BBC East Norwich – Bob Taylor continues his BBC Memories (previous contribution)
In 1976, after 13 years in TV News, I relocated to BBC East in Norwich because of my young family.
The work at the BBC in Norwich was quite a shock for an engineer who had worked in the background for some years. It called for operational skills of many sorts, from sound tape editing and radio panel operation to fairly complex camera work. Our radio output to Radio 4 was quite substantial. On local TV we used to attempt drama and dancing and the Delia Smith programmes came from Norwich. Within five minutes of arriving there, I was behind a camera in the studio being screamed at to follow a ballet dancer across a blacked out studio. I had not been behind a camera since Alexandra Palace seven years ago, and then only newsreaders. An excellent course at Wood Norton later helped me to hone my camera skills somewhat.
There were many humiliating moments when our ex TV News prototype telecine broke down and we had to ask Anglia tv (our Commercial rivals) to play out our films for us, or on occasions rush the films down to London and have them play the films up to us during the Regional opt-out. Money was eventually agreed to fund a new telecine for Norwich and it went to Television Centre for “acceptance testing”. It was considered too good for a Region and we got fobbed off with the oldest machine then at the Centre. It left us very bitter as we were expected to put out half an hour of live television every day with no back-up equipment and no specialist engineers. On another occasion we were reduced to borrowing a 16mm cine projector and playing the news films on a screen in the studio with a camera pointing at it. This was not professional television.
We also just had one VT machine and it was so unreliable that we often recorded features programs elsewhere in the country and booked the expensive sound and vision circuits to make this possible. In time two machines were granted us, but they were both old and constantly breaking down.
The end of using film and the emergence of portable video cameras brought us our first new machinery, though we were amongst the last to receive this, and had bought on the second hand market some early equipment and much annoyed our masters.
After a visit by Bill Cotton jnr, a senior BBC executive, when he was thrown out of the gallery after leaning back on the equipment bays during a live transmission and causing the studio output to flash and bang, money was forthcoming to move all the equipment from the back of the Gallery into our Maintenance area and form a proper Apparatus Room, so long as we did it ourselves. We achieved this tricky operation over a period of three years, David Manford, Pete Scallon, Mike Mobbs and myself and felt very pleased with ourselves never to have lost a single transmission.
It caused ill feelings in the Specialist departments and in the years that followed we were ostracised and almost completely ignored, falling behind other Regional Stations in any handouts of new equipment or refurbishment.
A BIT ABOUT THE BBC at that time - In the 1980’s the BBC employed the MacKinsey Management Consultants to review our organisation and advise us on improving it. We were told we didn’t have enough managers! Departments were split up into ‘Professional Groups’ – Production, News, Current Affairs, Operations, Engineering – and many other support groups. All with managers instead of Supervisors. From Maintenance Supervisor I became a Technical Services Manager and with others was sent on management courses. The BBC blossomed into Empires , sometimes obstructing one another, and it was often thought a miracle that programmes ever got made. A new policy stated that Regions were to have a fair share in the making of Network Programmes. Everybody was to have a craft skill and be equal to the professional standard elsewhere.
The BBC was totally self-sufficient. It ran its own equipment manufacturing factory, its own transport system, its own architects department, its own catering and so on.
Along came a new Director General, John Birt, who was horrified at the size and diversity of the ‘Barony’s’ as he called them, and started to dismantle them and disband them. All the peripheral departments went. The numerous Regional Headquarters were replaced by a single one in Birmingham. Local Radio HQ closed.
He re-organised the BBC on commercial lines; created Resources and Programmes as the only two Empires of the BBC. All the money went to the Programmes and the Resources had to earn it from them. This has resulted in the programme producers having a free hand to make their programmes elsewhere if cheaper, and for Resources to make programmes for anybody outside the BBC they wish.
The Regions struggled with this new regime for a few years, and in the year 2001 under another Director General, Greg Dyke reverted to what they were in the 70’s, i.e. Small multi-skilled workforces with few managers and supervisors. Network programmes are rarely taken from Regional Studios. Their only job is to produce Regional News, occasional other local programmes, and to run their local radio stations.
At the time the BBC was thinking big in the 1980’s, many of the Regions acquired fine new studio centres capable of producing Network Programmes. Norwich acquired expensive extra office premises, for a large features department with its own film editing suites, concentrating on producing films.
New studio centres at Newcastle and Southampton were showplaces. From Newcastle came Playschool and Biker’s Grove.
Our new studio in Norwich faltered because first they investigated moving to Cambridge, and then abandoning that, weeks before the builders moved in to build us a large new studio in the back car park, the plug was pulled on the whole idea of Regional expansion.
We eventually got a £1m refurbishment of the existing facilities, but this all turned very sour and ran on for three years instead of two. There was a lot of argument about who should pay for the overrun . We were accused of being uncooperative during the work – after our past experience we had decided the Specialists were doing the work this time not us. It was a right mess and we had to put up false ceilings and wall panels to hide the eyesore of the chaotic wiring.
When John Birt disbanded the South East Headquarters at Elstree, Norwich reverted to Midlands Region where it had started. Local Radio Headquarters at Elstree had already been closed and the responsibility for the six local radio stations in the Region fell to Norwich. It was a shock when our control switched back to the Midland Region from Elstree, to find out how much money had been withheld from us over the years.
With a succession of changes of management, I ended up as a middle manager doing the hundreds of jobs that somebody had to do. Over a three year period I managed to delegate these tasks and engineer my own redundancy, retiring in 1995 aged 57.
The memories don’t sound very happy ones, but there was great team spirit and sense of comradeship, and despite our struggles we were proud of our achievements and on the whole were a very jolly bunch.
In 2003 BBC East finally moved to new premises. There are fewer staff than ever and multi-skilling is the fashion. In that respect things have gone full circle and off into space!
Journalists edit their own moving pictures on computer screens and in some cases shoot the pictures too. Pictures are beamed by satellite, or relayed over the Internet, from anywhere in the Region. Local television is no more complicated than local radio has been for years. They are now both housed in the same modern building – in the Norwich Forum, alongside the Public Library.
If anyone has anything to add to this account, please contact