Nick spent a couple of years working at Alexandra Palace, then the home
of BBC TV News, in the mid-1960s. He looks back on his role as a Holiday
Relief Sound Assistant.
My first memory of AP is of driving up the hill from Wood Green. This imposing building with the wonderful transmitter mast still in place looked out over London with a confidence that spoke of BBC superiority in all things technical and it was with due humility that I went inside. I had transferred there from Ealing as at the time I was living in Essex and the journey to and from AP was much more convenient - and as the film sound dubbing and transfer departments were a detached exclave of Ealing, we were in theory answerable to nobody for miles and miles!
As a Holiday Relief Sound Assistant my position was lowly, but I was made very welcome by my shift partner, John Hills-Harrop. Our job was to man the transfer bay and the recording area of the dubbing theatre. The transfer bay would usually be duplicating 16mm magnetic film for the library, but was able to record the output of the dubbing theatre if necessary. When I was there there were two 16mm channels and a 35mm channel routed through a patch bay and a mixing desk with limited equalisation and (memory is hazy) I think six of those huge pots that you could pull out to clean the contact studs. There was a Leevers-Rich ¼" deck for the very occasional reel of tape that came our way: most location news film sound was recorded on magnetic stripe on the edge of the film in the camera. During the years I was there we never had to try to synchronise the pulse on a tape (if recorded on a sync Nagra), which is just as well, as none of us knew how to do it, and the equipment was missing! One of our constant occupations there was to splice countdown leader onto the front of the 16mm or 35mm mag film stock, so that the magnetic film would be in sync with the film on the projectors.
These projectors lived upstairs, manned by a cheerful crew of projectionists or projjies, who were great fun and a constant source of new jokes. One of the projectors was a venerable great lump of metal, festooned with fire extinguishers and designed to run nitrate film. All the projectors and all the mag film recorders could be linked to the Selsyns, which lurked in the basement. I was shown them once, ushered into their presence in a manner similar to that of Howard Carter seeing Tutankhamen's treasure. There they were, great grey beasts like the engine room of the Queen Mary. When dubbing, projector and recorder were connected to a Selsyn - and you had to make sure that the lock was good by twisting the inching knob, because a false lock would result in a runaway - and having laced up the film so that the Start mark was on the recording head you pressed a button which signalled readiness to the dubbing mixer. He would press a buzzer which asked the projjies to start the process and slowly the Selsyn would start up, with projector and recorder slaved to it. A counter as well as the projected picture would tell the dubbing mixer and gram swinger whereabouts they were and the music, commentary and fx would be played in.
Apart from the projectors upstairs there were some mag film players, which had loops of fx which were in almost constant use. "Prov" was one, a contraction of "Provincial Street Atmosphere", a useful low level background noise that fitted very many pictures. In addition to the grams and tape loops, another source of fx was PEG, the Programme Effect Generator. I was told that this had been adapted from the principle of the Mellotron, a musical instrument that operated on the principle of having a spring loaded magnetic tape cartridge for each key on a piano keyboard. The length of the tape in each cartridge was enough to run for a little under 10 seconds, enough for most musical notes, and enough for most spot sound effects. The great thing was that when you hit the button, the sound came almost instantly, great for synching gunshots, door slams etc. A simplified playing deck with buttons instead of a keyboard was made - I presume by BBC engineers - and a number of cartridges could be played, I think about four. Each cartridge could be pre-recorded with the desired effect and the start up time was very quick and remarkably free of wow and flutter - unlike the telephone fx you heard in a lot of big budget movies at the time.
