Donald MacLean's Blog 11
A group of us old fogeys is being shown round our erstwhile workplace.
London's 'Broadcasting House' is being modernised.
In 1929 "BH" cost £500,000 to build.
This renovation is costing £400,000,000.
Only the front is familiar.
"... and these buttons call-up sound-effects - digital, of course."
Memories are flooding back.
"Dear BBC Glasgow, I'm 17, just got my
'highers' and have enrolled in the Scottish Academy of Music as a clarinet student.
My other hobby is wireless. Can I work for you when the war is over and I've done my National
"Dear Donald, Maybe ... just fill in this
Days later my father says "By the way, I saw
Melville Dinwiddie today .. he's Head of the BBC in Scotland .. and he said
.. " I explode with anger .. "Look, Dad, I know you mean well .. but I'm not a child now .. I want to get
my first job MYSELF!"
Poor Dad. He'd got his first jobs
himself ... and had learned more than I'd ever know about employment
"Of course, son ... I was just going to say
that Melville promised me he would not mention you to anyone unless/until you
have passed the normal selection procedures."
"Dear Donald, It is my pleasure to advise
you that following the tests and interviews you have been accepted as a
'Youth in Training' in our 'Programme Engineering' Department at a salary of 21
shillings a week plus 7 shillings & sixpence 'cost-of-living bonus'. It is requested
that you arrange to attend the College of Music part-time so that you can
begin your apprenticeship here before going into the services."
"And this is our sound-effects suite ...
you'll be spending lots of time here." The old-hand is introducing
me to my new workplace. "If a script calls for the sound of a car
engine you'll play a disc of it on one of this row of turntables. For
footsteps - see this circular arrangement on the floor, the microphone hanging
over its centre ... you walk round the outer circle - it's concrete - or the
inner circle of floorboards - here are the special creaky ones ... the centre
section is gravel. The coconut-shells are for horses' hooves. The big sheet of metal makes a thunderclap.
This water-tank has a rowlock and an oar. All these physical sounds are called
The first big production to which I am assigned
is Jimmy Crampsey's epic production of "Sunset Song" by Lewis Grassic Gibbon.
My colleagues Iain MacFadyen and Jimmy Bulloch and I share the very testing
sequences of spot and gram effects.
Down on the ground floor is the nerve-centre of
big productions - the 'operating theatre' of more senior Programme Engineers.
It's a room with a long
Control Desk - rows of fist-sized knobs, one for each studio - to 'fade in' a studio
the knob is turned clockwise. The overall 'level' is adjusted so that the loudness is between 4 and 6 on a meter.
As a studio is faded-in a key
is depressed which lights green 'cue' lights on each wall of that
studio. (In the studio the actors know to look for it because their
loudspeaker goes silent as the knob is turned).
(It was at this desk that I later directed the
"Adventures of Richard Hannay" series.)
When actors are supposed to be in a large room
or hall part of
the sound will be diverted through a stone-walled basement room
containing only a loudspeaker and one microphone - an 'echo room'.
When they're supposed to be outdoors the actors cross the corridor to a 'dead' studio -
padded walls - an uncomfortable place.
Scottish Home Service included programmes in the Gaelic
language (spoken of as 'the Gallic'). Sometimes they were
pre-recorded ... reproducing those recordings was the 'Prog. Eng.' task which
scared me most. Recorded programmes were engraved into the lacquer
coating of a series of large metal discs - with overlaps (about 10 seconds at
the end of one disc being also at the start of the next one) so that you could
switch from one to the next during a pause between sentences. (Of which there
is none nowadays ... punctuation,
on radio, like controlling the volume, seems to have become a relic of the past!).
Not 'having the Gaelic' I used to mark the recurring word for
"and" in the script - and move from one "agus" to the next. Not a
foolproof method, of course - one still had to recognise the sounds that
preceded and followed the changeover point. I was once accused by my
colleagues of having played the eight discs of a Gaelic discussion in reverse
order! They were joking. I think.
