“Sound On; Vision On” 

15 June 2017 tbs.pm/12003

By-ways of the BBC

A general view of Alexandra Palace, showing the aerial mast that "has given London a new landmark"

Seven miles north of Broadcasting House and 306 ft. above sea level is Alexandra Palace, a pleasure resort of Londoners for more than sixty years, and now the headquarters of the first — and as yet the only — television station in Great Britain. It is farther from Broadcasting House than any other of the BBC’s London establishments, but the Corporation has its own private ’bus service linking the two, a luxurious green and grey motor coach being available for the use of staff, artists, and guests. Necessarily, of course, there is electrical communication, the outstanding feature of which is the new cable that has been laid in the centre of London especially for television purposes, and which can be tapped to bring within “A.P.’s” reach centres of national interest and entertainment, such as Buckingham Palace, Westminster Abbey, Whitehall, Piccadilly Circus, Hyde Park Corner, and Marble Arch.

The BBC’s accommodation at Alexandra Palace — studios, sound and vision transmitters, control room, dressing-rooms, offices, production shop, boiler house, and a restaurant — has been built into the south-eastern corner of the building. Incidentally, to look out from the large bay windows of the offices on the BBC’s upper floors is to appreciate for the first time how vast London is. The view is awe-compelling.

Televised production of ‘Job’ by Vic-Wells Ballet Company

But lofty though these windows are, the station can take you higher still. On the top of the 80-ft. brick tower at the corner of the building — a tower that was an empty shell until the BBC filled it with five floors, twenty-six offices, and a lift — is a tapering lattice mast supporting a cage of wires that are the sound and vision aerial systems, the vision array being at the mast’s summit, more than 600-ft. above sea-level. Television has given London a new landmark.

More than 400 members of the BBC staff work at the station: producers, stage attendants, clerical staff, eighty or more engineers, a catering staff of twenty, commissionaires, stage managers, make-up experts, messenger boys. They contribute to the production of two programmes each day, broadcast from 3.0 p.m. to 4.0 p.m. and 9.0 p.m. to 10.30 p.m. (There is also an hour’s transmission on week-day mornings — usually consisting of an interest film — which is radiated for the benefit of wireless traders’ demonstrations). The length of the programme, by the way, is far from being the measure of the work that goes to its making. At Alexandra Palace, the ratio of rehearsals to transmissions is about six to one — rehearsals for a recent thirty-minute broadcast, for example, lasted for three and a quarter hours.

Televising “Blue Bird”

Interesting discoveries repay exploration behind the camera. One finds provision for the storing of properties and scenery; a miniature cinema where films intended for incorporation in the programmes can be previewed and edited; ten dressing-rooms in two sets of five, each set with its own bath; a chorus-room where forty artists can be accommodated; an area on the ground floor which can be used for the construction of scenery or for televising objects that cannot be taken into the studios or televised outside in stormy weather (large animals and motorcars are examples).

Altogether, nearly 32,000 square feet of floor space are in use, and another 25,000 square feet will be added if a proposed reconstruction of the Alexandra Palace Theatre is finally approved. If present plans come to pass, the theatre, which has previously been used as the scene-painting and carpentry shop, will be turned into a studio giving room for at least five television stages —
the largest television studio in the world.

As in the existing two studios, the stages in the converted theatre would be overlooked by a sub-control room — the place where the inputs of the various cameras and microphones are selected and mixed by the producers and engineers. The “mixture” is then sent to the central control room (through which all the sound and vision signals, whatever their source, must go), and so to the transmitters. There are two, of course: one for vision; one for the associated sound, and they work on the ultra-short waves, vision being broadcast on a frequency of 45 megacycles and sound on 41.5 megacycles.

To tell in a chapter the story of a BBC television studio is an impossibility: the station’s two years of existence (it went into action in August, 1936) have been packed with colourful incidents. The great arc-lamps that are dotted about the studio floor and sit, like a regiment of moons, in the battens and galleries overhead have glared down on foreign potentates, “singing” mice, ballet dancers, British statesmen, musicians and entertainers from all over the world, animals from the London Zoo, dance bands, characters from the London streets, cartoonists, and ordinary people who have done extraordinary things.

