Filling the bill 

5 August 2022 tbs.pm/75349

They are the people in charge of the gaps between TV programmes. And even if they can’t stop viewers going out to make the tea, they do try…

 

 

Masthead of Ariel

From Ariel, the BBC staff newspaper, for 30 November 1982

WHEN you first meet Television Presentation people they seem to think of nothing but food.

Obsessed with it, the lot of them, running around asking “have you seen tonight’s menu?” with such intensity that you begin to wonder whether master chef Silvino Trompetto has taken over the Television Centre kitchens.

But it’s when they start worrying about the spelling on the menu that you think they are taking it all a bit too far.

Then suddenly all is revealed. There’s no Escalopes a la Savoyarde on the menu, no Bouillabaisse des Pecheurs. Rather it offers such delicacies as The Two Ronnies, Dad’s Army and International Snooker.

The menu, you discover, is a bill of fare for the viewers, to guide them through the evening’s programmes. And the department makes sure that nothing on the menu is off — even if once they did advertise “Strasky and Hutch.”

Television Presentation Department takes charge of all the gaps in between programmes as well as making sure the right programmes go out at the right time — and that there are no blank screens if a programme breaks down.

The department also smoothes the way through sudden changes of schedule. During the long Falklands summer viewers came to expect immediate information on developments in the South Atlantic. Major news stories are no respecters of nine ’til five and a duty presentation editor is at work during almost all the hours of transmission, ready to assume control when needs arise.

Margaret Rushton

Margaret Rushton: “We don’t change the schedule lightly.”

“We are proxies for the Controllers and MD Tel,” says Margaret Rushton, one of the four duty presentation editors. “We are on duty when other people are not and any unexpected change of schedule becomes our responsibility if we are unable to contact the Controller.” Presentation staff need to have a good idea of the content of each day’s programmes, as Margaret Rushton explains.

“A few months ago a Chinese club in Soho was allegedly burnt out by arsonists and by sheer coincidence we had an episode of Chinese Detective with a very similar plot due to go out the same day.

“I rang the producer and asked how practical it would be to use a replacement episode. That was ok but then of course we had to make sure we could get the replacement.”

Which was only half the story. Margaret Rushton then had to telephone BBC1 Controller Alan Hart at home to get his approval, then warn Ceefax, the press office, radio and the regions, and set about changing the promotion for the programme. And finally a call to Television Centre’s duty officer to warn that there would be viewers’ calls coming through because of the alteration.

“We don’t change the schedule lightly.” says Margaret Rushton. “But it is important to be flexible.”

A producer and two assistant producers watch a lot of the material due for screening for trailing purposes and warn the editor if they see programmes that are violent, contain explosives and so on.

But it is not only programme content that can catch them out. Programme length is high on the list of headaches too and under-running can be as big a problem as overrunning.

“This year’s Eurovision Song Contest under-ran by four minutes,” said Margaret Rushton. “The next programme was the news which I couldn’t really start early and the only possible music we could have used after the song contest would have been the winning song.

“We had a standby programme on telecine but when we got it on the machine we found that the film was broken. With seconds to go the telecine people managed to mend it and we got it on the screen.”

Exodus

Carol White

Carol White: “We’re making little adverts”.

A nasty moment. But no doubt it passed unnoticed in the country’s sitting rooms. After all, the gap between programmes is the traditional time for putting on the kettle for a nice cuppa. Television Presentation’s team of trailer producers is not unaware of the great exodus to the kitchen and aim to combat it with all they’ve got, as producer Carol White explains:

“We’ve got to make our programme trailers very eye-catching and ear-catching, keep them as exciting and interesting as the programmes themselves.

“In effect we’re making little adverts, telling people what’s on and selling them the programmes. The clips are informative, entertaining and packaged in a way which shows the programme off to its best advantage.”

And that’s something which Presentation can often judge better than the programme makers, they say.

“Programme producers are often too partisan to take a detached view of what the best bits are,” says Carol White. “They often have particular sections which they think are the best thing since sliced bread but we don’t always agree. We look with the eye of the viewer.”

Trailers usually run for less than a minute — 30 and 50 seconds are two standard lengths. It doesn’t seem long for selling a programme.

“It imposes a discipline on you,” says Carol White. “It’s not like spending a year making a 40-minute documentary. But discipline can be fun.”

However lurid the programme involved, the trailer has to be suitable for the time of day when it will be shown.

“A trail for a late-night film will often go out at eight in the evening and you have to take that into account,” says Carol White. “You can’t put on a violent, sexy trailer when there are small children watching, but you still have to inform the viewer somehow of the true nature of the programme.”

Television Presentation’s trails don’t only go out on TV. A year ago the department hit on the idea of promoting television programmes on radio by providing personality interviews and programme extracts for use on network and local radio.

The programme information unit, working within Television Presentation, produced over 250 interviews and 1000 programme extracts in its first year.

The radio team is Tony Barnfield and Kate Willmot, who spend about half their week working on the trails. Each week they produce an hour’s material containing about 24 trails and four to six interviews with artists, authors, reporters and producers.

