Into BH through those tall heavy Art Deco doors at the front entrance, to be confronted by the two Home Guard (I think) soldiers with Lee Enfield .303 rifles. Sandbags to shoulder height across the foyer, allowing passage to the lifts and the reception desk on the right hand side. A quick look at your Civilian Identity Card and you were in. (When I was later in Naval uniform doing my 'active service' I was allowed through the guards without showing any ID or being questioned at all !) Past the reception desk; the line of telephone kiosks on the right; left round the corner to the wide staircase. Down to Lower-Ground, Basement and then the Sub-Basement. Straight ahead down the corridor, Studio S1 on the left (a small talks studio, formerly known as BB). On the right were S2 and S3. S2 was at the end of the corridor, and was the listening room (control cubicle) of the old studio BA. It was the studio of BA that had been converted into the Control room a few years before I was sent to work there....
Incidentally the cubicle, S2, was still being used in my days for dubbing and editing discs and I remember on one occasion Lawrence Gilliam (a Features producer of great eminence whom I admired enormously) using it to mix the incoming contributions world-wide for the Christmas morning broadcast in 1942, called "The Fourth Christmas". It reflected the build up of nations against Germany and I seem to recall church bells (from Bethlehem, perhaps) and interviews with servicemen and women in various theatres of war.
Through double glass swing doors at the end of the corridor and up four or five steps into the Control Room, LCR.
Immediately to the left was the office of the SCRE (Senior Control Room Engineer) who, in my case on Shift D, was Bobby Howes - a man of small stature but of immense personality with a sense of humour that would crease you, but tremendously serious when the German bombers were on the move across Britain and the transmitters had to be shut down on his authority by 'Urgent Priority' service messages relayed on the phones at 'LT' to various control rooms around the country. (See below)
Immediately to the right and in front of the S2 cubicle window was the desk of the SME (Senior Maintenance Engineer) who did no maintenance (!) but, as senior man under the SCRE, was in charge of the smooth running of the control room operation. In my case this was Charles ('Charley') Challis - a man of saintly patience, friendly and approachable but fully aware of the strengths and weaknesses of his shift members. Quietly and always with a worried, anxious look on his face, he encouraged and checked every movement of his boys and girls. Such was the responsible way he worked. I always thought he had the appearance of a man shyly hiding a serious internal pain and bravely not letting on!! He wasn't of course but just looked like it! But he was a really loveable character and greatly respected.
The operational bay positions were for controlling levels and monitoring incoming programme material that was to be sent on to various destinations. (See below) The bays were about seven feet high (?); on the top two rows were Trap Valves (TV/20s) - amplifiers with one input and four outputs each - below these was a row of jacks and permanently wired programme sources, e.g. Studios in BH, 1100cps tone, Big Ben, tie-lines to 'Lines incoming' and lines to other bays in the control room and possibly a few more that I cannot recall with certainty. Below this level were the four control knobs of the Mixer (MX/18). Channel 4 was always permanently wired to Big Ben on all positions and in the continuities. (This was standard practice, I believe, in most centres and I found it to be so when I returned from the Navy to Aldenham where the control suites for the Latin American Service and the Arabic Service had OBA/8 systems similar to LCR. ) Just above the faders of the MX/18 were four small, 'half-crown' sized green lights and beside each of these were four corresponding toggle switches.
It was the general routine to plug, with a double-ender, any studio in BH into a jack immediately above a control knob of the mixer and signal to the studio with the toggle switch associated and to the side of it. In doing so, the red lights would come on in the studio and over the door outside the studio and the small green light on the control bay would also come on at the same time to show that that channel was in use.
When a studio was engaged for a recording session, the red light was put on at the bay for the duration of the session, the channel faded up and the output of the studio monitored on headphones. The programme level was carefully controlled by the operator on the main amplifier below the mixer - an OBA/8 that had an amplification of 80 - 90 dbs.
On the amplifier's face in the centre was a main control knob for controlling the level of the incoming signal and a Peak Programme Meter (PPM).
A headphone jack on the output of the amplifier allowed the person operating the bay to monitor the contribution for interruptions, distortions of sound quality, interference from 'cross-talk' (infiltration from an adjoining pair of P.O. telephone lines) and at the same time to ensure the level of the incoming programme material was kept to a suitably compressed level (not too quiet and not too loud) by watching the PPM constantly to prevent it peaking above 6 (to avoid distortion of the signal) or less than 2 on the dial (that would introduce amplifier hiss). (Pre-programme test tone was adjusted on the OBA/8's PPM to read 4 on the meter which was zero-level out - zero level into the TV/20s with +4 on the output to line.) These levels were checked at various stages along the entire route from source to destination, whether it be a live programme or a recording. From the trap-valve amps the contribution would be plugged to the destination e.g. a pre-booked recording channel.