"Jump cuts" were the stuff of nightmares. Ambitious
Producers could decide to cut a section of speech in the middle of a disc.
Think about that ... you have to mark the 'out' and the 'restart'
grooves with a wax pencil ("dermatograph" it was called - and sharpened to a
chisel shape ... odd how these details come readily to mind, when I
genuinely can't remember what Ann asked me to do 5 minutes ago!)
With your fingers already trembling with nerves you daren't think about how
popping it down into the wrong groove will sound in a million ears! How much easier
became with tape and razor-blades. In this new Broadcasting House no doubt it's
a button-pushing, digital task.
There was a programme of
Bagpipe music every Friday evening - this was the first programme I was
given to do on my own. Bagpipes were designed to inspire troops in
battle - ie outdoors - so they are broadcast from one of the 'dead' studios.
This Piper is tall and serious - so I'm surprised,
on entering the studio, to find the air suffused with the scent of
whisky. My first performer explained: "The bag of the pipes is preserved by
feeding it regularly a wee drop of 'the cratur'".
Day in 1953 is marked by some spectacular 'outside broadcasts'. I am
Producer based in London and am on my way to France to cover a celebration in the
majestic Opera House of Lille - as an example of how ex-pat Britons are
celebrating around the world. As I board the boat-train in London the
Ticket Collector says he has been directed to take me to a
private compartment ... and there, in an opulent sitting-room, is the
bandleader Geraldo, whose orchestra is to play for dancing in my programme.
Gerry says "You heard the news? Edmund Hillary has done it - the
first man to reach the summit of Everest!"
I'm telling you this is that the climax of that evening's concert was to be a
pipe band - that
year's World Champions - the band of the
Glasgow Police Force, led by my friend and namesake Pipe-Major Donald MacLean.
I arranged that the stage curtains would close, the lights would dim, the
sound of the pipes would be heard distantly (this was a deeply
emotional sound for all of us - evoking recent battles and bravery) - and the
curtains would open slowly to reveal the magnificent spectacle of these men in
their tartan finery,
whose music would overwhelm the audience.
Initially all went to plan. As I'd hoped, the distant skirl of the pipes
brought the huge audience to its feet, crowding towards the stage. And
as the heavy curtain slowly rose they were indeed overwhelmed - not just by
the music but by a tidal wave of whisky fumes ... so powerful that laughing
men and women were seen to be stumbling backwards to escape the tsunami!
know that the insignia of a Pipe-Major is a group of inverted chevrons?
Well ... the insignia of a German General was also ... yes ...
a group of inverted chevrons. I heard that Pipe-Major Donald Maclean had
early in the war and his captors, thinking him a General, created a special
Prison Camp for the most senior captured officers and put Donald in charge of
it. I'm told that he proved to be an effective commandant, quietly
helping his very senior protégés with their escape-planning).
Ah yes -
whisky preserves the bags of bagpipes. You do believe that, don't you?
Margaret Drive" (where I worked),
architect was the renowned Charles Rennie Mackintosh,
is to be
converted into the luxury "Hamilton
Hotel" - to open in 2011.
has moved to a new, purpose-built, home, by the river.
In QM Drive, in 1947, one of my
fellow Programme Engineers was Margaret Thorburn, seven years my senior, a
graduate of the Royal College of Music in London and an exceptional pianist.
We became friends. We became husband and wife.
My Mother - Bridesmaid - Mgt's Brother
Me (& my 'demob' suit) - Margaret
My Father - Brother - Sister - Mgt's Mother
(Mgt's Father had died.)
7 years later, in London, Margaret and I became parents.
