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Dennis Montague

Dennis Montague when he was a camera supervisor at BBC North

I worked in the studios at Alexandra Palace on a camera for a short time (in 1946) and then they wanted people for OBs and the sort of permanent people at AP, the sort of  pre-war bods who had come back there, they didn’t want to go on OBs, but OBs sounded a bit more exciting to me. It was too claustrophobic for me …. studios….. too static really, although it was very interesting. I enjoyed doing cameras and things there, but they’d got the OB units at Alexandra Palace at the time. This was long before they were moved to Wembley. I was living at the time at Morden. I had to come all the way up on the Morden line to Alexandra Palace, so eventually, although we hadn’t been married long, we moved, to get a bit nearer to AP and it was a lovely spot there, a wonderful spot.

On the old scanner, the Engineer in Charge was Harry Newman. Harry Newman was just like a working man. There were no airs and graces about him, but no sort of subtle nuances either, bless his heart. Vic Hawkeswood was virtually the engineering head if you like. Harry Newman was a sort of titular head you know from a discipline point of view and the chap who would delegate things, but Vic was the chap who had the engineering knowledge and there was Ken Chalk, I think, on the unit. Vic Hawkeswood lauded it like the Head of the Mafia you know. He virtually despised these rookie camera bods you know, who, as far as he was concerned, had no engineering knowledge or anything like that. There was a crowd of us. There was Stan Parkinson, Bill Wright and two or three others. Jock Beatson was one. He was on the unit. He was one of our lot really and I used to get on with him fine. I was about the only one who did. He was very rude to everyone.  And now you’d got a lot of young cameramen in, Harry Newman used to control them rather like the chap at the circus you know …. a sort of ringmaster. My first instructions when I was put on a camera there…. he’d come to me as if he had given me the Holy Grail and he’d say “You’re on a camera today…. Don’t make a bloody balls of it” and the others probably got similar encouragement you see!

We were doing a programme at the White City in London, it was the old scanner, the one like a bus with the monitors at the far end and Jock Beatson, right down that far end out of the way. And there was going to be an appointment at eleven o’clock and Prince Philip was going to inspect the scanner. The Engineer in Charge was Harry Newman and he would stand at the back, where the conductor was on the old fashioned buses, awaiting Prince Phillip. In the meantime, we had two riggers … one was called Darky, although he wasn’t black and I forget the other’s name, but they’d been doing  this for years and years. They were mates. They were hovering about near the scanner, They wanted to see what Philip looked like I suppose. Well, Phillip duly arrived on time, the EiC in his nice clean shirt ready to receive him and just at that psychological moment, Darky produces a camera and says to Phillip “Please Sir. Do you mind if I take a photograph of you?'” Well, the engineer in charge nearly exploded …..and Phillip did something that was wonderful. It was the right thing to do and I wonder how many people would have done it. He said to Darky “Why not come up here with me, give the camera to your mate and he can take both of us”. I thought that was terrific …. to do a thing like that off the top of your head and also to ameliorate any wigging that the rigger might get from the chap in charge of the scanner ….and everything went smoothly.

There was a new scanner coming along and then there was a sort-out. The old units were still using these sort of bird-cage tubes (Emitrons), which were kept in a huge sort of rabbit hutch sort of attachment to keep them suspended and not touching anything. At this time of course, there was a lot of progress being made behind the scenes and news of different tubes coming out. There was a Pye unit for instance (MCR 3). Basically, the old pre-war cameramen used the old units and I know we used to have a great competition to get the third camera, which was just a normal standard Emitron camera, you know, whereas the others were Super Emitrons. When we heard about the new unit coming out of course we were much more attracted to being on that than to being on the other old thing. The chap who was in control of the new one was a chap called Hatcher, one of the nicest blokes who was ever put in  charge of a unit. He was a very understanding chap ….. understanding enough to let me ride on his pillion to some of these OBs …… a very steady bloke and very even handed with everybody. So, there we were with two units, one old and one new with loads of problems to be sorted out on it. This was the era when if something happened, you’d just got to find it, you’d got no relation to something else….. it wasn’t a repeat of something that had happened before.

