Videotape and telerecording

The Centre was designed with the basement or ‘hub’ being set aside for the new technology of videotape recording.  The BBC called it ‘VT’ – everybody else called it ‘VTR’.  (When giving a cue for a pre-recorded insert, BBC directors learnt to say ‘run VT’ – meanwhile, ITV directors said ‘roll VTR’.  I’ve no idea why the difference.)

By placing the VT department in the hub, the cable runs to each studio were kept as short as possible.  (Mind you, programmes at Television Theatre, half a mile down the road, were also recorded here in later years.  Indeed, when all the machines here were busy, some shows were recorded at TVI, five miles away in Soho, so long cable runs were perhaps not quite as crucial as was originally thought. 

The 2-inch ‘quad’ Ampex machines were very much new technology and were phenomenally expensive to buy. In 1960 the BBC was paying around £30,000 per machine. Bear in mind that around that time the cost of the average house was only £3,000. By comparison, in November 2008 (when I wrote this) an average house cost £224,000. That would put the price of a VT machine at £2.24m! You could pick up a reconditioned second hand one in 2008 for about £20,000. (I couldn’t find a ‘new’ price on the Internet.)

Tape too was horrendously costly – around £120 per hour.  Another quick search of the internet in 2008 found the popular format of Digital Betacam available at less than £12 for one hour’s recording.  Then take into account inflation over the past 50 years and the difference in price is obvious.  That’s why so many ’60s and ’70s programmes were wiped and the tape used again.

Apparently, the videotape area in the basement was not ready when TC3 opened and a couple of machines were installed temporarily in the apparatus room of Pres B (which had not yet opened).  Even when complete there were initially only four, then seven more videotape recorders in the basement for the first few years.

By comparison, during the last two decades of TVC each studio had its own VT machines – sometimes as many as eight or more might be in use to record the main output of the studio, a back-up copy and a number of ‘iso’ recordings.  These are isolated feeds of individual cameras, enabling the programme to be edited more slickly at a later date.  The Post Production area in Stage 5 had well over a hundred more machines.  It seems astonishing that for the first few years the whole of TV Centre had only eleven VTRs in total for recording and editing programmes.  Even by 1970 there were only 16 VT booths – which was the maximum allowed for in the original design of the area.

 

Of course, many programmes were recorded – but not necessarily on tape.  Beneath TC6 was a large area set aside for the telerecording department.  Telerecording on film was a well-established means of saving programmes for archive purposes or for export.  When the Centre opened, most film telerecording was still carried out down the road at Lime Grove.  Garth Nicholson wrote to me in December 2008 with more info – and a comment on an astonishing recording of Dad’s Army that had its colour restored from an original black and white film recording…

 

‘As with telecine operators we originally had one or two working machines in TV Centre and these were initially staffed as an outpost of Lime Grove depending on our workload. Finally the 16mm facilities became fully operational to be followed by the 35mm machines at TV Centre so we all decamped to TV Centre.

We worked there for some years (a quick recall would say right up to the early ’70s) but of course apart from selling 16mm recordings overseas and finally back-up work for videotape the days of the somewhat crude technique of film recording were numbered. 

As a matter of interest we did carry out some colour experimental work where we produced 3 negatives (R,G & B) using 3 separate passes on the same machine.  These were sent away to the processing laboratory for combining using the Technicolor process but we were fighting a losing battle against the colour VTR machine. 

When I saw yesterday’s rebroadcast of a 16mm Dad’s Army from which they have recovered colour information I was totally amazed.  Remember in the early VTR days it was never thought that they would be accurate enough to even run colour and as for editing then it took several hours to make an acceptable cut between two takes which had to be done by going down to black at the end and the beginning of the edit.  How things move on!’

 

It is perhaps worth pointing out that programmes recorded on film were of poor quality compared with the live pictures.  Most engineers considered that the pictures, particularly in the early years, were barely broadcast quality.  From 1946 to the mid ’50s the BBC did not transmit telerecorded programmes unless they absolutely had to.  Even a play with a repeat broadcast later in the week was performed live again.  The reason we have those old BBC telerecordings is that the programmes were exported in that form to Commonwealth countries like Australia, Canada, New Zealand and South Africa. 

Research into improving the quality of the image did produce some results as the years went by and by the mid ’50s more programmes were being recorded and transmitted on film.  In fact, according to BBC handbooks – in 1959 the BBC telerecorded 1,300 programmes and re-transmitted 600.  In other words, more were archived for possible export but 600 is still quite a sizeable number of TV programmes (on only one channel, don’t forget) that were recorded on film for later transmission.

 

The telerecording area under TC6 became the BBC’s very well-used and highly respected research library during the 1970s.  This provided invaluable support to all kinds of programmes for the next two decades.  In the mid 1990s under the new Birtian commercial way of working it was declared unable to ‘pay its way’ so it was closed.  It even made the national papers when someone leaked that the record library was having to charge more to lend a disc to a production for an hour or two than for them to buy a new copy.  Bonkers.  The area later became a videotape archive.

When the VT department moved to Stage 5 in 1992 the hub area of the basement was transformed into open-plan offices with a huge glass roof.  Goodness knows how much that must have cost.  This became the HQ for ‘TSPR’ – the original trading name (with ancient Roman imperial overtones) for the newly commercial BBC Studios business.  Latin scholars are invited here to come up with a suitable acronym.  It actually stood for Television Studios Production Resources – how boring is that?  In future years they would become ‘Studios and Post Production’ and then ‘Studioworks.’

 

I have hardly done the VT and telerecording departments justice here.  For much more information and many old photos I recommend visiting the ex-BBC VT engineers’ website on www.vtoldboys.com.