shares his memories from the BBC continuity suite with Andy Evans
ANDY: How did you get into being an announcer?
BRUCE: I joined BBC Television Presentation on a six-month attachment from my job as a studio manager (SM) at Bush House. Malcolm Eynon had been an SM like me and at a Bush House Christmas party he turned up while he was on attachment to Presentation and told me the next attachment was closing in a day or two and I should apply – which I did.
I joined Presentation in the summer of 1975 and never worked at Bush House again because a permanent announcer vacancy arose and I was appointed to that in December 1975. I did make one return visit there in 2012 and sat at the large control desk in Studio C21 just before Bush House was stripped out and the contents auctioned. I particularly liked this because it’s where it all started for me as a trainee SM all those years ago!
I think I did my first day in Pres shadowing Peter Bolgar during an afternoon shift on BBC2. During a junction the PABX light came on showing the phone was ringing. Peter calmly closed his mic, picked up the phone, said “hang on a moment please”, opened the mic again, finished the announcement, and once the programme had started picked up the phone again and resumed the conversation. I thought, wow – I’m not sure I can do this job!
ANDY: So how did it all work?
BRUCE: Everything at BBC TV revolved around something called ‘the programme week’ and indeed I think it still does, given that it is possible to download the programme week calendar for 2020. What distinguishes this calendar from the common-or-garden sort is that every BBC week starts on a Saturday and ends the following Friday. The BBC year can also have 53 weeks. Using this template, in conjunction with the channel controllers, Programme Planning would work up something called the Daily Transmission Schedule (DTS).
Once finalised, this would be released to, among others, Radio Times, Programme Publicity, and the TV Presentation department who would liaise with respect to the controllers’ promotion priorities for a given transmission week. Presentation would then work towards this transmission week over a cycle which moved through weekly stages called Pre-Planning, Planning and Operational.
To achieve this there were four teams, each consisting of a Presentation Editor, Assistant Editor, a Promotions Producer, two or three assistant Producers, and a Production Assistant. Working alongside these teams, the Continuity Announcers also followed the same pattern, building up to their own operational week. TV Presentation had 12 permanent announcers, plus at any given time there would usually be one more on a training attachment, assuming a suitable candidate had been found from the annual advertised auditions.
‘Permanent’ is a slightly misleading term, as while the majority of the 12 were staff, some were on contracts of six or twelve months’ duration. Some announcers were employed like this for many years.
BBC TV Continuity Announcers were a strange hybrid creature. Some came to the job as actors, but a majority had been recruited internally from radio Studio Managers. This is because, as well as having to announce, the job also involved quite a lot of operational dexterity – vision-mixing and running in pre-recorded programmes, as well as having to take editorial decisions from time to time.
Incredible as it sounds, sometimes the announcer would be the most senior BBC person on duty. The pay-scale reflected this, as most announcers were on a higher grade than the Promotions Assistant Producers and Network Directors. The working pattern followed the three-week cycle outlined above, with the various shifts covered by announcers at different points on their cycle, culminating in the Operational Week – in other words the prime evening broadcasts on BBC1 and BBC2. On this week, the BBC1 and BBC2 evening announcer would normally work six days out of seven on nominal 12-hour days, which at weekends would usually be over 13 hours long. The Tuesday evening would be covered by announcers from the team one week further back in the cycle (Planning Week). The evening shifts were obviously the highest profile – and while in theory all announcers were equal, this was far from the case in practice.
There was slack built into the system in that the four announcing teams each had three members in order to provide cover for leave and sickness, meaning that it was quite easy to ‘hide’ somebody who had fallen out of favour by allocating them the morning and afternoon transmissions.
This was in the hands of the Senior Announcer, but heavily influenced by Presentation Editors as well as the Head of Presentation and even Channel Controllers. While the evening continuity shifts were the most pressured in terms of scrutiny, the daytime work could be much more stressful for other reasons.
