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Don Mackay with a Marconi Mk 18

Don Mackay with a Marconi Mk 1B 3″ image orthicon camera of the BBC Midlands/North Unit, MCR 10, in 1954

Part of the time that I was with OBs, at the Palace of Arts, having become a very junior cameraman, they required relief crews to go up to Alexandra Palace, which was before Lyme Grove and everything else opened and AP was still using the pre- war cameras, which did not have electronic viewfinders. They had optical viewfinders. In order not to lose too much light, they used a separate lens focussed on a viewing glass. With the bright lights in the studio that were being used at the time, because the tubes were not very sensitive … you had to have very bright lights ….. you required the viewfinder to be as bright as possible and the only way of doing that was to put a single lens on it, which inverted everything rather like when you look in an old fashioned ordinary still camera, where the picture is upside down. We had to follow everything upside down! When somebody walked to their left, in the viewfinder they went to the right, so you had to reverse everything in your own mind. When somebody sat down they actually went up ,….. what appeared to be up towards the ceiling, when you looked in the viewfinder. Surprisingly enough, it took about two or three days to get used to this, but the worst thing was, after three or four months up at AP on relief duties, going back to the electronic viewfinders, which were the correct way up. It then took about three weeks to get used to them, because one continually panned off the wrong way, when you were looking at things the right way up!

The first zoom lens I particularly worked on was when I was an assistant cameraman and the lens was a separate device stuck on in front of the camera. The way film cameramen used them at that time, they had a different operator, so there were two or three people operating a film camera, whereas in television the great difference with an electronic cameraman is that the one man did everything. You focussed, you zoomed, you did whatever there was …. you panned and shifted it round and you didn’t have somebody else to do it for you. This was because you had an electronic viewfinder and you could see everything in it, but when it came to the zooms it was a bit of a problem, because the television cameras were so big in those days, you couldn’t reach round the front and operate the zoom lens and still be in the right position to see in the viewfinder. Jack Gorman, who was my senior cameraman at that time, he operated the camera and when he wanted the zoom to be operated, well we would get the instruction from the director to say zoom in on so and so, he would then pan round on whoever it was and I would stand at the front of the camera looking at an extra monitor which we’d rigged up. The idea that Jack and I had got was that we could do it both ways. I’d watch his picture and I would zoom and when I was starting to zoom I would touch the back of his hand and when I’d finished zooming I would touch it again twice, so that he knew that he had to correct the focus whilst I was still zooming and when I stopped zooming, if I didn’t touch his hand to say “I’ve stopped” he would continue focussing and of course everything would go out of focus. That was only with the very first zoom. It wasn’t too long after that they managed to get remote controls to the back of the camera, so that the cameraman could actually operate it himself, with the mythical third hand that cameramen are supposed to have!

In the early days there was only Alexandra Palace transmitting television. Then Sutton Coldfield opened in the Midlands (Dec 1949) and of course they were the only two transmitters in the country, so then we had to have programmes from Birmingham. It was one of three scanners that were based in London, that used to go up to Birmingham and do the odd programme from there and I was one of the ones who did that on odd occasions. Then they were in the throes of opening the next transmitter, which was Holme Moss. That meant of course that OBs were then going to come from Manchester and during the early part there was an OB unit or units that were at Birmingham or London, then Birmingham and Manchester. When the next unit came into being, it became the Birmingham / North Unit and I came up as a cameraman to Birmingham and lived in Birmingham for about eighteen months. That was the first time we came up here to the North and we would do a week or two weeks in one area, arranging the programmes so that we weren’t continually being in say Newcastle one day and having to be back down at Worcester the next day.
When we came up to the north we might have done something from Newcastle, then from Leeds, then came to Manchester, did something there, then maybe went out to Morecambe or Blackpool and did a couple of programmes there. This meant that we were away from home for anything up to two or three weeks at a time and then we went back down to Birmingham. Once we got to Birmingham, we then did a series of programmes organised in the Birmingham area, doing farming programmes or horse racing or motor racing at Silverstone or cricket from Worcester and that was always organised within a couple of weeks and we did two weeks down there and then back up to the north again. It was great fun travelling around.

The opening ceremony of the Holme Moss transmitter (Oct 1951) continued with the first outside broadcast from the north, which was a variety show that came from Leeds, with Barney Colehan producing. A new act came in at the last moment, because somebody fell out … one of the main stars fell out with a bad throat or something or couldn’t appear for some medical reason, so didn’t appear on the programme and Barney introduced the country to a gentleman called Frankie Abelson, I think his name was and these days you might know him better as Frankie Vaughn. I believe that was his first tv appearance, on that particular programme if my memory serves me right.

