As well as the main studios there were several other smaller areas completed at this time. On the fourth floor in the central wedge between TC3 and TC4 was the main network control area for what was then called BBCtv and the planned second channel. A corridor led from the lifts towards the back of the building and on either side were the control rooms, apparatus rooms, voice-over booths and from 1963 a small room containing the ‘Noddy’ camera that could be remotely tilted up to look at the revolving globe logo and down to look at a clock.
Incidentally, perhaps not surprisingly, there was also a ‘Big Ears’ – a twin magazine caption scanner.
At the end of the corridor was another control room on each side that looked into a pair of studios, side by side. These were presentation studios and were known by all as Pres A and Pres B. They had been designed for continuity announcers such as Michael Aspel, Kenneth Kendall, Judith Chalmers and Nan Winton but within a few years the BBC decided to adopt out-of-vision announcers. Thus the studios became available for other uses. They were quite small – at 32 x 22 metric feet wall to wall with a firelane crossing the middle. This could never be obstructed! It’s not quite clear when in-vision announcements ended but there was a new intake including Meryl O’Keefe in 1963.
Pres A was the first to open in 1960 – Pres B opened in about 1963/4 with EMI 201 Vidicon cameras. It was then converted to colour in 1966 and became the home of Late Night Line-Up – a daily arts and topical discussion programme. This studio thus became the home of the BBC’s colour camera tests. It is likely that the tests in studio H at Lime Grove ended around this time.
The colour camera tests in 1966 initially involved three Peto-Scott (Philips) PC60s. These were the cameras that had been chosen to equip the BBC’s first colour OB units. Later, a three-way test was undertaken using a prototype EMI 2001, a Marconi Mk VII and a Peto-Scott PC60. In order that the tests were fair, two of the cameras had a cue dot superimposed in the top left or right of the frame. These were changed every night so the engineers watching at home did not know which camera was which. They recorded their opinions and the results were later compiled.
This story has been confirmed to me as being accurate by an engineer who was involved and by the studio director who worked on the experiments at the time. He later went on to direct the first colour shows in TC6 – themselves still very much an experiment.
The camera chosen to equip TC6 and TC8 in 1967 was the Marconi Mk VII. The reason for this choice is arguable and is discussed later in this section. (See A Potted History of Colour Cameras.)
Pres A was converted to colour in 1968 (with TC6’s Marconi Mk VIIs) and became the weather studio. Between forecasts it was used to make trailers involving captions and slides with a voice-over actor in a nearby sound booth. VT clips were played in and the people in the presentation department who made these trails became adept at producing very slick and professional-looking ‘ads’ for BBC programmes. This was one thing ITV took many years to get right. The ITV companies did not have an equivalent department or dedicated staff so their trails were much simpler – often nothing more than a caption voiced over by the continuity presenter.
One of the trickiest jobs as a young and inexperienced cameraman was doing the ‘weather pan’. One camera had a locked-off shot looking at the Atlantic chart. The weather man – Jack Scott, Michael Fish, Ian McCaskill etc – then moved to a smaller chart showing today’s weather. This was being framed by another camera. At some point he would take three or four paces right to the next chart showing tonight’s weather. Since there was no script and it was unrehearsed you had to take your own cue when to pan. It sounds simple but was highly nerve-racking as there were many false moves as he might take a pace camera-right and stretch across the chart to indicate East Anglia or the weather in the North Sea. Some individuals would move very briskly and if you were not careful he would leave you behind. Of course, if you incorrectly started to pan too soon then you either had to continue and leave him behind or stop and pan back in a rather pathetic manner. This, of course, is when he would notice that you had begun the move and as you panned back to the left he would leave the frame on the right. You can imagine the various cock-ups possible on this, the simplest of camera moves. At some point they all must have happened although never of course by me. No really. Honestly.
Pres B was used for a variety of simple shows over the years including The Sky at Night, Points of View and Barry Norman’s Film ’72 (and onwards) series. Amazingly, two of these shows continue to be made but sadly, the Film ‘xx programme was axed in 2018. The Sky at Night is thought to be the longest continuously-running TV series in the world, and is now shot on location. Its main presenter, Sir Patrick Moore, fronted the show for over 55 years until his death in 2012.
