Recollections of BBC engineering from 1922 to 1997
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Studio and Outside Broadcast Operations - Reminiscences

Television Outside Broadcasts from 1937
(with some experiences up to 1962)

by J N (Bill) Bailey
(article provided by David Savage)

Alexandra Palace

The first broadcasts from outside Alexandra Palace studios originated in 405 lines from several of its halls and gardens.  Studio cameras with cables up to 1000 feet long were suitably timed and corrected.  The cameras were Emitron's - iconoscopes with opaque photo-cathodes, which gave good pictures - with adequate light.  But the pictures suffered shading, according to their content and so an operator was required to follow and correct this effect.  Four controls were used for "tilt and bend", wave-form injection, in both line and frame directions.  In the vision mixer, there was a two and a half second delay in fading up a cameras picture - mixing was fun!

Coronation 1937

The first true television Outside Broadcast was the Coronation of King George VI in May 1937.  The Outside Broadcast section of the Television Service was then, and until 1947, under Outside Broadcasts BBC Radio.  For this event video signals were fed to Alexandra Palace Control Room via a balanced cable developed by EMI and installed by the Post Office.  An EMI radio link was held in reserve.  For this 0.8., the first Mobile Control Room was built, using standard racks of the EMI studio equipment on each side of a large van.  This was operated from inside, with outside covers opening outwards from top and bottom, this was for access to units, shelter and ventilation.  The single-lens cameras had optical view-finders, but the upside down image and gratuitous colour.

Scanner 1

The first MCR (Mobile Control Room) was called "Scanner 1"; "Scanner 2", basically similar, soon followed in 1937.  In those spartan days there was no proper OB base, just a garage, but the design of the scanners allowed maintenance at any time!

In Scanner 1, I remember, the camera control units and those associated, were on the left, towards the fronts.  Across, behind the cab. were the Preview and Transmission channels, with their 7" monitors near the roof.  The right side of the scanner held more equipment, going back to halfway; here were the mixers, sound, I think, on the right and vision on the left.  The Producer was accommodated here and the SME could visit all positions, if he was slim.  At the rear, three Emitron cameras and many cables, etc. were carried.

My first connection, pre-war, with a television outside broadcast, was that with Scanner 1 at Heston Aerodrome, which was near Hounslow - I saw Premier Chamberlain on his return from Munich, waving his "piece of paper".  I was at Alexandra Palace in the first Central Control Room, with nine telephones and ringing codes on four of them - and the log to keep - it was an epic 0.B., in every sense.

From about 1938, 0.B. pictures were relayed by UHF radio links to a special aerial and receiver at Swains Lane; this fed into the original balanced cable to A.P., ensuring interference free signals from most directions of 0.B. location.

Back to the Scanner again; two vision engineers operated camera control units, the front engineer, the senior, kept a check on the transmission channel and camera re-shading, if the picture required it and sometimes adjusting black level by the channel "lift" knob. Behind him, the second man prepared the cameras next for preview and mixing.  I remember doing these "No. 2's" duties at Wimbledon tennis, soon after the war; these were setting up and shading the next camera shot required by the Producer or script and keying it onto the preview channel, ready for mixing; with similar attention to the third camera.  The third engineer was the vision mixer, who faded or "cut" between preview and transmission channels.  This close attention to cameras and picture channels was occasionally shattered by the call of "whisker" and disturbed by a dive to the "line suppression" knob, (or was it "blackout") - to kill a gleam of white on picture.

First base

In 1947, the first proper base for, (now officially). Television Outside Broadcasts, was set up, in the "Palace of Industry" in the old Wembley Exhibition ground.  I had just got my "Grade C" at A.P. and soon was told, by Bertie Barker, who was in charge there, to "get out if you want to get on"; I did.  At the industrial palace, however, there was covered space for Scanners, etc. and several offices, but the maintenance section was a P.O. jointer's tent on an unused piece of floor space!