We did the Coronation . We covered the Coronation from Birmingham area whilst it was still a Birmingham / North Region Unit, for technical reasons based on where people were before and where they were going afterwards, not because we were the ace unit, although we liked to think it that way. Our unit actually went into Westminster Abbey and did the Coronation from in there and because I was a pretty small bloke … not the smallest, but one of the smallest, was the reason I got one of the positions I had in Westminster Abbey for the Coronation. We went directly from the Coronation to the test match at Trent Bridge. We then did quite a long trip going round afterwards, but mainly in the Midlands and North, doing the City Varieties in Leeds and everything else up there.

I did some helicopter flights. Making cumbersome gear more mobile was an ongoing thing from Wembley onwards and on to Birmingham and then on to Manchester and doing the same sort of things. I then got offered another job. Would I come back down to London, operating with part of the Midland unit and go on a helicopter to do a programme called ‘Saturday Night Out”? That was live. Everything was live in those days. There was no recording. This was the great fun of doing things then. It was all done live and if it got messed up, it got messed up. You didn’t go back and re-do your mistakes. You did it right first time and that was it. I think this gave a great deal of edge to doing programmes. There’s a background feeling nowadays I feel, that with most programmes being recorded, you can always say “Well, if it didn’t work, we’ll do it again” and I think that broadcasting and television lost a bit of edge
when that happened. It’s very difficult to do something that you know is recorded and you know can be repeated and get the same edge to it as when you know there is no chance of doing it again. You know it is ‘one off’ and its now or never. And that was the sort of attitude that prevailed then and we went out to do ‘Now’. There were two programmes, one was called ‘Saturday Night Out’ and the other one was a similar type of programme called ‘Now’ and I was lucky enough to be able to go out on the helicopter, chosen because I was small enough. The helicopter couldn’t take the weight of all the equipment and three people at the same time. There was the pilot, plus Bob Danvas-Walker, who was the interviewer,  the rack engineer and myself and with the weight of the equipment, we had to get rid of all the navigational equipment and some of the safety gear out of the helicopter and the radar gear, by which the pilot knew where he was and what he was doing. There’s another little tale that leads on from that. The idea of the programme was to interview live the captains of two cross channel ferries when they passed one another. The only way we could interview both of them was to do it using a helicopter, so we flew the helicopter alongside them. I took the pictures of the captain talking to general viewers on one ship and the other ship passed and we nipped over and did the same thing to the second ship, took some shots from there and also went to Calais and landed on the roof of the customs building and from there saw people coming off the boat and landing in France. It was great fun. It was doing something different. It was one of the first times that we were using a helicopter to get live pictures. We did rehearsal for three or four days with this because we never knew whether we would always get pictures back. One night, on the rehearsal, the weather had settled in, with a cloud- base down to about 400 feet, which I think at that time was the limit that you could fly and we didn’t have any radar gear, so that we could fly in cloud or above it to get back to Dover. Well, luckily, I had got my passport with me, but my colleague, the racks engineer who was on there, had forgotten to put his in his pocket. He had left it in his bag in the hotel in Dover.  So he had to be escorted down through the customs, on to the boat and go back home, whilst I had to fly with the pilot down to the nearest airport and park the helicopter overnight. You learned odd little things. I learned how to tie down a helicopter in a gale and I also learned the following morning how to  fill it full of fuel, because there was only a hand bowser there and we had to pump this thing full of fuel and fly back the following day. Out of that I got a free evening in France through the courtesy of the BBC and the fact of bad weather.

The OB vehicles were all garaged at the Palace of Arts, which was the OB Headquarters at that time. The opening of ‘Saturday Night Out’ was a close shot of a telephone with a hand coming in and picking it up and a voice saying “Outside Broadcasts……..right, we’re on our way!’ and the driver dashed out and leapt in to the vehicle, drove out of the doors, made a sharp turn left and disappeared out of sight to go on the OB. What the general public didn’t realise was that about one vehicle length outside the door to the left, was a great big brick wall and you never saw the end of that shot. I always thought it was a bit amusing that nobody ever saw that. It shows the way that television can fool you about what’s going on!