David Scott-Cowan has written to me to point out that a separate programme department was created to devise programmes that would fit into this tiny Pres B studio. It was based in the ‘temporary’ wooden building – originally the builders’ site offices – that sat in front of TVC along Wood Lane during the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s. The programmes included The Book Programme with Robert Robinson and Did You See? with Ludovic Kennedy.
As mentioned above, around 1968 these studios were equipped with three Marconi Mk VII colour cameras each, which had previously been in use for a few months in TC6. These were very, very long. About five feet long in fact. Add a cameraman standing behind each one and there wasn’t much studio left. All the more astonishing then that Pres B was the original home of The Old Grey Whistle Test. It began in 1971 and occupied the studio one night a week instead of Late Night Line-Up. If you ever wondered why they used bare studio walls as a set, and the cameras never moved, then just picture the scene: A live band plus three enormous cameras squeezed into an area about the size of someone’s living room. It’s a wonder there was space for whispering Bob Harris on his stool in the corner. Some truly astonishing bands and solo artists performed live in this tiny studio for Whistle Test over many years. The show was also later made in any of the other studios that happened to be empty – always using the bare studio walls of course.
In the early ’90s the weather moved to a purpose-built suite containing several studios on the 2nd floor of TV Centre. Pres A was then taken over by CBBC and used as a continuity studio – its original purpose in fact. In 1995 the BBC1 and BBC2 transmission suites moved two floors down to the old telecine area following that department’s move to the post-production area in stage 5. The old control rooms on the fourth floor were converted into continuity suites for the BBC’s new digital channels.
Once Studio 9 was opened next to the Blue Peter Garden in 1996, Pres A was closed. Pres B also closed towards the end of 1996. Alan Brett has written to me. He worked for a hospital TV studio and informs me that he was invited to go and help himself to anything useful from the old network control rooms. Whilst there he looked in the Pres studios and on the wall was a setting plan for Barry Norman’s Film ’96. It was dated 18th November 1996. It’s reasonable to assume that this was the last programme ever made in the studio. Sadly, Barry died in 2017 but his gift for summing up a feature film in a few carefully chosen words – and his influence on the films we all chose to watch as a consequence – will never be forgotten.
As a little aside – Duncan Stewart (who later kept Riverside Studios going – and still does!) informs me that around 1985 he went to Pres A with his Dad who was replacing the studio’s dimmers. They were simply getting a bit old. Some of the dimmers were duly saved from the skip and installed in Old Windsor Memorial Hall, where in 2013 they were still working perfectly. They don’t make ’em like that any more!
The network control for the two main channels moved down to the second floor, occupying the area previously home to telecine. The old studio control rooms and associated areas were later converted into new digital continuity areas for BBC1 and BBC2. Pres A and B remained as empty shells until 1999, when they were rebuilt with a mezzanine floor and converted into more transmission suites and technical areas, coming into service in 2000.
However, even this did not last and early in 2005 the playout department for all the BBC and UKTV channels moved to a highly secure and sophisticated purpose-built area in the new media village at White City, just down Wood Lane. That operation is no longer run by the BBC but by a private company – ‘Red Bee’ – which was formed in late 2005. Red Bee was in its turn later taken over by Ericsson.
As far as I know, this suite of rooms was unoccupied throughout 2006 and into 2007. In Jan 2007 I explored the area and found that it had been completely transformed from the way the old control rooms and studios were originally laid out. Even the wall dividing the two studios had been demolished – with only a couple of pillars remaining. That must have been quite a job. There were a number of rooms – one or two quite large – with smart carpet, glazed partitions and hardwood doors. The only clue as to what used to be there was the area up the new stairs at the back onto the mezzanine floor that was built within the space occupied by the two studios. Although this was now an empty office with suspended ceiling and carpeted floor, the shape and size of the old Pres studios could still be made out. They seemed very small.
As mentioned above, during the late ’90s the transmission suites for BBC1 and BBC2 were situated two floors down from their original location. Matt Phelps has written to me about his memories of this period…
‘It was a 2 person suite – the Network Director and the Announcer, who sat in a glass booth off the left of this suite facing back towards you. The big green digital countdown in the middle of the stack was the ‘weather counter’ which was fired from this position and could also be seen in the ‘self op’ weather studio. If it went wrong, or you forgot to set it before a weather report, it usually sent the weather people into a fury! This room always stank of diesel fumes – especially in the Continuity booths – for reason that we never quite got to the bottom of during my 6 years there!’
