Barbara (Bimbi) Harris

Barbara (Bimbi)
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Interview Date(s): 
30 Aug 1989
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The third voice on the tape is John P. Hamilton



Barbara Harris: BECTU Interview Part 1 (1989)


The copyright of this recording and transcript is vested in the BECTU History Project. Barbara Harris was interviewed by Roy Fowler with John Hamilton on 30 November 1989. 

1. Early television cameras and vision mixers

RF: Was the next thing into television?

BH: Yes, into television. Television started in 1946 and I with a lot of the others applied to go over. We were accepted and of course we went over before the studios opened. In those years we had two studios, A and B. One was Marconi and the other was Baird. We did a week in each studio. So we used to have to learn both systems of course. And I did all the jobs. I used to be on sound, on the floor.

JH: Were you the first woman to operate a camera?

BH: I was the first to operate a camera that's right, then it was upside down and back to front. They were a very short of cameramen in those days.

RF: They were the old Emitron cameras.

BH: That's right, but I did every job. The BBC were very good to me because I was a vision mixer and I said after two years well I have learnt that, what can I do now? Then I was put onto sound and the boys used to be devils and send you up the high ladders, to watch you go up and things like this.

RF: So you went to AP [Alexandra Palace] as a vision mixer?

BH: That's right, they were very, very early days

RF: Tell us about the equipment and the techniques in 1946. You went there before the station went back on the air

BH: That's right and we had a little training period. In A, the control room was up a very narrow little iron-clad staircase, up to the first floor and it was all open and there were racks below you. You had to always preview a camera so that racks could adjust it before you could take it. When you had very fast sequences, you used to call down to racks, 'Coming up, 4, 3, 2, 1' and they would know which order it was coming up, so they could preview it. Because you were wanting to take it as soon as it was up, because the director wanted that particular picture up. But the directors then of course knew nothing about the technical side. People like George More O'Ferrall, if things went wrong he used to put his head down and burst into tears and then come up again and said 'It's still going on'. Of course we would be ploughing on with our script and the artists would be going on, and it would still go on. There was a lot of that. I can't remember the director who was one camera. He used to have all his artists come to one camera.

RF: A stationary camera you mean?

BH: A stationary camera, and he did a whole scene on one camera.

RF: George was very fond of long shots.

BH: Yes, but this one would only use one camera, and all the artists would be rehearsed to come in to position like this. And there was another one, Harold, he used to have the same set whether it was a little suburban two up and two down or a grand palace, because the entrances and exits were same, therefore he knew his camera angles you see, it would just be if clad differently.

RF: What were the capabilities, as far as I remember there were three cameras in B and four in A, is that right

BH: That's right.

RF: What were the capabilities of the system, you could cut, could you dissolve?

BH: No, not really, no we couldn't.

RF: You could just fade out and fade in again.

BH: Yes.

JH: You couldn't mix, one to another.

BH: No, not the very early days, it was a little while before we could mix, very frustrating.

JH: I thought because of racks again, presumably your preview before you took was because they had to ride the camera with each individual shot.

BH: That's right and it held things up desperately, but there you are, that was the rules of the time. And a great big fug it used to get up there, all smoking in that gallery up there. Of course, one day we were doing an animal programme and a skunk got away and it got into the control room. For days we had this skunk! [Laughter]

RF: What was the personnel of the control room? We have the director who was called producer I think.

BH: He was called the producer in those days, that's right and he had his secretary there, she wasn't called a PA.

RF: But essentially she was the PA, wasn't she?

BH: Really yes.

RF: I can't remember, who was readying shots, was she doing that?

BH: No, I was, the vision mixer was. You had a script and you readied the shots and there was sound...

JH: And TOMs, the technical operations manager, who sat on the end. The equivalent these days of tech supervisor. [unintelligible] Eddie springs to mind, one of the great TOMs.

RF: Who was talking to the floor? Were you the only one with talkback?

BH: No, the TOM used to talk the floor, but I was probably an awful nuisance when I used to shout across the producer's mike. Producers tended to be a bit slow in those days, they may be artistically beautiful but on the techniques they had no idea you know, so to hurry up a cameraman I would shout over.

2. Technical breakdowns

BH: I did a play with Rudi Cartier, there was Peter Ustinov on the floor. We just started and the king pin went on one camera and of course they were very anxious in those days to go into breakdown, it was all live of course. So I said to the boys on the floor, 'Are you with me and I'll guide you through'. And they said 'We're with you', and the TOM shut up, we didn't go into breakdown. We did an hour's play with me reshuffling the cameras, I said 'Take over so and so shot, take...' I was having to talk them all the way through an hour's show but we got through it. And Rudi Cartier proposed to me at the end of that. [Laughter] That was a nice touch.

JH: You refused him.

BH: I refused him. It was quite a sweat, but anything to go into breakdown, because it was so annoying if you had to go into breakdown routine. It would probably be half an hour mending a king pin on a camera and getting it going again. But they were very good, the crews.

