Tucked away from sight and cut off from the light of day, basements, like attics, have to all but the most unimaginative and unromantic, an indefinable quality of mystery about them. In the minds of the dramatically inclined (predominant in TV House) they may conjure up pictures of secret underground passages, sombre catacombs and smoke-filled smugglers’ hide-outs, while the more stolid individual contents himself with the image of bric-a-brac stored away and forgotten over the years.
The basement of a business establishment compares, of course, unfavourably with the domestic cellar. It lacks the latter’s cosy intimacy, there are no dust-covered souvenirs with memories of the past, and the chance of finding a hidden treasure is about as remote as that of finding water lilies in the desert.
Nevertheless, when the Editor of Fusion asked me to write about Associated-Rediffusion’s ‘basic’ activities I was more than usually ready to oblige, and if you have so far lacked the time or the excuse to go exploring down below, perhaps you’d care to join my conducted tour.
It could be said that both the beginning and the end of Television House are to be found below the level of Kingsway, since its basement floor contains both the first essentials of its elaborate household (supply of water, heat, light) and the very last stage of its function in the transmission of programmes from the two studios. Perhaps the best place to start and get warmed up is the BOILERHOUSE which is approached by a special entrance and a steep stone staircase, so narrow that only boilermen with the lean and hungry look, totally disinclined to obesity can possibly be considered for the job.
The enormous size of the boilerhouse is likely to surprise those who vaguely visualised an enlarged version of the domestic boiler supplying TV House with heat and hot water. There are in fact no fewer than four boilers, three of them so huge that ladders have to be used to reach the top shutters. Two of these are in constant use day and night during the winter to supply our central heating, while the third one is cleaned and kept in readiness for use in case of breakdown in any of the others.
Electric pumps drive the water heated by these boilers into the radiators throughout the building and special booster pumps operate to reach the top storeys.
The fourth boiler, a slightly smaller oil combustion unit, supplies our domestic hot water.
In addition the boilerhouse contains cold and hot water tanks (chlorifyers) the height of an average room and diameters to match, as well as spare pumps in case of break downs, but the most predominant feature is the network of pipes of all sizes up to a foot in diameter, painted in vivid red (for central heating) and green (for domestic water).
They add a touch of unexpected gaiety to the spotless place, while the familiar roar from the fire in the boilers makes you feel quite drowsy….
The boilermen, Mr Coleman, Mr Jones and Mr Poole, who work in day and night shifts on a rota system are also responsible for our impressive VENTILATION PLANT ROOM where air is sucked into the building by a Plenum fan, driven through ventilating shafts and filtered through a panel of water sprays before it is allowed to disperse into the building.
The sprays can be seen in action through large glass panels and the dirt particles collecting in the side tanks are proof of the effectiveness of the filtering process. Stale air is ejected from the building by means of extractor fans.
From the ventilation plant room we also operate a secondary (warm air) heating system, which is supplementary to the central heating for exceptionally cold days.
Twice a day the boilerman on duty takes thermometer readings in all areas from the basement to the roof of TV House. This is not as exhausting as it sounds, since he has at his disposal an up-to-date thermo control unit in the ventilation plant room, and he merely has to move the hand on the dial to whichever area of TV House he wants to check and jot down the temperatures indicated. Outside temperatures are also taken twice a day. These readings govern the setting of the thermostats on the automatic central heating boilers.
Next we come to the domain of Victor O’Brien and his staff of three electricians, Reg Turner, T. Hurley and Peter van Hamme. Usually behind well-locked doors I was allowed to take an ‘Unauthorised Persons’ view of the MAIN SWITCH ROOM which is about 10ft wide and 30ft long and houses the Siemens Supply Company intakes, control box, fuse boxes and long rows of master switches controlling the supply of power to the various areas of TV House.
The main supply to the technical area is fed via the Diesel Control Unit. This unit has two sets of contactors which feed the distribution buzz-bars, one for the London Electricity Board main supplies and the other for supply from Stand-by Diesel.
