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.
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.
In 1980, BBC Two’s Did You See…? went behind-the-scenes in the BBC Presentation department. During the report, we catch a glimpse of the continuity desk in NC1 Con:
The labels on the mixers clearly indicate the possibility of two channel clock devices: a mixer labelled ‘Clock Camera’ – indicating a dedicated camera for a clock device; and one of the other mixers labelled ‘Noddy’ – a special set-up that was home to a number of captions, including a clock device (there’s more about Noddy below).
It’s been suggested to us that the Noddy room in the main Network Control 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 ‘wall clock’ was presumably accessed via the ‘Clock Camera’ option on the continuity desk.
So, why the need for two clock 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 background imagery on the menu 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:
As a side note: these 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 generally only used in the evenings. They 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.
We believe there must’ve been at least two other cameras in use on each channel, outside of the main Noddy device, to help get various presentation captions on air – excluding the standalone camera that provided a second clock option.
The available cameras – as well as the slide scanner – ought to have provided enough flexibility to avoid the need for two clocks. The only notable exception to this would be a direct cut between clock and globe at closedown. So was this the main reason for the second clock device?
If so, why the curious use of both clock devices during the remainder of the day (and this happened a lot)? Well, the explanation for this might just simply be user discretion – i.e., the announcer felt like using a particular clock.
Cuts between globe and clock weren’t exclusive to closedown, as we see in this example:
The more common execution of the above scenario would’ve been to insert an appropriate programme-specific ‘Follows Shortly’ slide between the ident and clock.
The clip above suggests the wall-mounted 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.
The need for the ability to cut/mix between the globe and clock captions would seem to be the main reason for the need for separate camera arrangements for each. It does beg the question, why have both of them in the Noddy facility at all? Perhaps the standalone clock device came along later, to better accommodate globe/clock transitions?
There’s bound to be an ex-BBC Presentation person out there who knows.
PICTURED: BBC One 1981 clock (recreation). SUPPLIED BY: created using facilities at 625.uk.com. COPYRIGHT: BBC.