RF: That phrase going into breakdown, expand on that.

BH: Well they were always having technical breakdowns, particularly on a Sunday because Sunday morning we used to have to go in and clean the equipment. And the girls in particular, we had little sort of dustettes, and we used to have to go and blow the dust out of the equipment. We often came in nice clean blouses. And I thought I'm not going to get my blouse dirty, so I would take my blouse off, go up the racks in my bra and blow out the equipment. [Laughter] And of course once you'd done that there would be problems, so once you started on the air, things would breakdown. Of course it was the main evening, there would be an opening announcement, a news and then the play and then the closedown, and that would be it.

RF: Didn't it occur to someone to clean the equipment on a less important day?

BH: Always Sunday morning.

RF: Something very English about that.

BH: I know, extraordinary isn't it.

RF: What was the routine when a camera or piece of equipment went? I remember the panic caption because it was on the air half the time.

BH: That's right, you'd go into breakdown and then the engineers would rush out, all in their long white coats and pull the camera to bits. They didn't have replacements, they had to mend them you see

RF: There was a pre-recorded announcement too that always went on, did it not.

BH: And little films of course.

3. Sexism

BH: When I went on cameras, I was very resented. I was sent to Coventry, the boys so resented me they wouldn't tell me a thing.

RF: Let's analyse that now because it's almost inconceivable that a woman would come up against this kind of opposition, I mean still in some areas, in some trades and professions.

JH: Strangely enough still with cameras particularly.

BH: Yes, it was very strong.

RF: Tell us about your memories of this in detail.

BH: There were two boys doing telecine and they said 'Alright if you're keen to do it, you go and do it'. So the two boys went and I was left on my own. I had no idea how to thread it up, no one told me, I put it in upside down, inside out, every conceivably wrong way until I worked it out for myself, because nobody would tell me.

RF: This is on the air.

BH: Oh yes, but you see nobody would tell you anything

RF: I'm very curious why management as we fondly call it, would permit a situation like this, were they aware of the situation?

BH: Well, I think after I had done 2 or 3 faults they were aware of it, but by the time they came down, I said it's alright I've got it now.

RF: But previously they'd said right you can go to telecine, expecting it all to be very straight forward

BH: That's right, if you want to do it you do it. So there we are all the faults happened.

RF: Did you ever try to analyse the problems those poor lads had in their attitude, was it job fear, what was motivating them?

BH: Well, you see there were so few of them immediately and it was as they were coming back from the forces, they came back from the forces and found their jobs occupied by females. So there was great resentment, I mean they'd been away to fight for their country and they wanted to come back to their jobs. I could understand the reason, it was very understandable.

RF: That is understandable. So it wasn't really specifically against women so much as people who'd been there during the war and they happened to be women.

BH: Possibly. That's right.

RF: But there must have been a component to it also of anti-female, anti-women in jobs.

BH: I think so, because there was a great feeling you should go home and look after the home, it never occurred to them that you had to earn a living to keep a child. 

JH: I remember feeling resentful when I came back from the RAF. I wanted to go back to Bush House, because I had been quite happy there on the few occasions I'd been attached there and strangely enough nearly all the SMs at Bush House were ladies, there were very few fellows there. I couldn't get in there so I was posted out to Aldernant, Latin American service and move out to Edgware, live in digs and all sort of things. I loathed them. I could have strangled the bloody lot of them if I'd had the opportunity just to get back, so I can understand.

BH: I can understand them too.

RF: And you got the same resistance when you went onto camera.

BH: Well not the same, I think somebody did tell me how to line up. It was necessary for racks, for me to cooperate with racks, to line up so they had to give me a little bit of information.

RF: But they still gave you treatment.

BH: Yes, in the canteen I had to sit on my own, they wouldn't let me sit at their table

RF: That's outrageous.

BH: It was outrageous, yes.

4. Lining up the old Emitron cameras

RF: Tell us about lining up those old Emitrons.

BH: Well you had the ground glass screen and you had your test card ahead and of course it was upside down and back to front. 

RF: It was an optical system wasn't it?

BH: Actually on line-ups it didn't affect you but you always had to think about panning the opposite way and tipping the opposite way, tilting, you know you always had to think opposite to your eye.

RF: But the cameraman's viewfinder was an optical system, not an electronic system?

BH: No absolutely ground glass.

RF: Was it reflex, was it through the lens or through another lens?

BH: No, through the lens.

RF: Was there a separate lens?

BH: No.

RF: So there must have been a little prism or something.

BH: No confirmation, it was just odd. But after you had been say on a play and you had been working on it all day, when you came away you had to adjust your eyes because you were the wrong way round. And then you would see an artist and say I didn't realize you had that tie, or something because it had been at the bottom of a picture or something like that.

RF: How rudimentary was the equipment?

