2020-06-24 2 By David Taylor


Here’s a short video, courtesy the superb BBC Archive …well in this case their Twitter account.

It shows the sort of equipment that BBC OB’s had in one of their Pye TVT built ‘Mobile Control Rooms’ at the Wembley ‘Palace of Arts’ OB base in 1955.
Great seeing the Marconi MkII camera, but alas the clip doesn’t run long enough to see the sound desk that’s shown in the opening panning shot. The poor boom op was struggling to cover everyone at times on this clip you’ll note.

I’m dying to see the rest of this clip!


This is the BBC OB fleet around that time. Wembley still looked like this when in 1969 when, as explained in my last post, I joined London Weekend based in the Wembley Studios that ARTV had occupied adjacent to this site.

The BBC OB fleet on display at their ‘Palace of Arts’ base at Wembley, with the Wembley Arena on the right.. They moved to Kendall Ave about 1964.

These photos are from Nick Gilbey’s really excellent website TV OB History website.
Nick is a font of information about historical OB units from the past and not just BBC OBs either.
The photos below are of MCR4 which was supplied in 1948 and was used for the 1948 Olympics. It’s earlier than the unit shown in the BBC Archive clip above, but is somewhat similar I think and was based on a Scammel articulated unit as above. The interior doesn’t look too different either to the 1955 scanner.

The equipment in the BBC Archive video shows the equipment removed and BBC OB units remained ‘de-mountable’ for some years to come as it allowed access to difficult locations by removing the equipment into a temporary structure. One such use was during the ‘Old Man Of Hoy’ rock climb in July 1967.

Producer, Engineering Manager and Sound Supervisor sat alongside each other as in this shot of the MCR4 interior, with the ‘racks’ engineers in front.


Now we ought to consider what we are actually looking at in the 1955 Wembley OB clip.

It’s obviously video, isn’t it…we see the presenter talking to the video camera and the lens swings etc…definitely on ‘video’…..so that’ll be a VTR recording then.
Well no, it can’t be as there still wasn’t an operational VTR at that time, well not in the UK at least. The BBC had spent a long time working on developing VERA, the behemoth of a machine that recorded video on magnetic tape at 200inches per second. VERA did eventually work, but the first programme use of it wasn’t until a Panorama in 1958. The first AMPEX VR-1000 arrived in 1958 as well (and goodbye to VERA!) so this little item was actually being put onto film.

Film Recording at that time was at Lime Grove. So firstly let’s look at getting it there.
BBC OBs were almost always live of course and the BBC had ‘the lines’ business well organised using microwave links. An ‘Eagle Tower’ would have been used to link the video signal on its first hop back to Lime Grove. If you look again at the picture of the OB fleet at Wembley, there are two types of ‘tower’ on display. Sound would go over a landline I guess. I’m sure someone will be able to tell me whether the microwave link would have been ‘aimed’ at the mast on top of the BT Museum Exchange (or not ) on the way but it would reach Lime Grove, possibly because it was going out live but it would get to the Film Recording room and there I believe the machinery in use at that time was the FR2

The FR2 Film Recorder at Lime Grove.

As you can see it looks like a film camera aimed at a TV screen, with lots of electronics to help it on its way. The Film Recording page on the BBC VT Old Boys website tells us:
This equipment had originally operated as a suppressed field system, where the camera pulled down the 35mm. film during one field and recorded only the next. In the mid-1950s, the CRT display was changed to a very long persistence version which displayed an orange picture.”
“As the 405 line picture rate was, at the time, locked to mains frequency, the camera was driven by a three-phase mains-driven motor. A large steering wheel on the side moved the stator with respect to the rotor to phase the camera shutter to the vertical interval. The relationship was monitored on a Cossor oscilloscope.
Both cameras had an associated Sepmag sound recorder.
1000 feet reels of Tri-X film were used, each lasting 10 minutes. This allowed just enough time to reload a camera while the second one was in use.”

So sound was on a separate mag track machine, locked to the same ‘Selsyn motor’

Film recording didn’t show the whole of the TV image; the edges were cropped a bit and alas as there were mirrors involved which had to be ultra clean, plus dust and scratches on the film, you can always tell the difference between it and early 2″ Quad (the AMPEX system) VTR’s when they appeared after 1958. Early VTR’s had longitudinal ‘dropouts’ and film had vertical scratches.


Credits and References:

The BBC Archive website: bbc.co.uk/archive/
Nick Gilbey: TV OB History website: tvobhistory.co.uk
BBC VT Old Boys: vtoldboys.com


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