Going Places 

7 October 2022 tbs.pm/75711

From Land’s End to John o’Groats, it’s “over to anywhere” on TV now

 

 

TV Mirror Annual 1956 cover

From the TV Mirror Annual 1956

IT MAY NOT sound very complimentary to those who provide us with TV studio entertainment, but outdoor OBs — especially of sport — provide a high proportion of television’s highlights. Some would say that they are the very essence of television itself.

What is more, they have reached a state of technical perfection which, so far as we can see, leaves room for little improvement. Whether the camera is moving swiftly across the football field for some heart-stopping moments around the goal-mouth, or panning slowly across the dreaming spires of a lovely old cathedral, the appeal is tremendous.

And the basic technique in these extreme cases is the same — simplicity. In whatever way the art of TV develops, it will never see any advantage at all in complication. The eye of the TV camera on these occasions is yours, and although you can see more through the lens than if you were on the spot, a smooth, clean, simple approach is necessary to avoid confusion.

Take a typical example — a football match. People have been surprised to see the positioning of the cameras on some occasions. Two of them side by side in the stand opposite the half-way line, another one or two “extras” — the two side-by-side cameras obviously carrying the bulk of the “story.”

Why? Wouldn’t it be better to spread them out over the ground to give a good angle on the play wherever it might be?

One test of such a method would prove it wrong. The result would be confusion in the mind of the viewer.

TV takes you to the match, sits you in the centre of the stand, and the two cameras follow the play up and down the field just as you would do. But they have the great advantage over the human eye — especially when they have a “zoom” lens which at an exciting moment in the game, and without changing the angle at all, can move right in so that you are within a matter of feet.

To it all, of course, is added the voice of the commentator. Not for him the breathless all-detail commentary of blind radio; you can see for yourself what is happening. All he has to do, in the main, is to make quite sure that you know who the players are at that particular moment.

 

A BBCtv camera points at a parade at Horseguards

 

The ability of the camera to “move in” has brought home to millions of people the sheer artistry of cricket, and many have changed their minds about it being a slow and rather dull game.

In ice hockey the set-up is much the same as for football, for any complication of view in this fast-moving game would make it almost meaningless. Chief task for the cameraman here is to “keep an eye” on the puck, which is no easy task in the world’s fastest game.

With tennis there can be no centre view. If the cameras tried to get their pictures from, say, the umpire’s position, they would have to play across the court like a fast-moving pendulum, and the effect of that on the home screens would be disastrous. An oblique view across the court from one end is the only way, with one of the singles players — or a pair of the doubles — with back to the camera, and sometimes a close-up view right across the net showing how the opposite player is receiving and returning the shots.

Horse and car racing provide no hard-and-fast rules, no standard camera set-ups, because the courses vary. The ideal in the case of a horse-race is a high camera position which can keep the horses in view throughout the whole of the race, with other cameras giving more intimate shots of the saddling enclosure and the winning post.

In car racing — as at Silverstone, for example — no all-the-time view is possible, so camera positions pick up the high spots — the starting grid, some of the tricky bends, the pits.

 

People on benches watch a parade

Arenascope – a new word coined in 1954 when the BBC erected its own arena at the Radio Exhibition for the staging of military, sporting, agricultural and athletic displays. Will such a studio become a permanent feature of TV?

 

If there is one sport which has proved rather a tough nut for the TV cameras, it is speedway racing. It is easy enough to have a camera set-up which can move around the whole course, but what happens when one motor cycle gets well into the lead and two others are having a tussle for second place? Shall the leader be ignored while that particular battle goes on? It seems to be the only way, but it cannot be said to be a true, complete picture of the whole event. The only way to overcome the problem would be to have one camera high up and far enough away to be cut-in for a real long shot.

Swimming, too, where the contestants are battling away through four individual “lanes” in a swimming bath, provides something of a problem. Once the swimmers have passed the half-way mark and the cameras are giving a back view, it is sometimes difficult to judge who is in the lead, and only the commentator can tell us. Most swimming baths do not allow an end camera to get far enough back to give an oncoming view of the four swimmers.

Show jumping just cannot fail, for the course is clearly defined, limited in space so that one camera can follow it easily. Others giving, close-up views of the fences add to what must surely be the most perfect television sport “story.”

Athletics, too, are technically “a piece of cake” for the cameraman, who can easily follow the clearly defined course and add those edge-of-the-seat moments in close-up.

 

A camera and operators on the deck of a ship

TV goes to sea – an historic OB from the “Lord Warden” as it made its cross-Channel voyage

 

SO MUCH FOR THE ACTUAL VIEW. But what of the quality of the pictures ?