BH: Very. When I did tracking, I used to track Friese-Greene who was rather a large gentleman and we had a crab, a 3-wheeler, electronic. He used to do track in, and I'd go in, and then there would be the artist and my feet would hold onto the floor and stop it going, with all my weight, because there was no other way, I thought 'God we're going to crash', it was quite terrifying actually. He would say faster, faster, faster, faster. And I knew you had to stop the thing. And then the TOM used to say at the top there, 'Sshh, sshh', because I was making a noise, scraping along.

RF: The complement of cameras in studio A, there was that rather curious crablike, triangular dolly. One was a highly fixed pedestal camera, was it 1 or 2?

BH: I think there were 2 pedestals, and then there was the one that went up.

RF: And absolutely immovable on air weren't they?

BH: That's right.

RF: What was the remaining camera on, I can't remember, was it a dolly? 

JH: Debries were early weren't they? The Mole Richardson iron men were contemporary, I remember seeing them at Lime Grove certainly.

BH: They were very unwieldy and very heavy and difficult to manoeuvre. 

JH: They didn't have universal wheels [unintelligible] point in any direction.

RF: One could only move them off air there was no pedestal camera.

BH: It was great physical strength, enormous physical strength, which of course they warned me about, because I was a long time just clearing cables and tracking before I was ever allowed to get to a camera. That was your job, clearing cables, particularly when you used to go out into the garden to be rescrapped - Alexandra Palace, to do the gardening show and of course it was my jobs to get the cables out there, miles of cables.

RF: Did you do more distant OBs [Outside Broadcasts]?

BH: There weren't in those days, only really the length of the cable.

RF: No, they had some trucks, they had the OB trucks. They had them since the Coronation.

JH: They did the Derby, the Cup Final.

BH: Did they? I wasn't on them then. They used to take the cables down to the racing down below at Alexandra Palace

RH: I never worked on them either.

BH: But they were only the length of the cable.

JH: And then fed them back to the studio.

BH: That's right.

JH: No OB unit.

5. Alexandra Palace

RF: Did you have any inkling of the size that television would grow to, because I certainly didn't? The way it would take over the world.

BH: None at all. It was very exciting of course, and in I think it was 47, the great winter of the snow, it closed down, for a month it closed down? You couldn't believe that television could close down, it just closed down for a month, absolutely incredible. 

JH: There was a huge problem with transmitters of course then, there was with radio.

BH: Yes, that's right.

RF: You mean during the winter?

BH: It was a very bad winter and a lot of snow.

JH: [unintelligible]

BH: I think things couldn't get up the hill I suppose to Alexandra Palace.

JH: No indeed. It was largely food and stuff, I had two friends who worked on the northern transmitter then and they were snowed in. They didn't move for weeks on end and the food ran out, the water, they were melting snow out of the window to survive, ridiculous situation.

BH: Actually the only time, you asked me about leaving the studio, I did leave the studio for the Olympic Games, that was 1948. There were no toilets for women and there were two of us and we used to have to go and stand guard while the other one went in, it was a bit chronic and stifling.

RF: They had taken the studio equipment out to wherever it was, was it Wembley?

JH: No, White City.

BH: Yes.

RF: So they weren't using the OB units.

BH: No, they built special shacks, I expect they wanted more than the original OB units.

JH: We were all roped in, I was at Aldenant [?] but I did some radio on a OB A8, just a feeder position along Wembley Way in fact. My first experience of Wembley in any way whatsoever.

RF: You were talking about the transmitters, I have a very hazy recollection, was there an enormous transmitter hall on the ground floor at AP or is that just my recollection?

JH: No. It was, yes.

RF: Huge and like a Fritz Lang film set. [Laughter]

BH: But these later women we were referring to, who came to us, Elsie and Audrey, they were on transmitters in Daventry or somewhere. 

JH: Yes, up and down the country.

RF: What did they do on transmitters, transmitter maintenance was it?

BH: I suppose so.

RF: So you had to know a little more than OMS law to do that.

BH: We were trained, I was trained a little bit during those early days, but they said that the women out there, particularly the ones who had babies used to put the napkins on the lines to dry them out. [Laughter] They just to accept them with babies didn't they if they wanted them to work. Sorry, I was jumping back.

RF: No, no this is the kind of thing we want.

JH: When did Lime Grove open? For childrens and ... 49? 50? Daphne went there in 50.

BH: I think it probably was about 50

JH: It hadn't been opened very long.

BH: I certainly went there when it opened.

JH: Did you move to Lime Grove?

BH: I moved to Lime Grove, that's right, in that little, tiny, slim studio.

JH: G?

BH: G. That was a skinny one. What the others were like, I can't really remember. I can remember more about Alexandra Palace surprisingly than I do of Lime Grove although I was a long time there, there were long tube rides out to get there.