Our son has many of her characteristics - music in every pore - quiet,
shy - avoiding the limelight - choosing, like his late mother, the very demanding
role of accompanist and teacher. Approaching the age of fifty
Colin quit a high-pay/high-stress job in the computer industry to teach the
guitar contentedly (including in a college where his mother had taught) and to
be accompanist to a very talented young songwriter/singer (www.mm-music.co.uk)
The world of broadcasting was where Margaret
and I met and it remained our shared world until her untimely death three and
a half decades later.
It seems that few of
my friends have been fortunate in enjoying a devoted partnership for all their adult
lives. I have been especially lucky to have two - Margaret for 34
years and Ann for - already! - almost 27. I must be very very old!
Some of my friends enjoyed their National
Service. I didn't. I accepted that the war was necessary but
army life was just too full of frustrations. In volunteering for the new
technical corps I had not known that lacking a science degree precluded my
seeking a commission. So I took pride in becoming a
bright youngsters complex skills.
But. No matter how challenging a
soldier's main task it was decreed that he also had to defend himself.
And therein lay a problem. Teaching my students to think
constructively was difficult when they'd spent the morning learning to react,
unthinking, to shouted commands - like circus animals. A number of
solutions are, of course, obvious. I tried to suggest them to an
experienced Colonel - and got short shrift - "no use a lad being hot stuff
with an AVO-meter if he gets a bullet up his arse." So I spent a
couple of years helping create half-soldier/half-technicians.
Post-war ... I was finally 'demobbed' in 1947 ... I returned
to the BBC in Scotland and was posted to their studios in Aberdeen (as the
sole Programme Engineer there). An early assignment was an 'outside
broadcast' from a tiny church in the remote North. This series of Sunday
morning programmes had developed a few trade-marks, including the pealing of
the church bells behind the opening announcement. The sound of them was
usually picked-up by one of the microphones inside the building.
thought I would emphasise the remoteness of this location by relaying the
sound of the (single) bell echoing across the desolate valley, so I used the
longest cable I had and lodged the microphone in a stone wall high on the
heather-clad hillside. With less than a minute to transmission I checked that the mic was still there in the distance - and to my horror saw it surrounded by a
group of sheep, clearly hoping this intruder was edible. The 'continuity'
announcer in London urged two million listeners to savour the lonely sound of the wee kirk's bell
... and it was just audible among the double-forte grunts and fore-and-aft
sound-effects of ovine digestion.
BBC Aberdeen 1923-2000
A block of flats now
After a year as "Prog. Eng, Aberdeen" I competed for the
'Junior Producer' in Glasgow and got it - at 22 the BBC's youngest producer.
One year during my spell in Glasgow we covered a number of
artistic events in Edinburgh - the first of what was to become an annual
Festival of world status. There was also the 200th edition of
"Workers Playtime" in which I met the legendary Vera Lynn. Many
years later, as we sat in her house in London's Regent's Park, her husband
Harry reminded me of this. Years later still, their daughter Virginia
joined the small team of my radio-jingles company in EMI. She and Ann
became friends and spent weekends as guests of Vera and Harry at their home
near the South Coast. When Ginny left the team she asked if she might
have two of the photographs which hung on Ann's office wall - big prints of
black-&-white photos with which I'd won prizes in a national competition.
One was of a very wise-looking owl looking down his beak at the world and the
other of someone's cat. "The Owl and the Pussycat" said the
imaginative Ginny ... something that, I confess, had not occurred to me.
One of Britain's first radio "Soap Operas" had started in
Scotland in 1939 and by the time I became a producer in Glasgow it was hugely successful. Archie P.Lee,
after 10 years of producing every Saturday evening episode (no pre-recording),
wanted a change and I was asked to take it on. It was set in a typical
Glasgow downmarket 'tenement' and the characters spoke a broad Glaswegian
dialect. Each character was named after a fabric! Molly Weir
played "Ivy McTweed" and Rikki Fulton was the Rev David McCrepe. The series was the creation of
the formidable Helen W. Pryde and was called "The McFlannels".
It migrated to TV after I migrated to London in 1953.