I haven’t normally included entire emails sent to me on this website, rather I have extracted the relevant, most interesting facts as I judge them. However, in this instance I am including pretty well all of an account of a distant world of analogue television from a perspective few of us consider. He was part of the team that used to sit in a room on the 4th floor and run BBC1 or BBC2. He spoke to us between programmes (timing his comments to the second), mixed captions and sometimes cued the VT or telecine machine – all live and unflappably filling in when disaster struck.
Here is the account sent to me by Piers Bishop – Presentation announcer from 1980 – 1983…
‘I worked in TVC Pres in two capacities, first voicing the evening trails and then as a staff announcer in BBC1&2 continuity.
When I was there, in 1980-83, almost all the trailers that went out on BBC1 in the evening were transmitted via Pres A and voiced live from the Pres A booth in room 4057, sometimes with captions added live as well. This was because the exact timings of the evening might vary because of news over-runs, live sports events, etc, and they didn’t want to put out trails with the wrong timings on, so the sequences were assembled in VT with just a music and effects track, no voiceover and either no captions or ambiguous ones. So for the main “Programmes Tonight on BBC1” trail Pres A would be listening to the PA in Network Control 1 and running the VT 10 seconds before it was needed on air. Then NC1 would take Pres A as the trail began, and the PA in Pres A had to count through the trail cueing the vision mixer to super the captions, graphics op to change caption and the voice to ‘read on’ when needed. We would have three or four rehearsals of this routine before tx but then we were live with no safety net. Strangely, I don’t remember it going wrong, despite the large number of cues and the accelerating pace of those trails in the 80s.
One exception to the live voicing was the trail that went out after the 9.00 news and weather for the late evening viewing on BBC1 – if the news agenda looked stable we sometimes pre-packaged this in Pres A so we could go home earlier. This was not a straightforward process – the 2″ quad VTs used in TC only had one (mono) audio track, so there was no way to bounce the music and effects through the gallery and back onto another track. To get round this there was a 1/4″ studer tape machine in Pres A gallery which had been modified so its capstan motor drive could be locked to frame pulses fed from one of the telecine channels instead of the mains. So within the limits of the mechanicals and tape stretch, it stayed more or less in sync over a couple of minutes.
To put a voice onto a trail, the VT op would lay about a minute of TIM (the speaking clock) onto the countdown clock before the start of the taped trail, then the whole of that TIM was played through Pres A mixer and onto the 1/4″ tape machine. As it went through, we added the voice, so the complete version was now on the 1/4″. Then both the 1/4″ and the VT machine were re-cued to the top of the TIM, and on a shout from the director both were started. They weren’t in sync at this point, of course, but the Sound Super in the gallery could hear the packaged version on his output and the VT version on prefade, and with the aid of an advance/retard ‘nudge’ key on the 1/4″ machine would attempt to get the 1/4″ in sync with the VT before the TIM ended. If it was ‘in’ by -3 on the clock, the director would shout “Record” on the talkback to VT and the VT op would put the one audio track into record, erasing the original and any chance we would have had of starting again. If not, they tried again – most of the Sound Supers were very good at it but sometimes it took a long time to get it right.
This farrago happened a lot, because Pres A crew quite liked going home after the 9.25 weather. (As an occasional cameraman in Pres A at the time I can vouch for this. And what exactly was wrong with that? Ahem.) The total crew on BBC1 evenings was quite big – in Pres A we had Graphics op, Vision Mixer, Director, Sound Supervisor, PA, S.Tel.E and another vision engineer to rack the cameras for the weather, plus at least one camera operator in the studio for the weather. Add the voiceover and that’s nine – but the BBC1 gallery also housed a Director, VM, PA and S.Tel.E., as well as the continuity announcer, which means in total there would be fourteen people supervising the transmission of a single 1’30” trailer in mid-evening. So it’s odd to see the picture of the 90s network gallery with its single chair.
