Recording ‘Public Eye’ (ABC) on location in Birmingham (1966)

 

Guy Verney directs Alfred Burke on location

Few major British television drama series of the 1960s have a worse survival rate than that of the first three series of Public Eye (ABC, 1965-68/ Thames 1969-75). Of the 41 episodes of the first three series made by ABC, only five survive, which have just been released on DVD by Network (the four later series made by Thames thankfully survive in their entirety). Much of the reason for Public Eye’s poor archival status must lie in the sort of programme that it was, recently described by Dave Rolinson as “a magisterial detective-based drama (…) which got huge ratings for many years with its alliance of inventiveness, character focus, an unconventional lead and sometimes minimalist narrative”. A downbeat series about the cases taken on by a shabby enquiry agent (Frank Marker, played by Alfred Burke), the concerns of Public Eye seem low-key and parochial in comparison with ABC’s great success The Avengers, and achieved little in the way of equivalent cult status or international commercial export. Similarly, popular crime series were commonly held in lower esteem than other, more apparently ‘authored’, forms of drama such as the single play, hence the much greater retention of contemporaneous ABC Armchair Theatre plays.

The paucity of surviving material from the original Public Eye series makes attempting to imagine what these lost programmes must have been like an archeological process in reconstructive imagination. As even the camera scripts don’t appear to still exist, such patchy sources as a few press cuttings and the Public Eye novelization have come to hold disproportionate weight. But one extra on the DVD set provides a remarkable insight into the conditions of Public Eye’s recording and how they affected the form that the programme took onscreen.

Although the second series episode ‘You Can Keep the Medal’ (30 July 1966), does not survive, footage of it being recorded on location in Birmingham does, in the form of a five-minute feature recorded for the midlands local news programme ATV Today, transmitted on 3 June 1966. The feature consists of a scene of an encounter between Marker and a policeman (Timothy West) by a canal being recorded by an Outside Broadcast unit, the director making suggestions for a retake and an interview with Alfred Burke during a snatched tea break. Burke’s reflections about the value of different forms of TV recording are pertinent, and when viewed alongside another episode from the same series, the feature helps the viewer to understand why Public Eye took the form that it did, and the qualities that were particular to the programme.

The second series of Public Eye marked a development for the programme. Where the first series had been set in London and filmed entirely in the studio, the second moved Frank Marker to Birmingham and started to incorporate location footage. In his ATV Today interview with Reg Harcourt, Alfred Burke explains the thinking behind this decision:

Well, we felt the lack of location work last time. There were a good dozen occasions where we could with advantage have gone outside and widened the scope of it, particularly with the character of Marker who does a great deal of footwork from door-to-door

 Birmingham hasn’t been exploited on the television screens. In fact, it hasn’t been seen to my knowledge. A big city, with all the sides of life that it contains – the sordidness and the squalor as well as the smart residential areas – is the sort of area in which Marker operates and gets most of his employment.

These changes can be felt when watching the two surviving episodes from the London series back-to-back with the three that survive from the two Birmingham series. While the London episodes present rather generic stories of gangsters and prostitutes, the combination of second city local colour and sequences in actual locations create stories that feel more idiosyncratic and distinctive to the viewer. Burke describes this sense of actuality being evoked onscreen when he compares the processes of performing in the studio and on location:

Well, naturally it’s a different thing. Working in the studio, everything is much more under your control. On the other hand when you’re out here everything is real, you’re enabled to be a great deal more spontaneous because you’re in a real street, by a real canal, or on a real farm, as we were yesterday.

Much (but perhaps not all) of the location footage for Public Eye‘s second series appears to have been shot on Outside Broadcast equipment, meaning that it was recorded electronically onto videotape by a similar process to the one in the multi-camera studio, with the signals from the cameras on location being relayed by cable to a director sat in a mobile recording van, who would mix the images in the same way that he would do in the television studio gallery.

Sometimes the director’s absence from the site of recording could be problematic for performers on the ground. When asked a general question about how location work is going by Reg Harcourt, Alfred Burke’s reply appears to conflate both experiences of working on film and on Outside Broadcast, but is useful in understanding the specific problems faced by actors in the conditions of television drama production in the 1960s:

It’s going very well. It’s going the way it always does – a great deal of hanging about. The trouble with doing filming for television is that it’s alright when you’re actually doing it, but in the meantime it’s cosmically boring, because you have to do your own standing in and you’re usually standing in for your own left ear, or you’ve got to change your position and you find your foot’s in a hole or something of that kind, and the director – who is sitting 500 yards away in a mobile recording van – can’t understand why you can’t get the right position, you have to tell him that you’re half way up a mound of earth or something, but otherwise it goes alright.

  The ATV Today footage does illustrate some the limitations of Outside Broadcast recording, with the cumbersome camera equipment appearing difficult to manouvre. One of the two cameras on site attempts a mobile panning shot that requires two members of the crew to push it, and a third person to steer it.

 Such techniques were achievable on relatively flat and even surfaces such as canal walkways, but would have been hard to manage in bumpier or more remote locations.

 The benefits of the use of Outside Broadcast location and the Birmingham setting to Public Eye can be seen in the first surviving episode of the second series, ‘Don’t Forget You’re Mine’ (9 July 1966). A standard scene of Marker visiting a school in the hope of discovering information about a missing person is enlivened by being set in a real schoolyard:

 The narrative purpose of such a scene would have been just as apparent if realised through small cutaway set of the corner of a schoolyard in the studio, with sound effects of children playing, but the real setting provides the scene with the sense of spontaneity that Burke mentions. Having to speak above a noise made by the children at the same time and respond to the elements while conveying the plot means that the scene has a sense of occurring in the specific conditions of the moment, and adding considerably to the viewer’s imaginative understanding of the door-to-door work of a private detective.

