Memories: Les "LG" Smith

The Later War Years, 1941-1945 by Les "LG" Smith

200 Oxford Street
Although the Designs Section of Equipment Department had been broken up, some members of it had gone up to Droitwich and joined S.D.I.D., who had been evacuated there when war broke out. On 7th July 1941 I was transferred from the Wood Norton staff, where I had been an S.M.E., back to London to join Mr. Colborn's staff, who then had offices in the Langham Hotel. One or two others also came back to London, because it had become apparent that there was a very great deal of installation work required on various projects, now that the full implications of broadcasting in war-time had been understood. I was brought back to London particularly to plan the installation of what was then known as the P.R. building, otherwise No.200 Oxford Street. This was Peter Robinson's store that had been taken over by the BBC and was to be used for Overseas Service broadcasting.

Pre-war, all the installations had been designed individually; each desk, each apparatus bay, had been drawn out very carefully with all its details, such as tag numbers, design, etc. Every studio was different; there were no thoughts in pre-war days of what we now know as standardisation; this word had never been mentioned at all. But when we came to do work in war-time, it was essential that some form of standardisation should be carried out because plans were not known sufficiently long beforehand, and a large amount of equipment was required in a very short time. This enabled the Equipment Department workshop to assemble apparatus bays even before their final use and destination was known. When I came back to London, I introduced many of the ideas which we had discussed (Messrs. Purslow, Patrick, Holmes and myself) in doing the Wood Norton installation - the kind of thing similar to the use of multicore cable - I introduced a lot of these ideas into the equipment which was required for the P.R. building.

The design of the control desks is an example of this. Pre-war, desks often had an "architectural" look. At Wood Norton we had very successfully used office tables, and when I came to do the design work for the P.R. building, where we had half a dozen or so studios, I based the studio desks on the use of ordinary office tables, boxed in at the back and ends with plywood and having standing on them a standard OBA/8 amplifier, a small five-way key-switch unit and a standard MX/18 mixer, which was the mixer that went with the OBA/8, tilted on a piece of wood to contain cue keys under the front panel; we had the tilt and the space for the cue keys by doing it this way. These were wired down to a very elementary terminal block and we used that form of aerial/earth porcelain-based copper knife-switch which, in those days, all domestic installations had in order to short the aerial to earth in the case of a thunderstorm, inside the desk to terminate an emergency line to the control room so that you could switch the microphone directly through to the control room on the 'belt-and-braces' principle.

We also devised some standard apparatus bays. These were, as far as I can remember, a control position bay having the main APM (the rack-mounted version of the OBA/8), a row of 20 studio signalling keys, a small telephone communications panel, a programme meter panel and, I think, trapvalve panels at the top. We had a trapvalve bay and jackfield bay.

The jackfield bay was wired with rows of jacks wired in 'listen/line' formation, other jacks wired in a 'listen/line/apparatus' formation and yet other jacks wired with one input feeding to ten outputs. All these could be wired up in multicore cable in the workshop, installed and wired up to a frame and by jumpering on the frame you could use them for all the various purposes for which one needed jacks in a control room. As well as standard bays and standard cubicle desks we also endeavoured to do a drawing of what we termed a typical talks studio suite layout. This showed all the power points, red, white and green lights, buzzers, talks desks, cubicle desks and TD/7 gramophone, the idea being that we could give this, whenever any talks studio was wanted, as information to Building Department or Wiring Unit or any outside builder or wiring contractor and get virtually the right answer.

We began the installation of 200 Oxford Street in December 1941 and the service date was May/June 1942. The control room and studios were down in the basement, and a great deal of very heavy steel strengthening was done on the floor of the Ground Floor and on the ceiling of the Ground Floor. There was also a considerable amount of concrete work done in the Basement and Lower Ground Floor to stop flooding and to protect the studios and control room from any enemy device that might fall down the lift-shaft.