When we did the Blackpool Illuminations, there was no way of getting through the traffic when the lights were on. To try and do a roving-eye type programme, seeing all the sites up in Blackpool …. there was no way you could do it. The roads were blocked with traffic, with cars travelling at three miles an hour and gently banging into one another at that speed, because the drivers were not paying attention to who was in front. They were just looking at the lights. So it was decided that maybe the best thing to do was to go on the tram, so we de-rigged all the stuff out of the mobile control room and put it on a tram, so we had a mobile control tram, with a couple of cameras on it. I think that was one of the first times that this had been done. There were a couple of odd occasions I think when things had been taken on board fairly large ships beforehand down in London, so it might not have been the first in the world, but it was certainly the first time we had ever de-rigged the scanner in the North Region. We also did it in one or two other places. We de-rigged and went down a coal mine and we also took the stuff out of the scanner when we did the first Aintree. We de-rigged everything out because there wasn’t enough room in the scanner to have all the monitors and other requirements. We took the stuff out and and rigged it in the telegraph office, underneath the grandstand, so it became a semi-static thing for the time being.

Don Mackay on the original Roving Eye

Don on the original heavyweight Roving Eye

The idea for a roving-eye was originally brought up by the Americans. I certainly saw it for the first time when I was over in the States in 1954. I saw their first one and I came back full of interest and I thought “If they can do it why can’t we?” We did use a large vehicle that went around a few of the London streets and did one or two programmes, but it turned out to be too big a vehicle. At the time the sort of thinking that went on, they wanted to have automatic tracking  aerials and trying to get pictures … we even had something almost like a gun turret from a fighter aircraft, hydraulically operated so that it would pan the camera round. All of this was very good, but it didn’t work because it was too heavy. The vehicle wouldn’t go fast enough to get from A to B. Also it was too big and the whole idea was to have a small vehicle that was reasonably quick off the mark and could move around. It wouldn’t take up too much room and we could still get a camera operating on it.

We, up here in the North Region, after experiments with various larger vehicles had the help of our resident engineer at that time, George Cook, who managed to maybe rig the books as it were, in the nicest possible way, so that we could have a Humber Super Snipe. We got it modified with the help of the transport department here and we built ourselves a high speed roving-eye, towing a petrol generator behind it to supply the power. It had a fairly large camera (Marconi Mk 3), but they were the only ones we had at that time and I sat on the roof, no hydraulics or anything else….. just pushing it round by foot power …. which worked alright until you were doing about 70 or 80 miles an hour. Its pretty hard to push a camera round against that gale and we sort of decided that it was either sitting sideways to the direction of the vehicle or fore or aft, not both together, not going at that speed!

I suppose in some ways cameramen were thought of as the glamour boys of television at one time, which wasn’t really true at all. There were odd occasions when it was nice to get out in the sunshine and suchlike, but somehow or other to me it always felt that 90% of the time I was covered in wind-proof clothing of some form or other, leather jackets or waterproof clothing ….. certainly wind-proof clothing. Its amazing how much you will find that just getting up on top of a twenty foot tower on what is a seemingly warmish day, there’s a breeze that can chill you after a couple of hours. If you get sat out at the beginning of a rugby match in the pouring rain on a mobile hydraulic crane or something else that they might use and you’re stuck about 50 feet up in the air with the wind howling in from the east and rain flying horizontally, as it does in these conditions and the nearest bit of mountains is the Urals over in Russia, believe me by the end of the evening’s Rugby Special it doesn’t feel like a glamorous job! You’re soaked to the skin in the first ten minutes and the only thing you know is that its got to go on for another two hours before it finishes!

I never really had a very good head for heights when I first joined the BBC. As a kid I wasn’t too happy  about it, but the first couple of years on Sound OBs in London cured me of that and I didn’t care where I  went by the end, as long as I could hold on with one hand I was quite happy. One occasion that didn’t bother me in the slightest was with a helicopter when we did the opening of the first motorway which was done up here. Everyone thinks of the M1 as being the first motorway, but its not true. The M6 was the first motorway built in this country and it was opened first and we did a programme from just outside Preston on the first section of the M6 to be opened and that was done from a helicopter and again muggins was in on it, because I was still small and hadn’t put on any weight at that time. We fixed a camera on the step of the helicopter which I straddled with my legs and it came up between my knees and I leaned over and we did an opening sequence of sitting on the ground talking to the commentator whose final remarks were “Now, let’s have a look at the motorway.”  I gave a signal to the pilot and the helicopter just went straight up for over a thousand feet and we finished up looking down at a very small commentator and a huge expanse of motorway. We then dropped down and went up and down the motorway doing various bits and pieces. That wasn’t scary at all to me, to go up and for the picture to get wider and wider. You’re looking in the viewfinder and that’s it, the picture just gets wider and wider and you don’t think anything about it, but a particular incident at Vickers was one time when I really was scared. I believe I was a dull grey colour when I came down.

