A Taste of Tel OB Comms. by Mark Vesey
It was not a good start to my first day at BBC TV Outside Broadcast Communications in 1983. I was 20 years old and still living at home in East London so had to get the Central Line tube across town. There were delays and so I was late. Not, a good start for a business that relies on impeccable timing, the 9 o’clock news goes out at 9pm, not 9.05pm! There were no mobile phones in those days so I couldn’t inform my new employer and had to just sit, squeezed into the packed rush hour tube, and worry.
I arrived at West Acton underground station after 9am and walked as fast as I could up the long residential street leading to Kendal Avenue and the BBC TV OB base. It was a great long shed of a building with dozens of metal roller doors that hid behind them the fleet of vehicles that transmitted live events to millions of viewers. In reception, a smart looking security guard officer noted my name and called someone down to meet me. I was given a quick tour of the building including, the stores, cash office, Comms office and most importantly, the bar and canteen.
The Comms office was dominated by a large ginger bearded man with a big voice and a powerful personality, his name was Peter Osbourne. He was effectively God and affectionately known as Mr No. He would control every aspect of our working lives, when we worked, where we worked, who we worked with, how much we earned and when we might be allowed a day off, usually followed by the reply ‘No’. Our future lives were inscribed on huge 3 feet square sheets of paper divided up into equipment and vans, known as sections. Each van would have a supervisor, a senior engineer and a junior engineer or trainee. The sheet would cover the next month and live television events would be penciled in next to each van and the equipment needed. A job sheet was created showing how many vans were needed to relay an event from its start point, eg Brighton, to a mid-point on a hill and then relayed on to London to be received at one of two points, Crystal Palace in South London, or Swains Lane, Highgate, in North London.
As a trainee you were often booked onto different sections and jobs to get experience and for your colleagues to get to know you and who might tolerate working with you. The rota changed your life and as many live events such as sport, were at weekends, it became all-engrossing. One of the unpopular jobs was being assigned to the ‘Test Room’ or ‘Base’ for several months. This involved travelling to Kendal Avenue for a normal 5-day, 9 to 5, week and to fix or maintain equipment. Being assigned to Crystal Palace or Swains Lane also usually meant a day struggling through the heavy London traffic, South or North Circular, to get to them. The most popular jobs were those far away where hotels, drinking, car mileage allowance, overtime and expenses were all paid for.
There were nearly 30 engineers in the Communications department and there were many great characters. Some you hardly saw in Base at all, they were almost constantly out on the road, seemingly soaking up the best jobs and rolling in expenses money. Mike Dayman was the golf expert and attended all the golf championships across the country. I seem to remember he even wore a Pringle tank top and check patterned trousers? Some of the supervisors had come from a background with the old GPO, General Post Office, or other communication industries, such as Marconi. The first live outside broadcasts had taken place in 1950s using very heavy cumbersome but ground breaking cameras and transmitters. By the 1980s we had a storeroom full of microwave transmitters, tripods and dishes that could be hauled up onto roof tops or rigged onto the van roof or placed on top of a hydraulic tower called an Eagle Tower (60 feet) or PTA (100 feet). As we got toward 1990 we even had a ‘Cherry Picker’ Simon Hoist apparatus vehicle.
Anyway, back to my first day and after being shown around and introduced I was promptly whizzed off to the stores to collect my BBC issue dark navy blue Gortex waterproof jacket and trousers along with a pair of steel toecap wellington boots and leather rigging boots. This was accompanied by a yellow leather zip up portable toolkit, about the size of a woman’s handbag.
Shortly after that it would have been time for a cup of tea, an extremely important part of BBC life and one that usually went on for as long as people could get away with. Lunch in the canteen came in the form of hot cooked dinners dished up on BBC monogrammed plates, with BBC stamped into the knives and forks. Pudding and custard usually followed with yet more tea. The alternative to this tradition was to go the BBC Club bar. Here could be found groups of engineers drinking real ale or groups of managers drinking white wine. The beer was subsidized and drinking went on, again, for as long as people could get away with it, often glancing over to see if the managers had finished their bottle or had started a new one! By the time everyone got back to finish loading their vans or pretending to fix some equipment it was not long till the afternoon tea break and people could start to sober up before they drove home!
