“Getting it going and keeping it going”: on-the-road maintenance of colour television outside broadcasts

 This post is by Nick Hall, a postdoctoral research in the Department of Media Arts, Royal Holloway University of London. The post was written during an unfolding research activity, and represents early notes and first impressions – without footnotes or further references. Nick can be contacted at nick.hall@rhul.ac.uk or @NickXHall


"Outside broadcasts were survival. It was all about ‘getting the gear working and keeping it working’. At least half a day was spent driving, one day rigging, another day rehearsing, another day derigging, and another driving home. It was just a couple of hours making the show!" – BBC outside broadcast camera operator Robin Sutherland

Last week, my attention was caught by a photo posted on Twitter by the BBC journalist Christian Fraser. From a rescue ship somewhere in the Mediterranean, Fraser was reporting on the European migrant crisis. In the foreground, BBC News location engineer Ultan Molloy reaches into what looks like a suitcase. Look closely, and you can see a laptop computer inside the case. Beyond it sits what looks like a smaller laptop, but is actually a small satellite transmitter. Fraser’s tweet explains:

The photo shows a small team, on a boat in choppy waters, preparing to mount a live broadcast which will be beamed live around the world and on the internet.

There are lots of pictures like this on Twitter, but you have to look carefully for them. Such material is generally not tweeted by the corporate accounts of broadcasters, which tend to post publicity stills and images of the “on-air talent”. Instead, these insights into the technical realities of television production are the preserve of what might be called “behind-the-scenes Twitter”: an informal community of reporters, camera operators, field producers, technicians and gallery directors who – like so many of us do – share moments of their professional life, however mundane, via Twitter.

As a historian of television, I am fascinated by these tweets, and the online conversations that arise from them. It is in these conversations that you learn how television – especially news and current affairs television – is produced and brought to air. The same day last week, I watched one of Christian Fraser’s live reports from the Mediterranean, and became frustrated as the signal from ship to shore became weaker. The image froze and the audio distorted. Then I looked again at the photo he had tweeted, and remembered how remarkable it was that any video or audio could be fed live to London from the deck of a ship on a rolling sea.

But I’m interested in yesterday’s television, not today’s. I currently work on a research project called ADAPT (the acronym stands, slightly awkwardly, for “the adoption of new technological arrays in the production of broadcast television”). The aim of the project, which is funded by the European Research Council and based in the Department of Media Arts at Royal Holloway, University of London, is to examine how people used technologies to make television in the past. Our methodology, conceived by the project leader, Prof. John Ellis, is innovative, challenging, and highly rewarding. Instead of researching exclusively from interviews or by examining paper records, we seek out working examples of obsolete technologies, and we reunite these artefacts with veteran television personnel. Then we ask our TV veterans to once again use an old camera, or cut film on an old film editing table: in other words, to make television as it was made in the past.

This week we’re carrying out one of these exercises, and that’s why Christian Fraser’s tweet caught my eye. Our focus this week has been outside broadcasts – but not the small-team, film-anywhere (even on a ship on an uncertain sea) digital satellite outside broadcasts of today. We are interested in the BBC’s colour outside broadcasts of the late 1960s and 1970s. These required a much bigger team and a much bigger piece of equipment: in this case, a truck, a generator and heavy television cameras. In the 1970s, outside broadcasts also needed a heavy-duty electrical supply and either fixed lines or ground-based microwave telecommunications lines back to London.

BBC Colour Mobile Control Room ‘North 3’ outside Northop Hall Hotel, North Wales.

BBC Colour Mobile Control Room ‘North 3’ outside Northop Hall Hotel, North Wales.

So we have borrowed a vintage BBC outside broadcast truck, known as “North 3”, and we are spending the week with a veteran crew of ex-BBC technicians and engineers – now aged in their 70s and 80s – to recreate the working practices of a 1970s darts competition. It is an exercise calibrated to recreate, through detailed simulation, the working practices behind an everyday, non-spectacular, piece of live British sports television. The whole exercise is being filmed in great detail via a rig of 12 miniature fixed cameras. All of the participants are fitted with wireless lapel microphones so that we can listen to, and record, their conversations.

In a makeshift production gallery, producer Amanda Murphy watches camera feeds of the historical re-enactment, while Royal Holloway media student Amy Clark (foreground) makes a detailed log of events.

In a makeshift production gallery, producer Amanda Murphy watches camera feeds of the historical re-enactment, while Royal Holloway media student Amy Clark (foreground) makes a detailed log of events.