Evening transmissions were staffed by a full crew in the Network Control Rooms – Network Director, Transmission Assistant (vision-mixer), Network Assistant (equivalent of gallery P.A.), Senior Television Engineer and Presfax Assistant (Presfax was an internal information system to keep the BBC regional presentation announcers informed).
Daytime, on the other hand, was skeleton-crewed – often with the announcer solely responsible for the output. In the case of the early morning Open University broadcasts, a single announcer ran both BBC1 and BBC2. The programme start times were staggered by a few minutes so that the announcer wasn’t (quite) simultaneously trying to cover two channels! The first few video-taped programmes of the day were left on an automatic timer, just in case the announcer failed to show up.
ANDY: I recall there being three continuity shifts a day, with changeovers around 1.30pm and 6.30pm, and on BBC2 there were long afternoon closedowns, so you might begin with Transmitter News at 10.30am but then there would be a closedown at 11.30am until the Open University around 5pm. The morning announcer would then continue until 6.30pm – what happened in between?
BRUCE: Yes, there were three shifts per day per channel – known as early, middle and late. On BBC1 ‘early’ meant the first transmissions – usually Schools broadcasts. ‘Middle’ covered lunchtime and afternoon (mostly children’s) programmes. ‘Late’ was from 6.30/7.00pm until closedown. I think officially handover was at 7.00pm, but most people changed over during ‘Nationwide’. On BBC2 ‘early’ was Open University. I can’t remember if the daily Transmitter Information at 10.30am and ‘Play School’ at 11.00am was covered by the early announcer or the middle shift. ‘Middle’ was definitely any afternoon programming. ‘Late’ was as for BBC1, though I think we usually clocked on, depending on what was scheduled, in the early evening slot.
For both channels, the Operational week shifts entailed working every evening except Tuesday, which was a day off and was covered by the announcers who were a week behind in their cycle – in other words whose Operational week started the following Saturday.
While both of the late announcers would take over in Continuity as outlined above, the late shifts actually started at 12.30pm, when the duty Presentation Editor held a daily meeting attended by the Assistant Editor, both Network Directors, members of both Promotions teams, someone from Duty Office, and the BBC1 and BBC2 announcers as well as various other interested parties. The Assistant Editor would then go through the Continuity Sheet – an outline of the evening’s programmes, plus all the presentation elements making up each programme junction – VT Trails, Slides, Symbols, Clocks, etc. This would have been drawn up according to promotion priorities.
The Assistant Editor was also responsible for producing ‘the sum’ – the timed components of every junction which would hopefully get the network where it was supposed to be. Because actual recorded programme durations could vary quite a bit, ‘the sum’ could be ‘tight’ or ‘loose’ – in other words there might be very little time available for the components in the junction or rather too much. It was the announcer’s job to work within these constraints.
When this meeting ended, the evening announcers started turning the bare bones of the continuity sheet into the evening’s continuity script. This was written up by hand and the Network Assistant for each channel would keep coming to the announcers’ office for further script instalments which would be typed and duplicated (blue paper for BBC1 and yellow for BBC2). Sometimes the words flowed, but on bad days we would get very close to the deadline for completing the script, which had to be ready for distribution at the script readthrough – 4.30pm for BBC1 and 5.00pm for BBC2. Once again the people who had attended the 12.30pm meeting would assemble while the announcer read out their script to the assembled audience, all of whom were free to comment on what they were hearing, with any major disagreements settled by the Presentation Editor, whose decision was (more or less) final.
Major changes to the script would mean it had to be retyped, but minor alterations were just noted by hand. Once this process was complete most people would then head off to the canteen at 5.30pm – though certain others merely moved the short distance down the 4th floor corridor from Pres. Control to the BBC Club – I will say no more! Once refuelled, we would get our stuff together and move to the transmission area; the Network Directors and Assistants to NC1 and NC2, the Promotions people to Studio Pres A. and the Announcers to their respective continuity studios where the evening’s visible work would begin.
