Live from Lime Grove: Michael Bond before Paddington Bear
Michael Bond passed away three weeks ago, but when I visited the statue of Paddington Bear at Paddington Station yesterday, it was still an intimate little shrine, festooned with flowers and jars of marmalade. There is definitely a ‘national treasure’ here somewhere, but I’m not entirely clear whether it’s Paddington Bear or Michael Bond. Or maybe a sort of composite of them both?
Although our memories of Michael today are inseparable from the figure of Paddington, there was a Michael before Paddington. When A Bear Called Paddington was published in 1958, Michael was a Cameraman at the BBC studios in Lime Grove. He had been working for the BBC for over a decade, and he would continue to work for them for almost another decade before finally deciding to become a full-time writer.
The History Project interview with Michael, viewable online at http://historyproject.org.uk/interview/michael-bond, focuses on his time at the BBC, not just as a backdrop to his celebrity as the creator of Paddington, but because of the light it sheds on television broadcasting in its early, formative years.
Michael first joined the BBC as a restless teenager. He was 17, stuck in a dead-end job as a solicitor’s clerk, and the War was on. The BBC were advertising for wireless engineers to help construct a wartime network of local transmitters, and he landed a job. This was followed by a period in the RAF in the hope of becoming a pilot, only to find that he got air-sick; followed by a transfer to the Army. But once his service was over, he returned to the BBC where his job had been kept open for him.
His next BBC posting was as an engineer at the ‘listening post’ at Caversham outside Reading, where foreign language broadcasts were monitored. It’s clear from the interview that he found this an interesting time, and that he met a number of ‘colourful characters’ among the refugees and emigrés who worked there. But he was also acutely aware that the BBC had resumed its television service, suspended during the War, and he was keen to be part of it. The problem was that by now the BBC had pigeon-holed him: he had been employed as a wireless engineer, and trained as a wireless engineer, and the Corporation intended that he would serve out his time as a wireless engineer.
Opportunity knocked in the mid-50s, when a cut in Caversham’s funding forced it to shed jobs. Michael was offered a choice between redundancy, or a transfer to some other department, and he seized the chance to move to television. He arrived at Lime Grove just as the BBC was facing up to the challenge of competition in the shape of commercial television. The new ITV network was luring away BBC TV staff with tempting salaries and benefits, but from his point of view this was fine, because it created openings for newcomers like him. He had escaped the prospect of a life sentence in wireless engineering, and could embark on a new course as a television cameraman.
Michael’s descriptions of working life on the studio floor in the 1950s are a treat. Two things stand out for me. Firstly, the sheer hard work of shifting enormous TV cameras, attached to heavy electrical cable which had constantly to be moved out of the way, all of which meant that back problems were a constant hazard among the staff. The BBC doctor was a regular visitor. Secondly, television was a live medium: every image which Michael and his colleagues captured, every camera movement, every zoom-in and pull-out, was broadcast to the audience at the moment of capture. No chance here of “fixing it in post”.
Inevitably there were some hair-raising moments – such as the time when Michael was still a relative rookie, operating Camera No. 4 on a four-camera drama shoot, with the straightforward job of providing a static general view of the set. Then one of the other cameras broke down, followed by a second, and a third, and suddenly Michael was covering the action alone, live, continuously, the sole remaining link between the studio and the audience. He survived.
In the early 60s he moved from Lime Grove to the newly-built Television Centre at White City. By this time he was a Senior Cameraman with a reputation for working on children’s programmes, and a close working relationship with Biddie Baxter, long-time editor of Blue Peter. He recalled that crews “always wanted to do a good programme for her”.
And also by this point, the Paddington books were enormously popular. In 1967 Michael left the BBC and set out on his second career, as one of the most successful and beloved children’s authors of our time.