Pebble Mill Blue Plaque

 

On Wednesday 8 September 2021 a BBC Heritage Trail blue plaque was unveiled on the site of BBC Pebble Mill, now a rehabilitation hospital, to commemorate the building and all the fantastic programmes that were created there. A small number of former BBC staff attended the ceremony. The plaque was unveiled by Midlands Today presenter, Nick Owen, who presented the last ever news programme from the broadcast centre.

Included in the photographs are:

  1. Annie Gumbley Williams, Jim Dumighan
  2. ?, Nick Owen
  3. Ken Pollack, Nick Owen
  4. Ken Pollack, Ivor Williams, John Duckmanton
  5. Norman McLeod, John Williams, Nick Owen
  6. Annie Gumbley Williams, Nick Owen, Jenny Brewer

Howards’ Way photos by Albert Sheard

These photos were taken on location in 1987 on the glamorous drama series Howards’ Way by Albert Sheard. They include iconic locations like Cowes Week on the Isle of Wight, Somerset House and the QE2. It is cameraman John Williams about to get into the helicopter, presumably to record aerial shots. Howards’ Way was produced by a BBC drama series team from London, but was hosted at Pebble Mill, using a Pebble Mill crew.

Tribute to John Smith by John Williams

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I look up to the sky and see the latest RAF jet fighter about to settle on my lawn.

I look down to the sea and find 50 fathoms below Her Majesty’s latest Nuclear Submarine.

I look to my left I see a class of 50 Chinese school children waving their hands welcoming the first BBC crew into China since the communist revolution and singing our national anthem.

I look to my right and see the vast white continent of Antarctica laid out before me. I hear a tremendous roar as an ice cliff the size of the white cliffs of Dover falls into the sea.

This was the domain of my friend and colleague John Smith some of which I was privileged to share. A maverick Producer/Director like no other straight from BBC’s Pebble Mill Birmingham network production factory.

Often, as his cameraman, I was able to put on film many of his ideas and one could guarantee working with John would not be the norm, best to expect the extreme knowing you will not be disappointed for It all came with the territory.

When John whispered me an idea, I found it wise to search behind the eyes to extract what this really meant. In reality this was to mean finding oneself in the most exciting of places and ultimately travelling the world.

He was one of the best fixers in the business who obviously had the ear of the military for we often used their hospitality to get from A to B.

Inevitably there was often a high degree of risk attached to his work demanding much from his crew but, with the tension also came the humour.
One such occasion was on the old HMS Ark Royal on her way from Malta to be decommissioned. John, of course, wanted to be as close as possible to the action meaning he and I spending the afternoon on her deck lying on our backs filming the last of her Phantom jets leaving the ship for home.
Exciting in itself especially when you are perched directly alongside the aircraft waiting for the pilots to wave and ignite their reheats for take off. The noise is deafening, I don’t think my ears have ever recovered. The evening didn’t help, with no aircraft to worry about wardroom revelries was to mean a very late night, I just wanted bed. An irate John called me at 2am to say the captain had sent his compliments but much as they appreciated his efforts one of my crew was on the bridge insisting he navigate the ship, would I remove him. To get to the bridge on an aircraft carrier was no easy task at the best of times, at 2am in the morning with a bad head it did not go down well but I obliged and, although reluctant, the culprit realised he had to go immediately. No one mentioned it again not even the captain!!

The “Heroes of Telemark” is a well-known true war story, John had us in Norway with 41 Marine commando putting his version on film.  The result meant coping with the cold, learning to ski, how to dig and survive in a snow hole. Not good if you were claustrophobic and didn’t like being buried in snow with just a ski pole poked through the roof for air and a solitary lit candle to show there was air to breath. A fantastic story of man’s endurance and courage. I failed on the skiing.

Before we knew anything about illegal immigrants in this country John with his PA Jane Mclean took me to Hong Kong, then a British colony, to film a story of Chinese trying to escape their mainland to claim asylum and freedom on Hong Kong Island. They would use anything to cross the shark invested China sea, float on lilos, pay huge sums to smugglers     using speed boats or the beautiful hand-built craft they had made themselves.  We were to spend several days and nights hunting down these poor wretches some little more than children, some whole families.  At sea at night once caught, they would be hauled on board tied up and made to lie down on the deck, a Naval Marine would throw a grenade into their boat making it disappear in a flash loud bang and hundreds of splinters left floating on the water.

By day our helicopter would look for abandoned lilos to find their occupants hiding in the marshes. Swooping down they would be picked up, frightened, freezing have their hands tied with plastic straps and thrown into the back before being taken to a waiting truck and returned over the border into China only 30 minutes away. None of this was for the faint hearted.