Daytime transmissions followed a different, less intensely supervised pattern. As you know, in those days there was plenty of airtime filled with Trade Test Transmissions and the channels would often close down for long periods during the day. Sometimes there would be sport or Party Conferences, but there was an awful lot of nothing, bearing in mind that Schools and Open University broadcasts weren’t on air all year round. This meant there was a lot of going home early – and favours swapped. For example, BBC 2 might close down all afternoon until an early-evening news bulletin. Any decent evening announcer would obviously tell the middle chap (we were mostly chaps) to go home once his scripting duties were done and open up the network for him.
I’m afraid I can’t recall the exact details of who did what and when. I do, however, remember that a lot of time not on air was spent researching and writing scripts. There was a lady called Shirley Edwards who dealt with putting together scripts for Schools and possibly Open University transmissions but, apart from that, BBC1 Children’s continuity and BBC2 daytime scripts were written by the daytime announcers. They would almost always be read by someone else, so whoever ‘inherited’ a script would often adapt it on the day. I have to admit there was a lot of hanging about!
ANDY: Many BBC1 daytime shifts involved ‘Programmes For Schools and Colleges’, with lots of junctions featuring clocks and slides and symbols and music. Were these types of shifts fully scripted, or was it more ad-lib? How far in advance was the music selected for intervals for a shift such as this – was it planned out days in advance, or just chosen and queued up on the fly?
BRUCE: As I said scripting was carried out by the Daytime Unit in Pres. Control (Shirley Edwards) and the announcers just read the words. As I recall there was a crew in Network Control at some point, and although I’m pretty sure a Network Director wasn’t involved, I could be wrong
The announcer would do the vision-mixing and generate the music for the count-down sequences. Music was chosen at the time – I think from a specific selection of cartridges in the continuity suites. It was one track per cartridge. In cases where there wasn’t time to play a full track in the Z-2, some (lazy?) people would just fade out the music. My preference was for a pre-fade where the track was started with the fader closed and then brought in so that the track ended naturally. All that was required was a quick bit of maths.
ANDY: Sometimes there could be lengthy trade test transmissions during a shift – did you have to be in position for the start and throughout these, or would you go to other duties and just return as and when required.
BRUCE: There were indeed long periods during the day (particularly on BBC2) when there was no programming. I think that on days like that the daytime announcers would just get on with writing daytime scripts – possibly with very little in them! Supposedly this would be done once announcing duties for that shift were over, but if the daytime continuity sheets were available, we would just get ahead, then sit around reading the papers and talking till it was safe to go home when the evening announcers had clocked on.
ANDY: Your own choice of interval and Z-2 music was quite distinctive and often different from that of other continuity announcers, sometimes with more use of LPs than perhaps a tape or cartridge. Was this choice of music something you liked, or fitted in with your style of announcement or did you really not care for it at all?! What formats was the music on? I’m aware that you had two turntables and in the 80s cartridge tapes, did you use cassettes or reel-to-reel as well prior to that?
BRUCE: We had quite a decent music library in the continuity suites – all free of ‘needle time’ - usually BBC Radioplay LPs. I did try to explore a range of options, though inevitably my selection reflected my personal tastes; acoustic over synthetic every time! Although they weren’t appropriate to these sorts of situations, there were some amazing albums. I recall one devoted to Bread’s tracks and even one featuring Frank Sinatra. I was told that these were recordings from sessions that were somehow not good enough for commercial release, though I have no confirmation of that.
We had two cartridge (jingle) machines and two turntables (RP21s?). There was no reel-to reel machine in the continuity suites. Long periods of music, such as during Trade Test Transmissions, were originated from a quarter-inch tape machine in the Network Control Room where they held a library of tapes – I think Orwyn Evans was the custodian of this material.