We were covering the launch of the liner Empress of Canada, which was being built in Vickers (1960) and the producer decided that he wanted a high shot and a good place to do it would be from one of the cranes. We also wanted a tracking shot and because of the size of the ship, to get a wide-angle shot of the ship, one had to be pretty far back. We put my camera, which was a Moy Man, a big heavy 2 cwt square base with a (Marconi Mk 3) camera on it, in the middle of a platform made of shipyard railway sleepers. They were a little bit smaller than railway sleepers and there were about a dozen of these lashed and bolted together in typical shipyard fashion with gaps in between, but they were good enough to walk over. It wasn’t a smooth table or anything. They mounted the camera on that, put big screw hooks in the corners and we put this on a flat railway truck and took the shots with the cable going alongside the railway track. We managed to get back about 300 yards and I was on the camera and we tracked in, took the shot and stopped at the appropriate place. We were underneath one of those overhead cranes, one with a long jib that comes out so you are out about 50 ft from the actual crane itself. They dropped these steel chains down with four hooks on and a shipyard worker hooked into the things and then gave a wind-up sign to the crane-driver who immediately yanked this thing up, off the top of the train and high up in the air. Well, that was alright going up. It swayed a little bit, but not too much, but when he started to traverse round so we could look at the ship, that’s the time I started to worry, because there were no guardrails round the side, there were only the four vertical chains and the Moy Man and when he started traversing, he was used to lifting 20 ton or 30 ton steel girders, it didn’t matter if they swayed about in the breeze and his attitude was that he was doing the same thing. I was hanging on the end of a pendulum which was about 30ft long and I must have been up about the 90 foot mark and of course when he traversed, this thing started swaying like a clock pendulum with a camera on it and I felt the camera move a couple of times and I thought “umph … what’s going to happen?” I was making frantic signals to say stop doing it, because the camera had moved and was off the centre point and eventually he did stop. Then he dropped me down, where I believe I was seen to be very grey in colour and I certainly must admit it was the one time on cameras that I really was scared. So we bolted the Moy Man down on to the base and I had another chain put round at about the three foot level round the four hanging ones and thought “Right, Now I’ve got to go back up there and do it again.” So, I went up and did it again, before the actual programme. I went up and the producer was a bit worried about whether I was happy about doing it, but I thought ” Well, if I don’t go back up again, I’m going to be scared of heights again” and that was it. So, I went back up and it worked and everything went ok, but it was a scary moment, one of the few I’ve ever had on the things that we’ve done.

Don Mackay at the Castle Museum, York, in April 1956

The Castle Museum, York, April 1956

We were doing a programme at the National Railway Museum in York. I was very lucky in that I had Pete Robins as my no.2 at the time. We were going up two lines of the various engines and coaches and I was on camera 1 doing one set of them. Peter had been on the other side doing the other set and I knew from listening to talkback what he was doing and where he was and of course it clicks in your mind, you remember these things. Its one of those things….. I can never remember what day of the month it is, but I can always remember a camera script if I’ve read it once and usually I can remember the other shots as well as my own. Luckily for me, I probably did on that one and when Pete’s camera blew up and I was left on my own, the obvious thing to do was to continue. We either did that or we lost the programme and I said on talkback,'”Shall we try it and busk it?” and the word came through “Yes, ok. Let’s see how far we get with it” and I asked quietly on the talkback during part of the commentary “Can Pete come round and track me, so that we’ll change the order of things? I can go up one side and down the other side, but I need Peter to come and track me,” which wasn’t his job at the time . He was a cameraman, but we all did tracking and everything in between times and he said “Yes”. He got off his defunct camera and came and tracked me. I knew where the shots were for my half of the programme. For Pete’s half of the programme, which was done slightly out of sequence, he was able to guide me to the right places. I knew the shots. He knew where he was supposed to go and that was it, so we got away with it. I was just so glad we had got through the programme and we managed to get there with everything we were supposed to see….. but its all teamwork. Without a team, nobody on cameras can do anything. People see you operating a camera. They don’t realise what goes on in the vehicles and what goes on behind the scenes. Camera work, even if you are on a single camera, is still teamwork and its got to be a good team to do it.

