Darrol Blake Interview Part I: Designing for the BBC in the 1950s and 1960s

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In July 2011 Leah Panos and myself had the good fortune to interview veteran television director Darrol Blake in his Barnes Bridge home. In a career that spans fifty years, Darrol started as a Design Assistant at the BBC in the 1950s, going on to become a Production Designer and then direct for the BBC, before becoming a freelance director for both the BBC and a range of ITV companies from the 1970s onwards. In the first part of our interview Darrol talks about working as a designer at the BBC in the 1950s and 1960s, working on a diverse range of programmes made in several different studios.

The 1950s

DB. The first programmes came from Lime Grove in 1950, but because it was a film studio and because it was the most bizarre building, when it was a film studio it had five sound stages – two on the fourth floor, would you believe? – a huge one and a sort of narrow one beside it on the first floor and a tiny one, that was the five studios. But there was no back lot or anything; houses, the Metropolitan Line tube and Shepherds Bush Market surrounded it. It was hemmed in. So there was no outdoor work in the film studios, or certainly not for us in the BBC. The massive studio with the huge tank in the middle was used as a scenery store by the BBC and was never used as a studio. So we had two studios up on the forth floor and this long narrow studio which was where we did the Quatermass serial in 1955, and this tiny studio in the side which was the children’s’ programmes place.

 The Shepherds Bush Empire around the corner was the conventional variety theatre where the stage was built out to take the cameras and things, and half of the stalls were covered over so that you could have an orchestra or other technicians. So half of the stalls, and of course the circle and upper circle, remained for the audience. So that worked for many years as a television studio theatre.

 The BBC acquired Riverside Studios in 1955, after it closed as a film studio in 1954. And they’d made some quite respectable films there, as they had done in Lime Grove. But the two tiny studios at Alexander Palace also still existed at this time, and by the time that I arrived there to work at the BBC it was only the News Division who were left there, and they didn’t move out until Television Centre was up and running.

 The access to the studios in Lime Grove was by giant goods lifts; one at the front and one at the back. So if you wanted to use anything like a car in the studio, you had to take it up to the fourth floor in one of these giant lifts. But Studio F, the big studio, was where they built sets, which they then took up in the lifts to the various studios. So Lime Grove was where the Television Service was, that and Alexandra Palace. Television Centre didn’t come on stream until 1960, once they were into recording things, but the majority of Lime Grove programming – drama talks and everything – was for live transmission.

BS. So, logistically, could several studios be used simultaneously for recording and transmission?

DB. Oh yes, but in the mid-fifties the majority was live. We transmitted Quatermass live from Studio G and I can remember working as [Production Designer] Stephen Taylor‘s assistant in the studio. There was a moment in the play where this rocket was fired off to another planet and there was a close up of a control panel. I was supposed to get the house electrician to wire it up so that when they fired it lit up, and there was a special close-up of this thing. And I got halfway home and I thought, “God, I’ve forgotten!” So I watched the thing in somebody else’s house and up came the shot and nothing happened and the show went on. It was live so you could do nothing about it. I don’t think that anybody even said anything; there was just a rather strange shot of some gear that didn’t light up… But that was life in those days – the fact that it was live concentrated your mind like nobody’s business. Actors were sick in the fire buckets and all sorts. But most actors were experienced in the theatre, so to break the programme up to record it in parts was strange to them. They were used to starting in the beginning and going right the way through, and the fact that the odd million or whatever were watching them they tried to disregard. But they had to do ridiculous things like change their costume on the run from set to set. My wife [Anne Cunningham] was in the original cast of Coronation Street, for instance, so they did one live followed by one recorded.

 So that conditioned the way that things were written, the way things were designed because obviously they all had to fit in the studio at the same time. Later on, when you got into recorded programmes you could put up a set and record absolutely everything in that set for six episodes or whatever in one block. When I got to Emmerdale Farm in 1977, it was established by then that you put up thepub set or the farm set and knocked off scenes for six episodes at a time. Most scenes were put in the farm kitchen so the cast ate huge meals. They’d have six breakfasts or six dinners and then break for lunch!

LP. In your early career as a design assistant and then a designer at the BBC, what was the process of assigning jobs? You mention that you worked on other formats like light entertainment. Were you just a drama designer or did you work across different genres?

