“What Use is This Internet Anyway?”
Steve Williams interviews Bernard Newnham
First published September 2007
The role of the presentation department at the BBC seems an obvious one – simply filling the gaps between the programmes with logos, trailers and announcements. Yet for many years, the department did much more than that and became a major programme maker in its own right. From its two tiny studios in Television Centre, it produced dozens of classic programmes of all kinds – Points of View, The Old Grey Whistle Test, The Book Programme, Rutland Weekend Television and many more, in between making trailers, setting up the Children’s BBC we know today and, of course, producing the weather forecast.
Bernard Newnham was a producer in the department for many years and was probably involved in a greater range of television than virtually anyone else at the Corporation via this small but extremely prolific unit. We spoke to him about how they managed to get everyone from Jimi Hendrix to John Kettley though their doors.
OTT: How did you get into television in the first place, and what did you end up doing there?
BERNARD NEWNHAM: I applied to be a Technical Operator in 1965 when I left school at 18, and went on the course in April 1966. I desperately wanted to be a TV cameraman, so was really worried when I found out that TOs did other things too. Luckily, I was drafted to TV Centre and eventually did become a cameraman in the end. We were told that 600 or so people applied for our course, and about five of us became cameramen. The last of them retired recently.
11 years in, I wanted to move on, and was lucky enough to get a job as an assistant producer on Presentation in 1977, where I stayed till 1995.
I left the BBC in 2001, when my “post became redundant”. This was excellent news, and I was able to pay off my mortgage and take a full pension rather early – the goal of many BBC staff. I had spent the last few years as officially a Features Producer, but actually I was a guru in low-cost programming using DV and desktop technology. It’s typical of the BBC – whilst you’re saving one bit thousands of pounds, another bit is happily getting rid of you. I left the BBC on a Friday, was lecturing at BBC Evesham the next Thursday, and I’ve continued to work as a freelance in various BBC places up to recently.
Steve Williams interviews Bernard Newnham
First published September 2007
: The presentation department seems a rather unusual aspect of the BBC, in as much as it made a curious mix of programmes. Was there ever a specific edict over what the department made?
BERNARD NEWNHAM: Presentation was intended to just be the part of the BBC that transmitted the programmes. They took the planners’ basic schedule and made it fit the real world, then directed the control rooms which transmitted the programmes – live, or from VT or film – and put continuity between them. As things developed, they also began extending continuity announcements into proper trails with clips from the programmes. Trail making gradually became a semi-separate entity, though assistant producers were moved from one to the other for many years.
The first Presentation programme, as far as I know, was Points of View. It was there to fill up a real hour at the end of an American TV hour, which was then 50 minutes and is now 41 minutes. People like Will Wyatt were drafted to do this in some spare time between making trails.
Lots of trail makers were highly intelligent Oxbridge graduates using presentation as a way into becoming mainstream programme makers, and the eager young persons got their chance when BBC2 started, as Presentation was asked to make a sort of extended trail for the beginning of each evening called Line Up – line up is a technical process of setting up the systems and generally lasted half an hour in those days. It soon became Late Night Line Up, at the end of the evening, with Joan Bakewell, Tony Bilbow, Sheridan Morley and others. Gradually the different evening shows became specialised, and out of this came Film 72 (etc), Colour Me Pop (later The Old Grey Whistle Test), Up Sunday, Take Two and lots more. Because originally they had the LNLU slot to do with as they pleased, and of course had to make a show a day, they had the chance to do lots of different things, and indeed were encouraged to. Within a few years Presentation Programmes was a separate section of the department with its own head and making shows for any time in the evening. It was an anachronism, but the BBC was full of them, and as long as it worked the controllers were happy.
Eventually politics ruined it – someone was trying to attract someone else from ITV and they offered Presentation Programmes as a department. It went to Manchester as Network Features and gradually dissipated.
OTT: The idea of the department making programmes in the tiny Pres A and Pres B seems very odd. What shows were made there? What was the most complicated thing to produce?
BERNARD NEWNHAM: Pres A and B were perfect for small shows with just a presenter and a guest or two. In fact, if the studio builders had thought ahead when they built TV Centre, there would have been lots of small studios like that. It was very strange when occasionally doing Points of View in TC1 (100ft x 100ft x 50ft) just because both small studios weren’t available.
