CHAPTER 1 The Earliest Days
Junk or Keep?
1983 is a particularly interesting year in which to be having a look at the part that film has had to play in the affairs of BBC Television since it first went into business in November 1936. Although there is no slackening in the demand by programme makers for filming facilities the days of rapid growth and development are over. The last major expansion was almost twenty years ago to meet the requirements of BBC 2 and the challenge presented by the transition to colour working on both channels has been met. The technical chain, from the camera lens to the telecine has improved so much that the system has caught up with the change from 35mm to 16mm. Indeed there is probably very little scope to squeeze any more improvements from 16mm. The stage has now been reached when the film camera and electronic camera are virtually interchangeable and it is already beginning to look as if the next five years or so will see a number of significant changes taking place in the way programmes are made. After a long period of management and union discussion the first step was taken along what will probably be a very long path, when, on 24th January 1983, a small group of film people began a course of study into the operational use of electronic camera and editing equipment.
The two BBC television channels have always made heavy use of film in a number of different ways, the most obvious one being bought-in movies. These, together with tele-films, ie. films or filmed series made especially for television, like “Dallas”, “M.A.S.H.” and “Dynasty”, to say nothing of cartoons and independent productions of all kinds, fill thirty hours of transmission time every week. The BBC’s own film units operate around the clock all over the world shooting film not only for the making of complete programmes but also for us as insert material in, for instance, “Tomorrow’s World”, “Panorama”, “Blue Peter”, and in drama productions of all kinds. Crews are based in all of the principal broadcasting centres throughout the United Kingdom and there is always a crew in residence in New York.
In the ranks of the 1200 or so people on the BBC’s film pay-roll are film recordists, lighting electricians, dubbing mixers, qualified engineers, stores clerks, librarians, allocations managers, television electricians, cost clerks, training instructors, cameramen and many more besides. Outside organisations supply photographic film and magnetic recording stock, the principal raw materials used in the film making process. Others provide film processing and a multitude of specialised services. Cameras, lenses, sound, lighting and editing equipment have to be bought, maintained and replaced at the end of their operational life. Motor vehicles of all kinds are needed and close contact must be maintained with travel agencies and the world’s airlines if crews are to be moved from one end of the world to the other, efficiently and economically. These very large resources provide 15 hours of new programme material every week for network television.
The growth in the use of film did not come about by accident, nor was it as a result of policy decisions. It happened because successive generations of programme makers found that the film process was well suited to their requirements and that fine programmes result. As their ambitions and confidence in film grew so developments in equipment and materials took place, new posts were agreed and filled and new accommodation was taken over.
If we look back to 1936 we find that things were very different. Right from the start of planning for the world’s first high definition television service, Gerald Cock, the first Director of Television, envisaged a programme staff that would include a film expert. Philip Dorté, who was working as an Outside Broadcasts Manager in Radio provided that expertise for he had worked as a senior sound recordist at Lime Grove Film Studios. Twelve years later, Dorté was to become the first Head of Films. He was supported by Greeve del Strother, another man with film industry experience and between them, they brought in, under contract, a film director, a cameraman and a film cutter. They made occasional film sequences showing the adaptation of Alexandra Palace as a television complex and the development of the studios. When the programmes started, they filmed interviews for Picture Page and other magazine programmes. Film cameras were often set up alongside their electronic counterparts in the cramped Alexandra Palace Studios to film the highlights of the opening months of television, for the process known as telerecording that was to make possible the recording of television image on photographic film was a long way ahead in the future. Video tape recording was even further away. They filmed Adele Dixon, a very popular entertainer of the time singing ‘Television” when the very first live television broadcast was made at the opening ceremony on 2nd November 1936. On 12th May 1937 film cameras were set up alongside the Outside Broadcast cameras at Hyde Park Corner when the Coronation procession of King George VI and Queen Elizabeth passed by. Much of that filming was carried out by Alan Lawson who, after the war, was to become the BBC’s first full-time film cameraman. The highlights of this film coverage of the pre-war years still survive in edited form in the post-war film “Salute to A.P.”. Two years were to elapse before the BBC took the plunge and bought is own film camera equipment. Until then, it was a question of using borrowed or hired equipment. The case put to the Board of Management to justify the proposed expenditure of £1,600 was that it would be used to provide:
“(i) improved facilities for
filming sequences to illustrate or link direct productions,
The equipment was described as consisting of the latest type Mitchell sound camera complete with lenses, tripods, sound amplifiers, batteries, cables, etc., and certain portable lighting equipment’. A Studebaker saloon with a reinforced roof to form a camera position was thrown in with this £1,600 purchase from the National News Company which had gone out of business. In spite of all this activity it cannot be said that film had a very important part to play in pre-war television. In 1937, the “Radio Times” was proudly announcing that “approximately two and a half hours of ‘live’ material as distinct from film is available on home screens every week day as well as on Sunday evenings”. Film was principally used in the mornings for trade test transmission purposes, and not more than half a dozen full length features found their way on to the home screen over the whole of the pre-war period. There were a few cartoons and the odd “interest” film and regular showings of the newsreels “Gaumont British News” and “British Movietone News”.
This first television period was fumbling and tentative. The audience was small and funds were limited, but it had an authority and an abundance of goodwill. As early as 1937, C.A. Lejeune, the distinguished film critic of the OBSERVER had written “Television is the key to all the entertainments of the future. Nothing is going to stop its progress, nothing is going to limit its ultimate efficiency. The film industry may handicap and harass it, boycott and outlaw it, but in the end the film industry will have to succumb and work with it’’
At midday on 1st September 1939 the duty announcer at the Radiolympia exhibition in London wound up the morning’s transmission with a light-hearted trailer of the programmes to come in the next week or so. There were to be five full-length plays, solo acts by stars of the variety stage, two new editions of “Picture Page”, outside broadcasts, films and much else. The announcer was not to know that only two hours previously the late Douglas Birkinshaw, the first Engineer-in-Charge of Alexandra Palace had received instructions that the station was to close at noon. It was decided to stay on air just a little while longer and to show a film - Mickey Mouse in “Mickey’s Gala Premiere”. The cartoon ran for eight minutes and caricatured Greta Garbo whose last words on the track were ‘Ah tank Ah go home”. That was it. There was no closing announcement and the world’s first high definition television service had come to an end, having started only two years and ten months before. Twenty-three thousand television receivers had suddenly become redundant.
Throughout the year the Radio Manufacturer’s Association in co-operation with the BBC had been campaigning in London and the South East supported by the slogan “Television is here - You Can’t Shut Your Eyes to it”. Sales of receivers were booming and there seemed little reason why 80,000 should not be sold by Christmas. But it was not to be. The staff, who in less than three years had established a new medium of entertainment, knowing no precedents and encountering new and difficult situations at every turn, were dispersed. Some went to fight a war, others were resettled in other parts of the BBC. Nearly seven years were to elapse before the Service was to re-open by showing again “Mickey’s Gala Premiere”.
It is surprising that television had made such little impact in those pre-war days, and clearly a formidable section of the potential viewing public within the range of the Alexandra Palace transmitter was not prepared to invest in a receiver. Apart from the over-riding limitation of only one transmitting station, in an area where cheap live entertainment of all kinds was accessible to all, there were a number of factors which influenced the public to delay making a purchase. These can be summarised under five headings - receiver cost, limited picture size, fear of new technical developments making receivers obsolete before the last H.P. instalments were paid, motor car ignition interference and other man-made static, and the quality of many of the programmes.
At the 1939 Radiolympia exhibition, a set could be bought for £20 but the picture was only six by four inches. The affluent customer could put down £140, and receive in return a box containing not only a twenty-two by seventeen inch screen but also the added frills of all-wave radio and gramophone. Since the average weekly wage for adult males was not much above £5, their reluctance to take the plunge was understandable.
Starved of money and
resources, dramas went on the air with the benefit of only one full rehearsal
with sets, props, costumes, lights, cameras and microphones. The performance,
always live, was the first and only take, with the result that sometimes even
the cheapest ‘B’ movies had more polish, and outside broadcasts, and there were
many of them, were shot “off the cuff” without a script.
The Television Service resumed its activities on 7th June 1946. Since a number of receivers had obviously been destroyed as a result of enemy action, it is unlikely that there were more than 20,000 sets capable of receiving the opening programmes. There were 536 posts on the television establishment and it was their job to produce 28 hours of programmes each week. For the very first time the viewer had to buy a £2 combined Radio and Television licence and by the end of the year 14,560 had been sold.
Maurice Gorham, the first post-war Head of the Television Service, had his problems. Operational difficulties caused by out-of-date equipment, inadequate studio accommodation, too small a staff and serious financial and management difficulties made life very difficult for all. The key BBC administrators were all in Broadcasting House and were reported as seeming to be more interested in starting the Third Programme (later Radio 3) than in the resumption of television. It was almost impossible to secure the co-operation of outside theatre, film and sporting interests. As Asa Briggs says in his 4th Volume of ‘The History of Broadcasting in the United Kingdom’, Gorham was merely re-enacting Reith’s struggles of the 192 Os during the early history of sound”. It was against this background that the returning members of the pie-war television staff embarked ‘on an adventure to which there will be no end’.
There was recognition, albeit very slight, that film would have a part to play in the post-war years, for Philip Dorté was made Outside Broadcasts and Film Supervisor, supported by Greeve del Strother as the first Film Manager. The rest of the Unit consisted of Alan Lawson, who although he was called Film Assistant (Cameras) was in fact the first staff Film Cameraman, Donald Smith as Film Assistant (Editorial) and two Film Cutters (the BBC did not allow use of the word ‘Editor’ for non-journalists). Don Smith was later to become Children’s Newsreel Manager and is chiefly remembered for his making of the film “London to Brighton in 4 Minutes” in which every foot of the railway track from Victoria to Brighton was covered at a simulated speed of 750 miles an hour. This minor classic is included in most of the world’s film archives and is still being shown over thirty years later.
