Broadcasting Parliament - Bridge Street

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Broadcasting Parliament - Bridge Street - 1978-1991

Clock Tower
Although the possibility of broadcasting the proceedings of Parliament had been suggested from time to time, for many years Parliament was opposed to the idea. Permission to broadcast the State Opening on both radio and television was granted to the BBC for the first time in 1958. The Government stressed, though, that this decision was not setting a precedent and was based on the fact that the ceremony was a State occasion, not a part of the routine work of Parliament.

The Lords finally agreed to a trial of radio coverage of their proceedings in 1968. BH Studios B8 and B9, together with recording channel H9, were used for this experiment. Nothing was actually broadcast, the programmes being made available to their Lordships for them to pass judgement.

Perhaps they were less than impressed because it wasn't until June and July 1975 that another experiment took place and the public finally had a chance to hear their representatives, both Commons and Lords, at work. For this trial period, the BBC built a small radio complex in the grounds of the Palace of Westminster using a couple of OB vehicles and some Portacabins. Does anyone have any photos of this installation?

When Parliament gave permission for permanent radio broadcasting to begin, space was offered in a building which occupied the corner of Bridge Street
and the Embankment. There were already plans to rebuild on this site and most of the building was in a very poor condition. But the first floor was made habitable (sort of) and the BBC installed an editorial area, some small radio studios, a minuscule TV studio, a recording channel, a Central Technical Area and a couple of small offices in its part of this space. IRN occupied the rest of the floor. Regular broadcasts began on 3rd April 1978.

The building may have been nearing the end of its life, but it did offer some splendid views. The picture of the Clock Tower above was taken from the roof. And this shot was taken through the recording channel's rather small window, and looks out at Westminster Bridge with the statue of Boudica (just behind the tree). Unfortunately the windows were only very rarely cleaned...

Staircase    Windows
...And talking of windows, the staircase leading up to the first floor was a rather spectacular affair (or had been once) with some stained glass windows. Behind these windows was Westminster Underground station.

The Palace of Westminster Police later used much of the ground floor. When Parliament decided to allow television coverage this space was made available to the BBC and used for a large office. There was also a TV technical area on the ground floor at this time, but the main television installation was in Westminster Central Hall.

The BBC vacated the building in 1991 and the structure was demolished in 1994 to make way for Portcullis House which now provides office space for Members of Parliament and their staffs.

The operational methods established during the 1975 experiment were used at Bridge Street, including the idea of a recording channel ("Intake") with pairs of machines recording the outputs of both Houses. These feeds were derived from the PA systems in the two chambers.

One pair of machines (on the left in the photo, with the yellow panels) made recordings used by Today and Yesterday In Parliament (TIP and YIP). The second pair (blue) were for local and regional output and the third (red) for the News Sequences and other programmes. A single pair of machines (white) recorded the Lords. Using seven inch spools of tape, changeovers were done every thirty minutes. For Local Radio this was reduced to fifteen minutes for the first hour and a half of the afternoon sittings. Material was therefore not available until a maximum of half an hour after it had been recorded. In an emergency changeovers were done on demand to allow faster access. The colours of the panels above the machines were repeated on the labels applied to the tape spools and boxes.

In order to extract a clip from these recordings, the tape was taken to a studio and the required section was copied. The rule was that the working recordings should not be cut as the tapes were reused day after day, after being bulk erased.

In addition to the working recordings, Intake also made archive copies of both chambers' outputs. One set (green) was for the BBC's own use and were kept for as long as there was shelf space to hold them, storage space being in rather short supply. A second set were made at 3.75 ips on four Revox machines and these were for Parliament's own archive - and permanent preservation.

On the jackfield were feeds from the Committee Rooms in the Houses of Parliament. These were recorded in Intake during the morning, but afternoon committees were generally recorded
in Studio 1 as there were no spare machines in Intake once the Commons and Lords were sitting. An essential piece of equipment was a timer. This sounded an alarm when the tape changeovers were due. A one minute overlap between tapes was the norm.

