Bringing “North 3” back to life for a unique experiment in outside broadcast time-travel

Amanda Murphy – Digital Producer, ADAPT

Back in November last year, Professor John Ellis and I travelled up north to meet with Steve Harris, owner of a restored outside broadcast (OB) truck used in the 1960s and 1970s to broadcast much of the BBC’s live sport (including Grandstand) and all sorts of events from royal weddings and funerals, The Good Old Days and It’s A Knockout – not to mention golf, tennis, footie and racing fixtures every week.

This “colour mobile control room” (CMCR), now lovingly restored by Steve, had a number of names over the years having worked in London (as LO5) and ultimately as North 3 on its last broadcast leg in Manchester. We were considering filming this CMCR, bringing it back in action for the ADAPT project, which is all about ‘hands on history’ as a way to understand a bit more about why TV was made the way it was in the past.

Here’s John in Steve’s scanner on our recce when we were both slightly oblivious as to what the coming months may bring…!
Here’s John in Steve’s scanner on our recce when we were both slightly oblivious as to what the coming months may bring!

Five months later, we are less than a week away from actually filming what has turned into a rather massive event. I have to say, cranking up an OB from this era has proven to be just a bit more hairy and challenging that any of us might have imagined! Even in their prime, with countless electronic interfaces and miles of cabling, these vehicles needed constant maintenance from an army of skilled engineers. Today, even after years of painstaking restoration, North 3’s reliability cannot be guaranteed.

With the help of Steve Jones, one of North 3’s original engineers, Steve Harris took on the task of wrangling two seriously old cameras – a 50lb EMI 2001 (mostly found in the London OBs) and a Phillips/ Pye PC80 (the workhorse of the North) to get them back to full working order, A sample of some of the many emails exchanged between myself and the two Steves gives a sense of just how ambitious this project has become!

In one email to me, Steve reports:

 Talk of ‘black mush’ , something not right with the readings on the HV+ rails and the 150 volt supply.”

(I don’t fully understand this either.)  After a long page of problems with the EMI 2001, Steve then says:

‘ on to the PC 80 saga’

 Then, within days, I hear of:

 Irregular bursts of twitching on everything including scan fail light and relay chattering’

While Steve Harris fights the technical gremlins, I turn my attention to trying to recruit a team of more than 20 people to operate this unit. First stop is a fun, and classically boozy, OB reunion event where I corner a few keen types and start to build a team. Cameraman Rex Palmer, engineer Brian Summers (a fellow enthusiast, who has his own TV camera museum) are recruited – we are on a roll. Of course, finding vision supervisors and engineers, sound engineers, a VT engineer, and riggers who are still around proves  hard work: these men are now in their 70s and 80s. (I jumped for joy the day I found rigger Bob Parry known lovingly by the others as one of the notorious Parry Brothers and who has just had his 82nd birthday).

Amidst golf trips and lunches and holidays abroad, I managed to juggle the schedules, say yes to a number of wives, dogs and visiting relatives from Australia, and it started to look like a full team. It consists of 18 men and one woman. The wonderful sounding Jane Whitmore will take the role of PA (production assistant) – one of the very few roles for women at the time. Jane, rather like a Countdown host, is a top mathematician which was key for live television as keeping time and the show to length was entirely down to her!

Wanting to represent the bread-and-butter work of the Type 2 OB, we make the decision to film a small ‘sports’ event.  Given the number of not so young folks and the sheer amount and weight of old kit we opt for the safety and relative reliability of an indoor venue (a hotel function space close to where Steve Harris keeps North 3 so not far to travel it, space to park and rig it and close enough for those inevitable trips back and forth to his workshop!).

north3_5After much debate particularly over music and arts versus a sports fixture, we settle on the glamorous event of darts. We manage to bag John Gywnne to come and commentate and now we are all getting excited about scoring a 180 and puffing smoke and pushing pints around to make it all as atmospheric as it was in the day!

Back to Steve’s emails and new concerns are raised over finding enough lengths of old camera cable. The problem is that it weighs so much it only exists in short lengths, and much of it has been scrapped because of the value of the copper wire inside. We also discuss coaxing one of Steve’s hefty 1” VT recorders from storage, where it has been since being rescued from New Broadcasting House in Manchester the day before the demolition men moved in. We are rather optimistically hoping it may record the event for us.

“Is that ‘we’ ‘me’?” Steve Harris reminds us over and over. We help as much as we can, even sending up some extra pairs of engineering hands to help, but it really does fall to the two Steves and their soldering irons and manuals to solve engineering problem after engineering problem!

By now, though, we’ve committing a date to it, committed a lot of very excited ex-crew and even a rather elaborate fixed rig of 12 cameras which is how we’ve decided to shoot it given the space limitations in the truck and the size of the crew! So, all in all, we’re in – and we’re in deep!

Luckily on the phone yesterday, engineering manager Ron Clare tells me, ‘Failing was just not an option … the show had to go out live and we were all dedicated as a team to make that happen’

north3_6Phew! Ron is on board and I’m banking on him to ‘make it happen’ along with director Geoff Wilson, vision supervisor Roger Neal and the incredibly talented bunch who have all kindly stepped forward for this. There are too many names to mention here but I’ll write about each of them and their over the next few weeks as I have a feeling this might be… eventful!

Amanda Murphy is Digital Producer on the ADAPT project.

One Reply to “Bringing “North 3” back to life for a unique experiment in outside broadcast time-travel”

Comments are closed.