John Kimberley blog

OB Scanner CM1 (1980s)












I joined Pebble Mill in 1974 and was a staff Studio and O.B. engineer until we lost the O.B. fleet in 1992, after which I became a freelance engineer. I did do some contract work at the Mill afterwards until 1997, then I became a full freelancer working for Sky, BBC and ITV via various O.B. facilities companies. I retired this year, but if offered an O.B. which appeals to me, I guess I’ll take up the offer! Regional Engineers, as we were known were expected to work in Telecine and Videotape as well and we were trained to work in Communications (‘Comms Centre’ and Radio Links) if required.

During my first few years at the Mill, Studio A was usually working 6 days a week, with 2 sets of 2 day dramas and 2 days of Pebble Mill at One; during the latter there would be a complete scenery and lighting reset for the following production. I worked on the last series of Poldark, various series of All Creatures Great and Small, Angels, Juliet Bravo and countless Plays for Today. Amongst memorable Studio A productions were a series of live dramas for BBC 2 around 1980. We were using the very first colour cameras, EMI 2001s, and the first incarnation of the studio technical facilities. Despite the age of the equipment, all the plays went out without a hitch, and much alcohol was consumed afterwards as we all came down from the adrenaline ‘high’. A great breakthrough came with the inclusion of Light Entertainment programmes in the late ’70s, a welcome change from a constant diet of drama productions. I thoroughly enjoyed the specials with Showaddywaddy, Elky Brookes and Don McLean and have very fond memories of doing Basil Brush shows on Saturdays. Oh, and I nearly forgot Saturday Night at the Mill! In the 80s, drama became a single camera operation, usually on location rather than in the studio. However, the studio seemed to be just as busy doing many other productions like Telly Addicts, The Adventure Game and Young Scientist of the Year. When London decided to kill off Pebble Mill at One, there were many spin off daytime programmes involving D.I.Y., fashion (The Clothes Show), and cooking, mainly done using Gallery C. A house was built in the back quadrangle for some productions! Studio B shouldn’t be remembered as only doing Midlands Today – I worked regularly in there on Farming Today and various programmes for Asian immigrants. There were often innovative ideas for the regional opt-out programmes, some of which went on to be networked – Top Gear being a good example. We even did a rock music show in there, and on one occasion, the sound travelled through the building and was picked up on the microphones in Studio A which was doing a Play For Today at the time.

I worked briefly with CMCR9 during my first ever O.B. stint in 1980, but it was moved to Manchester to become ‘North 3’ during that time, and we had CMCR10 for a few months until our new scanner, CM1 arrived. An O.B. stint then was very varied in programme type. It would include football, rugby, swimming, cycling, snooker, horse racing, cricket, party political conferences, inserts to Pebble Mill at One or to drama productions. After I went freelance, all I seemed to do was football!

I have so many lovely memories of my life at Pebble Mill, and it’s great to see that everyone else remembers it fondly and that we are all keeping in touch. I remember that when I left in 1992 I felt like I had suffered a divorce and a bereavement at the same time and it took a long time for me to come to terms with the fact that I no longer worked there. I must say that I don’t feel that way about retiring now as the industry has changed so much and has completely different principles from those with which I’m familiar. I completely agree with the idea that we saw the Golden Age of Television in the 70s and 80s!

John Kimberley

Videotape in the ’70s (part 1) – Ray Lee

Ampex VR2000 Quad machine in VTB, photo by John Burkill (1976)












(Photo copyright John Burkill, no reproduction without permission – the photo must have been taken after lunch – well during VT’s standard liquid lunch!)

The Videotape area adjoined Telecine, so I got to know the VT staff, and something of the operation even before I had chance to actually work in the area. In 1974 there were just 2 VT machines, Ampex VR2000 2 inch. These were known as Quad machines as the recordings were made using 4 rotary heads across the width of the tape, quadruplex recording. VTA was optimised as a play in machine, and VTB as an edit machine. Both were capable of being used as stand alone recorders or players with the studios, and could be used for simple assemble editing, but more usually one was used as a master recorder and the other as a backup at that time, as there was no way of knowing until playing back, that the recording had been successful. There was no off tape monitoring, and a head-clog at the start could render the whole recording useless.

