Colin Pierpoint blog 9 – SB Switches

copyright resides with the original holder, no reproduction without permission

copyright resides with the original holder, no reproduction without permission









SB Switches

At this time [late 1960s] there was a complicated way of getting the network to the transmitting stations on the Home Service (later Radio 4). It needs a bit of explanation, so here it is. Each region had its own Home Service, and I had worked in the Welsh Home Service continuity suite in Cardiff on many occasions. In fact I used to love that job.  Every region had the right to opt out of the London originated Home Service as part of their programme schedule. That was the easy part. The complications arose when other regions were to take a network from another region, and they were complicated for this reason: at the time the lines used to send programmes (called “Music Lines”) were of good quality, but when you added several of them together the high frequency loss became very noticeable. So, If a region was to contribute to the whole Home Service network, sending the signal to London and through the Home Service Continuity was not acceptable because, for example, an orchestral concert from Scotland would travel the length of the British Isles and back again to get to the Scottish transmitters. Even worse from Northern Ireland.

So, what used to happen was that there was an SB switch. Remember that SB stands for Simultaneous Broadcast. After the previous programme had ended there was a switching pause of 5 seconds. In that time, the previous distribution network was broken down and another network set up with lines which radiated out from the region of origin. So, in the example I gave of a Scottish concert, the Outside Broadcast would go into the Scottish Home Service continuity in Glasgow, and then straight to the Scottish transmitters. Another  feed of SHS would go to Northern Ireland on the same line that they received the previous programme; but the North of England would switch over to a line from Glasgow. In the Midlands, we switched the Midland transmitter network (the Midland Home Service) to a line from Manchester. In this way London became a region on the end of the chain. So each region’s transmitters got the shortest line possible from the origination region, and therefore the best quality available. I hope that I have explained that consistent with my experience as a Lecturer!

Of course, the opportunity for cock-ups was endless! There was no talkback with a cue, as would be done in television, the whole thing relied on accurate timing, and it only needed a few seconds overrun to make some regions switch on time, and others switch a few seconds later. So what? I hear you ask. Well, if you don’t break down the first network, before setting up the second one, you get a loop, and the chance of a howl round. In fact, because Birmingham normally fed Bristol with the Home Service for the West of England, there was one type of SB switch which almost guaranteed a howl round! I used to love it. I remember on one occasion Northern Ireland had told us they would overrun, so we all agreed to delay the SB switch. After several minutes I rang Belfast to ask when they were going to finish and they said “We have already finished!” About a minute ago apparently. So I switched back to London who had already started the next programme. Because we were switching after the continuity, if we missed a switch, there was only silence going out to the transmitters until we put it right.

There was also one daily switch at half past three (1530) in the afternoon. Unfortunately this was also the time of our shift change in the Control Room. It was at the start of a programme called “Home this Afternoon” which I think came from a different region each day. One day we missed the  switch in Birmingham, so at the end of the programme the announcer apologised and said “We hope you don’t miss it tomorrow because we have on the programme a special guest….). The next day we missed the switch again! On another occasion at the shift change, someone was taking over from George on the day shift. The operator coming on shift said “Are there any switches?” and George suddenly spun round and switched the Midlands and West of England to the North!

Colin Pierpoint



Colin Pierpoint blog 7 – The Control Room


BTR2 machine













(Below is part 7 of Colin Pierpoint’s blog about his career at the BBC. This part concerns the Control Room at BBC Birmingham in Broad Street in the early/mid 1960s).

“In the Control Room I really enjoyed being part of the network. It was called the SB System (for Simultaneous Broadcast). Distribution lines to the transmitting stations and Contribution lines from other regions passed through Birmingham Control Room. When I first arrived this was for Home Service, the Light Programme, and the Third Programme. Adjoining the Control Room at Broad Street was the Continuity Suite for the Midland Home Service.  Because the Third Programme only began broadcasting in the evening, the lines were used for telephone calls during the day. Some time later, the Music Programme began in daytime on this network, and that changed its name when all Radio networks were revised into Radios 1, 2, 3 and 4.