DB. No, you always worked in different things, although some people specialized. The experienced senior designers got the big dramas to do, and there was a certain amount of patronage in that producers and directors would ask for specific designers because they liked working with them. That went on so they’d have to ring the design manager and book you. But I’d attached myself to Stephen Taylor who was a brilliant designer and died disgracefully young at 33, I’d worked with him and then went away to do National Service. I volunteered for Cyprus and Gibraltar and Singapore and all of the trouble spots of the time and I got sent to Epping – North Weald to be precise – at the other end of the Central Line. My work was extremely boring and I got on the tube and went back to Shepherds Bush or Riverside whenever Stephen had something interesting on the floor, so I’d get off and come and do a play with Eartha Kitt, say. The other guys in the huts were totally disbelieving that I was doing that, this spotty idiot. Dick Levin was head of the Design department at the time, he was a second father to me, but it was Roy Oxley, the assistant head who was a practicing designer who actually gave me the job in the print room. So the thing about National Service was that if you were employed before you went in the firm that employed you had to take you back once you’d finished. I’d hardly been away because I’d very often been in the studio with Stephen.

 When I came back Dick Levin had decided that the general standard of design in minor programmes – talks programmes and panel games and women’s programmes, there was a ghetto called women’s programmes in those days – was not very good, so he was going to bring somebody in. He brought in the woman who had been the Head of Display at Simpsons Department store, who knew nothing about scenery or faking anything, a Russian-Jewish woman called Natasha Kroll, she was going to be head of this little unit called Studio Design. After a couple of weeks of drawing for other people I was given to her. Sean Kenny, who went on to revolutionize theatre design later, a chap called Keith Parry and myself were Natasha’s assistants, and we did umpteen programmes, three or four a day. So I’d be trotting from Lime Grove to the theatre to Riverside. So for example on a Monday it was Panaorama, This Is Your Life and whatever women’s programmes were on. So This Is Your Life was invariably in the theatre, Panorama was usually in Lime Grove in either D or E on the fourth floor and the women’s programmes were mostly in Riverside so you had to nip down there as well. And that went on for year after year, and every now and then you’d get some money to redesign something, there’d be a new season of What’s My Line? I made a little corner for myself in women’s programmes and all these women who produced those shows – Lorna Pegram, Monica Sims, Beryl Radley, Joyce Bullen – knew I wanted to be a director, so they let me direct on several occasions. At the S.D.U. we had our own stores, we had our own stores of furniture and scenery and odds and ends, and so you’d mix and match all these wretched programmes all over the place. Natasha had no idea about scenery as such, she thought that if you wanted a brick wall you got a brickie in, so one was forever heading her off from disasters of various kinds. But she did have a selective eye – Wow! Thanks to her and her assistants we raised the level of the general look of programmes. This meant that I was running around from very epoch-making talks programmes to women’s programmes and panel games. From my initial work as a messenger boy, I’d got to know the studios like the back of my hand, which was vital later on. Because of this patch of three or four years I’d worked with many different production departments so I had friends dotted all over the place. When I actually transferred to being a director that was terribly useful because I was known around the place. So in a sense I was protected from the selection process in the design department at this stage.

 I was seventeen or eighteen, and I’d always wanted to be in this world. The fact that I was working in Lime Grove was quite extraordinary because my upbringing had been on those ridiculous Gainsborough films, so I was in my element, even though Natasha Kroll was a very hard taskmistress. I remember one day I was working on some science programme and the director was an idiot. He wanted to have a piece of string tied up in the gantry and tied to a brick on the floor and he was going to pan down this and he wanted it backed. So I said, we’ll put a backcloth or a cyclorama round it. So he said, yes is that all you can do, and I said, you do realize that if you pan down a string against a plain background, it won’t look as though anything is moving? And he couldn’t understand that, he couldn’t grasp the fact that a piece of string will be a static image. It was this day, I remember, and I must have been doing something else for women’s programmes in another studio. I got back to the office and she said, “How was it?” So I said, “Oh, it’s one of those days, Natasha, when you think that life owes you something better” And she said, “Life owes you nothing” That was the tenor of the relationship. I was only a spotty kid, but nonetheless those lines sort of stay with you.

 After a few years Natasha said to Dick Levin, “Oh Dick, I do a play. I got bored with all this stuff, all this situation!” and the BBC were about to do The Lower Depths, the Gorky play.

BS. They recently rediscovered a print of that in the Library of Congress.

