A potted history of early colour cameras

 

It had been a long wait before a good quality, reliable colour camera was available.  In 1966 there were three main European camera manufacturers:  Philips, Marconi and EMI. The BBC carried out a three-way test over several months in Pres B using the programme Late Night Line-up.  Engineers in the studio examined their reliability – Marconi provided their own maintenance engineer, the other companies left it to the BBC ones.  Meanwhile, other members of the BBC’s great and good watched the pictures at home and made notes.  A decision had to be made urgently so that the first studios could be equipped in 1967.

 

Philips (under the brand name ‘Peto-Scott’) had its PC60 which was very good quality but perhaps a little soft – it had only three tubes. Also, the company was not British – therefore at a disadvantage with regard to the BBC.  Nevertheless, two OB units were equipped with PC60s in 1967.

 

Marconi had its Mk VII which was much sharper, having four tubes.  This camera was designed in the mid ’60s for the export market – in particular America – and with its lens bolted onto the front it meant that a wide selection of lenses could be used.  It was built using military-grade components and its electronic design was very advanced.  Ruggedness and reliability were intended to be key features.  The camera was sharp but its colourimetry was not liked by all – some described faces as looking sun-tanned, others simply thought that faces looked pink.  I remember the pictures as looking rather like a black and white image with the colour added on top – which of course is exactly what it was.  Its luminance tube produced an image and the colour information from the other three tubes was superimposed.  You could certainly tell Marconi pictures from EMI ones on ordinary domestic TVs.

The main problem with the Mk VII was its weight and its length.  It was so long that the kind of typical camera moves used on studio dramas or light entertainment shows were not possible without each camera having an assistant or ‘dolly-op’ to move the camera pedestal.  Peds had to have a larger diameter steering ring fitted but when the cameraman stood behind it he couldn’t reach the ped with his feet to push it.  Therefore he could not track or crab the ped in the usual way.  I operated the Mk VII on occasions and yes, it was a beast to move!

Interestingly, Paul Marshall has pointed out to me that an alternative shorter lens was available – the Rank Taylor-Hobson Varotal V.  However, the long lenses that were purchased were made by Angenieux – the same manufacturer who had done a deal to supply the lenses for the EMI camera.  He wonders if the arrangement between the BBC and Angenieux prevented them from buying a lens for the Mk VII from Rank Taylor-Hobson that would certainly have been preferred by cameramen.  Angenieux were the only lens manufacturer prepared to develop and manufacture the integral lens for the EMI camera – more on this below – so this seems entirely possible.

 

The third camera was supplied by EMI.  Some sources say this was originally named 2000, not 2001 – others disagree.

Anyway, the EMI camera in these tests was the nearest to the BBC’s specifications.  In seeking sales EMI had worked very closely with the BBC to produce exactly what they wanted.  It was compact with an integral zoom lens so cameramen and directors loved it.  Its electronics were less complicated than the Marconi which supposedly made it easier to line up and maintain.  Its colourimetry was also closest to the BBC spec and (in its 1968 incarnation) produced very good flesh tones.  This camera used a different technique from the Marconi Mk VII, using the green tube to produce the basic image whilst the luminance tube supplied only the fine detail information between 1.5 and 5.5 MHz.  Perhaps surprisingly, this appeared more natural on screen in many people’s eyes.

However – the only tubes that gave really good quality were Plumbicons – invented by Philips.  Naturally, they were reluctant to see other manufacturers use them.  Marconi got round this by selling cameras without tubes and asking the TV companies to order them direct from Philips which, surprisingly, they were willing to do.  Marconi had allegedly bought some Plumbicons for development purposes claiming they were for ‘medical use’.  According to a technical paper by an EMI man named McGee, EMI attempted to develop lead-based tubes too but found it too difficult to get the mix just right and layer thickness uniform enough.  They were therefore forced to use much less sophisticated Vidicon tubes but these were nowhere near as good as the Plumbicon.

Paul Marshall has kindly written to me explaining the problem…

 

‘I proved this for myself when I got the Marconi Coffin camera and the EMI (Vidicon colour) 204 camera going for the NMPFT  (National Museum of Photography, Film and Television).  Our ‘scene’, a red dalek, was perfect on the coffin, but the red sensitive Vidicon just couldn’t give a nice looking dalek (the blue and green tubes had so much red and infra red sensitivity that they always saw something through the crude dichroic and thus de-saturated reds.  Flesh tones were awful plus the low light shading, noise and microphony to boot! Horrible.’

