Pioneering ex-BBC television crews responsible for bringing colour into our homes in the late 1960s will bring TV history to life in the foyer of the National Science and Media Museum in Bradford later this month (November 23-24).
ADAPT LIVE, part of the Being Human festival, will reunite veteran TV crews to demonstrate the skills that brought us some of Britain’s earliest colour TV shows.
During ADAPT LIVE, participants – all of them former television producers and technicians who worked on BBC outside broadcasts during the 1960s and 1970s – will share stories, host live demonstrations and screen footage to share how television used to be made.
The event will include a rare opportunity to see working demonstrations of historic television camera, including the iconic Pye PC80 and EMI 2001, which were among the earliest colour cameras regularly used in the UK.
The exhibition includes:
Live outside broadcast with original kit from late 1960s/early 1970s.
ADAPT footage screening and live Q&A with experienced directors, cameramen, sound and lighting engineers.
Memory Booth – Your opportunity to tell us about your memories of 1970s TV and your thoughts about the ADAPT project.
The talents of early day pioneers are not always recognised or celebrated, and this is arguably the case of the early TV engineers and crew responsible for bringing the first colour programmes to our TV screens back in the late 60s.
A young David Attenborough as Controller of BBC2 in the mid-60s was determined to beat the Germans in the race to fully launch colour television, so he ambitiously promised a colour service starting with Wimbledon on 1st July 1967. It was a great success and history was made even though there were, in fact, only 4 colour cameras in operation at the time! Given that most homes still only had black and white television sets, these cameras had to be able to broadcast in black and white as well as in colour. This all presented a considerable technical challenge for the engineers and cameramen of the day!
ADAPT sets out to better understand television technology and the processes by which it was made in the past. So, in 2016/7 we reunited some of the original cameramen from that historic Wimbledon event, along with other ex-BBC crew from those early heroic years, with much of the original kit, including two of the first- generation colour cameras and a semi-restored ex-BBC outside broadcast truck known as North 3, all from the late 1960s.
The veteran crew, made up of 18 men (and one woman) rather miraculously recreated a live outside sports broadcast to show us how it was done in those early pioneering days. Their efforts were filmed and are currently being edited. All of this footage will all be made available online (for free), with highlights being released on the BBC History website for the first time to coincide with the BBC’s 50th anniversary of a regular colour service.
It was an ambitious mission to say the least, gathering a full line up of mostly retired outside broadcast crew with the expectation that some, if not all, might actually remember the kit they habitually used 30-40 years ago, and more importantly, would ideally make it all work again!
It transpired that the real challenge was locating predominantly obsolete kit from dusty lockups, cubby holes and the fierce clutches of collectors, with the faint hope that it might just be made operational. We knew this venture was ambitious at best – and many ex-crew initially thought we were insane! Our first real glimmer of hope appeared with Steve Harris, collector and owner of the lovingly restored ex-BBC outside Broadcast truck North 3 unit. Luckily, he was up for the challenge!
What followed was several months of hard toil as Steve and his team with their trusty soldering irons working tirelessly around the clock, along with a fair few roped in ex-BBC engineers who traversed the country to help out. Each of them was committed to rejuvenating ancient machinery- like an old one inch Videotape recorder, and two first generation colour cameras: an EMI 2001 and a Pye PC80, along with all the associated cabling, connectors, sound kit and monitors.
One engineering crisis followed as brief signs of life in one piece of kit would quickly be followed by another part dying. By the end, the team deserved medals for sheer determination and patience.
When North 3 finally pulled into the filming location in Wales, it was to an uproar of cheers from the veterans who only half believed it would actually make it! To our surprise, the crew then revealed they each still had a master key in their possession, that allowed them to enter any BBC outside broadcast truck-including North 3! Seeing the joy on their faces when they actually stepped back inside was priceless!
As they re-familiarised themselves with the craft of their past, we filmed and witnessed these incredible pioneers quickly fall back into role. They seemed to dig deep and use every engineering trick in the book replacing boards on the old cameras, supplemented connectors, rigging up a temporary talkback and all the while fixing faults on old hefty G101 cables. Toughest of all, they were faced with driving two different types of first generation colour tube cameras, both around 50 years old. One favoured the London EMI 2001, and the other, the northern workhorse Pye PC80. It took every ounce of ingenuity to get these behemoths up and running, and perhaps the greatest challenge of all came during the complex task of lining them up. For the vision engineers and cameramen, this process brought back painful memories of the many difficult hours spent during those first years of colour. With new red, green and blue tubes added to cameras, the cameramen and vision engineers needed to work in tight teams to perfectly align the tubes to achieve pictures with the right colour balance. The process took up to two hours per camera, and with at least four cameras at most outside broadcast events, this was a time-consuming job! 38 years since he had seen the EMI 2001, cameraman Robin Sutherland took a while to find the correct dials, but with the help of vision supervisor John Coupe, finally got there.