If you play YouTube's samples of
The McFlannels you will immediately sense Rab
One of the best radio-writers I've ever come
across was called Edward Boyd. He wrote an altogether more intelligent,
more astringent drama in Glasgow-dialect called "Doon the Watter" (the
annual paddle-steamer excursion down the Clyde to Rothesay). I produced
it and a follow-up ... and have regretted ever since being unable to further
the career of that brilliant creative mind. His wife Kate was a talented
artist. Like several others of our friends, Eddie & Kate seemed happiest
when living apart (and behaving like sinful lovers). Occasionally I look
wistfully at a simple line drawing (a female nude) which Kate gave me after
I'd recognised it as her work in a magazine called "Men Only". It
was Eddie and Kate who heard that Margaret and I were trying to find a flat to
rent in London and gave us the address that became our home in Hampstead when
Colin was born in 1954.
I brought Rikki Fulton to London to present "The Joe Loss
Show" and he became as popular throughout the UK as he already was in
Scotland. When Margaret and the baby came home from the maternity ward
it was Joe Loss's very kind wife Mildred who arrived at our "garden flat" (ie
basement) with the most upmarket of prams for him. We couldn't afford
anything as expensive and I worried (after the bribery scandals that had
preceded the current regime at Aeolian Hall) that anyone would discover the
source of this luxury. (Later, when I was responsible for the BBC's
popular music output I repeatedly returned, with thanks, cases of wine or
Scotch, until this message was generally accepted.)
Two other of my Glasgow programmes come to mind
from that period: In "The Guid Scots
Tongue" each broadcast dealt with a different regional dialect.
It was scheduled to be a series of 13 ... but, it being popular and there
being sufficient subjects, it ran for a year! I recall introducing two
farmers to each other - one from Ayrshire in the South-West and t'other from
Aberdeenshire in the North East - who found it impossible to communicate with
each other - in mid-20th-century their vocabularies still had almost nothing
in common! We have moved a long way from that situation - speech has
been homogenised. Many will say it has been Americanised by the media in
which I have worked.
The other Scottish series was the first one
expressly for teenagers ("The Young Idea"). My only memory of it
is a feature on Gliding as an introduction to flying. I asked the Chief
Instructor of Scotland's biggest Gliding Club to emphasise the safety measures
- to reassure nervous parents - which he duly did. Thankfully it was not
TV - the poor man sat in the studio with his neck encased in plaster, the
result of a launch in which the engine on the winch had stalled - it was an
ex-service barrage-balloon truck.
Inevitably this was in my mind one day, many years later, in
California's Napa Valley. Ann, an ardent glider-pilot in England, was
grumbling about our boring visits to local wine-growers when we happened on a
small airfield with several parked gliders. She disappeared eagerly in
the direction of the club-house. Minutes later she and a young man
(looking to be still in his teens) emerged - she to install herself in a
glider, he to hitch a towline to it then climb into an elderly plane (the
'tug'). As she later agreed, in England a lengthy safety-procedure would
have ensued. Not now. As soon as the towline was taut the plane
revved-up and my heart missed a beat as I realised they were taking-off
downwind! The pair of them cleared the woodland at the edge of the field
and rapidly climbed until they were a single dot in the distance. The
tug soon returned, leaving me to sweat in the car, composing a painful message
to Ann's parents reporting the demise of their wilful daughter. In due
course she returned, made a perfect landing - and to this day recounts that
flight with a wistful sparkle in her big eyes.
In Blog Nr 2 I described the risky "pointers-only" experiment
which helped my production of "The Adventures of Richard Hannay" achieve a record audience.
The business of "Audience Measurement" links that, the first big challenge of
my broadcasting career, with the hugely ambitious (and much riskier) experiment
I initiated at the other end of my 29 years with the BBC ... a story for another
father hated radio and could not wait for television to be invented
- so he could hate that too."
Peter de Vries
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