Europe’s Biggest Film Makers 

4 November 2022

Royal tours or foreign wars, football matches or the Flowerpot Men – they’re all in the day’s work for the BBC film unit…



TV Mirror Annual 1956 cover

From the TV Mirror Annual 1956

IN THE CREDIT TITLES on your screen you may have noticed a tiny symbol which says “BBC Film Unit” You may have seen it at the end of documentaries, or magazine programmes. This little trade mark, so modest by the usual standards of the film world, is the badge of the biggest film organisation in Europe.

And it belongs to the BBC. In fact, it is just one of the departments of the BBC TV Service, rather a behind-the-screen organisation which seems to get little publicity or limelight.

Yet without the Film Unit I doubt whether the BBC TV programmes could function, for about one-third of all BBC TV comes to viewers on film. To give you some figures — the BBC Film Unit shoots about twenty miles of film every week, and that is a very great deal of film. In terms of cinema films it is equal to twelve major feature pictures as shown at a local cinema. It would have to be a mammoth Hollywood or Pinewood studio that could turn out a dozen top pictures a week.

But not all of this immense footage reaches the home screen. Cutting and editing trims away a great deal of it, and then a certain amount is shot for future reference, for the BBC film archives where historic or valuable film is stored in safety, or for the BBC Film Library where a vast stock of film pictures are kept for use by producers.

Who uses all this film material? Programmes like Sportsview, Panorama, Sports Special, and Special Enquiry, of course. Then all the documentaries produced by people like Gilchrist Calder and Norman Swallow. Play producers are big “buyers” of film from the BBC Film Unit.

BBC Film Unit

Then you may remember Christopher Mayhew and Aidan Crawley with their programmes on America, the Far East and international affairs, all with film. Variety producers, too, are using film sequences in comedy shows: remember Fred Emney’s boxing and football scenes? They were all filmed on the spot and incorporated into the studio programme. Buried Treasure also showed the work of BBC cameramen.

Every year the work of the BBC Film Unit gets bigger, even though it no longer has to service News and Newsreel, which has its own film organisation. The Lime Grove film unit now has eleven cameramen, and seven assistant cameramen always on the job. It has hand cameras for taking silent film, it has a big cavalcade of trucks with camera and sound equipment.

Probably no film organisation in the world has to tackle such a variety of jobs as the BBC Film Unit. At any time they may have a cameraman out following a Royal Tour, another at a football ground, another in a corner of a studio photographing a short sequence for a play, another filming the Flowerpot Men for Children’s TV. And that is just Lime Grove alone. All over the country and most probably at the other side of the world are film cameramen on assignments for the BBC.

Let’s take Sportsview, a programme which eats up large quantities of film every week. Seven film cameramen are attached to Sportsview at strategic points all over Britain. You will find them on football grounds, racecourses, at boxing training camps, at athletic meetings. These men work at high speed, for they are news cameramen. And they have to get their film back to Editor Paul Fox at Lime Grove studios by plane, helicopter and car with a minute meaning all the difference between success and failure.

It is significant that one of the BBC’s best-known crack film cameramen, Ronnie Noble, is now working on Sportsview. Ronnie has chased news and pictures all over the world for film newsreels, newspapers and the BBC Newsreel in the old days. Now he runs a team of film cameramen for what many people hold to be the fastest TV programme of all. And all this breathless work is just another of the jobs that the Film Unit men tackle.


Camera operators on top of Wellington Arch

If you ever wondered how the film men manage those “angled” shots, this picture may help to explain. The crew is looking down on Hyde Park Corner for a sequence you saw in “London Town”


VERY DIFFERENT IS THE SORT OF ASSIGNMENT called for by a documentary producer, Norman Swallow and Special Enquiry, for example. Then a Film Unit cameraman might find himself touring schools all over the country; spending his time in a lighthouse; going down a mine; riding the footplate of an express train, or even waiting outside prison gates.

One big branch of the Film Unit work is called “sequences,” which means filming inserts for play or variety show producers. Do you remember the play The Creature, written by Nigel Kneale and produced by Rudolph Cartier? It dealt with a curious “abominable snowman” kind of creature in the Himalayas, and the whole play was worked out against a background of snow, ice, avalanches, and mountains. Well, all that could not be reproduced in a TV studio at Lime Grove, nor could Rudolph Cartier go to the Himalayas, so the Film Unit arranged to shoot the snow and ice shots in the high Swiss Alps, with Peter Cushing and Stanley Baker doing all the “exterior scenes” (as cinema producers call them) for the benefit of the film cameras. The Unit spent many exciting, cold and rather dangerous days filming Peter Cushing and Stanley Baker as they toiled up snow-clad slopes.

The never-to-be-forgotten 1984 had quite a number of filmed sequences, too, “just another Film Unit job.”