Below the OBA/8 was a narrow panel about an inch and a half high that was largely blank but at the right hand side were two toggle switches - one was connected to Greenwich Time signal and the second, in my day, was connected to a 'common or garden' gramophone positioned behind each bay - probably a Garrard deck.
When the switch was thrown, the turntable was started up, the stylus arm was automatically dropped on to the 78rpm record on the turntable and played a recording of Bow Bells directly into the OBA/8 (not through the mixer channels). Bow Bells was supposed to be a very British symbol, easily recognised as 'the BBC' from London! It was a commonly used interval signal between programmes at the time. However, there was always trouble with the gram running at odd speeds and the hiss of the stylus on the record and this form of interval signal was replaced by continuity announcements and 'suitable interval music' when the two continuity suites were up and running.
On the left hand end of this bottom panel were two jack sockets that could be connected with the bay's own telephone hand-set to telephone lines plugged up at the 'lines incoming' bay from studios in BH, recording suites, outside studios (such as the Paris Theatre) and outside broadcast points. There was a black painted horizontal flap (desk top) about 20 inches square that held the telephone hand set and where the operator kept the log book in which every operation that went through that bay was logged with comments - usually 'satis' - unless some disaster had befallen in which case a discussion with the SME decided what should be entered succinctly and without personal prejudice!!
Below the desktop of the bay were the power supply units for the OBA/8 and the TV/20s.
The output of each Bay could be put on the huge loudspeaker set up right alongside the SME's desk where he had a row of switches that enabled him to monitor absolutely anything that was going on at the bays and in the continuity suites. He also had an internal telephone and a PBX phone.
I seem to remember that Bay 5 was generally used for Blue Network (European) of the, then, Overseas programmes and sometimes during the night shift was used for Brown (Latin American Service) and Stripes (I cannot recall with certainty if this was the special service to Europe, broadcast through the very powerful transmitter called Aspidistra).
The Bays were there mostly to control and monitor the incoming programme material that was destined to be recorded in the BH disc recording suites which were called DH1, DH2, DH3, also to 200 Oxford street and the recording suites (including film) at Maida Vale (DV1, DV2 and FV1 and FV2). The programme material was of great variety - maybe a scripted 15 minute talk such as 'The Radio Doctor' (that was broadcast round about breakfast time) from a BH studio to be recorded for transmission on the Home Service at perhaps an unsociable hour. Or maybe Mantovani playing half an hour of non stop music for the regular wartime programme 'Music While You Work' 1030 - 1100 (always referred to in schedules as M.W.Y.W.!) The Continuity opening announcement had, for some special reason to be made exactly on a musical cue in the opening few bars. Was it a dramatic or romantic idea that we had in those days that any variation of the precise announcement would signal something very dire and secret to happen? I never found out!
Shift Pattern and Staffing
There were four Control Room shifts A, B, C and D. Each shift had a strength of about 12 to 15 people. My shift was D, with Bobby Howes as SCRE and Charles Challis as SME. Other members of my shift were Frank Baron, 'Oggie' Lomas, 'Dickie' Nightingale, all Junior Maintenance Engineers (JMEs) like me, John Mills (a huge, friendly and patient man who tended to look after we youngsters and give us as much practical training as he could during quiet times), Mr. Coote, rather an unhappy, worrying sort of person who kept to himself rather, Mr. Boyle, an ex-Marconi ship's radio operator who did many years on cargo ships plying the west coast of Africa before joining the BBC for his war service. Unfortunately he was frequently disappearing at regular half-hour intervals to visit his locker on the Balcony where he kept a large bottle of Gin. He was rather a pleasant and kindly person and we young boys tended to look after him a bit (especially if he started smiling at everyone a little too much) to see he didn't forget to do something properly!
One of the 'greats' was Teddy Pearson who was enormous fun and went on to become an icon in London Radio O.Bs. after the war. I was his paying lodger and we lived for quite some time, while his wife was evacuated away from the bombing raids to Bath, at an apartment in Battersea until we were "doodle-bugged" out of it! There was also 'Cally' Callaghan who was, I think, seconded to
'H' Group Transmitters
A chain of sixty-one medium wave transmitters broadcasting the Home service on the same wavelength of 203 metres. Larger transmitters could be used by German aircraft for direction finding. Being of low power the 'H' group transmitters only had to be switched off when enemy aircraft were very close.
