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


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 5 – Birmingham Broad Street

BBC Gosta Green Studios

BBC Gosta Green Studios

BBC offices in Carpenter Rd, Edgbaston, where I think Donnellan would have worked whilst producing 'The Colony'

BBC offices in Carpenter Rd, Edgbaston























Birmingham Broad Street

When I arrived in Birmingham I found that the regional centre was split into three, mainly for historical reasons. The main television studio was at Gosta Green, which had been so quickly installed in an old cinema at the start of Independent Television, that radiators were still fixed to the walls at varying heights where the audience seating used to be. I worked at Broad Street in the Sound Control Room, where there was also a television studio (Studio 1 later the larger Studio 4) for regional opt out; and teleciné. The drama studio was Studio 2. The managers were all at Carpenter Road, some distance from either operational centre, which was an excellent arrangement because you never saw them! The building was a blind school before the BBC took over, and some said it had never changed. The Midland Light Orchestra used Studio 6 at Carpenter Road, recording their music on tape machines a mile away at Broad Street, actually in the Control Room (Only the BBC could do it this way!)

I have mentioned my inability to get out of bed in the morning, and while working at Broad Street, I’m afraid I was late for work several times, especially on the 6-30 am shift. At my next annual interview I expected this to be on my report, so it was vital that I was not late for the interview. I decided to take no risks, start early and not use public transport so I wasn’t late due to the traffic. I therefore walked from my flat in Edgbaston to Carpenter Road where my Engineer in Charge (EiC) has his office.

As I went along the Hagley Road, and saw a madman attacking a nun, I knew that I was going to be  late! He had her by the arm and was dragging her along the pavement. She even asked for my help as I went past trying not to notice. The phrase “I can’t stop now, I have got my annual interview this morning” seemed to be inadequate. So I asked the man, politely, if he would mind telling me what was going on. He said “I am arresting this woman because she is a prostitute”!  Mm I see. Keep him talking I thought. As I did so I asked a passer-by to call the police from the nearby phone box on the corner of Portland Road. The man heard this, but thought it was to get the woman arrested. He said to me, “That’s right, call 99 999 99  9 99”. He’s nuts I thought. Unfortunately, the passer-by called for an ambulance, but they told me that a police car would follow. And quite quickly, a Panda car arrived. I told the officer what the man had said, and he was locked in the back of the police car, still thinking that he was to give evidence against this woman at the police station.

The officer asked other people what had happened, and at this point several brave young men now came forward to claim that they were the first to intercept and rescue the nun! She was quite distraught by now, and a woman took her to the Convent which was nearby.

So, nun back into safety, madman in police hands, I could now continue to Carpenter Road and my annual interview. There was only one problem, the interview was in five minutes, and I was still a mile away. So I went to the phone box and rang (Midland 8444 as I remember). I said that I am going to be late for my annual interview because on the way in I met a madman attacking a nun.

There was a silence from the other end. Then “ er – OK. I will tell the EiC” said with a hint of disbelief in her voice. When I arrived, something like half an hour late, my EiC just said “Congratulations on the best excuse I have ever heard”! Being late for work was never mentioned.

I must add that I received not a word of thanks from the Police, nor the Convent. It was however reassuring when I later spoke to some members of BBC staff who has seen something going on from the top of a bus in the Hagley Road. Perhaps you were one of them.

Colin Pierpoint


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].

Colin Pierpoint, blog part 3 – The Event in the Lift


BBC Broadcasting House 1930s, copyright resides with the original holder, no reproduction without permission

BBC Broadcasting House 1930s, copyright resides with the original holder, no reproduction without permission

My career nearly came to an abrupt end after only a few months. To appreciate this event you have to remember that this was 1961 and attitudes were different from today. The BBC still had Lord Reith’s standards, “That was the Week That Was” had not been commissioned yet; and ladies rarely showed their underwear. So this was the environment when I got into the front lift at the eighth floor of BH, with a young woman from the staff restaurant, whom I knew fairly well.

The BH 1930s lifts were notoriously slow, and she was going to the Lower Ground Floor Restaurant with a tray of cups. I was going to the sub-basement Control Room, and both of us knew we were in for a long journey. So she asked would I mind if she made an adjustment because her slip was showing below her skirt. I said I didn’t mind, so she lifted up her skirt to her waist, in order to make the adjustment. Now, not many staff go down from reception to the floors below ground, so we expected an uninterrupted journey. It took us by surprise therefore when we stopped at the ground floor, and the doors opened, revealing her with her skirt lifted up (a position in which she froze), and me trying to look as though nothing had happened.

In the large marble reception hall, the main entrance to the respectable BBC, were about 20 people waiting for the lift, and therefore facing us. I thought this was quite funny until I heard one of the men say “What’s been going on in this lift?” Nobody answered, least of all me! And nobody got into our lift. The doors closed slowly, like the curtains of the Windmill Theatre after one of their sexy tableau, and we continued our journey, I think the men in suits who saw us may have been the Board of Governors waiting to go up to the Council Chamber on the third floor.

In my off duty time I was alone in London, so I became a regular customer of the BBC Ticket unit, going to radio and television shows in places like the Television Theatre at Shepherds Bush, the Playhouse on the embankment, and the Paris Theatre, the latter two used for recording radio shows with an audience. While I was in London, at the newly built Television Centre, studios 3 and 4 had just come into use. Each had an observation room from where I could see into the studio from gallery level, and also hear production talkback. I spent many hours in there and learnt a lot about television studio production, following the recordings of “A for Andromeda” which had a new actress Julie Christie. (At present there are parts of this series on youtube). I just wandered into the studio observation room, you couldn’t do it today because of security. I also began visiting transmitting stations which I continued to do throughout my career; Crystal Palace, Penmon, Droitwich, Sutton Coldfield, Belmont and Daventry. I later became a close friend of Martin Watkins, the Quality Monitor at the time, and we visited many stations together. At Belmont we were taken up the mast in the lift.

I might have done well in the XP unit; the unit manager, Bill Jarman said colleagues liked my editing, but I just wanted to get out of London. I had a transfer request in with EPD (Engineering Personnel Dept) from early on. My aim was to get to Manchester to be nearer home, but I actually never made it there. (When I got to know the BBC better I realised that I should have just written a memo to say that “…Under no circumstances do I want to work in Manchester”. That happened to someone who didn’t want to go to Wofferton)  Anyway, they sent me to Cardiff for a year.