Pass the asprins please
From Fusion 31, published August 1963
Television programmes come in assorted shapes and sizes. So do the people responsible for getting them on the air. So do their requirements to achieve that feat. The man responsible for making sure that all the ends tie up as neatly as possible into one programme which will entertain millions is RAY DICKS, assistant controller of programmes (production). How is it done and what factors have to be linked together before a production reaches the air? In this article he explains why it is sometimes necessary to say ‘pass the aspirins, please’.
Someone once defined politics as the art of the possible. Someone else said that it is not an exact science.
They might have been talking about my job. Whatever theories or principles a politician may have, he will nearly always end up doing what is possible rather than what, ideally, he would like to do. If he is a good politician, he will combine theory and practice to reach a reasonable compromise. If he is not, he will soon lose sight of his principles and live from day to day, hopefully, until finally he comes unstuck.
It is much the same with my job. I don’t have to tell you that making television programmes is a complex business. You have to combine technical resources, technique, and temperament. Or, to put it less grandly, electronics, know-how and people. The first is immensely complicated, the second takes years to acquire and the third are not gentle folk doing simple, undemanding jobs, but hardened professionals who won’t take no for an answer. Just look at them:
Writers, producers, directors, designers, casting directors, camera and sound crews, production assistants, vision mixers, lighting supervisors, make-up artists, wardrobe mistresses, floor managers, stage managers, film crews, researchers, setting assistants, painters, carpenters, electricians, graphic designers, and so on.
Not to mention the solid phalanx of engineers. Or the administrators.
All, at their best, skilled, dedicated and determined to fight to the death with guile, low cunning, obstinacy, charm and every trick in the book – short of brainwashing and physical violence – to achieve their ends.
It is part of my job to see that the skills and talents of these individualists are able to combine to produce the programmes asked for by the Controller of Programmes.
Of course, the job would be half way to easy if there was no more to it than giving them all they want. Unfortunately this is seldom, if ever, possible. Even a major prestige production has to observe some limitations.
So we have to work to a Schedule, which is fitted together, like a complicated and unwieldy jigsaw, by the schedules officer and his staff, acting on information received from a number of (usually) reliable sources.
The main source of information is the production planning meeting, which is held fortnightly in Dressing Room 26 at Wembley Studios. I am chairman and in attendance are the schedules officer, the supervisors and heads of the production sections, engineers, and the directors and designers of the productions to be discussed. The floor plans and designs for these productions are examined, technical requirements worked out and agreed, and a time schedule laid down. Series and serials are dealt with as a whole, not each episode separately. Special Features programmes, with their emphasis on filming, which usually takes place overseas, are excluded because they involve studio staff marginally, if at all.
It all sounds simple. A group of characters sitting round a table, planning away. Nothing to it. You wonder what all the fuss is about. But it is when you have got everything scheduled, that the trouble starts. Programmes have a way of not conforming. There are so many elements involved, so many factors which cannot be assessed or calculated accurately. So much that can go wrong. Producing programmes is a creative process, in spite of what some of those unkind critics say, and the creative process doesn’t take kindly to timetables. Scripts need to be re-written and plans re-drawn. Directors change their minds. The leading lady, having adored the script all the way through outside rehearsals, takes a turn against it, and demands changes or she’ll call her agent – and we all know what that means. Cameras break down, fuses blow and microphones go dead. Then there are what might be called Acts of God, though why the deity should be blamed for some of the things that go wrong, is beyond me.
These things are funny in the telling, and make good canteen gossip, but they can be, and often are, serious. Of course it is true that last minute changes of mind and heart are due all too frequently to bad planning, indecision, laziness or plain stupidity. But it is also true that they are often the product of many anxious hours of worry 2 and thought by talented, dedicated people who will spend sleepless nights single-mindedly trying to improve a programme. It is these latter changes that may save a show, or turn an average one into a great success They are the ones we have to try to legislate for.
Then there are the extra programmes, often ‘crash’ outside broadcasts and special feature productions from Studio 9. As a matter of fact, there is one each of these programmes being organised as I write this, on a Sunday morning. I have had one ‘phone call and doubtless there will be several more from people who are certainly not having a day of rest.
These special programmes, many of them on the great issues of the day, are enormously important to us. On our ability to do them, willingly and well, rests to a large extent our right to be called a responsible broadcasting organisation.
There are so many things one would like to do. So many people one would like to help. A director comes to me for a fourth boom. I see his point, but he can only have it at the expense of another programme. Someone else wants an extra two hours camera rehearsal. He makes out a good case, but it will mean unscheduled overtime or the rescheduling of the programme due to follow the next day in the same studio. Can this be done and, if so, will it be justified? One works out the permutations, establishes priorities and tries to do what is possible in the best interests of the programmes themselves.
You see what I mean by the art of the possible. It is endlessly fascinating of course. And certainly no exact science. Thank heavens.
Drawings by Ron Sandford