How it feels to face the TV camera 

15 February 2021

Suntan and a change of shirt



Yorkshire Evening Post masthead

From the Yorkshire Evening Post for 28 September 1951

LET us presume that you have been accepted for a television test, and that so far it has all been plain sailing. You’ve got your audition at Alexandra Palace. What next? This is what happened to me:

Clive Rawse, presentation manager, and Mary Malcolm, one of the TV announcers, were the first people I met. They warned me I should find my first appearance in front of the TV camera a “pretty terrifying thing.” Without further preamble I was waltzed off to the make-up room.

Everyone who appears in the studio in front of the TV cameras requires some make-up. I was given a “straight’ make-up. Two charming girls worked on my face for half an hour, so that at the end of it I looked at least 10 years younger.


Elizabeth Cowell and Jasmine Bligh, continuity announcers in 1937

Tell-tale lines had disappeared, my eyes positively sparkled and beamed good health and I had a tan that could only normally be acquired in some sunny climate far removed from England.

Then I had to change my shirt. I was wearing a white one. That was no good. It would cause a glare when I came up on television. I changed it for a buff one. So I was all set for the “terrifying thing,” the camera.

In general appearance the high-walled studio was like an aeroplane hangar, with masses of electrical apparatus.

Standing by were 15 engineers and three camera men, all of whom had something to do with MY test. They looked at me inquisitively. In addition there was Clive Rawse, up in the loft where he could see me on the TV monitor once the camera started, and also Harry Locke, the studio manager.

My test was strictly for TV studio work as an announcer or interviewer. A pool of them is required for relief work. Variety stars and stage folk, of course, get by in their own right.

Harry Locke tossed me a couple of typewritten sheets — part of a news programme. “I want you to memorise those first few lines,” he told me, “and then say them straight into the camera. (So there was the “terrifying thing,” about four feet in front of me.)

“Then I want you to read the rest of it, after a signal from me, until you come to the end. Memorise the last few lines as well, and on another signal, say them straight into the camera again. Now have a few minutes just to look through the script.”

Harry went off and had words with most of the engineers, but a few minutes didn’t seem long enough for the memory part. Normally a person Iis given a couple of hours with the script.


Mary Malcolm returns to BBCtv in 1986 to host a celebration of 50 years of television.



I sat in a chair for the whole of my test. “Don’t move your head,” I was told. Once I looked down at the script when I had failed to memorise part of a line. The camera shot forward to prevent the peculiar appearance that my movement would cause to the viewer.

Another “must” was to be absolutely natural and not “give a performance.”

At the end of the test came a few minutes’ improvisation direct at the camera. Then it was all over.

The heat was overwhelming. Not surprising when the electric lamps glaring on me were the equivalent of more than 23,000 watts.

But the camera was not too terrifying after all — perhaps because I had had some broadcasting experience.

Afterwards Mary Malcolm talked to me about colours and what a TV announcer most needs to make a success of the job. Colours to be avoided are scarlet, white and black (causes fog or “fuzz”). Mary wore a flowered chiffon dress — “the camera man’s dream,” she said.


Make-up is necessary to avoid shadows, particularly round the eye sockets. Another tip I learned — not to move conveys a feeling of repose which brings dignity and authority.

To be a success on TV, you must be pleasant to look at (film star types not wanted — they tend to pall), really enjoy being in front of the camera, and speak easily and with conviction.

Five or six people a day apply for tests. About one in six receives them, and only one in 14 who have tests is asked to come a second time.

The following section is commentary from Transdiffusion's expert writers

Russ J Graham writes: With the opening of Holme Moss just a fortnight away, provincial newspapers in the north are getting interested in the whys and hows of television – as are their readers.

Jane Carr, a popular singer, in Baird 30-line make-up in November 1932. inset: how viewers saw her on their homemade television ‘sets’.

The world of light-weight, low-light cameras is a long way off in the future. The 405-line cameras in use at Alexandra Palace are bulky and heavy and require huge lighting rigs to make more than just shadows out of those appearing on screen. And people: the whole studio set-up requires lots and lots of people, from cameramen to lighting riggers, from floor managers and technicians to directors and control room staff… all for one person’s camera test.

Gone are the pre-war days when frightening makeup – dark smudges to create contours the lighting has wiped out, blue lipstick to make the lips even visible at all, as described by camera model Noele Gordon to the TVTimes in 1969 – was required, but the make-up still has to be much more drastic than Ronald Yeomans was expecting.

The figures for the number of people the BBC were getting applications from are fascinating. Five or six people a day translates to about 1250 to 1500 a year, assuming they count them on working days. Even taking the lower figure, that’s still 200 a year who actually get a test – a huge number. Reducing that further, about 14 people a year pass the camera tests are asked back. That manages to be both a huge number (reflecting the newness of television and its rapid expansion) and a tiny one (even assuming a low turnover in on-screen staff, 14 new faces a year is surprising!).

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