ANDY: Did you have you own ‘pigeon-hole’ for the albums you liked?
BRUCE: The continuity music collection was the bane of my life! I would spend ages sorting the LPs into categories and some sort of order, yet it seemed that whenever I pulled out one to use there was only ever a 50/50 chance that the right disc would be inside it! No, we didn’t have our own pigeon-hole.
ANDY: Sometimes a longer interval could be filled by the announcer playing LPs or cartridges and sometimes by a trade test tape – any reason you can recall for this?
BRUCE: A 10-minute holding routine would be subject to negotiation. I would probably have taken that on myself, but others would have happily left it to NC1 to provide the music from the trade test tape.
ANDY: Are there any pieces of interval music that you particularly remember?
BRUCE: I can’t really recall anything that stuck in my mind as being memorable, though I’m sure I favoured certain discs/tracks over others – you would know better than I do! However, I recall that some of it was truly terrible and I often pestered Orwyn Evans for fresh material – and replacement discs as they got more and more scratched. There were a certain number of tape cartridges with individual tracks which were identified by a Dymo Tape sticker. We had to give the Network Assistant details of everything we used.
ANDY: Closedowns often provided the announcer with the opportunity to give a more personal sign off, particularly on BBC2. Unlike a number of announcers, I don’t recall you ever giving a name-check at closedown. Was there a reason for this?
BRUCE: I always thought the accepted wisdom was that a name-check at closedown was OK for BBC2 but not for BBC1, although there was no strict rule about this. I regarded myself as being there as the voice of the BBC, not as myself, so while I may have done the occasional sign-off on BBC2 I don’t think I ever did on BBC1.
ANDY: And on BBC2 sometimes, a closedown would include a piece of music played over some slides. It was, however, very erratic as to whether this happened or not on a particular night. Can you recall any reason for this?
BRUCE: We were free to play a little musical night cap on BBC2. I usually saved such things for the weekend and, ideally, they would be in some way related to promoting an upcoming programme, though the connection could be a bit tenuous. I always felt somewhat embarrassed at keeping the crew in NC2 waiting to go home while I played silly buggers. Don’t forget that we also had strict closedown deadlines – 12.15am every day except Saturdays when I think it was 1.35am – something to do with a union agreement. It was quite possible to spend an inordinate amount of time planning these little interludes. I particularly remember a Robin Whitting epic in which the song ‘Stand By Your Man’ by Tammy Wynette was played to accompany a selection of 35mm slides (again announcer’s choice). Robin had arranged to have some cut-out silhouettes made – a man and a woman – which he placed in the caption camera (the famous ‘Noddy’). Every time the “stand by your man...” chorus came around, Robin superimposed the cut-outs. It was excruciating!
ANDY: Did you get much advance notice of when a channel was about to get a new symbol or ident, or did you just turn up one day to find it had changed?
BRUCE: Choosing a new symbol or ident was a big deal and while we certainly knew when a change was coming, the announcers really weren’t involved in the process. Personally, I glaze over at the mere mention of ‘fonts’! The BBC1 Globe never really changed as much as the BBC2 symbol. When I joined, it was the meshing/revolving version which was later replaced by the black and orange thing which I never liked as much. They were, of course, actually just little black and white models which potentially could be made any number of hideous colours through a synthesiser panel on the Continuity Desk – though you needed special permission to do this. I remember doing daft things with the globe one Hallowe’en!
The BBC2 logos were made to animate through a foot-pedal we operated. I just about remember the TWO white background ident being introduced. Martin Everard (then Senior Presentation Editor) was beside himself with excitement at the brilliant concept of replacing the 2 numeral with the spelled out version. My reaction was “Yeah, whatever”, knowing it would only be a matter of time before somebody came up with the equally brilliant idea of turning it back into a number again.
ANDY: Alongside your announcing duties, you were also the commentator on ‘Come Dancing’ for a few series in the early 80s – was ballroom dancing a subject you had particular knowledge of, and was the commentary done ‘live’ at the venue, or dubbed on later from a script?
