Who’s who in presentation
Sam Simmonds recalls the people and life in the Presentation Department, 1961-68
To most people, the function of a television company’s Presentation Department is a mystery. It may best be explained by using the analogy of a television programme itself: the crew, assembled in and around a studio floor and gallery – dozens of people – coordinated by the director, marshal all live and technical resources to realize the programme as conceived and amended by the producers, and to send it live to air (via Presentation) or, more usually today, to a recording facility. Presentation, on the other hand, marshals all live and technical resources available to the station to send the station’s total continuous output live to the transmitter, and to other carriers for other audiences.
In April 1961, Associated-Rediffusion, the first commercial television company ever to broadcast in the UK, and on-air since September 1955, maintained a Presentation section comprising the Head, Neil Bramson (ex French horn player in the London Symphony Orchestra if my memory serves me well, and apparently the originator of A-R’s ‘morse code’ ident); three transmission controllers (idiosyncratically called ‘Programme Officers’ or ‘POs’ by A-R), Alec Gunn, Harry Sloan and Wendy Powell; one Assistant Programme Officer, Allen Taylor; and one trainee (myself). There was also Peter Martin, whose function was to ensure that the commercial reel make-up (nearly all film in those days) conformed to the relevant laws, to oversee the slotting-in of community service announcements where necessary, and to provide film cue sheets to help the POs take commercial breaks smoothly. Supporting all these, there was a secretarial staff of six ladies (including, at one time, my wife) to prepare the schedules and to log each transmission shift in its entirety, to the exact second.
To write the link scripts, there was a separate promotions department, which in those days gave work to, among others, Hugh Whitemore, later to become a distinguished playwright. It was then A-R’s policy to use continuity announcers in vision for some early shifts (mostly linking children’s programmes). The three main ‘voices’ of that time were Redvers Kyle, Dick Norton and Tom Glazer, supported from time to time (for example holiday relief) by Dick Graham, Nick Worrall and Mel Oxley, to name a few, who otherwise mostly had full-time careers elsewhere. Later, Anne Aldred was another personality who provided a welcome feminine presence. Yet others included the late Laurie West (Squadron-Leader L.J. West), who prepared the weather forecast; Muriel Young, who had a desk in our office, despite her major role as anchor-woman for a number of children’s programmes; various puppeteers such as Wally Whyton and Ivan Owen (through whom I first met Ollie Beak and Basil Brush); and certain seasonal fixtures who would come into our tiny studio to deliver the latest on the cricket scores, for example.
Head of Presentation reported to Assistant Controller of Programmes (Planning), Cyril Francis in my day, who, with the other ACPs, reported to John McMillan and, ultimately, the Board.
Operationally, the Presentation Control Room was staffed by a Programme Officer, a secretarial assistant (to log the output), a vision mixer and a sound balancer, with a duty announcer to make all scheduled announcements and, importantly, any unscheduled ones that might be necessary. This crew worked closely with engineers in the Master Control Room, Central Control Room and/or Central Apparatus Rooms, with their attendant line/link operators, who were the final liaison with the engineers at the transmitter.
One aspect of the operation that kept us busy was that, as well as having the responsibility of providing a full television service for the London area from Monday to Friday, A-R was also ‘Nominated Contractor’ for that same period. This meant that, should anything arise to necessitate changes to the published programme timings, the whole commercial television network had to be informed so as to reorganize their schedules to conform to network requirements, or make their own individual arrangements. A conference call would be made on the ‘red phone’; the roll of the entire network was called; and negotiations would begin. For much of the 60s that would have involved A-R, ATV, Granada, Anglia, Southern, Television Wales and West (TWW), Wales West and North (WWN), Border, Tyne-Tees, Scottish Television, Grampian, Westward and Channel. ATV, who took over responsibility for the London area at weekends, became Nominated Contractor for Saturday and Sunday.
Mistakes were rare. Broadcasting regulations at that time were stringent, and we were acutely conscious of our station output being closely monitored for abuses. But I can confidently report that the ethos of the company kept us on our toes; the procedures handed down to us from our ex-Royal Navy masters (in Office Organizational Memoranda, or OOMs), although sometimes rather quaint, were always explicit, rather like Queen’s Regulations and Admiralty Instructions in the Navy itself.
Inevitably, though, freak events would sometimes occur. Once, during a race meeting outside broadcast somewhere up-country, the microwave link was momentarily broken. It was only for a second or two, but the receiving equipment did what it had been designed to do, making a quick search to find the signal again – and found the BBC instead! A most unsettling experience. I seem to remember hearing that favourite expression from the engineers: “OK leaving me, mate!”
There were also times when it paid to have some local knowledge. John McMillan, who had a razor-sharp mind and always seemed to know exactly what was happening, also had the unfortunate drawback of sounding intoxicated and slurring his words when on the telephone. Whereas certain other senior executives had been known to take a sudden dislike to some programme you were busy transmitting and, in their cups, would demand it be taken off, with John Mac you had to listen carefully – and do what you were told.
For years, ITV was not permitted to transmit the Queen’s Christmas message: that always came from the BBC. The first year the ‘ban’ was lifted, I was on duty on Christmas Day and I decided I would rehearse the BBC’s tape for duration and any technical problems. Just as well I did: the Beeb, whether accidentally or by design, had left an unusable Take 1 on the front of the tape – where Her Majesty dried! Had I transmitted that, there would have been hell to pay.