Meanwhile, the veteran sound crew were making half-century old microphones work so as to record a commentator and two darts players, plus the all-important sound of a dart hitting a board. They were also lining up title music to play in live, while director Geoff Wilson focused on familiarizing himself with a bank of monitors and mixers so he could not only direct cameras but live mix the match too! With all 18 veterans working as a tight knit team, driven by their professionalism and sheer determination to pull off the mission, it made for a mesmerising watch. And proof indeed that proper training in television pays!
After just 24 hours together, it was as if the years rolled back to the late 60s. Director Geoff Wilson’s ‘Stand-by’, ‘Roll VT’ and ‘Action’ created excitement and nostalgia in equal measure. Geoff successfully led his crew to record an astonishing 20-minute period-feel darts match complete with Letraset captions for the opening and end titles and credits. Both of the 50-year old cameras behaved and delivered pictures, though given that they have not worked since, it all felt rather miraculous!
As this is a celebration of our pioneering crew and their incredible achievement, I’ll say less about our own technical challenges behind the scenes except to share a couple of points. Given the small spaces of the OB truck and with so many areas and veteran crew to cover, I decided to shoot the event as a fixed rig 14-camera shoot. In order to fully capture the approach, decisions and processes involved, we chose to record all crew activity from the moment of reunion with old kit, through rigging, rehearsing, and on to recording and finally reflections on it all. For Adapt, this inevitably resulted in an enormous amount of filmed footage, in fact 11 Terabytes worth (over 300 hours!) which we are still grappling with in the edit. Ironically, after just a couple of days back at the job following a 30 to 40-year hiatus, our veteran crew manage to achieve a 20-minute recording of a ready to broadcast live mixed show complete with titles and music!
Perhaps we should have also turned over the task of our recording to the veteran crew, as no doubt they would have delivered the very same piece within a few days! Here’s to fabulous BBC training and to learning from such talented trailblazers!
And to a wonderful 50th Wimbledon this year where I will have a much greater appreciation of the greenness of the grass and the feeling of closeness to the game colour brought us.
For more information about the ADAPT television history project, follow the project on Twitter at www.twitter.com/adaptTV
This footage was recorded in May 2016 as part of the ADAPT project, which investigates the history of British television production technologies.
A veteran television crew was reunited with a restored outside broadcast truck originally commission by the BBC in the late 1960s.
The crew used the restored cameras, microphones, and vision mixing desks to record a darts tournament in the style of a 1970s television production.
The event was recorded from multiple angles by a “fixed rig” of miniature video cameras.
We seek proposals for a small number of original essays to include in Hands On History, an edited collection focusing on practical and embodied approaches to the history of media technology.
The collection explores the relevance of the new methodology of hands on history to the study of media. Forging links between the diverse fields of media studies, history of technology, and media archaeology, this collection brings together current practices in museums and academic research into hands on history in the fields of image-based media. These range across:
television and film,
professional and domestic practices,
We seek proposals for essays of between 5,500 and 6,500 words in length. They may be on Any subject which relates to “hands on” research or practice around the image-based media, broadly defined. The editors will be very happy to discuss and develop proposals in advance of submission.
The collection is under contract with Routledge and will be delivered to the publisher in 2018.
Please send enquiries or a short (approx. 200 words) proposal, along with a CV or resumé, to firstname.lastname@example.org no later than 10 July 2017. The deadline for submission of accepted proposals will be 13 November 2017.
ADAPT project leader Prof. John Ellis will be speaking about the ADAPT project at the Nordic Media Festival in Bergen on Fri 11 May:
“In an ambitious experiment, 20 retired BBC employees filmed while recreating a simple live broadcast using the equipment they used in the 70s. For the first time, we see how difficult it was to make direct TV in the BBC in the 70s during the heroic first period of broadcast history.
