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The London Palace of Magic

Two graphic descriptions of the London Television Station; the first is from The Times, 7th January 1938.

The official anniversary of public television came on November 2, 1937, but in the eyes of the staff of 265 at the Alexandra Palace the significant date is February 5 of this year. Twelve months will then have passed since the Television Advisory Committee approved the superiority of the Marconi-E.M.I. to the Baird system, and the single standard of transmission was established. Up to that point, lack of space and time had severely hampered the efforts to transform television for the private viewer from an ingenious toy into a serious entertainment.

Television is incongruously housed. Gaunt and unlovely, the Palace dominates part of North London, with only the 220 foot mast to indicate the marvel in the south-east corner. An inadvertent entry by the back door brings the visitor over a desolate branch terminus of the L.N.E.R. into empty, echoing halls, where the assorted objects might have been gathered by a surrealist. Sections of stuffed lions, slot-machines, a bar, posters of dance competitions, and a statue of Lincoln are distributed haphazard. Only a discreet grey door in a corner, painted 'No Entry', marks the back entrance to the overcrowded hive of television. Here the essentials are in the vision and sound transmitting halls on the ground floor, and in two studios above them, one of which is a second string formerly used for the Baird system. On the other side of a narrow corridor, which is both artery and boulevard, are the make-up and dressing rooms, and on the ground floor is a small restaurant. The executive staff's rooms are in the east tower, and in the north-west corner of the building, separated from the rest by the Winter Garden, is the carpenter's shop and an old theatre which the station has acquired with an open mind for whatever purpose it may be needed.

The station's day has two feverish campaigns, culminating at 3 o'clock in the afternoon and 9 o'clock in the evening. Peele's cry from the heart, "O Time too swift, O swiftness never ceasing" would be the best inscription for the doorway. For example, the piano-tuner has to arrive at 7 A.M., because there is no room for him later. The morning is filled with rehearsals and a film demonstration for the benefit of the radio trade, and rehearsals have to be juggled in and out of the two stages. This is where the producers, the best and most successful of whom come from the stage, are most harassed. For the convenience of artistes, early rehearsals take place at Broadcasting House or Maida Vale; if the artists came to the station more frequently they might find no space to rehearse in. When a condensed Othello was performed recently there was only one two-hour rehearsal on the stage. Three-quarters of an hour were spent in setting it, the positions of the players being defined by yellow chalk marks on the white linoleum. This left an hour and a quarter for actual camera rehearsal of a play which was going to take an hour to perform. The actress who played Desdemona had never seen a television camera before, so that she had little enough time to learn how to act into the camera or to master the art of two-dimensional gesture.

Such difficulties are due to limitations of space and money inevitable at this point in the development of television, but their existence tends to create a controlled frenzy towards zero hour. At 2:55 PM or 8:55 PM the principal stage is set. The lights are fixed and three to four cameras and two to three microphones are in position, with the cameramen wearing earphones so as to be in touch with the producer in his control tower above the stage.

The producer is the linchpin of every item, and his control tower, separated from the stage by darkened plate glass, is the most significant place in the studio, for it shows the technical complexities and the difference between television and other forms of entertainment – stage, screen, or sound broadcasting. The producer sits next the window, looking at two frames. One frame shows the image in course of transmission; on to the other he can switch the field of vision of any camera on the set. Beside him sits the production manager, whose functions are similar to those of a stage manager in a theatre (the stage manager of television is on the set taking notes). In front of the producer sit the sound engineer controlling total output, and the sound mixer selecting and cutting it. Behind him is the key man, the vision-mixer. The platform also holds the senior engineer as a roving wing forward, another man in charge of the gramophone, and a junior engineer logging the programme.

This means that there is a team of eight handling the performance between the moment of recording and the moment of transmission to the viewer. Four of the eight – producer, sound engineer, and sound and vision mixers – are indispensable. Nor do they have much time to relax at 4 PM, when the afternoon programme ends, because rehearsal, experiment, and audition start again and so on into the evening. Up to now the record of hurried achievement is held by the clergyman from Tristan da Cunha, who appeared in an evening version of Picture Page. He was held up by fog and traffic, and reaching the Palace five minutes before the programme finished, was hurried straight on to the stage, unrehearsed, to explain his island.

It might be inferred that this running fight with the clock would mean nerves and discontent. Producers and artistes would like many more rehearsals, and the engineering staff might prefer not to work right through both programmes on alternate days. But the cheerfulness of the staff, from which there have been only two secessions since the service started, is a contribution to industrial psychology proving the value to the individual of work in a small undertaking. The glossy impersonality of Broadcasting House has not yet descended on television. Where everyone knows everyone else, generally by Christian or nick-names, and where an executive department consists of one man and a secretary, correct deportment and the circulation of memoranda are superfluous; continual personal contact oils the machinery. Nor, even if the organisation were bigger, would it be easy to clap the staff into their pigeonholes, when so many jobs call for the all-rounder. On one side the executives and producers must have a quota of technical knowledge, and on the other, the cameraman and the vision-mixer must have more artistic sense than can be given by instruction.

