THERE was intense excitement in the newsroom of ITN. With the start of Independent Television only weeks away (Sept. 22, 1955), the tempo of training was becoming more and more frenzied.
For weeks the news staff, still without news sources of their own. had been cutting out items from the evening papers, pasting them on to bits of paper and passing them over to Chris Chataway and Robin Day so that they could practise reading “dummy” news bulletins.
But on this day the excitement was because a film of a prison break in America had just been flown in FROM New York. This meant that at last something not far removed from a real programme could be tried out.
Robin Day took his seat at a table, facing directly into a closed-circuit TV camera. To one side of him, an operator prepared to project the American newsreel on to the wall of the ITN newsroom. Hovering around, his spectacles pushed up on his forehead like a First World War pilot with raised goggles, was Aidan Crawley, then editor-in-chief.
Robin Day was cued-in by a producer. He read out two or three items, managing not to stumble at all, although he still couldn’t help plucking nervously at his bow-tie.
Then the producer bawled: “Cue telecine!” and with a whirring noise, the projector flashed the newsreel on to the wall. Robin said: “And from America, film of the prison riot!”
Suddenly little matchstick figures could be seen jumping back and forward on the walk But there was no sound!
For a moment the whole illusion of success was in danger as the film continued to flicker on in silence. In desperation Crawley’s voice rang through the newsroom: “For Pete’s sake, someone throw in a line of commentary! ”
Almost immediately the high, clear, normally cultured voice of girl announcer Lynne Reid Banks was heard rasping: “I’m Gonna break this goddam riot if it’s the last thing I do.” “Absolutely first class!” applauded Crawley. “That’s the stuff!”
Slowly but impressively ITV was gaining momentum; tackling and overcoming problem after problem; training its raw if enthusiastic staff, trying out its equipment — where it was fortunate enough to have any!
Commander Robert Everett, in charge of Outside Broadcasts for London’s Rediffusion, travelled up to Cambridge to collect an O.B. scanner which was at once christened “Sweetie Pye” by the staff. It was their first one and they were so pleased to get it. Then he told the Programme Controller: “Look, we’re going to take it over to the Festival Hall and try it out.”
The technicians lumbered off in a great big O.B. van, Everett himself following in his nippy sports car. A camera was set up by the side of the Thames while “Sweetie Pye” and a monitor screen, packed inside an O.B. van, were parked outside the Festival Hall.
Distance from camera to scanner was about 100 yards. Suddenly everything was switched on. The camera focused on a bus crossing Waterloo Bridge and as it did so, there was a yelp of excitement from Everett inside the O.B. van. “It works! ” he yelled, startling passers-by. “It works! We’ve got a picture!”
At once, he telephoned Television House to tell the waiting Programmes Controller the good news. Then, for half an hour or so, the whole unit enjoyed itself, taking pictures of passing buses or river craft, mocking up a commentary as they went along.
Yet enormous technical problems still remained to be overcome. At his office in Lower Regent Street, Commander E. N. Haines, in charge of technical installation for Rediffusion, scratched his head and wondered how to arrange a micro-wave link between the studios in Television House, Kingsway, the Granville Theatre and the various O.B. units operating in the held.
He desperately needed a pickup on a fairly high point at a place convenient to the centre of London. One day a letter from the Metropolitan Water Board landed on his desk. “Would you like to lease our Campden Hill water tower?” it asked. “We no longer need it.”
The water tower (which figures prominently in G. K. Chesterton’s novel, “The Napoleon of Notting Hill”) stands 156ft. high on top of a considerable rise of ground in Kensington.
Inside it was an enormous 10ft. pipe through which water used to be pumped to London. Could Haines get a micro-wave receiving dish up on to the top of it? Well, there was only one way to find out and that was to climb up and have a look.
It proved to be a fantastic job. Haines, a retired D-Day assault commander, accompanied by an official from the Water Board, a man in his 60’s, clung precariously to a small iron ladder running up inside the tower and climbed up the 156ft. to the top.
And three times they repeated this dizzy, frightening feat before they could be sure that the tower would prove perfect for the job.
Then engineers cut a big hole in the bottom of the tower, removed the water pipe, bit by bit, and built up a staircase inside. Just under the top of the tower, they erected a small room into which they packed all the reception gear for a micro-wave link.
Finally they hauled up a big dish and erected it on top of the tower so that it could be beamed all round London and could pick up O.B. units many miles away.
Although the men organising ITV were working 16 and 17 hours a day, they were getting a great deal of fun out of it all. One day Eric Linden, now Features Editor of TVTimes went along to an hotel to interview the American singer, Guy Mitchell, who was to star in the first of Val Parnell‘s Sunday Night at the London Palladium shows. When Mitchell had finished talking to reporters he asked Eric to stay behind for an extended chat.
Then to Eric’s surprise — and the horror of the waiters — he pulled a portable barbecue from his baggage and started grilling a couple of steaks in the middle of the room!