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Barbara Harris: BECTU Interview Part 2 (1989)

Discusses her directorial work in commercial television at ITV

Main image of Barbara Harris: BECTU Interview Part 2 (1989)

The copyright of this recording and transcript is vested in the BECTU History Project. Barbara Harris was interviewed by Roy Fowler with John Hamilton on 30 November 1989.

1. Television stars of the 1950s

JH: Arthur Askey had a very long running series.

JH: Yes, the translation of the old bandwagon show, the radio show. I remembered reading a critic once saying Arthur was the first star really who actually fitted the medium.

BH: He was. Was it he who brought Sabrina in? Sabrina was the well-endowed young lady, blond, a great walk on and always brought great... mind you they were starting audiences then too. We didn't have audiences at AP but there were audiences at Lime Grove.

JH: Before Your Very Eyes. It became one of his catchphrases. [unintelligible]

BH: But they were such good troopers, they took a lot of flack, specially on rehearsals because you would go on and on.

JH: They were very good shows, variety shows.

BH: They were good shows. Henry was still doing it, Henry Caldwell.

JH: With Lloyd Williams working with him, Lloyd was the connection into ITV, eventually for many of us.

BH: We used to have the Robinson programmes too.

JH: The Music Show, [possibly Music For You], Eric Robinson shows.

BH: They were very, very popular shows and Eric used to come on. I used to go down in the studio in those days and nearly always it was the same session boys and they used to play 'Hearts and Flowers' to me when I went down there, it was very sweet, different name bands but the same boys, the same session boys, working so hard. You used to get to know them all of course.

2. Migration of BBC staff to commercial TV

BH: Well the BBC boards would always ask you your background, your educational qualifications, of which I had nil and they would note all these down and they would say you don't stand an earthly, that was their attitude, you don't stand an earthly. You have applied, we have to see you but don't expect to join, it was absolute cut off.

RF: Who sat on these boards.

BH: People like Mary Adams and Grace Wyndham Goldie and those people and there must have been official men on them, but I don't really remember them. I remember the women more because I think I used to try to appeal to them, that I wanted to do it, desperately wanted to do it.

Commercial came and of course I was courted by every company, the world was my oyster, I had the choice of it all you know which was absolutely fabulous.

RF: How did they go about it, did they call up, invite you out for lunch?

BH: Call you up, invite you out for lunch and drinks and offered you money. You think, I was earning about £400 a year there and it crept up and it crept up and then someone offered me £1,000 a year and I thought I would never ever get £1000 a year.

RF: Your BBC was £400?

BH: About £400. I was offered this to train and select the vision mixers.

RF: How did people know about you, they had previously worked with you?

BH: Of course. Yes.

RF: And they themselves had been wooed away.

BH: Of course. I accepted and Rediffusion offered me a £1000 a year and I thought this was absolutely splendid you know and I went over.

RF: What was the reaction at the BBC?

BH: Doreen Stephens immediately offered me a job, I had 3 producers jobs offered, but I said I am sorry I have signed now. Mary Adams offered me a job, Grace Wyndham Goldie and Doreen Stephens - all offered me producers jobs. And I said I am sorry I have signed. And the only one I ever met afterwards was Mary Adams and she apologised. She said I know you tried all those years and I am sorry we did not give you the opportunity and that was the only one who's ever mentioned it.

But within 6 months I was directing because in the early days they engaged a lot of B film directors, his is commercial and of course the had no idea about continues takes. Within 6 months they said would you like to direct. And I grabbed it. It just went from then onwards. And of course when we had our salaries upped the BBC were terrified because so many people were going across. The people who were left behind said 'Oh no we want security, BBC and all that'. They immediately had their salaries upped. So we felt a bit deflated about that.

RF: Did they ever reach the commercial level?

BH: Oh yes. It took a long time.

RF: The BBC union was then certainly very weak.

BH: Very weak but they did not want more people to go, they were losing left right and centre, they were losing people

RF: The people that Rediffusion was recruiting were they all BBC.

BH: Ex-BBC except for the directors which, they were getting from the film business. And they soon realised that they just could not cope with continuous takes.

RF: Were any people being trained up or not?

BH: Gradually, that came later, but the ones they engaged, they had training sessions down at the studios in Fulham Broadway, going on all the time there. They must have spent a lot of money training. I remember when I was interviewed I think it the Australian man who interviewed me, I can't remember, and he said how many shows had I done. And I said I reckoned I'd done 7,000 shows. So he said I don't think we need to train you. So that was the end of my training there and I was put on training other people of course. So it went from there, we were busy training everybody for every job really. It was almost like the beginning of Ally Pally [Alexander Palace] because there was a great enthusiasm, great training going on and everybody was wanting to get into the act.

