Ten Years of VT
John Nash
In November 1968 Ariel published an article by John Nash (pictured left in VT Control in 1965) recording the first ten years of video-tape in the BBC. Many 'older' VT folk will have fond memories of John, his tales of disc recording (he had come to us from Transcription Unit) and his prowess with musical instruments - he had played a brass instrument in a military band during his National Service - and no-one who travelled with him would ever forget his supercharged Standard Companion.........

Geoff Higgs found a copy in a "pile of stuff" at home and scanned it. I have managed to transcribe it with a lot of help from Omnipage OCR and it is reproduced in full below.
The pictures are those that accompanied the article; recognise the editor?

It is doubtful if many people working in the Television Service during 1958 would have known what a video-tape recording was; of those who did know, few would have cared to predict a future for the new system. At the present time, however, as Video Tape Section celebrates its tenth birthday (October, to be exact), it will probably come as no surprise to any­one to learn that over half of all programmes transmitted are on video-tape or have used the system at some point in their preparation. The phrase `Run VT!' has become one of the orders of the day.

During the early years of television after the war, machines were developed to re­cord television pictures and sound on film; these telerecordings were much in use at this time, and provided a valuable means of programme storage. But it had long been a dream of technician and producer alike to take a leaf out of the sound engineer's book and employ magnetic tape as the recording medium; the facility for immediate replay was high on the list of requirements for a recording system designed purely for television.

BBC's Research Department began investigating the problem during 1955, and three years later produced a machine known as VERA, which was first used officially on transmission during a Panorama programme in April of 1958. Sadly, as it happened, VERA's debut proved also to be her swansong. Across the Atlantic, American engineers had been busy, and the Ampex VR1000 equipment showed it­self to have considerable potential for development; also, it used a particular method of recording which seemed to be rapidly becoming a worldwide standard.

TR/TK11 Lime Grove
TR/TK11 at Lime Grove
Accordingly, two VR1000 machines were bought by the BBC, the first being eventually installed at Lime Grove as TR/TK 11. Two O. & M. engineers, Willie West and Seymour Powell (both, happily, still with the section), were given the task of mastering what seemed a most complex array of electronic bits and pieces. After a short trial period, they began official transmissions on 1 October with a three minute trailer for A Tale of Two Cities. Very soon, more ambitious projects were being covered, including complete schools programmes and various sporting items. In the early part of 1959, an operator shift system was started, the second new machine (TR/TK 12) was installed, followed later in the year by another channel which was designated TR/TK 5. Truly, it could be said that Video Tape Section had `set up shop'.

The records of these early efforts indicate a tentative approach which seems al­most quaint when judged against today's streamlined arrangements.
Each recording was booked by separate memo, and frequently transmissions were backed by telecine film as a safety measure. Clearance of programmes for tape erasing was another problem; with only half a dozen tapes available for use, there was no chance of storage for the future. The first machines themselves were equipped with only the basic necessities; no such extravagances as tape timers, for instance.
`I want the last one minute and forty­two seconds of play up to that goal,' says the Grandstand director.
`Right!' answers the video-tape operator. `I'll be with you in a few minutes.'
He finds the point where the ball enters the net, carefully lifts both spools, inter­changes and turns them upside down. Re­lacing, he runs the machine forward, and uses the wall clock to time the reversed tape back to the required starting point. It can be much more slickly done now!

With the opening of Television Centre in 1960 came two more machines and a change in their designation. The new recorders, known as VTR 9 and 10, were initially installed in what is now the apparatus room of Presentation B, but were later moved down to VT's present home beneath the Centre circle. In the next two years, the section gained a further three machines, but lost the `R' from their titles. Eight recorders were now operational, and we began to consider ourselves an import­ant part of the television scene.