“We’re something of a cottage industry amid the big production world of Television Centre,” says Tony Barnfield. “But we think we build bridges between radio and television.”

 

Showcable logotype

 

Another arm of the department which has just celebrated its first year is Showcable, the BBC’s cable TV pilot scheme for London, run by Television Presentation in liaison with Programme Acquisition and other specialist departments.

Showcable transmits an average of 56 hours a week, mainly recent feature films, and the Showcable announcer operates the transmission equipment as well as introducing the programmes.

Apart from the announcer there is just a back-up team of two — coordinating producer Richard Street and his assistant Gay Bain.

Commercial

Richard Street

Richard Street: “Showcable is a couple of rungs down from a complete cable service.”

“We’re a small team, but we’ve shown that you can operate a pilot commercial service with a close-knit band of people, using far fewer staff and smaller resources than would have seemed possible.

“It’s a couple of rungs down the ladder from a complete cable service but we’re proud of what we’re doing.”

One of Television Presentation’s sidelines is a responsibility for the weather forecasts, live programmes which seem to have come in for more than their share of thundery showers.

There is a clever system for getting the timing of the forecasts exactly right. A person is stationed beside a clock in front of the presenter. The producer sends a message over the headphones to say “tell him another ten seconds.” The person by the clock points at ten seconds on the clockface and the forecaster knows how much time is left.

It’s a simple system. Only one thing can go wrong with it, and one night it did. “Tell him ten seconds more,” said the producer over the headphones. “OK!” shouted the woman on the clock, to the amazement of several million viewers.

But perhaps that bit of absent mindedness didn’t give the producer such high blood pressure as the forecast which was going quite nicely until the tea lady crashed her trolley through the door with a throaty yell of “tea up!”

Perhaps they’ve just got it in for the forecasters. One night they managed to miss the weatherman altogether.

“We were a shot behind all the way through,” said Margaret Rushton. “All we got was the whisking of his coat tails each time he moved onto the next map.”

But when things go wrong you won’t find Presentation people rolling in the aisles slapping their stomachs and kicking their legs in the air.

“You might laugh afterwards,” said Margaret Rushton. “But disasters mean that someone’s programme has gone up the spout, and that’s not really funny.”

Whether things are going according to plan or not, there is only one person carrying the can as far as the viewer is concerned. That’s the announcer, a person whom BBC Television holds should be heard but not seen.

“Occasionally we mention our names at the end of the evening but on the whole we remain an anonymous neutral, friendly voice — unseen, semi-formal, and I hope not too distant.”

Andy Cartledge

Andy Cartledge: “Your heart rate doubles.”

Stepping out of the shadows of anonymity for just a moment is Andy Cartledge, one of Presentation’s team of announcers for the past 13 years. Does he regret not appearing on screen?

“As a performer it would be more gratifying to appear occasionally but you would also be more exposed and subject to criticism,” he says.

The emphasis on “performing” night seem odd, coming from one of television’s faceless voices. But Andy Cartledge says it is an important aspect of the job.

“Before you arrive here you need to have done some kind of performing — radio or TV or something — because having the voice and being able to project it properly are only the raw materials of the job.

“You’ve also got to be able to perform while you’re under stress — when you’ve got a producer talking to you through the headphones at the same time as you are talking into the microphone and responding to visual cues.”

Some actors try their hand at the job but Andy Cartledge says most are unsuitable because their delivery is too declamatory.

“The vocal part of the skill required is in cultivating a technique which enables you to sound as if you are talking to people in their own living rooms while in fact you’re doing nothing of the kind — you’re synthesising that effect.

“It’s not 100 per cent controversial [sic – conversational], you have to heighten it a bit and give your very best just to sound normal.”

Presentation announcers are supposed to be at the microphone throughout their periods of duty, ready for anything.

“You get your knuckles rapped if you’re not available,” says Andy Cartledge, “But of course you have to answer the calls of nature. A lot of the job is putting ends together when things are only threatening to go wrong, you just keep a correcting hand on the tiller.”

The list of things that can wrong sounds formidable.

“The equipment can let you down, or you can make bloomers of your own, putting your fingers in the wrong place at the wrong time, and programmes might not materialise when you announce them.

 

Courtesy of treffynnon19

 

Vulnerable

“A live programme is most vulnerable — they may not be ready or might break down in the middle.” Announcers keep a record on the turntable at all times in readiness for things going wrong. But it’s not just any old record, they select one to suit the programme being transmitted. Andy Cartledge remembers one time when he thought he had come unstuck.

“I didn’t have a record lined up and Top of the Pops broke down. Obviously the only thing I could play was pop music and the first thing that came to hand was Yellow Submarine, played in some strange arrangement for moog synthesiser.

“It was so weird that I thought it would go down like a lead balloon but people started ringing up to ask what was this ‘wonderful music?’ In the end there was such a huge response that the record company issued the track as a single.”

 

Courtesy of trckfl1f2lds3

 

Presentation announcers are ready for anything. But it’s probably fair to say that they’re happier when things don’t go wrong.

“When you see a blank screen your heart rate doubles,” says Andy Cartledge. “At times like that you’re really earning your money.”

 

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