John Laker Remembers Television in the 1950s
The 14th March 1954 was a wet and rainy day and marked the start of a career that was to last for the next 35 years and what a privileged career it turned out to be.
When I started this journey I had no idea just where it would lead me and lead me it did,
To unpacking our first television camera, the 1956 Olympic Games, moving to Canberra and setting up, first a temporary television studio in a converted radio studio and then moving to the permanent complex in Northbourne Ave. The conversion to colour and in between, meeting and working with Prime Ministers (Menzies to Hawke), Ministers, too numerous to recall, Governers General from Lord DíLisle to Sir Ninian Stevens and various members of the Royal Family during their visits to Australia. I also had the privilege to travel with several overseas dignitaries around Australia and was invited to travel to Germany in 1981 as a guest of the West German Government, but more of that later.
Having survived the interviewing processes I was appointed as the first maintenance electrician that the ABC had employed. I was advised to report to Mr Harry Croot who was located on the 6th floor of Broadcast House, 264 Pitt St., Sydney at 9-00am on Monday 14th March 1954.Also appointed at that time was a maintenance carpenter Max Lane.
Harry was the premises officer for the ABC and was to be my "Boss" for the next 12 months. The first couple of hours Harry spent explaining how the ABC worked and where it was located and the list went something like this: - Broadcast house, National Building. Piccadilly Arcade all in Pitt St, 96 Market St, ABC Building in William St and another building 3 or 4 doors up the road, St Peters Hall, Forbes St Studios, Kellett St Kings Cross, An old Church near Taylors Square, and a studio at the Sydney Showground. It seemed to me the ABC was spread around Sydney like jam on a piece of bread. Our workshop was to be in the basement area under St Peters Hall, a rather damp and dingy area however after a couple of weeks of hard labor Max Lane and I had converted it into a rather congenial working area.
12 months working around the various ABC locations was to be invaluable in later years. I got to know just about all the head office staff members from the Chairman Sir Richard Boyer down to each of the tea ladies, Yes in those heady days each building had at least two or three tea ladies who served tea or coffee right to your desk along with a couple of biscuits.
When the introduction of television was announced it was suggested I should get some film experience and so it was arranged for me to visit Ealing studios in Pagewood, where they were shooting "Long John Silver". I worked out there as a general hand and assistant gaffer for a couple of weeks and following this as an extra hand with the Commonwealth
Film Unit when they were shooting "This is the ABC" under the direction of Shane Benson. This film I believe is still in ABC archives.
During this period Lloyd Hadfield was appointed as Chief Engineer (Television) and almost immediately took off overseas to examine current television studio equipment and outside broadcast units. Lloyd was a "solid bloke" being a champion hammer thrower and had been working in the UK with EEV on the design and development of the Image Orthicon camera tube. Whilst on his journeys he sent back weekly reports on his findings. Unfortunately he was a shocking writer and as well a rather poor speller and somehow it became my job to try and decipher his writing and correct his spelling before his reports were typed for distribution.
In the mean time I was seconded to the Building Department working with Stan Darling and Warwick Mehaffey as a draughtsman. The Gore Hill site was the big tussle of the day with the Samuel French group purchasing part of the area we were negotiating. The whole deal was a very messy arrangement with not only the ABC involved but also the PMG and in the corner commercial television station ATN Channel 7.
When Lloyd Hadfield returned from his overseas trip, Colin Stockbridge and Ken Middleton were appointed, Colin to oversee building and studio design and Ken to work in Melbourne with the PMG on equipment purchases. At this time the ABC was not allowed under Treasury regulations to purchase any equipment them selves and all major purchases had to be made in conjunction with the PMG.
It was also decided at this time to convert St Peters Hall into a television training studio and I was given the task of rearranging the hall into a television studio. We purchased some rather primitive lighting equipment from Ealing Studios and converted the existing control room into a sound and vision control room.
Our first studio camera arrived in late November 1955; a Marconi Mk3, complete with 3" Image Orthicon tube. This monstrous camera was mounted on a rather precarious cane film camera tripod and Colin and I set about setting up the chain and making it work. It was a case of book in one hand and finding the right cable to fit the need. It was indeed a very basic chain; Camera, CCU, Power supply, a 10-yard camera cable, interconnecting cables and a very basic 12" floor monitor. Fortunately all of the handbooks had a picture in the front of their respective units, which acted as a terrific guide.
We were able to get our first pictures from the chain around early December 1955 as I recall, and saw a very grainy black and white picture. We had worked long and hard at that chain and then rewarded our long-suffering families with a visit to the studio one Sunday morning where we showed them the miracles of television.
Fred Kenyon, then a Marconi Engineer, was not so complementary when he saw our picture. "I see you have a typical soot and whitewash picture" was his first comment.