A boy called Pascoe joined us from the 'H' Group transmitter at Redruth, Cornwall. Coming to London for the first time and being in LCR was very much an overwhelming experience for this shy Cornishman. I do not know where he went eventually. Like me, he was probably called up into the Services.
Related page - Women operators
On other shifts, I remember an SCRE named Ted Snook. A very tall, mannerly and kind gentleman who always wore a dark three-piece suit, smoked a pipe and I think his SME was Sam Bonner - a roundish man with shiny bald pate. He was brisk and breezy but demanded total efficiency and I was rather in awe of him! Fortunately, I was rarely in his company, being on another shift. Derek Jones was on that shift - I think it was B Shift. Derek went on to work with the British Forces Broadcasting Service with Cliff Michelmore and later at Bristol as a very popular radio presenter and a regular 'voice' in Natural History programmes, both radio and TV. The other personnel on the other shifts I can barely remember but I believe a Mr. Woolhead was an SCRE on another shift. Another JME was Jack Belasco who later spent many years as a senior television engineer at Bristol and another who finished up in TV at Bristol was Ron Webster.
The Engineer in Charge (E.i.C. London) was Mr. Bottle who had his office on the 8th floor of BH. We seldom saw him - unless we had done something terrible or were called to his presence when an annual interview (and our salary increment) was due!
The rumour amongst we young lads was that Mr. Bottle, being of Lord Reith's time, still came to work every day in a dark three piece suit, starch-stiff white collar and a bowler hat which was a requirement of all engineers in those days! I recall the dark suit.
The pattern of the shifts was as follows:-
Day shift...0900-1600 for four days followed by
Night shift...2300-0900 for four days followed by
Four days off...followed by
Evening shift...1600-2300 for four days et seq.
During night shifts some senior members of the BBC's staff who were on night duty would sometimes pop
In 1945 he became Controller of the Home Service and was Director, Sound Broadcasting from 1952 to 1963. He was responsible for commissioning the first series of Alistair Cooke's "Letter from America" in 1946 (though that title wouldn't be used until 1950).
The SCRE's office had a large picture window above his desk that looked out into the control room. His office was contained in the space between the stairs at the entrance and the left hand wall of the control room and on this wall immediately by his office window was a large white board. On the board were the names of all the transmitters in the nation in columns such as Start Point, Lisnagarvy,
The 600kW 'Aspidistra' transmitter was located at Crowborough in Sussex. It was built for 'black' broadcasting by the Political War Executive. In 1942 the BBC was allowed to use it for its European Services when it was not being used by the PWE. It owes its nickname to the Gracie Fields song "The Biggest Aspidistra in the World" as it was the world's biggest (and most powerful) transmitter when it was built.
Alongside each name was a black spin-disc that when turned showed a red segment. In the SCRE's office there was a special 'hot line' telephone that had a very distinctive telephone bell and when it rang, we all knew what to expect. It would be a call from the War Office?...The Air Ministry?...The Duty Officer on the Third Floor?...we were not supposed to know even though we had all signed the Official Secrets Act! Someone on high was telling the SCRE that a number of transmitters in a certain area were to be shut down as they might provide a navigational aid to incoming enemy bombers. The SCRE would come out of the office and give clearly to the operator of the telephone bay, 'LT', an instruction that was a prescribed and unalterable message that went:- "Urgent Priority. Close Brookman's Park one and two. SCRE London." (Or whatever transmitter was required to be shut down.) The LT operator would ring the land line to Brookman's Park control room and pass the message ending with the exact time it was sent. The SCRE and the SME would be standing behind him to hear that the message was correctly sent. The Operator at Brookman's Park would repeat the message and the time back to the LT operator and they would then exchange full names. Immediately before any other business the LT operator would make out a form on a pad that had three (I think) carbon copies called a Service Message Pad and the top copy would be given to the SCRE and another to the SME. The SCRE would wait for another service message back from the transmitter saying "Urgent priority. Brookman's Park One and Two shut down at 23.14.35" and signed by the senior engineer on duty there and he (SCRE) would go to the board and turn the black disk alongside the transmitter's name to red.