Should a fire break out in the main switch room -where water cannot be used, the heat will melt the soldered links which in turn causes a chemical solution (CO2) to be released and automatically ejected into the room to extinguish the fire.
The Stand-by Diesel is housed in what looks very much like a ship’s engine-room complete with vertical metal stairs and the pungent smell of oil, a large Diesel AC Alternator stands ready to cut in automatically in an emergency rather like an understudy waiting in the wings for her chance to take over when the star falls ill.
Only once – two years ago – did the stand-by diesel fail to cut in during a power breakdown and on investigation it was found that a workman who was cementing the switchroom floor had unwittingly touched the tripswitch which is permanently set to bring in the emergency supply.
The electricians put matters right and viewers got their picture back. The guilty workman protested: ‘All I did was this…’ He demonstrated and TV sets went blank again.
A little farther down some pipe-lined corridors I encountered the headquarters of the MAINTENANCE DEPARTMENT which comes under the jurisdiction of Mr Hurley and Mr Chater. It is an enlarged version of the domestic workshop crowded with tins of paint, cans of turps, brushes, tools of all descriptions and broken items of furniture waiting to be mended.
A team of two carpenters, Stan Cracknell and Tom Sanderson, who are the handymen around the house, attend to all minor casualties such as broken window sashes, locks which won’t open, drawers which won’t shut, chairs with missing legs, in fact anything that crops up, while the two painters, Arthur Thompson and Bernard Anns, are permanently engaged in brightening up the place with fresh coats of paint, a job which is never done because by the time they’re through, it’s time to start anew.
A few years ago a minor flood disaster hit the basement of TV House of which we in the upper storeys were blissfully unaware. It was caused by ITN film cuttings being washed down and blocking the waste pipes, with the unpleasant result that waste water mixed with a dark photographic chemical solution came up through the drains from underneath, covering the whole of the basement floor and causing considerable damage.
THE CARPENTER’S SHOP is just round the corner and we briefly call on Phil Holder, our master carpenter, who shows us round the SCENE DOCK where hired scenery is stored in readiness for imminent transmissions. A special hoist with a capacity of 25 tons was built at the back of the garage to transport the often cumbersome items of scenery from the delivery van into the basement scene dock.
Phil and his assistants are responsible for checking in each item, making any necessary adjustments or alterations, fitting and setting up scenery in time for camera rehearsal and for returning everything intact to the hire firm.
But bare scenery is not enough. Props of all kinds and descriptions are needed to give realistic and authentic backgrounds to the programmes. That is where Frank Newson and his five prop men come in. They have just about everything, including the kitchen sink, stored in the five prop rooms at their disposal.
The ARCHIVES, more than any other part of the basement, resemble the traditional cellar in as much as they are used for storage of documents which have long outlived their usefulness. The shelves are laden with out-dated correspondence, files and scripts which have had their moment of glory a long time ago.
Also stationed in the basement are the FILM CAMERA AND SOUND CREWS. They are headed by Ted Lloyd, the senior film cameraman, who discusses filming projects and difficulties with the directors concerned, and Dave Davies who fills in the inevitable forms and is responsible for correct camera allocation.
Among the camera men who have been with the company a number of years are Adrian Cooper, Ricky Briggs, Gilbert Knight, Harry Hart and Ron Osborn, and on the sound crew side we have mixers Stan Clark, Basil Rootes, Bill Welch and Don Alton.
An interesting character attached to the film camera crews is Ernie Beard, the only grip in the company. To the uninitiated the grip is the chap who pushes the dolly or operates the crane on which camera equipment is mounted and if you think there isn’t much to it then you ought to have seen Ernie operate the 40-ft crane for the film shots at the opening of Studio 5 when he had no less than three men on the front and a big camera and 4 tons of weights on the back to balance and manoeuvre about.
Last, but not least, there is the area more directly concerned with the transmission of programmes, the rehearsal rooms, the wardrobe department (where Phillis Crisp makes last minute costume alterations), the rows of makeup and dressing rooms, and finally the studios where the perennial first night atmosphere reaches its climax every time we are on the air.
You’d have to go a long way to find another basement quite like it.