As many news films were shot in those days without sound, even the wretched sound on film effort, dubbing was a necessary process for nearly all news items. Even those which had been shot with sound had to be smoothed out and music and commentary added. The usual equipment for recording sound on film in the field, with which I became familiar later on, was an amplifier/mixer, usually made by Auricon, which had two mic level and one line level inputs. The output was connected directly to a magnetic head within the camera (sometimes an Auricon, others a CP16) via a multicore cable, which also brought back the audio from the confidence head. The ill-named confidence head! I can remember the first time I listened to it I sent the gear back into maintenance: I couldn't believe how awful it was. To be fair to the equipment, it had to smooth out the intermittent motion of the film in the camera in only a very short distance. You always had to be aware that if you unplugged the connecting lead to the camera while the amplifier/mixer was switched on, the heads would get magged up and if you saw the cameraman's hand stray to the plug to free himself of the irksome sound recordist a sharp reprimand had to be issued.
Life inside AP was good. There was a bar - of course there was, the place teemed with journalists - and a canteen. I instituted an innovation there. In my opinion the portion of baked beans although low in cost was small in size, so I asked for two portions, which I would of course pay for. This was considered for a little while by the catering hierarchy and then accepted with grudging and suspicious aspect. Somehow, they felt, there was a scam going on, but they couldn't see it! No scam: I just loved baked beans, and plenty of them.
The reader will, I hope, excuse me if I allude briefly to the lavatories at AP. They were kept spotless and were the usual haven of introspection where one could reflect upon the verities of life. But in common with the rest of the BBC at the time they had a very serious shortcoming: the loo paper! I had thought that the shiny, glazed variety had been phased out in all civilised places shortly after the war - in fact, that would have been an excellent reason for going to war. But here, in every cubicle, was not only a plentiful supply of the stuff, but each separate sheet was emblazoned with the BBC coat of arms, in a delicate green, if I remember correctly. To use it smacked of treason, or revenge if one were inclined that way. I am very glad to say that having left AP I never encountered this ghastly invention again, even when I occasionally visited Lime Grove or TVC.
As AP was the headquarters of BBC News, and we in film dubbing and the film editors were not under anyone's control apart from our masters in far away Ealing, we developed some unofficial practices that were convenient. The usual shift pattern was a twelve hour shift, 1000 to 2200 two days on and two days off. Over weekends when the two day shift went over both Saturday and Sunday the two operators split the shift so that one chap would do both jobs of transfer and dubbing on the Saturday and the other chap would do the Sunday. As there was much less library work to do, this was entirely possible, although sometimes you would be whizzing from transfer bay to dubbing area like a demented fly.
Each area had a talkback system which connected with everywhere necessary, but the one in the dubbing recording area also had a button labelled QPD. This puzzled me, so I pressed it and asked who was there. A very friendly engineer called Roger Tone (known to his friends as Thousand Cycle) appeared round the corner and took me on a guided tour of QPD, which was a method of recording video images onto film, the intervals between video fields and frames being so short that the Quick Pull Down was necessary to move the film along fast enough. Also in the dubbing recording area was a distortion meter and a wow and flutter meter, both of which provided hours of harmless fun: on a slow day the recorders were measured to within an inch of their lives.
Sometimes we would stray out of the transfer and dubbing areas to see what was going on in the editing department. I can remember being sickened by the raw footage coming in from the Biafra War in Nigeria. The Nigerian Army wanted to impress the world's press by shooting one of its own soldiers who had been caught looting. He was tied to a tree and a firing squad assembled. The order to fire was just about to be given when one cameraman needed to change a battery, so everyone waited. Then a member of the firing squad turned mutinous and was punched and hit with a rifle butt until he fell senseless. Finally, when the officer in charge was assured that all cameras were working the firing squad did its job, but quite badly as for a minute or two the poor chap tied to the tree moaned as he slowly died. To me, a lad barely 20, it was frightening and horrible. It should have been transmitted as is, I think, but of course it couldn't be.
On a happier occasion one of the editors put together a film that he had shot on holiday in Spain of a narrow gauge railway. That fascinated me and I stayed to watch far too long. The dubbing mixer, Digger Shute, was unimpressed by my excuse and gave me a rocket!
After a couple of years at AP my time as Holiday Relief came to an end and I went off to another world of feature films, ITV and eventually back full circle working for the BBC, amongst others, as a freelance. I don't think that I have had happier times than when I was working in Alexandra Palace, though.