 

 

Ex EMI engineer Dave Craddock has written to me with his story.  He was EMI’s technical manger in Australia and New Zealand between 1962 and 1966.  The 204 was EMI’s first attempt at a colour camera – using Vidicon tubes.  In late 1963 he had four 204s that he demo’d at the ‘Sydney Showground’.  This included an interview with the Australian PM, Robert Menzies. 

He describes the 204 as three EMI 201s in the same box with Vidicon tubes, each providing a red, green or blue signal.  He says that although the 201 was a good camera, having 3 together made registering the images very difficult, especially when the heat began to build up.

I’d better not repeat here what Dave thought of the people who were running EMI at the time.  However, he took a very dim view of the person who ordered cheap capacitors, most of which proved faulty.  They had to be replaced with Philips ones ironically, and he says he filled a tea chest with the dud ones once a month.  Dave became so disenchanted that he resigned and joined RCA in 1966, before the 2001 came on the scene.

 

Peter Harris says he was told that that an early version of the 2001 was a three tube camera but it rapidly mis-registered after line-up so the conclusion was that three-tube cameras would never work.  This sounds as though it was probably the 204.  It was only much later that they realised that the original yokes and tubes had been held in place with 4BA clamp screws (basically, they were rubbish) whereas in the later 2001 each of the yokes was secured in a tapered seat using 0BA bolts, which as I am sure we all realise were much less likely to slip when the camera was moved.  Obvious really.

 

Exactly what happened at the BBC tests is not 100% clear.  However, the results were a disaster for EMI.  The camera was clearly not as good as the Marconi.  The BBC engineers were dismayed as the camera designed to their spec wasn’t the one that produced the best pictures.

Something had to be done fast to be ready for colour to begin in 1967.  Reluctantly, the BBC ordered a number of Marconi Mk VIIs;  probably 14, possibly 17 (accounts differ) – which, thanks to Marconi pulling out all the stops, were duly delivered on time.  These were installed in TC6, TC8 and studio A at Alexandra Palace for BBC2 News.  Meanwhile EMI went back to the drawing board, persuaded Philips to sell them some Plumbicon tubes and spent months integrating them into the camera’s design.  After a great deal of work they came up with a revised design ready for delivery in 1968.

 

However, I have also been sent an interesting email by Charles Hope – a retired senior BBC engineer – that casts a somewhat different light on this story.  He writes…

 

‘At the time of this work, I was involved with the BBC Motoring Club (one of the many ‘social’ sections) and got to know the Head Of Designs Department (Neville Watson) very well.  He told me that everybody (Research, Designs and Operations) wanted to use EMI cameras but the Director of Engineering insisted the Marconi gave the best results.  In 1968, about a year after the Marconis had come into service, DE gave a major talk in the Theatre, fed sound only to all studios, in which he apologised for buying the ‘wrong’ cameras.  He retired shortly afterwards.’

 

At first glance this seems to contradict the other version of events – but not necessarily.  Firstly, it would be nice to know a bit more about this rather surprising announcement and apology.  I would certainly like to know the exact words the Director of Engineering used – and exactly what it was he was apologising for.  Perhaps for causing so much extra work by having to swap cameras round the studios so soon after they were bought.  However, he clearly felt at the time that he had no choice but to go with the Marconi.  Bear in mind that it does seem that the EMI wasn’t as good in 1966 as it became a year or two later after more development work was done.  It is also frankly not very surprising that all those engineers wanted the EMI chosen if they had contributed so much to its design.

 

All this is most intriguing. Can you shed any further light?

 

marconi mk vii tvcameramuseum 400p (1)
A Marconi Mk VII.  Almost twice as long as an EMI 2001 and much heavier too.  The lens hood added another 6 inches so you could really take a proper swipe at someone if you panned quickly and they were standing within a few feet.
image thanks to tvcameramuseum.org
mjk emi 2001
The author in 1976 with an EMI 2001 trying to look as though I know what I’m doing.
The picture was taken in studio A at the BBC’s engineering training centre at Wood Norton, Evesham.
This print has been skulling about in the bottom of a drawer for 30 years and is a little the worse for wear.
Double denim was considered the height of cool back then, honest.
A ‘spare’ 2001 in an apparatus room at TV Centre.  With all the panels off you can see how every cubic inch was packed with printed circuit boards and electronic components.  No miniature microprocessors back then.
photo thanks to John Bradford

 

Opinions differ strongly as to the relative merits of the various cameras of the day.  Those with ties to Marconi believe that their cameras were trashed unfairly by the BBC and that some sort of rivalry or worse existed between the Corporation and Marconi.  Interestingly, having seen this statement, a retired senior BBC engineer has written to me…

 

‘As a maintenance engineer in Central Area (later to become Television Network) we learned very early on to hate Marconi kit.  It was very unreliable!  Cameras, Picture monitors, Sync Pulse generators (I had the misfortune to have to commission one when on attachment to SPID) all failed far more often than other makes.  My former colleagues in what was Transmitter (Transmission) department had the same feeling about Marconi transmitters.’

