Entertainment was plentiful [when I was a child]. We didn't have television until the Coronation in 1953, but the radio and cinema fulfilled all our needs, when we were not amusing ourselves. I particularly liked the sound of the radio voice of Lionel Gammlin. Our neighbour, Mr Massey, was the manager of the local cinema, which was called the Sovereign but known to us as the 'Sov'. This was a job which Mr Massey took very seriously, and he was always present in the foyer, wearing evening dress and white gloves, to welcome visitors. The Saturday children's film show was always free to me.
Sometimes my mother would take me to a matinee film show, and it was at one of these that another unforgettable experience occurred. We had walked some two miles to the Tudor cinema. This was much bigger than the 'Sov' and boasted a Rutt theatre organ.
However, it was not the theatre or its organ which proved to be so important, but a short colour film shown before the main film. It was of footage shot in the Hebrides and edited to [Mendelssohn's] 'Fingal's Cave' overture. [The film below is in black and white, and may or may not be the film that Malcolm saw.]
I have not seen the film since, and I had not heard the music before, but I remember it as one of the most important experiences of my life. For the first time I was aware that sound and image could enhance one another to make something more expressive than the sum of the individual components.
I remember only one thing about the 'eleven plus' examination for secondary education and that was the question:
I am still working on the answer. Fortunately, I was selected to go to the new and experimental Gateway Boys' Technical Grammar School.
My life changed. I could study any subject from a wide and varied curriculum and was allowed to formulate my own timetable. The Art Department at this school was very strong and, when I discovered oil paint, there was no doubt in my mind that my future was going to be in fine art. For my A-Level exam, I took physics, art, music and chemistry, but my main love was art. I was then accepted by the Leicester Colleges of Art and Technology to study painting and sculpture.
My interest in sound and music continued and I converted my old gramophone into a tape recorder with the turntable mechanism providing the mechanical power. This had the advantage that the tape speed was continuously variable from about one inch per second to twelve inches per second. Ideal for sound experiments.
The recorded sound quality was not very good. Tape erasure was by a permanent magnet and the recording bias was direct current (DC). There was almost more noise than recorded signal. The recording medium, brown paper backed tape, made mechanical noise all of its own. It was prone to break, but did have the advantage that repairs and edits could be done simply with scissors and parcel sticky tape. The output from the tape head was very low and needed to be considerably amplified in order to drive a loudspeaker.
For this purpose I assembled a Cossor Kit valve amplifier. The kit was cheap and avoided Purchase Tax. It also used, to save cost, a large green ceramic resistor instead of a mains transformer. It was this resistor resting on the bottom of the old gramophone case, which became hot and started the aforementioned* fire.
[*There doesn't seem to be any previous information about this fire in Malcolm's original text.]
It soon became clear to me that I needed more income. I had only sold one painting in the previous year. To earn more money I worked part time in the 'boot and shoe' and hosiery trades [which were very prominent in Leicester], but did not enjoy it.
JOINING THE BBC
I then wrote to the BBC to enquire what job vacancies they had. An organisation as large and diverse as the BBC would have, I thought, something of interest to me.
Within a week, I received a letter from Mr DP Dunhill, of the Appointments Department, inviting me to an interview at their offices in Portland Place, London, opposite Broadcasting House. He also included some job information, which I read, and I decided that I would be interested in training to become a studio manager (SM). Unfortunately, when I met Mr Dunhill, he told me that I was too young to apply for studio management training and that I needed to be twenty-five.
He asked me what BBC job I would like in my wildest dreams. I answered conductor of the BBC Symphony Orchestra or composer at the BBC Radiophonic Workshop. He pointed out that it was easy to change jobs within the BBC, and that he was on attachment to the Appointments Department from Radio Presentation. He suggested that as I had qualifications in physics and maths, I could apply to the Engineering Training Department, and that engineering qualifications would be useful to me if I decided later to apply to become a studio manager. An immediate meeting was arranged with the engineering officer, Mr Wingate, in the Langham Hotel, then owned by the BBC. I later applied to become a trainee engineer, and was accepted in 1962.
For my first two weeks at the BBC, I attended an induction course, which revealed to me what a huge and diverse organisation it was. One of the places visited was the Radiophonic Workshop at the BBC music studios in Maida Vale. This was a department that had been set up to provide creative support for all programme outputs interested in the experimental use of sound.