I later worked on extensions at 200 Oxford Street for such things as additional continuity suites, a third mixer, a bigger PBX and a loudspeaker calling system.


Aldenham was used as an overseas switching centre, and we had there two or three studios, recording rooms and reproducing rooms and again a small control room. I had to provide a switching scheme there.

At that time, a quarter-hourly switching scheme was introduced, i.e., every quarter of an hour the programme was changed, and the number of programmes and networks was increasing to such an extent that they could no longer be handled by quick cross-plugging on a jackfield. As we could not easily get any automatic devices like relays or uniselectors (one of the main objects in the design of 200 Oxford Street was to avoid the use of any components that were difficult to obtain, such as relays), we devised a changeover system of two routing jackfields. On one, the sources were plugged to the destinations for the first quarter of an hour. This would be the 'transmission' jackfield. Whilst this was in service the second jackfield was plugged up for the following quarter of an hour and, at the correct time, the destinations were switched by relays from the first to the second jackfield which became the transmission jackfield. This required only a small number of relays compared with a full switching system covering sources to destinations. This Aldenham switching scheme was begun in January 1943 and went into service on 17/18 May 1943.

Type A Equipment

In 1943/44 Mr. H. D. Ellis, working for Mr. Colborn, and with assistance from Mr. J. C. Taylor and Mr. R. D. Petrie, had been devising what would be the post-war studio equipment.

The Type 'A' equipment would have amplifiers in the cubicle and send at zero level. I went to join Mr. Ellis to turn this equipment from what was virtually first-model equipment into production equipment which could be produced by Equipment Department using outside firms in fairly large quantities for installation in studios after the war.

Type A desk
The first of the type 'A' equipment went into studio 8A of Broadcasting House, installed by J. C. Taylor. It was handed over to the E.i.C. on 11th December 1944. S.D.I.D. kept a very watchful eye on it - I see entries in my notes one or two days afterwards, 'Studio equipment tested, all O.K.' - we used to go and test it in the morning to confirm its reliability.

In December 1945 we were talking to Messrs. Mulliners, the coach-builders, who were going to produce the cabinets for the type 'A' equipment, and in March 1946, when Mulliners were delivering the first production model of this equipment, there was very great difficulty in laying down manufacturing tolerances for the cabinet work - this was the first time that the BBC had really used this kind of sheet metalwork for cabinets.


Some reference to uniselectors in the Corporation might be made. Just before the war, Mr. Colborn, Mr. J. C. Taylor and myself were engaged in designing the new Siemens motor uniselector switching system for the planned extension to BH. We had got as far as a mock-up model, the design of operating circuits and investigation of the operation of six uniselectors with regard to interference to the programme circuits, reliability, etc.

In 1942 it was realised that they had been at Avenue House for some years, they were taken up to the Designs Section and tested for resistance, which we found to be very satisfactory, and they were installed for a trial in 200 Oxford Street and used with one of the continuity suites. Based on the results of this trial, Mr. Taylor and Mr. Ellis went on and installed uniselectors in the Bristol control room and later the Bush House and Broadcasting House extension control rooms. Close liaison took place with Siemens, who manufactured the uniselectors, to provide rhodium plated contacts and twisted pairs for the programme levels.

Post Script

I will finish with a little statement that I always kept on the front of my job book. It comes from Robert Louis Stevensonů
We are in such haste
To be doing, to be writing
To be gathering gear
To make our voice audible for a moment
In the derisive silence of eternity,
That we forget one thing, of which
These are but the parts -
Namely to live.

We run to and from on the earth
Like frightened sheep and
Now you are to ask yourself, if
When all is done, you would not
Have been better
To sit by the fire at home!

LG was later responsible for the planning and installation of the 1960s BH Control Room and the Control Room at Baynton House, Cardiff. He retired in 1971 (as Head of Sound Distribution Unit) but worked part-time until 1974 on 'special duties', attached to Director of Engineering's office.