initiative and creativity. In any case I disliked the voice training I was obliged to undergo. I had been more at ease before Richard Wessel told me at our first training session that there were 18 ways of saying: 'This is the British Broadcasting Corporation'. I was shown how to cup my hand to my ear better to appreciate the golden voice! I felt self-conscious but was far too polite to tell him that there was only one way to announce the BBC to the world!

When I was offered the production job, studio management and personnel were most generous in undertaking to hold my current post open for me for 6 months, as promotion meant a jump of several grades. The North American Service was clearly looking for a fluent French speaker with considerable diplomatic skills, a raft of ideas for developing the service and competence in a number of fields, from current affairs and agriculture to drama and documentaries. Some bright spark had written at the foot of the ad: 'Ability to walk on water desirable'. I decided it was time to sink or swim, took the plunge and never looked back.