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Month: February 2008

The stories of cruelty and abuse emerging from investigations at the former Haut de la Garenne children’s home in Jersey are terrible and harrowing, so I feel dreadful pangs of guilt when I have to stifle a laugh every time a report is broadcast. What’s so funny? Well, the police chief in charge of the excavations is called Lenny Harper. Every time his name is mentioned, I expect a pipe-cleaner thin Scottish woman with spiky hair to pop up and greet the newsreader back in the studio as ‘Noel’.

Thursday was a bit crap, one way and another. I had a job interview in the morning, at which the panel spent far too long asking me about something I had pronounced myself largely ignorant of on the application form. When the expected ‘No thanks’ phone call came in the afternoon, explaining that my deficiencies in this particular area were what had cost me the plum role, I was momentarily too flabbergasted to do anything but say “Thanks for letting me know so quickly” and hang up. After a moment’s consideration, I sent a moderately fuming e-mail to my interviewer explaining that these deficiencies were obvious from the application, and that they had wasted an hour of my time and their time bringing me in for an interview. I’ve been freelance for 6 years now, and this was only my second job interview in a decade, so maybe I’m just out of practice. Maybe it’s simply down to making the right noises, and that’s something I was never too keen on or good at. Or could it possibly be that some people in recruitment have trouble with reading comprehension? Who knows? Who cares?

Thank heavens, then, for Friday. Schloss Barfe is the home of redundant technology, and, alongside the impressive array of open-reel tape recorders, sits a Sanyo VTC5000 Betamax VCR. Well, I say Betamax. Being a Sanyo, it’s more properly known as a Betacord machine. For a brief period in 1982, shortly before VHS was declared Victor Ludorum, it was the best-selling VCR in the British Isles. Rather perversely, it took until early 2005 for me to go Betamax, after I found some interesting tapes in a charity shop – we were a VHS family from the moment we entered the VCR market in 1984. I found a chap selling reconditioned machines on eBay, who, on closer inspection, turned out to live around the corner. I bought one, got it home, transferred my tapes and then bought a further job lot of tapes off eBay. I got part way into this hoard when the machine stopped working. I took it to my local TV repair shop, who claimed that it was caused by a part that was no longer made, and that they’d be happy to dispose of the machine for me. Being a hoarder and a naturally suspicious type, I put the machine in the loft and forgot about it. Just recently, however, I posted a message on a Beta enthusiasts’ site, asking for any thoughts on what might be wrong with my machine. The chap who sold it to me got in contact, clearly regarding any non-functioning Sanyo machines as a challenge and a personal insult. Within a week, he had it working again. The obsolete part story was proved to be utter balls – it was no more or less than a screw-fixed catch in the loading mechanism that had worked loose. Being a perfectionist, he also checked that just about everything else was as it should be too, with the result that it’s now running better than ever. To him, and enthusiasts like him who keep these machines running, the hat is well and truly doffed.

Now, throughout the years, I had heard the Betamax faithful saying that the picture quality knocked VHS into a cocked hat. Natural suspicion came into play again. Having seen quite a few Betamax tapes, I’d thought the picture quality to be about the same as VHS. However, I’d never seen a fresh recording on a new, clean tape. When I came into possession of some factory-fresh Scotch L750s, through the kindness of a Mausoleum Club member who wanted to reclaim some space at his house, I thought I’d make a test recording. The results were astonishing. When I still used VHS as a recording medium, I always thought my Sharp VCR lived up to its name in terms of picture quality. Despite being 20 years older and having spent nearly a year in a loft, the Sanyo – without the advantage of any of the picture processing circuitry present in the Sharp – matched it. The better system lost the format war, and the Blu-Ray/HD-DVD stand-off suggests that the lessons of the VHS/Betamax pagga haven’t been learned properly.

Anyway, on Friday, as an accompaniment to work, I thought I’d dip into the Betamax box and see what I could find. Most of the tapes were, very helpfully, labelled, and most have off-air recordings of feature films that you can now find just about anywhere on DVD. However, a couple of tapes were unmarked. Here a 1992 edition of Horizon, there a 1988 Tom Bower documentary on the US bombing of Libya, everywhere some nice BBC1 globes and things from the early days of UK satellite TV, including a 1994 edition of Trivial Pursuit with Tony Slattery taped off the Family Channel. All fairly interesting, particularly the Slattery game show, in which he is quite clearly on the verge of the breakdown that took him off telly for far too long, making jokes that probably weren’t actually jokes about presenting the show under the influence of horse tranquilisers. Meeting the contestants and confronting them with interesting facts about their lives, he reveals that one chap had a dog who jumped off Beachy Head. Where exactly does one go from there in a light daytime quiz show? It’s like (the unassailably wonderful) William G Stewart introducing a ‘Fifteen to One’ punter with the line “So tell us about the time you murdered a nun”.