With this experiment, Professor John Ellis presents unique knowledge of the interaction between technology and human beings, and a wonderful glimpse of how much television media as a profession has changed from the 70s to today.
This session is part of NMD SIDETRACK.” (Description from Nordic Media Festival programme)
Previous blog posts by my Adapt colleague, Professor James Bennett, on our social media research project have focused on ‘Social Media in the Television Workplace’ and social media’s impact on the production of live TV. This post shifts our focus from The Voice, as a ‘shiny floor show’ with social production by a discrete digital unit, to draw on our subsequent ethnographic observations of Channel 4’s Sunday Brunch gallery team, 1)The observation was undertaken by Dr Niki Strange on Sunday 13 November 2016 and in particular the modus operandi of their Digital Content Manager. Her role and responsibilities, and the attendant tools and technologies deployed in their service, evidence various adaptations to live television production. As I set out below, this work is increasing integrated into the production processes, timelines and expectations of live TV, but nevertheless somehow remains in a liminal space: both within and beyond television’s previous production boundaries.
Channel 4’s Sunday Brunch is a magazine and cooking show that goes out live between 09.30-12.30 on Sunday mornings on Channel 4 and has been running since 2012. Hosted by Tim Lovejoy and Simon Rimmer it features guest interviews, cookery demonstrations, food and drink features and music performances and video promos.
In terms of its digital presence, there’s a website, serving as a repository for the weekly recipes, previous shows on-demand and the weekly Spotify playlist; accounts on Twitter (@SundayBrunchC4, 313,000 followers), Instagram (42,800 followers), Facebook (114,888 likes). 2)Statistics as of 8th February 2018 It is considered to have one of the most successful social media brands of all Channel 4’s shows. 3)Source – Sunday Brunch Executive Producer, i/v 32, 2016, Adapt Social Media Project In what follows I map those social media activities into three, overlapping, modes: format and related content derivation; promotion; and audience engagement.
Format and related content derivation
During an interview that pre-dates the ethnographic work, the show’s Executive Producer 4)As above described how the production team uses social media to both solicit content for the formatted segments of live show (e.g. call outs for photos, videos along a weekly theme) and as a source of content in and of itself (often tweets, photographs, videos posted on the above platforms by viewers reacting to the show’s on-air content, which could then be integrated into the live show ‘on the fly’.) She spoke of the innovative speed and scale with which this process of viewer content solicitation – itself an established format convention of TV magazine shows – now takes place, due to the proliferation of smart phones and social media platforms and applications and their increasing integration into TV production’s technical array.
I witnessed this in practice as Sunday Brunch’s Digital Content Manager 5)i/v 37, 2016 juggled various devices, social media accounts and aggregation apps, to content manage both pre-scripted and reactive items. Guests, cookery demos, music performances and unexpected or amusing moments were captured by her sprinting from the gallery to the studio to grab shots on her own smart phone, which were then instantly captioned and uploaded to Twitter, Instagram or Facebook using this or another device. Alongside this her role involved the constant surveillance of the show’s numerous social media timelines for viewer responses to format calls for materials (mainly photos) and also unsolicited reactions to the show which could nonetheless be responded to with a reply, retweet or, perhaps most prized of all, inclusion in the live show. Any ‘influencer’ interest – such as a viewing celebrity, or one of the guests, referencing the show on social – was re-tweeted to extend the show’s reach to that person’s own network of social followers.
This connects to the second goal of the show’s use of social media – that of promotion. In our interview the Executive Producer spoke of how ‘the ultimate drive is to grow awareness, get re-tweets and new followers and build the show’s brand’ and that social media is considered a vehicle for amplifying the chatty, irreverent tone of voice of the show both during and beyond live transmission. This could be by replying or re-tweeting viewers’ tweets, responding to questions posed, or by commenting on broader pop culture and topical events in the show’s ‘voice’ to maintain a presence in social media timelines outside of TX. In the latter case, this would be at the discretion of the Executive Producer and Digital Content Manager, using their personal devices in their domestic spaces and/or on the move: thus extending the times and spaces of TV production’s workplace.
This promotional aspect to the show’s use of social media was exemplified by the Digital Content Manager’s tweets to build anticipation and awareness among its social followers for the show’s tx at 9.30 with tweets from 7am ‘to signal we’re awake’ 6)i/v 37, 2016 (see fig 1.) and to announce the show’s liveness (as well as intention to mine ‘the conversation’ on its social feed for possible content therein (see fig 2.))