Transistorised equipment came next. Four RCA TR 22s arrived, and with them an inundation we had not expected: a deluge not of extra bookings but, strictly according to the dictionary definition, of water !
It happened one Sunday, just as operators were getting ready for the evening's work. Someone heard a dripping sound, a sound which bore no relation to any of the programmes showing on neighbouring monitors. Water was seen cascading down a wall and gathering on the ceiling above; it was quickly realized that the pool over our heads (round which the Television Centre building arc curves) was leaking, and that there was an awful lot of water up there.
The whole of that night was spent in mopping up, and the next day all except one of the machines affected worked perfectly. Believe it or not, but the fault on that was subsequently traced to a dry joint!
The four new equipments were duly in­stalled, ceased to be regarded as nine day wonders, and joined the older types ready to welcome the beginning of BBC2 and 625line working. By now, the operational staff had been increased to about thirty engineers arranged in two equal shifts (equal in number, that is; the argument will forever rage as to which is the more `equal' in skill).
Expansion of activities
More members joined in readiness for obvious expansion in our activities and for the World Cup series in 1966. This proved to be our biggest enterprise in concentrated effort; it was nothing out of the ordinary during those hectic days to wander through the cubicles and count upwards of sixty monitors showing matches being recorded, dubbed, edited, or transmitted. The place echoed to the roar of a hundred thousand voices raised in acclamation of numerous goals and also, it seemed, to only a few less multilingual commentaries!
The coverage of this series showed a remarkable degree of liaison between Sports Department and VT. Even so, it represented only a normal Saturday afternoon's Grandstand multiplied several times. The facility of quick turnround between re­cording and replay is like the breath of life to sports programme directors, and they were among the first to make full use of our increasing skills in this and many other facets of video-tape use; over the years, we have become almost as eager to accomplish the impossible as they are to ask for it. There is no doubt, too, that sports programmes are more hungry for tape than any other type of broadcast. During the recent summer's Wimbledon fortnight, for instance, 126 tapes were used; at 90 minutes per reel, this represents nearly 180 hours of recorded material. Sports Department are very valued customers.
Demands of colour
When BBC2 started colour transmissions in 1967, the section was ready to meet the fresh demand with seven additional machines capable of handling the more complex signals involved in colour working. The new recorders are also equipped with special units which enable electronic editing to be carried out. Here, instead of physically cutting and joining the tape (a rather wasteful process, even though our experts have made minor miracles quite commonplace), sections of programmes can be joined together by electronic means without the tape being marked in any way. Another advantage of this form of editing is that it can be carried out during the recording session; further, because the actual timing of the cut can be controlled from the gallery, the pro­gramme director or producer is more closely involved.

Geoff Higgs editing on VT11
Geoff Higgs editing on VT11
It was suggested earlier that nearly everybody knows about Video Tape Section and about the work we do. This is probably true, although the extent of our operations that we maintain a programme tape store of nearly 12,000 separate items and mount some 400 recording, playback, or editing sessions each week may not be so well known. It would also be unfair to expect those not directly involved to understand some of the more intricate mechanisms we use. Despite this, many of our customers are surprisingly well informed on the technical side. There is therefore probably no truth in the story of the programme secretary who, having been told that her playback was to come from one of the older machines, asked if it could be thoroughly oiled in order that her boss would not be upset by bad pictures.
In all of this, nothing has been said of the non engineering part of the operation, of the staff who organize bookings, maintain the supply of new tapes, or look after the store of recorded programmes. Nor has mention been made of what may be regarded as the outposts of the VT empire in the Regions. Without the first, the section could not operate as smoothly as it does; for the second, it is sufficient to say that their task differs from ours in London only in magnitude.
What of the future of Video Tape Section, now that we have reached double figures? Looking at the modern, highly sophisticated machines, it would seem that there is little room for improvement. But the electronics designer is a man of apparently unlimited ingenuity and inventiveness; the sheer physical size of tape reels and of the machines themselves is something he would be happy to reduce. In any event, the members of the section are only too keen to experience something new. `Video' is what must be recorded; the word `tape' can easily be replaced by who knows?