The first big break for us came when, having been the lowest strata of the engineering unit for about a couple of years, it became evident, that the people the producers most wanted to see, were the cameramen and the chief cameraman of course had quite an amount of power. He could decide who would go on each camera ….. not the head of the unit, but the chief cameraman. Consequently the status of the cameramen grew. We were established and the actual term ‘cameraman’ came out for the first time. Before then we had been ‘UT’….. ‘under training’ and we’d been unestablished for two years. Then of course, we got a pay rise, but better than that we got status and of course as things progressed the cameraman’s work was more identifiable as to how good he really was, than a chap who does his general engineering. As everything was live, if a cameraman was no good or if he made a lot of mistakes, his reputation would go up and down like a thermometer and this was a sort of weeding-out process, because you imagine the engineering difficulties of getting certain pictures, getting into a promising position and have it spoiled by a chap going out of focus or panning badly or something like that you see.

The other big thing came with the advent of the zoom. The future of the zoom lens was really decided at Ascot, as far as outside broadcasts went. This was the biggest test they would ever have. I was the cameraman and I was lucky. It was a fine day and the pictures would have been good with any camera, but we needed it especially for the zoom. At Ascot, the Queen’s carriage procession starts about a mile back from the winning post in Windsor Park and this is followed right down until the royal coach comes into the unsaddling enclosure and normally would require at least four or five changes of lenses to do it. To try and do this on the zoom was the really ultimate trial and I was able to take them coming from the distance and right  through to what would have been a medium shot and then down, in a long continuous pan and then right into the royal enclosure and I was so positioned that I had the Queen in close-up to finish the pan. The people in the scanner went mad. It was the first time it had ever been done. It was like an optical miracle. Peter Dimmock went crazy. He said “We’ll buy a dozen of those!” Everybody was in raptures about the thing and it was then of course that all the bidding started with the optical companies about the zoom. Peter Dimmock wanted originally to buy them because he said “It means we can just have one camera and we can do a whole match”, which is ridiculous really because you would want to enhance the thing by having zoom lenses in every conceivable camera position you could man. Peter Dimmock was the dynamo of his production team. If Peter Dimmock wanted them, they got them. The head actually was dear old Lobby…… a wonderful bloke. Anyway, the zoom trial was a great success and it enhanced the future. It was seen by millions of people and it was unbelievable. Its nothing now, but then, it was like a miracle, but a lot of work had gone into all that beforehand. So, when you are ordering a unit and the optical companies are vieing with each other over who is going to get the contract for the zoom and this that and the other …… these I think were considerations for a long time, but the first zoom that was produced was a very heavy thing and the difficulty was being able to operate it and to give your signals as well and to do the panning and everything. We tried out the smaller zooms on places like the Garrick Theatre.  Hedley Vergais and I were the first I think to use them in a theatre. All these were front page news in the papers.

At the beginning I know there were Cook’s Lenses …. some of these names don’t appear anywhere now ….. Dallmeyer’s.  I actually went to the firm of Dallmeyer’s and there were a couple of others (Watson, Taylor-Hobson). It wasn’t sufficient just to be able to produce the zoom. You’d also got to add to it an easy way of manipulating it. I mean at one time the cameras were so heavy, one of the most important things was to get the counterbalance right and of course the other visual point I didn’t mention was, in the days of the old cameras, you had parallax trouble because you might have a 619 lens in the taking side and in the viewing side they couldn’t afford another 619 lens. In that side, you had a viewing glass in there and you had an image the size of a postage stamp, which is actually upside down!  And of course as you’d got parallax trouble, it wasn’t an absolute thing. You had to mark the viewing glass where it would be for certain stages. This was upside down and you had to have an eye like an eagle, so when the electronic viewfinder came out, the modern version like a little television set, everything was making the cameraman’s job much easier all the time. Some of the earlier stages were fraught with a lot of physical difficulties you see.

