Television floor managers 

27 May 2022 tbs.pm/75064

Being a Floor Manager, Television, calls for more than in the Theatre or Films: it demands also resolute personal qualities. In this article Paul Morby underlines not only the difficulties but also some of the satisfactions of his job.

 

 

The notice which goes on the board whenever a Floor Manager vacancy occurs is a model of literary indolence; a ‘Nelson Expects’ signal, flamboyant yet economical, giving away not a hint of the bloody broils and broadsides into which such an appointment will surely sail.

‘Responsible to Producer and Production Manager for studio discipline, prompt start to rehearsals…’

Studio discipline is not ‘Quiet please’ and then keeping the pistol at half-cock. It is the establishment of an atmosphere and the retention of that atmosphere in which artistic and technical work can move together through a rehearsal period: once the atmosphere is captured — attentive, relaxed, confident — studio work is for most a joy: without that atmosphere, an unholy squabble degrading to the professional mind.

Let us list some of the obvious but always recurring problems contained in this matter of studio discipline. Unnecessary noise — a restive group muttering about the Arsenal line-up during a violinist’s slow movement; men with definite work that has to be done around the studio but just not taking the trouble to realize that uncontrolled noise is an insult and discourtesy to the artists, the Producer, and everyone else on the floor; careless moving of scenery and furniture because ‘we’re not on the air yet’; a debate between a boom, a Back Projection camera, and a machine as to who goes where when the Producer appears to want them in identically the same spot, an undoubtedly necessary debate but often heedlessly strong-voiced; no smoking, no alcohols, no steel-tipped boots in the studio; controlling, so as not to jeopardize the mobility of the production, the groups of studio visitors and official photographers: the attendance of Fire Officers whenever gas, smoking, howitzers, fireworks, and practical volcanoes are to be used, and the compliance with the many L.C.C. regulations concerning studio working conditions, fire exits, fire lanes, overhead ventilation system, and so on particularly when an audience has been invited to the studio; no visitors during transmission: and guarding with the T.O.M. that there is no wastage nor abuse by anyone of times allotted for a day’s studio work.

 

Studio scene

Before rehearsal: Cameraman, boom operator, and floor manager arrange their various positions. From Ariel for May 1957

 

The studio with the Cardinal and the Cabinet Minister and the rarefied tone of programme content is not necessarily well controlled by the F.M. who is unruffled by the big orchestras or a procession of star comics.

For serials and series, where possible, the same F.M., A.F.M., and Call Boy will be allocated throughout, and both F.M. and A.F.M. will work as close assistants to the Producer throughout the planning period and during the transmission weeks. The outside rehearsal schedule is a vital one for the F.M.: during it he has the opportunity of linking, with the A.F.M. and the Production Secretary, with the Designer (such problems as ‘Will the scenery fit and work?’, ‘Is the producer planning things that do not seem designed for on the plan?’) of liaising in person with the property department, the caption department, and the record library in an effort to relieve the congestion of transmission-day hold-ups that so infuriatingly waste studio and camera time, no matter how precise the planning and ordering may have been on paper.

A studio rehearsal begins, in as co-operative a silence as the amount of scene-building, set-dressing, and lighting still to be done can be expected to allow. And it is here, in his ‘representation of the producer on the floor’, that the quality of the F.M. is revealed. The F.M. is linked to the gallery with a battery-set receiver strapped round his waist and the ‘cans’ over his ears … and clamorous, monkey-house-like is the situation if that link breaks!

On a major drama production and on an opera — on other shows proportionately less — a F.M. may have been present at up to three weeks of outside rehearsal — and filming if used — when the producer would have had all the intimacy of close working with his cast that theatre conditions allow: in the TV studio the F.M. preserves that contact with his relaying. Yet it is more than relaying: at times it is sheer interpretation, translation, the re-choosing of words to match the temperament of the artists without obscuring the production detail given from the gallery — demonstrating, even, marking a position on the floor — and then, if it hasn’t sunk in or complexity has merely piled on complexity, sorting it out patiently and starting the detail again another way!