Finally, and leading on from the two aspects of content solicitation and promotion/brand extension above, the show’s Executive Producer spoke of social media in terms of highly prized audience interaction and engagement. As well as being a means to build viewer loyalty and a sense of intimacy with the show, she talks of this as a source of professional reward and pride, with social media offering members of production teams access to near instantaneous (though clearly partial) feedback on viewers’ enjoyment (and also, it must be noted, displeasure). I witnessed firsthand how, with social media enabling production teams on live shows to gain viewer ‘feedback’ on items, there is a temptation to ‘check-in’ from the gallery during a live transmission. Both the Executive Producer and Director were using their own devices to see how certain segments had fared with viewers, taking any criticism hard but with a policy not to respond.
In the case of Sunday Brunch, then, my observations illustrate that the addition of the role of Digital Content Manager within the gallery production team evidences social media’s impact on television production practice. This role requires new skills (capturing behind-the-scenes live on mobile devices and instantly sharing; surveilling multiple social media feeds; cultivating tone of voice in ancillary platforms), adaptation of existing production methods (such as the movement from viewer phone/text-in to hash-tagging and @-replies) and of technologies (the integration of the smartphone; the adaptation of gallery space). Social media, in the case of this show, is seen to be fundamental to the live format, with key features relying on content sourced, wrangled across platforms, captioned and integrated quickly and easily. In addition, it is used as a promotional tool to enmesh and extend the show’s profile within and across communities of interest. Finally, social media function as the sites for ‘conversation’ and exchange between the producers and viewers, of content and opinion. However, the Digital Content Producer position discussed here is in many ways liminal: called upon to traverse the ‘lives’ of the show across platforms, she is both voice of the show, and commentator on it. These shifts point to the increasing ubiquity of social media as a part of television’s producer’s work worlds, but at the same time that the significance, and practicalities, of social media activations for television are still something being very much adapted to.
Dr Niki Strange is a research fellow on the Adapt Social Media Project, based at Royal Holloway, University of London. She is also a business and innovation strategist for creative media companies.
On 2nd November 1936 the BBC miraculously broadcast its first official television show live, an event that changed the world forever. In a documentary celebrating 80 years of television (Television’s Opening Night: How the Box was Born, BBC Four, November 2nd 2016), the producers ‘recreated’ that show in a mission that proved just as challenging and hair-raising as back in the day.
In their attempt to restage the broadcast, two teams raced to represent both the mechanical ‘Flying Spot’ contraption built by Scottish engineer and inventor, John Logie Baird and Electronic Emitron cameras of this time. With no surviving camera from the era to lay their hands on the team embarked on the nigh impossible mission of rebuilding cameras themselves. The team led by Dr. Hugh Hunt, (Senior Lecturer in the Department of Engineering in Cambridge) and Danielle George (Professor in the School of Electrical and Electronic Engineering at the University of Manchester), had just over 6 weeks to the anniversary to come up with something that resembled the 1936 show complete with orchestra, contortionists, dancers and singers like Adele Dixon who opened the original show. Clearly they needed a feat of engineering to be able to record it in some sort of fashion that reflected the technological challenges of the day.
The latter is something we on the Adapt project are familiar with! Our entire research project is centered on recreating television events of the past to understand something of the challenges, trials and tribulations behind the scenes that drove what ended up on screen. Rather than building our own versions of cameras and kit and running it ourselves, our particular project relies on locating and somehow reviving old (often obsolete) kit, and recruiting veteran TV crews to work it all, doing the exact job they once did over 30-40 years ago. So we pick up from around the 1960s when, after a fair bit of digging around, man and remnants of machine from the period, can actually still be found!
As I sit here editing our vast amounts of footage from a fixed rig recreation of an early 1970s BBC outside broadcast, all those hairy moments feel very familiar! Images that rattle and shake, tubes that look like they may blow up at any minute, lights that could burn even from afar, searching for a location reminiscent of the period where you can actually get 50 kilo cameras in etc.
We didn’t quite have performing contortionists, though the 22 strong OB crew most in their 70s and 80s may argue that it felt that way when squeezed into the old Type 2 outside broadcast truck! We didn’t have a broadcast deadline to hit, but given the cost and the mission, we did create our own deadlines. Over the 3-day shoot we worked to a final day 3pm rehearsal and a 4pm ‘as live’ broadcast of our very entertaining (but very much of the day) 1970s-style darts tournament. This was all recorded on the hefty tube cameras –an EMI 2001 and Pye PC 80. The images are extraordinary!