Later, a move was made to the "Palace of Arts", a better address certainly, but generally far more suitable; this time we had three maintenance workshops and a chapel to maintain!

Olympic Games

When the new medium "TV" arrived, in 1936, the engineer decided if the picture quality was suitable for transmission or not, and this applied particularly to 0.8. work. (outside the stable studio environment). This authority remained in force for several years after the war.

In 1948, from Wembley Stadium, the Olympic Games Soccer Match was televised by  scanner 1, with its Emitron cameras.  In those days, viewers only totalled about 24,000 Londoners.  For that memorable match, I had less to do than usual as "No. 2" on "R.A.C.K.S.", because, at about 8.30pm, the sun went down behind the stadium seats and things were pretty dim.  Only our veteran -Emitron could resolve the ball above the "noise", and distinguish the players striped shirts, one side and dark grey the other.   This camera was, of course, an image-iconoscope; Tel. 0.8. owned two of them and we had the best one that night.

Also at the Olympic Games, Swimming at the Empire Pool was put out from MCR4, with  the new 3" Image-Orthicon cameras - CPS Emitrons with lens-turrets and electronic view-finders.  These gave pictures of much better tonal quality and were more sensitive than the old Emitrons; however, they suffered "peel-off" from heavily lit target areas that we sometimes get in O.B.'s.  These cameras later ended up equipping a Lime Grove studio.

Incidentally MCR4 arrived at Tel.O.B. well before MCR3 - an omen concerning the iconoscope, I wondered.

First Zoom

Tel. 0.8. 's acquired a zoom lens in 1949, designed around a Watson lens of 2:1 ratio.  It was large and heavy, but, when balanced mechanically by one of the new Pye Photicon Image-Iconoscope cameras, it was a "must" for the future of television.  This first zoom was christened with boxing from MCR3 at the Albert Hall.  Soon Taylor and Hobson produced a more compact and adaptable article with a better ratio.  I recollect the huge variety of enthusiastic cameramen's ideas for zoom-camera controls and their dispositions - confusion; no true preference emerged.  However, Maintenance Section organised the design finally adopted - and all operators were satisfied.  These early efforts and developments by BBC Television produced one of the most attractive and useful features of the moving picture era.

Mobile Control Rooms

Several other new MCR's began work in 1949, with Photicon, CPS, or Image-Orthicon cameras.

One of the new MCR's, was the second Pye Photicon, No. 6.  It was similar to the first tailor made MCR, No. 3. and of course used turreted cameras with electronic view-finders.

In these Pye equipped MCR's the Photicon cameras needed less "shading" than the Emitrons and were more sensitive.  The fewer controls were arranged on one end of a "suitcase" like camera control unit.  Other "suitcase" units, on the same principle, housed the rest of the apparatus, now allowing de-mounted 0.B., and easier maintenance at base and in emergency.  The pulse generator had sixty-odd EF91's (valves), and at base, I remember developing a hierarchy for testing and "re-planting" them - in order to spin out the stock.

In those days, the cable mechanic, Reg Denman. was one of our key men.  His forte was repairing Emitron camera cables of original 1936 studio design, but his diet was changed and trade lighter when the new types of camera came into use.

There were now, two CPS, (Cathode Potential Stabilities) MCR's, but after much valuable pioneering work, they were soon superseded, by others using English Electric 3" Image-Orthicons.  The second set of CPS cameras eventually equipped Kings Theatre Hammersmith, when an MCR was renewed.  A year or two later, these in turn, had given way to MCR's with 4" Image-Orthicons with better resolution, sensitivity and signal-to-noise ratio.  As in the early days of television, transmission-picture quality was still decided by an engineer.  Now, the rapid development, variety and changes in cameras seemed to justify this authority continuing for a while.