However, the announcers did the director’s job in the daytime, running the whole network from the mixer you see in the shot of the ‘broom cupboard’ (which was known as NC1 continuity until Philip Schofield turned up in the announcers’ room). So the S.Tel.E would call up the next tape or film programme on the router and put it on one of the three OS channels on the continuity mixer. The announcer called up VT or TK and confirmed the programme number, then the source gave us control. We would press the Run button on the mixer to check it really was the right programme and see how it started, then press Reset (for telecine) or just ask the VT op to reset on talkback. Then you looked at the continuity script to see where you would have to pre-roll the source (VTs needed a 10-second count down, Telecine parked at -8). Typically, when the current programme ended you would fade it down and bring up a caption for the same time tomorrow or the next episode of what we just saw, and talk about it, then cut to another slide and promote the programme after next (they actually were 35mm colour slides in a scanner), then to a network ident. If it was BBC2 or an Open University transmission you could animate the ident for a bit of extra pizazz, while still talking. And meantime, either 8 or 10 seconds before you needed it, you would have pressed Run to start the next programme, so out of the network animation you would be able to do a lead-and-cut (sound starts then cut vision), a cross-fade or a fade-down-and-up to get to the incoming programme. All while talking, watching the time, and making the video look right(ish). And they say men can’t multitask.
By 1982 the Pres. A gallery had been rotated compared with the later plan on the site – the huge GV300 vision mixer had gone in and there was a Chyron caption generator, though NC1 still used caption slides and the primitive Anchor caption generator in emergencies. The engineering/racks position was on the right as you went in, with the studio window behind the engineering desk. Production desk was in front of that and I think the monitor stack must have been up against the window to what had been NC1, which had recently moved up the corridor into what had been International Control, with its new Continuity.
BBC2 continuity still had the remains of its old dual-standard capability – there were 405/625 switches on the mixer and the B&W monitors. The main colour monitors were big Prowests which produced a deafening 15 kHz line whistle which I can still hear to this day – as I expect most of us can who spent 12 hours a day in a small room full of monitors. (I certainly share the same permanent whistle in my ears having sat in lighting control rooms for many years!)
There were some ancient BBC-modified Garrard 301 grams on which we played music in the event of breakdowns in the film, or at closedown if we were feeling ‘creative’. That didn’t happen on BBC1 – every bit of the night was scripted – but on 2 you could go to the slide library and pull out a montage of stills to show with some music at closedown if you felt like it. Roses for the Chelsea Flower Show, moonscapes during the space missions, etc – it all seems rather quaint now. You had to load the slides into the slide scanner in BBC2 apparatus room – a wonderful place that looked like Marconi’s bedroom, with a wonderful smell of old cabling, dust and electricity. Unlike NC1 apps which was sparkly and new, NC2 apps still contained remnants of the 405 era, rubbing shoulders with new kit like the Philips digital noise reducer. This famously took the rain out of a Wimbledon transmission, so viewers were confused when rain had stopped play and there was just a bright day to see on the screen.
The one new thing in NC2 itself was a Grass Valley vision mixer – then known by the BBC as an ‘event mixer’ because you couldn’t just mix on it, you could cut on the live bank or set up the next event and then mix or cut to it. This caused some problems – if you wanted to lead the sound of the next programme and then do the event the mixer couldn’t do it, so a small sound mixer had to be added at the side. BBC2 being a slightly more relaxed network, the preset mix timings were slower – I don’t remember exactly but I think BBC1 could mix to the next programme at .4 and .8 seconds whereas BBC2 could mixthrough at .8 and 1.8 seconds. No doubt someone who vision mixed or directed will remember that better.
It seems odd now that we transmitted programmes off film in 1983, but helical scan VTs were only just appearing in TC and even they couldn’t handle the longest feature films, so transmitting off the original film was the logical thing to do. It was not without hazards, though, as films occasionally fell off air or went out with the reels in the wrong order. Also, a number of imported US films had to be edited for language as some still could not be said on the BBC. So the sound was copied off the film onto sprocketed tape, and this tape was edited and then played out in sync with the original film. Taking out words would make the timings wrong, but putting the same bit of sepmag in backwards would disguise the word and keep the timings right. You generally didn’t notice it, even listening carefully, especially if there was a music background, which most of those dire, ‘fast-paced’ action films did. Sepmag wasn’t entirely reliable, though, and sometimes the track would jump off the sound follower. This wasn’t necessarily a problem if that reel didn’t have obscenities in it – when the sound off the sepmag disappeared the gallery just had to take the telecine’s main output until the start of the next reel. But at least one US film went out while I was at TC with every reel but one ‘clean’ – i.e. a lot of “cuffs” in the soundtrack – while the other reel generated a lot of calls to the Duty Office.’