Looking in on Panorama 

1 July 2024 tbs.pm/81325

MAX ROBERTSON takes you into the studio and describes the hectic hours before transmission of Panorama.



Cover of TV Mirror

From TV Mirror for 19 March 1955

I ARRIVE at Lime Grove at 10.30 and, after dropping off my coat and any other odds and ends in my dressing room, I go up to the studio. By now the script has been stencilled and duplicated and Gerry le Grove, the studio manager, or Daphne Meier, John Furness’s secretary, distributes them to all interested parties. They are done on buff or blue paper — never white, which may cause the cameras to “peel off,” very much like the corona effect during an eclipse of the sun.

The technicians will have been busy on the floor since 8.30. First the various sets are arranged. These are pretty standard now. There is my desk on its platform, the latter about eighteen inches high.

Studio line-up

I have never quite understood why I have a platform; possibly it is to make me a reasonable height (when sitting) for the cameraman, who is standing with half his face buried in the viewfinder, to focus me conveniently.

My desk is usually on the extreme left, as you, the viewers, see it, and next to it is the slightly concave table, at which five can sit at a pinch, for discussion and argument. The next set usually consists of two or three red plush semi-armchairs, for Malcolm Muggeridge and his interviewees.

Other sets that are used sometimes are the theatre-box, usually occupied by Lionel Hale, and perhaps a plain background for some object being demonstrated, such as the exhaust filter for a motor-cycle that we showed before Christmas.

With the sets in place the lighting engineer marshals his forces and exerts his highly specialised talents. His tool of office is a light filter which he peers through to gain an idea of light contrast as seen by the camera lens.

Never happy

Panorama title card

Although they are very nice fellows I cannot recall seeing a lighting engineer looking happy. Their lives are overcast by the various accessories that get in their beautiful light; things like cameras, booms (the long manoeuvrable arms on which microphones are slung), caption easels, Alfred Wurmser’s brilliant animations, and even artists—all throw shadows in apparently diabolical determination to frustrate the engineer’s efforts to arrive at good lighting.

By now John Furness, the director, will have held conclave with the cameramen and sound engineers, explaining in principle what the camera moves are, what shots each camera will be responsible for individually, and also what sound coverage will be needed.

John now ascends to the gallery and becomes one of the other ghost-like figures that can be seen dimly from the floor of the studio through the dark glass windows. They can see us plainly, an unfair advantage I feel, and one that is heightened by the eyes of the cameras. Often have I wondered what secret expressions and actions of mine have been exposed on the preview monitors in the gallery, transmitted by the innocent-looking camera trained on me while I am, perhaps, watching someone else rehearsing, having a private daydream or learning some complicated lines of introduction.

Those pictures are seen by John on a row of small screens in front of him, so that at any moment he can consider what his cameras have to offer, can direct them over talk-back (which all the cameramen, sound engineers and Gerry le Grove, the studio manager, hear simultaneously); and then, by his orders to the vision mixer sitting beside him, can cut or mix from picture to picture, so controlling the continuity of the actual programme transmitted, which is shown on another screen.

Sitting on his left is his secretary, Daphne Meier, to check timings, note his comments and generally help him.

Behind John, and raised up a little, so that they too have a clear view of the screens, are seats for the T.O.M. (Techn. Op. Manager — in charge of the studio output), a girl from make-up department and perhaps an assistant engineer. The sound control unit is in a separate cubicle, visible through a glass panel.

The technical scene is set and rehearsal may start. The order of the various items to be rehearsed will be decided partly at the convenience of the artists and speakers taking part and partly to suit technical needs.

Usually the morning is spent going over the opening and closing routine and my links (including commentary on film inserts), and in rehearsing a discussion item. This will give everybody the feeling of the main structure of the programme and some of the more obvious difficulties will quickly become apparent, leaving plenty of time for smoothing them out.

Difficulties such as camera one having too little time to move from the discussion set to its position for the beginning of the next item, or one of the booms found to be shadowing the face of a speaker.

Those taking part in discussions usually argue a dummy topic during rehearsal so that their ammunition is not spent, for these discussions are never scripted. John, though, is able to size up mannerisms and has practice in cutting from face to face. Meanwhile, Michael Barsley (the Editor), too, is in the gallery also listening to the points made and deciding whether the spoken work is following the line it should.

An hour for lunch which will be taken in the canteen; the talk will undoubtedly be shop, suggestion and criticism being exchanged. Afterwards back to the studio for more rehearsals of individual items throughout the afternoon (with a half-hour break for tea) until the final run-through of the whole programme, or as much of it as possible, takes place between 6.00 and 7.00.

The make-up girl, who has been watching rehearsal from the gallery and deciding the needs of each artist, then goes the rounds giving each his or her appointed hour for treatment.

Final rehearsal over, all taking part adjourn for drinks and dinner, at which they can relax a bit, get to know each other better and polish up some of the things they intend to say and do. Those informal chats are often the pleasantest part of the day.


People stand around a studio

A scene during rehearsals. John Furness, the director, talks to Adele Leigh while studio manager, Gerry le Grove (with earphones), notes the arrangements


Final orders

After dinner, while Gerry is tying up tech, loose ends, Michael, John, Daphne and I get together in a corner and go through the whole script, trying to sort out anything that has gone wrong. I get my final orders about timing and any important word alterations.

Time is now disappearing as quickly as the setting sun rolls over the horizon, and I hurry off to make up, muttering phrases and lines to myself.

Thence to the studio where everyone is assembling. Ten minutes to go. Last minute adjustments and exchanges. Good luck, everyone. Then suddenly the studio lights are flashing “Sound On. Vision On.” Gerry le Grove calls “Stand by, Studio!” A few moments more, then I hear the familiar opening music, and see the Panorama zoetrope revolving in my baby monitor screen with the subjects of this evening’s programme appearing as if by magic in it.

For a moment my head seems to be spinning with it and I pray that it will clear, for I know that John in the gallery is about to say “Cue Max” into Gerry’s headphones, and a fortnight’s thought and preparation must then be put to the test before you, the viewing public.


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Liverpool, Sunday 7 July 2024