The very first event to
be televised in the ceremonial calendar was the great Victory Parade, an
international spectacular which might have been specially designed for
television. The only permanent record of that event was made by the film crews
placed alongside the OB cameras in the Mall. The film they shot was shown on the
same evening, for the telerecording process was still over a year away.
The tight schedule of
exposing and transmitting processed film within the span of a single day placed
a considerable strain on the limited and somewhat crude facilities of the Film
Unit. There were no internal dubbing facilities, and hire was only possible when
time permitted. Live commentaries were given when the film was televised, often
without much rehearsal and, sometimes, none at all. In the case of a sports
event such as the St. Leger, Peter Dimmock would fly his own 2-seater plane from
Doncaster to Hendon from where the exposed 35mm film was rushed to Kay
Laboratories. Dimmock, complete with bowler hat, made his way to Alexandra
Palace and gave a live commentary to the cut film on the same evening.
However, by August 1947, plans were announced for the BBC’s first weekly newsreel principally as a reaction to the fact that no agreement had been reached to transmit commercial newsreels, ie. British Movietone News and Gaumont British News as in the pre-war days. Dorté clearly needed more staff and appointed Harold Cox, formerly of Gaumont British and the BBC’s Assistant Television Outside Broadcasts Manager before the war, to serve as the first Newsreel Manager. Alan Lawson was re-designated Senior Film Cameraman, and Don Smith was at last given the logical title of Film Editor supported by a Miss Chris Corke as the first Film Negative Cutter, The new unit slowly took shape, hindered only by a complete shutdown of all television for two weeks when the country was hit by the worst winter in decades.
The winter of 1947 saw the introduction of ‘off the tube’ filming of television pictures, the process that came to be known as telerecording. The process was of great importance both to programme makers and programme planners. Furthermore, it would become possible to contemplate the sale overseas of BBC programmes recorded by this method through a television transcription service. Don Smith had for some months been making experimental recordings on film with the aid of a high intensity blue monitor tube set up in front of a film camera in one of the preview theatres at Alexandra Palace, with most encouraging results. A case was put up to the Director-General’s finance meeting in August for the purchase of equipment to put the process on an operational footing. Alan Lawson was given written instructions by Dorté to get everything moving as soon as D.G.’s approval was given, for Dorté himself was about to go on leave. The experiments were successful to the extent that the first public use of recorded television anywhere in the world was made for the coverage of the annual Cenotaph Service in November and the wedding of Prince Philip and Princess Elizabeth in the same month. Live television cameras were not allowed in Westminster Abbey for the wedding but film cameras were. A film of what happened inside the Abbey was shown to viewers in the evening, together with telerecordings of the processions that had been shown live in the morning.
The techniques employed were to change, but no-one was in any doubt that it was a significant development, neither was there any doubt that much further work would have to be done.
The glorified home
movie period was definitely coming to an end and the Film Unit was poised for
rapid expansion as more demands were made for its services. The year ended on
New Year’s Eve with a programme billed in “Radio Times (Price 2d) in the
following manner: ‘TELEVISION FILMS OF THE YEAR’
At the beginning of 1948 television audiences were still very small. Television was one of six divisions within home broadcasting and Norman Collins, who was then in charge, had Controller status only. This meant that he reported to the Director-General (William Haley) through the Director of Home Broadcasting, Basil Nicholls. Maurice Gorham, Collins predecessor, galled because there would be no separate Director of Television, found this method of working unacceptable and was left with no alternative to resignation. Collins created four programme groups — Drama, Light Entertainment, Talks Features and Outside Broadcasts and Films. Philip Dorté as Outside Broadcasts & Films Supervisor master-minded the preparations for Television Newsreel. The first edition went on the air at 8.30 pm on Monday 5th January, and was repeated on the Wednesday and twice on the Saturday of the first week. All the filming was done on 35mm with optical sound tracks and although the negative track was used for the first transmission, married prints were made for the repeats. Since there was no dubbing theatre an outside theatre had to be used. The BBC’s first dubbing theatre did not come into use until September of 1948 and was built at Alexandra Palace. The first Dubbing Mixer was Vernon Phipps, who nearly thirty years later was to become Film Group’s General Manager. It seems that Television Newsreel was mounted on a shoestring for it was not until the following month that the Director-General agreed additional funds to meet this development. An extra £500 was approved for the television programme allowance (above the line expenditure) which then stood at £5,000 a week. The ‘reel’ was an instant popular success from day one and by March had become a twice-weekly event; the first edition was transmitted on Mondays and the second on Fridays. In the same month, it was decided that Television Outside Broadcasts and Film Department should be split into two separate parts. Dorté was made Head of Films while Ian Orr-Ewing headed up Outside Broadcasts. Basil Nicholls took care to write to Norman Collins saying that the split was agreed only on “the definite assumption that this split will not involve any extra staff — that is to say you will not in the next year or so ask for any extra staff which you would not have asked for if the Department had not been split”. It was against the background of this injunction that Film Department was born, it was a small and energetic unit and like many of the television staff, overworked.
“News Flashes” were added as tail-pieces to the ‘reel’ from the summer of 1948 onwards and for the account of the famous victory of Harry S. Truman for the Presidency of the U.S.A., an NBC film was specially flown across the Atlantic. The Olympic Games, held in London that year, the Berlin blockade and the general unrest of the post-war years provided ample scope for the Film Unit’s growing activities. A Children’s Newsreel Manager was appointed with the task of stock-piling material for “Children’s Newsreel” that was to make the air for the first time early in 1950.
In those days before Film Group became a purely servicing organisation the programme contribution made by the then Film Unit was considerable. Dorté divided up the department to reflect his very clear view as to where the priorities lay. The ‘reel’ was the flagship programme; its staff and resources were under the leadership of Harold Cox, del Strother was firmly in charge of the booking of films for television showing as Film Booking Manager and John Elliott, destined to make a most important and distinguished contribution to television over the next twenty-five years or so was recruited as Film Documentary and Sequences Manager. Jack Mewett became the Administrative Assistant to the Unit. He was to succeed Dorté and to head Film Group for a period of twenty years. All this was happening at a time when no more than 50,000 combined sound and vision licences had been sold, when a television aerial had become the symbol of social supriority. It was a time when the man over 21 working in industry would have to pay out 7 weeks wages to buy the cheapest television receiver with a 9 inch screen. More significantly perhaps, it was the time when ten times as much money was spent on sound as on television.
In spite of the dire shortage of cash and resources, a great deal of enterprise was shown by the members of the Film Unit. Three film programmes reflecting the activities of the emerging travel and tourist industry were made, BOAC, as it was then called, was only too pleased to offer a free facility to make, among other programmes, “Springbok Route to Johannesburg” and “Around the World in 8 Days”, the first was shot on board the ill-fated de Havilland Comet, the first jet engined aircraft to be used on any regular passenger carrying route. The production team, Dorté among them, demonstrated most graphically the pleasures of flying in an aeroplane which was extraordinarily quiet by comparison with its piston-engined equivalents and almost entirely free from vibration. The other programme underlined the opportunities that were beginning to open up for fast and comfortable international air travel. Wynford Vaughn Thomas who had made a distinguished contribution to broadcasting as a War Correspondent was the commentator for this programme. In 1949 there were a number of interesting filmed documentaries notably the Foreign Correspondent series. Somehow or other, all of this output, together with the twice-weekly Newsreel was squeezed through two cutting rooms at the Alexandra Palace. Space problems were felt by all departments and there was much relief when it became known that the Corporation had acquired the Film Studios at Lime Grove, after a frantic weekend when the Director-General had rung up each of the Governors one by one, to ask for their approval. Collins, however, was looking far beyond this for he more than anyone else had a clear view about the extent and the rate of future television development. The Government had already given its agreement that the 405 line picture standard would continue to be used for a number of years and that work on the Sutton Coldfield Station for the benefit of Midlands viewers could press ahead. Further, the BBC had been authorised to plan more television stations, beginning with the North of England. As a result of Collins vision, the 13+ acre site at White City was bought by the Corporation and the permission of the London County Council obtained to start developing it. However, there were many delays and many second thoughts before the scheme went ahead, which eventually led to the opening of the Television Centre in 1960.
Right from the very beginning, Dorté argued that there should be a film presence at the Television Centre, and did not let any opportunity pass by to make his case. He asked for a special sum of500 for making a film to show the development of the White City site from the bulldozing stage to the finished building. Collins turned him down - he had not in any event got that amount of cash to spare — and so reference was made to the Director-General. He, in turn, turned down Dorté’s request. In communicating Director-General Haley’s decision to Dorté, Collins said “May I ask, therefore, that during the ensuring five years you should without a special grant arrange to take shots of the site at the various stages. Some of these shots can no doubt be used in “Newsreel” and so earn their keep straight away. Five years from now you, McGivern and I can decide how a final editing can be arranged”. Small wonder, then, that Dorté and others became frustrated and angered that reference had to be made to such very senior people on matters which today would be regarded as slight and well within the compass of a middle manager to decide.
The Sutton Coldfield transmitter was duly opened in December 1949 and the Film Unit produced “Television Comes to the Midlands”, telling the story of this first major expansion which has to provide a service for a potential of 9 million more viewers. There were to be enormous developments in the decade to come, in which film was going to have a big part to play.
