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

1″ Videotape Machine


































Photos by Ian Collins, no reproduction without permission.

The photos are of a 1″ Videotape machine, in action.

1″ videotape was introduced in the mid 1970s, and was the broadcasting norm in the 1980s.  1″ machines took up much less space than the earlier Quad machines, and required less maintenance.  You could also spool in vision on them, which was a great advantage when trying to locate a particular clip.

The following comments were on the Pebble Mill Facebook group:

Christopher Hall: ‘It is an Ampex VPR-6, 1″ C Format machine. VPR-2 machines were probably more widely used, and Sony BVH- 3100 machines were the last ones bought. ‘

Mark Davies: ‘Looks like VTF/MFA to me’

Alan Miller: ‘It’s funny to think how much we welcomed the arrival of the first “C” format machines. I seem to remember that we all thoughtt that at last VT could compete with film editing?’

Sony Hi8 recorder

Photos by Ian Collins, no reproduction without permission.

VT editor, Ian Collins took photos of obsolete post-production kit before the 2004 auction of equipment when Pebble Mill was cleared prior to being demolished.

These photos are of a Sony Hi8 video recorder.

Hi8 was an 8mm video format, which had better resolution than the earlier Video8, but pre-dated the introduction of Digi8.  It was an analogue format, and the ‘Hi’ stands for high-band, as opposed to low-band.

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

John Duckmanton: ‘This machine is still in the bay at The Mailbox and is still used occasionally.’

Peter Poole:  ‘I think it was sometimes used for ‘Midlands Today’. The reporter may have used it before the crew arrived.’


Colin Fearnley – editing with an axe!

Colin Fearnley 1986

Photo by Paul Scholes, no reproduction without permission.

Colin Fearnley worked at Pebble Mill in VT.

There is a story about why he has an axe in the head!  Colin had been working on a youth programme with Janet Street Porter, circa 1986.  Apparently it was a very quick turnaround, and a review of the programme said that it looked as if it had been edited by a mad axeman. This spawned a whole host of axe jokes! Colin was probably VT play in man. [See comment below from Colin Fearnley correcting this detail!]

Thanks to Tim Savage for remembering the story of the axes.

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

Paul Colbert: ‘Could have been Reportage or Rough Guides, both of which I worked on as series Director in Manchester with most of the production team commuting on trains and planes to Manchester. Editor J S Porter, with Rachael Purnell and Sharon Ali. Tough times for the production team, even harder than working with Roger Castles on The Clothes Show! London Luvvies!’

Jane Mclean: ‘Was it Behind the Beat? God I HATED working on that programme.’

Dawn Trotman: ‘Behind the Beat. I remember editing that. Crazy hours and Janet Street Porter constantly screaming down the phone. I think we edited it in mechanical workshop? Lovely directors though but stressed.’

Jane Mclean: ‘The stuff of nightmares Dawn – every single aspect – and I mean every! JSP never once came to Brum (thank god) and in the end I refused to answer the phone!’

Dawn Trotman: ‘It was actually a creative time. I worked with some very adventurous directors who did try to re invent the wheel and suceed. Tough going but good times. Not that JSP was of any value but she did surround herself with the best in the business no fool in that respect just very shouty!’

Ian Collins: ‘The Mad Axman nickname was actually given to Jim Hiscox who was the editor working on “Behind The Beat”. I think Colin was the assistant and the axe was added well after the picture was taken.’

Dawn Trotman: ‘I beg to differ Ian. The Mad axeman was originally given to John Bland for a film he cut in about 1983 or 4 . It was set in a military defence barracks very strange ! Can’t remember the name, I think the producer was a Gareth ? And John ended up with a review which said cut by the mad axeman on acid ! We keep the cutting in his room at the end of the film corridor. But I didnt remember Jim being on Behind the Beat I remember Colin working on it . He used to tut over our inserts.’

Ian Collins: ‘Dare I suggest that there were two mad axe men :-)’

Paul Colbert: ‘Surely John Birt was the Mad Axe Man?’

Memories of Peter Snow from Paul Vanezis









(Here are some memories from Paul Vanezis of Pebble Mill film editor, Peter Snow who died recently).

You know, I knew Peter so long ago it’s weird looking back and remembering the man. He always seemed older than he was for some reason. I can tell you he was a very accomplished film editor. But like many of the editors in the early days of portable single camera, he adapted to videotape editing faster than some of the VT guys who started as engineers. He had a pony tail and we would often meet up in the canteen for lunch at 1pm with everyone else. In those days, lunch was lunch. If you worked in VT you’d spend it in the bar. If you were Film Unit, you’d be in the canteen from 1pm, have lunch and then have a walk over in Cannon Hill park (spending Friday lunchtimes in the bar).

I used to race Peter up the main stairs at Pebble Mill; it was his idea. He reckoned that if you started suddenly, raced as fast as you could and didn’t stop until you reached the top, you wouldn’t feel tired. He was right… the tiredness in the legs kicked in around 3pm if you weren’t careful (and there was no way I could do it if I’d been in the pub the night before). It of course we were first in the queue for the best the canteen had to offer…

One thing that he worked on which I think people have forgotten about was the Kegworth air crash coverage. At the time flight safety was very much in the news because of the Lockerbie crash three weeks earlier. I am sure Peter told me that he was working at BBC Nottingham in news at the time (January 1989) and he had to travel to the crash site, walking over fields so he could retrieve tapes from the cameraman; or he was with the cameraman and had to walk the tapes back. The M1 motorway was shut, the tail of the plane had clipped the ground as it tried to make an emergency landing at East Midlands airport.

I recall he was very intelligent, well spoken with a dry sense of humour and a really very nice man.

Paul Vanezis

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

Liz Munro: ‘What a Lovely tribute to Peter. He was a very accomplished editor, softly spoken, and lovely to work with. I’d arrive in the edit suite completely frazzled from a mad dash down the M6 to get the lead story to air. He’d be a sea of calm and all smiles.’