Recollections of BBC engineering from 1922 to 1997
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Designs Department - Reminiscences

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My first steps into Designs Department
by Neale Davison

When my age could be expressed with a single figure, I often wondered about that object on the sideboard called 'The Wireless'. How on earth did Uncle Mac (a popular children's record presenter during the 50's) get inside it every Saturday morning, not to mention his Three Billy Goats Gruff and The Runaway Train? And as for Billy Cotton, where did he find space for his Band? Upon reaching double figures I realized that there was something very fishy going on here. I decided to investigate.

One day, when my parents weren't looking, off came the back of this mysterious talking box. There was no Uncle Mac, not even a single Billy Goat, and the Runaway Train had done just that. It had all been an illusion. From that moment I was hooked - radio and electronics was for me. As far as I was concerned that box's ability to pluck sounds out of thin air was nothing less than magic. In my eyes David Nixon was a mere amateur !

Like the rest of us I messed around with all things electronic from making microphones, by precariously balancing pencil leads on the edge of razor blades, to building short wave receivers and amateur radio transmitters. It was the early to mid 60's and, after being fascinated for almost a decade with the whole concept of broadcasting, I came across a book entitled 'A Career in Broadcasting' with a picture of Michael Aspel on the dust cover (yes, he really has been in the business that long). After reading that book my mind was made up. All that was needed was suitable qualifications and a job vacancy to pop up. The qualifications came and so did a job vacancy, advertised in the RSGB Bulletin of January 1966 and reproduced here. The advert was in fact for a vacancy in Equipment Department but by the time it was filled this had been changed to Designs.


The text is interesting with its fair share of sexism, racism and ageism. I doubt whether it would be worded quite like that these days. Certainly the salary would have to be changed ! I lived in Durham at the time so I had a 500 mile round trip to attend a half hour interview at 33 Cav.Sq. Weeks went by until one Friday afternoon a telegram arrived (we didn't have a phone in those days). It read :


I liked the urgency that it implied, and in particular the sound of the last two words - could this be good news ? Off I trotted to the red phone box at the end of the road. After several attempts at pushing buttons 'A' and 'B' and listening to an irritating voice telling me that 'lines to London are engaged, please try later' I finally got through.  

I'd got the job and was to report to Western House, 99 Great Portland Street, W1. Since I had a long way to travel I was told that I could turn up at any time during the course of the following Monday. Monday ! Only two days to say cheerio to everyone in Durham, pack my bags and head for the Big Smoke. After living in a village where I could climb over the fence at the bottom of the garden and walk over fields for literally miles before seeing another house, this was certainly going to be different !

So there I was, eighteen years old, in the middle of this huge city and knowing not a single person. A big change to the lifestyle that I had two days previous.

My 2d (or was it 4d) tube fare took me the short journey from Kings Cross station to Great Portland Street. I remember thinking how enormous the buildings were and somewhere amongst them had to be No 99. But which one? Didn't they believe in house numbers in this part of the world? I eventually found it. I knew that I had because the words 'WESTERN HOUSE' appeared in large capital letters above the double doors. OK, I thought, maybe they don't use house numbers. Probably just as well - Western House is in Gildea Street ! Who were they trying to impress?

I was to work in Sound Transmission Section (formally Lines Section) and after announcing my arrival to Neville Watson's secretary, the formidable Mrs. Peters, I was led off to meet my new boss, John Chorley.

John was a rather likeable chap, a kind of Arthur Lowe / Captain Mainwaring character. Of course at that time that particular character was just a twinkle in David Croft's eye, but in years to come John was affectionately known to those under him as 'Mainwaring', albeit when he was not around, just in case he disapproved. I very much doubt that he would have done.

He shook me by the hand and said "Welcome to the BBC, I wondered where you had got to" Apparently Personnel had failed to tell him that I would be travelling down from Durham that day. He had expected me to turn up at 9 o'clock sharp - it was now 2 o'clock in the afternoon ! Goodness knows what he thought of my time keeping.

He led me into his office on the second floor and invited me to sit down. I did so on the first available upright chair.

"Oh no, no", he said "please take the comfortable one".  The 'comfortable one' was a rather large green leather armchair. As I sank into it the sound of escaping air lasted for what seemed like an eternity before I ended up almost at floor level. He could now look down on me, which I gather was good management practice in those days. I couldn't help but notice that on his desk (about two feet above my head) alongside the ubiquitous black bakelite telephone, was a second telephone. This one was Bright Red. That's got to be important, I thought.

John described the work of the department to me, and in particular that of his section. Whilst doing so the 'Bright Red' one unexpectedly rang and up he shot to answer it. Despite expecting nothing less than a mass evacuation of the building I decided to remain seated so as not to re-inflate this 'green balloon' upon which I was sitting. He mumbled a few words into the mouthpiece and replaced the receiver.  "Er, Just a test, Just a test" he reassured me.

Apparently it was something to do with 'DF'. All very 'hush hush' and under cover but it transpired that everyone knew about it, including the handyman and the tea lady.

It was time to meet the rest of the inmates. The eldest, referred to as 'The Boss' was Freddie Stringer who was past retirement age but worked part time to do technical translations. He was known as 'The Boss' because that was his role before John took over. Then there was a keen pipe-smoker called Granny whose real name was Mr Granthier. If he did have a first name it was never used. He was always referred to as 'Granny', and a real gentleman he was too. There was also a young 'direct entry' engineer, fresh from university, by the name of David Bradshaw. I got the impression that John regarded this young enthusiastic graduate as a prize catch as he spoke very highly of him. I thought to myself, if I just copy what he does then I won't go far wrong.

Others in the section were Cecil Whitehead, an elderly, laid back gentleman who always changed his shoes when he arrived in the mornings, presumably to save on shoe leather, and Bruce Acton, who was nicknamed 'Bond' because of his love of James Bond 007 novels. He was forever paying visits to Manningtree transmitter to fix a faulty automatic fault reporter that reported its own fault on what appeared to be a regular weekly basis.

There were two other laboratory technicians in the section whom I shall refer to as JHT and IC. Although both were very competent at their jobs, neither would talk to the other and always avoided being in the same place at the same time. It seemed that Bruce's secondary role was to keep these two apart at all costs and to check that the coast was clear before either would enter a room. I never did find out the reason for this rift, nor I believe did anyone else, but it remained until IC left to work elsewhere.

I was keen to fire up my soldering iron and start building things. What would I be given for my first job I wondered. I was soon to find out. I was handed a hammer, a saw, a piece of plywood and a bag of nails and told to make a wooden box to house a car battery ! What's this got to do with broadcasting I thought, but I guess that I had to prove my competence before I was let loose on real electronics.

Upon leaving the building on that very first day I glanced across the road to Broadcasting House, the source of those magical wire-less sounds of my childhood. So that's where Uncle Mac lived all those years ago I thought.

I wonder where he kept his goats ?

My thanks to DJB for jogging my memory in places.

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