At that time John Lannin, and Tony Rayner were the senior editors, with Ian Collins, John Burkill, and Steve Critchlow making up the remaining VT team. What many people working in TV today fail to realise is that VT machines then needed careful alignment for every tape, and that they required a ten second run up in order to lock up fully synchronously. (Occasionally even 10 seconds was not long enough!). Although cut editing of tapes had been occasionally done in Black and White days, it was not accurate enough (normally) for colour recordings.

There were exceptions. I believe there was a unique recording that had somehow had tape damage that caused the tape to snap, (the transverse rotary heads were not unlike a circular saw if there was a nick in the tape) and John Burkill performed a cut edit to join the tape back together. This involved applying Edivue, a suspension of fine iron particles in solvent, to the tape to develop the tracks and the edit pulse, on each side of the damaged area. Then using a travelling microscope to locate the correct point and place it precisely in the edit block, cut the tape either side of the damage, and finally splice together using splicing tape. Normally a cut edit like this would not play without some glitching, but on this occasion it played almost as well as a standard electronic edit. Subsequently some months later I also had to repair a tape in this manner, and achieved a similar result!

VT was a noisy area. The rotary heads ran at 15,000RPM, and there being 4 heads on the drum a new head entered the tape past the edge 1000 times a second. Added to that the rotary heads were run on air bearings, which was supplied with compressed air, and created a vacuum for the vacuum guide to hold the 2 inch wide tape in a circular arc. The machines did have their own air compressor which could be used (adding even more noise), but generally used compressed air from a central compressor housed away from the area. The same compressor fed airlines to the Telecine cubicles to allow for blowing dust out of the film Gate. So what with whirring heads, hissing air and other general mechanical noise, the monitor loudspeaker was generally quite loud in order to hear the sound.

The VT machines needed careful looking after to get the best out of them, and tended to drift as they warmed up. So the normal course of action for the switch on man was to switch on the machines, check that the basic systems were working, then go and have a coffee while the machines warmed up. There was always a 1/2 hour line-up period scheduled before each booking, to allow time to make the fine adjustments required for the tape. In an edit session using several different source tapes, line up could take up quite a lot of the time. If the tapes came from the same recording session, a quick 2 to 5 minute adjustment may be all that was required, but where there were tapes from several different source machines, (often the case for Pebble Mill at One), 10 – 15 minutes or longer could be required if there was a particularly awkward tape.

Finding the required place on the tape could take a while also, as there were no pictures in shuttle. Tapes were logged on a card that was kept with the tape. The machines had a counter which was calibrated in minutes and seconds, and was surprisingly accurate considering it was a friction drive. On loading the tape, one had to remember to zero the counter, otherwise the times would not correspond to what was written on the card, or worse you could end up logging the incorrect times on the card for a new recording. Tapes were re-used quite a lot, as the tape was expensive, and in order to ensure a clean tape  they were put into a bulk eraser (nicknamed the fish fryer on account of its height shape and the perforated roll lid.) It took about 20seconds to erase the tape, so you had to be certain that you had the right tape, and that it really was ok to wipe it, before pushing the button.

Some compilation tapes were reused without first erasing them, which could sometimes cause confusion when remnants of a previous recording were left in between two logged items.

Ray Lee

Telecine – Ray Lee (part 5)

Jim Gregory in TK












I worked in TK for around a year and a half before moving to VT for a brief attachment. I had further subsequent spells in TK, later in my career, including one period where I refurbished every board in the machines, as by that stage some components, mainly the trimmers, were completely worn out. The maintenance budget took a big hit that year, but the machine reliability improved no end.

In the early days TK had regular bookings for ‘Pebble Mill at One’, ‘Midlands Today’, ‘Farming’ (The predecessor of Countryfile), ‘Asian Programme’ inserts, Studio A inserts for various network dramas, and from time to time film inserts to ‘Nationwide’ and other London News items.

I remember one day in I think the summer of 1975, Jim Gregory and I viewing a film trailer for what was expected to be a big series of films. There was an item in a programme about George Lucas, and his vision for the films, the trailer was from “Star Wars” (although I’m not sure it was known as such at the time). It did eventually become a whole series of films, but after the initial “Star Wars” was released in 1977 there was a long period of uncertainty, regarding the rest.

Jim Gregory and Paul Richards pretty much were TK, for most of the time I worked at Pebble Mill. Graham Winter went on to lecture at Wood Norton, and everyone else moved round various places. I remember the time with affection, and was quite sad to see the old Cintel TK’s finally removed to make way for new equipment, something I was involved in as a member of Post Production Maintenance in the 90’s.