1950 saw Donald Peers firmly established as a first magnitude star of the entertainment world. Fame exploded over the unsuspecting head of this hitherto modest performer. Explosions of a totally different kind were taking place in far away Korea. Tommy Handley’s death had deprived radio variety programmes of their leading comedian and brought to a premature end that national institution called ITMA, and which had run for over 300 editions. The blockade of Berlin had been lifted, and the North Atlantic Treaty signed. Radio had all the top stars and the only thing that television could do about matters of moment was to cover them, if funds permitted, in the twice-weekly Television Newsreel. There was no news service as such apart from the recorded relay of a radio news bulletin at the end of the evening’s programmes. The viewers saw a clock on the screen and nothing more. There were no satellites and the Eurovision network was at the very earliest stage of its development. There was no way in which the viewer could share in the great events of the day, as they happened, other than through the medium of the live outside broadcast. Even then Manchester was outside the reach of O.B. units as were Bristol, Cardiff, Glasgow and Belfast. Children’s Newsreel was launched on 30th January 1950 and was to build and maintain a faithful audience every week for many years to come. Issue number one carried a story about the first Polar bear to be born in captivity - Brumas. About this time Monty Redknap, a very well known technician at the time who had worked in the English film industry right from the very beginning, retired. His most enduring contribution to television was the filming of the famous “Interlude” films that were used to mark an interval between programmes, or acts of plays. The sails of the windmill turned and the potter’s wheel spun for many years to come. Film Department made many successful film programmes including “Henry Moore”, which won awards at film festivals around the world. “The Debate Continues” was the story of the House of Commons, the original having been bombed beyond repair during the Second World War. Other titles included “Rome in Holy Week”, “30,000 Gannetts” a first serious attempt at a natural history film, made a few years before the setting up of the BBC’s Natural History Unit at Bristol. An experimental cartoon film was made called “I had a Dream Last Night”. Other successful documentaries included “Severn Westwards”, “Arctic Mail Boat” and another natural history film “The Avocet”. Film sequences were vital and integral parts of such series as “International Commentary”, “Foreign Correspondent” and “Matters of Life and Death”. “London Town” was an intricate magazine programme about the capital city making use of film and matching studio sets linked by the increasingly accomplished and prestigious Richard Dimbleby.
Relationships with the
distributors of feature films began to improve and to encourage them further a
weekly programme called “Current Release” was devised. Extracts from films on
general release were shown and there was ample evidence that the box office was
stimulated by this publicity. Not unnaturally the industry expected reasonable
co-operation from the BBC in favour of British films. Ten years earlier J.
Arthur Rank, whose interests through the Rank Organisation, which he
chaired, were already widespread was a member of the Hankey Committee. This
committee was appointed to consider ‘the reinstatement and development of
television service’ after the war was over. Rank who had acquired such a
powerful stake in Britain’s cinema industry, looked forward to there being a
substantial television market for home viewing. He said that ‘there was a
certain residual value in films which was never fully exploited’ and that ‘there
was always people who liked to see a film twice or who had missed it on the
first release’. Television, he also thought, might result ‘in an entirely new
kind of film making’.
Coronation year in 1953 saw the Film Unit gearing itself for its biggest efforts to date. The newsreel was now running at five issues a week and was a highly popular programme. It was, however, the peak before the fall for there was much machinating and pressure designed to bring the ‘reel’ under the wing of News Division. There was plenty of behind the scenes squabbling. The Film Unit was criticised for its lack of news expertise, and Dorté counter-attacked by saying that News Division had no ‘film expertise’. Dorté could not fully foresee that the techniques and methods of Television were to go beyond those of film makers. It was already being recognised that whatever television might do to the cinema it would certainly sound the death-knell of the cinema newsreel. The home viewer was not receptive to the quick-fire jokey stories to which the old school newsreel makers were so addicted. However he was prepared, at home, to accept a lot of information that in the cinema would merely make the newsreel appear to be going on interminably. Grace Wyndham Goldie who was to make such a notable contribution to current affairs broadcasting, referred to the squabbles between the News Division and Film Department as ‘a battle between a school of whales and a herd of elephants’. Tom Hopkinson the distinguished ex-editor of Picture Post was invited by Broadcasting House to prepare a report on the Newsreels. He found that the wording of commentaries was ‘stale and second hand’ and that not enough time and not enough guidance was being applied to the photography. Dorté, however, never a man to take any criticism lying down, responded by pointing out that Hopkinson’s criticisms could be overcome if his Newsreel Unit trebled in size as he had already recommended. But it was too late, for there had been a change in policy. The talk was less of an addition to the Newsreel staff than of the provision of ‘a service of news-in-vision’. Before long there was a full transfer of responsibilities for staffing and organisation to News Division. People like Paul Fox and Richard Cawston, who had been closely associated with the Newsreel from the very beginning, refused to be transferred to Alexandra Palace where the new service was housed, and found employment elsewhere in the Television Service. It was the end of an era not only for film but also for television. It was also the end of the BBC career of Philip Dorté O.B.E.
Philip Dorté’s departure at the end of 1954 marked the end of a difficult and turbulent period. “Television Newsreel” had been axed a few months previously, to be replaced on 5th July of that year by the first “News and Newsreel”. The prolonged dispute left its scars and must have influenced Dortë’s decision to leave the BBC and join up with Norman Collins in Independent Television. The staff of the Film Unit had no idea where they stood for a good number of them were continuing to service the Newsreel element of “News and Newsreel”. There were other strains because the passing of the Television Act on 30th July made it clear that the BBC’s monopoly would shortly be brought to an end. This meant that for the first time the managers and the technicians in the Film Unit had an alternative employer to turn to other than the feature film studios which, in any case, were always in a state of flux. Tempting offers were made with the result that the Corporation had to respond by offering salaries and contracts far above the normal accepted valuations put on their services by Grading Department. Just as a number of staff did not accept the offers made, a number did leave to join ITN which was just opening up shop, and the other companies. Jack Mewett, who was to succeed Dorté, proposed the setting up of a training scheme and Board of Management readily agreed to his proposal that 10 trainee posts be raised at a cost of £5,850 per annum. It was also agreed that 46 Film posts should be transferred to News Division. The break from News was thus complete and the Television Service had a Film Unit to meet whatever demands that might be put upon it in the new situation.
There were by now 10 camera crews and 14 cutting rooms, and among the first regular programmes for which they were to provide their services were “Highlights”, a nightly ten minute programme produced by Donald Baverstock and Alasdair Mime, and “Panorama” linked by the great Richard Dimbleby. Both of these programmes were launched in 1955.
At this time, Lime Grove housed all the Film staff, but it was rapidly becoming obvious that the Television Service was facing a major accommodation crisis. Recruitment was continuing apace in all departments and space was urgently needed for office expansion and staff training, as well as of course, for film. Central Services Group was given the task of finding a suitable site at a reasonable puce. Dozens of ice rinks, redundant cinemas, theatres and other premises were looked at and for a number of reasons, had to be turned down. In February of 1955, the then Head of Central Services said in a memo that he was “more or less at his wits end to find somewhere, ie. a film studio”. In the summer of that year, Board of Management decided to set aside £240,000 to meet the cost of whatever premises that might come on the market. Soon after this, the word got about that Ealing Film Studios Limited was in a bad way and that it was highly likely it would go to the wall. Secret negotiations took place with the estate agents, Knight, Frank & Rutley and much correspondence was generated in which the word ‘Ealing’ never appeared.
The code name was “Stills
Limited”. Needless to say, the £240,000 previously put by the Board of
Management was not enough and the Director of Administration, Sir Norman
Bottomley, obtained Board of Management’s approval to spend £350,000 for the
land and premises. However, a further £200,000 would be needed for the Film
Library, camera and technical equipment and other requirements. The Board
eventually gave their agreement to proceed on 15th September.
The film buff will always associate Ealing with Michael Balcon, who since 1938 had made so many dictinctive and stylish films. Titles like “Passport to Pimlico”, “Kind Hearts and Coronets”, “Whisky Galore” and “The lavender Hill Mob” did a marvellous job in entertaining post-war audiences. The comedies are well remembered but there was more serious output, including “Scott of the Antarctic”, “The Cruel Sea”, “It Always Rains on Sunday” and “San Demetrio, London”. After the BBC moved in, only seven more films were made bearing the Ealing logo at the company’s new base at Borehamwood, of which “Dunkirk” made in 1958 is perhaps best remembered. The old Ealing just faded away and its passing was largely unnoticed. The audience had already turned its back on the cinema and the British film making industry was dying on its feet.
At the beginning of the
century Will Barker, a pioneer of the British film industry bought two houses on
Ealing Green and the land that went with them. He started out his long career by
making films on an open air stage at Stamford Hill. The films were only fifty
feet in length, the capacity of the Lumiere camera and were sold to showmen
outright at a guinea a time. The business prospered and Barker was sufficiently
encouraged to build his first covered stage at Ealing in 1907. It was a glass
construction rather like a greenhouse. Two more were soon added, together with
workshops, prop rooms and a laboratory. With these resources Barker made many
short comics and melodramas with titles like “Trapped by London Sharks”, “The
Fighting Parson” and “The Face at the Window”. He was obviously an adventurous
showman for in 1912 he made a screen version of “Hamlet”, taking all of one day
to film the twenty-two scenes. The sets were stacked and as each scene was shot
it was peeled away and the next revealed. The film cost £180 to shoot and made
Barker a handsome profit of £600! This was followed by the making of “Henry
VIII” which brought to the screen the great Sir Herbert Beerbohm Tree and his
company. Tree demanded and got the unheard amount of £1,000 for his appearance
in this epic, which has been described as the first really important British
film. Bertie Samuelson went into partnership with Barker to make yet another
epic “Sixty Years a Queen”, the story of Queen Victoria. It was a highly
successful release and encouraged Samuelson to build his own studio at Isleworth
in the grounds of Worton Hall where many good films were made. Some years later
he had four sons and counselled them to come into the business as technicians
and not as producers. They followed his advice and their cine equipment renting
organisation is now firmly established on an international basis.
Barker retired from the industry soon after the Great War and, in 1920, the studios were sold to General Film Renters who leased them to anyone who wanted to use them. By 1930, Associated Talking Pictures (A.T.P.), a company formed by Basil Dean, had become the new owners of the Ealing site and in March 1931 construction of the four stages began. They were the first stages to be built in Britain with talkies in mind, and with the exception of Stage 1, which is now an office block, have been in continuous use ever since. The company had a bumpy ride and the output was largely undistinguished. There was, however, a commercial success with “No Limit”, the first of eleven films that George Formby made at Ealing and which were to establish him as a major box office attraction for several years to come. Ealing’s only other ‘star’ of any consequence was Gracie Fields, who at her peak was getting £40,000 a picture, more than the entire budget for many films at that time.