We worked a number of days on the Coronation and one of the rehearsals was taken by the Duke of Norfolk, who is the number one Duke in the land besides royalty and this was a full dress rehearsal. The Queen wasn’t there of course. The important thing was the iron will with which the Duke of Norfolk took this dress rehearsal. He was going to make sure everything was right. I remember some poor tottering old earl having to do the retreat from the Queen, or whoever was standing in for the Queen and although the steps were wide, they had to go backwards very slowly about half a dozen steps and this bloke kept on stumbling and messing it up a bit and Norfolk really set about him you know really barked at him and made him do it and do it and do it until he got it right. The thing about the staging was, the Ministry of works had done a whole stage at the back. It was important that when the place was going to be emptied, you had areas that emptied so that you didn’t get one huge crowd like a football crowd going out and on each staging you had to have toilets and things and ours was ‘peers’ and ‘peeresses’ and I thought all the time I was there if I’d got the guts to put a little hyphen between the two ‘e’s …. ‘pe-ers and pe-eresses’.

There was just enough room for the cameras. Bryan Wilkes was the other cameraman and we were set way up high. I think I did the crowning and Bryan did the close-ups. We varied shots, but each had specific shots and Peter Dimmock, who was the producer on this….. John Vernon did all the mixing …. and Peter Dimmock said that the cameras should be virtually invisible and we must be invisible too. We were in a place where they might see our arms or anything like that so he decreed that we must have shirts the same colour as the stone, which was grey, so Bryan Wilkes and I went down to Austin Read’s and we bought a couple of silk shirts each…….. grey silk shirts ..… gorgeous! Then when we got back and stuck the bill in, the engineering people wouldn’t pay for them. They said …. “Well, take them to Peter Dimmock”, which we did and Peter paid for them (laughs). I was out of favour on that by my colleagues because Peter Dimmock had picked me out to do an interview with Huw Wheldon (BBC Publicity Officer, later Managing Director, Television), who interviewed me on the steps of Broadcasting House. They had cameras and what-not there and they wanted a story for the Coronation and the story in the end was ‘the eyes behind the camera at the Coronation belong to …….’ and they did a long column in the News Chronicle and this was read out at my retirement too …. to my embarrassment. But of course, there were so many cameras involved that I didn’t want the publicity, because as I said at the interview “This is a whole team effort. Its just a piece of luck that I happen to be the one on the crowning”, because ….I was Senior Cameraman …. there were only three or four Senior Cameramen in the whole of England ….. there was Bill Wright, Sac Coleman I think and one other. Perhaps I was the only Senior Cameraman in the Abbey, I’m not sure, but I had a terrific piece written about me, and of course, when it came out and the others read it, I wasn’t very popular, but I mean, I could hardly refuse to do it.

We were on the the first OB unit to leave London. It was funny, because we were in London and we were scheduled to move our base to Sutton Coldfield (in the Midlands) and everybody thought it was a coalfield. They thought it must be a dreadful place …. a coalfield and nobody had ever heard of it and you know the pictures that people in the south have of coalfields and mines and nobody really wanted to go. It was a terrific gamble, but in point of fact, although you lost a lot in a sense by leaving London, it was the most wonderful adventure, because …. you went up there… had no technical requirements to see what they did last time …. where they put the cameras ….  where they put the sound links and all this. You had none of that. Everything was fresh and it provided wonderful opportunities for people who had ideas. We had wonderful receptions of course. We were out on the road most of the time. We were in the Midlands and the North basically and of course  in places like Blackpool for conferences and things.

I remember, we did a programme in Birmingham and the chap who was the Engineer in Charge of the Midland Region ….. a very nice chap….. but I remember him coming up to me and recommending one of his staff would make a very good cameraman and he introduced me to him and he said to the chap “Now, see if you can pick up that camera”. They are very heavy and the chap struggled, but he did it and the EiC said to me “There you are. He’d make a wonderful cameraman” …not as a joke I’m sorry to say …..  there wasn’t one! (laughs)

I was Senior Cameraman of course for many years and it was very useful having been a cameraman to move on to be an OB Stage Manager, because I  appreciated a lot of things that didn’t come immediately to hand unless you’d had the sort of camera knowledge as well, like whether a thing was feasible or impossible.