The attitude to drink driving in those days were more along the lines of ‘if you can’t stand up or get the key in the lock then you should not be driving’. Even the professional ‘rigger-drivers’ who ferried the up to £1 million vehicles to site had drunk half a bottle of Scotch before leaving. But the drink played an important role in binding the staff together when they could be stuck on a hilltop or away from home for most of the summer. It created great friendships and even when staff were not on duty they often gathered in pubs near home to hear the latest jokes or news about who was away and earning more money than anyone else.
So, after my first disastrous day on the tube I decided I would have to move from home and get a flat nearer to work. I managed to find a bedsit in Ealing run by a large Polish woman whose face was covered in white cream and her hair in curlers. It was one room with a fridge and an electric grill and single bed. The bathroom was shared with everyone else in the house and consisted of a cold cast iron bath tub fed by a dangerous gas boiler that had a peg on the end of a plastic tube to keep the water flow pressure correct so the gas would not go out! It was a lonely place to be but as much of my life would now be out on the road or in the pub with other Comms engineers it did not matter too much. After the first year many of the trainee engineers joined together and rented out complete houses together.
A typical day in Base would involve loading the van. The older ones were based on bread delivery vans, just a metal box atop a lorry chassis. They had big heavy galvanized steps that dropped down when the door was opened by the trusty BBC TX98 key lock. Inside was basic to say the least with metal racks to place the transmitter and receiver control units on and an equipment bay with an oscilloscope and test equipment for measuring and adjusting signal levels. There was a patch panel to route the audio and video through ‘musa to musa’ cables and ‘jack to jack’ (double ender) old post office leads. At the back of the van wooden boxes held spare cables, tools and adaptors. At the back was the microwave dish rack, for 4 foot and 2 foot parabolic dishes, as well as the cable rack and drums of ‘polypole’. This was thick heavy cable used to connect the transmitter and receiver head units, up on the roof or tower or building, to the control units. A 200-foot drum was a weighty thing but the rigger drivers took pleasure in throwing them around like feather pillows to show you who was a real man! Copious quantities of a spray cleaner, called Colclean, was used to wash the connector ends after they had been dragged through the mud or dust of an OB site. Last but not least was the most important area of the van, a sink, kettle and tea making facilities. They say that the soldiers in world war one and two survived on tea and cigarettes, well the BBC certainly survived on tea and biscuits.
Another job based in London was ‘Lines testing’ this entailed travelling into London on a hide and seek mission to find a coil of wire that had been installed by a British telecom engineer by a lamppost, at the back of a theatre, under a bush in a car park etc. The installed line would be used for sending audio for TV or Radio and had to be tested for quality to ensure it worked and had a wide enough bandwidth for use. We carried a large black suitcase containing all the test equipment and sometimes you could be out in the pouring rain and other times strolling nonchalantly unchallenged into a hotel or events building. At the time of the IRA bombings I was never stopped and asked what I had in the case. A flash of our BBC staff card was always enough to get us in anywhere.
The ‘Duty room’ was a hallowed windowless room where engineers went to fill in their expenses forms and book accommodation for upcoming shows. Many an engineer could be found locked away in this dark cave for most of his or her scheduled day in Base. The ancient art of completing you time sheet was one that had developed over many years and could make quite a difference to your pay packet. For instance, if you worked 5 or 10 minutes into your lunch break you could claim money for a meal hour work through. Overtime began shortly after the scheduled departure time stated on the work sheet and extra meals or hours could be claimed. Car mileage was carefully worked out to every site and a guide to accommodation, produced by Bob Forsberg, gave a list of some of the cheapest or best (food and beds) available near work sites. The BBC paid a set amount so if the accommodation was cheaper it meant more spending money for beer and curry, which was also paid for by the BBC. We did ‘work’ long hours throughout the main sporting season, from the Thames Boat Race in Spring to the end of the summer. I remember my best ever monthly wage slip came to £1000 with over 70 hours of work per week. Expenses could be claimed in cash from the cash office.
So what did we actually do I hear you cry? Well, after a day spent loading the van in Base with all the equipment needed we would drive to site in our cars and then setup all the equipment, as stated either on the van roof, tower or building. The heavy bits such as the tripods and head units often had to be pulled up by rope or lugged up stairs. The transmitters and receivers were assembled and pointed on the compass bearing stated on the work sheet. At remote sites we would have a diesel generator to supply power and boil the kettle. Using the RT, radiotelephone, on VHF we would contact the other sites in the chain and agree when to switch on. We would then pan, align, the dishes to give the best signal quality. Everything was tied down and locked off and the supervisor or senior engineer could start the technical testing inside the van. If something didn’t work we had a spare circuit or could call for replacement equipment to be delivered. Once everything was working we could sit back and watch the tele. The production staff at the starter or main site would then do rehearsals and check with Television Centre in London until everything was running as planned. Usually this was all done the day before the actual broadcast so we would head off to our accommodation for a night on the town to return the next day, switch everything on and sit there watching the broadcast and reading the paper.
