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

To begin, then, at the beginning

Those of you who have now taken the Half-Crown tour may be a little puzzled by the total lack of reference to any reserve transmitters. This is because, in the beginning, there weren't any. In those very early days nobody was making medium power TV transmitters suitable for standby use, and it was clearly an uneconomic proposition to install a complete duplicate high power transmitter system. This absence was occasionally to have dire consequences, as we shall now see.

Let us begin as we mean to go on.

It is a matter of historical record that the opening ceremony, attended by such luminaries as the Postmaster General, the Deputy Chairman of the BBC, and the local Mayor, was delayed by a transmitter fault. Evidently one of the main HT rectifier valves (which were all mercury-vapour in those days, and therefore temperamental) expired moments before the ceremony. This seemed to set the tone for the following few years.

Take five, Chaps.

In the very earliest days, there occurred a minor incident, which revealed quite conclusively that all possible eventualities had not been foreseen. Picture the scene: the desk TA had settled down for the evening, and was about halfway through watching a nice costume drama. (Quality monitoring was taken very seriously in those days.).

Suddenly an unintelligible strangulated voice issued from the loudspeaker beside him. The performers in the costume drama had evidently heard it and understood, for it had an immediate effect on them. Most of them immediately shambled off the set, fumbling for concealed packets of cigarettes. One of them was heard to pass a distinctly non-period remark. A few moments later, all of the lighting on the set went down, leaving the scene in semi-darkness.

The TA was rather uneasy about all this, but concluded that this might be the work of a modern and therefore trendy producer. After a minute or more had passed in total silence, however, he felt impelled to ring Alexandra Palace and find out what was going on.

"Ah. there doesn't seem to be much action going on in this play, does there?"

"It's all right, old boy. The transmitter's broke, so the cast have all pushed off to the canteen 'til it's fixed."

"Ah, so you're off. But the problem here seems to be that we aren't.."

"Um. Get back to you on this one, old boy."

This was the way things had always been done at the Palace, up to that time. There was no viable system of telerecording in existence, so all performances, even the repeats, were done live. With only one transmitter in service, if it broke there just wasn't any point in going on with a performance. After it had been fixed, the control room would presumably send someone out to round up the cast, whereupon they would all troop quietly back, and the production would resume from where it had left off, in a gentlemanly way.

A new memo detailing breakdown action was issued shortly after this incident.

The "Robinsons" Complain >

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