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 –

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