I had become aware of its existence in the late 1950s.
The first on-air credit I heard for the Workshop was for sound effects sequences specially made for the radio comedy programme The Goon Show. This had been my mother's favourite radio programme. An example of one of these sequences, 'Major Bloodnock's Stomach' is here:
Major Bloodnock suffered from a noisy and nervous digestive system, which was made worse when he was to be found hiding in the railway carriage toilets from ticket inspectors.
Spike Milligan, scriptwriter for the Goon Show, later accused the Workshop of being responsible for the Goon Show's premature demise. Continued support of the programme, at the expense of other projects, had been refused. There was a fear of [the department] becoming just a 'Funny Noises Workshop'.
Sir: Reading The Listener , 18 December 1969 (I really must get a new newsagent), I noted Michael Mason's reference to the unique oral surrealism of The Goon Show . I must add that this was only part of the development. It was audio sound effects, and their use of time, that really made it work. For instance, the agony of getting the sound of a Wurlitzer organ driving down the street, changing gear into a different key (I think top gear was C sharp above the stave), and then progressing, getting faster, which meant that the music not only had to be chromatic, but also broken down into quarter notes, and eighth tone and 32nd tones, and so on until it was crescendo. What in fact finally made me pack in the show was the inability of the then newly-formed Radiophonic Workshop, who serviced all the shows, using electronics. If I had been given that service, the show might have gone on another two series, but at the time we had exhausted every possible computation of sound effects that the BBC had.
I am full of all the useless type of information. Write now for full details.
(April 1970 The Listener )
In the early days of television most programmes were live. Consequently their duration was unpredictable.To accommodate for this, programme time slots were made a few minutes longer than the anticipated programme duration.The resulting spare time was filled with the now famous. Examples of these are:-
The Spinning Wheel
and the most popular:
The Potter's Wheel
The simplest and most often used of these time-filling devices was the BBC clock (made by Gents of Leicester), whose second hand marked out the passing of time.
It was soon realised that this interlude needed some sound, and it was with this in mind that the Radiophonic Workshop made 'Time Beat'. This simple and attractive rhythm became popular with the public.
EMI (Records) suggested using this rhythm as a backing track for a record. The production of this was given to their 'novelty' record producer, Ray Cathode. The record was successful, as was its producer, who is better known today by his real name, Sir George Martin.
A RADIOPHONIC VISIT
The Radiophonic Workshop at this time consisted of only four members of staff. During my visit I met three of them: John Baker, Delia Derbyshire, and Brian Hodgson. I found them all very strange and otherworldly.
JOHN BAKER, who had studied at the Royal Academy of Music, was known as the Workshop's tunesmith. He kept a large collection of tape loops, hanging on brass kitchen cup hooks, across the back of his studio. On these he stored, what we would call today, his sound samples.
This library of sounds included:
• a small shampoo bottle, blown like a flute.
• the glunk of water inside a Coates Cider bottle.
• a twanging spring sound made from a Woolworth's plastic jumping toy: this had recently been used to create the melody line for a 'Woman's Hour' signature tune and had proved to be highly controversial.
BRIAN HODGSON had come to the BBC from the theatre and was a specialist in sound and voice treatments for experimental radio drama. His talents in this area were later to be used by television, when the children's science fiction series 'Dr Who' started in 1963.
DELIA DERBYSHIRE showed me around and I was amazed how little there was to see. I didn't see anyone wearing white overalls. Most of the equipment had come from redundant stock, or had been made for domestic use. (e.g. Ferrograph tape recorder).
The only mixing desk was pre-war and had come from the Albert Hall, where it had been used for emergency standby. It was called an OBA8 mixer (Outside Broadcast Amplifier type A with 8 channel mixing). The mixing and amplification was achieved by one valve. This simplicity had the big advantage of generating very little background noise, which could quickly become intrusive when making multiple copies or mix-downs. The other equipment consisted of two oscillators, which had been home-made from a kit. Electronic equipment in kit form was popular at this time, as they were exempt from Purchase Tax.
Delia was a Cambridge graduate in mathematics and music. She was tall and had long red hair, which made her, I thought, an ideal subject for a Pre-Raphaelite painting. Her regular intake of garlic, cider, brandy and menthol snuff resulted in the use of kitchen roll towels to control her regular sneezing outbursts. This gave her studio a flavour all of its own. Although I had expressed an interest in working at the Workshop, I decided that I would not fit in with these unusual people.