RF: What have we not talked about, about AP? BH: It was a beautiful situation, these beautiful grounds, these beautiful grassy slopes and the lime trees which the scent was absolutely heaven when you used to go up there. 

RF: A fascinating building

BH: And a long corridor and the canteen at the end.

6. Divide between programmers and engineers

JH: In radio days we used to use, there was a radio studio, the King George V suite with the organ in it and we used to go up there and do Music While He Works with Sandy McPherson and the organists of the period. It was murder because the acoustic was dreadful, absolutely dreadful. 

BH: It's amazing what you'd accept isn't it?

JH: You couldn't get a balance out of anything in there. And Music While You Works and things we used to do there. 

BH: Which I, I believe I mentioned to you the other day which I messed up because nobody told me when I was recording that they specially balanced it toppy to go over the machinery and I thought this is coming much too toppy. [Laughter]

JH: And you put the bass in.

BH: But it only needed a word to me to tell me and I wouldn't have done it. But there was I, 'Oh I don't know what they're doing up there', you know [Laughter].

RF: Was that thoughtfulness or again an attempt to sabotage you.

BH: No, no, it was non﷓communication.

JH: Nobody told the engineers.

BH: Nobody told the engineers it was meant to be toppy.

BH: Lack of communication. I think there must have a lot of lack of communication in those days, particularly because of the big divide between...

JH: The programme side and the engineering side, yes. It was murder, absolute murder, ridiculously so.

JH: It wasn't really solved until the period now you're talking about, 49 and 50, when they combined to become studio management. On the radio side certainly, not so much in television, that broke down the barriers - people came in, programme engineers.

BH: A little bit but I used to apply for every single job for director, or producer as they called it. They'd say 'What you again', and I'd say 'Yes me again'. And I used to go to every single one, every board for years.

RF: Well come onto that, if we can just analyse a moment those attitudes, those barriers, why do you think they existed

BH: I think they came from Reith's [Lord John Charles Reith] day when the engineers were very much working engineers.

RF: So they were the working-class in effect?

BH: They were very much the working-class.

RF: And the programme people were the middle class.

Birnbi Harris: They were in overalls, they were working-class.

RF: So it was a kind of microcosm of class.

BH: Absolutely, absolutely, and I suppose it was the women who helped break it down, because the women used to talk in the canteen and drink in the bar with the programme side and we didn't really think about it only that if we ever wanted to get...

JH: Chatted up by the programme side.

BH: Chatted up by the programme side, that's right.

RF: So who was responsible for it? Were the programme people superior and looking down, patronising the engineers?

BH: I don't think so.

RF: Or was it the engineers being deferential.

JH: There was the old boy bit, a lot of the programme people and the producers were ex-university, whatever

RF: Public school, knew each other.

JH: [unintelligible] started coming in as well, above us. And it was ever thus.

BH: I didn't feel it working, because you see you worked with the programme side. So I was never conscious of it, of any feeling of being put down.

RF: But it was hierarchical.

BH: That's right, I couldn't get across, no way would they have an engineer to go on the programme side, however much knowledge you had and however long you'd worked on programmes.

JH: And you'd never depart from the rules either, it was always 'Hello recording room', now you would say 'Hello Bimbi', because you recognize the voice on the other end, wouldn't you, and they'd say 'OK John, we're standing by, we'll do it'. But it was never that at all, it was very formal.

RF: But the Corporation was, was it not, overall - I mean the way you're telling it, on the one hand individuals were very much individuals, people were people, but on the other hand the ethos of the place was really 

BH: Very divided.

RF: Stiff upper lip, very starchy

BH: Yes, very much so.

JH: Very class conscious.

BH: It all descended from Reith I'm sure. That's the way he thought it should be and that was the rulesand they wanted to keep to the rules.

RF: There is a book, a very long, thick book I suspect, on the influence that man has had on not just broadcasting but on society.

BH: Well broadcasting affected society.

7. Early years of Lime Grove

BH: Well, I was just going to tell you about Christmases at Lime Grove.

RF: Before we get on to Christmases let's talk about Lime Grove because we've made a jump from the AP to

BH: The studios. We all thought they were nice and clean and modem I suppose.

RF: Did you ask to go or were you just assigned?

JH: Did you ask to leave AP?

BH: I asked to go, anything new I asked for. It was always a challenge.

RF: You went there as what?

BH: I went there as a vision mixer.

RF: Was there a mass exodus from AP or did they train up a whole load of new people for it?

BH: There were new people coming in all the time but AP was grinding down to a standstill.

BH: Everything went to Lime Grove. 

RF: And they were buying theatres too weren't they?

JH: The one at Shepherd's Bush

BH: That's right, and the little one at Fulham.

RF: And Riverside at Hammersmith

BH: Sorry, I was going to tell you about Christmases.

RF: Indeed

BH: For the sociological effect. We always had a party which the BBC put out Christmas night. Parties on the air are never successful.