 

Of course this is only one person’s opinion.  Other engineers may have had a different experience.  Certainly, they sold very well all over the world – unlike the EMI 2001.  They were also popular OB cameras with some of the ITV companies.  I have, however, had an email from Ian Hillson who seems to be following the BBC line of the day…

 

‘As an engineer, the thing I remember about them was the huge spares cabinet that you needed – every unit inside it seemed to have been designed by a different individual design team using their favourite components – so you had everything in there, transistors, nuvistors, thick film circuits, thin film circuits….

And Marconi only ever used salmon pink wire, so it was impossible to trace thro’…

And it was single core, so started to break as they used it at the hinge on the fold down front of the CCU….

And, I seem to remember, the lens they used was for an IO and gave a huge image size for the Plumbicon and not enough back-focus to accommodate the block, hence needed relay optics – and lost more light! And it had a very Michael Mouse fixing system of a guillotine handle locking (or not quite locking) into an ineffectual slot around the back of the lens. Methinks that everyone of my age has seen the zoom lens fall off a Mk VII…’

 

 

So the 2001 became the favourite of the BBC – both cameramen and engineers liking it – and of course it remained in use for many years.  It was also bought to equip studios by most of the big ITV companies including Thames, LWT, ITN, Yorkshire, Granada and ATV.  They would certainly not have ordered it if they had not preferred it for studio work over the Marconi or Philips.

For what it’s worth, I was a cameraman in the late ’70s/early ’80s and I found the 2001 easy to operate.  It was much bigger and heavier than later cameras of course, but you could do basic camera moves with relative ease.  For instance, an actor sitting in a chair gets up and moves across the set to a door.  You have to pull up the steering ring as she stands, spin it a few degrees and push the ped with your foot to crab the camera as she makes her move, while tightening the shot to an MCU (Medium close-up).  Your right hand is on the focus knob, your left hand is on the panning handle, your thumb is on the zoom control.  A move like this was completely standard stuff and easy (well, perhaps not for me!) to carry out with a 2001.  It would be impossible to do with a Marconi Mk VII unless you had an assistant to move the ped, who might not get the timing right.  This was why the BBC and all the ITV companies wanted the 2001.  One suspects that in the UK we used cameras in a far more fluid way than in other countries, who were happy to keep the camera static and simply pan and zoom.

 

Incidentally, I have been told by a retired BBC engineer of an apocryphal story concerning the time Granada was choosing whether to buy EMI or Marconi colour cameras.  It seems that the EMI was producing better pictures and when the man from Marconi came to try and improve results he is supposed to have said ” A side by side comparison – that’s not fair.”  Actually, I think this tale says as much about the attitude of BBC engineers as it might about Marconi cameras.

Chris Whitehead has written to me with some more info on Granada’s colour camera choice.  It seems that in 1969 they signed a contract with Marconi to refurbish 4 studios and equip them with the Mk VII.  However, once studio 4 had been equipped with those cameras and actually used for a few programmes, Granada went back to Marconi and insisted that they fit the remaining studios with EMI 2001s.  They must have had very good lawyers to amend that contract without a massive penalty – or maybe they could simply afford to pay it.

 

I have mentioned Paul Marshall above.  He is a highly qualified electronics engineer and is the chairman of the Broadcast Engineering Conservation Group.  He takes issue with many of these statements by ex-BBC cameramen and engineers about the relative merits of the Marconi v the EMI cameras and is convinced that the Marconi was the superior camera.  To be fair, he has restored Mk VIIs in recent years and they still produce excellent pictures so he does know his subject.  The driving force behind purchasing the EMI was the requirement to keep the camera as short as possible – but as he has pointed out, there was a shorter lens available on the market at the time, which could have been used on the Marconis.

It is true that the 2001 was not without fault – arguably no more reliable than the Marconi and prone to picture noise in some examples.  It was also not good at coping with dark scenes in plays – noise, smearing and curious colour casts are to be seen in old tapes.  Its greatest strength was also its weakness.  Its integral lens made it unsuitable as an OB camera where lenses are often changed and overseas TV companies did not like it for the same reason.  Only two types of zoom lens would fit it.  Its colourimetry was not liked outside the UK.  The subtle tones it produced – giving realistic rendition of faces – could also made it appear cool and desaturated with some light entertainment material.  In particular, most US companies did not like it at all.  Perhaps they preferred orange faces.