O.B.  and standards conversion in France

1950 was marked by one of the most distant Outside Broadcasts from Calais on the Continent over the water, with exacting difficulties and great experience for micro-wave radio links.  The link terminal at Calais was the clock tower there, and the 0.8. signal was picked up at Swingate, near Dover; the BBC using one of the remaining World War II radar towers.  The  next 'hop' was to Wrotham via a half-way BBC Tel.O.B. radio-link unit.  From Wrotham, the signal was received in London at the top of the Senate House University building and passed on from there as a local television signal to the switching centre at Broadcasting House - all in all a pretty broadband experience.

In 1951 preparations for Anglo-French television exchanges were organised to assess new radio-link needs, together with those for standards conversion from the French 819-lines to BBC's 405-lines.

On a visit to RTF, (Radio-Television Francaise), Paris, I took two 405-line Photicon channels from Tel.O.B. for standards conversion tests.  Val Lord of Research Department, brought along two large multi-standard monitors that could display 405, 819. and 525 line pictures.  Rigger/Driver, Wally Flint drove our expedition to the "Cognac-Jay" which was the RTF's Lime Grove.

There, we found a primitive looking RTF standards converter already working between their super modern 819-lines and their old format 441-lines; a venerable camera was on an immense wooden tripod, actually looking at a small monitor on top of a 2 metre high rack.  The late Mr Pulling was speaking immaculate French, and in this climate we were soon at ease and put together our international machine; it seemed to work as well as their inter-network one; suddenly someone called out "ne bougery pas, vouse etes a l'antenne"; we didn't budge and we were on the air - the viewers pictures changed shape for five minutes, but still kept fair quality.

The French were intrepid improvisers and we were satisfied that as RTF pictures were still OK when seen through a BBC camera, the international television future was safe.  Our converter gear was this time set up, at Mont Cassel, situated between the RTF Lille transmitter and the coast, there again, all was satisfactory.  Half the converter success was due to the long afterglow phosphor in the display tube - "la tube a grande remanance", said Val Lord in an RTF interview.

April 1952 saw final tests under way for the July RTF-BBC television exchanges, and at one prospective radio-Sink site, T H Bridgewater, (engineer-in-charge Tel.O.B.), was about to meet his RTF counterpart when I overheard "Good morning Mr Waterbridge, how are you?"  During these tests, a BBC film was made, showing Tel.O.B. engineers on foreign soil, pioneering towards TV from Paris.  Later in the year, we London Tel. 0.8. engineers figured in the daily BBC test film until the Postmaster General, who was controlling the medium, stopped all but stills for test pictures, in connection with the imminent ITV debate.

In the July festivities, RTF sent pictures from various MCR's in Paris, including "the old Chausson", (perhaps their equivalent of Scanner 1), and at the Cassel converter, we sometimes noticed spurious line blanking excursions!  Even so, the whole system, Paris Scanner to London receivers proved fairly robust.


In June 1953, I had nothing to do with the Queens Coronation, which was a great success!


When "Eurovision" began on the Continent, a Tel.O.B. engineer was sometimes seconded to the European Broadcasting Union's Technical Coordination Centre, then in the basement of Lille town hall.  Right on the top were dishes facing Belgium, for Holland and Germany, and, or course, Paris for France.  When I did a spell at Lille the job reminded me of the first CCR at A.P. - on both occasions there were nine telephones, but these at Lille had only winking eye indicators, no bells, no panic, but no time to see what's on the monitors; in retrospect however, most Eurovision trouble occurred with sound and communications.

About a year later, the EBU Technical Coordination Centre was moved to Brussels and housed in the dome on top of the Palais de Justice - well placed for vision radio links to the rest of Europe and for many sound lines for commentary and control purposes.  The centre was equipped mainly by BBC effort, (Eddy Woods, Lines Department, devised the operational system), and it was run for some years by a BBC engineer, Eric Griffiths. Tel.O.B. sent an engineer from time to time, to assist in complex and/or extensive operations.  I remember working well into the night, in Brussels, re-ordering links and sound circuits for EBU, to accommodate President Kennedy's sudden decision to visit Ireland, in the middle of his European tour.