DB. Have they? Wow! Directed by Michael Elliott. So Sean and I assisted her and she really had no idea what she was doing. It was a joy for me to go with her to the meetings with Michael Elliott, whom I learned an awful lot from. That was live from Studio D on the forth floor on Lime Grove. I’ll never forget it. He had a Mole Crane, which was an enormous thing for that studio, and we designed a complete box set with bits of it that you could take away and there were traps that the cameras could look through. Michael started the play with this Mole Crane, its cable carefully wound round, inside the set looking back at a table. And there was a tin cup and he wanted a cockroach under this cup, and they were going to pick up the cup and the camera would pull out of this box set and then the thing would be shut. So when it got to the night it had all worked perfectly in the dress rehearsal. And apparently there’s the opening shot of the tin cup on the table in close-up and he said, “Is the cockroach there?” They said, “yes”, he said, “Show me!” so they lifted the cup – Shoosh! The cockroach jumped – and they were on the air! So the pictures faded up, the title over it, somebody picks up the cup and you get a pointless shot of somebody picking a cup up. That was a very memorable production because they used actors who were appearing in the West End. It was live on a Sunday night, of course, they would camera rehearse on the Saturday morning, and for the continued rehearsal when they had gone off to do their matinee and evening performances other actors would come in and stand in for them.

 That would have been early in 1958 and something else that happened at the same time was a programme called Monitor, which was a great discovery and success, and Natasha was particularly fond of doing that. Every now and again she got bored – “Oh, I bored!” – so either I, or one of the other assistants, would do it and work with idiots like Ken Russell. Well, he’s not an idiot but just – impossible. He rang me up one day and we were filming on the next day on Stage 2 at Ealing and he wanted a big roller-skating rink. So I said, ‘okay’, put the phone down and went to the scene dock and I said to dear Fred Lister who was the clerk down there, “What have you got that’s big?” Because we had a number of stock sets – the Tudor set, the Georgian set, or whatever, which were used in bits. He said, “Well, the Tudor set’s in…” But it was set in the twenties, when there was a great Tudor and Jacobean revival in decoration going on. So, guess what, we had a Tudor roller-skating rink, with lots of balloons and streamers and goodness knows what and people in twenties costume. It looked okay, I suppose.

LP. When Television Centre opened in 1960 –

DB. That was the date of the first programme to be made there. It didn’t open then. It was already there when I joined in 1953, in the sense that the scenery block was built and the Design Department were already in there with quite a few production personnel in there. The central doughnut was sort of marked out, but most of the site was still the ruin of the 1906 White City Exhibition. So there were great moldering pavilions and a huge empty steel tank, which had been a lake, and gradually that was replaced with the Television Centre. But people say that it opened in 1960 – it was the first transmission in 1960.

LP. But were you still based mainly at Lime Grove before 1960, or did you work on site?

DB. I was only in Lime Grove as a messenger boy in 1953, and when I got the job in the design department from 1954, I was in the Television Centre, and was there forever.

LP. So did being in Television Centre change the whole process of design and the way in which you went about it?

DB. Well, studios got bigger. I wish that I could remember when it was that things started to be recorded, but it was during my years of National Service in about 1956 and 57. When I came back we were still doing a hell of a lot of live stuff, but plays were being recorded by then. But you couldn’t cut the tape, because the tape was then useless – it cost £80 to cut the tape. Of course, electronic editing came in much later on so nothing got cut. Drama was editable in theory in the 1950s, but they still tried not to have to edit the tape.

The 1960s

LP. I was really intrigued to read you say in an interview that you had a role in designing the Blue Peter cyclorama.

DB. Yes, that’s another claim to fame. When I came out of the S.D.U. one of the things that designers did for three or four months at a time as part of the cycle was Blue Peter. And a rather extraordinary girl preceded me on it, Julia Trevelyan Oman It was her that cut the ship out of Perspex and put it at the back of the set, and that and something else that she designed, it all blew off the lorry. And she asked to be taken off the programme in the end because it was apparently disaster after disaster.