Television sound also came through the Control Room, the vision being switched in the Switching Centre one floor below. (Only the BBC could do it this way). But in addition to the distribution of the networks, the Control Room switched contributions from the Regions and London. In fact all sound for Radio and Television went this way, with each individual booking for every contribution given on the daily booking sheet called the “SB Chart”. Sound for Radio and Television outside broadcasts from the Midlands were routed into here on lines from the Post Office. Saturday was particularly busy because there was Sport in the Midlands on the Midland Home Service (later Radio 4 Midlands) and contributions from many football grounds were switched from one region to another. This was all done on plugs and cords; there was no switching system for OB contributions. (There was a small relay switching panel for the SB lines). When the programme Nationwide started on television it required quite a complicated lot of plugging in the control room.

We found that if we plugged two amplifiers to a spare Post Office circuit, we could hear the feed to the betting shop just up Broad Street. Ron Cartwright used to regularly dash out of the Control Room to put a bet on! He also did a trade in selling strawberries from Evesham (where he lived). One morning when I was again late for the 6-30 am shift, I apologised to Ron in the street, saying there was just time for me to get upstairs in time for the Midlands weather forecast (the first opt out at 6-57). He said never mind that, take these upstairs while you are going, and gave me four trays of punnets of strawberries from his car boot!”

Colin Pierpoint


Electrical warning sign

Photo by Martin Fenton, no reproduction without permission

Photo by Martin Fenton, no reproduction without permission

Martin Fenton took this photo in the radio studios area of Pebble Mill in autumn 2003.

Electrical safety was obviously taken very seriously, if only ‘authorised staff’ could put a plug in a socket!

The BBC logo, with the rounded corners seems to date it between 1971-88.

The following comments were left on the Pebble Mill Facebook page:

Kathryn Shuttleworth: ‘I certainly know where this sign is. I have it along with other bits from Studio 3. I was one of the last to leave Pebble Mill and on a final walk round noticed most of the studio signs and door plates had gone. I guess quite a few people took a bit of Pebble Mill with them before the bulldozers turned up.’

Pete Simpkin: ‘In most BBC studios there were visits from musical groups of some sort and another and this notice was to be seen all over the place. I remember doing a late Christmas eve show at WM and was horrified to see my wife in the Ops room pulling out a mains plug (which could have been powering anything!) to plug in a hotplate containing eggs and bacon which she had brought in for the crew!!’

Colin Pierpoint blog 6 – Recording













(Here is part 6 of Colin Pierpoint’s blog about his career at the BBC):

At this time [mid 1960s] the duties as a Technical Operator in the Control Room included work in the Recording Channels. This was sound only, and is usually thought to be as exclusively for Radio, but in fact we also recorded and edited sound tapes to be used in television. At one time Johnathan Miller was in my editing channel M10 to edit sound for a television programme. I worked for quite a number of Producers, editing the Midland Light Orchestra (as it was then), not just cutting in retakes, but sometimes editing out an early entry by some musician, or split notes on the brass. I still have a reel of tape with a selection of my edits both before and after. I worked with Peter Craddy at first, then Ron Gardener. There was “On Your Farm” produced by Tony Parkin; and a Features Producer by the name of Ann (and I can’t recall her surname). One of her programmes was called “Jews in England”. Richard Butt produced the classical music and we regularity worked on editing orchestral recordings. I edited one recording made in Birmingham Town Hall with Peter Pears and Benjamin Britten.

I also worked with Charles Parker. He produced the Radio Ballads; later after his death to be acclaimed masterpieces of Radio. I remember recording a trailer for his latest programme, in the recording channel M4 at Broad Street. It had a small studio with a Marconi 5 channel desk. After he  finished the 1 minute trail, he asked me “What do you think?” Wanting to sound interested I said “It could be a bit more punchy”  so he said  “let’s do it again then” I wished I had kept my mouth shut! He did do his own tape editing, which I objected to because any faults would be thought to be mine! I think I told him that I don’t mind him doing the editing, if I can do the Producing. Editing was done at that time using splicing tape to join the two parts of quarter inch recording tape. Any imperfect sticky edits would cause the tape to bounce, and french chalk was put on the tape to remedy this. He was putting french chalk on all the edits on the reel, and getting it all over the tape machine, so I told him that he would have to clean it all us afterwards, which to his credit, he did.