On night shift, you could see where the bombing raids were going on in the country by the number and location of our shut down transmitters - on a few occasions the board looked very red indeed and we wondered what the papers would make of it the next day and how our news programmes would report it. After the threat was over, the same Urgent Priority service messages routine from the telephone ringing in the SCRE's office would be used to bring the transmitters up again and the board would go black once more.
Whenever there was a fault in any of the transmitters throughout the country which caused it to cease radiating, it was the routine for the senior engineer at the station to send a priority service message to SCRE London (which was, presumably forwarded on to the Controller Engineering). The form would follow along such lines as "Priority SME Moorside Edge to SCRE London. Moorside Edge 2 off air due Flash over in Final Amplifier (usually abbreviated to; F/O in F/A) 12.25 to 13.05", followed by the exact time the message was received, initials of the sender and the person receiving it in LCR.
The Emergency News House
We young Junior Maintenance Engineers in LCR were required to take it in turns to spend a night shift of four consecutive nights at what was known as ENH or Emergency News House. The ENH was in the basement of a very anonymous looking but large Victorian House called "Kelvedon". It was set back from the road in its own splendid grounds at Woodside Park near Finchley in North London. It was rumoured that the house was 'allocated' to the Chief Engineer, Mr P. A. Florence but I am not sure of this. I never saw anyone who lived in the house. It was permanently manned 24 hours a day by four engineers (following the four shifts A, B, C and D and the same shift hour patterns).
It was described to us as a place that could be used to continue broadcasting to the nation should BH become devastated by bombing. There were two studios, one of small 'news reader' size with a control cubicle, complete with a TD/7, underground in the basement, and another on the ground floor that was probably the drawing room of the house. It looked out over the garden through French doors and contained little furniture except for a middle sized Challen baby grand piano. Underground in the basement was a control room - a long room with bays of jackfields and amplifiers carrying probably every network and programme service out of London. I do not think these were TV/20s but probably left-overs of the A, B and C amps of pre-war times. A small loudspeaker hung on the end wall and it was usually plugged during the night for us to hear Red Network being broadcast from 200 Oxford Street to America. (I recall hearing Ed Murrow on several nights.)
I do not remember the name of our shift engineer but I could not get on with him very easily as he was exceptionally left wing and kept trying to get me to take a serious interest in politics and read boring articles about Stalin, Lenin and the Russian Revolution which I manfully tried to do during the night when he 'got his head down' for a couple of hours (he had all the books there) but it was not my cup of tea. There was also an emergency electricity power and lighting Lister diesel generator that we were required to run up just before 0600. I always thought that that time had been specially chosen to wake up the chief engineer upstairs and not before - but then we were very young!
We were also required to do a full test on all the studio equipment and, on a nice early summer's morning after the test, I would put a mic out into the garden and relay to my shift brethren in LCR in the sub-basement of BH, the sounds of the dawn chorus. Other JME's, more musically accomplished than me, would play that Baby Grand piano quietly!
There was also another ENH located in the basement of a block of expensive flats off Grosvenor Square, diagonally across the square from the American Embassy. This was a single, unattended studio. It was always tested about 0530 about once a month. The SCRE would give one of the JMEs the keys into the entrance of the block of flats and the studio door which was two floors down in the lift. The studio would be already plugged at the "Lines incoming" bay in LCR to a bay position and all the routine testing of the mic, the mic
CPL: The Second 'ENH'
This studio was at 11, Carlos Place and was known by the BBC as CPL. It was taken over by the American Forces Network in July 1943 (their first programme from there was at 5.45pm on July 4th). They moved to purpose built studios in a house at 80, Portland Place in May 1944 and remained there until, I believe, December 31st 1945 when their European HQ moved to Frankfurt. The BBC handled all the line switching for these London studios although the AFN had its own transmitters. - Neil Wilson.
Control Room, continued...
Continuing the description of LCR, as one entered the room with the SCRE office on the left and the SME's desk on the right, you were confronted by a row of racks that stretched across nearly the whole width of the room. On the first bay were most of the direct control (telephone) lines in a series of rows of jacks. These were the 'ends' of the line to the immediate transmitters and control rooms such as Birmingham (the line was called Birmingham 149 - I cannot believe my memory sometimes!), Bristol, Maida Vale, Tunbridge Wells, Ipswich, Leeds (I'm pretty sure Leeds was there at the end of a line known as 'Leeds 14 Return'), all the BH studios, Telediphone, Continuities, 200 Oxford Street, Aeolian Hall, etc, etc.
