The cockpit


A look at ‘Armchair Theatre’ in 1963 from the point-of-view of the Control Suite.


An excerpt from ABC TV in Focus, a book given to potential advertisers in February 1963.

Three arrowheads; three chords; a familiar triangle symbol – and another ABC programme is announced.

It could be Thank Your Lucky Stars, The Sunday Break, ABC At Large, or one of many well known weekend programmes. At 9.35 on Sunday, 17 February, it was Armchair Theatre presenting ‘The Paradise Suite’ another play specially written for ABC and scheduled for screening across the ITV Network; another full scale-television production…

It started with an idea by author Robert Muller. It was acted out-against a set imagined by award-winning designer Voytek – on the floor of Studio 1 at Teddington. It was directed by Philip Saville. And it was the product of a system, a highly refined process, a time-tied progression of skilled technical events; the product of many uncredited experts, and a great deal of modern equipment.

This is an outline of that process, of the technical demands made by every television production, and the specialised way in which they are met by ABC TV.

The point of main activity is the Control Suite. Here, in a fluorescent cockpit of intense concentration, soundproofed against the world outside and set ideally with an eagle’s-nest view of the studio, the centre point is the Director. In front of him is a bank of monitor screens showing every picture source available for his selection. Flanking him him are some of the assistants and controls he will rely upon to link and blend all the elements that make a programme. Each assistant is an expert, in control of equipment

Production Control; a fluorescent cockpit of intense concentration. Indicator below each monitor screen shows picture source.
Production Control; a fluorescent cockpit of intense concentration. Indicator below each monitor screen shows picture source.

that is the latest the industry has to offer, as advanced as ABC’s development engineers can make it. And each is an integral part of a close-locked team that must do more than co-operate; must think in every dimension and, under the Director, hold the overall effect paramount. To achieve this in the new Teddington block, the operators and equipment have been grouped in the most practical way possible.

Three soundproofed compartments, viewed left to right from the studio, handle Vision, Production and Sound. The first is concerned with lighting and cameras, the second is manned by the Production Assistant, Director, Vision Mixer and Technical Supervisor, and the third by a Sound Mixer and Grams Operator. On ‘transmission’ – the final run-through of a programme for recording or ‘live’ (immediate) transmission – each is responsible for supplying the Director with a set sequence

of elements. These are demanded by the production, or issue from the Director’s interpretation, and are arranged, refined and fixed upon during rehearsal.

Most of these elements originate on the studio floor, through action controlled by the Director via the Floor Manager, and cameras and microphones directed by means of an elaborate intercom or ‘talk-back’ system. Other elements can be woven in from a variety of sources; from film,

tape recordings (video and sound), outside broadcast feeds, gramophone records and other studios. But whatever the source, final control of use must be the Director’s. And in working to achieve this in its simplest form, ABC engineers are pace-setters. Wherever possible, they have designed or adapted picture and sound source equipment for pre-setting, and made selection and operation available by the press of a button in the Control Suite.

This then is the place where programmes are put together; where the Director is king-pin. But between him and the finished product leaving the Control Suite, for recording or transmission, stands the final check of the Technical Supervisor. He has the last adjustment of sound and picture. Like a checker on a factory floor, only his acceptance passes the product as Well Made.

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Armchair Theatre.‘The exciting event in television drama’.

This, in the words of its new producer, is what Armchair Theatre sets out to be. ‘I want viewers to look forward, eagerly, with a sense of occasion to each production.’ Nothing could be more typical of this ‘sense of occasion’ than the recent production of The Paradise Suite starring Carroll Baker, famous for her Baby Doll role.

A greater variety, rather than a complete change of dramatic diet, is what Armchair Theatre will offer viewers this year. While continuing with its policy of encouraging new writing for television, the series will broaden its scope. The realistic approach of many of its plays will be retained, and there will be others whose subject and style will reflect the lighter side of life.

Angus Wilson’s The Invasion, a satirical comedy starring Frances Rowe, Athene Seyler and Patrick Wymark, is one of a number of new plays specially commissioned to provide this balance.

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Robert Muller gave up being a dramatic critic to become a playwright. It’s not surprising then that two of his four plays for Armchair Theatre have dealt with the world of show business. The first Afternoon of a Nymph dealt with the pressures that surround a starlet on the fringe. In The Paradise Suite, the play which brought Carroll Baker all the way from the States to Teddington (home of Armchair Theatre) for her world tv play debut, Muller analyses the conflict between the real self and the Hollywood-imposed image of a big star, Lena Roland.Three scenes from The Paradise Suite: Whoever Lena’s with – be it real people like Adler (a magazine photographer played by Sam Wanamaker), the empty, mocking image of her statue or of her reflection in the mirror – she is always alone… prevented by her stardom and by the luxury of the Paradise Suite from any human contact with the world outside.

About the author

The Promotion Department, based at 1 Hanover Square in London, was responsible for promoting ABC programmes in the press and for explaining the process of television to potential advertisers.

1 thought on “The cockpit

  1. Lots of memories for me as a Vision Mixer at ABC Didsbury. The vision mixing machine in Studio One was fantastic, loved using it. I didnt get the chance to do Armchair Theatre, I was an assistant PA
    then, I also sadly wasnt a VM when the pop shows were done. Then I started training for VM
    The great June Howson did the dramas and Betty Broughton did the music early on.

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