Where the BBC Four documentary had The Gadget Show presenter, Dallas Campbell standing in for Lesley Mitchell (the actor turned radio announcer who made history in November 1936), we at Adapt had darts commentator John Gwynne bringing to life the kind of sports OBs that were BBC bread and butter in the 70s. Our restored ‘North 3’ outside broadcast filmed Grandstand, Wimbledon, football, rugby, Open golf – all the live sport that was typical Saturday viewing in most homes in Britain. For us it was a toughly fought darts match between the Griffiths brothers, with our Letraset captions and caption camera recording the score.
It was, of course, the engineers and technical crews who were the pioneers here; the real stars of the show, getting sound and image out of totally unpredictable, cumbersome and troublesome TV technology; building from scratch or adapting as they went, with soldering irons and 2ft-wide cables at the ready so it all looked smooth and trouble free as it transmitted live to audiences (the ‘lookers-in as they were once called). We owe so much to these guys (and they were sadly mostly men back then), as we now very much take for granted our 24/7 onslaught of digital imagery coming at us from every device.
The ADAPT Social Media team (Dr James Bennett & Dr Niki Strange) is currently partnering with PACT (Producers Alliance for Cinema and Television) in its investigation into Social Media and its impact on UK TV production. On 7th September the first of two surveys was launched via the PACT website, aiming to shed light on how new business models, revenue streams and job roles are emerging in the sector and should help indies to understand the economic and creative implications for their businesses. The survey will be repeated in September 2017 to track developments and identify trends, and its findings will be supplemented by focus groups and one to one interviews with key television industry figures over the next 2 years.
After closing on 23rd September 2017 we were delighted to have received 180 responses from TV companies across the UK and Republic of Ireland. The survey was not limited to PACT members and respondents ranged from micro businesses to superindies, and encompassed those working in a wide range of production genres.
Initial findings have now been published on the PACT website, including the following insights:
Social media has led to new revenue streams for a quarter of respondents A quarter of total respondents said that Social Media has led to new revenue streams for their company, with YouTube ad revenue being the most cited. Other sources included merchandising sales from Facebook, show-related apps, social media data leading to publishing deals and brand extensions and digital commissions. However the vast majority of the companies benefitting from these new revenue streams were medium to large companies (50 employees or more)
Just over half of respondents felt formal ‘social media for TV’ training needed
Just over half of all respondents indicated that employees had either attended short courses or had experienced ‘on the job’ training. Nearly half of all respondent companies stated that no one at the company had any social media training whatsoever with less than 10% holding a relevant degree. As a result, 51% thought that formal ‘social media for TV ’ training was needed, particularly around production of assets, managing digital engagement campaigns around TV, branding, organic vs paid social media, and dashboards/analytics analysis. Given that 33% also had experienced ethical and compliance issues around social media for TV, training in that area could be welcome too.
How social media is resourced and managed
In the majority of cases, both programme-related and general company social media is funded from company overheads, with broadcasters representing the least likely source of funds for social media activity. This applied across the board to micro businesses, SMEs and large companies. However there was a contrast between large and small businesses in terms of who undertook social media activities. Companies of 50 employees or more tend to have dedicated social media managers undertaking company and production specific social media work. SMEs and micro businesses tend to entrust production-related social media work to junior staff members first and foremost, with company owners taking the lead on social media work related to the company and its promotions more generally. Producer/Directors also often play a significant role in social media activation for TV shows but less so for company social media work.
Significant contrast in social media platform usage according to genre
The respondents were given a range of platforms and asked to choose the ones they used most frequently for general company and for TV specific social media work. In both areas, Twitter was used, on average, marginally more frequently than Facebook, with YouTube, Vimeo and Instagram ranking as being used regularly. Snapchat, Periscope and Vine tend to be used less frequently and when they are, it’s for TV related social media work rather than general company promotions. There was a significant contrast in platform usage according to genre, with Instagram and Snapchat favoured on drama productions over factual, and Facebook used most often on entertainment shows. Repeating the survey in 2017 will enable the research team to further track indicative usage of platforms across a specific time period.
Broader research conclusions encompassing all the responses (including one to one interviews and focus groups conducted with indies, broadcasters, platforms, and social agencies) will be published in 2018 as an industry white paper.