Snooker was a sport being financed by external finance and it was becoming a sport outside television, We had covered it before. I remember way back in 1952 doing snooker and billiards from the Leicester Square Hall, which was the headquarters of snooker and doing that for the very first time, I think, that snooker ever went on television. But then it lapsed and there was a drop of interest but it eventually became a revived sport and we started doing it up here. It seemed to be more popular in the north as a game than it was down in the south and being stationed in the north here, Nick Hunter decided that it might be worthwhile trying to cover it on tv. Once, at the Crucible, we ran snooker through until about half past two in the morning. That would have been in 1983. Because of the way the game went, it was the last programme at night and it just went on and on and I think we finished at about half past two in the morning, for that particular one. It had quite a few viewers.

We went up to do the original darts coverage on tv. Again, this was something that had been sponsored outside of television and was becoming of much more interest to people in the north and they decided that indoor sport was probably an interesting thing for tv. I believe at that time it was Ray Lakeland who was doing the production side of it . We were going to do a practice match as an experiment and transmit it and see what kind of figures we would get and how it would appear on television. It was done from adjacent to the motorway place at Forton on the M6. When we went up there to have a look, the cameras were set in such a way that I thought we weren’t going to get the shots that Ray wanted and I had a look around at things and I said that what we really want to do is to have a very low camera. Ray had worked on the premise that because you are throwing darts, to be over the shoulder looking at the darts would be the best way and I said “Well, we will run into problems depending on where the person stands because their head might come in between the dartboard and the camera and you wouldn’t be able to see the dart landing. Also, if he was a left-handed player you might run into problems”. It meant then that the camera would have to be very movable and very quick at the same time, because it was such a long way from the back of the audience to be able to see the shots, all these small movements would be magnified very greatly and wouldn’t help things. I thought a better bet would be to have the camera low down, just immediately behind the dart player, so that you could look up underneath the dart and look at the board and not see the dart from him and that the best idea would then be to look from behind the board at the dart player and if we used a split-screen we could have the dartboard on the left hand side of the screen and the dart player on the right hand side of the screen and be able to see the concentration that he has, see the dart leave his fingers and also see it hit the board immediately. This to me seemed the logical way of doing it, without having to cut and move and swing cameras. I then approached John Crowther who was our lighting engineer at the time and asked him if he could light it to do that. He said yes and he thought it was a good idea.We chopped a hole in the back of the facing that the board was put on and covered it with black netting. Everything was dark at the back of the board, so one cameraman had to sit in the dark . This was done so that the movement of the lens wouldn’t distract the player when he was playing, because it was only a degree or so off his line of site for the board. Anyway, we tried the thing out. It worked and everyone seemed to like it so that was it. It seems to be a permanent thing now that’s done whenever you do darts.

A lot of what has happened in our field has been due to pressure from the Guild of Television Cameramen. I wasn’t a founder member, but I joined it very early on and I’m in full agreement with their outputs on it. They were also a great deal of help in that I found it very difficult in the BBC to get innovations and alterations done to the actual cameras. The BBC had this attitude that somebody down in head office would decide what was going to be bought and what was going to be used. They never came along to a cameraman, or didn’t for an awfully long time and say “There’s a new camera coming out” or “There’s a choice of three cameras coming out. Which one do you consider the best?”. That was never done. Now in ITV companies that was done and from that point of view one was able to get better equipment to use than you did in the BBC and I think the BBC lost out from doing that. We bypassed the BBC in some ways, by going through the Guild of Cameramen as an official authorised body, getting in touch with the manufacturers and saying “We are a body of official cameramen, many of whom work for the BBC and ITV and we are very happy to come and talk to you about what we would like to see in cameras and what you want to put on a camera and whether you can change it and modify it and make it better for us to do the job we want to do” and I know for a fact that modifications have been done by the manufacturers, before the cameras actually reached the BBC, which have been organised by BBC cameramen and that would never happen through the BBC. I think that that’s one way the company failed in being able to use the knowledge that was available to them and they didn’t do it. Its a great pity.

A period which I look back on with particular nostalgia is the early days, when everything was innovative.You didn’t really know what you were going to do next week. Whatever it was it was going to be new. You probably had never done it before and it was always something to look forward to. I think that nowadays, in an awful lot of things, its a bit more of the same. Maybe that’s sour grapes from someone getting on a bit, but I don’t think so. I considered myself an extremely lucky person to get paid for what I loved doing. There’d be nothing worse to me than to get paid for  doing something I hated doing. There is always the augment that we never got paid enough for it, but that’s completely different. I still got paid for doing a job I loved doing and if I had the chance to do it again, I’d do exactly the same things.

Open Day at the Manchester OB Base, 1955

Open Day at the Inauguration of the new Manchester OB Base at Plymouth Grove, Longsight, April 1955

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