What A and B weren’t very good for were pop shows, especially when the Marconi Mk 7 colour cameras came along. These were so big that the steering ring on the pedestal had to be made a much larger diameter, and the whole thing was like an elephant. There were three of these in both studios for some years, and whilst it was no problem on the weather, when you’re pointing at Joe Cocker backed by Sue and Sonny singing, “I get by with a little help from my friends”, things could get a little cumbersome. And the sound proofing between the studios wasn’t that great either. They’d been built for peaceful in-vision continuity, so Jimi Hendrix had to stop rehearsing in Pres B whilst the weather was being transmitted on BBC1.
The fact is, the studio were ours to do what we wanted, and weren’t part of the studio allocations system till later, so we used what we had. Sometimes we used the long corridor that led to the studios for various things – an assistant producer dressed as a carrot on one occasion . There was also a roof above, now covered in satellite dishes, and we used that for various things – the weather in summer, some links for an evening of summer jazz, and once for Les Dawson playing an out of tune upright piano for a trail for his show … just cos I fancied it!
On New Year’s Eve, the international control room engineers all over Europe would get together and show dubious films over the internal Eurovision network. I was asked once when I was a cameraman to take one of the Marconi Mk7s down the corridor to point through the window so that the engineers could wave at each other. The whole thing was stopped after a particular year when a drunken Norwegian engineer put the filthy films out on Norwegian TV.
OTT: At the time you were working in presentation, it seems as if you had a lot of leeway over what you did in terms of promotions and even the style of the idents. How much say did the BBC management actually have over what you did?
BERNARD NEWNHAM: We weren’t slaves to corporate branding in those days. Each of the four trails teams had its own set of animations for menu top and tails, and these were changed every few months. Apart from menus, we were mostly allowed to start and end trails as we wished. The point was to sell the programme in a fair and representative manner and make sure people knew when it was on. Actually, come to think about it, that’s still true, though often forgotten. The bottom line though was always bums on seats.
OTT: You were also involved in the development of the Christmas idents. Was this something you were encouraged to do by management or was it simply presentation’s ideas alone? What do you think of the interest in them to this day?
BERNARD NEWNHAM: The long term BBC symbols were Head of Department, Channel Controller stuff mostly, and the Christmas ones in my time were always [Promotions Editor] Pat Hubbard’s moment of glory. Pat worked with a graphics designer and the head of the mechanical workshop every year to produce the famous mechanical symbols, which were then set up in the middle of Pres B for about four days. It was the job of the operational promotions producer over Christmas to make sure it was working and the lights were on as needed. I think my personal Christmas ident contribution may have been the first non-mechanical one, for which I extended the end of each trail so that it became the symbol.
I made the Christmas promotions the year of the wizard, 1990, but although I think it was the best ever, I didn’t invent it, the graphics designers did that. It was the year that The Generation Game returned to BBC1, and I told the graphics people that if they couldn’t look at their design and say, “nice to see you, to see you nice” they should start again. They did a brilliant job.
The current interest is just a teeny bit anoraky, isn’t it? It’s quite good fun, reading about what we did on the various websites, but somehow the often drunken conversations in the bar have turned into, “The BBC in its wisdom decided …” I must admit, though, that I was rather pleased to find a trail I’d made and completely forgotten on a site a while back, and also the original trails for The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy which I made and are on the DVD.
OTT: I know you played a role in the presentation and development of Children’s BBC, and eventually the Broom Cupboard. How did the concept come about?
BERNARD NEWNHAM: Michael Grade asked us to brighten up BBC Children’s Presentation in 1985 and the job went to Promotions Editor Pat Hubbard. Mr Grade didn’t offer money and facilities so we had to make something out of pretty much nothing. The computer animations between the programmes were done on a BBC Micro, and they were pretty much cutting edge for their time and cost. At the time, schools were buying BBCs in their hundreds so using one on BBC children’s links seemed appropriate.
Mr Grade wanted more – in-vision presentation – but we didn’t have a place to put the presenter. Pres A and B were in full use for other things such as the weather. I suggested to Pat that we put a camera in continuity. Pat had a somewhat eccentric style of management and his reply to me went along the lines of “Don’t be f***ing stupid, Bernie”. As he said that to me most days, I wasn’t particularly worried and carried on my job of making trails. A couple of weeks later, Pat came and found me in my office and told me to come down to BBC1 continuity with him. When I got there, [Head of Children's Programmes] Edward Barnes was waiting for us, and Pat had had an engineer connect up a hand held camera to an input to the con desk. Pat asked me to demonstrate what I meant to Edward.