On 13 May 2015, ADAPT invited five television professionals from the BBC’s former Ealing film department to reproduce a standard filming set-up, using the technologies that were available to them between the mid-1960s and 1980s. The day provided an example of a team of skilled professionals recalling in practice how they went about their work.
Their activities were recorded on four video cameras, and have been edited as linear accounts now on YouTube. It is recommended to watch the short single screen edited version of the 24 minutes from the arrival of the crew on set. This analysis is a detailed examination of how the crew work together in setting up an interview in a simulated home interior. It takes the crew 24 minutes from their arrival to the moment that the interviewee is seated, ready to be interviewed. This analysis refers constantly to short extracts from the four screen version on YouTube, which can be called up to show the specific actions and exchanges.
This ‘simulation’ or ‘reconstruction’ reveals the complexities of obtaining even the simplest piece of television documentary (an interview consisting of a person sitting in a chair answering questions from off camera) in the period from around 1962 to the late 1980s.
The standard BBC filming crew of the time consisted of six people, so our participants were: a cameraman – there were no camerawomen at the BBC at that time – (David Whitson), a camera assistant (John Adderley), a sound recordist (Bill Chesneau), an electrician (Alan Muhley), a director (Ray Sutcliffe), and a PA or continuity ‘girl’ (Alex Branson) who was unable to attend at the last minute and was interviewed later. Her role is to document the filming and deal with logistics. The crew have an efficient and established division of labour, each responsible for specific items of equipment and specific actions. Infringements of this division have to be acknowledged and dealt with.
DEFINING THE TASK
The task that this team will carry out is the filming of an interview with a male (‘the Professor’) seated in a chair in his ‘home’, which is actually a studio set dressed appropriately. To expedite this task, appropriate equipment has been provided and is already arranged at the edge of the set. As they remark, they would normally have had to spend some time offloading this from their cars or vans.
The equipment consists of a 16mm film camera and tripods; a number of lights with stands, filters etc; a Nagra quarter inch sound recorder with microphones and stands. Camera and sound are recorded separately and will be brought back together in post-production. The colour film being used requires more light than is available in a domestic interior.
The equipment being used requires considerable maintenance and preparation, and has limitations which define how the work can take place. Each item of machinery makes particular demands on the situation, the people and on the other equipment. The work to prepare for the interview breaks down into a number of functions:
Survey and arrange the space to enable the filming
Decide filming strategy (camera position, film stock, lighting, sound recording)
Set up camera in position
Discuss lighting plan and install lights accordingly
Load camera magazine with film and place it back on the camera body
Select and set up microphone
Test all equipment to ensure that it is running
Ensure that camera and sound tape are running at exactly the same speed through the use of a sync pulse
Ensure that the film is properly identified in picture (clapperboard)
Bring the interviewee into the space once this preparatory work is finished.
This complex process takes the team just 24 minutes, including delays for solving incidental problems. As they carry out the task, they provide explanations or contextual comments about what they are doing. Except at one moment, these comments are secondary to achieving the professional goal that has been set them.
In May, following a similar exercise on film, an ambitious project to recreate an early 1970s outside broadcast, using authentic gear from the period operated by ‘veteran’ crew members who had worked with it the first time round (including GTC members Rex Palmer and Robin Sutherland on camera) successfully came to fruition. The digital producer for the project is former ‘Big Brother’ producer Amanda Murphy, who explains how it all happened.
ADAPT is a research project funded by the European Research Council (ERC) and based at Royal Holloway University of London. The project’s aim is to film veteran television crews from the 1960s onwards as they are reunited with old, often obsolete kit they once worked with. Through these reunions, the project attempts to demonstrate how and why TV was made the way it was in the past.
We opted to start with the 1960s and 1970s as we realised it would be almost impossible to find folks from much earlier to take part. So, after a successful shoot last year, on which we reunited a 16mm film crew with Arriflex and Éclair NPR cameras, we moved keenly on to the challenge of recreating an early 1970s OB. We wanted to capture something of an era when huge swathes of live TV were broadcast via OB: from hours of Grandstand on a Saturday afternoon, through live football and rugby, Wimbledon, the Open golf, to live entertainment shows such as The Good Old Days and It’s a Knockout. This was an amazingly pioneering time, when the challenges involved the arrival of colour TV, and extraordinarily cumbersome and often rather temperamental equipment.