 So I was put on to it in 1962 alongside Edward Barnes who was the studio director at the time and a new girl called Biddy Baxter who had just come in as producer. And this was the middle of a season, so there was no money or man-hours, man-hours being workshop time. Prior to that, they’d had little box sets for the make, the animals and the other features, with a gap in the middle for the ship. So I just swept away all the box sets and put the cyclorama, which was there anyway, it was a standard thing in the studio, and I used some bits and pieces from the S.D.U. stock that weren’t being used anymore – the unit must have been disbanded by then – and I put up some shelves and some rostrums with rough matting on top for the animals and that was it. And Valerie Singleton, the new girl, and Christopher Trace were the presenters, and it must have included the Christmas edition because I remember hiring a sleigh from Pinewood with pantomime ponies drawing it, presumably with a man holding them and Chris and Val sitting in the sleigh with presents and things. And we had no money or man-hours or anything, but what we used to do in those days was ‘X’ things. In other words, if you saw something that you like in The Black and White Minstrel Show or the Sunday play or whatever, you’d issue a WVO – Works Variation Order – which said ‘Such and such a property to be ‘X’d for Blue Peter’ So I’d spotted some marvelous cane arches in The Black and White Minstrel Show. So I put them up in Riverside 1 so that they were self-supporting, covered them in p-lights as they were called in those days, fairy lights, and the sleigh drove down through these lights and came up to the camera and the show started. It happened like that on the air. On the dress rehearsal the sleigh came through the arches and something sticking out of the sleigh caught one of the arches and the whole thing went “Draaag! Clumph!”, a wonderful moment, and that was it. And forty years later they were still using the same set, basically, it got more and more glamorous. It was something that I’d sort of learned on This Is Your Life, really because you just never knew what you were going to be asked to do, and there was no money and there were no man-hours. So you had to have something that could disappear, in order to have a completely empty studio to put the Band of the Lifeguards or 500 kids singing carols into. You just took the shelves away and there was room for them.

BS. And that set still gives the viewer a sense of home, being centered on their sofa and shelves and ornaments.

DB. Oh yes, I didn’t give them any sofas, but that must have come later. It was imbued into us by Natasha Kroll that it’s got to look good, you don’t want to make them comfortable. She didn’t actually say that, but I can remember doing Sportsview and the producers always wanted comfortable armchairs to do interviews in, but we never gave them that.

LP. That reminds me of how all of the guests on Friday Night With Jonathan Ross would always complain about how uncomfortable the couch was.

DB. Yes, eventually things went the other way and all chat shows ended up with sofas, but the desk for the presenter to hide behind was always there in the early days.

BS. At what point were you promoted in the Design department?

DB. That’s a sticky subject. Because I was on my own in the studios all the time when I worked for the S.D.U, I was already in fact a designer although I wasn’t administering thousands of pounds as a designer. Doing three or fours shows a day was effectively my training scheme as a director. You sat with good bad and indifferent directors, and you saw how not to treat people and you saw how to do it properly. I never went on the BBC training course; my training was being a designer sitting on a chair behind the directors. When I came out of the S.D.U. I was given this patch of designing for shows like Blue Peter and it was still fairly minor stuff. But it was a BBC rule that you could act for five months in an elevated position, but if you acted for six months then they had to pay you. So you were always stopped after five months of acting as a designer, so you went back to working on the drawing board or doing minor things. This was called acting up – you were only given attachments to other departments. This acting up did enable you to be able to apply for a designer’s job with some backing when one came up on the board. I’d applied two or three times for an official job and was passed over. By the time that I got a designer’s job – you know how the tectonic plates move in these big organizations – they were getting towards not having a huge staff and putting people on contract. So I had a three-year contract as a designer. I didn’t go freelance until 1970, and that was to get from Arts and Features to Drama, just at the time that my twins were born. But I wish that I’d done it about five years before, because thanks to Ned Sherrin I was directing the Saturday evening satire show, and I was a sort of name then. I’d been headhunted by ATV, but decided not to take it up.

 Dick Levin had the idea that we were working as ‘taxi’ designers. ‘What does that mean, Dick?’ He said, “well, you know, we’re chugging along and somebody falls ill and we get another taxi driver designer off the rank and you go in and do it” And you got big plays that way – I got several big plays because people had fallen ill or fallen out with the director. One that I took over, August for the People, I’ll never forget it.

BS. Is this the one that wasn’t transmitted?

