Brian Vaughton demonstrates the Brenell editing deck

Brain Vaughton demonstrates the Brenell tape editing deck from pebblemill on Vimeo.

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Radio producer and editor, Brian Vaughton, demonstrates the Brenell tape editing deck, which would have been used to edit radio documentaries and inserts from the 1960s.

Brian worked as a freelancer at BBC Birmingham in the 1960s, with producers like Philip Donnellan and Charles Parker.

The following comment was left on the Pebble Mill Facebook Page:

Peter Poole: ‘I used Brenell decks in hospital radio. Very good machines and built like a tank!’

Brian Vaughton

Brian Vaughton – Radio Documentarian

Ian Parr, photo by Sam Coley, no reproduction without permission

Ian Parr, photo by Sam Coley, no reproduction without permission

Ian Parr, photo by Sam Coley, no reproduction without permission

Ian Parr, photo by Sam Coley, no reproduction without permission

Photo by Sam Coley, no reproduction without permission

Photo by Sam Coley, no reproduction without permission























Ian Parr, the Secretary and Trustee of the Charles Parker Archive, visited the Birmingham School of Media recently to deliver a collection of equipment formally used by Birmingham born radio producer, Brian Vaughton.

“On looking back I find that the majority of my documentaries have been aimed at capturing the past, before it is too late.” Brian Vaughton

Brian worked in both radio and television from the late 1950s – into the twenty-first century. In 1961 and 1962, Brian compiled and wrote two radio programmes which were produced by Charles Parker in the BBC Birmingham studios (Broad Street). These programmes, The Jewellery and Cry from the Cut, became known as  The Birmingham Ballads and have become important audio documents, preserving the legacy of Birmingham’s Jewellery Quarter and the commercial boat traffic which used to fill the city’s once busy canals.

It is interesting to note that Brian did not work under the security of full time BBC employment – instead preferring the freedom offered by being an independent producer.

“The beauty of being a freelance is that you can choose the subject of your article, radio programme or documentary film that you want to put up for consideration by the powers-that-be. And if they reject your suggestions, it is not the end of the world!” Brian Vaughton

Brian kindly gave permission for his collection of radio equipment to be permanently displayed in the Radio Suite of the new Parkside Building. This includes an L2 EMI “midget tape recorder”, a Brennell editing deck and anSTC4032 microphone. These are all in pristine condition – which Brian says this is because he paid for the equipment himself – and therefore took good care of it. While BBC equipment at the time was often subjected to more “knocks”.

The School of Media is delighted to announce the naming of a new annual award “The Brian Vaughton Award for Excellence in Radio” which is to be given to the radio student achieving the highest overall mark on the conclusion of their BA in Media and Communication / Radio studies.

For more information about Brian’s achievements, please visit the Charles Parker Archive Trust where there is an excellent series of interviews and notes relating to his work and the “Birmingham Ballads”.

Sam Coley (Degree Leader Radio, School of Media, Birmingham City University)

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

Pete Simpkin: ‘Many the reporter I taught to use the famous EMI L2 recorder….weighed a ton but was portable at last!’

Ieuan Franklin: ‘Hi Vanessa – that’s great about the donation of the equipment, and the naming of a new award after Brian Vaughton. I have listened to both programmes at the Charles Parker Archive, and I really think they do deserve to be included within the ‘official’ series of Radio Ballads (1958-1964). I have never met Brian, but his lengthy article on the Charles Parker Archive Trust website is incredibly informative, and was useful for my PhD research. Seán Street will be interested in this and may be able to comment on the equipment itself!’






The Charles Parker Archive can be found in the Library of Birmingham, Centenary Square, and more details can be found on the Birmingham City Council’s website:


Sam Coley (Degree Leader, Radio, Birmingham City University)


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.’

Memories of Philip Donnellan – Peter Poole

Philip was a producer who gave a voice to people who seldom appeared on television. His films had a similar style to the ‘Radio Ballads’ produced in Birmingham by Charles Parker. They mixed actuality with specially commissioned music to tell the life stories of people from all sections of society. Philip was a great interviewer and was able to put interviewees at ease and talk at length.

Philip frequently had a high shooting ratio to achieve the highest standard of documentary production. He sometimes ran over budget before his films were finished. This caused some conflict with BBC management. However he always seemed to find the money to complete his films. In 1977 he produced ‘Pure Radio’. This film was about the Radio Features Department and Charles Parker. John Pierce from Audio Unit had worked on the ‘Radio Ballads’. He took part in this drama documentary working again with Charles Parker. The film editor was John Bland.

I remember working on ‘Gone for a Soldier’. A large group of World War 2 veterans told stories of their war time experiences. This was covered by 2 film cameras and 2 microphone booms. The only time filming stopped was when the audio tape ran out. The sound recordist was Dennis Cartwright from BBC Manchester. I can’t remember the rest of the crew. The film editor, Greg Miller spent many months on this production. It was broadcast in 1980 as two 50 minute films shown on the same night. This film was very controversial and generated a strong reaction in the media and the establishment. Questions were asked in Parliament as it showed the military in a very poor light. Philip was driven by a strong socialist political belief and was on the side of the “underdog”. The film’s main theme was the poor treatment of soldiers by the senior military. Specially commissioned music was used to illustrate the lives of soldiers throughout history to contemporary times. This was Philip’s finest film and much of it is still relevant today.

At times Philip could be a little “difficult” and did not appreciate my comments about his tape recording skills. His PA Elizabeth Seaborne called into the transfer suite with tapes for transfer to SEPMAG. It was evident they had not recorded by a professional sound recordist. My report listed many technical faults with these tapes. I stamped the tapes “Not for TX”. I soon heard Philip was rather annoyed by my comments. A little later Elizabeth phoned to tell me Philip was coming to see me. I was very apprehensive about telling a senior producer that his tapes were not broadcast quality. Philip came in looking quite annoyed but after some discussion we came to a mutual understanding.

Philip had a policy of keeping all material from his films after broadcast. A storage area in Pebble Mill’s basement was full of film negatives, tapes and paperwork going back many years. I hope this collection is now in safe storage.

Philip made many films and I was fortunate to have a very minor role in the last few. These films would never be made today due to cost and the long production times. Philip is a major figure in the documentary movement but now seems totally forgotten by the BBC. A Donnellan season on BBC Four would be a fitting tribute to this great producer. But the BBC seems intent on never repeating any of his work.

Peter Poole

John Bland, photo by Peter Poole

Greg Miller, photo by Peter Poole