Paul Marshall has also pointed out that the BBC spec for a 4-tube camera was arguably backward-looking.  The BBC were convinced that only 4 tubes produced pictures that were sharp enough but by the time these camera came into service, all manufacturers were developing 3-tube cameras that were only marginally softer.  A 4-tube camera involved complex optical arrangements and required a much higher light level than 3 tubes.  Indeed, studios at Television Centre were lit at a lower level once 3-tube Link cameras were introduced from the mid 1970s.  In fact they went from 1600 lux to 800 lux, saving huge amounts in the cost of electricity and air conditioning.

Paul has pointed out in some very well-written research that the short length and integral lens for the EMI was only required in the UK.  No other country needed it so it had no export sales and was a financial disaster for EMI.

 

Thus the original Marconis were removed from TC6 and TC8 after less than a year and used by the BBC where camera movement would not be an issue – in the news studios and the two Presentation studios.  All the other studios were equipped with the EMI 2001.

 

Marconi and EMI each went on to develop a camera that was the opposite of the Mk VII and 2001 respectively.  Marconi produced the Mk VIII with its integral lens and much improved colourimetry.  In 1970 it was arguably the most advanced camera design in the world.  The BBC allegedly indicated that they were interested in purchasing 80!  Oddly, they actually bought only two – for a news OB unit.  In fact, probably three.  Ian Hillson and Roy Adcock found one in a cupboard in Elstree in 2000, apparently brand new and with a number 3 on it.  Ian had been an engineer occasionally working with the 2-camera OB unit and he was particularly cross… ‘…”only bought two” … pah!  They lied to us…’

Paul Marshall has told me that he believes that the automatic line-up it possessed was not liked by the unions – fearing job losses – and the BBC did not want any industrial problems so avoided it.

 

A BBC engineer on the other hand recalled to me that his memory of the camera was that the automatic line-up was prone to errors and that a conventional line-up was often required in addition to the automatic one.  I have also been told by another senior engineer of the day that ‘The automatic line up created enormous problems because it couldn’t be switched off!   Lens aberrations at the edge of the picture could result in the camera deciding that the tube registration needed adjustment even when on air.’  However, Paul Marshall has written to me with this observation… 

 

‘Oh, dear, of course you can, it’s a switch in the automatics drawer with several positions, including ‘off !’ The automatics were never perfect, that’s true, but they weren’t bad if the tubes were from the same batch, correctly oriented and the beam current set-up right. The later, MkVIIIB had a pair of ‘size corrector’ pots that mopped up a lot of problems to do with through the lens v. diascope line-up.  Lenses for tubed cameras invariably had chromatic aberration and inherently the diascope doesn’t.  Thus, there were width and height registration errors when you went back to the lens.  The pots compensated for this and things were much better.  I think this is what your chap is talking about.’

 

Reading between the lines it appears that the automatic functions of the Mk VIII were perhaps not quite as automatic as Marconi might have led potential purchasers to believe – as is borne out by the experience of those who had to use them.

 

Ian Hillson takes the same view as the other BBC engineers…

 

‘…The cameras were awful and needed a final tweak after auto line-up.  They had motorised pots on the CCU to store the settings!  Fun to watch….

One of the problems as you say was that the diascope (obviously) didn’t use all the elements in the lens – so you were still left with a bit of chromatic lens aberration to try and reduce.  And the green tube scan patch was smaller than the red and blue ones, just to make registration errors worse – methinks that this gave the camera greater sensitivity (same light over smaller tube area) – sadly being three tube it was “contours out of green” which gave rise to soft & noisy red carpets at royal events!’

 

Ken Banwell – ex HTV engineer – has written to me with broadly similar views of the Mk VIII…

 

‘I came across them at HTV, who had 12 or 13, including 2 of the 3 pre-production ones.  The other was with the BBC News OB unit.  I notice that [Ian Hillson] says that the green scan patch was smaller than the red and blue.  It was the other way around – the red and blue had minifiers on to increase sensitivity.  The automatics after the addition of the additional pots worked quite well if set up.  The main problem was reliability from the wee cees – the red ones which burned out, the fans on the PSU`s that melted until replaced by metal ones and the camera head power supply (I still have one) which was a designers dream and an engineer’s nightmare.  I could still line up a CCU without much thought after 20 odd years, I did it so often.  HTV tried twice to use one on an OB.  It never worked so they gave up and used a 2001 from studios if an extra camera was required.’

