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
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
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.
|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,
Tyre Service Building on the bend of the Highway opposite the
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
(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
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.