JH: Fatal

BH: I mean from a viewer's point of view it must have been hell but on that particular day we always changed jobs. So a cameraman did sound and a sound man did vision mixing, everybody changed jobs. So from the viewer's point of view it must have been even worse than it was normally. And we were all very happy, we all had drinks around and the producers used to bring in the bottles and keep us going. But we did all change jobs. It was quite traditional, Christmas Day you did a different job. You had no idea what you were going to do.

BH: Yes I mean, the artist used to have these funny games and sports and things that went on in the studio, and they were getting happy too. But it must have been awful for the viewers, it must have been death.

JH: I remember watching them in the early fifties merely for the disasters, the potential disasters. 

BH: That's right. The potential disasters. That's right.

RF: What about the equipment, when did that changed, did the Emitrons stay for the entire length of AP until Lime Grove came along?

BH: Yes. It must have been going to Lime Grove, they began to get new equipment.

RF: And you opened there with Marconi cameras?

BH: That's right. There was a more sophisticated engineering department, real Engineering not like I was, you know superficial. The cameras used to go in for maintenance a lot, there was a lot of maintenance. There was a big maintenance section, it was much more efficient, we didn't break down nearly so much [Laughter].

RF: Well, the cameras were more reliable probably.

BH: The cameras were more reliable.

JH: It was a specialized maintenance unit as well, whereas you did your own originally, programme engineers were suppose to be able to do their own maintenance.

RF: With string and Scotch tape.

BH: It became more professional. And of course our viewers had increased of course. That is when it really started.

RF: The set count is really growing very, very rapidly in the late forties and early fifties.

BH: You hear a lot of people now say 'Oh, I was in the beginning of the television but they mean 55', they don't realise it had been going 10 years before they joined.

RF: Yes from the beginning of ITV. 

8. More on Lime Grove

RF: Do you remember how long each day the station was on the air, there are two stations now, right, they're transmitting now from Birmingham, was it. Was it Birmingham or was it Manchester?

JH: Birmingham was the first one in and then Manchester. They were the principal ones.

RF: Is it still an evening thing?

BH: No, it had begun to expand then. 

RF: Right, into the afternoons.

BH: But I think about that time they did stop the King or the Queen at the end didn't they? At the end of every programme they used to put...

JH: And yes, the Union Jack thing.

BH: That's right and I think it was about that time it stopped wasn't it?

JH: Yes.

BH: Which was quite a relief because the films and were all old and cracked and the sound was awful you know.

JH: It could have been though that a lot of people when we think of names, even our colleagues in ITV recently, Vic Gardiner for example, Don Gale, people like that who had come out of the services, came out of radio. I didn't do that, I stayed with radio until ITV started but many of them came back into radio and then moved into television and became cameramen, senior cameraman and so on.

BH: But they weren't of course, they were very junior cameramen in those days. 

JH: But the Stephen Wades [Stephen Wade] and people were the seniors, the generation before.

RF: Is there any cross-fertilisation, are engineers making the jump now into programming?

BH: Not yet, not yet, no it had to wait until commercial started.

JH: It didn't really happen until ITV came.

BH: There were lots of them who were, young cameramen like Reg Watts, and when I retired and went to visit my sister in New Zealand, there they were head of TV1, head of TV2, these young boys who were little cameramen when I knew them. Good luck to them, they did very well. And Vic Gardiner of course, you see they were all cameramen.

RF: So really nothing much has changed.

BH: Not from those days, no, I think you still worked as hard, you still worked all hours, there was no limit, never any mention of overtime, never any. All my years at the BBC there was never any mention of overtime and you worked colossal hours really.

RF: Is your recollection too that you were still working for a hierarchical masculine dominated organization.

BH: No, I think It felt less and less, you know.

JH: There were many more women, certainly in the Lime Grove era, Daphne was a typical example, production secretary, duty officer and assistant and things and then sideways into television production. And there were a lot of women at Lime Grove.

BH: There were a lot of women at Lime Grove weren't there.

JH: Lots of women producers, an amazing number of them when you think about it, Dorothea Brooking, Pamela Brown, Hazel Wilkinson, 

BH: Mary Adams 

RF: Grace Wyndham Goldie

BH: Doreen [possibly Doris] Stevenson

RF: Caryl Doncaster

JH: Lime Grove when you think about it was a classic place, they ought to put a plaque on the wall, because of that aspect of it - equalisation of men and women. And of course the breeding ground of ITV, basically people like Lloyd Williams and Stephen Wade and others who came in who were recruited from there, without which ITV would not have happened.

BH: I remember Caryl Doncaster, she went to do a show in Russia and she came back with no sound. I think she was demoted or sacked after that and I thought poor woman, because she wasn't a technician, she was a producer, but she had no sound.

RF: What had gone wrong?

BH: I don't know, but it didn't seem to me her fault but I remember the great sadness when she went, because of that.

BH: There was Grace Wyndham Goldie with her young men.

