LIGHT ENTERTAINMENT PRODUCTION - ALEXANDRA PALACE
I worked as a production Secretary for Richard Afton when Television programmes re-started after the war. The Production Team consisted of the Producer and his Secretary. The workload was heavy, sometimes as many as five shows in a week. For the smaller productions you would not meet up with the camera crew, Studio Manager, technicians or scene staff until you came into the studio on the day of transmission.
For each programme we were issued with a "Ration Book", which came with an allocation of money for that particular programme. This had to cover the artists fees, orchestra, musical arrangements, scenery, costumes and any other miscellaneous expenses. It was the secretary's responsibility to keep the Producer informed as to how the money was going. Woebetide anyone who overspent - although this was not an uncommon occurrence! We also had a "Bible", which listed the things we were not allowed to do, i.e. No advertising, no making fun of any affliction or medical condition, no swear words to be used unless special permission was granted for a particular dramatic effect, no revealing costumes to be worn, etc., etc.… Mrs Whitehouse had a few causes for complaint in the early days!
We had no scripts as such to work on for L.E. Programmes - we used a Running Order, (situation comedy was something for the future), so the first step was to book the cast. This meant liaising with various theatrical agents to see who was available, and the Producer and sometimes his secretary would visit cabarets and shows in the West End looking for suitable acts. We also held a great many auditions, as the stars of television had yet to be found. The cast having been chosen, you would then have to liaise with the Contracts Department who would negotiate a suitable fee, (£100, even for a star would have been a lot of money then). The next step would be to get the billing in the Radio Times. Then it was down to getting things organised. As a secretary, you would be present at any planning meetings and when the Producer had decided what he wanted it was your job to liaise with the various departments - scenery, props, wardrobe, make-up, caption artists, music, etc. to make sure that it happened. There were of course the inevitable forms to fill in for most of this.
We rarely had enough money to use a Set Designer for our shows, which meant we had to go round the scenery store, (which was in the auditorium of the old Theatre at A.P.), and pick out bits and pieces from stock. We were issued with blank plans of Studios A & B and the chosen pieces of scenery for each act had to be drawn on the plan so that the studio could be set up for rehearsal, (only on the day of transmission, as the studios were in continual use). We were also supplied with cuts-outs of the various camera dollies, (Iron Man, Crab and Crane), and the Sound Boom, and these also had to be drawn on the plan and the camera movements worked out. You then had to transfer this plan onto a smaller foolscap sized stencil, (by drawing it with a stylus), so that a copy could be attached to all the thirty or so running orders that were required. If it was a big important show, the set would be specially designed and the Master Plan would be done for you, but you still had to transfer it to a stencil and put in the cameras, etc.
The running order for a show was rarely finalised until the last possible moment, and many's the time I would find myself creeping round a dark and errie Alexandra Palace after midnight, having typed and duplicated the running order myself, (everyone else having long since gone home), and then distributing them round the studio which was being set up over night so that it was ready for us to start rehearsing at 10am the next morning. At that time I lived only five minutes away from A.P., but to get home I had to walk over a deserted piece of waste land. Those of us who went in that direction usually armed ourselves with umbrellas or long hatpins just in case. In 1993 I don't think we could have contemplated this journey alone after midnight.
Although we didn't have a script as such, individual artists, particularly comedians, were asked to submit a script well in advance so that it could be vetted. We seldom got it, and often ended up with the comic dictating his act over the telephone, (a sure way of making it sound very unfunny).
I particularly remember an Old Tyme Music Hall show we did with Lew Lake as compere. He'd been doing this for years at the old Collins Music Hall in Islington and had never used a script - but he always used enormously long words to introduce the artists. He tried to dictate something to me over the telephone, but we got nowhere, so he said come over to Collins Music Hall and we'll work something out together. I went, and after an interesting tour of the Theatre we ended up in the foyer bar where he poured us both a drink. I got out my note book to start on the script but we'd no sooner taken a sip of our drinks when he suddenly grabbed me and said "Quick, get under the bar". When we were safely out of sight he said, "There's a copper outside and they're always trying to 'do' me for serving drinks after hours!" So there we sat for the next half hour trying to write a script under the bar. It didn't work. In the end I compromised by asking him to think of all the long words he might use, and I went away and made up the script - he was never going to remember it anyway!
