The Long Journey – documentary by Philip Donnellan

Philip Donnellan 1

I was lucky enough to view this Philip Donnellan documentary at BBC Birmingham this week. Here is what I made of the film:

This black and white documentary explores what it was like to be a teenage in 1960’s England. It was transmitted on 7 April 1964.

Like several other of Philip Donnellan’s documentaries, the music/voice montages were adapted by Charles Parker. This time from a Radio Ballad called ‘On the Edge’ by Ewan McColl and Peggy Seeger, who sing the songs in the film.

The documentary was made at BBC Birmingham at the Carpenter Road headquarters in Edgbaston. It would have been shot on 16mm film, with sepmag audio. The camera crew were Peter Bartlett and Brian Tufano, sound by Bob Roberts. The sound mixer for the montage sections was Pat Whittaker, and Edward le Lorrain was the film editor. The production assistant was Richard Marquand.

As in much of Donnellan’s work there is no voice over. The contributors tell their own story accompanied by observational camerawork of actuality sequences. Some of the scenes seem rather staged, and less truly observational than desired. This is particularly true of the hitch hiking sequences.

Much of the synch sound comes from close ups of talking heads, which are frequently intercut, to present different perspectives on a subject. The voice montages are re-versioned from the Radio Ballads, with appropriate new visual overlay. The montages provide structural breaks in the film, and punctuate the developing narrative scenes. They also provide an energy, with a myriad of quickly cut sound bites. They are disruptive to the narrative flow. There are several new contributors, and viewpoints besides those from the radio audio montages.

Music accompanies much of the film, and the lyrics from the folk songs that were part of the original Radio Ballad, are perfectly in tune with the subject matter and treatment, although they seem slightly old fashioned in contrast to the pop music performed in different scenes of the documentary.

The film is quite melancholic and downbeat. The representation of teenagerhood is certainly not one of unbridled joy and feelings of liberation. Subjects like drug use and sex before marriage are talked about, but the emphasis is on the difficulty teenagers face in making sense of the world and finding their place within it. Loneliness is another key theme, as is breaking away from parents and their expectations, and living for the moment. The selfishness of being young is also talked about: that you only care about yourself.

The key contributor is a 16 year old girl who has left home, has no money, and gets around by hitching. She is trying to find answers. Along the way she is joined by another similar girl, and the two have some quite philosophical discussions about their perception of life, religion and of nature. They walk in the countryside, and overlook the city, mentioning how beautiful the smoke from the power station looks, and how a tree planted in a streetscape seems so different from a tree in its natural, rural setting. They seem apart from the real world: they are observers from outside, struggling to get a sense of scale. They talk about how when you’re in the city, you unwittingly become part of it, whereas from the top of the hills looking down you can observe and be free. They walk through a hillside graveyard, observed by a handheld camera, and read from some of the gravestones – again pondering meanings of life, and death, and deciding that you’ve got to make the best of the time you’ve got.

We dip in and out of the girls’ story; they provide the narrative thread to the film. When we meet them next they are entering a church, with the vicar mid-sermon. He preaches about young people. Amidst overlay shots of slum clearance, and the high-rise flats that are replacing them. One of the girls talks about wanting to construct something, to make a positive contribution, but that sometimes you need to destroy what is already there, in order to move on.

The last time we meet the 16-year-old girl is at the end of the film. Again she is hitching, this time going south. She says she has a long way to go, and muses nihilistically about the importance of life: that when you die, you become a memory, just a name written in the front of a school book, or clothes that must be discarded from your home. This depressing perspective is in tune with earlier philosophical themes running through the film, and is certainly not the depiction of youth that we expect from the supposedly liberating and hedonistic sixties. It is the girl’s Long Journey we have been following, both her physical journey, and more importantly her metaphorical journey into adulthood.

This film would be most unlikely to be commissioned today. Its treatment would not be appreciated by modern commissioners; there are too many voices, and not enough of a compelling narrative. Although there is a narrative flow to the piece, it is a subtle one, woven by Donnellan, and not inherent in the actual story of the 16-year-old girl. However, the documentary gives us a powerful social commentary on what it could actually feel like to be a teenager in the 1960s, away from more stereotypical images. The film has depth, and a philosophical outlook that makes it withstand the test of time.

Vanessa Jackson

Gordon Astley who worked with Donnellan and Parker added the following comment on the Pebble Mill Facebook Group:

‘I knew Parker and Donnellan in my first week after leaving Wood Norton. I cannot believe now that as young broadcaster I was allowed to wield a razor blade on the “Radio Ballads”. Also remember all the people I worked with slagging them off for being time wasters on arty farty stuff.’

Barrie Edgar 1919-2012

Barrie Edgar taken in July 2010

Barrie Edgar in July 2010














Barrie Edgar sadly died recently aged 93.