In our search for working vintage OB trucks, I heard about North 3 – a Type 2 Colour mobile control room (MCR), which Steve Harris had rescued from a sad and rusty retirement in an aircraft hangar. So, project leader Professor John Ellis and I travelled up to meet Steve in Hawarden, near Chester, where he and the truck are based.
I’m not sure whether it was Steve’s passion for North 3, which he had clearly so lovingly restored, or the fact that we had hacked all the way up to his outpost in Hawarden, but we committed there and then to coaxing this rather complex beast of engineering back into use for our project!
Since sport was the bread-and-butter of these Type 2 OBs, our goal was to mount and record a small darts tournament. As we couldn’t broadcast this live (as was mostly done in the day) we would record the event using the old cameras onto a 1” VTR. The idea was to emulate as closely as possible the practical production of a sport OB of the 1970s.
But little did I realise then just how ambitious this would turn out to be. First I had to find and recruit a full OB crew (a 16 to 20-strong team, most of whom would be in their 70s, scattered all over the country and busy in their retirements). Then there was the sheer difficulty of getting the various complex areas of the truck to work… racks of monitors; vision engineer controls so that colour matching of the cameras and riding the aperture could take place; the sound desk not long cleared of bird’s nests, on which the tracks would need to be mixed; the director’s vision-mixing desk so that he/she could cut from one camera to another; talkback; comms. Then there was the small issue of the OB cameras!
EMI 2001 and Pye PC80s
Those who worked with, or know of, 1970s OB units will remember two particular cameras from that era – the Londonfavoured EMI 2001 and the often Northern-based Pye PC80. North 3 (which was Manchester-based in its final years with the BBC) was designed for the PC80. These cameras were huge, cumbersome old colour-tube cameras that weighed around 50kg and generally had to be carried by four men (as it invariably was then) on a stretcher.
These cameras were temperamental, even in their prime, needing hours of line-up to get the ‘right’ colour read from the tubes and, even then, they would ‘drift’, necessitating frequent line-up checks and tweaks. So, powering these back up 30 to 40 years later was going to be a rather unpredictable exercise. Would they work again? We really didn’t know.
Fast forward a few months to when Steve Harris, along with Steve Jones, an engineer who has worked with him on North 3 for many years, would spend many long days and nights trying to get these beasts up and running. I received a daily stream of emails, which left me often baffled and not a little alarmed: “There’s scan failure… +150 and +525 2K multiturn pots were o/c at the slider – they measured 2K fine at the ends but wouldn’t adjust.” Along with notes such as: “Irregular bursts of twitching, align bad, zoom demand not working, and not tried viewfinder […] As regards progress on the EMI…there seems to be a constant stream of faults… I suspected a new fault on the monitor board […] a partly black screen that moved up and down erratically […] viewfinder is working but has 2 hum bars which are a bit of a mystery, they crawl slowly up the raster just slightly out of lock.”
At this point I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry as we’d now started to commit serious research project money to this. At one point, Steve updated me: “The biggest problem is the camera lenses. The 2001 zoom is sticky, it works on and off but will sometimes jam and has to be taken out and freed by hand… On the PC80 we had one with a jammed zoom but iris is OK; the other was the reverse – the iris would move but was lumpy and sticky. We could live with all that but yesterday the zoom stopped working. We don’t have the info on it.”
Shooting the shoot
Meanwhile, I was in discussions with Martin Riley of production company Lion Eyes, BAFTA nominee for shows like Peter Kay’s Car Share, over how many cameras we would need to film the proceedings. It had become clear we couldn’t fit camera operators inside North 3 at the same time as a full veteran OB crew, given the compact operational areas.
Technical crew for the veteran OB
Director: Geoff Wilson
Engineering manager: Ron Clare
PA: Jane Whitmore
Vision supervisors: Roger Neal, John Coupe
Vision engineers: Bill Baldock, Peter Foster
Cameramen: Rex Palmer, Robin Sutherland, Dave Taylor
Rigger: Bob Parry Sound supervisor: Doug Whitaker
Sound engineers: Ken Osbourne, Dave Howard
Lighting director: Steve Harris
VT engineer: Ian Rutter
North 3 engineers: Steve Jones, Brian Summers
The truck presented all sorts of challenges: space constraints, given that an OB crew and racks of kit would fill almost every inch of it; mounting limitations, as it was an old truck and we had to be careful not to damage it; the need for cameras that could record continuously throughout the day so that we didn’t interrupt our veterans at work; decent lens options; and distance from the hotel where we would set up our ‘video village’ so that we could cable the cameras to recorders. All this had to be achieved on a tight budget as this was an academic research project.