We seldom rehearsed L.E. shows except on the day of transmission, (apart from dance routines for the Television Toppers), because the performers had been doing their acts for years in Music Halls and Cabarets, and the rehearsal was more for our benefit than theirs. Occasionally though we did do more complicated shows and rehearsal room had to be booked. We usually ended up in a room over a pub - and these could be anywhere in London. A great deal of time was then spent travelling between rehearsal room and the office at A.P. One show in the early 1950's we planned to rehearse beforehand was the Goon Show. (It must have been after the move to Lime Grove). This was an extremely popular radio show but had never been televised. The Goons, (Peter Sellers, Michael Bentine, Harry Secombe, Spike Milligan and Graham Stark), duly assembled about three weeks before the proposed transmissions date with the script already written. We got through the first day's rehearsal with much hilarity and seemed to make some progress - but come the second morning and one of them had had a brilliant idea over night - and half the script had to be re-written. The next day someone else had a brilliant idea and the next day and the next …. It never stopped. Wardrobe and Props Department were going frantic with all the changes we kept making. We began to think we would never get the show on the air - and in fact we never did. We were saved by a sad occurrence - the death of King George VI - and all programmes were cancelled until after the funeral. (In fact the Goon Show wasn't televised till many years later, when it was done with puppets).
On this day I was always instructed not to leave the side of my Producer - as hopefully I would know the answer if someone or something was not there. The first thing we did on arrival in the studio was to check the set and the lighting to make sure everything was as the Producer had ordered - or thought he had ordered! Richard Afton was an Irishman and very superstitious of the colour green. Although television was only in black and white then, if anything green appeared in the studio he would insist it was removed or re-painted. The day usually started with a 'Band Call', when the artists would rehearse their music with the orchestra. You would previously have made sure that they had the right parts for the orchestra you were using on that occasion - and when they hadn't, arrange for orchestrations to be made. I would often spend time during this period soothing people's nerves, especially if they were new to television. Once camera rehearsal started I would sit next to the Producer in the Control Room, and it was my responsibility to time the individual acts and the programme as a whole. This was simple enough at rehearsal, but whenever an audience was involved, their reaction, especially to comedians could make a difference of anything up to ten minutes on an hour's programme. Consequently we were always having to send frantic messages to the Studio Manager to get the performers to speed things up or pad things out. It was often more a matter of luck than judgement if you managed to finish on time. If you over-ran by too much you would be faded out and would then have to face the wrath of the final artist - usually the star of the show. Also during rehearsals, one had to take notes to be passed on to artists during the break between rehearsal and transmission. If once they escaped from the studio you would have to track them down perhaps in make-up department, the canteen or in "The Dive", (a bar in the grounds of A.P.). After we moved to Lime Grove, it could be the pub at either end of the road.
During transmission I would have to keep a very strict eye on the time and warn if we were gaining or losing minutes on each act. I would also have to keep the Producer informed of what was coming next, and sometimes line up shots for him.
After transmission, it was the secretary's job to pay the artists. This usually took the form of a cheque, but if the artists were foreign and leaving the country immediately, they would probably want cash. If the programme was on a Saturday, this might mean carrying several hundred pounds around with you from 5pm on Friday night when the Cash Office closed until Saturday night.
Another problem was music. We had no resident orchestra, although Eric Robinson was our faithful conductor for most shows, and musicians were booked individually for each occasion. This meant if there was no Librarian on duty, I would have to sort through an enormous pile of manuscript music and make sure everyone had their own parts back. It was also one's responsibility to list for the Performing Rights Society every item of music played - even if it was only a minute - giving details of composer and publisher. We were supposed to get this information from the artists. It was difficult enough when they were English, but if they happened to be Chinese jugglers who didn't speak English and only had tatty manuscript music which had toured the world with them, what chance did you stand! It's not surprising that rather a lot of items on our lists appeared as "Traditional - Non Copyright".
You asked for some names that we worked with. Herewith just a few that I can remember:
Tony Hancock, Vera Lynn, Norman Wisdom, Julie Andrews (as a child), Tessie O'Shea, Gracie Fields, Max Bygraves, Peter Sellers, Harry Secombe, Michael Bentine, Spike Milligan, Martha Raye, Norman Evans, Nat Jackley, Sandy Powell, Wee Georgie Wood, Winifred Atwell, Jewell and Warris, Peter Brough and Archie Andrews, "Teasy-Weasy" Raymond, Katie Boyle, Joan Sutherland, Arthur Askey, Petula Clarke, and finally Victor Silvester.
Joy Barrett (nee May)