Some OBs were more complex than others with multiway communication including a 5 channel audio system called multiplex. This was an innovation at the time and often required a fair bit of tweaking, sometimes with a hammer, to get it working. Some OBs could run for many days, such as darts, Wimbledon, cricket and golf tournaments, others were just one or two day events such as football, rugby, horse racing or jumping. The BBC had a special Citroen car with hydraulic suspension that had a camera and cameraman on its roof. This would drive alongside the racing horses and beam its signal back to the van. The junior engineer or trainee had to stand on the roof of the van and pan or follow the car with the microwave dish or aerial to keep a strong signal connection. These mobile links were also used for helicopter, boat and motorcycle pictures.
Wimbledon tennis championships and the Thames boat race were some of the biggest OBs using a lot of equipment and staff. We had a lot of fun and also felt a lot of pride in the fact that we were the best OB outfit in the world. It was sad to see nearly twenty years later that the BBC sold off and privatised most of its OB operations.
Other vehicles we had included a technical Land Rover with pump up mast. I was on a job once and I accidentally left the keys in another pair of trousers. To get the equipment switched on in time for transmission we had to unscrew the back door and crawl through the small cable duct to the inside! ‘Talkback’ was a separate job in itself and consisted of rigging ‘Storno’ base stations, that were huge heavy grey or black slabs of metal like finned heat sinks, used to transmit VHF signals to hand-held radios for staff. This would usually be ‘Production talkback’ or some other required feed.
Each engineer or supervisor had their own way of doing things and their own characters. I was lucky to be assigned to Dennis Lindridge who came from South East London. He was a gentle, kind man who loved a drink and a chat to someone in a bar. Another supervisor was Peter Bentham who owned dozens of old sports cars he kept in a barn in Devon. He had hundreds of stories about the ‘old days’ of OBs and the drunken antics they got up to. He had actually shared a house with the then manager of OB Comms, John Scott, but they didn’t like his company so sometimes hid behind the sofa and switched the lights off when he came home so he thought they had gone to bed! Colin Rhodes was a quiet man who couldn’t tolerate the antics of managers and their changing ideas. I vividly record him standing up in a staff meeting and telling them ‘what a load of bollocks’! Colin Grimshaw was a tall thin man who seemed to have an endless capacity for beer. Once a few were downed he would grind his teeth and chuckle, keeping landlords up until the early hours. Dick Simmonds was known as the one careful with his money whilst Ray Lindley was always getting up to dangerous stunts and challenging people, once he had a few beers, to an arm wrestle or to climb up some scaffolding. His worst bet was when he tried to leapfrog over a double width postbox in Bristol and ended up posting his own crown jewels! Dick Bulford, known as Binkey, seemed to be the only person who could fix anything. We imagined he had a container of magical Binky dust that he sprinkled on broken equipment and it immediately started working! Nic Christodoulou was an East-end Greek who could down a lot of alcohol too. He once had a job on an oil rig on Christmas Day and they are strictly no alcohol. He spent time cutting open a can of electrical switch cleaner, refilling it with alcohol and soldering it back together again so he could smuggle it on the oil rig with him.
You may notice that the vast majority of engineers were men, this suddenly changed towards the end of my time with the recruitment of Sam, a leather jacketed, biker girl and Rachel Modell, the complete opposite, who sometimes wore a tutu and lace gloves (it was the age of Madonna) Needless to say the engineers were always keen to work with her. She showed us her party trick during a big Comms booze up in a pub by inserting a pint of Fullers London pride in her cleavage and managing to walk around without spilling a drop!
All nights in the pub were followed by a compulsory hot curry. For some, only sweat, burning lips and bottom in the morning, was good enough!
The highlight of the year was the Comms Christmas party. Several creative engineers wrote a witty script making fun of the BBC and its managers. This was rehearsed for many weeks before the party that took place in the Comms office. A few other engineers would drive around various breweries and collect barrels of real ale to keep 30 thirsty men happy for 12 hours of drinking. The Comms play was put on in the office and usually went down a storm, even with some managers. Needless to say there were many hangovers and absent staff the following day.
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