A  NIGHT AT ABC-TV'S "ARCON" IN 1956
                                                                          
 by John Pickup (Floor Manager)


John Pickup FM OBs

1.      A TV Story well before before the Arcon days


I don't know if it's worth mentioning that my TV career actually  began some seven years earlier, in 1949- 50, where I was employed at 2GB-Macquarie, -in Sound Effects, and as an occasional Panel Operator  and Disc Recordist.

At that stage 2GB Macquarie was hoping to be a contender for a possible TV license when TV finally got off the ground, so to further their prospects, they imported a Pye-Astor TV Outside Broadcast Van from England.

The first public showing was at the Sydney Royal Easter Show and I managed to become involved in the Macquarie part of the operation. We were based in the Shell Pavilion and a ramped catwalk was constructed to enable queues of people to walk up one ramp, stand in front of the TV Camera, wave at the monitor, then walk down the other ramp.

People were enthralled, but after a few days the crew tried to find ways to relieve the monotony of a single operation.  It was decided that the camera should be taken across the road to a small stand looking over the Ground, so that the Grand Parade could be shown to the vast crowd on the several monitors. Cables were laid, the camera set up, and the Grand Parade went to air.

 

John Pickup - Floor Manager, OBs
Soon though, the Director realised there was no sound, so a mike cable was laid and I set up the microphone so the sound of cattle bellowing and horses hooves could be heard. As I was standing watching the Parade the cameraman called to me "the Director wants some commentary on what's going on"   I looked round for a suitable person to commentate but there was no one there, so I stepped to the microphone.  Fortunately I knew my subject, for my Grandfather was a Show Society Life Member and my family and I had watched many Grand Parades from my childhood.

As I described the various facets of the Parade I would watch as the camera panned around and describe what was in front of the lens, as there was no monitor.   The cameraman called to me "The Director said - That's fine, keep it up" and I went on with the commentary to the end of the Grand Parade.     As a result I was deputed to do commentary for the remaining days of the Show period.

This is a small thing in the general history of Television in Australia, but I believe I can modestly lay claim to being the first outside broadcast commentator on TV in a public situation. The broadcasts may not have been transmitted over air to a general audience, but were certainly seen by thousands of viewers, all those years ago in 1949.

2.      Now to the Arcon


As we turn off the Pacific Highway at Gore Hill at the ABC TV sign in this Olympic Year, 1956, we travel along a short road to a corrugated  iron building similar in design to an army Nissan hut, but somewhat  larger.  Also in sight is the ABC's small transmitter tower - known as "The Stump" or "Stubby" or by some other derogatory names.  The tower is probably about a tenth the height (and power) of the adjacent full sized TCN 9 tower and Channel 7's tower is further in the distance. There are no large permanent buildings in the immediate area, only the large corrugated iron structure.

The Arcon, as the corrugated building is called, is divided into several areas, including scenery storage; Make up; Set Design; Graphics; Telecine; Film and other Technical Services.  The Studio and Control Room are located on the right hand side as you enter the Arcon.   Production and Administration Offices are located closer to St.Leonards, in Taylor's Tyre Service Building on the bend of the Highway opposite the Cemetery.

The Studio and Control Room are basic in every sense of the word.  The Studio itself measures some 30' x 20' (or 9.1 x 6.09 metres),  and the Control Room, facing onto the narrower North-East side of the  studio, is only wide enough to carry the technical equipment on a  long bench, the chairs of the technical and production crew - and a  narrow walkway behind. Both the Studio and the Control Room are on the same level concrete floor.

All presentation is live.  The only means of recording program material is by filming the grainy black and white image on a cathode ray tube monitor with a 16mm camera.  The images produced are of poor resolution, soft and grainy, and subject to black flare around light areas.  White shirts or other light clothing are a definite "no no!" and light blue shirts predominate.

(Sadly, because of the technical and financial limitations of tele-recording on 16mm film, and the topical nature of our programs, we will leave very little historical material for later generations to study. There is talk that some time in the future it may be possible  to record both image and sound on magnetic recording tape, but is  still years away).

Let's follow a night's presentation in the small TV Studio inside the Arcon.  A strange ritual takes place before transmission each evening, when staff gather inside and outside the door of the Control Room to watch a monitor - tuned, not to the ABC, but to Channel 9 and the "Mickey Mouse Club"!   We all watch the opening theme which ends with "Where's Mickey! - Where's Mickey! - WHERE'S MICKEY!" -  followed by the banging of a bass drum- and that's the gimmick, and  each night it's different.  The drum might explode; it could dissolve into a puddle on the floor; the drummer might hit the drum, then vibrate crazily and fracture into a thousand pieces.  We wait for the gimmick, discuss it, and then prepare for the more serious business of the night's presentation.