The Broom Cupboard was born, but we didn’t call it that at the time, the name came into use later. To us it was CON1 – the BBC 1 continuity studio.
OTT: You produced Points of View for some time, in the days when it was a purely letters-based programme. What was your role in proceedings?
BERNARD NEWNHAM: In the Barry Took days, Points of View ran in seasons and was off for the summer, and I produced the season in, I think, 1984. We were on mostly after Dallas and would inherit a large part of their audience of 16 million or more. We had lots of letters! One of my best memories is walking down a street of terraced houses on the way home after finishing the show, and seeing it running in all their front room windows. No-one can do that any more.
I spent four years doing the show with Anne Robinson. I was in voluntary exile from Pres because I didn’t agree with the new management – that selling the BBC1 brand was more important than selling BBC1 shows. I can do a whole treatise on when corporate branding above all is the right thing – Discovery, Bravo, Sci-Fi – and when it’s the wrong thing – BBC1, BBC2, ITV – and why still on BBC1 it’s much more important to sell individual shows than some overall channel ethos.
The producer’s job on a continuing programme is to run the show and make it happen. POV was a formula show, so the set was mostly the same every week, as were the graphics. I read all the letters and sifted out the ones I didn’t want Anne to cover in her script. I picked the clips from programmes we used, though Anne would sometimes ask for others. She was particularly eager several times to run one notorious one from Eldorado featuring a braless Spanish girl riding a horse. Don’t know why. I directed the studio each week then went to VT to edit it to length, and make sure the tape got to TV. Recording day was long, busy and fraught.
During the early 1990s, the internet was about to be the “information superhighway”, and before it really got going I wanted POV to have an email address. Our first was on Compuserve, but we were asked to be part of the BBC Networking Club, and had a bbcnc.org.uk address before it was properly up and running, and whilst bbc.co.uk was still some engineer fiddling around. We were the first BBC show to have email, and my dial up connection to the internet was the only one in TV Centre. People came from all over to find out what it was all about. One day Anne said, “What use is this internet anyway, Bernie?” A few weeks later, most of the show was made up of emails – university lecturers had finally found a proper use for it.
That was the Birtian era, and I had pretty much complete control over my budget. We tended to underspend, so I thought it would be nice to do some vox-pops around the country. I could only do it on one day, so I had to find places you could fly to and get back again, whilst being a good way from London. The next autumn they asked us to do 15 minutes, so I got extra staff whose job it was to go round the country all the time asking questions. This stood researcher Jenny Cole in good stead when she eventually became series producer on Holiday.
OTT: Were their any occasions when programme makers complained about how their shows were covered?
BERNARD NEWNHAM: The programme always had to remember that its real job at 8.50pm was to carry the audience on to the news. You could have serious bits, and we always tried to have proper sensible comment, but you had to entertain. Programmes were always complaining to us and to our bosses, but I wasn’t stupid, and was working with one of the country’s top journalists. Generally the channel controllers supported us over the programme makers because what we did was always watertight, and we never over-laboured points – we didn’t have time, for one thing – we usually had around nine letters, three clips plus a music end in a nine-minute show. Oh, and it was always fun ringing up shows. You’d get the junior researcher and say, “Hello, this is the producer of Points of View …” then enjoy the ensuing panic.
I don’t watch the current Points of View – I don’t know when it’s on. It’s rather a waste of time now, with hundreds of channels.
OTT: What are your views on the current presentation?
BERNARD NEWNHAM: I don’t really care any more about the niceties of presentation, because I’ve moved on.
The BBC is making a big sell at the moment for Heroes, bought from NBC. I watched the episodes off Bittorrent the day after they went out in the US last year. Similarly Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip on More4.That’s a tiny microcosm of what is happening – linear TV is being left behind, and with it continuity and all the rest of what I used to do. The BBC knows this, but doesn’t know what to do about it. It’s like the horse-pulled coach maker at the beginning of the car era – really good at doing something we don’t need any more.
WITH THANKS TO BERNARD NEWNHAM