When I was in – at the start of TV 

10 November 2016 tbs.pm/9598

From the TVTimes Midland edition, published 11 May 1956

Twenty years ago Commander A. B. Campbell made his first telecast. Since then a new generation has grown up, knowing and loving his seemingly inexhaustible stock of salty tales. Now, on Independent Television, he is seen at intervals in the five-minute spots Calling on Campbell.

In this article he tells of his first appearance before the television cameras.

One morning, as I was leaving Broadcasting House I was stopped by Gerald Cock. He had just been appointed Director of Television and I congratulated him.

“Look here,” he said, “aren’t you the fellow who broadcasts without a script?”

“Yes,” I said, “I can’t read.”

“Well, come and have lunch with me at ‘Ally Pally,’ will you?”

I stepped into his car on that day in 1936 and soon reached that dreary, gloomy building which is supposed to be the Crystal Palace of the North Londoner. Part of it had been taken over by the BBC for the new feature Television.

“Before we eat,” said Gerald, “I’d like to show you a television studio.”


I followed him into a room and, believe me, my first impression was that someone had been trying to reconstruct the original Chaos. The floor was covered with electric cables, instruments of all kinds stood here and there, and overhead hung microphones.

After dodging the instruments, stepping over cables, and avoiding being brained by the “mikes” we reached the studio floor. At the back was a large draughts board— or so it seemed to me. Gerald asked me to stand against it and talk. Meanwhile he called two or three cameramen and they peered at me through their cameras. This went on for a few minutes. Then they turned to him and said “Oh yes, he’s photogenic all right.”

This was Greek to me but I’ve since learned from my wife that I look 20 years younger on the TV screen, which I suppose is the answer.

“Will you give a talk on Thursday next?” asked Gerald.

“Yes,” I said, “I should like to try this new feature.”

“It will be the first talk from the BBC TV studio,” he continued, “and you will have the young Adonis from Broadcasting House to announce you.”

I duly arrived for the telecast and was introduced to Leslie Mitchell. We shook hands and, I know he won’t mind me saying so, but he was terribly nervous. It was new to us both, but I thought I might ease his mind so I said:

“Please don’t get nervous. You are on the screen for 20 seconds. I’m on for that number of minutes so if there’s any trembling to be done, I think I’m entitled to do it.”

He smiled and we went into the studio. The room was hardly bigger than a cupboard and almost dark save for a small blue light in the ceiling. An engineer was sitting on the floor I discovered, as my eyes got used to the dim light. The camera was fixed in the wall. The engineer rose to his feet.

“The monitor is over there,” he said, “and when I want a close-up I’ll prod you in the back. Will you then walk towards the camera till I touch your foot. The reverse operations will put you back in place again.”

“That’ll be all right,” I said, but in my mind I wondered how I could manage to carry on with my talk and at the same time stand by to receive a prod in the back or a thump on the toe.


We took up position in front of the camera, the light flicked then went on firm and Leslie broke the silence by announcing me. Unfortunately he said “shardcarps” instead of “cardsharps.” I forgot I was on vision and turned and shook my fist at him. The viewers I learned afterwards were highly amused.

Leslie Mitchell at a BBC microphone. Photograph courtesy of the BBC. © BBC

Leslie Mitchell at a BBC microphone. Photograph courtesy of the BBC. © BBC

In my talk I made mention of the fact that some of the cardsharpers travelling in British ships were Americans. I had been told that the extreme radius for television was 50 miles from the studio so I felt pretty safe. By a freak transmission I was heard in New York and Gerald Cock got an irate letter from someone there. He rang me up and said I must apologise in my next telecast.

All I could say in my defence was that all of them were very good card players, and rarely needed to cheat and many, especially Americans, had an uncanny card sense and knew the Theory of Probabilities with relation to the turn of a card.

I might explain that in those early days two firms were struggling for supremacy — Baird and the EMI; so each took a week at putting out the programmes. We poor performers were subjected to one week in a studio with a camera fixed and the next to one where the camera was placed on a trolley with rubber wheels. Both cameraman and instrument came at you there.

Of course it was really easier in EMI but it took some experience to get accustomed to seeing the whole contraption move slowly at you. I well remember the first time the late Professor Joad went through it. He looked scared and then dropped his head in fright. He told me later that he wouldn’t do it again for a thousand pounds.

Don’t sneeze

The lighting then was very primitive. I have stood with two 500 watt arc-lamps just beside me out of range of the camera, and after the transmission felt as if I’d been beaten with clubs, An annoying thing about them was that they made me want to sneeze.

Fortunately a trick that the North American Indians taught me stood me in good stead. When we went trapping it was necessary in some cases to keep perfectly silent. Lynx are said to have the sharpest ears in the animal world. So when approaching a track of one of them, silence is really golden. The Indians warned me that should I feel the need to sneeze, all I should do to stop it was to press the skin of my top lip just below the nose. I have found this tip useful on more than one occasion.

What a difference today. You’d hardly know you were being televised and the lighting is so soft.


  • Commander Archibald Bruce Campbell (21 January 1881 – 11 April 1966) was an officer in the Royal Navy during the Great War until branching out into broadcasting in 1935. He shot to fame as one of Howard Thomas’s Brains Trust panel members during the Second World War, where he became famous for his laconic tall stories, with the public never sure if he was spinning a tale or had actually experienced what he was saying whilst sailing up the Orinoco.

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2 responses to this article

Paul Mason 11 November 2016 at 2:22 pm

Were his 1956 talks on ABC ? It would have been appropriate………

T R Mortimer 1 November 2018 at 6:37 pm

Wasn’t this same Campbell a horologist, who restored Harrison’s earlier chronometers ? I am old and my memory’s going – but not going well. I seem to recall a fascinating TV programme about this. I can Google no trace.

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