JH: Her young chaps.

BH: She had an entourage of young men, and she used to come into the studio and book hours for rehearsal. She usually had one speaker and she would spend at least an hour fussing about, a flower leaf here, a tablecloth there. You'd think you can't do many more alterations

JH: [unintelligible]

BH: Absolutely, on and on and on and on. You'd fade out and track in and you didn't see any more after that. My goodness she was fussy about that, on and on.

JH: Presumably all the young men were hanging over her shoulder watching.

And BH: That's right, young Michael Peacock and Baverstock [possibly Donald].

RF: This would have been when, the early fifties, mid-fifties?

BH: I should think so, during the 50s anyhow.

JH: 52-53.

9. Experimenting with colour

RF: What kind of shows are you working on, across the board on everything?

BH: Across, the board, you were just scheduled to do anything.

RF: Anything that especially sticks in your memory as innovation? That surprised you or shocked you or horrified you?

BH: What horrified me was the awful wrestling they used to bring into the studio. I used to hate to see that, look out of the window and see them. But then that was just personally me. There were a lot of animal and things in the studio, which we never seemed to have before, people going around with little buckets cleaning up after them.

JH: Ah yes, George Cansdale, the zoo man.

RF: What about big shows?

JH: Yes, there were big plays, big varieties, and you'd take your turn on it, you know

RF: Was there an influx of new producers and directors or was it still the old AP contingent?

BH: No, there were new, you see, as I say Brian Tesler arrived at that period,

RF: He came in as a trainee did he?

BH: They used to come straight from university and originally they used to go down on the floor for 6 months which was very good for them and then they would come into the control room. And then usually the staff would carry them for 6 months, it was almost an unwritten law but if after 6 months they didn't begin to know their job, help was withdrawn and you used to let them get on with it.

Everyone was very willing to help them at the beginning because they had to be helped, they would never have got on the air, however bright their idea was, they would never have got it on the air. And some of them of course fell by the wayside then, didn't they. Of course some did very well and some just never, never, never grasped it, could never cue in the control room, never, never.

RF: How would you describe in a few words being at Lime Grove in those days in the 50s, pre ITV?

BH: In a way we got lazier, in a way there were more staff and you came in and did your job and it was more mechanical. You know you didn't have the enthusiasm that you had in the AP days when you turned your hand to anything. 

JH: The equipment was better though.

BH: The equipment was better and you did your job but I didn't feel there was the excitement of going in.

JH: I think the equipment probably overtook the production staff, didn't it, that's probably why you got slightly bored. I think it happened in radio as well when you got condenser mikes and so on. You could get a better sound out of things, but if the producers hadn't advanced and gave you the opportunity to use your vision mixing panel all over the place, or your faders all over the place, it got boring, it got very boring. Whereas with the primitive equipment you had to fight the equipment all the time.

BH: That's probably what it was, John. They did ask me to design a vision mixing panel which I was quite flattered to be asked, and I did design one with a few extra mixers and things, not the old A, B one. Which they used of course for years and years and years.

JH: Were there any special effects done then, could you split a screen?

BH: No, we were just getting onto fancy mixes and all that sort of thing.

JH: It was the RCA mixer wasn't it, the RCA effects generator that first gave us that in ITV.

BH: And then a bit later on, when we had back projection, we used to have ground picture. I designed a box and to this day they call it the 'Bimbi' box [Laughter]. And people in years' time will wonder what on earth a Bimbi box is.

RF: Tell us about that in more detail.

BH: It is only to put the slides up, because I think it was Michael Yates, head of design, said you're never going to get colour, it was when we were coming into colour. 

I refused to be defeated that I couldn't get colour so I had to have a box that was designed to pick up the colour, to throw the colour on the screen. It was during the Lime Grove days that we were experimenting with colour of course, and I remember Sylvia Peters coming on with the flowers and we used to have to do all the colour, much too bright, much too obvious but the colour was strident in those days.

RF: What was the system, was it an all-electronic system?

Interview with Barbara Harris Part 2

The copyright of this recording and transcript is vested in the BECTU History Project. Barbara Harris was interviewed by Roy Fowler with John Hamilton on 30 November 1989. 

1. Television stars of the 1950s

JH: Arthur Askey had a very long running series.

JH: Yes, the translation of the old bandwagon show, the radio show. I remembered reading a critic once saying Arthur was the first star really who actually fitted the medium.

BH: He was. Was it he who brought Sabrina in? Sabrina was the well-endowed young lady, blond, a great walk on and always brought great... mind you they were starting audiences then too. We didn't have audiences at AP but there were audiences at Lime Grove.

JH: Before Your Very Eyes. It became one of his catchphrases. [unintelligible]

BH: But they were such good troopers, they took a lot of flack, specially on rehearsals because you would go on and on.

JH: They were very good shows, variety shows.

BH: They were good shows. Henry was still doing it, Henry Caldwell.