Compared with Ultan Molloy’s magic digital satellite suitcase, the outside broadcast unit we’re making use of is a behemoth. It’s a behemoth with a storied past. Brought into use by the BBC in the late 1960s, it’s an example of what’s known as a “Type 2 Colour Mobile Control Room”. It started its life with the call-sign CMCR9, and throughout the 1970s, it roamed across the UK helping to link the BBC in London to wherever and whatever the BBC in London wanted to show its viewers. Horse-racing at Ascot? Send CMCR9! Football in Manchester? Get on the road! Variety show in Birmingham? Make good time on the motorway – the broadcast is tomorrow. As with all pieces of industrial equipment, OB truck downtime is a waste of money. CMCR9 was constantly busy, moving from assignment to assignment, sitting idle as infrequently as possible. As one of our participants remarked: “As [presenter] Sue Barker said ‘goodnight’, wires were pulled out, OB wrapped and the truck was on the road to Scotland for the Open golf. It would set off overnight and be at St Andrews the next day.”

Our truck ended its life as a servant of the BBC’s North West Region – hence its final and current callsign, “North 3”. Thereafter it was sold by the BBC and, after several changes of ownership, ended up rotting (parts of North 3 were made out of wood) in a damp aircraft hangar in South West England. Eventually television history enthusiast, equipment preserver and restorer Steve Harris found it, bought it, and painstakingly restored it. Today, thanks to the efforts of Steve and a large team of volunteers whom he has assembled, North 3 is mostly in working order.

North 3 is a “museum piece”, but it’s not a museum piece. A museum wouldn’t so enthusiastically agree to let a team of researchers power it up and scramble all over it – and nor should they. In fact, the Science Museum owns one of North 3’s contemporaries. The paperwork that would be required before our team could touch their artefact, let alone run power through it or use it to re-enact an outside broadcast, is mind-boggling. For fun, read Policy and Procedures for Selecting and Operating Historic Objects from the Collections of the Science Museum: a fearsomely-titled bureaucratic document designed, quite rightly, to make sure that our soldering irons (or somebody else’s) don’t accidentally set fire to such an important example of national engineering history.

North 3, owned by a private enthusiast, is a very different story. Found in a state of significant decay, its life is one of constant repair, renewal, and maintenance. Harris and his friends and colleagues have spent time and labour reinstating original equipment (or close substitutes, replicas, or functional equivalents). Because North 3 can be operated, the routine maintenance it must undergo closely approaches the sort of care and attention that was needed when it was being regularly used during its working life.

Maintaining communications: Brian Summers replaces the cue light bulb on a vintage Pye PC80 television camera.

Maintaining communications: Brian Summers replaces the cue light bulb on a vintage Pye PC80 television camera.

When we arrived in North Wales on Monday, Steve Harris and his colleagues Steve Jones and Brian Summers were hard at work on North 3, repairing things with soldering irons. At one point, as equipment was being loaded into another van ready for our week’s shooting, we heard a cheer. The cause for celebration was that the team had managed to reinstate a cue-light system – fixing a faulty connection between switches on the truck and the tiny lightbulbs atop each of the cameras. These are the small, uncelebrated jobs which amount to the restoration of a big, complex piece of heritage technology.

They are also the small, uncelebrated jobs which made up the everyday work of outside broadcasting. As we know well by now, histories of technology are often clouded by heroic stories. We hear about the firsts and the failures. We hear about the achievements of pioneers, ‘against all odds’. These flaws are sometimes too easily blamed on the historian: when we write about recent history, basing our accounts on interviews with people who recall their own careers, it’s difficult not to return to these stories. These are the stories that people remember, by telling them and retelling them. We cannot force people to remember what they’ve forgotten.

The heroic, memorable, stories come up again and again. They are thrilling to listen to and fascinating in their detail. Our television veterans have stayed with us at a hotel where North 3 has been temporarily stationed. During the day, we have interviewed them and filmed them rigging and equipping a temporary studio. In the evening we provide a meal and afterwards, in the bar, they share war stories. The stories invariably gravitate towards Royal weddings and prestigious sports events (FA Cup Finals are memorable, lower-league meetings between mediocre football clubs are not). One evening a small group crowded around a laptop to watch a bootlegged edition of the BBC’s Seaside Special, featuring ABBA. Would an episode with less famous musical stars have been remembered as clearly? I suspect not.

Despite these stories, the reality of BBC outside broadcasts during the 1960s and 1970s – and in the years since – was mostly coverage of mundane, everyday programming. Weekend sports were a major preoccupation of BBC outside broadcast teams. A look at the schedule for Grandstand almost exactly forty years ago (15 May 1976) shows one fixture that might be remembered today – an international football match between England and Scotland. Everything else has probably been forgotten. Even the runners might have forgotten this rather dull-sounding athletic fixture:

1.35: The AAA Olympic Trial Marathon: In this race at Rotherham, the first three out of a field of over 400 qualify to represent Great Britain in Montreal. Ron Pickering reports on Ian Thompson's attempt to win his sixth marathon in a row. Organised by the AAA in association with the Provincial Insurance Company.