Let's watch the night's activities from a quiet corner in the lead up to the News. At 6.50pm the Rural Presenter stands beside a dump tray set up along the NE Studio wall nearest the Control Room. The tray holds a selection of produce from fruit and vegetable outlets, and the Presenter gives prices for apples, oranges etc. as a guide to  the shopping housewife.   As the Rural Department keeps the City up to date with these prices the Newsreader takes his seat at the news desk, immediately adjacent to the Fruit display. (No women newsreaders in these opening days)

There are three Marconi cameras in the studio, each fitted with turrets containing four lenses. These lenses range through wide angle; normal; mid-long focal length and telephoto.  Two of the cameras are used for the main studio operation, but for much of the time camera 3 is dedicated to graphics, which are mounted on a converted music stand and dropped down, card by card, by a Floor Assistant. The graphics are mostly black cards with white lettering, but sometimes black (or white) lettering on grey card.

Only one zoom lens is available in Sydney (and one in Melbourne), and these are used on one of the Pye cameras attached to that City's Outside Broadcasts Van.   These vans are extremely busy and are used for very diverse   productions, ranging from sporting events to cultural presentations such as Australia’s first opera - Menotti's "The Telephone" - transmitted from the ABC's Orchestral Studio at  King's Cross as an Outside Broadcast The Producer was George Trevare, (who produced a number of TV "firsts". The Script Assistant was Pru Bavin and the Floor Manager John Pickup..

At 7pm. the News theme goes to air and the Newsreader is cued by the Floor Manager.  Occasionally black and white photos or printed word graphics are used in the bulletin, but few inserts of film.  (On the Opening Night of ABC TV in Sydney we had great film footage of a Tiger Moth crash - all went well until the film stopped and jammed in the projector gate - the still image stayed on screen for a few seconds, and then dissolved in a great bubble of melting emulsion!)

As the news is being read the floor crew are quietly removing the dump tray of fruit and bringing the weather map easel in to replace it.  At the end of the news bulletin the Reader hands over to the Rural reporter assigned to the weather presentation.   Weather is basic, consisting of a hand drawn map showing the isobars, together with graphic cards.  While Weather goes to air Bob Sanders,  Presenter of the "People" program, quietly ushers his guest for the  night into the studio and they move to the two chairs set up on   rostrums  along the longer south east wall of the Studio,

7.30pm, the Floor Manager cues Bob Sanders.  As Bob interviews his  guest the Floor Assistants are quietly clearing the news desk, chair  and the weather easel to make way for furniture and flats that make  up two of the sets of a four set drama. As we look round the studio we see that two of the sets for the drama have already been constructed along the southwest and northwest walls of the Studio. As Bob moves to close the "People" program several actors move in to the Studio and stand behind the cameras, ready to take their allotted positions for the start of the drama.

8pm.   The introductory music begins and the cast have taken their positions for the opening scene.  In the Control Room the News Producer and Script Assistant have vacated their chairs to make room for the Drama Producer and Script Assistant, but the Control Room Crew of  Technical Director, CCU. Operator, Sound Operator and others continue on.  They will be there until the end of the night's transmission. As the music fades the Producer tells the Floor Manager to cue the actor and the one hour drama begins at the top of page one. Because there has been no way of effectively pre-recording the production, it will be virtually presented as a live stage show in front of the cameras instead of a live theatre audience.   Mistakes must be covered up as best the actors can and the occasional crash of a scenery flat or prop has been known to happen without the cast missing a beat. Such events are accepted as a fact of life in live television presentation.

9pm.  The drama reaches its climax and the chords of the closing music are heard and the cast and crew are able to relax.  In the Control Room the Producer has commenced the next part of the program from Telecine. Although filming TV programmes is difficult, there is material filmed on 16 and 35mm available from the BBC and other outlets and much of this is used after the main night's live presentation from the studio has finished.  Those involved have maintained a complete nights program, made up of many segments, live from this small studio for over three hours.   All that remains is for the Presentation Announcer to close the Evening's Program, for God Save The Queen to be played and the Test Pattern to be put to air -all well before midnight. So ends the night's transmission.   Now home to bed - until we do it all again tomorrow.

Present day television production uses modern analogue and digital techniques to film various scenes out of chronological order, then combine these through editing into the finished production.  Few of today's producers would contemplate doing a production from page one to scripts end, especially in a studio space of some 9 x 6 metres. Not so long ago the Producers of "The Bill" made much of the fact  that one episode was filmed in 'Real Time'  as though this was an  exciting new production method, yet over fifty years ago the Pioneers  of ABC TV did this, week in week out as a fact of daily life.    Their's was a remarkable example of ingenuity and dedication.


John Pickup started work in the ABC on 25th October 1950. He worked in the Market Street radio studios as an Effects Officer until 1955. He was then seconded to work in the ABC television training unit. After transmission began John’s main work was floor manager both in Arcon Studios and Outside Broadcasts. He worked in the 1956 Olympic Games and the opening night in ABV Melbourne.

He returned to his ‘first love’ – radio, in 1957. He then worked for 28 years as a Regional Manager at Broken Hill, then in Mackay, Queensland (possibly longest serving Regional Manager and longest breakfast presenter in Australia). He retired in December 1992 concluding 42 years service with the ABC.

 

 

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