We settled on Marshall minicams. Given the area we had to cover and the size of the OB crew, we went for 12 (seven in the truck, one for the commentary area, four in the event room) and three recorders, which would allowing us to record all 12 streams plus our feed in three quad split-screens giving a multi-camera perspective of the entire event. Being able to see simultaneously what various technicians were doing and how people and machines worked together was key to the project.
Modern recording tech spec
•12 Marshall CV502 MB Pro minicams: 1/3” CMOS sensor and output 1920 x 1080 HD video via HDSDI; powered by 12V DC and draw a miniscule 150ma. Tiny form factor: 2.4 x 2.2 x 1.8”; weight 160g.
• Fed to 3 custom decks, each recording 5 streams HD at Pro Res 422 (HQ) onto a single high-speed SSD; this allowed recording of 12 individual cameras and 3 quad splits to give an overview of the action.
• Sound was recorded with 16 radio mics plus a selection of ambient mics, resulting in 24 audio tracks including the programme feed from the OB truck.
• The output of the OB truck was recorded on a DSR50 DVCAM, enabling the composite signal from the truck as well as the analogue audio feed to be recorded dgitally.
• All recorders (both audio and video) were timecode locked.
• Monitoring was on three 24” broadcast-quality monitors, each displaying a different quad split at 1920 x 1080 25p.
“It was fascinating to be part of the team getting these big old cameras working again.” – Rex Palmer
Would it work?
Months turned into weeks and then – with just 10 days to go before the first day of filming – the problems really started to pile up. The 1” VTR we had hoped to record on was still stuck in a dusty cupboard and we had to find 1” engineers (Ian Rutter and Brian Collinson) to help get this back up and running after many years of inactivity (plus an enormous tail-lift van to move and house it). But we did receive some good news from Steve about the EMI 2001: “I have a couple of OCPs I found in the shed at home (mice have eaten the plastic indicator lenses but otherwise OK) and connected one up. Amazingly it works! So we can rack it.” With just a week to go, a few issues remained: we had no cue lights for some of the cameras and no talkback to speak of. More worryingly, the electrician warned us that the 32-amp outlet the hotel had put in especially for our shoot might well knock the entire hotel’s electrical system offline, and so we needed an electrician and maintenance man to install another outlet for our use.
In comparison with Steve Harris and Steve Jones’ daily ‘two steps forward, three steps back’ experience, my mammoth mission of finding and recruiting an OB crew seemed less tough. Once I began to contact the potential crew members, via countless emails and telephone calls, this became a pleasure. Meanwhile, local producer Kate Brown joined our team and almost had to move into the location at Northop Hall to resolve an array of daily logistical issues. We had decided on a darts match as a manageable subject for the OB and Kate found and secured darts commentator John Gwynne and professional darts players Glyn and Mark Griffiths.
“It was great to see the restored scanner looking pristine and having the chance to operate an EMI 2001 again after nearly 40 years.” – Robin Sutherland
Most magical was watching some of television’s great pioneers in action. This group of men (and one woman), now in their 60s, 70s and even 80s, all fell back into their roles using the lingo and nicknames from all those years before, working together as a team dedicated to achieving our mad mission. There was no ‘It can’t be done’ about it – that simply isn’t in this generation of TV makers’ vocabulary; by hook or by crook they would achieve it. Watching this unfold was one of the most inspiring moments of my filming career. Now we face the task of watching and editing the 11TB – that’s 2350 DVDs worth – of data we have generated. Over the months to come, we will edit the footage, making as much of it as possible available on YouTube, in the hope that future generations will better understand how television was made in the past.
“My modest – and probably not very original – suggestion here is that museums are excellent preservers of artefacts, but not very good preservers of maintenance. That is where the value of restorers and enthusiasts like Steve Harris becomes most obviously evident. Through the act of restoration, they preserve maintenance activities. You cannot bring an outside broadcast truck back to life without repeating the many everyday tasks – lubrication, soldering, replacing worn parts – which characterised the artefact’s original life. Some museums restore and operate some of their artefacts (for example: the Science Museum owns trains which sometimes run on the mainlines) – but regular restoration and operation of artefacts is the exception, not the rule, in the museum context.”