Barrie was closely associated with BBC Birmingham since the very early days of radio broadcasting in the city. His father, Percy Edgar was a Birmingham concert manager who was asked to start up broadcasting in Birmingham in 1922, by the chief engineer of the G.E.C. works in Witton, which was part of the British Broadcasting Company. He supplied artists, and produced programmes. Barrie’s reaction as a young child to a story called ‘Spick and Span’ was apparently the inspiration for establishing the first ‘Children’s Hour’ broadcast, which was years ahead of the BBC in London, and produced by Percy. Barrie made his first broadcast at the age of 14, playing Tom Brown in a radio adaptation of Tom Brown’s School Days.

Barrie started working in television in 1946, when he was demobilised after the war, and in 1951 he came back to Birmingham as a television outside broadcast producer.  The O.B. unit was shared with BBC Manchester. The first programme he produced was an amateur boxing contest at Gosta Green, the same building which became the BBC Gosta Green Television Studio in 1955. Barrie was based at the new Broadcasting House, in Carpenter Road in Edgbaston, which was where most programmes were made until the move to Pebble Mill in 1971.  Barrie produced programmes such as ‘Gardening Club’, which became ‘Gardeners’ World’, ‘Farming’ and ‘Come Dancing’. He also produced the ‘Kings College Christmas Carols’, ‘Songs of Praise’, as well as events like General Elections, and the consecration of Coventry Cathedral.

Barrie retired from television in 1979. Barrie’s son is the playwright, David Edgar.

The following comments were added on the Pebble Mill Facebook Group:

Keith Brook: ‘Dear Barrie. Lovely man. Cool, calm and collected. That’s how directors and producers handle themselves when they understand the business. ‘

Gordon Astley: ‘Barrie was a mate of my dad, Pat Astley…and got me an interview for the Beeb via the back door. He looked after me for the first few months of a career that lasted 40 years. Lovely man.’

Pete Simpkin: ‘Wonderful broadcasting practitioner the like of which has gone for ever. I really enjoyed interviewing such a terrifically talented man on Radio Birmingham/WM and also remember him taking charge of the garden at Pebble Mill….how many retired producers of standing would do that?’

Lynda Kettle: ‘An extremely wonderful gentleman!’

CMCR6 – Birmingham’s first colour scanner

Gosta Green Studios – cutting c/o Gail Herbert













The first colour scanner (CMCR) in Birmingham was CMCR 6 which was based at the OB base which was then at Carpenter Road, Edgbaston.

It was equipped with 5 EMI 2001 colour cameras which had the lens within the body of the camera. 4 of the cameras were used normally and the other was used as a spare and for parts to repair the others.

BBC Birmingham did not have a Colour TV studio before Pebble Mill opened in 1971.  The BBC had a studio at the Cinema in Gosta Green in Aston.  It was fitted out in the days of black & white and during the late 60s until Pebble Mill opened CMCR6 would be used part of the week to produce Dramas or Drama series in colour.

I think that CMCR6 was at Gosta Green on a Wednesday & Thursday each week and would then go and do a Match of the Day or other OBs returning on Tuesday for the rig for the drive in.

CMCR 6 was moved to Kendal Avenue in the 1970s and replaced in Birmingham with CMCR 9 which had Philips PC80 Cameras. This meant that the cameras in the Studios at Pebble Mill and the ones on the OB unit were different which caused problems with maintenance, spares etc.

John Duckmanton

Pre-Pebble Mill buildings in Birmingham – Carpenter Rd – Dave Kirkwood

In Birmingham in the mid 60’s the BBC had offices and studios scattered
across the city including:

Carpenter Road, Edgbaston was the HQ for the region. The site for the building is now a housing estate. In the grounds you also found the Film Unit and the Outside Broadcast Garage.

In the 60’s the Midlands Region operated two TV OB Units and associated communications vehicles, and three radio OB units.

Further down the road there was a former church (cannot find the name of it)
which was the base for the ‘Midlands Light Orchestra’. See for detailed history.

Dave Kirkwood

Radio Birmingham producer and presenter, Pete Simpkin remembers the Church Studio, ‘I am certain it became the home of Zella Records under the ownership of Johnny Haynes and gave many local groups the chance to get on disc. I produced a Malc Stent Album there in the 80s.’

From Pioneers to Pebble Mill


This little booklet documents the first 50 years of BBC broadcasting in the Midlands – from 1922-72.  The forward is written by Phil Sidey, the Head of Network Production Centre at Pebble Mill in the 1970s and early 80s.  The booklet tells the story of broadcasting in the Midlands, from the first studio in Witton in 1922, to the premises in New Street, followed by Broad Street, Carpenter Road (Edgbaston), Gosta Green and then Pebble Mill.

Many of the photographs were taken by Willoughby Gullachsen.

Thanks to Pete Simpkin for making the booklet available.