The afternoon’s schedule also included live tennis and highlights of the week’s boxing. Each of these would have required an outside broadcast unit like North 3, with a full production and engineering crew.

If these moments of television have been forgotten, then the maintenance involved has been forgotten twice over. Formal histories have taken little notice of the realities of driving vehicles from location to location, rigging and fixing cables, and finding workarounds for the thousands of problems which might threaten to knock an essential outside broadcast off the air. And these stories are not eloquently told by museum exhibits. An outside broadcast truck implies a great deal of everyday maintenance, but the unfamiliar eye is more likely to overlook this in favour of seeing the vehicle as a means to an end: a vessel through which a television signal briefly travels, on its way to transmitters screens in homes and pubs.

My modest – and probably not very original – suggestion here is that museums are excellent preservers of artefacts, but not very good preservers of maintenance. That is where the value of restorers and enthusiasts like Steve Harris becomes most obviously evident. Through the act of restoration, they preserve maintenance activities. You cannot bring an outside broadcast truck back to life without repeating the many everyday tasks – lubrication, soldering, replacing worn parts – which characterised the artefact’s original life. Some museums restore and operate some of their artefacts (for example: the Science Museum owns trains which sometimes run on the mainlines) – but regular restoration and operation of artefacts is the exception, not the rule, in the museum context.

The working nature of restored vintage technology adds a new dimension to re-enactment activities such as the one that I have been involved in this week. You can attempt to re-enact old ways of working with museum artefacts, but if a button or switch is not in the right position, or part of the equipment does not work, then there is no quick way to fix that problem. When working with a team of equipment restorers, that limitation fades away. In the past week, Steve Harris and his colleagues have managed to restore the ‘talkback’ system, which links the director to the camera operator via headphones, to working order. Countless other, smaller, tasks of maintenance have been carried out. Soldering irons and screwdrivers have been busy. As we have filmed our veteran outside broadcast crew rigging a set and preparing to “go live”, we have brought tasks of maintenance into to the foreground.

What I have noticed, however, is that maintenance hides. Andy Russell’s initial, playful, description of ‘Maintainers’ included “introverts” in its short list of those who might be considered “maintainers”. The people with whom we have worked this week generally do not have introverted personalities. Nevertheless, I have noticed that tasks of maintenance are accompanied by an introverted physical posture and a level of concentration that might be mistaken for an introverted personality. When things break, they must be fixed. The work of fixing essential things and solving everyday problems involves bodies turned into machines, shoulders hunched over soldering irons. The concentration required makes it difficult for historical investigators to ask questions, because doing so involves interrupting this concentration.

‘Introverted postures’: Steve Harris, Brian Summers and Steve Jones carrying out repair and maintenance on vintage television equipment.

‘Introverted postures’: Steve Harris, Brian Summers and Steve Jones carrying out repair and maintenance on vintage television equipment.

In our research activities this week, and on the ADAPT project more broadly, we are continuously developing a model of restoration, maintenance and simulation as an historical research methodology. It is challenging: finding working artefacts with cooperative owners, and willing participants, costs a great deal of money and time. (Our work has required a substantial research grant – ADAPT is funded by the European Research Council.) Working with ‘veterans’ necessarily constrains research to technologies which were used within living memory. Finally, when a broad definition of maintenance includes attention to infrastructures, standards, and other big systems, it’s worth noting that North 3 – though unwieldy – is not ‘big’ like a power station or city sewerage system; nor is it abstract and ungraspable, like a codec, or a workplace norm.

If bringing maintenance into the foreground means trying new approaches and historical techniques, then perhaps doing so on a relatively limited scale is a good place to start. After several months of planning we have spent a few days examining in detail a truck-sized assembly of technological systems and arrays. We now have two tasks: firstly, to make the video and audio we have captured available to a wide audience, so that others who are interested in the systems behind outside broadcasting can use it to animate and inform their own historical research projects. Secondly, to consider how this new methodology can be scaled up and translated to bigger, more difficult, technological systems.


Further Reading

Further information about the restoration of North 3 can be found at Steve Harris’s website.

Full details about the ADAPT project can be found at the project website, www.adapttvhistory.org.uk. Videos of past simulations can be found on the project’s YouTube channel.

The ADAPT project tweets at @adaptTV and Nick Hall tweets at @NickXHall