Studio Operations (part 9) – Ray Lee


Allowance rate card 1982

Allowance rate card 1982














Schedule A and the O.B. Mafia

One of the results of the BBC at one time being part of the Civil Service, was its adoption of a lot of the terms and conditions of service that were current at that time. Things like a generous pension scheme, retirement at 60, good holiday entitlements, and good allowances for people working away from their normal base. Whenever the BBC managers tried to change any of this, the Union would generally put it to dispute and status quo would prevail, such was the power of Unions before Mrs Thatcher, that more often than not things didn’t change much.

My understanding was that Schedule A allowances were convenient for the BBC, as it enabled them to save on the administration of booking people into hotels and arranging transport, for staff manning outside broadcasts. Basically the staff themselves undertook booking Hotels/Guest houses and arranging their own transport to the appropriate venue. In some ways I personally think this was a bit of a cop out by BBC managers, but for the staff involved it could be quite lucrative if they “worked the system”. The net result of this was that those on the O.B. rotation defended their position in staying in this privileged position quite vigorously. Some of the arguments in favour were perfectly valid, e.g. CMCR9 had different cameras to the studio, so those not having been on O.B.s would not be familiar with them. On the other hand it maintained the exclusivity, with no opportunity for engineers not on the rotation to gain that experience. As scanners were tight for space anyway it would be difficult to have a supernumerary engineer to gain experience, and the team needed to work well together as most O.B.s were quite pressured. Thus the exclusive nature earned the team the nick name “Scanner Mafia” or just “Mafia” for short.

some of the 'Scanner Mafia'. Photo by John Abbott, no reproduction without permission

some of the ‘Scanner Mafia’. Photo by John Abbott, no reproduction without permission













I don’t remember who first coined the term, probably either John Kimberly or Mike Lee, but both used it regularly, as did a number of other engineers who were not part of what at face value seemed to be an exclusive club. People did break into it over the years, and I myself had 2 periods working on O.B.s, but the first was not until we were using another scanner equipped with EMI 2001 cameras. My second period was with the then new type 5 scanner with Link cameras shortly before I left operations to join engineering services where I remained for the rest of my career.

Schedule A used properly enabled one to stay in approx 3 star accommodation, and covered costs of reasonable quality restaurants for additional meals. In theory if one overspent slightly in one place, that would be compensated by underspend in another. In practice, many engineers chose to stay in the cheapest accommodation possible, go to cheap burger bars or restaurants, and pocket the not inconsiderable difference as a tax free lump sum. Additionally those living some distance from base, but on the right side for the O.B. engaged in what was colloquially known as a “flyer”. They stayed in their own home, travelled to and from the O.B. site each day, and claimed Schedule A as if they had stayed on location and as a result profited very nicely thank you. It is reckoned that some engineers almost doubled their take home pay in this way. Certainly a strong incentive for the group to maintain the status quo. The management knew it was happening but turned a blind eye as challenging it would almost certainly have triggered a union dispute.

A few years later, it became necessary to submit receipts to show that there had been expenses of the kind that Schedule A allowances were intended to defray. That came in at about the time that I had around 3 months working with O.B.s. Even so without even trying I ended up better off by a good amount. On the whole the Schedule A allowance was quite generous although it has to be said that certain expensive locations would more than use it up. In those cases it was quite often agreed to take actuality payments, although those were strictly receipts only, and any expenses for which there was no receipt (like beer down the local pub), had to be waived. Nevertheless the O.B. crew did very nicely out of it for the most part, to the great envy of those who were working in the studio, and not on the rotation.

Ray Lee


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

Pete Simpkin: ‘Fascinating the world of OB expenses. I recall in my early days being the engineer for coverage of a three day cricket match.This involved three nights away because I could not drive the vehicle back to base after the whole day duty at the last day of the match. One of the jobs I was required to do there was to tape a half hour ‘audition commentary’ in one of the periods we were not on air with the regular commentators. In those days you had to fill in a recording form which went with the tape and a copy was carbonned for Accounts. I happened to not tick an obscure box marked ‘shared’ on this form so it looked as if I had travelled the 60 miles to the location and stayed three overnights away just for a 30 minute recording! Some weeks later I was hauled up before someone in Accounts as the operation as documented was ‘not very economical’!!’

Studio Operations (part 7) – Ray Lee

Studio Lighting Studio A

Photo of Studio A lighting gantry 1975, by Jim Gregory
Photo of Studio A lighting gantry 1975, by Jim Gregory












Studio A had a grid of lighting hoists – referred to as barrels – arranged in rows and columns, I think there were 96 in all. Some in the corners of the studio were short ones, but most could accommodate up to 3 luminaires, and were normally equipped with 2 double ended ones, with a soft light on one side and a key light on the other. The lighting hoist could be lowered to floor level to change luminaires, or add extra ones, and it was quite common for additional spotlights, or effects lights to be added to the standard complement of 2 dual source lamps, or even for one or more of the dual source lamps to be substituted by another more suitable lamp. This was all done on the set and light day. Each barrel (apart from the short ones) had 3 lighting circuits each controlled by its own dimmer. There were a number of outlets on the studio wall also controlled by a dimmer for connecting to cyclorama lighting units or floor standing lamps.

