12,701 days: The first four years

On the 29th October 1979 a ), nervous, young (ish)chap presented himself at Centre House, just opposite Television Centre for his first day at work.

He, well, I, joined five others all making their debut at the BBC. We were a bunch of so called Direct Entry engineers, plucked from university, poly or other college with a built in knowledge of electronics who were to be given a couple of crash courses in television to make up for a sudden rush to the exits by engineers seduced by the glamour (and just maybe the  pay) of Independent Television.

Once we’d done our three week orientation–being whipped dizzyingly round all departments from studios to transmission–we  were dispatched to work “on station” and that’s where I had a stroke of fortune that led to my future career.

I was sent to the Central Technical Area for Television News: SCAR. It stands for Spur Central Apparatus Room; the BBC loves acronyms. (Incidentally,  when the whole shebang was forcibly transplanted to New Broadcasting House,  AKA the Temple of Doom, the equivalent technical hub was officially named “CTA 2;” but up to a couple of weeks ago at least, the engineers there would still pick up the phone and cheerfully announce, “Hello: SCAR.” I found that rather comforting)

At the time the BBC was in the middle of experimenting with those new-fangled electronic cameras.  There were a handful of camera-recorder kits around and some of the grizzled old film crews were having a go with them. On top of that, News had built a transmitter truck–a  Range Rover with a four foot microwave dish on the roof to send pictures back either replayed off tape, or occasionally live.  Given that the only other mobile live source in those days  was the News Outside Broadcast Unit: a rather  unwieldy operation with two hefty studio cameras, this was potentially  revolutionary.

I think the original plan was for the camera crews to travel in and operate  the Range Rover and send as well as record material but plans never survive contact with reality and eventually the system we still see today evolved. Crews shot material and delivered it (or it was delivered by bike) to the links vehicle which was operated by a couple of links trained engineers.

The receiving equipment for this was controlled by the staff in SCAR so we found ourselves working quite closely with the teams that operated the Range Rover and when an entirely new department was set up in about 1981 to crew it and provide other engineering support to the ENG crews, SCAR engineers found themselves in pole position to apply for those jobs.

I didn’t get one.

I was far too new and inexperienced, even though I’d done a little filling in while some of the staff were away for the Falklands war. But in 1982 I got a second go when there was a major expansion of the unit–from 10 to 15 I think– to service the coming  new Breakfast News programme. This time I got in, effective 1st January 1983, just in time for the first transmission.
It was a good job. We operated the Range Rover (and other, newer vehicles when they arrived) hung around with crews if we could get close enough to the story and we travelled around the UK and occasionally abroad to set up and operate feed facilities where this new ENG stuff hadn’t yet arrived. I found myself working in Manchester, Sheffield, Glasgow,  Nottingham and for one job down in Cornwall–connected to the loss of the Penlee lifeboat we set up at  Goonhilly Down because it had decent connection to the rest of the country.

I did a couple of trips to Belfast as well. The tensions had eased a bit in Northern Ireland by this time but there was still the occasional flare up. I remember driving into Derry early one morning after a riot looking for the crew that had been out in it all night and the first thing I saw as I entered the city was a copper standing by an armoured Land River carrying a sub-machine gun. Not something a sheltered London lad was used to.

One other trip from that time that particularly  sticks in the mind was to Tripoli in Libya sometime in 1984. I think the Libyan government had  invited the press in for the celebration of the fifthteenth anniversary of the revolution.  I suspect the BBC weren’t particularly interested in that but it was an excuse to get Kate Adie and a crew (Peter Matthews and Roy Benford) into the country to see what they could see.  I spent most of my time shuttling between the hotel (Al Khabir–the Grand, which it wasn’t) and the TV station where I would attempt to feed the stories back.  It mostly worked out well enough and I was spared the majority of the official (and apparently compulsory) press functions.

It was an interesting trip but I wasn’t sorry to come home after ten days.

In amongst all this flitting about I’d started doing the odd day as a relief sound recordist, getting to grips with microphones and the heavy and unwieldy U-Matic  field recorder, the Sony BVU-50. Sony had tried to keep the weight down by stripping out everything not directly concerned with recording pictures. It couldn’t, for example, replay–not without an extra piece of kit. As I recall there weren’t many  controls: on/off, record,  (although generally that was under the control of the cameraman) tape eject and a couple of tiny audio level controls.  If you wanted more facilities there was a bigger, heavier record/replay unit, the BVU-110 but no one wanted to lug that thing about routinely. Sometimes someone had to if there was a shortage of kit. And given that the acting relief sound recordist was at the bottom of the heap, it was often me.

I quite enjoyed it. It brought me closer to the stories than feeding tapes and I was beginning to think that was where I wanted to be.

 

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