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?’

Studio Operations (part 6) – Ray Lee

All Creatures Great and Small, Studio A. Photo by Tim Savage

All Creatures Great and Small, Studio A. Photo by Tim Savage

Saturday Night at the Mill, 1977. Photo by John Burkill

Saturday Night at the Mill, 1977. Pebble Mill courtyard. Photo by John Burkill























The Programmes

Studio A had a lot of drama series, and one off plays, as in those days drama was more often than not recorded in a studio. Exterior shots were done on film for the most part, and played in from TK during the recording session.

One of the early drama series was The Brothers  which was a fairly dire soap opera about a set of brothers who owned a lorry transport business. I remember virtually nothing about the series apart from the lovely Lisa Goddard, but it was a regular booking and kept us all in employment. Rather more interesting were the Dickens classics – Martin Chuzzlewit and Nicholas Nickleby. Then there were several series of  All Creatures Great and Small adapted from the James Herriot books. The first few with Carol Drinkwater, and the later series with Linda Bellingham, as James’ wife Helen. Then there was Gangsters which was I think the first studio production to use a “handheld” camera. The camera was a Bosch Fernseh, which had a quite large camera on a shoulder pad, connected to a back pack by a short cable, then the cable from the backpack went to a further CCU which was rigged in TAR. The Camera / backpack combination was pretty heavy, so the cameraman tended to put it all down as soon as the required shots had been taken.

There were a number of plays for today, and several series of The Basil Brush Show. The latter was recorded on a Saturday evening with a live audience, but for the afternoon dress rehearsal, several staff members and their children formed and audience so that “Basil” had someone to perform to. My wife and children came on several occasions when I was working in the gallery or TAR.

We hosted Playschool for at least one series, possibly two. This may have been around the time when there was a union dispute regarding who was to start the clock! As I remember, electricians said it should be them as it was electrical, and scene hands said it should be them as it was a prop. I don’t remember how it was resolved, but it was that kind of union silliness that set Margaret Thatcher on her crusade against the unions.

Studio A hosted Young Scientist of the Year at least twice, and also The Great Egg Race  with professor Heinz Wolff. There were several series of  Angels a kind of forerunner to Casualty. Then there was the great Pot Black which really put snooker onto the map for the first time. This was recorded over four intensive days after Christmas (27th – 30th Dec) and then shown one game per week. The quote of note being “For those of you watching in black and white, the red ball is next to the green ball, just beyond the black” or something like that. The problem was there was little difference in the grey level of red and green balls, so identifying them virtually impossible. It really was a game that had been waiting for colour. There were just so many programmes that came out of Studio A, the place buzzed with activity.

In addition to that there were all the Pebble Mill at One programmes which came from both studio A and studio B gallery, with the cameras in the foyer area or outside both at the back and front of the building, and occasionally on the roof! From the camera rigging point of view it was like an outside broadcast, but with the fixed infrastructure of a proper studio gallery.

In early 1975 a pilot programme Pebble Mill at Night was produced. It eventually materialised as Saturday Night at the Mill but not until 1976. This likewise used the foyer area, and depending on whether Studio A had a drama booked in used either Studio A or Studio B gallery.

Saturday Night at the Mill had the dubious honour of causing 2 of the big windows to be replaced. I think it was the night that a parachute jump landed on the front lawn, and in order to get some additional lighting, the lighting director (TM) had 2 big lights shining through the long gallery windows onto the lawn. The lights were well back from the windows and he checked that the windows were not getting hot. However they would have warmed slightly. That night after the show we had one of the hardest frosts in a long while, and the thermal stress on the windows caused them both to crack (several hours after the lights had been switched off). The replacement of the windows subsequently featured on a Pebble Mill at One, although what may not have been seen was that the new ones were about 3/4 inch too short! The gap was filled with mastic.

Studio B progammes in addition to the regular Midlands Today, hosted the Asian unit New Life programme on Sundays, and Farming, (the forerunner of Countryfile). Pebble Mill at One on any days when Studio A was in use for drama, and several programmes that could be squeezed into the small space, including incredibly some with an audience. Sadly I cannot remember all of them but The Clothes Show certainly started off in Studio B. There was rarely any slack days, and Studio B (or its gallery at least) may well have seen at least 2 and often 3 different programmes during the course of 24 hours! The presentation annex was arranged as a self operated area, and close down was done from there every night, with just a couple of engineers manning the TAR end of things. David Stevens was one of the regulars, and used a series of colour slides for his close down sequence. Sometimes the slides jammed in the slide scanner, resulting in a somewhat curtailed sequence. One of the slide scanners took a pair of slide boxes from which the slides were pushed up into the scanner gate by a metal plunger known as the Sprod. Unfortunately this required consistent slide mounts to work properly, and David’s assorted slides were not quite as regular as required, so sometime it spat out a slide altogether, just leaving a blank white screen. When possible the other slide scanner was used for this as the slides were pre slotted into place in a pair of discs which rotated into the scanner gate. The disadvantage of that being that changing the order of the slides took much longer if they needed to be changed.  As there were only the 2 slide scanners, and both studios might need to use slides there was a lot of pressure on the engineers to keep them both in working order.

Ray Lee