Memories: Barry Taylor

My Early Days at the Beeb by Barry Taylor

In July 1959 I received two offers of jobs; one was from Cable and Wireless and the other was from the BBC. Had it not been for a friend describing some of the C&W locations he had seen, I might well have accepted their offer even though I would have had to spend the first year in their training establishment at Porthcurno near Land's End in Cornwall. Porthcurno's main claim to fame is that since Victorian times transatlantic cables have come ashore there, the latest being the 2.4-terabit fibre-optic cable which is part of the FLAG network (Fibre-optic Link Around the Globe). Although attractive in the summer, Porthcurno is a somewhat god-forsaken place in winter when gales are blowing. The letter from C&W also said I was expected to learn the Morse code and C&W's private code before I arrived, I would receive two return rail tickets to London in that first year and the salary was about 5 a week with a compulsory deduction of about 1 towards mess expenses!

On the other hand the BBC was offering me a job as a Probationary Technical Operator (PTO) in London with only 14 weeks of residential course in a pleasant location (only two return tickets in the 14 weeks though in those days) and they were going to pay me twice as much as C&W. My monthly gross salary was 44-11-8 (44.58) giving an average take-home pay of just over 41 after tax and National Insurance. To put this in perspective, my monthly season ticket only cost 4-15-0 (4.75) which today would not buy me an off-peak return even though I live nearer London.

So 31 August 1959 at 0915 found me sitting in BH reception where I had been told to report at 0930. It was soon very obvious that quite a number of people had been told to report at 0930 and there was one chap I was sure I had met before. Indeed we had; it was at the all-day appointment board in London for the C&W job (which consisted of three interviews, an O-level maths exam, which we all completed one hour early, and a medical) that I first met the late Mel House. He too had been offered a job with C&W but had turned it down for the same reasons that I did.

We were met promptly at 0930 and escorted round endless corridors and staircases to meet various people, to be shown where 'The Office' was and all the other confusing things that take up Day 1 of all induction courses. The most useful thing we were given was four pages of duplicated foolscap. Reading this on the train going home explained some of the things we had been told that day. The first page makes interesting reading over 40 years later, as many of the London Station premises and studios no longer exist and at the time BH Extension was still being built:

This document has been produced for the information and guidance of new entries to London Station.

London Station consists of Control Rooms, Studios, recording and reproducing channels, in the following premises:
Broadcasting House, Maida Vale, 1 & 1a Portland Place, 3 Portland Place, 5 Portland Place, Egton House, The Langham, 27 Marylebone Road, Methodist Mission, Rothwell House, Western House, Cavendish Mansions; Aeolian Hall, The Paris, 201 Piccadilly, The Camden, The Grafton, The Farringdon, The Playhouse, Jubilee Chapel, The Stronghold.
All listening equipment comprising headphones, loudspeakers, receivers, radiograms and record-players and all television viewing facilities in studios, conference rooms, and offices, together with roof aerials, coaxial cables, ring main feeds and associated equipment in Duchess Street, Yalding House and all the above premises is E.i.C. London's responsibility.

As a member of Engineering Division, it is your duty to ensure that all equipment is maintained in good working order. Any complaints received from producers, studio managers, or the occupants of offices regarding faulty equipment should be treated in a business-like manner; if the fault cannot be dealt with by you on the spot it should be reported immediately to T.O.M. who will take the necessary action. In this connection, it should be remembered that heating, lighting, ventilation and water supplies are engineering responsibilities, and that complaints relating to these services should be accepted and passed to T.O.M. who will inform the appropriate section.

London Station Staff are interchangeable between any of the manned premises.


Report to Administrative Assistant to E.i.C. London, Room 736 B.H. for:
Issue of National Insurance Benefit Form
Issue of Civil Defence Form
Issue of Allowances Statement (when appropriate)
Completion of Staff History Sheet.
Visit Mr. Moody, Room 310 Cavendish Mansions, for issue of:
Personal headphones
Locker and Key
Safety Regulations Handbook
and to read and sign safety regulations applicable to London Station.
I haven't a clue what the Civil Defence form was all about as I never received one nor for that matter did any of us receive headphones, towel and locker and key. I don't think there were any spare lockers and I never did understand why towels would have been issued anyway - perhaps Douglas Adams might have known.

On the other three pages there was information about leave and how to request it and the procedure to follow if you were off sick. Under "General Information" new arrivals were told among other things that:
Staff are not permitted to leave their place of work without the permission of their local Supervisor, he will arrange reliefs for meals and other purposes.

Engineering staff are not permitted to take alcoholic drinks into Control Rooms, Continuity Suites, or Studios or any other area under the jurisdiction of E.i.C. London.

Reading newspapers or periodicals whilst on duty is strictly forbidden.
The document was signed H.W.D. Drury for Engineer in Charge and dated 2 March 1959.

(The EiC London Station at this time was F.C. ('Charlie') Brooker who, when he was one of the instructors at what was then known as the BBC Engineering School (Wood Norton), had written the excellent and eminently readable wartime Engineering Division Training Manual - 1942.)

There are a few things that stick in my mind from the one-week induction course:
At the end of the induction course all us PTOs spent 2 weeks in the Control Room followed by 2 weeks in 'Recordings' or vice versa. On 7 September I arrived in C/R on a Shift 2 which was 1600-2315 but there was an unwritten agreement that the night shift arrived at 2200 so most times you were away by 2215. I was introduced to the most junior job of all - 'Bays'.

I recall monitoring circuits from such diverse places as New Delhi, Washington DC via the BBC's New York office, Leopoldville, Brazzaville, the BBC Paris office and most of the European capitals. Outside of Europe and North America, most circuits were radio links and often the quality was not good enough for broadcast and was reported as 'satisfactory for scripting only'. Everything was monitored on heavyweight headphones and the start and finish of every item of cue material and reports was logged to the second - it sometime seemed that logging was far more important than monitoring and controlling the programme or circuit. European circuits had control lines associated with the music lines and the far end was rung by turning the handle on Field Telephones - the 'Tele F'. Most of these had seen better days but they still worked. It did seem rather amazing to turn the handle and hear a voice in, for example, the Moscow PTT say 'Hallo BBC, this is Moscow.'

I suppose it only seemed amazing because this was in the days before domestic subscriber trunk dialling let alone international dialling. Indeed the telephone exchange in Hemel Hempstead, where I lived at the time, was a manual exchange called Boxmoor where to make a call you lifted the receiver and waited for the operator to say 'Number please'. 40 years later I can dial New Zealand and, within 20 seconds, speak to my sister for the same price as a BT peak-time local call - but even that is no longer amazing.

It was difficult to get an overall understanding of the control room as there was no guide or handbook to refer to; you could ask two people the same question and often get two different answers. Perhaps this was not really surprising. Equipment had been added on over the years as necessary and of course the place was well past its 'best before' date. I did have a suspicion that only a handful of people would really know what to do in an emergency.

One thing that was a surprise was that everyone was on first name terms. The BBC was unusual in this respect; 40 years ago in large organisations the supervisors and managers were called "sir" and the staff were addressed by surname only, preceded by "Mrs" or "Miss" for female staff. My father found it hard to believe that I addressed senior people by their first name, as did many of my uncles!!

And so two interesting weeks passed - lots of sitting at Bays but also trailing in Continuity and Studio Testing. Every studio had to be checked every 48 hours and the TD/7s lined up. Extraordinary as it may seem now it was not
unusual to find all the old 3B, 3C, 3D and 3E studios empty and as they had the small Marconi desks, one hour would see them all tested and then it was time for tea and doughnuts in the canteen. But now it was time to move to 'Recordings' and that's another story.