I was born in the East End of wartime London, though I grew up in Winchmore Hill, a rather more genteel part of North London. My school-days were spent first at St Paul’s C of E Primary and then at Enfield Grammar School, from whence I joined the BBC in 1962 as a Technical Operator.
I started in the Control Room in Broadcasting House London, before moving to work in the ‘Outside Studios’, mainly converted theatres around the West End which were used for audience shows as well as private recording venues. I spent many hours in the well-known studio complex at Maida Vale, where 60’s pop groups rubbed shoulder with members of the BBC Symphony Orchestra, which had it’s home in MV Studio One. Groups like The Beatles, The Hollies, The Move or The Kinks were regular visitors to these studios around London, along with artistes such as David Bowie, Steve Winwood and Jimi Hendrix.
The first test of my sound balancing ability came from Bernie Andrews, the producer of John Peel’s Radio One programme Top Gear. (This was of course a long time before Jeremy Clarkson and the famous – and completely unrelated – TV show of the same name.) I’d been working for months as the tape op on sessions for the show, with Pete Ritzema and Dave Tate handling the balance. When Dave went off on attachment to TV, Bernie tried me out on a session with The Moody Blues; it seemed to go well, and thereafter my two days a week working on sessions were split – Monday doing tapes: Tuesday mixing. Much of this activity has been documented in Ken Garner’s book In Session Tonight, published by BBC Books in 1993; now only available secondhand. A revised and updated version The Peel Sessions was subsequently published by Random House in 2007 – information here.
Bernie was very much the bad boy of the pop music department, and ultimately he was taken off the programme he created and built up during Radio One’s early years. The new producer (John Walters) had his own favourite sound engineer (Tony Wilson), so that particular avenue of creativity was denied to me. Soon afterwards I was told by my manager that Bristol were looking for someone to balance the Radio 1 Club OBs in the West Country, and asked me if I would like an attachment. As I was lacking any particular projects in London I immediately said yes. This was in 1969, and my initial attachment of 3 weeks was repeatedly extended, and turned into a permanent position a year later – without my ever having to go back to London!
BRISTOL & THE RADIO 1 ROADSHOW
The move to Bristol Audio Unit gave me the opportunity to work on a much wider variety of programmes – classical as well as pop music, plus current affairs and documentary programmes. In our Christchurch Music & Drama studio I supervised sound on plays for Radio 3 and Radio 4, and sessions for Radio 1 and Radio 2. Working with Acker Bilk and Tony Brandon on the weekly Acker’s ‘Arf ‘Our produced by Brian Patten for Radio 2, stands out as a particular pleasure.
But it wasn’t only radio, as I worked as a sound supervisor on Network and Regional TV programmes, even Film Dubbing. However, I began to specialise in Radio Outside Broadcasts, with staples like Any Questions?, Down Your Way and Choral Evensong augmented by more specialised assignments, like Songbook and Music in Question for Radio 3, together with Bath Festival, Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra and BBC Academy concerts – even Barn Dance for Radio 2. It was a varied and challenging diet.
I also had the honour – some might think dubious – of being involved in the launch of the Radio One Roadshow, the first ever of which was at Newquay with Alan (“Fluff”) Freeman. This became an annual event – two weeks each summer with DJs like Paul Burnett, David Hamilton, Ed Stewart, Tony Blackburn, DLT, Noel Edmonds etc. touring the coastal resorts of Devon and Cornwall. In 1976 GTO Films followed us around to make a feature film called Radio 1 On The Road – my silver screen debut is around 10:50″ from the start.
RISE & FALL
When I was beginning to feel that I’d turned my hand – with varying degrees of success – to most kinds of programme that interested me, the opportunity arose to apply for the job of managing the resources and the sound staff responsible for all the Network Radio, Film and TV output from the region. I was fortunate enough to get it, and enjoyed a fruitful and rewarding ten years as Audio Manager.
It was a privilege to be able to nurture and expand this group of forty-odd staff, skilled and enthusiastic in their craft: dedicated and loyal in their aspiration. I’ve been told the Bristol Audio Unit was highly regarded both within Bristol and around the BBC. With encouragement and support from the Head of Network Radio, Robin Hicks, we were able to secure £1m funding to refurbish Christchurch Studio, and to expand our OB fleet of vehicles. Bristol was first to build a one-man-operation radio studio using the AKG DSE-7000 digital multi-track editing system – an early DAW. This was mirrored in TV by a dedicated digital dubbing theatre for Regional TV, which was built around the new AMS AudioFile. These were ground-breaking facilities, and gave everyone an early opportunity to become acquainted with technology that is now the norm – an early peek into the future in fact.
But the halcyon days were coming to an end, and in the early 90s, the BBC decided – as a part of its Birt-led decline – that a dedicated sound department was a luxury they could do without, and in 1992 they crowned that absurdity by making everyone in the radio, TV and film operations departments redundant. There were subsequent offers of jobs, fewer jobs of course, but a surprising number of people had lost faith in the BBC and many, myself included, were happy to accept the redundancy deal and seek a new life outside the BBC. Many have achieved success in the then burgeoning world of independent production and facilities houses. Others, like me, were happy to take early retirement on the grounds of redundancy, and with no mortgage or family responsibilities I have survived without work from that day to this.
I have had the opportunity to travel to the USA, Hong Kong and Thailand. There’s been time to learn to play the bass guitar, and play with The Works; time to develop my interest in computing, build a car, run a couple of websites, do some musical arrangements, record and edit audio and video, make CDs and DVDs and to develop and enjoy the gentle art of Pottering!
Sarah Crook gave me a retirement card with this taped inside it:
Our joys are sometimes found, not in the contemplation of wonders, but in our fingertips, in doing things, inventing, fabricating or, to use the best word of all – pottering. Here the child in us, which the poet declared is the father of us all, finds his playful outlets. Here is what is sometimes needed to make us come alive; to be concocting schemes, seeking out little things, preparing surprises for ourselves, testing our own cleverness, sometimes experiencing success and then stepping back to look at some trivial thing we have worked up and thinking: “Lo, what I have wrought!”
I didn’t realise Sarah knew me as well as this – it’s a pretty accurate description of a surprising number of my days in retirement! The broadcaster Monty Don has also painted a very realistic picture of life without the demands of work.
The Bristol Motor Club has been a rewarding way to occupy much of my time over the past 20 years – there’s more about that under Cars & Motorsport.