 Although most of the location inserts in the episode are similarly modest scenes, the episode culminates in one highly ambitious sequence in a distinctive Birmingham landmark, when Marker sprints around New Street Station in pursuit of an endangered and unhappy girl: Enjoyable and evocative though this ambitious sequence is, it has to be said that it isn’t seamlessly integrated into the narrative of the story, appearing to come out of nowhere – the woman leaves her room and Marker suddenly tells her husband that she’s in grave danger and they must comb the streets for her, an assertion unsupported by her previous behaviour in the episode.

 It can be much harder to ascertain whether inserts are recorded on videotape or 16mm film in black-and-white programmes than it is for later colour ones, so my instinct that this sequence was made on both film and video can only be an informed guess. What is apparent about this scene is that it locates the programme into a precise point in space and time – Central Birmingham in the mid sixties, when New Street Station is being rebuilt, with the sight the Rotunda and the Bull Ring in the background signifying modernity and the urban to the ITV audience of 1966.

The Public Eye website ‘A Marker for all Seasons’ is an exemplary source of available information and appreciative and thoughtful reviews of the series – http://www.contquots.pwp.blueyonder.co.uk/

This entry was posted in Series and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

13 Responses to Recording ‘Public Eye’ (ABC) on location in Birmingham (1966)

  1. Pingback: AHRC Project – Spaces of Television Launch New Blog | News – Film, Theatre & Television at Reading

  2. Robin says:

    This Excellent Underrated series Worthy ofa show on ITV 3 or ITV 4..I have Series 5 on Dvd from 1971 in colour DVD1 contains the 4 minute interview with Alfred Burke with unknown Timothy West in the background.
    The realistic locale, Marker has Morals,quirks which make him an engaing character
    which makes viewers sympathetic to him.
    If anything most of the episodes are too downbeat,but Life is tough.
    It is also a snapshot on changing city centres of Birmingham,London,Windsor,Chertsey.
    Classic certainly not far behind the ”Avengers”

  3. Frank Marker says:

    Very good series, well woth watching.

  4. Hannah says:

    Thank you for this intriguing analysis. I’ve watched this footage and the interview with Alfred Burke was great to see. Despite the downsides I think he rather enjoyed location filming.
    I have recently finished working my way through all the black and white episodes of Public Eye. The five episodes that exist from the first three series are fantastic and make me long for more. I agree that there is a noticeable shift when Marker moves to Birmingham. The episodes seem more ambitious with more unusual plots. I would love to see more of him in Birmingham, perhaps with a few more actual Brummie accents too!

  5. David Steers says:

    Excellent blog and an excellent series. It is such a shame that so many of the early episodes are lost.

  6. Nick Nicolaou says:

    Just watched ‘ Have A Cup Of Tea’ on YouTube. Great performance from Mr Burke. He’s recovering in hospital from a bad beating, and appears to be down and out. Reluctantakes on a job through Percy, and finds a young woman with a newly born baby, in parlous circumstances, at her wits end ( Rosalind Ayres ) , who’s as down as he is.

  7. Alan Robinson says:

    An enjoyable and interesting insight into an unfairly overlooked TV series. ‘Public Eye’ is the type of drama that would be unlikely to be made in the here and now; the action – such as it is, is pared down, and the central role of Frank Marker, as portrayed by the very subtle and nuanced Alfred Burke, would be difficult to cast. Besides, not having a love interest or a ‘dark secret’ would not play with the kind of audience that demands greater pace or controversy. Also, the Brighton and Windsor series have a certain visual quality – being shot on video, they have a look that’s of its time. ‘Public Eye’ is a series that has worn extremely well, and not just for nostalgia value. It is a showcase for fine British character acting, a sense of the down-at-heel and shabby underbelly of the supposedly swinging sixties and uneasy seventies, and great TV writing. A shame that so much of the early series no longer exist.

  8. Stephen Vincent says:

    Why didn’t they use film cameras for location work. You would think it would be easier and cheaper than using video cameras.

    • billysmart says:

      Having set up an OB Unit, the amount of material that they could record in a day was considerably greater than with film. Also, when given the choice, directors often preferred the stylistic unity of matching videotaped studio interiors with exteriors recorded on video.

      • Stephen Vincent says:

        Thanks, that is interesting.

        The thought struck me, that as they already had the equipment for live broadcasts, it made sense to use it for recorded drama, rather than leave it in a Depot and not use it. Could this also be a reason?

      • billysmart says:

        That’s true up to a point. The big ITV companies had both film and OB Units in-house that drama Production Unit Managers could use for their shows. OB crews were generally less experienced in filming drama than film ones, with most of their work coming from sports and other public events.

  9. Tony Batchford says:

    Remember it as a youth.My parents loved it!
    Now I am enjoying the whole series on “whatever”channel.
    Great Actor Mr Burke and also pretty good almost believable casting as opposed
    to that dross “Bodyguard”recently screened.
    I suppose its only us with some sort of taste that will continue to enjoy the adventures of Frank and also the repeats!!

  10. Debbie says:

    Absolutely love ‘Public Eye’, remember my mum watching it, I was only little,it was the opening credits i remember with Marker walking down the passage ,looking back . Now I’m enjoying the series as a big girl,what a good actor Alfred Burke was.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *