The mystery of the additional mechanical BBC clocks

Until the early 1980s, BBC One and BBC Two made use of mechanical clock devices as a means of introducing certain programmes, such as the news. The clock was also generally used to lead into live programming, such as Grandstand and Swap Shop. The morning edition of Play School on BBC Two was also linked to using the clock, as the programme traditionally started at exactly 11am.

On 6th September 1980, BBC Two was finally upgraded to an electronically generated timepiece, to complement the entirely electronic ident introduced to the channel in summer 1979. It was just over a year later before BBC One got its electronic clock, which was first spotted in early December 1981.

But, back to the mechanical clock era. One clock per channel would suffice – or so you’d think, yes? Well, it seems that there was more than one clock in use on each channel. The question is – why?

Here’s a recording showing some lunchtime BBC One continuity on the day of the first space mission for the Columbia shuttle. Look carefully at the clock in the 12pm junction – and compare it to the one used to introduce the news just over an hour later.

VIDEO: BBC One start-up, space shuttle launch coverage and lunchtime news. TX DATE/TIME: 10th April 1981, 12pm. SUPPLIED BY: YouTube Channel – Treffynnon19. COPYRIGHT: BBC.

There are actually two mechanical clock devices in use here. The most notable difference is the second hand – much thinner, and with a slight judder on the 12pm model; thicker, with smoother motion on the model introducing the news. The clock device used at 12pm is also at a slight angle; whereas the camera on the news junction clock seems to be positioned at a neater angle.

So, why the need for two models? Well, perhaps the answer lies in how presentation captions made it on to our screens.

From the 1960s through until the mid-1980s, many of the key captions used by the BBC Presentation department originated in the Noddy facility. This was essentially a series of mechanical devices and text-based captions mounted within a wooden rack. A monochrome camera (and light) could move to a number pre-defined positions, pointing directly at any one of these captions/devices. And with the help of a colour synthesiser, the results were put to air. Noddy was the home of the BBC One globe symbol and the accompanying channel clock. It also housed the BBC One Schools and Colleges countdown clock, as well as various apology captions. BBC Two had a similar Noddy facility.

Here’s a shot of the BBC One Noddy set-up. The globe symbol and Schools & Colleges countdown clock are clear to see. And if you look a little closer, top left of shot, you’ll see the clock device.

A key technical limitation of this set-up was the inability to cut directly between any of the captions in the Noddy stack. There would have to be a short period of black, to neatly disguise the transition (the camera had to move position after all). However, BBC Presentation also made significant use of Rank Cintel slide scanners – for programme slides mainly. So, the combination of Noddy captions and slides provided some flexibility within junctions.

Here are some examples of programme slides, put to air via the Rank Cintel scanner:

If two Noddy-based captions were required in a single junction, slides often provided a useful bridge between them. For example, during a typical BBC One Schools and Colleges junction, the clock was the first caption to appear after each programme. The announcer would inform us what programme was coming up next and when, before switching to a ‘Follows Shortly’ slide for the upcoming programme. One minute prior to the start of the next programme, the Schools & Colleges countdown device would appear, providing pupils and teachers with a useful visual indication as to when the programme would begin. Both the clock and the countdown device originated in the Noddy facility.

What other type of junction required two Noddy captions? The obvious one is the transition between the clock and globe symbol for the National Anthem at closedown. Announcers often got around this by fading the clock to black, before fading up the symbol. But on many occasions, there was evidence of a direct cut between the two captions – there are two possibilities here: there was a second clock device, handled outside of the main Noddy mechanism; the globe was played in from VT (which we’ve been told did happen sometimes).

So, if playing the globe symbol off VT at closedown was an option – again, the question remains, why the need for a second clock? Well, broadcast VT machines were large and expensive in those days and required a dedicated technician. So, maybe there was a cost implication on some occasions – and having a second clock available was the better option.