Dean, tired and defeated by the film industry, was forced to resign in 1938 and retreated to the theatre. His hour was to come when he was invited to run ENSA, the organisation responsible for taking drama and variety shows to the troops on active service during the 1939-45 war. The man invited to take his place was Michael Balcon. It was a turning point not only for Ealing but also for the British film industry.
A plaque to commemorate Balcon’s achievements was installed in the entrance hail to Ealing Studios soon after the BBC moved in, where it stands to this day. It says:
“These Studios were built in 1931 and occupied until January 1956.
The Radio audiences were huge in the middle ‘50s and on the day commercial television started on 22nd September 1955, the families who watched it (370,000) were greatly out-numbered by those who listened with horror to the death of Grace Archer in the Home Service programme “The Archers”. Television had £5,000,000 to spend in 1955, the first fully competitive year with commercial television. Radio spent twice as much, and its programmes had the prime space in “Radio Times”. However, it was Haley’s successor as Director-General, Sir Ian Jacob, who presided over the great transformation of the BBC from an institution primarily dealing with Sound to one dealing predominantly with Television.
This then was the back-drop to the scene faced by Jack Mewett, who had recently been confirmed as Head of Television Films and his staff when they moved into Ealing on 20th January 1956. There were by now twelve staff cameramen and sixteen film editors, and it was a predominantly 35mm operation. It was a very busy department and the results of its labours were incorporated in the whole range of programme output. However, film was only occasionally used for the making of complete programmes, for this was the heyday of the built O.B. when the cameras visited stately homes, art galleries, factories and working-men’s clubs to show the viewers what was happening there and then. “Panorama” was well established on Monday evening, opening its ‘Window on the World’ and the “Radio Times” billing made references to the fact it was ‘using film and television cameras’. “Forces Requests” included interviews filmed with men and women of H.M. Forces serving in Kenya, Malta, Gibraltar and Cyprus. Their musical requests were performed live in a London studio by the top artists of the day. The very young were catered for by films of “The Woodentops” shown under the well remembered umbrella title of “Watch with Mother”. Sports enthusiasts were catered for by the fortnightly magazine programme “Sportsview” and on Saturday nights it was “Sports Special”, which showed film extracts from Football League matches played earlier in the day. Film Department had its own production unit and was originating its own programmes, among them “Special Enquiry” described as ‘A Report for Television’, and many others. Very few feature films were shown because of the continuing opposition of Wardour Street, but there was an abundance of bought-in shorts and general interest features providing the planners with a way of filling gaps in the schedules.
Film was beginning to grow up. The new wave of directors and producers wanted to get out of the studios as much as possible, and apart from the panoply of the 3-camera outside broadcast unit, there was no viable alternative to the filming method within sight. The regional film units were beginning to get established, and Bristol was already contributing a number of natural history programmes with a substantial film ingredient. It was beginning to be appreciated that film provided an escape route from the complications and demands of the machinery and technology of television, and the opportunity to work on personal terms with a small group of creative people. Film would have moved forward at a greater pace but for the fact that 35mm was the main gauge. 16mm film was originally conceived for amateur movies and although much progress had been made, 16mm equipment tended to be manufactured for the mass markets. It was clearly seen that there was a requirement for a 16mm camera, which apart from all the usual attributes of professional 35mm camera equipment, would have a high standard of steadiness and robustness, combined with portability and silence in operation. Some years earlier, Norman Collins in a memo to the then Chief Engineer had said, “Eventually it is felt that 16mm may for most purposes supplant 35mm but it is regarded as unavoidable that for some years to come both 16 and 35mm will have to be used side by side”. More than twenty years were to elapse before the last 35mm production was shot.
About the only things 16mm had going for it were that it was cheaper than 35mm and more portable. There was great difficulty in maintaining an acceptable degree of picture steadiness. Although 16mm optical sound could be quite acceptable under optimum conditions, the average result was often well below par, as Television News was rapidly finding out with its single system Auricons. 16mm processing had not yet reached the status which applies to 35mm work and the quality could, and did, vary very widely. It was unfortunate that in the fields where 16mm was most useful, for instance in News and Sport where quick turn-rounds were essential, that this conflicted with good processing. The 16mm telecine equipment had its limitations. The flying spot scanners in use at Lime Grove Studios, while giving excellent results from high grade film, had the unfortunate property of making poor quality film look even worse. 16mm film needed very careful handling during editing and was not liked by the film editors of the day because of its susceptibility to dirt and scratching. 16mm filmed inserts were particularly troublesome in a live programme that had to be telerecorded for re-transmission. 16mm editing equipment was another problem because the speed requirement was in conflict with the need for careful handling. The intermittent motion machines caused damage and were difficult to lace quickly, and there were high hopes that a new continuous motion machine being developed by Acmade, an English company, would overcome some of these problems. There was complete agreement that a robust high performance, professional 16mm projector with a high grade optical/magnetic sound head was needed.
The engineer’s approach to 16mm was most cautious, and they were by no means convinced that it was capable of providing the quality required for all television purposes. A new professional approach to this gauge had to be made in every branch, and for its part, the BBC was keen to investigate all the problems involved and co-operate with the industry in this work.
If the new generation of programme makers were to realise their plans then 16mm had to be put into the system with the least possible delay. By 1958 a standard Arriflex 16mm camera was introduced that could be used in conjunction with a modified EMI, L2B - inch tape recorder, using one track for the programme and the other for a nominal 50 - c/s tone produced by a small generator in the picture camera. A synchronised perforated magnetic film recording of the sound, necessary for editing purposes was made by transferring the + inch tape to film with the 50 - c/s tone controlling precisely the speed of the perforated film recorder. This provided a sound film exactly synchronised to the picture film. The equipment was highly mobile, reliable and robust, and it would eventually have a profound effect on programme making methods and the balance of resources required by the BBC’s developing television service.
By 1958 the Television Service was just about used to the idea that it had a competitor. For the first time television income exceeded that of radio, resulting in the purchase of better equipment and greater resources of all kinds. The Eurovision link brought ten countries on the continent within the BBC’s reach, and the regions provided programme material of almost every type amounting to 16% of the total output. The Queen appeared for the first time on television to deliver the traditional Christmas Day broadcast to the Commonwealth. Considering the fact that the competition was pumping out a continuous stream of ‘popular’ programmes, “Panorama” did pretty well to pick up a regular 9 million audience, when no more than half the population had access to television. A great deal of filming was taking place, and a Film Operations Manager was appointed to co-ordinate the filming arrangements for all output departments under one centralised operations command.
The first F.O.M. was supported by three Assistant F.O.M.s, who between them in 1959 coped with the sequence requirements for more than 1,500 programmes, and more than 50 programmes made entirely on film. The biggest users of film were the regular magazine programmes. Camera teams working for “Panorama” carried out assignments in a score of countries from Iran to Venezuela and from Uganda to Iceland. Twice in the year film crews made round the world tours for the Milne/Baverstock programme “Tonight”, and film coverage of sport took the department’s staff to Sweden and Latin America. At the same time there was the regular film coverage of sport, including three football matches every Saturday afternoon in the season.
The Film Telerecording Section was under considerable pressure and was still expanding even though the first video tape machines had already been installed at the Television Centre, which was by then at an advanced stage of construction. The section took into its stride such tasks as reducing the recordings of the five hour long Papal Coronation ceremony in Rome, to twenty- five minutes of screen time on the same evening.
Many producers found the 16mm Arrifiex/ ¼” tape recorder combination very much to their liking and the equipment was used on many important programmes. It came into its own on the “Tonight” world tours and David Attenborough’s “Zoo Quest to Paraguay”. BBC films were increasingly successful at international film festivals, and these successes led to sales of these and other programmes to emerging television countries.
In addition to servicing other departments of the Television Service, Film Department as such continued to make its own films; indeed it had two producers on its books. Its children’s film section continued to be responsible for a weekly newsreel, and also made several short documentary films for children. The policy of programme origination within Film Department at this time was one of its great strengths. It encouraged the recruitment of people with creative talent and gave stimulating opportunities to everyone working in the department. Some very good ideas emerged among them for the “Second Enquiry” documentary series, which called upon the resources of the regional film units.
By the end of 1959, four video tape machines were in use and although the number of electronic recordings made had increased considerably, more than twice as many film recordings were made. The increase in the use of recording facilities came about because of the inevitable need to get the most economic use of studios by pre-recording programmes, and also because of developing world-wide sales opportunities. By now BBC programmes were becoming known all over the world, with the exception of the United States.
Not so in reverse, for in 1959, telerecordings or kinescopes, as the Americans called them, of the Perry Como Show became available to United Kingdom viewers for the first time. The show was something of a breakthrough in the light entertainment field, creating a new style and presentation format that has lasted to the present day. It was to make Perry Como a household name throughout Europe and the idol of millions, with an appeal to all age groups in those pre-Beatles days. The recordings, as imported, presented a big problem to the telerecording section because of their built-in advertising content and the frequent references to Kraft Cheese products in the dialogue. The specially shot audience reaction scene helped the editing process a little, but contractual clearance of artists for overseas transmission was a hit and miss affair. On many occasions, sometimes on the day of transmission, a cable from New York would arrive demanding the removal of an artist from the show. As the artist would inevitably appear in the introductory and final sequences, as well as his own set piece, the editing problems can be appreciated. Sometimes a show billed to run for fifty minutes ended up as a twenty-five minute programme. It was too much for the programme planners who eventually took the show off the air.
The shrinking world had become commonplace, and the viewer had a nodding if vicarious acquaintance with the high and mighty everywhere, to an extent that would have seemed unbelievable to the previous generation. For audiences of millions, King Hussein was no longer a remote monarch read about in papers, but living flesh and blood perceived through the Panorama film camera. Mexico’s fabulous university was no longer hearsay — it had become a pictorial reality enlivened by Alan Whicker and a Tonight camera team on one of their world tours. Film cameras presented the reality of the British Commonwealth as it was, and the legacy of British influence in Africa, Australia, Asia and the Caribbean in a most vivid way in “The Inheritors”. Denis Mitchell created an entirely new style of documentary film making with “Morning in the Streets” and “Soho Story”. Peter Black, the television critic of the ‘Daily Mail’ for so many years, hailed these programmes as “a complete and satisfying success… a new form of factual television”. By the end of the decade things were looking pretty good for Film Department. It was expanding, and in Ealing it had a home of its own. There was the prospect of a second channel, and colour, and there seemed to be no shortage of money. Who could want for anything more?