JH: With Lloyd Williams working with him, Lloyd was the connection into ITV, eventually for many of us.

BH: We used to have the Robinson programmes too.

JH: The Music Show, [possibly Music For You], Eric Robinson shows.

BH: They were very, very popular shows and Eric used to come on. I used to go down in the studio in those days and nearly always it was the same session boys and they used to play 'Hearts and Flowers' to me when I went down there, it was very sweet, different name bands but the same boys, the same session boys, working so hard. You used to get to know them all of course.

2. Migration of BBC staff to commercial TV

BH: Well the BBC boards would always ask you your background, your educational qualifications, of which I had nil and they would note all these down and they would say you don't stand an earthly, that was their attitude, you don't stand an earthly. You have applied, we have to see you but don't expect to join, it was absolute cut off.

RF: Who sat on these boards.

BH: People like Mary Adams and Grace Wyndham Goldie and those people and there must have been official men on them, but I don't really remember them. I remember the women more because I think I used to try to appeal to them, that I wanted to do it, desperately wanted to do it.

Commercial came and of course I was courted by every company, the world was my oyster, I had the choice of it all you know which was absolutely fabulous.

RF: How did they go about it, did they call up, invite you out for lunch?

BH: Call you up, invite you out for lunch and drinks and offered you money. You think, I was earning about £400 a year there and it crept up and it crept up and then someone offered me £1,000 a year and I thought I would never ever get £1000 a year.

RF: Your BBC was £400?

BH: About £400. I was offered this to train and select the vision mixers.

RF: How did people know about you, they had previously worked with you?

BH: Of course. Yes.

RF: And they themselves had been wooed away. 

BH: Of course. I accepted and Rediffusion offered me a £1000 a year and I thought this was absolutely splendid you know and I went over.

RF: What was the reaction at the BBC?

BH: Doreen Stephens immediately offered me a job, I had 3 producers jobs offered, but I said I am sorry I have signed now. Mary Adams offered me a job, Grace Wyndham Goldie and Doreen Stephens - all offered me producers jobs. And I said I am sorry I have signed. And the only one I ever met afterwards was Mary Adams and she apologised. She said I know you tried all those years and I am sorry we did not give you the opportunity and that was the only one who's ever mentioned it. 

But within 6 months I was directing because in the early days they engaged a lot of B film directors, his is commercial and of course the had no idea about continues takes. Within 6 months they said would you like to direct. And I grabbed it. It just went from then onwards. And of course when we had our salaries upped the BBC were terrified because so many people were going across. The people who were left behind said 'Oh no we want security, BBC and all that'. They immediately had their salaries upped. So we felt a bit deflated about that.

RF: Did they ever reach the commercial level?

BH: Oh yes. It took a long time.

RF: The BBC union was then certainly very weak.

BH: Very weak but they did not want more people to go, they were losing left right and centre, they were losing people

RF: The people that Rediffusion was recruiting were they all BBC.

BH: Ex-BBC except for the directors which, they were getting from the film business. And they soon realised that they just could not cope with continuous takes.

RF: Were any people being trained up or not?

BH: Gradually, that came later, but the ones they engaged, they had training sessions down at the studios in Fulham Broadway, going on all the time there. They must have spent a lot of money training. I remember when I was interviewed I think it the Australian man who interviewed me, I can't remember, and he said how many shows had I done. And I said I reckoned I'd done 7,000 shows. So he said I don't think we need to train you. So that was the end of my training there and I was put on training other people of course. So it went from there, we were busy training everybody for every job really. It was almost like the beginning of Ally Pally [Alexander Palace] because there was a great enthusiasm, great training going on and everybody was wanting to get into the act.

3. Early years of Rediffusion

RF: The start up costs must have been huge.

BH: Absolutely enormous, but of course Rediffusion did make a lot of money and it was my bad luck I suppose that I did a lot of panel games, on and on and on.

RF: Anything to tell us about the initial period, the warm-up period as the station approaches coming on the air?

BH: Yes, there were a lot of trial programmes, people had their own ideas of what they wanted and they were allowed to do them. They weren't highly successful and you think someone's been thinking about this for years probably and it didn't seem to gel.

RF: Was there a great difference in attitude between the new bunch and BBC, was it noticeably so?

BH: It was noticeably that we were all the same. Programme and engineering, we were all going ahead, mixing together, although as I say we did mix socially on the BBC side, but everybody mixed from any grade right the way down they all mixed together. All intermingled, all asking people questions of course, the engineering, my side of it, vision mixing were asking production questions, and production people were asking engineering questions, capabilities, what they thought we could do and how advanced we were. Of course we weren't much more advanced than the BBC really, but I think that we were willing to have a go at things, take more chances with things.

RF: Was recruiting any more open would you say, if a lad turned up from the East Ham would he stand a chance? 