Two men dressed as police are filmed walking down a street

When plays suddenly switch from an indoor to an outdoor scene, you can be fairly sure the latter is filmed. Here is the BBC Film Unit at work on “Dixon of Dock Green”


And so, too, was Arthur Englander’s tour of the Far East with Christopher Mayhew for the series Peaceful Co-Existence. Cameraman Englander shot 30,000 feet of film on that tour which covered 13,000 miles over South-East Asia, in many places penetrating behind the Iron Curtain of the Communist Asian countries.

More and more the Film Unit cameramen range across the world. The most recent example of the jobs they tackle was David Attenborough’s Zoo Quest series in British Guiana. The man who photographed all that interesting stuff in the jungle was Charles Lagus — another crack film cameraman of the BBC Film Unit.

A major achievement of the unit was the vast War In The Air series this year. This was an example of all the various sections of the film side of BBC TV working on a major job, for the Film Unit does not consist solely of camera and sound men. It is a complete film production organisation. It has film editors, more than a dozen of them with as many assistants, projectionists, sound recordists, viewing theatres, dubbing theatres. The full strength of Film Unit is more than 150 people.


A man operates a film cutting maching

Film cutter Geoff Laws splices strips of celluloid to make a sequence


With War In The Air the BBC used not only film they shot themselves, but film material gathered from all over the world, from the fighting services and governments of the warring nations. Under John Elliott miles of film were cut down and arranged to make the fifteen half-hour programmes.

It was a job of viewing in the little viewing theatres of Lime Grove thousands upon thousands of feet of film, of selecting maybe just a few feet for one single shot or episode. Then came the job of joining it all up, the job of cutting and editing as it is called, and fitting sound track and music.

The little trade mark “BBC Film Unit” has never appeared on a bigger production.

Apart from its news and documentary side the BBC Film Unit is equipped to make complete films of its own. It has three film writer-producers on the staff who are capable of producing half-hour shorts or even more ambitious productions. Typical of the sort of work they can do was the film We Live By The River, which was the BBC contribution to the Eurovision series in which eight nations made a film of their capital cities for showing to each other. We Live By The River was produced by the BBC’s man Richard Cawston, and it is typical of the work of the Film Unit that he every year produces the nightly Wimbledon tennis highlights film.

Another big and important side of the BBC film department is the film library. In what are called the vaults, though they are just under the roof of the Lime Grove studios, are stored 15,000,000 feet [4572km] of film in round, flat cans, carefully filed away for future use and reference. There are well over a million different shots in the vaults. Viewers had the chance of seeing some of them in the series called Looking Back, in which Frank Owen, Sheila Van Damm and Paul Jennings were given the run of the library to concoct amusing and interesting programmes of their own — with, of course, the technical help of the BBC film editors.

A fascinating place, the film library. Imagine a narrow corridor out of which turn forty-five compartments or bays, each lined with shelves reaching from floor to ceiling, and those shelves packed with round, flat tins about the size of a large gramophone record. Millions of feet of film, millions of separate pictures.


A man next to piles of film canisters

Twenty miles of celluloid is added weekly to the BBC Film Library. In this corner alone there is film enough to provide a continuous show for days on end


What would you like to see? Roger Bannister at the moment he finished the Four Minute Mile? Chris Chataway winning? Maureen Connolly winning the women’s world tennis championship at Wimbledon? Scenes from the Coronation? A glimpse of a place that had never been filmed before, until the BBC London Town programme was allowed in to shoot pictures — the inner room at the Baltic Shipping Exchange ?

Name your picture and the BBC Film Librarian will go to the Index and locate it for you in less than a minute. This index, a system of cards on rotating holders, is a minor miracle of daily care and organisation. Though thousands of feet of film pour in daily from the cameramen, the librarians absorb it and enter it all on cards with a cross-indexing system.

Naturally, the great problem in the Lime Grove Library is space. So much rebuilding is going on there to accommodate a service that is becoming increasingly important.

Another sideline of the Film Department is an Export Trade in films. Television services all over the world are eager for BBC films and telerecordings. In particular, the Coronation Film made by the BBC in 1953 was shown all over the globe, not only by TV services.


A woman stands in the sea

A location unit went down to Brighton to get authentic background shots for “Woman on the Beach.” Here is star Ann Gudren relaxing between scenes, with the famous Pier in the background


Telerecording is yet another branch of the BBC Film Department. This means the filming of the BBC’s own programmes while they are being transmitted from the studio; the Sunday play for example. Certain of these programmes are also on file in the library, but not light entertainment programmes, for union rules forbid this.

There is something rather appropriate in this new film empire of the BBC being located at the Lime Grove studios in Shepherds Bush. Twenty years ago those same studios were the centre of the British cinema film industry. To-day they are producing more feet of film than ever before — for television.


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