This is perhaps a suitable point at which to stray from the main theme and to have a look at what was happening to film after it had been transmitted. In 1959 alone more than 1,500 programmes included sequences on film and fifty programmes were made entirely on film. Eighty-five vaults, each containing 500 cans of film were up to capacity, together with a great number of cupboards, steel cabinets and any other area that could be pressed into service. Some hundreds, if not thousands, of cans were dispersed in cutting rooms and producers offices. The Film Library came under the wing of Film Department and its twenty or so staff did their best to cope with the increasing number of enquiries for the re-use of film made in years past. The 1960 BBC Handbook announced rather grandly, “The Library contains what is almost certainly the most valuable film record of the past decade to be found anywhere in Europe”. That may well have been so, but the service provided to users was unsatisfactory, and the records just were not good enough to permit ‘the most valuable film record’ to be exploited as fully as it should have been. The staff were not qualified librarians, there was no technical section to keep the stock in good repair, and no serious thought had been given to the development of a retention policy. As the Film Librarian of the day put it, “We are a News Library like any of the commercial newsreels: a Stock Shot Library like the Production Libraries of the major film studios: a Back Projection Library, and a Programme Reserve in which capacity the Library may be likened to the vaults of any distributor”. It was no longer possible to carry out their functions and the management of the day had to be persuaded to give their support to a change of organisation, better grades and more money, and in particular to the appointment of a professional librarian.
Every television station in the world has at some stage in its development had to grapple with the problem of what to do with its post-transmission film and to hammer out a retention policy that would satisfy the needs of programme planners, producers and researchers not only of the present, but also of future generations. After the war it took the BBC two years to realise that there was a problem, when an Assistant Film Librarian was appointed to put some order into the rapidly mounting chaos.
until the middle ‘60s to get the Library on to a sound organisational base, with
qualified staff at the helm with decent grades. The Universal Decimal
Classification scheme designed for classifying printed material was developed by
the Library staff to meet the needs of a visual library and the problem of
locating material in response to an enquiry improved enormously as a result. The
Management accepted that growth was inevitable and that ever increasing costs
would have to be met for staff development and accommodation in the years to
come. As each year succeeded another, so the re-use figures went up and the
investment of effort into a professional and efficient documentation system was
paying off. By 1975 more than 15,000 enquiries a year were being handled,
resulting in the issue of 96,000 cans of film, which in turn generated 750
transmission hours. Apart from this the Catalogue was the indispensable tool of
the sales section of Television Enterprises who by this time had opened up
markets throughout the world. The 50,000 square foot building at Brentford which
houses the staff of the Library and its stock had been first occupied in
November 1968. In spite of its distance from production areas, it is a useful
building since it provides a substantial amount of storage space at ground level
under controlled conditions. It also contains an area of 6,800 sq.ft. where both
temperature and humidity limits are strictly controlled for the long term
storage of specially selected material.
The difficulty was, and still is, that most people do not want to talk about the retention of film and videotape until they are forced to. Viscount Eccles spoke in the Lords in March 1971 and expressed the hope that the Archive of the BBC was as complete as it should be in the interest of future generations. Simon Gray whose work for the theatre and television was getting heavyweight critical attention, demanded “the name of the BBC vandal who ordered the destruction of my plays be made public”. A good many others voiced their concern that the BBC was throwing away a great many good films and tapes which ought to be preserved. Within the BBC it was beginning to be realised that future generations of programme makers could reasonably expect to be bequeathed a much wider and more comprehensive legacy of visual material than the producers of the earlier decades of television. In view of the growing public interest in the whole subject of the retention of archives and the rate at which its own holdings of archival material were increasing, the BBC asked a number of people with specialist experience of various kinds to form an Advisory Committee on Archives under the chairmanship of Lord Briggs, with a view to reviewing the policies of the day and to lay down guidelines for the future. Their report published by the BBC in April 1979 gave much useful advice and many of their recommendations for change were acted upon. The reaction to the proposals by the BBC’s Board of Governors was cautious in view of the cost of financing them all. However, the report did make everyone concerned “archival minded” and studies to improve information retrieval and storage records for film and videotape by making use of computer systems continued apace.
If there is a point on a scale between ‘keep nothing’ and ‘keep everything’ that satisfies producer, salesman and historian, then it is yet to be found, and it is doubtful if it ever will. Ultimately the scope of the BBC’s film and tape archives depend, like anything else, upon its income and its ability to exploit commercially what it has already got. Everyone is in favour of improvement and extension, but few have so far shown any readiness whether through increased charges for access or support for a higher licence fee to meet the cost.
One of the significant events
of the first year of a new decade was that for the first time the number of
combined sound and television licences passed the ten million mark. Yet only ten
years before this milestone was reached, the number of licences had not even
reached half a million. Hugh Carleton Greene had become Director-General in
succession to Sir Ian Jacob and against the background of television’s
phenomenal growth the Government set up an enquiry into the future of both sound
and television broadcasting, under the leadership of Sir Harry Pilkington. There
was a renewal of the public discussion and argument as to whether there should
be additional television programmes, and if so, who should run them. There were
still a number of doubters, even inside the BBC, and they were asking whether
there was much left for television to do beyond moving from the existing 405
line standard to another, and colour. The Television Centre was opened in June
1960 and was described as ‘a factory for the production of electronic programmes
not only for British television screens but for television networks abroad’. The
Television Centre contained the first studios built in this country specifically
designed for television production. One of the first major shows to go into
production was “Maigret”, destined to have a run of twenty-six one hour
episodes. It was the first big drama series to go in for the extensive use of
film inserts, and Ealing film crews spent a great deal of time in and around
Paris making them. Jack Warner as “Dixon of Dock Green” was getting massive
audiences, in excess of 10 million every week. The film inserts, made in the
dockland area of Bermondsey and Rotherhithe made a notable contribution to the
success of this programme which was to run for so many years. A thirty-nine part
series of half hour “The Third Man” stories made by the BBC in co-operation with
British Lion Films and the National Telefilm Associates Incorporated of America
was sold in the United States. The “R.C.M.P.” film series on the work of the
Royal Canadian Mounted Police was also produced by the BBC in co-operation with
the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation and was widely distributed. Both series
were instantly forgettable unlike the highly original work of such young
directors as Ken Russell, John Schlesinger, Jack Gold, Kevin Billington and
others who were at the start of their distinguished careers. The current affairs
programmes such as “Panorama” and “Tonight” frequently found themselves the
subject of front-page news stories in the next morning’s newspapers. The filmed
interviews that Panorama ran in connection with the running of the Electrical
Trades Union led to the programme becoming a subject of great controversy. This
item, in particular, underlined that the style of interviewing had changed. The
likes of Robin Day, Robert Kee, James Mossman, Ludovic Kennedy and others were
displaying their developing skills every day before film cameras all over the
world. The 16mm Arriflex used in conjunction with a 1/4” tape recorder was
finding increasing favour with directors who liked very much the flexibility
that a 400 ft. magazine of 16mm gave them, compared with the same length of 35mm
film, in other words a 10 minute run rather than a mere 4 minutes between
Camera noise was a great problem and all kinds of devices were used in the attempt to suppress it, none of them wholly successful. As a result the producers of ‘prestige’ programmes continued to use the bigger gauge, the preferred cameras being the 35mm Ariflex in its hard, and very heavy, soundproof blimp and the dual gauge Cameflex. The Perfectone recorder was introduced which enabled virtually the whole of the track to be used for the programme information, with only the two edges using the sync pulse. Shortly after the introduction of the Perfectone, the Nagra recorder emerged, again using a virtually full track recording system with a narrow sync pulse recorded down the middle of the track. This quickly became the preferred standard, and is now used almost universally in television film making. Crystal synchronisation was attempted, making it possible to dispense with the sync lead between the camera and the recorder. The system was most unreliable and abandoned for a few years until much improved equipment was introduced. The lighting equipment was heavy and cumbersome. Feature film type lights were the only kind available, using incandescent lamps or carbon arcs. Editing equipment was changing and flat bed machines were taking over from Moviola and Editola machines, which had been the mainstay of the film industry for so many years. There were no agreements or understandings with the A .B .S. (Association of Broadcasting Staff) on any significant matters that affected the filming operation, indeed only the most junior of staff were eligible for overtime payments. As for the rest, they clocked up enormous amounts of compensatory leave, which they were reluctant to take because it would put them out of circulation with the possibility of missing plum jobs. It was, for example, a matter of negotiation between a Film Operations Manager and a Producer as to whether, for example, an Assistant Film Cameraman should be allocated to a job. The Cameraman was merely told that he would not have an assistant, grumbled, and then went off to do the job.
The Management of Film
Department were constantly putting up cases to the Director of Television for
money to purchase more equipment or to take on more staff in view of the
spiralling demand from programme makers for film resources of all kinds. By 1963
there were twenty-seven fully equipped camera crews on the road, making their
regular contributions to “Maigret”, “Z Cars”, Panorama”, “Tonight” or
“Sportsview” or “Monitor”, besides increasing numbers of documentaries. However,
agreements with the artist’s unions precluded the making of any full-length
plays on film, whereas there was no objection to filmed inserts, which were
getting longer and longer at the expense of the studio contribution. It was
becoming abundantly clear that the expansion was going to continue as a result
of the Government White Paper of 1962, which authorised the BBC to go ahead with
major developments in television. These included the introduction of a second
BBC channel, the building in collaboration with the Independent Television
Authority of a UHF transmission network, and the launching of colour
transmissions once there had been international agreement on a suitable system.