In 1946, Imlay Watts was P.M.Tel., and Arthur Ozmond his assistant. It was from the policy and power of ‘Ozzie’ in his control of recruitment to the F.M. pool that the structure of the department as it is today began to grow. His demands were concise and severe ‘… must have been either a theatre Stage Director or an experienced assistant director in films … must have been a commissioned officer in the services … between thirty and thirty-five years of age … and no females’. That dictum must have excluded cruelly many with every other merit, but its sheer ruthlessness was responsible for the immediate creation for post-war TV of a group of F.M.s experienced both in the control of people and with the highest qualification of experience in the worlds of theatre and film.

Today, Basil Adams is P.M.Tel., and Tony Reeves his Assistant P.M.Tel. Two Senior Assistants, Gerald le Grove and Clive Parkhurst, represent P.M.Tel. at the Marconi Studios, Riverside, and the King’s, Hammersmith. Basil Adams’ policy, conscious always of the way in which Producer and Production Assistant vacancies have drained the department within the last five years, is as unrelenting in recruitment as that of Ozzie; he draws also from Sound Radio, the Regions, and from his A.F.M. pool, but the policy is the perfect guide to the qualities needed in the F.M.

On the floor, ‘out in the middle’, the F.M. can feel moments of extraordinary isolation, of solitariness in a whirlpool of emotion and jargon, with sanity seeming a million miles away. One can be glad, very, for tough leaders and policies.

 

The following section is commentary from our expert writers

Richard Wyn Jones writes: I read this with keen interest, as it’s a profession I have been a part of since 1982. I started work with BBC Wales on a career path seen then by many as a career for life, and in 1957 there was certainly no reason to think that it wasn’t so, and indeed that was still the case 25 years later. People often left floor management to pursue dreams of directing and producing, but many regarded the role of FM as interesting enough to pursue as a career path on its own. In those days, as suggested in the article, the Floor Manager was the ‘lubricating oil’ that brought together all departments on the studio and helped them work as one. The role was to keep everyone on the studio floor informed and singing from the same hymn sheet, whilst maintaining discipline and presenting a united front from the floor to those in the gallery, such as the director or the producer. As the article suggests the floor manager was the beating heart of the studio and a good FM would command the respect of the whole production.

The Floor Manager of the 1950s on both BBC and ITV programmes would be expected to work an a huge range of programmes including the genres of drama, opera, sport and entertainment but the FM of today lives in a different world. Before the Broadcasting Act 1990, television in the UK had a much more stable base… you either worked for the BBC or ITV or as a freelancer for a growing number of independent companies, mainly for Channel 4 or HTV. The BBC brought in Producer’s Choice, which basically meant that a producer was no longer under any obligation to use a staff floor manager, or a staff anyone else, for that matter. Programmes were not only charged for the FM, they would also be charged for the office they used, the BBC building and even the canteen subsidy. Overcharging for staff meant that BBC floor managers began to lose work to freelancers and this, coupled with the fragmentation of audiences as non-terrestrial television developed, worked to undermine the authority of FMs. Smaller audiences meant that budgets were slashed, meaning that often floor managers were expected to work without assistants.

The main difference these days is that Floor Managers are now almost exclusively freelance and compete with each other for various jobs. The requirements of a floor manager have not changed in essence since the 1950s, however the attitude towards them has become more casual and some companies are more than happy to ‘get someone from the office’ for simpler programmes. Having said that, larger scale programmes still require the services of a ‘proper’ FM for ‘proper’ telly productions. The newcomers to television floor management no longer have the luxury of a ‘job for life’ but those who show promise are able to move from job to job and enjoy a huge variety of employment. In 1957 assistant floor managers were trained informally by the FM in charge but now, due to the casual and sporadic nature of the work, no such training takes place and trained AFMs are hard to find. There has also been a tendency for FMs to concentrate on one genre such as sport or entertainment, as they tend to stick to the type of programmes that they were trained on. FMs that only work on sport or entertainment were unheard of in the 50s, but are commonplace now.

The FMs of 1957 and 1982 lived similar lives but by 2022 the role has been marginalised to a certain extent. However, there is still a huge amount of television being made and a great variety of work and events for those willing to work. I for one believe the role of Floor Manager will be around for some time to come. Stand by, counting to transmission in 10 seconds….

 

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