Helping with the “dishes” 

26 October 2023


Gales, fog, snow, storms – BBC engineers face them all to get the Outside Broadcasts to your screens. TV Mirror’s try-anything-once man, HAROLD DARTON, went along to discover what it was like helping with the “dishes” – 200 ft. up!


Cover of TV Mirror

From TVMirror for week commencing 9 November 1957

THIS is about the engineers of television — the unsung heroes of every Outside Broadcast. These are modest men, who will be most embarrassed to read this about themselves. These are the men the other side of the camera, who have no publicity agents, who don’t ask for acclaim nor even for recognition. Their reward is to see a good, steady picture, where the blacks are black, the whites are white, and all the tones in between are the way they should be.

The men you see in the picture below are a rigging team whose job it is to erect paraboloids. Paraboloids to an engineer are always known as “dishes.” They are saucer-shaped pieces of metal, generally about four feet across—they are, of course, more complicated than that, a pair with all accompanying parts costing about £4,000 [£79,500 in today’s money, allowing for inflation – Ed]. Dishes work in pairs.

The signals that make your OB picture have to get to the transmitting station, and they must travel along a complicated cable maintained by the GPO, or else they must be “thrown” from place to place by means of the dishes. These dishes can work up to thirty miles apart, but they must be exactly facing one another and there must be nothing between them, not a hill, nor a house, nor even a tree. You will appreciate, therefore, that they must always be rigged on one of the highest points around.

Sometimes it’s good enoughs to put them iust on top of the OB van, which is parked on top of a hill. Other times they go on houses, or very often on top of water towers. When I joined the engineers they were putting dishes part way up a disused radar tower, just high enough for us actually to see other dishes, hidden from lower levels by the hump of a hill. For very complicated technical reasons three dishes actually had to be erected on this tower.

After arriving, the equipment was quickly unloaded, coils of heavy cable, coils of rope, large metal boxes, large tripod legs, each one thicker than your arm, three bases on which the dishes would be attached, and finally the dishes themselves. Hardly had they been unloaded than the rain came, heavy, stinging rain whipped up by a driving wind, which has the water running down the back of your neck and off the bottom of your mack and through your trousers in no time at all.


A steel lattice tower

HAROLD DARTON and an engineer await the arrival of the first dish. The three dishes already in position are larger (12ft.) ones used to receive Eurovision signals from the continent


Looks safe

The equipment is gathered at the foot of the tower, and I join George Jakins and Bob Griffiths who are taking the large, heavy pulley up to the second platform. George first; then Bob. We keep well apart, so as not to put too much strain on the ladder in any one place. I almost change my mind when I come to the ladder and find it’s made of wood — wood rots, and these towers are left over from the early days of the war. But they look safe enough on closer inspection.

The first platform. This is where height really means something. From the ground, this had seemed no distance up at all, but that was because of the immensity of the whole construction. I guess I am seventy-five feet [23m] from terra firma. From here you think, “How dreadful if I fell,” and you shudder at the thought. But it’s safe enough — you’re on a wide platform, a wooden platform!

Almost with relief you attack the next ladder. But now you can really hear the howling and whistling of the wind—literally howling and whistling. The ladder sways and gives a little, but that is the way it should be; it’s the rigid ladder which snaps. When you get up to the next platform, the one where the dishes are going to be rigged, it doesn’t seem nearly so bad. It’s almost like going up in an aeroplane — you don’t think in terms of having a nasty fall; at that height falls are unthinkable.

Suddenly you’re brought down to earth — not, I’m glad to say, literally. George and Bob are getting on with their ordinary everyday job. The pulley is fixed on a steel girder about twelve feet above our heads, and a piece of thick string has been passed through it. One end of this string has a weight on it, and is dropped overboard.



One man’s work

The wind catches at it, and it falls to the ground in a large arc, finishing up some hundred feet from the base of the tower. The bottom end of the string is tied to a coil of heavy rope, and up aloft the riggers start pulling in the string. As more of the rope gets airborne, so the effort of pulling gets greater, until it is almost as much as one man wants to pull. Even on the rope the wind pressure is terrific, and the rope flies far wide of the tower, before it gets up to the platform we are standing on.

George goes down to look after things from below, where he is joined by the team’s driver, Arthur Watson.

The fourth and last member of the team, Noland Daly, joins Bob Griffiths and myself on the high platform. The equipment starts coming up, heaved from below. It’s a long and tedious business. One rope has to be attached to the equipment, and held out to stop it from banging its way up the steel girders.

To give you some idea of the strength of the wind — even when three heavy tripod legs are being hauled up, the ropes are still held out by the wind in a wide arc, there being no straight pull between the men on the ground and the pulley above our heads!


Three men pull on ropes

RAIN whips across the field as two OB engineers hook part of thee equipment on to a pulley rope, ready for the long haul up the tower


Into space

Up aloft, there is nothing you can do to help bring the dish up. You dare not give a helping pull on the rope passing through the pulley and running down just in front of you. If you took hold and the wind gave a playful gust, you could be pulled over into space before you had time to let go. It’s bad enough when the dish arrives. You wait for the wind to relax and allow the dish to swing in near the tower, and then you all grab hold and pull.

As soon as it is on the platform it is lashed down fast, and the ropes are untied to be sent back again down below. One man takes the weight of the ropes while they are untied, and it is quite some weight — there’s about 200 feet [61m] of rain-sodden rope on each to be held, and it is all being torn at by the wind.

Hands are very red, and are in a permanently half-closed position with the cold. 6ne has got so wet that it ceases to matter whether it rains or not. The light is failing, and as you look down the grass has that unnaturally bright and incandescent gleam that comes on a stormy evening.

Once all the equipment is up, it has to be secured. George Jakins comes up from down below with waterproof sheeting draped all over him, and the team start covering up and lashing down.


A microwave dish dangles from a rope

UP SHE GOES! The pulley ropes slacken momentarily as the giant dish sways towards the platform. Wind velocity is the big problem


There I left them, with night closing in fast. I caught my train back to London; George, Bob, Noland and Arthur had another day’s work before the dishes would be ready. Then, when the programme was over, would come de-rigging and travelling on to the next job. Three or four days out of seven the engineers spend away from home.

Mv face glowed and I felt happily tired after a day in the wind. I was glad I wasn’t going to a cheerless hotel room.


Photographs by Bob Collins


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1 response to this article

Ray Wilson 26 October 2023 at 3:47 pm

Another fine article…

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