Gigglers, gogglers and gumption


1961: Director James Butler on the hell that is studio visits by the public

Television is accepted by most people as part of their everyday life. They can be entertained, informed or infuriated by it without wanting to know more about it than how to operate the on/off knob of their set.

From ‘Fusion’ 19, Associated-Rediffusion’s house magazine, published June 1961

However, the day comes when they have been more entertained or more infuriated than usual and an idea grows that it would be interesting to see ‘how it works’, or ‘how human are the people in television’ or ‘whether they are all morons’. Then a letter is written by a club secretary, or a father pestered by a son telephones, and another group of people go down on the evergrowing waiting list for visits to Wembley.

The idea of such visits is not to preach to the converted but to inform those that are uninformed, to answer the criticisms of the critical and to allay the fears of the fearful. An explanation of how everyone and everything joins together to overcome the problems surrounding the recording or transmission of a programme, calms even the most heated.

About 50 requests a week reach me from a cross-section of our own and the BBC’s audiences. As only about six visits are made each week hard pruning is necessary. It is then that one begins to see the groups of people who are interested and why they want to come.



It is easy enough to cut out those who are obviously out for an evening’s jollification, drink and anything else that amounts to a night in London, taking in the Victoria Palace, Buckingham Palace and the Strand Palace. Studio 5 is palatial in size, but the work behind the scenes is altogether too serious. An offer of tickets for a show is all that is necessary here and about 50 per cent can be given these.

It is the other 50 per cent who are more difficult to sort out. They range from groups of solicitors, through Polytechnic, engineering societies, political study groups, overseas visitors, young wives’ clubs, to school children with all their mothers, fathers, pastors and masters.

No one group of people reacts in the same way to what they see and hear. The most critical and questioning are the professional groups. They are also the most uninformed. Many of them freely admit to having either no set or to only watching BBC programmes. Their complaints are based on what their patients or colleagues have talked about on the golf course. They talk only of quizzes and the excess of advertising and are therefore a little hurt to discover that quizzes are minimal, that it is us, not the BBC who produce ‘This Week’ and that advertisements are subject to control.

Because of their reaction and change of outlook, they are the most rewarding, and although many come to sneer, very few leave with their noses in the air. The guilds and study groups think they know everything but after a few minutes it becomes very obvious that they, too, are woefully ignorant. They need much convincing before they will accept a point of view and there is always somebody in their parties who tries to slip in an answer to a question, almost before it has been asked.

Children are open-mouthed and open-minded. They ask innumerable questions, but in the end admit that they have come in the hope that they will meet some star or other.

Occasionally one loses all faith in human nature. This happens with those who are able to do nothing except giggle or blink at the lights and exclaim, ‘It’s too hot’. They always drift along at the back aimlessly swishing at metaphorical daisies like Mr Stillbrook in ‘The Diary of a Nobody’. Invariably they belong to clubs affiliated to either Her Majesty’s Government or Her Majesty’s Opposition.

The tour of Wembley runs on roughly the same pattern. Studio 5 is looked at in its entirety. Its vastness impresses everyone. The scoffer, the informed, the gigglers are mercifully silent for a short time. All are surprised that we should have taken the trouble to build a large new studio when we are ‘commercial television’. It is from now on that one begins to see a change of mind. Eyes light up and different people look at each other as if to say: ‘They do take trouble after all’.

Vision Control (‘worse than flying an aeroplane’ said a lady the other night who had never flown one, but had a vivid imagination), sound (‘Oh! It’s here they drown the singer with the orchestra’), lighting (‘Where’s Harold Smart?’) bemuse people, but make them realise that there is co-ordination behind every programme.



Old ladies, young technicians become filled with unholy fire so that questions rush out like those from satisfied, and dissatisfied, shareholders at an annual general meeting.

Now is the time to get everyone into a viewing room, give them a drink, watch a rehearsal or transmission and answer as many questions as possible.

These run to no fixed pattern. Every side of television is covered as well as a good deal of general knowledge.

‘Does Eric Lander like mauve ties?’ This was from a middle-aged lady ‘passionately interested in clothes’. A straightforward statement of fact from a 16-year-old girl was, ‘Jango’s better than Elvis’.

Advertisements, colour and violence raise many questions, I presume because these are the problems about which the Press exercises itself so often.

People by now are less hostile and although they still naturally do not agree with everything we do they are open to reason. The power of Wembley is working. Then to end a visit and crystalize their ideas they go to see the old studios and the service areas around them. ‘In Studio 5’, their minds seem to work, ‘everything looked reasonably easy. In Studio 1 all is obviously difficult, yet the results are comparable. The ever mysterious THEY are human after all.

Another visit comes to an end. In the two hours or so we have been open to the public, no half-crowns have been taken but the impressions made are better than any gained in a stately home. We are progressing all the time, not standing still in the past.

About the author

James Butler was a director at Rediffusion. He was one of the main directors on 'This Week'.

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