As interesting as my finds were, I was disappointed to find no proper old-fashioned light entertainment shows. In went another unlabelled tape. “Here we go. It’ll be a 1987 Panorama on Northern Ireland or a copy of The Music Man that cuts off 5 minutes from the end,” I thought. Suddenly, I was greeted with music that said ‘This is a variety show’ and the face of Roy Hudd. I tempered my hilarity with a modicum of reserve. Years of playing back old, unlabelled tapes has taught me that the moment you find something you actually want to watch, it will cut off after 5 minutes in favour of 3 hours of snooker ‘highlights’ from the Reading Hexagon, with David Vine. Fortunately, Barfe’s 2nd Law of Archival Playback (and for that matter, the 1st, which states that anything you really want to see will have become mildewed and may bugger up your heads) was not in operation on this occasion. I found that I had four complete editions of a 1984 series called Halls of Fame, in which the great Hudd visited a different variety theatre each week, talked about the venue’s history and introduced a rip-snorting bill of entertainment excellence. From the Victoria Palace, we had June Whitfield singing Marie Lloyd (Very well too – is there no end to her versatility?), Chas and Dave singing Harry Champion and Max Bygraves giving of himself. Bristol Hippodrome brought forth Acker Bilk and Dame Anna Neagle. Sunderland Empire gave us Alan Price and ‘the little waster’, Bobby Thompson. This hoard of jollity arrived just in time to warrant a mention in my history of light entertainment, which is currently going through the corrective process.

The best was saved until last, though. In the final show on the tape, from His Majesty’s in Aberdeen, there was a whole glorious spot from Chic Murray, Billy Connolly’s mentor and the greatest ‘droll’ comedian who ever walked the earth. I had left the tape transferring, with the plan of watching it later, but at the mention of Murray’s name, I just sat down with a cup of tea, and tried to avoid dampening the sofa. In a spirit of show, don’t tell, here’s what I found:

So, thank you to Betamax, Barry Bevins of BBC Manchester – who produced the series, Roy Hudd and Chic Murray for rescuing me from the doldrums.

Just when I was about to post about the social menace of the MP3 phone, the Urban Woo beats me to it. They are truly horrible things. I fear I’m part of the last generation to place a premium on high-fidelity audio. Moving from vinyl (yes, I know the arguments about audiophile vinyl, but how many teenagers can afford a Bang and Olufsen rig?) and cassette to CD was a moment of glorious liberation, but the yoof of today seem happy with over-compressed MP3s played through tiny, tinny speakers that make Radio Luxembourg on medium wave sound like a wideband Decca blue-back stereo pressing. This is just one of many ways in which they are being palmed off with fool’s gold, IMHO. The Mighty Boosh, anyone?

Anyway, yesterday, I got on the Lowestoft train at Norwich, and saw a young chap trying to make an ill-fitting window stop clattering in sympathetic resonance with the engine. Helpfully, I stepped forward and wedged a redundant ticket in between the window and the frame, rendering it silent. The young chap then thanked me by playing tuneless R&B on his phone nearly all the way home. If I’d been on my own, I’d have challenged him, but I had a small, defenceless and rather beautiful dog with me, so, for her safety, I said nothing. Eventually, somewhere around Reedham swing bridge, the ticket worked loose, and the window started banging away again. Pitted against the MP3 phone, it truly was the lesser of two evils, despite being considerably louder. The noise made matey boy turn his crap music off, mercifully. The truly galling thing is that I had with me several hours of Steely Dan and Donald Fagen, plus a pair of decent headphones, which let very little external noise in, and even less of my music out into the general atmos. If only the batteries hadn’t given out on the London-Norwich portion of the journey. I shall be operating the patented Masterton sing-along method in future.

On another occasion, I did say something. Heading to London, a man old enough to know far better got on at Ipswich and proceeded to watch DVDs without headphones. I stepped forward and asked him if he minded using headphones. His reply was stunning in its lack of logic: “It’s not a Walkman”. My reply was stern: “I don’t care what it is. Use headphones or turn it off”. He came back with “Am I allowed to talk?”, to which I answered “You got on the train on your own. Nobody in this carriage wants to talk to you. If you want to talk to yourself, and you look like the sort of person who might, I can’t stop you”. As he got off the train at Colchester, he gave me a defiant ‘You’re a very lucky man’ look. As he was about 8 stone soaking wet and a good 5 inches shorter than me, all I could do was laugh. Once he was off the train, another passenger thanked me for intervening, but it’s come to a pretty pass where decent people doing nothing is the default position.