There was a bonus at the end of this story. As we prepared to return to the UK word got through the Chinese were letting a few tourists into their new development area Zhuhai through Macau just down the road and we might be able to go. Fixer Smith was on the case immediately sending his assistant Steve Weddle to see if it was on. The outcome three days filming courtesy of the Peoples Republic of China, wonderful hospitality a welcome chorus of God save the Queen sung in faltering English by a group of school children and a BBC scoop for Pebble Mill as the first crew into China after the revolution.
One day John came to say he wanted to go to the Falkland Islands, I thought just off the coast of Scotland? No, these are in the South Atlantic where the fuss is.  We will stop off to shoot a story in Argentina visiting cattle ranch the size of Wales fly to the Falklands shoot several stories on the Islands before joining HMS Endurance on her way south to the Antarctic ice visiting British and American survey bases. To cap it all would be a film about Earnest Shackleton the explorer. This was to happen not long before the conflict and it was typical of John we would find ourselves in the forefront for warning our government the islanders were sure it was going to happen.
The result being when it did happen, we knew the places and personally many of the people directly involved. Rex Hunt, governor of the Islands, and his wife Mavis accompanied us on Endurance, the captured marines seen on everyone’s TVs face down in the mud were the same marines we had filmed only a few months earlier there to defend Government house.  HMS Invincible her Harriers fighters, their pilots and crews who fought so magnificently to protect the fleet, another scoop for John as we had filmed them joining the ship for the first time. Pebble Island with the   wonderful hospitable farmsteads where we had stayed the night a scene of a major battle and many deaths.

 

It’s difficult to envisage the size of Argentina until you drive for hours on end and not see anything other than logging trucks. This is what it took including an unplanned overnight stay to get to the cattle ranch. It was only a brief stay but enough to see the Gauchos and how they rounded up the cattle, almost a Rodeo before going on to Buenos Aires to be flown to Stanley in the Falklands.

I suspect for John and I this trip to the ice, the Earnest Shackleton story, visiting the English and America Antarctic survey bases must have been the highlight of both our careers. All that is said about the place is there, especially from the air.

Nights came but it never got dark, evenings were spent in the wardroom telling tales or playing Cluedo according to Navy rules, rules which meant you could cheat as much as you like but not get caught. Hogmanay arrived whilst we were on board the Haggis duly piped in by our Scottish engineering officer in full gear delivered to the wardroom table. John and I survived, but only just. We took the ships whaler and rowed to the beach on Elephant Island where Shackleton eventually landed his crew.

Out of the silence came a tremendnous roar, I looked up to see an ice-shelf the size of the White Cliffs of Dover collapse into the sea, by the time I could get the camera up it had gone! Nobody said anything.

Getting back to the UK was not uneventful. The flight to Buenos Aires was to mean flying through a tremendous thunderstorm with forked lightning flashing all around us and the aircraft being tossed around like a rag doll only surviving thanks to the skill of the brilliant Argentinian pilot.  John and I sat next to one another saying nothing both looking at the lady in the next seat mumbling into her rosary!

I am here to tell the tale but John has gone, my memories are his memories and these are just a few. They are of the man who gave me and my colleagues so much. Now my thoughts are with the family.

John Smith (producer and director) with John Williams (cameraman)

John Williams

Steve Weddle by John Williams

Daytime Live special 1990, ‘My Name is Jane’, audience photo. Copyright resides with the original holder, no reproduction without permission.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The whole country is in a state of shock, but shock associated with the sudden loss of losing someone close concentrates the mind wonderfully and I recognise all the comments that have poured out on Facebook regarding Steve Weddle’s death. They do tick all the boxes. This is what happened to me when our son had a stroke and ended up in Worcester hospital fighting for his life.  As a therapy I used the time to write, “Shoot First No Ordinary life,” the story of my BBC career at Pebble Mill which many of you have read.

What a character Steve was and yes taken far too young, for he had much more to offer this life. There were things about him I could never get my head round, like rushing off to London with only the flimsiest of reasons to find time with Hot Spurs or some name like that. There were his books of course, and BBC pensioners meeting every month will certainly not be the same without him, especially as he always dominated the Raffle presentations. But there was much more to this larger than life character than meets the eye, especially for me personally.

As editor of Daytime Live behind all the facade and bonhomie was someone who was deep, showed great courage in his work, often moving where many ‘feared to tread’, even prepared to gamble. Continue reading

Cameraman, John Williams remembers John Kenyon

John Kenyon

Really sorry to hear of John’s death. He was one of the youngest Exec Producers in the BBC and ran the half-hour Sunday farming programmes 52 weeks of the year. He had a very small staff just two directors, I think 3 Pas, plus two well respected farming presenters, John Cherrington, later his son Dan, and David Richardson. Later, he was joined by Ken Pollock.

It was specifically aimed at farmers and took a look at food production across Britain and Europe including the Common Market. One crew a week would be allocated, which took us around the country and it opened my eyes to the wonders of food production from the abattoir, to growing watercress and our Christmas dinner, be that turkey or goose!

Later on in my career I would often talk with him about broadening the programme, but it never happened although in my mind his programme was the forerunner of the now very successful Countryfile programme that goes out Sunday nights.

John regularly gave me the chance to direct, by offering attachments; one I remember especially was on Dutch-Elm disease, a disease that has devastated the country of these fine trees. He was a good friend.

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

Andrew Thorman: ‘I never knew him but would like to think that those of us who followed in his path were walking a well trodden way.’