Colin Pierpoint

The following comments were posted on the Pebble Mill Facebook page:

Paul Hunt: ‘That looks like a BTR2 tape machine?’

Colin Pierpoint: ‘Correct. I did most of my editing on the BTR2, a lovely machine when you got to know it. When we changed to stereo I used Studer B62 at Pebble Mill, and A80s at Wood Norton, then B67s. Going back to using a BTR2 after the Studers made it feel like driving a tank! The BTR2 channel had interesting hidden facilities. The “Autofollow” button for two reel playback. Switching one machine to remote, would mute the other machine. And operating a toggle switch in the bottom of the linking console made one machine play and the other record if the red light was switched on. This was for copying. Of course, you had to be careful to put the original tape on the play machine and not the one destined to record!’

Colin Pierpoint blog – part 4, Cardiff

I really enjoyed my time working in a regional centre. I spent a lot of time working in the Control Room, where the Technical Operations staff also did recording and tape editing as part of their duties. Of course, my training in the London XP unit helped here, and I had a good working relationship with many radio producers. I also did Continuity work on the Welsh Home Service, opting out of the BBC Home Service from London. This was my favourite duty, alongside announcers, and with some announcements and programmes in Welsh. (They didn’t separate to Radio Cymru until years later.)

One event which nearly brought an end to my career more certainly than the incident in the lift was my ability to oversleep. I woke up one morning at two minutes to seven a.m. I should have been on duty at 6-30 in Continuity, and the first programme was “Programme Parade” at 0710 am, which was on tape. There would be no other operator in the Control Room. I was the only person to start the tape, and I knew that if I didn’t, I was in serious trouble, or even dismissal. At the time I was in bed and breakfast at 100 Colum Road Cardiff; below is a map showing the distance to the BBC studios at Park Place. We normally had a taxi for early morning duty, but he had long since given up and gone. So I had to get the 878 yards to Continuity on my own in a little less that 15 minutes!  Half a mile. I  threw on a pair of shorts, a casual shirt and a pair of sandals, and just ran.

Well. I made it. I don’t know how I did it; at school, on sports day I was always hopeless at running. The Commissionaire was holding the front door open as I came round the corner of the building. Continuity was upstairs! As I entered, the London announcer was saying “That is the end of the News, the time is ten past seven” which was the Opt out cue. I had to jump up onto the back of the vertical mixing desk in order to fade out of London. I then walked round the desk and started the TR90 tape machine (fortunately, the tape is normally set up by the evening shift the night before). I then collapsed into  a chair, gasping for breath.

Screenshot (1064)

On the above figure is the distance measured on the blue line, from my Bed and Breakfast place to the BBC studios











Because of the clothes I was wearing, with no chance to change, everyone I met that day kept asking “Did you enjoy your holiday”!

As in London (and later in Birmingham) Control Room staff also did recording and editing. For some of the time I worked in the studios, because I remember recording Programme Parade while I was doing the panel (operating the mixing desk). In the middle of complete chaos (which there often was) the PBX phone rang and a female voice spoke in Welsh. Due to the panic going on, and without thinking, I said “For heavens sake speak English”. I was told later that the Head of Presentation who had rung the studio from the Presentation Office, was seen to be taken aback!

That session was always a mess because it used tape inserts which had been sent to the regions that afternoon on the SB network. When I later went to Birmingham I found the same Programme Parade was recorded using tape inserts (of London Programmes trails) which had been edited and put onto separate reels. For some reason I never discovered, Cardiff used to record the whole session on one big reel of tape, including all the London Studio Manager’s cues to record each item, so in the Programme Parade recording session with a live announcer in the studio, the operator had to find the right insert on this big reel of tape. Anyway, after many restarts from the beginning, I realised that the TR90 tape machine could be dropped into record part way through, so after a cock-up we didn’t have to do it all again. The tape machine was in another room off the Control Room, so I went there played back the last bit of the recording and asked them to start speaking on a pre-arranged cue, when I would press the record button. [For technical readers; I later used the same technique at Wood Norton for television with a VR1200 or 2000 video recorder, using the buzz back to cue the studio].