Having completed the induction course, I was told that my initial training as a technical assistant would be at London Station old control room. This was in Broadcasting House.
It was referred to as the 'old' control room, as a new one was due to be opened on the first floor of Broadcasting House [in the extension], towards the end of 1962.
The original control room [before the 'old' one] had been situated below the mansard roof on the eighth floor of Broadcasting House, but at the outbreak of war it was considered too vulnerable to bomb attack, and was moved to the sub-basement.
A wise decision:
The bomb did not explode.
The 'Variety' studio, that had been used for audience-attended programmes like 'ITMA' and 'Henry's Halls Guest Night', was used to accommodate this move.
It was through the double-doors in the above photograph that I was introduced in 1962 to London Station and given my starting 'kit'. This consisted of a BBC notebook and pencil, and a 10-inch 78 rpm record of 'The Teddy Bear's Picnic', played by Henry Hall and the BBC Dance Orchestra, which was to be used for studio testing.
The duties of London Station covered four main areas:
Control Room: The technical centre of Broadcasting House, where all inputs to and outputs from studios were controlled and routed to transmitters, recording channels and other broadcasting centres.
Recording Unit: Specialist engineers in remote rooms, called recording channels, made the sound recordings onto disc and tape. They were kept separate from studio operations in order that they could concentrate on the necessary continual realignment of the unstable recording equipment.
Studio Testing and Circuit Maintenance Unit (CMU): Studio testing was carried out mainly at night on a scheduled basis, checking all of the studios' facilities, some of which were very specialised. Faults with studios or equipment were repaired by CMU.
- Continuity: A 'continuity suite' was associated with each of the network outputs, which were then called the Home Service, the Light Programme and the Third Programme. They were part of the control room area, and their purpose was to link together the various programme strands and provide the final technical control of output before the transmitter.
During my first six months training at London Station it was intended that I should experience working in all of these areas. Unfortunately, I wasn't attached to Recording Unit, which would have been my first choice, as I was needed to help in the operation of the old control room during the changeover to the new one. I expressed my disappointment, and it was agreed that I should attend the next engineering course at the BBC's training school, Wood Norton, in the Vale of Evesham. After this, some time with Recording Unit would be arranged.
The course began in April and lasted six months. It was blossom time. Every thing was enjoyable, and the icing on the cake was having use of the newly-introduction Mini car. On my return I was posted to Bush House [located at the southern end of Kingsway between Aldwych and the Strand], home of the BBC World Service. I was disappointed at not going Recording Unit, but I was told that everyone had to have some experience of 'Bush', and it was quite an experience. Like being thrown into organised chaos at the deep end on a permanent nigh shift, but it was great fun. I did quickly learn some skills, which were not natural to me, like announcing. Once you have heard 'This is the British Broadcorping Castration', it's difficult to say anything else.
LONDON RECORDING UNIT
After four months in the 'Bush', much to my delight, I was re-posted to London Station and Recording Unit, as had been promised. The technical facilities I found there in 1962 were quite a shock. Most recording was still being made to coarse-groove 78 rpm shellac disc. Sound Archives had advanced to micro-groove long play (LP) vinyl disc, but never accepted tape as a reliable storage medium.
My training began on Presto disc-recording machines, associated with news studios. There was quite an art in setting up these machines to give optimum performance. A major problem was removing the fine shellac strand, which was created as the groove was cut. This fine cotton material was highly explosive and produced a beautiful mushroom cloud when ignited, surprising many trainee recording engineers.
All recordings, mainly reports from correspondents, were made in duplicate and quickly handed through a serving hatch into the studio control cubicle, which would be 'live on air'. Assistant studio managers, using TD/7 record players, played these discs into the programme. The TD/7s were, despite their age, innovative in design. They had parallel-tracking tone arms a a variable-speed turntable, which could be accurately set by the use of a stroboscope. The playing weight of the tone arm was heavy to keep the stylus in contact with the reusable shellac-covered aluminium disc, which was often warped. It was normal to add a half-crown coin to the play head to overcome the problem of groove-jumping.