The next bay was the switchboard or LT (Lines Termination) - a series of indicators; rows of little black square metal pieces hinged at the bottom that would drop when a call was received and in dropping would set off a buzzer. Covered by the black indicators was the name of the caller allocated to it. To answer the call the operator wearing Ericson headphones would plug into a jack immediately below the dropped indicator.
The wire with a jackplug came up from a hole at the rear of the black-topped desk (like the ones on the bays) - a bit reminiscent of the old telephone switchboards of industry and large companies - a Post Office Telephones Standard equipment slightly modified I suppose. Two members of the shift were allocated
Religious and Music Departments had both moved to Bristol at the start of the war. They moved again, this time to Bedford, in 1941. Among the venues used were the parish church and the Bunyan Chapel for services and the Corn Exchange for concerts, including the 1944 Proms.
It would be checked incoming on the line by LT operator and plugged to a line to Home Continuity. The LT operator would ring Home operator and tell him/her what line it was on and this he/she would plug to a vacant channel on the mixer. Each mixer channel in Continuity had a 'pre-fade' key which he/she would operate to check on headphones if the tone was there. This checking of tone and setting its correct level before a programme operation for transmission and recording was standard throughout the engineering system nationwide.
To the left of the 'LT' position were three bays with rows of jacks associated with a number of TV/20 trap valve amplifiers racked higher up on the bay with their individual mains units on the bottom rows of the bays. Left again was the 'Recordings' position. Another black desk top where another two operators were allocated to see that incoming programme material due for recording somewhere was received, checked for level and passed on to the recording suite which had been allocated and listed in the daily schedule.
A major event like the meeting of Churchill with Roosevelt in Quebec, Canada, in 1943 would involve a great deal of complicated plugging. The material from Canada would probably go overland to New York, then be transmitted across the Atlantic to the Post Office terminal at Porthcurno in Cornwall and then by P.O. lines to LCR where it was known as the 'R.T.' line. From here it would be plugged to a bay position for monitoring and controlling the level. At the 'Recordings' position the output of the Bay's TV/20s would be fed to a series of other TV/20s to accommodate several outputs of the material that were required to be sent to probably two BH disc recording suites, to 200 Oxford Street for the news departments to give to all the Overseas services for news bulletins. Then there would be a feed to Telediphone - where a number of ladies had the job of typing from the telediphone (Dictaphone) a hard copy of all that was broadcast.
All this was done by the two 'Recordings' operators and checked stage by stage by the SME to see that there were no mistakes or omissions.
All the lines outgoing from BH were labelled by the Post Office standard system 'PW/LR' followed by a five figure number. PW/LR identified the line as Private Wire/ London Region.
Behind this row was another row of bays that contained a position we called 'OB Test'.
Here there were two bays that had test equipment to measure the impedance, resistance and capacitance of pairs of outside broadcast P.O. lines. Another rack had a series of 'equalisers' - a combination of resistance, capacitance, and inductance that, when introduced into the incoming line, would render the spectrum of frequencies of the signal to be of the highest quality - especially for music programmes. This was for the occasional OB site rather than the regular ones that would already have a permanent equalisation built in to the line as it entered the control room. There was also a card index file that contained information about the equalisation of many OB sites that had been used satisfactorily in the past.
When an irregular site was to be tested, reference to the appropriate card in the index would be a starting point for testing the line.
The Balcony was originally used for small audiences for the vaudeville programmes in Studio BA. It was about eight feet in width and occupied the whole length of the left hand side of the room and was slightly curved. There was a low containing wall of roughly 2ft 6in high above which was a double rail. Against this wall/railing were the personal lockers of the shift members. The entrance to the balcony was formerly through a wooden swing door at Basement level.
Immediately beneath the balcony were the two continuity suites, for the Home and Forces services. Down in the control room as you faced the continuities, the Home was on the left, the Forces on the right. Continuity announcers I remember were Joy Worth, Andrea Troubridge, Bruce Belfrage, Anthony Craxton, Alvar Lidell, Frank Phillips and Hugh Shirreff. I do not remember seeing John Snagge or Stuart Hibberd in the continuities ever - perhaps they were too senior for that!
The colour and overall decor of the control room was quite tasteful! The walls were white (or magnolia!!), all the racks and amplifiers' surfaces were battleship grey. The floor was a tough, thick linoleum in dark terracotta. The lighting was fluorescent strip lights. At each bay and at the other operational positions there were Art Deco chairs of black leather on tubular chrome frames. Double doors to continuities were brown varnished with small eye-level windows. In the announcers' studios there were carpets of dark grey material.