I’ve paid farewell to the London Library. My membership lapses at the end of the month and I’ve returned all of the books I had on loan. The parting is not without sadness. I’ve spent a fair bit of time there over the last 5 years, working first on my history of the record industry, then on my soon-come history of light entertainment. Their collection is unrivalled, except by the British Library, but the London Library lets you take the books home, sometimes for years on end. The atmosphere is wonderful if you like to be surrounded by dark wood, leather-bound books and snoring gentlemen with hairy ears. It’s not just a haven for bookish buffers, though. There’s free wi-fi access for members too. So, why am I giving up on such riches? As you may be aware, the subscription has gone up 80% from £210 a year to £375, to pay for an extension to the building. It sounds a lot, but it’s still cheap for a base in the centre of London with hot and cold running wi-fi, a lot of wonderful books, and an iron-floored shelving stack that sounds like the gantries of HMP Slade when you walk through it. I’m just spending less and less time in London these days, and I don’t have £375 to spare at the moment. Even before the rise, I was umming and ahhing about whether I could justify the outlay. The rise made my mind up for me, accompanied by an astonishingly puffed-up circular from Sir Tom Stoppard justifying the rise and suggesting that anyone who disagreed was a twat. I’m hoping that my exile is a temporary one, as I can’t think of a better waste of £375, but until I have that much to pee up the wall, Sir Tom will have to do without me.

Like many television enthusiasts (all male, obviously), I have a tendency to record programmes that I never get around to watching. In my case, it’s simple forgetfulness and lack of time. One close relative, however, uses 3 VCRs to record a vast amount of material, almost all of which is then labelled and filed, unviewed. Only when others ask him ‘did you see…?’ or a laudatory review appears does he dig the tape out and watch the programme. If the programme passes without comment from trusted advisors, the tape is re-used and so the cycle begins again. It’s a quite brilliant system in a way, almost like an Ofcom logging operation, and in the days before BitTorrent, he was a reliable source of programmes we’d missed. I’m in the process of educating him on the subject of hard drive-based PVRs, which I suspect he’ll adopt with gusto once the initial learning curve is negotiated.

For my own part, last week, I had a sudden urge to watch the 1964 ‘Wednesday Play’ production of Jean-Paul Sartre’s ‘Huis Clos’, translated as ‘In Camera’. This play is best known for being the origin of the phrase “Hell is other people”. I found it on a disc with a 1963 BBC West regional documentary about Swindon Town FC, directed by John Boorman. Both were recorded during BBC4’s ‘Summer in the 60s’ season in June 2004, so it’s only taken me 3 and a half years to get around to watching them. Back then, I didn’t even have a DVD recorder, so they’ve been transferred from VHS, still unwatched, at some point since then. Strange how the archival mentality works.

Anyway, as my expertise is comedy not drama, I’ll spare you a review of the play. Suffice it to say that I was gripped, that Harold Pinter – in a rare acting role – was superbly sinister, and that I’m slightly in love with Catherine Woodville, the future Mrs Patrick Macnee, who played a flakey socialite with a dark past. The one thing that I feel does need a special mention, however, is, rather aptly, considering the title of the production, the camera work. As with most drama of its era, it’s a multi-camera studio production. Moreover, it’s from the days before lightweight shoulder-mounted cameras. Every camera used will have been a cumbersome valve-filled box from the factory of EMI or Marconi (probably the latter, for reasons explained by Martin Kempton just below here), on a gas-operated Vinten pedestal with the footprint of a woolly mammoth. And yet, everything moves in a fluid, graceful manner, while one shot would appear to be impossible. At one point, Woodville walks around and around in a circle followed by a camera. A revolution or so would have been easy enough, but sooner or later, the camera cable would have got caught up and forced a jerking halt. There’s evidence of this on a 1970s edition of ‘Magpie’ where a similar shot is attempted with the lovely Susan Stranks. Very soon, the cameraman is forced to admit that this is as far as he can go. In this play, however, the camera goes way past that point. How the hell was it done? Well, according to Bernie Newnham, ex-BBC cameraman and producer, this shot became a legend in Corporation circles, and was the work of his mentor, Jim Atkinson. The camera was hung from above, with the cable also hanging from above, thus not trailing on the floor and getting wound around the pedestal. Another of Jim Atkinson’s trainees has since offered an alternative technique: the shot was done using a standard floor pedestal, with the cable arranged around it so that it unwound rather than tightened. Either way, I’m not surprised it became a legend. It’s still a jaw-dropping piece of craftsmanship, however it was done. UPDATE: 18/2/2008 – Bernie has located someone who worked on the play, and the definitive answer is that the camera was on a conventional pedestal, but the cable was suspended from the lighting grid.

Bernie’s excellent Tech Ops site (broadcasting history as written by the infantry rather than the generals, which is always worth hearing) has a page on Jim Atkinson, and I present the clip in question here.