I was most impressed by the skill of the studio managers, especially in performing real-time editing of recorded material. They would be given a printed transcript of the correspondent's despatch, which had been edited by red pencil. This indicated the deletion of paragraphs, sentences and words, and the transposition of whole sections of text. The 'on air' editing of these discs was achieved by playing back the appropriate bit, or section, from one or other of the duplicate recordings, which had been placed on adjacent TD/7 players. This was not an easy task under normal studio conditions, but during the chaos of a live news transmission, it was a near miracle.
After about six months, I was sent back to the training school at Wood Norton to be given instruction in the art of tape recording and editing. This fascinated me and I was especially interested in what was possible in the realm of music. On one occasion I was taught by the senior instructor, Dr Sturley. This was memorable as he had, by listening to recorded sound, perfected the art of talking backwards. We recorded his weird speech onto tape and then transcribed it by playing the tape backwards.
Another character who was at Wood Norton at the time was Stanley Unwin, an engineer from Bush House. He spoke total nonsense, which sounded as though it made sense. He later became a popular entertainer, and introduced a new word into the english language - Unwinism.
On my return to London Station I became more and more involved in sound recording. Multi-session music recording and sectional retakes had become normal procedure. Mixing from multiple tape sources opened up many new possibilities that led on to multi-track recording.
New recording channels were now closely attached to the studios, and I often went out from Broadcasting House to the Maida Vale (music) or Camden (light music) studios.
Here I met and saw working studio managers, and this reminded me of my original intention to become a studio manager. In early 1965 I became the first engineer to transfer to Programme Operations.
To become a studio manager, I needed to attend another course at one of the many BBC training schools. This one was in the Langham [formerly a hotel, later returned to use as a hotel after the BBC vacated it in 1986], opposite Broadcasting House. A complete broadcasting system including control room, continuities, studios and recording channels was set up here. The climax of the course came with three days of mock live transmissions called 'White Network'. This involved a very complicated schedule, in which we played all the different roles - producer, announcer, performer, engineer, studio manager, etc. These roles changed every half an hour with each programme change.
I thoroughly enjoyed this course, and 'White Network' made me realise that it was the variety of skills and how they interacted that I found most rewarding.
THE WORLD CUP
When I had completed my studio management training, I was told that I, sadly, would not be able to start work at London Station, as Outside Broadcasts needed some help. There was big sporting event about to start, and I was going to look after the Brazilians. This was the World Cup. To my delight, I was asked to cover all of the matches at Wembley. Car parking was always difficult at Wembley, but I soon discovered that if I opened the top of my Messerschmitt bubble car, I could drive under the barriers and park on the pavement.
When it came to the Cup Final, I was asked if I could make room for a VIP. As it was, we had plenty of room and the best view in the stadium. When the VIP arrived, he sat next to me, but I didn't recognise him. I made an excuse to leave and asked one of the Brazilians who he was. "Cassius Clay", he said. "You know, the one who now calls himself Muhammad Ali". At first I didn't believe it. He just wasn't big enough, but soon we entered into conversation and I realised it was him. He was very jovial and found the antics of the Brazilian commentators very amusing. "I don't know why they think they need that microphone", he said. "They must be able to hear them in Brazil without one". After the match, which we won, he took us to the Agra restaurant in Whitehouse Street where we all ate curried white fish.
For nearly five years I enjoyed being a studio manager. I worked for every department, but eventually specialised and became a 'Senior Studio Manager, Music'. At this time, management decided that, for efficiency, some integration of operational departments was desirable. Tape recording had become stable and reliable, and recording facilities had become part of the studio environment. For this reason it was decided that 'Recordings' should come under Studio Operations and should no longer be part of Engineering [Division].
Due to my previous experience as an engineer, I found myself retraining ex-engineers. I was not happy about this, as I felt that the career efforts I had made in the past were working against my progress. This did not go unnoticed by my line manager, Joe Latham. One solution to staff problems was the 'attachment scheme', which made it possible for staff to go and work in any department for three months - a breath of fresh air.
I was in Broadcasting House waiting for a lift going up, when one stopped going down. The doors opened, revealing Joe Latham. "Ah, Malcolm!", he said, "Radiophonic Workshop?" My immediate reaction was to say 'no', but as the doors were starting to close, I thought it safer to be positive. It would be easier to say no later on. Although afraid of the prospect, I didn't change my mind, and in September 1969 I joined the Radiophonic Workshop on a three-month attachment.
©Malcolm Clarke 2003