Just as Film Department was expanding at a rapid rate, so too was the BBC and by the end of 1964 there were more than 20,000 full time staff. This expansion was mainly due to the development of BBC 2, the extension of sound broadcasting hours and regional developments. The fee for a combined licence was £4 of which television got £3, and “Radio Times” cost 6d. Computers had recently been introduced for salaries and payroll accounting and the processing of audience research statistics. The engineers had their own computer to carry out the laborious calculations involved in the building of the UHF network for BBC 2 and in the design of transmitting aerials. ‘Early Bird’ was in orbit, thus opening up a round-the-clock satellite television link, and viewers had seen the first live pictures from Japan, from the Tokyo Olympics.
By this time the 35mm gauge
was being used less and less as confidence grew in 16mm. A silent running camera
had appeared on the scene in the shape of the Eclair NPR. Many cameramen like
the NPR because it was ideal for hand- holding and had a lens turret taking two
lenses. It was also a very popular camera with directors who appreciated its
silence and versatility. Over a period of three years 24 of these cameras were
bought. Later Arnold & Richter’s (Arriflex) answer to the silent running problem
- the BL, became another workhorse of Film Department. A bulk purchase of 40 of
these fine cameras, a financial case which incidentally was not won until after
a great deal of lobbying at a high level, made it possible to allocate each
cameraman with his own camera. The cameramen were delighted and took great care
of a piece of equipment which they knew they would be using over and over again.
The film maintenance people who then belonged to engineering division were as
delighted as the cameramen, for complaints about the ways in which cameras had
been mishandled by others, disappeared overnight.
The “Tonight” programme
which had provided Film Department with so much challenging work over a number
of years disappeared to be replaced by “24 Hours”, another daily topical
magazine. There was a slot every Tuesday at 9.25 pm for documentary films which
attracted audiences from 4 to 12+ million according to the popularity of the
subject. Programmes made entirely on film were beginning to play an increasingly
important part in the schedules of both networks, and there were many others
like “Wheelbase”, a weekly magazine on motoring subjects, which made extensive
use of filmed stories, as did “Tomorrow’s World”, a popular weekly magazine of
science, technology and medicine. “Man Alive” was a weekly series of films about
people. A series of 13 films forming a sequel to “The Great War”, entitled “The
Lost Peace” was made, and every month there was a date with Alan Whicker in
“Whicker’s World”. An Ealing crew went “To the South Pole with Peter Scott” when
he visited the scene of his father’s last tragic journey.
It was decided from the outset of preparations for going into colour to treat colour as if it were the natural thing, rather than an add-on extra. There was an upsurge of training activity throughout the Television Service to familiarise staff with the problems and possibilities of colour. The problems encountered by film staff in making the change were comparatively simple, and it was in the production of electronic colour that most complications lay. For some of the earliest transmission of colour film Kodak’s commercial 16mm reversal stock was used, but Kodak’s negative type 7251 with a speed of 50 ASA was the first negative film to be introduced and used seriously for programme making.
A so called “colour launching” period began in July 1967 with an average of five hours of regular programmes on BBC 2 each week. The colour programmes were increased to about ten hours a week in October and the full colour service began on 2nd December 1967. Two years were to pass before BBC 1 also went into colour. Only 100,000 or so colour receivers were in use in the earlier months, and small but highly enthusiastic audiences lapped up the series of 12 half-hour documentary films showing a cross section of the people of Australia in “Inside Australia”. Another very successful series of films was “Bird’s Eye View of Britain”, a helicopter view from Land’s End to John O’Groats, where the photography was stunning.
It was a vintage period on BBC 1. John Ellitt, who 10 years or so earlier had been responsible for “War in the Air”, created and wrote much of “The Troubleshooters”, which followed the fortunes of the fictional Mogul oil company and its executives. “Softly, Softly” was a successful spin-off from the equally successful “Z Cars” series, and the adventures of Dr. Finlay and Dr. Cameron continued in the Casebook, originally created by A.J. Cronin. Each of these series was making ever increasing use of film inserts, but none were such significant signposts to future activity as the first all-ifim drama “Cathy Come Home”, which when first shown in November 1966, brilliantly handled by Tony Garnett and Ken Loach, started an immediate debate on whether the story was a piece of special pleading, or whether it was an accurate version in dramatic form of what can happen to families despite the Welfare State. “Cathy Come Home” estabished Tony Imi as a front rank cameraman, who only a year or two earlier had been a trainee, and propelled Film Department into the feature film making business. Another important all-film production in this period was Jonathan Miller’s production of “Alice in Wonderland” with an all star cast, headed by Peter Sellers. The court room scene involved the building of the largest set that Stage 2 at Ealing had ever seen. The “24 Hours” programme that had succeeded “Tonight” provided up to the minute reports, generally ‘live’, from almost anywhere in the world where things had been happening. It also included filmed despatches from Vietnam, obtained at great personal risk to the reporters and film crews. There was never any shortage of volunteers for the more dangerous assignments during this period which include the war in Biafra, student riots in Paris, race riots in the U.S.A., and early coverage of the unrest in Northern Ireland.
It was the job of the
film examiners in Film Group to prepare feature films and teleflims (films made
especially for television) for transmission. The transmission schedules of the
late ‘60s carried such titles as “The Man from U.N.C.L.E.”, “Daktari”, “The
Munsters”, “Bewitched”, “Perry Mason”, and “The Lucy Show”.
The other was Richard Cawston’s brilliant documentary “Royal Family”, which was first shown in June 1969. It became a national event in its own right because it marked the opening of a new phase in the relationship between the Sovereign and her people. It drew an audience of 23 million on its first BBC 1 showing on a Saturday evening in June. Millions more watched it on 1TV and again on BBC 1 on Christmas Day in 1969. The film was a ‘special’ in every sense and as was only to be expected, Richard Cawston insisted on being involved in discussions about the choice of cameraman, recordist, lighting men and editor, for this long, demanding and most prestigious assignment. The crew was to travel extensively with the Royals, not only in the United Kingdom, but also on tours to South America and Australia. Another unique aspect of the film was that it was the first time that any members of the Royal Family had been recorded talking naturally as distinct from making formal speeches. By the end of the filming the Queen had become so used to being surrounded by a Rim crew and to the unobtrusive way in which they went about their work, that her Christmas Day message was filmed, as it has been ever since.
A number of situations began to change in 1969. Sir Hugh Greene had gone to be succeeded by Charles Curran as Director-General and the departure of Kenneth Adams led to the appointment of Huw Wheldon as the first Managing Director, Television. Three Managing Director posts, in charge of Television, Radio and External Broadcasting had been created following the BBC’s own internal studies and those of the McKinsey organisation. The object of this change was to emphasise the position of the Managing Directors as the major dispensers of the BBC’s resources. Charles Curran said in the 1970 BBC Handbook that quote “McKinsey helped us to see how a corporate body without shareholders and without standard uniform products could make better use of’ management techniques derived from the world of private industry; how the BBC could devolve responsibility to the point of accountability; how it could improve its management information and thus make more reliable decisions; above all how essential it was to recognise at all levels that the management of resources is an integral part of producing programmes”. The effects of this major policy shift were very soon felt at Ealing as providers of film resources. There had always been a pronounced unevenness in the load on the department over the years, particularly in shooting, with considerable peaks in the Spring and Autumn separated by two troughs. Attempts made to smooth the peaks into the trough came to nothing because of the simple fact that filming on location is both unpleasant and uneconomical in winter compared with the spring and autumn. The weather is bad and the daylight hours are short. The summer trough was of little concern because both film crews and programme staff want holidays, and although in the winter there were people available with no work to give them, this was not usually the case in summer. As a result, Ealing staffed for the troughs, or a little above them, and crewed up for the peaks by making use of outside hire, a policy that was frequently challenged by the ABS (Association of Broadcasting Staff). In the new order of things there was also the danger that the values of the Manager, the Engineer, the Planner and the Accountant would prevail over those of the programme maker, and for some to think that the director could be instructed to make his programme in a certain way, to think in a certain way and to plan in a certain way. The first years of working to a different set of rules were not at all easy, in an organisation where McKinsey identified fourteen hundred or so decision takers compared with the industrial norm of seven or eight.
1969 was also the year in which the BBC was involved in its first serious pay dispute with the ABS. A Court of Enquiry was established under the chairmanship of E.T.C. Grint CBE., and among the Court’s recommendations was the sentence: Financial stringency should not prevent the BBC from granting salaries and conditions commensurate with its declared salary policy”. The salary scales attached to each grade were challenged throughout the ‘70s, particularly during periods of pay restraint, and as a result there were a number of relatively small scale, but potentially widespread, industrial disputes. Ealing had its full share of these problems which at one tune or another involved all categories of its operational staff.
The growth in the use of film from 1965 onwards was of concern to some other sections of the ABS, because it appeared that it might be affecting the utilisation of the hardware and staff in technical operations at the Television Centre. It was conceded that whereas in 1965 no drama was done completely on film, that in 1969 there were nine plays on film. Programmes like “Horizon” and “Man Alive” transferred completely to film, because those responsible for them argued that they would become more effective and more versatile by doing so. The statistical information presented to the ABS at the time demonstrated that the annual number of hours of specially shot film had risen from 319 hours in 1965/66 to 596 hours in 1969/70. Over the same period the use of film for the making of documentary, information and current affairs programmes had more than doubled.
The situation facing everyone in the ‘70s was that not only had the BBC arrived at the summit of a growth period, but it was also having to cope, like everyone else, with the fact that its income was losing its purchasing power through inflation and cost cutting exercises were the result. The effects of these were very quickly felt in Film Group. The Ealing branch of the ABS began to question a number of things that had been taken for granted in the past, and regarded the recently introduced total costing system with some suspicion. They were conscious of the Corporation’s financial problems and felt, rightly or wrongly, that this was a threat to their job or promotion prospects. As a result, pressure was applied for the negotiation of a crewing agreement, and for an agreement setting a limit to the number of hours worked each day.