The programmes I liked doing ….. we had a music producer who really was a first rate producer. We did concerts and things with him and I worked with him whenever I could. Anyway, we were doing this programme at the Halle and I was in the wings at the Free Trade Hall, dressed for the occasion and we were doing the Brahms 2nd Piano Concerto. I can’t t remember the name of the pianist. He was one of the old school and he wore a pair of gloves and I was with him while the overture was playing and he’d still got his gloves on you see and he was very serious in everything he did. He was listening intently to every note of the overture and then he waited for my signal for him to go on and he left his gloves on right till the last moment and I said “Don’t forget your gloves” and he gave me a smile and took his gloves off. Then he went to the the piano and he got a terrific ovation and everything was going fine. We’d got the link going.  Everything in the garden was lovely and he’d got to the sort of cadenza bit in the slow movement of the Brahms Piano Concerto, which is a beautiful piece and he’d got his eyes shut and he was immersed in the music and suddenly a voice came like a laser in my head saying “We’ve lost the link …….stop him!”  “Well”, I thought, “this chap will die of shock if I don’t do this carefully” and so I went on to the stage and gave a signal to Barbarolli, who was very quick on the uptake on all those things. He had experienced many of these debacles before!
I didn’t say anything to the audience at that stage. Then I went and I put my hand gently on the shoulder of this chap and I said “I’m sorry. We’ve got to stop it” and he looked as if he had just been shot!  It was a good minute before he could get up and then I took him back into the wings,  I explained to him quickly and then I had to go and explain to the audience of course, you see, who probably thought “What’s he stolen our pianist for?” and the pianist was very quiet and Barbarolli was talking to him and easing him up you see.  This is like somebody having their head cut off in the middle of a performance…… the expression and the feeling…… well, the line to London had to be restored and this that and the other, because they always tried to get a backing recording on concerts and things. At last we were ready to go again, but before then of course we had to do the link right. I had to get Barbarolli just finishing the overture with the orchestra and get everybody clapping. And then came his moment and I ushered the pianist in and everything was going fine and I was glad he’d settled in and then he started the slow movement and I saw … he didn’t turn round and look at me … but I saw a little movement of his head (at the point) where I had interrupted him and he sort of nodded! If I’ve got respect for anybody in television, its for musicians and the way they deal with the pressures that are put on them.

I actually remember doing an insert when I was either in London or in Newcastle….. just a little insert into a music programme. Somebody had just won a music competition and they’d informed this chap that he would be on this programme this particular evening and he’d told them what piece he would be playing and of course he’d been practicing this thing and got it off pat and then, just before the chap was due to come on, they said “The programme’s running a bit long ….err…. has he got something which runs a couple of minutes shorter,” and I thought  “I’m damned if I’m going to ask him that at all ….I’m going to let it run. It goes against my grain that”. So…… the next programme had got to find an excuse for starting late, you see.

Talking about inserts, this is funny. It was in the studios in  Manchester and it was an insert into the Nationwide programme. They’d had a report from Bradford that some chap had complained to the council about the water coming out of his tap and when they’d examined the water in Bradford, there were creatures actually in the water, you could see them in the glass, and this chap, wanting a bit of publicity I suppose, had got in touch with the BBC and London had told us to go and get this bloke and this thing, which he’d got in a jam-jar now and bring it to the studios in Manchester. I was the stooge who was waiting for them to tell me when this insert was going to be of course, they didn’t know at the beginning. So, in the meantime we’d got this thing in a glass like this on the table and we’d got a lighting engineer and his chums and there was such fiddling about ..… you know ….”lets have it over here….oh no, if we do it that way we’ve got a reflection” and …… faffing about like this for about ten minutes and then, they were giving us a time. “We’ll be with you in five minutes”. That’s fine you know….. sort of ….clear the decks…… get everything ready for a good start and then …..the lighting engineer said “You know, it’s wrong that glass ….. I’ll just have another go” ……. and he goes ……and…. somebody knocks it over .….. and the whole lot goes on the floor! .. (laughs). Right, I said, ” Go along the corridor and get some more water ….. half fill the thing” and in the meantime we were getting up bits …. off the floor and when the bloke was back with the water, we got the glass and put the bits in and it looked as if it had half a ton of animals in it and there was no time to filter any of them out or do anything. They were on us in a flash and there was this story going out about how it had all come out of his tap and he was telling us all about it. He was telling us how bad it was, and his eyes popped out of his head when he could see what we’d got there in the glass. Oh, it was a scream …. in Studio N this was …….!

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