Before BBC joined Eurovision, in 1954, reversible cross-channel radio-links had been installed at Swingate, near Dover, one by BBC. with three space-diversity dishes facing France - and another non-diversity, by RTF.  These were mounted on one of the wartime radar towers there.  GPO had then taken over the Swingate-London links with a wide band cable.  Optical standards-converters for 819 and 625 lines to 405 lines, using EEV Image-Orthicon cameras and lengthened afterglow displays, were set up near the tower.  All the BBC equipment was operated and maintained by a Tel.O.B. crew, under Ralph Barrett, who also maintained his receivers at Cassel, on the French side.  Similarly the RTF engineer, M. Declopment, serviced his receiver and aerials at Swingate.

On September 15, 1956 Eurovision found Richard Dimbleby reporting on the view from half-way up the Eiffel Tower.  BBC's Eurovision control room had been set up in Broadcasting Houses' (BH), gentís cloakroom, duly called Continental Control Point, (CCP).  The Eurovision engineer's officer however, was at Tel.O.B. Wembley, where circuit booking was done by telephone and liaison with Brussels and countries involved by telex.  European telephone contacts were sometimes precarious, both electrically and linguistically.  Once, urgently talking to Rome on an atrocious line, in English, we soon found French was easier- it must have matched the Latin line characters better!

CCP was close to Switching Centre BH, where a Eurovision engineer was based - and further assistance available, as required.  This semi-detached scheme worked well and provided exercise for me, by commutation from Wembley.

When originating, say, racing from Ascot, to several countries in Europe, CCP first used to check "Inland Trunks" offers for each country's commentary and control lines from the 0.B.  Likewise "Continental Trunk's" offers were checked, then connected, at 2-30 minutes, to appropriate identity tapes; though connections in CCP followed later, according to rules of EBU, GPO, PTT. etc.

Vision, supervised by EBU Brussels was usually uncomplicated.  Once, when doing Wimbledon tennis to Europe, CCP got a call from Germany, "Is there a black man playing in the match?  Our picture is not good".  CCP'S pictures were OK and remained so.  After five minutes, I replied, "yes. there is a black man playing".

For some weeks in the late 1950's.  BBC Eurovision radio-links and Tel.O.B. office also served the new ITV, and soon after RTE of Ireland, until their own particular channels, converters and operations were established.

Special programmes, uniquely for one television organisation were called unilaterals; we used to do one weekly to RTF Paris, called "A Vous Londres". I liked this regular trip to 'our little studio near BH; in fact, it was adjoining All Souls Church.  The RTF presenter, Jacques Sallebert, the EU engineer from switching centre and myself were working directly to Pans and found this a stimulating routine.  More stimulating, was the occasional RTF unilateral to us; at 2-30 seconds there would still be no studio picture for us; but with just 15 seconds to go, vision plus sound, and relief all round - voila!

International developments

1961 saw Television Centre's International Control Room replacing BH's CCP, with enlarged and improved facilities.

Soon after this move. the BBC-RTF cross-channel links were taken over by the respective Post Offices.  Swingate standards converters were then moved to a site at Tolsford Hill, near Folkstone.  Here, new cameras used 4 " Image-Orthicon's and a third converter was added, all now dealing with 819 and 625 lines incoming.

This link hand-over was marked by a nice little ceremony, a lunch in Dover, attended by seven of us Tel.O.B. men, two of Eurovision's prime movers, Messers. Pulling and Bridgewater, all together with Post Office and French PTT representatives.

Later, Tolsford Hill standards converters were moved to Television Centre, with cameras again changed to Photicons this time.  Later still, all converters became solid-state and were now close by ICR - on the floor above.

New, in 1962, were short programmes to and from USA while Telestar orbited by.  On one occasion, the last five minutes of useful access were unallocated and the US commentators of MBC, CBS, & ABC, all began harassing each other and everybody else, including the S.Tel.E, Dave Warton, who had to throw them al! out.

Post Telestar sic transit telobius res.

Click here for screen shots of the first
live TV OB from France, as well as a picture of the balanced cable developed by EMI.