Cameramen and technicians admit that when real thrills are coming over they could “get away with murder” in picture quality. Viewers who criticise the lighting and photography in a variety show have no eye for such things when the score is trembling in the balance at a sporting event.

But the vision control men refuse to take the easy way. They strive all the time, especially in difficult lighting conditions, to maintain good quality. They admit that the chief danger, so far as they are concerned, lies in getting too excited about the game themselves instead of concentrating on the picture standard.

If they do let bad quality through, then a stern message comes through from “racks” at Lime Grove where the final quality check is made. Terse little messages like the one which came over the wires to the OB van during an ice-hockey match: “You’re putting out a picture that looks just like rice pudding!”

The OB van is something which ought to be visited by every viewer during a sports OB, though that, of course, is impossible. But the contrast between what is going on there and in the viewer’s home is enormous.

In the home, one picture, one voice. In the van, four pictures from four cameras; a producer with a row of press buttons which enables any one of those four to be sent to the viewer. The voice of the commentator coming through a loud speaker. The four vision controllers talking to the four cameramen through microphones. The producer talking to the commentator and to the cameramen. The engineers talking on the telephone to headquarters. Heat, cramped conditions — it is something approaching chaos, but it is organised chaos.

 

Three men smile at the photographer; behind them a fourth man with a TV camera

Three famous commentators at the Oval – E.W. Swanton, Brian Johnston and Peter West. In the background is a camera fitted with a “zoom” lens, which can give close-ups of the play

 

MARVEL FOR A MOMENT at the commentator, whose voice never stops giving an up-to-the-second description of the game, but who is, at that same moment, listening through his headphones to the producer saying: “John, we’re going to move over to so-and-so. Have a few words to say about that, will you?”

Next to the OB van you will find another one belonging to the Post Office, whose job it always is to convey sound and vision from an OB point to BBC headquarters for transmission.

If this can be done by wire, good enough, but over a certain distance that wire has to be a special kind called a co-axial cable. If the cable is not available, then the signals themselves have to be sent by radio; a special system called micro-wave. The aerials are like enormous bowl fires and the signals, which cannot travel around the curvature of the earth, have to be “beamed” from one horizon to the next.

It is perfectly done, but if there is any aspect of TV which will one day have to be improved upon, it is this. Here we are in rather deep technical waters because it is not easy to explain why the signals of the television image cannot be sent across hundreds of miles, like an ordinary broadcast. They are like an aeroplane taking off and continuing on into space at the same angle instead of “flattening out” and following the ground. One day the TV scientists will discover how to snatch back those signals from space many miles away. Or discover how to send signals along the ground.

Then, indeed, we shall be able to go “over to anywhere” for our OBs. Meanwhile, within its present limits, TV is going ahead.

 

A van with a huge aerial on top

The Roving Eye makes the “doorstep interview” a practical possibility. The microphone with its cable picks up the sound; the camera on the roof gives the vision, and the signals are transmitted from the aerial

 

More and more mobile OB units are coming into service and these are complete transmitting stations in themselves. There is the van itself, a tender with all the necessary cables and microphones and another van with all the cameras.

On a visit to a large house in the At Home series, nothing is lacking to put on a complete, smoothly-running show. Fixed cameras are placed where the main items are to be shown, others are arranged to move along corridors and through stately apartments just as though you yourself were there.

 

THE CAMERA IS THERE. In the world of sport and pageantry, giving a grandstand view and more. For no pair of human eyes can see as much as the eye of television

 

A newer development is the Roving Eye which, in one van, combines the whole operation. Flexibility here is an enormous advantage in that it can take you through the London streets with a continuous picture.

The sound and vision signals are both sent by radio from it, but a pick-up point must be fairly near at hand, for transmitting power is not high. Early troubles were connected with interference from near-by machinery and apparatus, and any weakening of the vision signals received from the van caused the picture to lose its “hold.”

 

Four men and a camera on a peak

Many items from Wales have been relayed by micro-wave link to the main transmitter from the top of Snowdon. So what was easier than to take a camera to the top of the mountain and show the wonderful views to the whole country?

 

What next in this line? According to America, it is the walking television station — one man, complete with camera, microphone and miniature transmitter who can go anywhere, relaying pictures and sounds to a near-by pick-up point.

 

Two men in an OB van

Barry Edgar, producer of many OBs from Midland Region, is at the control panel in an OB van. How many controls there are at his finger-tips can be seen by the number of connections at the back of the panel. He can “talk back” through the microphone

 

A camera points at a parade on Horseguards

 

Looking like a fire engine, this van has a giant mast on its back

Like a fire escape, the OB mast vehicle is capable of raising its micro-wave link aerial to sixty feet

 

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Liverpool, Sunday 29 January 2023