 

‘A designer’s dream and an engineer’s nightmare’ seems to be a common theme in what most people have told me.  Whether the Mk VIII was or was not liked by engineers, a cameraman who operated one told me that it felt odd in use – because the viewfinder and lens were offset.  In any event, the Mk VIII did very well in the export world so Marconi stayed in business.

 

EMI developed the 2005 after several years’ research.  One wonders what they had been up to.  A long, ugly 3-tube camera with its lens bolted on the front was the result.  It produced soft, muddy pictures and was disliked by cameramen and engineers alike.  None were ordered for the BBC’s London studios.  To my knowledge, the only production studios in the UK to be equipped with them were BBC Manchester studio A, Granada studio 8 and LWT’s studio at Wycombe Road.

Within a short time EMI abandoned broadcast camera manufacture.  It is astonishing how they could have thrown their lead in this market away.  Sure, the integral lens of the 2001 made it difficult to sell abroad but there was no excuse for subsequently producing a camera that produced such disappointing pictures.

Meanwhile, Philips quietly came up with the LDK-5.  A superb camera with triax cable that became the workhorse of BBC OBs and TV companies all over the world.

 

 

So in the late ’70s the BBC were left without a suitable studio camera.  It was not politically acceptable to order a non-British camera to equip BBC studios.  They persuaded a little company that made CCTV security cameras – Link – to come up with a design.  The 110 was a soft 3-tube camera with integral lens that was not particularly liked by anyone but was just about acceptable.  Its physical design was not very sophisticated, as this experience from a Thames engineer indicates…

 

‘At Thames I had experience of the Marconi Mk VII’s, EMI 2001’s and the dreadful Link 110’s.  The camera cable connector was attached to the chassis by 4 quarter inch, self tapping screws.  One day we noticed a couple on the floor and then spotted camera 1 tracking across the floor with its connector hanging in free air!’

 

A ‘spare’ Link 110 on a trolley in a TV Centre apparatus room.
photo thanks to John Bradford

 

The next design from Link that came along in the early 1980s was genuinely very good – the 125.  Most of the BBC’s studios were eventually equipped with this camera.  Limehouse, too, ordered it after an exhaustive test looking for the best camera available at the time.  Everything was fine until Link went on to the next generation – the 130.  This model was developed in the mid 1980s to the latest BBC spec.  A set of cameras was delivered to be installed in Elstree A.  The studio was due to open with them in 1989.

A Link 125.  Slightly longer than the 110 but a more stylish look. Much better pictures too.
photo thanks to John Bradford

 

Having already bought some lenses to fit the Link 130s they had ordered, the BBC were left with a problem.  They had to find a suitable camera that would fit them.  The answer was found in France, believe it or not.  In 1989, a set of Thomson 1530s – one of the last tubed cameras on the market, was purchased for studio A at Elstree.  These were (of course) modified to BBC specs and were renamed 1531s.  Thus began a relationship with Thomson that was to last a decade.  4:3 CCD models followed by widescreen models were subsequently bought for almost all the BBC’s studios over the next 10 years.  (The exception was at Elstree where the EastEnders studios were fitted with Philips LDK 100s.)

 

Thomson 1657D cameras in TC1’s camera store.  These digital widescreen cameras purchased in 2000 were the final version of the Thomsons bought by the BBC and were replaced in 2006 by Sony HDC-1500 high definition cameras.

 

Since 2004 Sony has become the BBC’s manufacturer of choice, with almost all the TV Centre studios being first equipped with E-30 cameras and then HDC-1500 (HSC-300s in TC3) high definition cameras between 2006 and 2011.  The HSC-300s were later moved to BBC Elstree D and the 1500s to Elstree Studios stages 2, 8 and 9.  In 2017, TC3 re-opened with Sony HDC-2500s and TC1 with HDC-4300 4K cameras.

 

Some might say that thanks to BBC camera policy during the 1960s-1980s – EMI, Marconi and Link were all forced to give up involvement in broadcast television.  You could say that EMI and Link failed because they were too closely involved with the BBC and Marconi failed because it somehow antagonised them.  However, you can’t have it both ways.  Can the BBC really be held responsible because it ordered or didn’t order various cameras?  What is certainly true is that all these companies had to give up at some point because their latest camera could not be sold in sufficient quantities at home and abroad.

Whatever the reason, there is now no British manufacturer of broadcast television cameras.

 

 

Golden Age Television Recreations is a company that hires working examples of old TV cameras.  Their website has some excellent images of most of the cameras mentioned above.  Go to their ‘equipment for hire’ page.  Also, the online Museum of the Broadcast Television Camera is another first class source of photos and information.  It can be found on tvcameramuseum.org.