Much more pleasing, was the fact that the transition from monochrome to 16mm colour working had been accomplished by the staff with relative ease, and the general standard achieved day-in and day-out was very satisfying. Improvements were also taking place in the telecine area and the sharpness of the transmitted picture was considerably enhanced by the arrival in service of the “Vertical Aperture Corrector”. The Eastman Kodak organisation were generous enough to say that they regarded the standard achieved by the BBC on a day-to-day basis as being the decisive factor in starting a trend to the neg/pos system that was being followed and talked about all over the world.
In spite of the BBC’s serious financial problems both BBC I and BBC 2 were continuing to transmit a full range of programmes in which film had an important and sometimes vital part to play. “Nationwide” initially a three times a week current affairs programme was launched in 1970, and was to keep a number of camera and editing crews busy until the programme disappeared in August 1983. “Panorama”, “24 Hours”, “The Money Programme” and “Europa” continued to make their requests for all types of film resources. Existing series continued, now all in colour, such as “The Troubleshooters”, “Softly, Softly” and the original police series “Z Cars” which reached its 400th episode. Documentary programmes continued to cast their net all over the world with contributions in the “One Pair of Eyes” and “The Philpott File” series. Subjects for the major weekly documentary programme were equally wide ranging. Germany was seen through the eyes of Hitler’s Interpreter; other programmes covered Australia, India and South Africa where Hugh Burnett looked at the system as its masters saw it in ‘Afrikaaner”. Each programme in the series “A year in the Life” was filmed over a period of a whole year, thus differing from the normal documentary normally shot in four or five weeks. There was the remarkable “Man Alive” special ‘Gale is Dead’, which examined the short and hopeless life and the death of a young drug addict. “AU in a Day” broke new ground by using up to eight film cameras to cover a single event such as the launching of a ship, but only one crew went with Princess Anne to Kenya for “Blue Peter Royal Safari”. The major effort of 1971 was “Search for the Nile”, a six hour long dramatized documentary telling the story of the men obsessed by the challenge of discovering the source of the Nile. Much of the film was shot along the routes first taken by the Victorian explorers. “The Search for the Nile” was shown all over the world and won a number of international awards. “Edna the Inebriate Woman”, another play from Jeremy Sandford, the author of “Cathy Come Home” and Laurie Lee’s “Cider with Rosie”, were major pieces of work for the film people who worked on them and it seemed that Film Group’s fortunes were changing for the better.
Many of these filmed programmes were made exclusively with BBC money and resources. They received high praise in many quarters and earned international reputation, but they were not cheap. Money came in from the sales of programmes overseas, but the notion that there were rich pickings in markets overseas died hard. Some successful deals were done in America, resulting in many programmes being shown on the National Education Television Network and on P.B.S., the Public Broadcasting System. However, it was the electronic production of “The Six Wives of Henry VIII,, which achieved the distinction of the first sale to a major network (C.B.S.) in the States, where audience and critics were united in their praise. A new, if limited, source of revenues came from co-production deals which the Television Service was undertaking in ever increasing numbers. Co-productions took more than one form, but most of them could be more accurately described as having been jointly pre-financed rather than co-produced. This additional money could make a big difference and a large number of organisations around the world wanted to put their money down for the privilege of being associated with the BBC. One of those organisations was the mighty M.C.A. (Music Corporation of America) who were interested in the filmed dramatisation of Paul Gallico’s short story “The Snow Goose”, that the BBC was proposing to make. It was to star Richard Harris now at the height of his international popularity and the young Jenny Agutter, in her first important part. M .C .A. stipulated that it was to be shot on 35mm Eastmancolour. The film that resulted, shot, edited and recorded by Ealing staff, was not only given a network showing in the States on N.B.C., but it won a Peabody Award for N.B.C. for their excellence in dramatic programming, and an Emmy Award for Jenny Agutter for an outstanding performance by an actress in a supporting role. This was a great shot in the arm for Ealing. More and more big programmes were coming its way and there was more than enough work coming in to keep not only all of Ealing’s staff very busy indeed, but also a considerable number of contractors.
In his address in 1972 to the Institution of Electrical Engineers the then Director-General Charles Curran, dealt among other things with the relationship between film and electronic recordings. He said “At the moment film has all the advantages of flexibility of editing. It is more expensive than electronic methods in the studios but it is incomparably more mobile outside. It is also easier to duplicate and more universal as a medium from which to originate transmissions in a world where systems differ”. He also said in the same speech, “But the day is quite clearly coming when it will be possible to take an electronically based picture with as much flexibility as can now be done with a film unit. What will happen then to all the union expectations about the handling of picture-making gear in a mobile setting, I don’t know. But it is impossible to believe that the 1980’s will not see the wholesale development of practical systems of electronic recording in the field which could replace the film camera”.
The film versus electronics debate was under way and the Management of Film Group seized every opportunity that arose to present the case for film to anyone who would listen, and in particular to programme makers. It was pointed out that film equipment is light, simple, robust, unobtrusive and normally free from the necessity for expert attention while away on location for weeks or months at a time. The director could direct in whatever style suited him best, and because of the portability of the equipment he would be independent of any support operation. He could change his mind at will about locations by coming indoors when it is wet and going out when dry. Changes of mind could be accommodated easily, at little costs; he could ignore the effects of technical clutter and above all keep his creative options open for the cutting room. It was argued that the flexibility of film was its greatest advantage in that it could be used for slow deliberate work or in a high productivity style. If the director wished to turn out 10 minutes of transmission time a day, he could; if circumstances precluded no more than 2 minutes a day, he might still be able to afford to shoot at that rate. Above all the creative and artistic possibilities of the film camera were well known, and the people at Ealing were not only highly experienced, but had an excellent track record. Further there were a number of technical improvements in prospect, in cameras, lenses and film stocks where the quality 16mm film might reach would be of such a standard that the pursuit of even higher standards would be a waste of money.
Film was confident of its ability to meet the requirements of programme makers whatever they might be, and contemplated the prospect of a period of continuing growth, and maybe of technological change, with equanimity.
From 1972 onwards numerous major series and individual programmes were made that would never have been possible without funds from co-producers. One particularly striking example was “America”, a 13 part series shown on BBC 2, which presented a history on film of the United States, illuminated by reference to the present through the eyes of Alistair Cooke, an Englishman by birth and an American by naturalisation. The series was most popular on both sides of the Atlantic and had been an enormous undertaking for all who worked on it, particularly for Alan Tyrer who was in charge of the film editing teams. Tyrer, who was nearing the end of his career, had worked on “Monitor” for many years and was also responsible for the equally big editing operation for “Civilisation”. His many friends and colleagues were delighted that his contribution to film in television was recognised by a craft award by B. A. F.T. A. for his consistently fine work on these programmes. There was as much pleasure in this as the fact that “America” won no fewer than three Emmy awards. The BBC’s reputation as a maker of fine programmes of high technical and artistic merit with international appeal was being rapidly established. “War and Peace” had a twenty week run, the major film sequences, including the battle scenes having been made in trying conditions in Yugoslavia. There were reflections of another war in the series “Colditz”, which with a Hollywood film star, Robert Wagner, playing one of the leading parts achieved the largest weekly audience ever recorded for a programme of this kind. The courtyard of Colditz Castle was central to the action of this series, and since the real thing is in East Germany, the decision was taken to build a full size reproduction of it on Stage 2 at Ealing. The enormous set, the largest since the court scene “Alice in Wonderland”, stood in place for many weeks. It was accurate in every detail to the extent of having a hard cobbled floor, made of concrete, so that the jack- boots of the German soldiers would have the right sound as they marched over the area. This method of dealing with what was essentially a sound recording problem was devised by Film Group’s stage manager at the time. There is little doubt that the painstaking attention to detail in this production and many others did so much to enhance film’s reputation, not only in the BBC, but around the world.
Film recordists were able to demonstrate their growing skills in the series “The Great Orchestras of the World”, which began with a study of the Israel Philharmonic and continued with the Chicago Symphony under Sir George Solti and the Amsterdam Concertgebouw under Bernard Haitink. Sound problems of a different kind were encountered in the filming in Spain of Rex Harrison as “Don Quixote”, involving the recording of dialogue with characters on the move while on horseback.
High-speed photography for the analysis of high speed phenomena was used with great effect in yet another major series, “The Ascent of Man”. In this series of 13 programmes, filmed all over the world, the late Dr. Jacob Bronowski presented his personal view of the evolution of scientific thought. Other filmed documentaries ranged over a very wide area ranging from an examination of the ‘cod war’ with Iceland in “Skipper Pitts Goes to War” to Sir John Betjeman’s affectionate exploration of the survivals of the old county of Middlesex in London’s North West suburbs in “Metroland”.
The film output was extraordinarily rich in variety in the middle ‘70s. The 56 staff film crews on Ealing’s books were very fully employed and additional resources were constantly being hired to meet the requirements. The hiring of filming resources over the years had enabled Film Group management to preserve considerable operational flexibility, with the result that it was always possible to accommodate very rapid changes in the load level without driving the staff into the ground. It was the policy to deploy staff camera and editing crews before using the services of a contractor in order to exploit to maximum advantage the wide range of creative and technical skills, and the experience, of the staff, With this flexibility, short notice assignments could always be accommodated, thus avoiding the expensive luxury of ‘taxis on the rank’. The ABS began to take a close interest in the hiring policy in 1971. Before that, Film Group management and indeed a number of programme departments enjoyed considerable freedom. Current Affairs Group, for instance, argued that their use of certain freelance cameramen was justified in their highly specialised field, because they were buying instant readiness on an international basis, an absolutely minimum size crew, ie. one man, and an individual who was a Director/Journalist/Cameraman rather than just a film cameraman. The position was unfortunately a paradoxical one; the production argument was a powerful one in journalists terms but a weak if not non-existent one in Union terms. Film Group Management considered at the time that the situation would remain tolerable provided, firstly, that the frequency of the use of these people was kept to a minimum and, secondly, there was no under usage of BBC film crews. The spirited debate that ensued between the BBC and the ABS led to the agreement that individual programme departments would no longer have the freedom to undertake direct contracting. Indeed it was established that the decision as to whether to hire or not would be the sole prerogative of Film Group management. Film Group’s authority was only seriously challenged on one occasion and that was for the filming of the television drama “Leeds United”. The filming of this drama was delayed for a full year before the producer and director finally accepted that the assignment would be carried out by a staff cameraman or not at all.