Our second chain arrived with Fred Kenyon, who set about converting both chains from 3" to 41/2" Image Orthicons. We then set about carrying out acceptance testing of the Orthicons. The prescribed method was to set the camera up in front of a big sound monitor and blast it with an orchestral version of "Cherry Pink and Apple Blossom White". If the resultant picture microphonics lasted more than a certain time (as measured by a stopwatch), the tube was to be rejected. They werenít too keen to reject anything at that stage, and nobody was worried about the limitations and any other imperfections so long as it survived the " Cherry Pink and Apple Blossom White" test (Fred Kenyon was later to join Ch 10 as their Chief Engineer).
During the 1955/56 Christmas Period we hired a pantechnicon from the Dept Supply and set up both of the camera chains and some OB sound gear in the back for a New Years Eve show next to the El Alamein fountain in Kings Cross. Bob Forster and Leo Fowler joined us at about this time along with Dave Tapp. We borrowed a television Projector from the Phillips organization and projected the camera outputs onto a large screen. Colin built a "crash" vision switcher and Mungo McCallum and Kay Kinnane took it in turns to produce the show. It was basically a radio show with pictures. The heat in the pantec was almost unbearable but all continued on till the end of the show.
Soon after Christmas Kevin Bourke joined the system as did a couple of other engineers and Dave Tapp was allowed to transfer from the PMG to the ABC.
The Training Studio was set to begin its first course in late January and the technical strength consisted of Dave Tapp, Bob Forster, Leo Fowler and myself. During the training courses several other technical staff arrived on the scene, mostly from the Dept. of Civil Aviation. Also at this time Colin Stockbridge and I set about designing Control rooms for the television studios. We had an enormous number of equipment hand books to research for equipment dimensions and then attempted to squeeze the necessary equipment into the space provided on the Dept of Works drawings, needless to say it didnít always work.
Mungo McCallum (senior) and Kay Kinanne were in charge of the production side of the training studio. Mungo was a Drama Producer/writer from ABC drama and Kay, a former teacher and came from ABC Schools Broadcasts. Following the return from an overseas trip they sought the sevices of an American Mr Rudy Bretts, who ran several training workshops from January to June /July 1956.
After a stint in the training studio I was transferred to the outside broadcast unit when the Pye OB van arrived. We set about making it work and also unpacking the enormous amount of cables and extra equipment that had arrived with the unit.
The ABC, having successfully negotiated the Gore Hill site, decided to use an "Arcon" shed on the site as its temporary television studio facility. Crammed into this area was a small television studio with an announce booth tacked on the end, a combined Vision and
Sound control room, (Veteran Broadcaster Jack Davey once quipped " you donít work in this place you pull it on like a Wellington boot") a very small master control area, Telecine for film replays, a mechanical workshop, a scenery workshop and an OB area. In this rather small space we were faced with the task of unpacking a mountain of cables and other ancillary equipment and then attempted to get pictures out of the Van. Being a PYE van the equipment configuration was entirely different to the Marconi equipment that we had become used to and required a completely different approach to make it all work.
Following our combined concerted efforts it was decided to give the Van its first workout so we took it over to the Garden Island Naval Dockyard which was having an open day. We ran out what seemed like miles of cables, every yard securely tied with sisal twine to form a neat cable form, and a microwave link was set up to link the OB back to Gore Hill Studios. All went well until late in the afternoon when the box and crane the Navy had been using to lift the visitors onto the deck of the ship, crashed to the wharf. No one was injured but it was caught on camera and formed our first live news story.
Following the Official opening of ABN, (carried out as an OB from the orchestral studios at Kings Cross) we, the OB crew were advised that we might go to Melbourne for the Olympic Games. A rather pedantic Ken Middleton would not give us a definite answer until almost the day we were due to leave and we were required to sign a letter to the effect that we would accept the accommodation that was arranged for us. For the first few days we were accommodated in the Victoria Coffee Palace Hotel in the heart of Melbourne. Then on a Sunday morning we were advised we were to move out to the University. The rooms we were allocated were filthy; I had wood stacked in the wardrobe and the toilets were a disgrace. We called upon Ken Watts, who was supposed to be in charge of accommodation, and told him we were not prepared to move into the area. He reminded us of the letter we had signed so we sought help from Mr. Huck Finlay, the Assistant General Manager of the ABC who found there was a discrepancy in what was being charged and what we were supposed to be paying. We ended up back at the Victoria Coffee Palace Hotel for the rest of our visit to Melbourne
I left the OB van in 1963 to take up a position in Canberra.
Both radio and television has always held a fascination for me, right from the time I built my first crystal radio set at the age of 10 till the day I retired, it had its hard times but I believe these were far outweighed by the good times. I wish all my colleagues still working in the industry well.
John Laker July 2006 Gundaroo NSW.