In terms of the footage above, from 10th April 1981 – it doesn’t include any obvious cutting between Noddy captions, yet two different clock devices were used. Even in the first of the two junctions, sandwiched between the globe and clock, there’s a programme menu. The imagery here would’ve come off a slide – and surely the menu text originated from a caption generator?

That brings us to another type of caption that required a camera. Back in the days before caption generators with lots of font options were available, programme menus required use of a live camera, pointing at a printed/letraset-style programme listing. So, this caption, used in the 12pm junction, probably required a camera, in addition to the one in the Noddy set-up:

Worth noting that the BBC One menu captions usually included “Details in Radio Times” text (oddly, BBC Two menus never usually did). That text is missing here – presumably because this was a late schedule change.

So, the 12pm junction could’ve used the main Noddy globe and clock without issue (and we believe it did). And the 1.08pm junction was a simple one: just the clock. So, not sure why two different clock models were necessary here?

As well as programme menus, there were other captions that required use of a camera – and were not catered for by the main Noddy facility: cross-channel promotion captions. Back in the days before computer graphics and Quantel were commonplace in the Presentation dept, graphics were produced in a slightly more creative way: paper, card and print mostly, with a camera pointed at it. Here are some early 1980s examples:

Cross-channel promotion captions like these were only used in the evenings. They were often immediately preceded the globe symbol or clock. The ability to cut between the channel symbol/clock and one of these cross-channel graphics meant they couldn’t all be catered for out of the same Noddy facility.

Hopefully someone out there who worked in BBC Presentation during this era can provide a definitive explanation for the need for two clock devices. Clearly there was at least one other camera in use on each channel, outside of the main Noddy device, to help get various presentation captions on air. This second camera – as well as the slide scanner – would have provided enough flexibility to avoid the need for two clocks. The only notable exception to that being the direct cut between clock and globe at closedown – so was this the main reason for the second clock device? It so, it doesn’t explain the curious use of both clock devices during the remainder of the day (and this happened a lot).

Other possible theories put forward by readers:

  • A Noddy set-up will have been available in the spare Network Control facility (known as Sub-Control). Sub-Control had to be capable of providing back-up network control facilities for both BBC One and BBC Two and so would’ve had spare versions of the BBC One and BBC Two symbols/clocks. The main network control areas may have had access to the spare Noddy facility. The use of the spare equipment may have been a means of keeping it in regular use and ensuring it was all in working order, in case either of the channels ever had to fully decamp to the reserve facility at short notice.
  • There was also a special continuity suite for the transmission of Open University programmes. Some have suggested it may also have been used for the playout of daytime schools programmes. It’s not clear how well equipped OU Con was or when it came into on-air use. (We believe it was first used on air c. 1984, which is post-mechanical clocks era).
  • The Noddy room in the main NC area had two clocks: one in the rack and another, high up on the wall. It was high enough up on the wall to allow a second camera to avoid the Noddy rack getting in the way. The main purpose of the second clock being to allow for a cut between globe and clock – and this didn’t always just happen at closedown, as this clip demonstrates:
VIDEO: cut between BBC One globe ident and clock in the lead-up to the first edition of News After Noon. TX DATE/TIME: 7th September 1981, 12.28pm. SUPPLIED BY: YouTube Channel – David Balwin. COPYRIGHT: BBC.

And if there was a second clock mounted on the wall of the main network control Noddy room, the clip above suggests this clock was the one with the thicker second hand. Which seems about right, given that the other clock appeared to be at a slight angle, which is in keeping with the idea that it was inside the Noddy rack and the camera would’ve struggled to be perfectly straight on it.

As for the definitive explanation – the mystery remains, for now. But we’re sure that somewhere in this article, we have the right answer!

Acknowledgements

FEATURE IMAGE:

PICTURED: BBC One 1981 clock (recreation). SUPPLIED BY: created using facilities at 625.uk.com. COPYRIGHT: BBC.

Posted by The Clean Feed Team

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