The lighting control system was called a Qfile, and was an early system using computer type memory storage based on magnetic core stores. This allowed lighting scenes to be stored both in terms of which lights were on and how bright they were, and facilitated smooth and quick lighting transitions with ease. In the lighting gallery there was a mimic display, laid out in the same way as the lighting barrels, which showed which lights were on in the studio in white, and the next scene (preview lighting) in green. To test the mimic lights one memory (99) was set with all the lamp circuits on, but woe betide you if you ever cut that up to the live scene. The studio would become very bright very briefly, before the circuit breakers in the basement cut the power off. There would then follow about a 20 minute hiatus while the electricians, went through the sequence of going to the basement and of re-setting the circuit breakers. The lighting panel had a set of meters to show how much power was being drawn, and it was expected that the lights would be distributed across the 3 phase supply to keep a balanced load. The circuit breakers were designed to trip if any one phase exceeded 150kW, so in theory the total lighting load could be close to 450kW, which made for a pretty hot studio. Most of the lamps were switchable 2.5 / 5kW, but occasionally 10kW lamps would be used, so it soon added up.

The Qfile operator was drawn from the engineer pool, but because of its specialised nature, was also  one of a small group of people. It was recommended that operators had been on a lighting course, and seen as the first step towards becoming a TM2. Initially Dave White, Peter Wood-fisher, and Ian Dewar, with Mike Lee as a stand in. In the mid 70’s Dave left for Norwich, and Peter moved to VT, Brian Jones then became a regular but Mike had to fill in a lot more. I had a brief time operating it, but was never accepted for a lighting course, and did not really take to it, and would not have coped with some of the fast paced work that the more experienced handled.

The Qfile mimic could be made to display some words in a fairly crude block text. When Playschool was hosted “Little Ted” was the favourite. One had to use your imagination a bit to see the words, but that was the kind of idle exercise that helped brighten some quite long studio days.

Ray Lee

Studio A, All Creatures Great and Small, photo by Tim Savage

Studio A, All Creatures Great and Small, photo by Tim Savage













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

Pete Simpkin: ‘What a fascinating Blog. Congratulations Ray from one who’s lighting experience was restricted to news studios where the maximum availabilty was one key and fill per person in vision, a ‘pup’ for head and shoulders to separate them from the cyclorama backing and the odd background shape light shining through cardboard cut out patterns!!’

Peter Poole: ‘I worked as theatre electrician before the BBC. I used a Rank Strand Threeset desk. Every time a lamp blow out it took the fuse. Was it the same at Pebble Mill?’

Link 125 cameras

Link 125 camera on Pebble Mill at One

Link 125 camera on Pebble Mill at One













Copyright resides with the original holder, no reproduction without permission. Thanks to floor manager, Eurwyn Jones, foreground in this photo, for sharing it.

The photo shows the Link 125 cameras during a rehearsal with cook Michael Smith, on Pebble Mill at One, circa 1981.

The Link 125 cameras replaced the EMI 2001 cameras, which were extremely popular with cameramen. The Links did not enjoy the same popularity.

The following comments were left on the Pebble Mill Facebook group about the camera:

Keith Brook: ‘Luckily for me I left before the Links came in. My ex-colleagues told me how bad they were and how difficult it was to focus. If you wound up the peaking, the camera noise became a white fog over the whole viewfinder. If you turned it down, the focus was likely to be soft, but you couldn’t tell. Engineers chose cameras and cameramen had to make do with what they were given. Despite far, far better cameras being available from Japanese manufacturers, the BBC had decided to ‘do the patriotic thing’ and use a British company. Fortunately, the Links didn’t last long.’

Matthew Skill: ‘The patriotic thing being to use a camera company that hadn’t been around that long compared to the real camera-makers…? And then to eventually indirectly/inadvertently drive same late-comer company to the wall as it tried to satisfy BBC requirements for a ‘modern’ studio camera (130) to replace the 110s and 125s. A curious tale all round….’

Stuart Gandy: ‘That’s certainly true what Keith says about the Links. After the crispness of the 2001’s, they never seemed sharp. There was also an odd condition that could happen that resulted in a strange slight loss of focus in the middle of the screen, which became known as the ‘teardrop’, because of its shape. The cause was never fully explained, but I think adjusting the registration controls fixed it – for a while. Even now, I remember the words of the late Mike Lee, when he would come across the line up area and say quietly, ‘we’ve got a teardrop’.’