3. Early years of Rediffusion

RF: The start up costs must have been huge.

BH: Absolutely enormous, but of course Rediffusion did make a lot of money and it was my bad luck I suppose that I did a lot of panel games, on and on and on.

RF: Anything to tell us about the initial period, the warm-up period as the station approaches coming on the air?

BH: Yes, there were a lot of trial programmes, people had their own ideas of what they wanted and they were allowed to do them. They weren't highly successful and you think someone's been thinking about this for years probably and it didn't seem to gel.

RF: Was there a great difference in attitude between the new bunch and BBC, was it noticeably so?

BH: It was noticeably that we were all the same. Programme and engineering, we were all going ahead, mixing together, although as I say we did mix socially on the BBC side, but everybody mixed from any grade right the way down they all mixed together. All intermingled, all asking people questions of course, the engineering, my side of it, vision mixing were asking production questions, and production people were asking engineering questions, capabilities, what they thought we could do and how advanced we were. Of course we weren't much more advanced than the BBC really, but I think that we were willing to have a go at things, take more chances with things.

RF: Was recruiting any more open would you say, if a lad turned up from the East Ham would he stand a chance?

BH: Well, there was that lovely, Albert, that lovely Cockney floor manager they had, oh yes anybody, anybody who applied, if they had the capabilities. A lot of them I suppose worked on small radio stations and things like that and they were all applying, it was wonderful. You see Rediffusion was the first, they were the pioneers and they had only been on the air I think 3 months and they realised that they couldn't go on with the staff they had, because they had to have trained staff, so they were falling more back onto the BBC people that had come over.

And they were pulling the BBC people up to higher grades and we were just very lucky. I consider myself very lucky because I got in and I got there and then I was offered more work and it was a very lucky period. Because they nearly went broke you know after the 3 months, the first 3 months, they lost so much money. I think in fact they even closed down one studio and kept going on one studio because they only had a certain amount of money. It was a very scrimping time. They kept the nucleus of staff there, they got rid of all the ones they had got in from outside and this little nucleus, practically all BBC, ex BBC group. There was one good thing about it because the BBC had a very high standard, very high standard then for their picture quality and their sound quality at the end of the 50s and that high quality came over.

RF: Which rubbed off onto the ITA [Independent Television Authority].

BH: Rubbed off, because I always used to say in those early days the high quality is entirely due to the BBC trained staff and they all wanted to keep this high quality up.

4. More on Rediffusion

BH: I was doing about 5 panel games a week. I had a production assistant and a secretary and they were about...I think there were about 800 and 1,000 letters a week. I think I used to try and read most of them but I used to stamp A, B, C, D for replies on them and the girls would just get out the concrete letter for that. In the end I couldn't even sign them, I had to have a rubber stamp for my signature because there was so much. And then I complained that I was doing so many shows and it was Peter Wills then, and he said 'Yes, I will do something to help you, you can't go on like this, churning, churning them out'. So he put, above me Leslie Mitchell and Colonel de Lisle, Chris de Lisle [no record of this person]. He put those two people above me and they had their secretaries. So not only was I doing 5 panel games a week I was telling them what to do too. And it was absolutely ridiculous because they had no idea what they were put above.

RF: These were night-time shows were they?

BH: Oh, yes.

BH: 7.30 to 8 popular quiz time shows. I was doing What's it All About, Crossroads, Double Your Money, I've Got a Secret, The Unexplained, 123 Click ﷓﷓ I can't remember what that was - that was all within a month I was doing all those shows.

RF: Were these across the board shows, were they on every night or once a week?

BH: 3 times a week, about 3 times a week. Maurice Winnick, he was doing a lot of the panel games, I can't remember all of them we were doing, John P Wyn...but I was really churning them out. It was a strain for me, a strain for the staff, it was really impossible. No one should really work at that speed.

RF: What sort of schedule did you have, how long a camera rehearsal would you have, any camera rehearsal?

BH: About half an hour to line up the shots, voice level of the panel but not the guests.

RF: In front of an audience?

BH: No.

RF: All studio.

BH: The show had an audience but not the rehearsal.

RF: That's what I mean.

BH: Oh yes the show had an audience.

RF: But in the studio or in a theatre?

BH: No, in the studio, well we did a lot in the theatre, this Fulham Broadway Theatre

RF: That was the Granville.

BH: That's it, Granville, I'd forgotten that name. And then a lot in the studio of course, it was endless, absolutely endless.

RF: Actually, the time you were on the air was the least of the burdens.

BH: Almost, you had to get contestants, you had to get researchers, you had to get questions, it all had to be done.

RF: Do you remember what your budget was for a typical show?

BH: They were probably under a £1,000 because you would pay a guest artist on the panel £20 or something like that. The compere you might pay £50.

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