R. G. Lee

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

Keith Brook: ‘This is a rare shot indeed. Jim Gregory out of his chair!!’

Pete Simpkin: ‘Fascinating stories of TK. I was at Evesham with Jim in the 60s. I remember in a previous job in regional TK in Southampton waiting to send a commag news story to AP for the new BBC 2 News and after a very long wait eventually getting through to VT there who were going to tape it and the operator said something like ‘Hang on there’s a lot of noise ouside in the corridor, I’ll just shut the door’, we sent the package up OK and when he came back on to say all was OK he told us that TVC and all TV had crashed due to the major power failure in London which eventually led to the abandonment ofhe opening of BBC 2 that night!’

Telecine – Ray Lee (Part 4)

Jim Gregory & Dave Schoolden in TK in 1976












As with most of the equipment in the programme chain, TK needed regular alignment and adjustment to get the best pictures. There were daily alignment procedures, normally left until the machines had been on for at least half an hour, and long term alignment done periodically to make sure everything was working in the right range. The TK Machines used discrete electronic components, i.e. individual transistors, rather than integrated circuits.(As did pretty much all the electronics in the ’70’s). As a result temperature drift, and voltage variations, had quite a marked effect upon the performance, and so most circuit boards had quite a lot of adjustable trimmers, to enable the system to work properly at standard levels. There was a SMPTE test loop which we ran in the machine in order to correctly set the image size, linearity, and focus, and other slides for setting afterglow correctors, photocell gain, etc.

A daily line up would normally take only a few minutes, up to perhaps 15 if things were a long way out, whereas a full lineup would take more like a couple of hours.

Some parts of the full lineup required boards to be put on extenders, which meant switching off, extending the card, switching on, waiting for things to settle, then finally making the adjustment. Then the machine would be switched off again the card returned to its slot and the machine re-powered. One then hoped that when the elecronics had stabilised, that the adjustment that had been made had stayed “in range”, otherwise the procedure would be repeated until it did.

The flying spot telecine tube ran at a voltage of 30kV and as such produced some “soft” X-rays so there were warning notices all over the area round the tube, warning of X rays and High voltages.

As an engineer one needed to be aware of the dangers posed by the machinary, and there were a lot of safety intelocks designed to prevent accidents of electrocution, or being caught by moving parts, but often needing to be overidden when making adjustments or repairs.

In those days the engineering department was a totally male preserve, it took a further decade before any female engineers appeared at Pebble Mill.

Ray Lee

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

Pete Simpkin: ‘Good to see Jim Gregory in the TK picture.  We were at Evesham together in the 1960s.’

Keith Brook: ‘That picture could have been taken at any time because whenever I went into Telecine, Jim was sitting just like that!!’

Mark Ray: ‘I knew Dave from Midlands Today traffic in PSCB during the 1980’s. Dave sadly passed away some years ago.’

Peter Greenhalgh: ‘Interesting note about the x-rays, I seem to remember the cabinet doors were lead-lined to keep the x-rays in?’

Telecine – Ray Lee (Part 3)











Photo by John Kimberley, no reproduction without permission.

One aspect of telecine operation involved tariffing the film. TARIF was an acronym for Technical Apparatus for the Rectification of Indifferent Film. (There were other translations). The problem was that standard film prints have too high a contrast range and too variable a colour range to translate well into TV pictures, and so some means of correcting this was required. Where films were shot specifically for TV, special low contrast prints were used, but news items on reversal film had no opportunity to be graded other than by the camera operator getting the exposure right in the first place. The TARIF unit worked in conjunction with the TK processing chain, and was usually operated by a pair of joysticks. The left hand one affected the blacks, and had green red and blue on 3 axes at 120 degrees apart, and a twist control to alter the overall black level. The Right hand one was similar but affected the whites, with the twist control setting overall signal level (or brightness).
There was a display which showed the red green and blue signals just below the transmission monitor, to help guide the operator, and a greyscale light box above the monitor to allow for both monitor calibration and a guide to the operator for overall colour balance.

The tarif control panel also had a set of rotary switches which could be set to fix a specific colour axis and then just use a master lift and gain. This was rarely used, as it could not be changed quickly and was only really of benefit where a properly graded print had a particular colour cast which needed correcting without the need to be changed. The joystick control provided the quickest means of correcting the errors, but relied on the quick reactions of the operator.

Ray Lee