There was also great concern on the part of the staff at the apparent worsening of pay relativities with comparable outside employment, and most film categories waged, and won, grading battles. The pressure on relativities put the BBC’s grading system under considerable strain, and many of the issues were referred to arbitration in these pre-ACAS days. Some 90 production assistants in drama and light entertainment went on strike to further a grading claim. One of the undoubted causes of this dispute was the imbalance of their total earnings compared with those of their film colleagues who received overtime payments for hours worked in excess of 42 per week. The regulations governing conditions of service payments and allowances on location were under regular attack. Concessions were sometimes made when it became apparent that they would not affect programme budgets in any significant way. It was clear, as it had been for some years past that it was difficult to frame regulations, designed centrally to cover all categories of staff, that could provide for all of the situations that might be encountered by film staff.
In spite of these diversions Ealing was remarkably buoyant. More and more major programmes were being made wholly on film, ranging from the Lord Chalfont filmed profiles of Trudeau, Kenyatta and Sadat to “Heidi”, from the six part dramatised documentary “The Fight Against Slavery” to “Arctic Doctor”. The last of the “One Pair of Eyes” series was made in 1975 after a run of 76 programmes all on film. Reactions were mixed to one unique experiment in which a documentary film team under the direction of Paul Watson went to live with the Wilkins family of Reading, and in 12 weekly half- hour programmes, captured the ups and downs of the real life of this family as it was lived.
Although a minority disliked the family or believed the programmes to be a form of voyeurism, many viewers admired the programmes and took the series very seriously as a social documentary. It was a most important development in programme making which depended for its success of the ability of the film crew to blend into the background of a very small house and simply to film whatever was happening. Other series employing similar techniques were to be made in the years following, including the remarkable “Sailor” series of 10 programmes which depended for its success on the ability of the film crew through one commission. By the end of the series millions of viewers were following the different threads of the story with an attention normally reserved for the most carefully contrived drama serial. “Hong Kong Beat”, a series showing days in the life of members of the Hong Kong police force was very much in the tradition of “Sailor” as were “Hospital” and “Fighter Pilot”.
Heavy demands were made not only on the technical and artistic skills of the crews making these programmes, but also their personal qualities in situations that could be sensitive and sometimes dangerous. They were well served by the Kodak negative type 7247 (100 ASA), which was described at the time as seeming three-quarters of the way to 35mm in sharpness and two-thirds of the way in graininess. This new stock removed the major disadvantages of the 16mm process, namely grain and loss of sharpness. This was of particular importance when considering the relative quality of film sequences inserted into studio productions. Zeiss of West Germany produced a set of wide aperture fixed focal length lenses, the Distagons, optimised for 7247 and the television process. These lenses enabled full advantage to be taken of the new filmstock, since there were few, if any, fixed focal length lenses on the market capable of exploiting its full potential within the range of apertures from 11 .4 to f2 .8 or thereabouts. Another major development was the emergence of two new cameras, the Arriflex SR and the Aaton, mirroring the advance gained in earlier years by the arrival of the Arriflex BL and the Eclair. They weighed in, complete with 400 ft. magazines at about 1 4lbs, little more than half the weight of their predecessors. They had clip-on magazines at the back of the camera for clearing low obstacles, and rapid lens changing was possible. Since these cameras were equipped with light-weight accessories, the consequent speeding-up of the operations, together with savings in freight charges made a noteworthy contribution to the speed and economy of the mobile film operation. Electronic viewfinders were available as an attachment, providing a remote picture for anyone who might need it, eg. a choreographer. They were also very useful when the camera was mounted in an inaccessible place, such as a camera crane, underwater, on a boat or on an aircraft. The introduction of crystal-sync made it possible to get rid of all cables between the cameraman and the film recordist whilst maintaining sound synchronisation. Radio microphones were also coming good. A number of design improvements were made, making them much more dependable, with a longer range than their predecessors. The combination of light-weight camera, crystal control and radio microphones from the mid ‘70s onwards resulted in a very mobile operation, giving almost complete freedom of movement to artists, cameramen and recordists on location, without any cable connection between them. In addition to the gradual improvement in sound recorders, the actual tape had been significantly improved in its quality, resulting in a dramatic reduction of noise and distortion on sound tracks. Important changes wee also made to the design of lighting equipment, camera dollies and cranes. Above all the skill and dedication of the members of camera teams which had been maintained at a very high level over a number of years was a major factor contributing to the successful time that film was enjoying.
It is arguable that from a creative, artistic and technical point of view that films are made in the cutting room. For the process to produce an outstanding result two requirements have to be fulfilled. Firstly, the incoming material must be good and cover the subject comprehensively so that creative options are not closed and, secondly, sufficient time must be allowed for alternative approaches to be considered, tried and rejected. As a method of information storage and retrieval the cutting room was unrivalled, because a number of alternatives could be screened in seconds and the choice narrowed to a few that could then be viewed immediately. The equipment had a low capital cost, about £3,000 in 1975, had a life in excess of 10 years and was easy and cheap to maintain. With that sort of capital commitment and only two other people involved, ie. a Film Editor and an Assistant Film Editor, the director could book the editing time he needed, and the cost of his thinking time did not become prohibitively expensive. Film Group traded on the fact that all aspects of the filming operation were labour rather than capital intensive, with the exception of the dubbing theatre where the capital costs began to approach those found elsewhere in television, Like the cutting room, the dubbing theatre and the film medium are well matched to each other, and if the low cost cutting room was used to preassemble complicated sound tracks, a very high level of sophistication could be achieved at a reasonable cost. The sound track of ‘African Sanctus” made in 1975 was a good example of the combined art and craft of the film recordist and the dubbing mixer. This was a film about the composer David Fanshawe’s journey through Africa and the composition that resulted from it, making use of tribal music recorded in the bush, together with orchestral music recorded in a London studio. This was one of many fine programmes in a vintage period for film.
Changes in the Wind
In October 1977 a one year
experiment in electronic news gathering was carried out by Television News,
using a Range Rover equipped with a lightweight electronic camera, a portable
cassette video recorder, and a small transmitter and aerial suitable for
transmitting the picture and sound to the Television Centre or to an
intermediate relay point. The equipment proved its worth and there were few days
on which the news did not carry at least one ENG (Electronic News Gathering)
story. A typical example of the immediacy of ENG was provided when Princess
Anne’s baby was born on 15th November. The ENG crew sent off their video tape
report at 12.43 pm and it was shown on the midday news 13 minutes later. The
management at Ealing took note of the success of this trial during which the ENG
unit was used on 425 separate stories resulting in 645 insertions into the news
bulletins. Because there is no need for film processing it was clear that a
story could arrive at the studios in usable form more quickly than film. The
main disadvantage was the high capital cost of an ENG unit. The permanent
adoption of ENG in Television News was delayed until the end of 1980 on the
conclusion of a manning agreement with the Unions. The untapped potential of
electronic picture making was certainly exciting interest, but in the 1977 state
of the art it was felt it would have to be more exciting, and less expensive, if
it was going to prove its capacity to earn a living and settle down to being an
everyday workhorse like film.
In spite of these and many other successful film ventures the Ealing management and staff were becoming only too aware of the fact that the time was approaching, perhaps quite rapidly, when it could no longer be held that photographic film was unassailably the best medium for producing certain types of television programmes. Television News became largely all electronic in November 1981 and discussions were by this time taking place about the creation of a Topical Production Centre at Lime Grove. This Centre with its own establishment would provide the production facilities for all existing current affairs programmes and for breakfast television, which was not to get under way until early in 1983. It soon became clear that film would have only a minor part to play in breakfast television, and perhaps a diminishing one in the rest of current affairs output, which would undoubtedly benefit from the introduction of video rather than film recording. Ealing could not afford to be complacent. There was a fear that the cost of buying and processing film stock could escalate to the point that filming was prohibitively expensive, at least for some programme budgets. In 1980 the price of silver rose by 900% in nine months. Fortunately, it fell again but the tag that film people record on silver while video records on rust remained ever present in the minds of film men. There was concern about manning arrangements for film which, although small in comparison to others, had changed very little over the years, and that whereas Hollywood would shoot a typical 50 minute adventure drama for television in six days with a shooting ratio of 5:1, and complete post-production in three weeks, that the BBC would take twice as long on average, with twice the shooting ratio. The Ealing management clearly recognised the truth of the description of the film process as being one of muddle and self indulgence. Although no-one wanted or could condone waste, there was no wish to rationalise the programme maker’s needs out of existence. It was against this background that Ealing wanted and needed to get experience of working with electronic cameras, or P.S.C. working as it came to be known, P.S.C. standing for Portable Single Camera. The course of study referred to in Chapter 1 and which started on 24th January 1983, involved six crews and six editors. Their “work-up” exercises were for real and the stories chosen and directed by programme staff from a number of different departments. The attempt to make the P.S.C. equipment work for its users in the same way as Arriflexes, Nagras and Steenbecks was highly successful. Indeed most of the standard film making techniques were employed both in shooting and, more particularly, in the editing, track laying and dubbing stages. It was very clearly demonstrated that experienced film people would have no difficulty in adapting their skills in favour of electronic working, and that given the equipment resources, the alternative of tape could be offered for appropriate assignments if film stock were to become too expensive. There was certainly no great divide between the two methods of working each of which had recognisable advantages and disadvantages. In the end it will probably not be a question of whether electronic origination takes over from film. As Sir Charles Curran put it at his opening address of the “Film ‘77’ convention, “... The two processes will merge imperceptibly until they lose their separate identities to become a single versatile tool of the programme maker”.