The prevalent spirit was expressed by the studio hand who said, "We're not working; we're being paid for a hobby."

This second article, written by William Cave just prior to the opening of Lime Grove studios, appeared first in The Emitron, the newsletter of the Alexandra Palace Television Society, and is presented here by their editor’s kind permission.


Eighty-five years ago crowds of recreation-bound Victorians first climbed the hill to inspect the stuffed animals which formed the major attractions offered by Alexandra Palace. Today there is only a huge and hideous derelict building, completely fallen from its purpose of entertainment - except for one corner. Here in paradoxically contrast flourishes the great entertainment of the future.

Fourteen years ago BBC architects designed the first television station so that it would fit into the Victorian edifice. They proved commendably well that the two were not irreconcilable. True, there are more functional stations built now, but this one will last some time yet - and it will have to, the way things are. It isn’t possible for everyone to see for themselves, so let’s take a look around on paper.

Under the 220-foot mast, the office suites in the tower are occupied by the senior executives, who enjoyed the most striking view of London, when they have time to look at it. We’ll get dizzy staring up at the tower, so push open the heavy swing doors and enter. The front hall just has room for a telephone box, a display stand, a sofa and the commissionaire. The big clock is not right, nor does it agree with any other in the building, it’s simply another unexpected hazard of television.

The first door we notice is labelled ‘No Smoking’ and in smaller letter ‘Film Cutting Room’. This room together with an office and the projection and viewing rooms is the Film Section premises. When the television set is not in use, the viewing room becomes a miniature cinema, seating up to thirty people, where producers can see the newsreel and any other films to arrange the cutting and timing.

The spacious vision transmitter and power supply hall is set out with great boxes painted battleship grey and emitting a sickening hum from the delicate machinery they guard. In the centre of the room is a long desk covered with knobs and dials. Facing this are the screens on which the pictures are checked as illustrated in the Demonstration Film. Enormous valves sparkle and crackle with brilliant bluc mercury vapour arcs. The whole is run by two engineers who go about their work with unhurried efficiency. The sound transmitter is similar, but smaller and quieter.

A quick queue in the newly painted canteen gets us an excellent meal in the company of all the weird galaxy of performers and engineers and executives. Thus refreshed we can mount the double flight of stairs to the second floor.

In the upper scene dock the scenery and furnishings for the day’s productions are standing ready for use. Contributions from the carpenters and painted and the properties’ store are assembled in the lower scene dock and hauled up through a big hole in the ceiling to the second floor. As many as twenty sets may be used in one day. Once the programme starts the scene shifters strike one set and replace it with another in a matter of seconds, and continually whole sets are entering and leaving the studios, being ‘managed’ down the vast high corridor from the scene dock.

The make-up room is no longer the chamber of horrors is used to be, when television was in the experimental stage. Where, in days gone by, actors have come out with purple or black lips and white faces, they now would look only a little unnatural in the street. It is the character make-up which gives the make-up department an opportunity to show their skill. They may have to make an actor twenty years older or younger, or create anyone from a Roundhead to a Cavalier.

The two studios are not identical in lay-out. In 1936 studio B was used with the Baird apparatus, and studio A with the Marconi-EMI. Control room B is on one side of the studio, and has more room for the production staff on the upper floor, but less for the engineers and their equipment. Studio B has three cameras. Studio A has four cameras, and an alcove which is very useful for such shots as the taxi in Cafe Continental.

The telecine room houses the two telecine machines, with a checking monitor, and the apparatus for rewinding the films afler showing. The telecine cameras have no control of their own, but can pass through either A or B control room, so that film sequences can be handled in conjunction with plays in either studio.

The lines termination room is where all OBs come into Alexandra Palace. They may come by cable all the way or by radio link to Highgate and then on by cable. The room has the appearance of a small telephone exchange.

The output from the lines termination room and from A and B control rooms are fed to the central control room. Here, as the Demonstration Film shows, the whole programme is assembled and checked before going down to the transmitters. As usual there are the two screens for preview and transmission, a desk full of switches and buttons, and three or four telephones. In this room also is the master oscillator which provides the synchronising signal which keeps every camera and screen in step.

That is the London Television Station. What of the future? It will be many years before we can have any ‘Television City’, but there is hope that the BBC will have a new studio somewhere in London in a few months. Ideally, it would be fairly central for the convenience of artists and staff, it would be much bigger than the Alexandra Palace studios, with provision for an audience. It would be linked by cable to the Palace and lavishly provided with the latest equipment. Probably C.P.S. cameras would be called for because of their improved pick-up and elimination of shading adjustments. The producer would have a large cubicle with room for more assistants and gramophones. The apparatus will have gained a great deal from the new O.B. equipment made for the Olympic Games, but will have to be revised to make it suitable for use some twelve hours a day, at the expense of portability.

Then we can look forward to an increase in the hours of television transmission, and to each show being more thoroughly rehearsed before the cameras.

William Cave

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