Those lamps could tell stories that would delight the world: they could recall, for instance, the day when a well-known woman artist, who was sharing an afternoon programme with some artists from Regent’s Park, was chased across the studio by an infuriated cockatoo, and subsequently went home not only with a cheque for her afternoon’s work, but with a nip in her ankle. They could recall the agitation that was created by a certain foreign ruler’s arriving at the studio only fifteen minutes before the end of the programme in which he had consented to appear, and who therefore made his first television appearance entirely without rehearsal.

And recently, they lit for viewers television’s most ambitious studio broadcast to date: the production of Edmond Rostand’s Cyrano de Bergerac, for which the two studios, three control rooms, eight cameras, and a cast of thirty-two were used.

Frequently, too, those lamps illuminate the most versatile combination of musicians in Great Britain. Consisting normally of twenty-two players (chosen for their faces as well as for their musicianship), the Television Orchestra must be prepared to play anything from “swing” music to the works of Mozart. Hyam Greenbaum, its conductor, found three months none too long a time in which to discover instrumentalists who were both versatile and had the right kind of face. Red jackets with black facings are worn by the players when they are being televised.

While the light-signals on the studio wall — “Sound On; Vision On” — are shining, standing somewhere on the cable-strewn floor will be the BBC’s makeup expert, or one of her assistants, ready, if wanted, to apply restorative touches to complexions to improve the quality of the television picture. These complexions are no longer the fearsome combination of blue eyelids and blue lips that once were necessary; to-day the makeup that the experts apply to television artists is only an intensifled form of the ordinary open-air make-up of the modern woman.

In the make-up room

But human faces are not the make-up expert’s only responsibility. She has to meet many queer calls upon her services. The oddest (and the biggest) job that she has undertaken up to date was the “making-up” of Sir Malcolm Campbell’s famous racing-car, “Bluebird.” When “Bluebird” was televised some time ago, it was found that light reflection from its bodywork was affecting the picture, and the expert was called upon to do something about it. She took out the “high-lights” with face-powder — and needed a keg-full to do it.

But the problems, the complications, the unique thrills, that are the life of the television broadcaster are not confined to the activity in Alexandra Park. Within the London area, the television camera accompanies its elder brother in broadcasting, the microphone, on its wanderings, and its presence at big events is becoming an accepted thing.

That has been made possible by not only the special cable, but by two mobile units. Each consists of four vehicles — the transmitter, control, aerial, and power units, respectively — and they send the image signals (sound is sent by telephone cable in the usual way) by radio to Alexandra Palace, or to a special reception point on Highgate Hill, where they are picked up and re-radiated from Alexandra Palace in the usual manner. The aerial van, by the way, might easily be mistaken for the escape-unit of a modern fire-brigade, were it not for the fact that its 8o-ft. “ladder” when fully extended is surmounted, not by a hose-grasping fireman, but by the square framework of the transmitting aerial.

And so it is that BBC viewers have been given front-row seats at parades of pageantry, at great sporting events, at entertainments and shows hitherto the prerogative of the lucky few. They have seen history in the making: the departure and return of the Prime Minister when he made his momentous journeys to Germany and back; the Coronation Procession. They saw the Test matches, the Derby, the Cup Final, the Boat Race; they have watched the making of British films; seen the Chelsea Flower Show; toured the Zoo; sat, in spirit, at the Trooping the Colour, stood at the Cenotaph on November 11. There is no end to it….

And it is only the beginning.



About the author

Wilfred Goatman began working at the British Broadcasting Company’s station 5WA in Swansea, where his was the first voice heard on air. He later worked in the Public Relations Department at Broadcasting House in London. These articles were originally written as features for BBC Empire Broadcasting magazine under the pen-name “J. C. MacLennan”, and all nine were collected into the book By-ways of the BBC, published in late 1938 by P.S. King & Son.

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