BH: Well, there was that lovely, Albert, that lovely Cockney floor manager they had, oh yes anybody, anybody who applied, if they had the capabilities. A lot of them I suppose worked on small radio stations and things like that and they were all applying, it was wonderful. You see Rediffusion was the first, they were the pioneers and they had only been on the air I think 3 months and they realised that they couldn't go on with the staff they had, because they had to have trained staff, so they were falling more back onto the BBC people that had come over. 

And they were pulling the BBC people up to higher grades and we were just very lucky. I consider myself very lucky because I got in and I got there and then I was offered more work and it was a very lucky period. Because they nearly went broke you know after the 3 months, the first 3 months, they lost so much money. I think in fact they even closed down one studio and kept going on one studio because they only had a certain amount of money. It was a very scrimping time. They kept the nucleus of staff there, they got rid of all the ones they had got in from outside and this little nucleus, practically all BBC, ex BBC group. There was one good thing about it because the BBC had a very high standard, very high standard then for their picture quality and their sound quality at the end of the 50s and that high quality came over.

RF: Which rubbed off onto the ITA [Independent Television Authority].

BH: Rubbed off, because I always used to say in those early days the high quality is entirely due to the BBC trained staff and they all wanted to keep this high quality up.

4. More on Rediffusion

BH: I was doing about 5 panel games a week. I had a production assistant and a secretary and they were about...I think there were about 800 and 1,000 letters a week. I think I used to try and read most of them but I used to stamp A, B, C, D for replies on them and the girls would just get out the concrete letter for that. In the end I couldn't even sign them, I had to have a rubber stamp for my signature because there was so much. And then I complained that I was doing so many shows and it was Peter Wills then, and he said 'Yes, I will do something to help you, you can't go on like this, churning, churning them out'. So he put, above me Leslie Mitchell and Colonel de Lisle, Chris de Lisle [no record of this person]. He put those two people above me and they had their secretaries. So not only was I doing 5 panel games a week I was telling them what to do too. And it was absolutely ridiculous because they had no idea what they were put above.

RF: These were night-time shows were they?

BH: Oh, yes.

BH: 7.30 to 8 popular quiz time shows. I was doing What's it All AboutCrossroadsDouble Your MoneyI've Got a SecretThe Unexplained123 Click ﷓﷓ I can't remember what that was - that was all within a month I was doing all those shows.

RF: Were these across the board shows, were they on every night or once a week?

BH: 3 times a week, about 3 times a week. Maurice Winnick, he was doing a lot of the panel games, I can't remember all of them we were doing, John P Wyn...but I was really churning them out. It was a strain for me, a strain for the staff, it was really impossible. No one should really work at that speed.

RF: What sort of schedule did you have, how long a camera rehearsal would you have, any camera rehearsal?

BH: About half an hour to line up the shots, voice level of the panel but not the guests.

RF: In front of an audience?

BH: No.

RF: All studio.

BH: The show had an audience but not the rehearsal.

RF: That's what I mean.

BH: Oh yes the show had an audience.

RF: But in the studio or in a theatre?

BH: No, in the studio, well we did a lot in the theatre, this Fulham Broadway Theatre

RF: That was the Granville.

BH: That's it, Granville, I'd forgotten that name. And then a lot in the studio of course, it was endless, absolutely endless.

RF: Actually, the time you were on the air was the least of the burdens.

BH: Almost, you had to get contestants, you had to get researchers, you had to get questions, it all had to be done.

RF: Do you remember what your budget was for a typical show?

BH: They were probably under a £1,000 because you would pay a guest artist on the panel £20 or something like that. The compere you might pay £50.


Born in London in 1918, Barbara 'Bimbi' Harris started her career at the BBC in 1939 as a trainee recording engineer, at a time when major industries were recruiting women in large numbers to fill vacancies caused by the war. In 1946, when television production recommenced, Harrisapplied to the Alexandra Palace studios and was hired as a vision mixer. She faced some resentment from peers, particularly returning servicemen, but she nonetheless applied for every opportunity to improve her skills.

In the 1950s she trained on the early camera systems Baird, Emitron and later Marconi, and is credited as the first woman to operate a television camera on live television, working alongside directors and producers like George More O'Ferrall and Rudolph Cartier.

In the early 1950s Harris moved to Lime Grove, where her career prospects improved somewhat. It was the era of colour experimentation.  Harris was invited to design a vision-mixing panel which was still in use at Lime Groveby the late 1980s, affectionately known as the 'Bimbi' Box, an ingenious device designed to throw colour onto the screen.

In 1955, Harris left the BBC to work as a director for the new commercial television service Rediffusion. She directed numerous programmes in variety, panel games and drama such as Double Your Money (1955-68), Cool For Cats (1956-1961), The Brighter Sex (1959) and children's drama serial The Old Pull'n'Push (1960). After RediffusionHarris moved to LWT, where she produced and directed light entertainment shows through the 1970s and early 1980s .

Ann Ogidi