The late ’70s weren’t exactly the biplane-and-barnstorming days of television technology, although looking back from today it can sometimes seem like it. In Granada TV’s Presentation Department we ran traffic control on live feeds both from network and our own studios, analog VT from two-inch tape, and an array of telecine machines that had gone missing from some museum. Whatever film you put on them, out came Arthur Askey.
Our tools and continuity aids were glass-mounted slides, cardboard captions, a clock in a brightly-lit box with some complicated swinging mirror arrangement, and a small team of continuity announcers (including friend-of-the-blog Malcolm Brown) ready to leap in and burble off-the-cuff with total confidence for however long it took for an on-air breakdown to be fixed, resolved, or otherwise dodged-around. Our workplace was a wall of TV screens and a vision mixing desk that I was told had been thrown out by the Post Office some ten years before.
(At that time the GPO handled the routing and switching of all telecommunications land lines, as well as the mail… that’s how London’s Post Office Tower got its name.)
Each day’s commercials came on three, sometimes four 35mm reels that had to be assembled and then broken down daily by the Film Ops department. Everything ran to a schedule and the breaks were of an allotted length. The Sales people in London would work until the last minute to sell the available commercial time, but inevitably there would be some breaks – mostly in the afternoons, or late at night – that wouldn’t be fully sold.
Sometimes we could just reconfigure the schedule on the hoof and make those breaks shorter. But mostly that wasn’t an option… it could throw out your timings and cause problems further down the line. Or it would leave telecine or VT with insufficient time to run through the leader in the middle of a reel to line up the next part of whatever we were showing.
In those cases we had a book of Central Office of Information films that we could slot into the gaps. They were the same length and format as our commercials and they cost the company nothing to run. If you watched British TV back then, they’ll be etched into your consciousness. French Frank, with Graham Stark, was a genuinely witty short about the safest way to reverse an articulated lorry. The Spirit of Dark and Lonely Water was a safety warning aimed at children, so traumatising that we were forbidden to schedule it when children might be watching.
Then there was Pipe Bursts. My personal favourite.
The maximum length of an ITV break in the late ’70s was three minutes and forty seconds. That was three and a half minutes of commercial time plus ten seconds’ allowance for the fractional spaces in between ads and the reaction time of the controller. The last film clip in every break would have ten seconds of freeze-frame on the end, to bridge any final gap.
Pipe Bursts looked like a home movie shot by the kind of bloke who built his own caravan. I still can’t decide whether it was genuinely inept, or a gonzo work of calculated amateur charm.
The ‘freeze frame’ consisted of everyone in the family standing as still as they could, for as long as they could.
Which wasn’t very long.
Whenever there was a gap, and the choice was mine to make, I’d slot it in. By rolling everything tight and cutting fast, I could get to the end of a three-and-a-half minute break with almost the full ten seconds to spare.
Ten seconds is a looooooong time on a TV screen. Watch the little girl on the right.
Whoever uploaded this… if it was taken from live TV, chances are I was on shift at the time.
NB: For maximum cringe, click the lower right-hand corner of the Youtube box to view it fullscreen. Press Esc afterwards to return to normal.