DB. You’re right and I know the reason! Marilyn Roberts Taylor was allocated to this play and she was very grand and swishy with what she designed and the thing took place in a vast stately home with the public visiting. So there were vast columns, it was a big set in TV Centre, and when I got to the studio – because I took it over quite late – there were huge gaps. I said to the scene boys, “What goes there?” and they didn’t know. I looked at the plans and they were no help, so I got some huge tapestries and covered up the gaps, and I spent my life persuading the standby painter and the standby carpenter to do things. That was something that I learned from Stephen – he used to spend all of his money and man-hours on one set and the rest you’d sort of fake up in the studio, he was very naughty like that. I shall never forget it, Eric Portman, a big movie star of the time, was playing the lead. I think it was one of the first plays ever to have five days in the studio because it was a long play. It was a stage play and they were going to do the whole damn thing. Brenda De Banzi was playing his wife, and she kept flirting with the camera crews and the prop boys and she was a lady of advanced years. And she was sort of pathetic really, because there was all this sort of girlish giggling and flirting going on with the camera crews and they were all going, [sotto voce] “God…” I’d watched the dress rehearsal and then went home – I didn’t stay for the recording because there was nothing I could do. I came in the next day to do something else and I met the callboy outside dressing room number 1 in Television Centre and I said, “How did it go?” He said, “You hadn’t heard?” “No” “We didn’t do it” So I said, “What do you mean?” “Well, I went to Eric Portman’s dressing room [knock knock] ‘Mr. Portman? We’re ready to record. [knock knock] Mr. Portman?’ ‘I can’t! [groans] I can’t!” He was exhausted, he couldn’t do it, and so they didn’t! Brenda Di Banzi was packed and out of the door in about five minutes flat.

BS. That production got as far as being announced in the Radio Times.

DB. Oh yes, well it would do because in those days recording dates were quite close to transmission.

BS. How did a commission normally work for a drama designer? How much advance warning were you given for a series episode or a big play?

DB. About two or three months ahead you would know that you were doing a play, and then your work would depend upon the availability of a script. It was called projected arrangements, and when I was with Natasha it was my job to keep the projected arrangements up to date, because we were doing so many shows that it was our bible and you’d have revisions come around so you’d tear off one arrangement and stick the new sheet in and all the rest of it. I’d underline in red the shows that we were responsible for and there was a lot of red underlining in those days. Then you’d discover what the name of the show was and who the director was and you’d wait to be summoned by the director who was the director and producer in the early days – later on there were producers of strands of plays or series and individual directors. Very often the scripts were late so you’d get a briefing, we’ll get you the script as soon as we can. When you got the script you’d see that it’s a pub and two cars in the studio, or it’s somebody’s tenth floor flat if you were doing Z-Cars or Dixon of Dock Green – Dixon of Stock Green as it used to be called by designers.

LP. Did you ever work on Z-Cars?

DB. No, I did draw one up, working with a designer called Barry Newbery and something weird happened. I did the working drawings for the workshops and the studio plan, which is what the assistant did. And somehow – I was blamed for it, I know, but I don’t know how it happened – I think when the lighting guy did his plan to trace his lighting plot he somehow got it so it slid off my plan, because all the lights were hung two feet out of position. So the sets were put up to my plan and the lights were for a different calculation. I got the blame for it, because I drew the studio plan, but since I was first and he then followed it, I don’t see how its possible that I was at fault. But this is crucial; because the director was one Julia Smith and many years later I was not hired for Eastenders until after she’d left as producer. It’s the sort of thing that people remember: I certainly remember about people who have let me down in that context.

 So, the designer would have to read the script before you went to see the director, but sometimes the script was late so you just got a briefing and would have to read the script later. And you would design what you thought the thing should look like, because you’d have to take into account how much money and how much workshop time you’d got. You’d then book all the stock scenery downstairs in the basement and then take the notional plan to the director and he would either agree straight away or say well, ‘I can’t actually get back far enough to do the wide shot on the pub set because you’ve got her kitchen in the way’, so you’d shift it, but usually it would be, ‘Yeah, great, okay’ and you’d go ahead. And then they would go into rehearsal out in the Acton Hilton and the AFM would mark the sets that you had designed with tape out on the floor and very often they’d misread them. I can remember designing The World of Wooster with Ian Carmichael and Dennis Price, directed by Michael Mills, another force to be reckoned with. I went out to rehearsal on one of these episodes – it was for the tech run with the crew and the designer – and I said, “Michael, why are they playing that scene up the chimney?” “What?” “Well, the two boys are standing over there in the chimney” He said, “Oh, it looked like an arch on the plan” They didn’t bother to look at the elevations.

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3 Responses to Darrol Blake Interview Part I: Designing for the BBC in the 1950s and 1960s

  1. Pingback: Darrol Blake Interview Part II: Directing for the BBC and Thames Television in the 1960s and 1970s | Spaces Of Television

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