Videotape in the 70s (part 5) Ray Lee


photo by Tim Savage, no reproduction without permission












VT Christmas Tapes

There was a tradition in VT to compile together a series of funny out-takes from the programmes, into a programme for internal viewing at Christmas. Quite where it started I don’t know, but it also involved colleagues at ATV, and London VT. The most famous were “White powder Christmas” and “Good King Memorex”. This was at a time when the BBC was pretty straight laced, and it was unthinkable to broadcast actors failings. It became quite well known among the regular actors, who when they had stumbled, or let rip with an expletive, would quite often add “Merry Christmas VT”

In the run up to Christmas there would quite often be mysterious line bookings, late night edit sessions, and other clandestine goings on, in order to complete these works of art. Initially managers turned a blind eye to it, but it got clamped down on when it started to impinge on genuine bookings. As the years went by VT editors had become ever more ambitious and the process was taking away too much effort from genuine work. However it later became legitimised to some extent with the programme “It’ll be Alright on the Night” Somehow there was never quite the same incentive to try to create Christmas tapes again.

Ray Lee

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

Jane Clement: .We all loved those Xma VT tapes – they were greatly anticipated every year. It was always funny for people in different parts of Pebble Mill to see the gaffs in other areas as well as their own. On Pebble Mill at One we were responsible for quite a few outtakes as we were live to air – the presenters in particular were always a bit nervous as the great Xmas unveiling approached! I seem to recall Drama had its fair share of the tape too, and Midlands Today. But any program (and anyone) was fair game for the VT boys.’

Stuart Gandy: ‘I think if you look on you tube you can at least find parts of them. The first time I remember seeing one was towards the end of my A course at Wood Norton when our course lecturer had obtained White Powder Christmas on tape. This was just before Christmas of 1979. It was so funny, and as Ray says it was of footage that would normally have been thrown out. The story goes, from the grapevine, and I could be wrong here, that it was produced during the strike in the run up to Christmas the previous year. White Powder Christmas was so successful, that the following year Good King Memorex was made, altogether much more polished.’

Peter Poole: ‘Copies of the tapes got into the hands of the tabloid press. These papers printed a story that presented the BBC in a poor light. It was the usual BBC bashing. The BBC then banned production of the Xmas tapes. Even out takes must not be kept.’

Keith Brook: ‘Yes. Another classic example of bad management. The tabloid story was based on ‘wasting’ licence payers’ money, which wasn’t true of course because it was in their own time and at no cost to the BBC. The management could have just let the story wither on the vine but instead over reacted and threatened dismissal of anyone caught making a Christmas tape. That’s why the following year it was an ‘Easter’ tape!!’

Videotape in the ’70s (part 4) Ray Lee












Still from Ian Collins, no reproduction without permission.

Peter Wood-Fisher’s electronic clock. Grab from Keith Brook













VT Clock

The countdown clock was initially a mechanical clock on a kind of blackboard in the studio, and was recorded at the beginning of each section of recording. It had sections for the programme title, tape number, take number, sequence title and other important identifying information. This was written on by the floor manager, (or assistant FM) prior to the recording. One of the difficulties was that when a tape was edited, the clock information could not be updated in VT to indicate this was an edited master, unless a separate clock had been recorded previously. The clock was generally started at around 30 seconds and allowed to count past 0, although in shows recorded as live the vision mixer would cut to black at 3. Where a series of clocks for editing purposes were recorded, the cut to black would be done in the edit by VT.

In the late 70’s Peter Wood-Fisher, a keen engineer built an electronic VT Countdown clock using a large quantity of integrated circuits, and housed it in a home made plywood box. It was around 18inch square with a full size keyboard at the front, then an up-stand housing the rest of the electronics, on which there was just room for a pair of 9inch monitors. This allowed VT to add clocks to edited items and recorded inserts without tying up studio time. This was the forerunner of using the BBC Micro as a VT Clock, which only became possible in the mid 80’s. (the BBC Model A was first produced in 1984). In those early days studio recordings often still recorded the clock from the studio, but the VT clock was used for subsequent edits. As there was only one VT Clock, various routing arrangements were made in order to make it available to the other VT areas. It sat on the back shelf in VTA cubicle.

Ray Lee

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

Peter Poole: “BBC Norwich still used these VT clocks long after Pebble Mill changed to electronic. I went on attachment as a Tech Op. The studio looked like a museum of broadcast equipment!”

Eurwyn Jones: “Just read the article on the Pebble Mill site. I remember the clock well – on live shows like ‘Farming Today’ on Sunday mornings,the clock was used at the end of the show as well. It faced the presenter in the studio and on cue from the PA counting down to the end on the show we would start the clock and they would see how long they had left. Some would ignore it though!!”

Peter Poole: “Pebble Mill engineers had a great talent for building ingenious electronics.”

Ned Abell: “Its ironic this surfaced the day after Ceefax closed…now wheres my BBC B from September 1982?”

Falling on the Cutting Room Floor!

Photo by Tim Savage, no reproduction without permission.

Sometimes recording on 2″ videotape did not go well, and the programme ended up literally on the floor!

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

Lynn Cullimore: “but you brilliant VT men always sorted it out didn’t you? Little geniuses…when often it was directors and producers who got the credit.”

Keith Brook: “I bet that was a stunt to scare the xxxt out of a director. The accompanying words were ‘Ah, I think the machine has chewed the only copy of your programme’.”

Building a VT Suite

Photo by Tim Savage, no reproduction without permission.

I was always impressed that the VT editors designed how they wanted new suites to be kitted out.  They were at the heart of any major fit-out.  There didn’t seem to be much ‘getting a man in’ to build you a new suite!

This photo is of the fitting out of VT E.

Sony BVE 9100 Keyboard












Photo by Ian Collins, no reproduction without permission.

VT editor Ian Collins took a number of photographs of outdated kit when BBC Pebble Mill was cleared, prior to being demolished in 2005.

This is the keyboard of a Sony BVE 9100 edit controller, used in linear tape editing.

It would have been used in one of the VT suites.

Ray Lee adds the following information about what the edit controller did:

‘The edit controller allows you to select ‘in’ and ‘out’ points during a VT edit, controls the ‘play in’ and ‘record’ machines, executes the edit and stores the edit points for if you need to go back again. It is a lot more involved than that, (like most things) but a more detailed explanation would probably be confusing. The edit controller could control several players at once, as well as audio sources, digital video effects machines, and the recorder, so it was possible to do quite complex edits including fades from one source to another, as a single pass, once you had identified the timecode points at which you wanted these things to happen.