A daily task was 'cutting prayers' from the Lords. At the start of each sitting, both Houses have a few minutes of prayers. 'Strangers' are not admitted to the public galleries until after this ritual, and it was not to be recorded. No problem in the Commons, as the PA system wasn't switched on so our feed did not include prayers. But the Lords needed their PA to help them hear so the feed incoming had to be cut during the crucial few minutes. Originally done in the Central Technical Area, the job was later moved to Intake and a Studio Manager had the job of listening just enough to notice when prayers were over and then 'uncut' the feed!

Cubicle 1A
Cubicle general view
Space was always at a premium at Bridge Street, and all the technical areas were very small. The actual studios were a bit too small to photograph, in fact. The lighting wasn't ideal for available light photography, either. There were two radio studios, each of which had two cubicles. These were known as 1A, 1B, 2A, 2B. To transfer control of the studios between their two cubicles there was a switch in the studio itself. This transferred control of speaker and headphone feeds and signalling lamps. The mic outputs were available to both cubicles at all times.

Cubicle 1A, seen here, was by far the largest, and had enough space for five Telefunken M15As. This made it possible to record committees and still have enough machines for other jobs. The large board mounted on the second machine from the far end was for insert tapes. It provided sufficient space to lay out all the tapes for the half-hour Today in Parliament transmission. The window in this view looked across Bridge Street to the Palace of Westminster.

Desk and Uhers
The desks at Bridge Street were all Neves. In the gloom at the right hand edge of this picture is a rack containing four Uhers. They were supposed to start in the event of a power cut as a means of continuing recordings of the Chambers until recordings could be started at Broadcasting House.

Above the rack is an 'Annunciator'. This displayed the name of the current speaker in both chambers (two switchable feeds) and, if the audio was switched on, would emit a nasty jangling sound in the event of a vote. These 'division bells' can be found all over Westminster, even in the local pubs. In the studios, a white light indicated a division. If the division bell rang while an MP was in the studio he or she had just ten minutes to get to the voting lobby.

There were twelve channels on the desk, but only six of them had eq facilities. In the centre of the desk are the PPMs, monitoring and talkback controls and on the right are the limiters, ringmain selectors and tape remotes. Network feeds on the Bridge Street ring-main were off-air, the tuners being in the Central Technical Area.

A mixing area in the Palace itself could be used to add commentary to the Commons and Lords feeds and this was used for the transmission of Prime Minister's Question Time (PMQs) - in those days a twice weekly event. There was usually a great demand for clips from this small section of the Parliamentary day, so extra recordings were made from which clips could be cut, avoiding the need to copy from the Intake tapes.

Other technical areas
Cubicle 2B
This is one of the smaller cubicles - 2B. 2A and 2B both worked for local radio during the afternoon, much of the clip dubbing being done in 2B while 2A mixed packages and sent material to line.

The boxes on the wall just beneath the small observation window carried the tape machine routing and source selection controls.

Studio 3
Before televising of Parliament began, this room contained a television camera linked to Television Centre. A reporter was expected to operate his own teleprompter and play in audio clips from cart machines hidden below desk level. Needless to say, few were willing to attempt this feat on national television. In the final years of Bridge Street and with increasing demand for radio facilities, the area was converted into a radio studio ('3') which could be operated, after suitable plugging, from the existing cubicles. The distant door is that of cubicle 1B and just this side of the rubbish bin is Intake.

At the other end of studio 3 was a door leading into the central technical area. In addition to housing the bays containing the line amps, jackfields, the receivers which fed the ring-mains, etc, this room was used as a workshop by the maintenance teams.

Editorial area
Editorial area - 1
Some views of the editorial area, starting with the sight that greeted visitors as they entered the BBC complex. The four doors visible on the far side of the room are cubicle 2B, studio 2, cubicle 2A and cubicle 1B.

Editorial area - 2
Taken from somewhere in the area of 2B's door and showing the local radio desk. The distant doors on the left lead to studio 1 and cubicle 1A. On the right are some of the shelves housing the green labelled archive tapes. More shelving was provided in the lobbies leading to the studios.

Editorial area - 3
From outside studio 1 and looking back to the main entrance, which is slightly left of centre. The monitors around the walls are a mix of annunciators and normal tvs.

End of an era
The end of an era, April 1991. The editorial area has been cleared of equipment. The tape machines and other portable gear have gone from Intake and the studios. The BBC's broadcasting of Parliament has moved to its new home and soon No.1 Bridge Street itself would be no more, to be replaced by Portcullis House.