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THE TRANSMISSION GALLERY

TALES FROM A COLD FIELD

Being fairy-stories told to the author as a young engineer
© Ray Cooper, 2005 (2nd revised edition, Jan 2006)

Positively the Last Open Day Ever

In the 'fifties and early 'sixties, it was the BBC custom to occasionally hold public Open Days at various studio and transmitter sites around the country, where anyone could come and have a look around these sites and see how they ticked. Sutton was not immune from these visitations, though the only one that I was ever involved with was the last one of all, which was held, if memory serves, on a Saturday in the summer of 1967. The fact that it was the last one was not, I firmly believe, my own entire fault, but along with many others I certainly contributed.

1967 was a good year for an open day, for that was when colour came to BBC2 and the BBC would have something to showcase. Now I don't know quite what public expectations were - after all, transmitters are merely impassive lines of grey humming boxes, lacking sustained dramatic impact - but evidently the thing had been got down to a fine art in previous open days, and there would be lots of display items and other attractions. In particular, there would be the 'Hall of Colour', where the public would be able to view genuine colour images on production TV sets (such items were not readily available in the shops at that time, since colour was only just starting and sets were very expensive items). Another item was a genuine Percy Thrower, loaned to us by the BBC Birmingham production studios, which people would be able to quiz on the fate of their begonias.

Unfortunately, with a couple of weeks to go, somebody got cold feet and thought that public attendance might be rather poor. The answer was publicity - the event was plugged mercilessly every night on the local news programmes and other opt-outs, and it was hoped that this might do the trick.

It succeeded far better than anyone had envisaged. By mid-morning (it was a Saturday) the police had to divert traffic away from the nearby A38 because the local village, Mere Green, was totally choked by cars waiting to get into the site. Cars were parked in an adjacent field, and a long queue wound its way across to the main building.

It is on record that in excess of 20,000 people passed through the front door on that day, and thousands more made unrecorded entries by other side-doors. Most people had to wait for up to two hours just to get into the site. Fortunately it was a blazing hot day, and the local ice-cream salesmen did a roaring trade.

And what did folk see when they got in? Not a great deal, it has to be said. There were far too many people packed in there for anyone to see much at all. And when they finally reached the much-vaunted 'Hall of Colour', (which was the then-unused BBC1 UHF hall, decorated up and provided with three Decca CTV25 receivers on plinths) they didn't have time to stop and stare because the pressure of the crowd behind propelled them onwards.

Not that there was always much to see: London had declined to make available any continuous colour programming, so what was shown were the normal trade colour demonstration films (which admittedly were of extremely high standard) interspersed with 15-minute slabs of colour test-card. If you got there when test card was showing, you would have been forgiven for feeling that your two-hour wait in the open air, followed by perhaps a half-hour of having your bunions trampled on by the crowd, were not worth it. Such were evidently the feelings of one elderly lady who, dressed in black with a floral hat and waving a brolly, looked exactly like Grandma Giles from the Daily Express cartoon strip. Since I was standing nearby and, presumably, looking slightly Official, she began ranting at me that this was no way to treat elderly citizens, together with lots of similar material, and was just about to land a good blow on my ear with the brolly when fortunately the crowd surged forward and carried her off, still waving the gamp in the air and cursing volubly.

At one point, a small bored child wedged into the press of people, found an interesting item to divert him - an intriguing switch on the outside of a cabinet. This was too good to miss, so he turned it to see what would happen. What happened was that one of the BBC2 transmitters fell off (the switch was for the 50volt DC control system supply), and it took a good five minutes for an engineer to force his way from the Control Room (where any sensible staff had barricaded themselves in - it was not open to the public) to the UHF hall, even using such off-limits shortcuts as were not blocked by a press of bodies.

Lots of people found fairly just grounds for complaint, and there were a good few letters written: the net result being that the BBC decided that enough was enough, and no more open days would be held. In any case, the deteriorating security situation in the country (the IRA were beginning to get active again around this time) meant that such open-door events would not again be feasible in the foreseeable future.

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