BRUCE: Andy – did you not know I am a five-time Latin American champion? I had to give it up when the knees went! Seriously, nobody knows less about ballroom dancing than me. What happened was that Ian Smith, a producer in Outside Broadcasts, was looking for somebody to do commentaries on the BBC’s coverage of circuses, which in those days were regular features at Easter, New Year, Bank Holidays etc. He asked (I think) Janet Hoenig, who was assistant-head of Presentation, if there were any likely candidates among the announcers, and for some reason she offered him me. I did quite a few of these, including a couple of Circus World Championships. I used to turn up in full evening dress and do PA announcements, interviews etc. at the venue, although the commentary was dubbed on later.
I then got passed on to another OB producer called Rick Gardner who wanted someone to take over from Ray Moore as commentator on ‘Come Dancing’. I had also replaced Ray on the Circuses – I’m not sure why. Possibly he was just too busy with all the radio work.
Anyway, I got the ‘Come Dancing’ job – I was all of about 25 and pretty clueless about everything. This was a much tougher assignment, and unlike the Circuses the commentary was ‘as live’. In other words, it was recorded in the mix along with everything else and barring total disaster there were no retakes. I discovered this to my cost when on my first programme I messed up and just stopped. There was a horrified silence from the OB Truck. This had never happened before – and it never happened again! A lesson was well and truly learned.
It was very hard work. I used to spend all day during rehearsals interviewing the contestants to try to find out anything remotely interesting about them for the commentary. Unfortunately, most of them were just obsessed with dancing, so I would gratefully latch onto anything unusual. The old hands knew this and used to feed me all sorts of nonsense to see if they could sneak it by me. The shows were recorded every night for a week or so at a time at each location and, my goodness, we burned the candle at both ends; I have never drunk so much or slept so little in my life.
I was still expected to cover my announcing duties, so there was a lot of boxing and coxing and using up leave to fit it all in. I think some of my colleagues resented it a bit and in the end, after three or four seasons, I decided it was all too difficult. I did a couple of series with Peter Marshall (Thames TV Continuity Announcer) and at least one with the legendary David Jacobs. Charles Nove took over as commentator and he stuck it out for a lot longer than me – maybe he drank less and slept more!
ANDY: Any other particular memories?
BRUCE: Occasionally an announcer would get roped into a bit of extra-curricular activity. My own claim to fame was to provide some bits of nonsense for several episodes of Spike Milligan’s ‘Q’ series, including one where I announced his death while Spike became increasingly puzzled on screen and started checking his pulse!
After I left the staff, I had the honour of filming with Spike in some interviews to link together sketches from his shows for a BBC Video. Alan J. W. Bell (of ‘Last of the Summer Wine’ fame) was the director and we had a great time. The resulting video – ‘The Best of Spike Milligan’ – is now on DVD and still available from Amazon. Sadly, there are no royalties!
ANDY: And, of course, you appeared on ‘Breakfast Time’ in 1983 previewing the evening’s ‘TV Choice’. What happened afterwards?
BRUCE: Ron Neill, the ‘Breakfast Time’ editor, desperately wanted me to stay with the programme, but the schedule was killing me. I had to be on set at the crack of dawn to do the live presenting part, then I had to edit the clips and prepare my script for the next morning. On top of that we (myself plus an assistant producer) would often be out shooting ‘behind the scenes’ features about shows in production which we would then edit whenever we were allocated facilities time – this could be late into the night.
I saw precious little of my bed for the best part of a year and had no social life whatsoever, so once again in my career I decided enough was enough. I returned to Presentation where I did a spell as assistant editor. There were also some ‘guest appearances’ on ‘Breakfast Time’, and indeed I’m sure I must have done some announcing as well.
Bruce left the BBC in 1987, initially to work on Superchannel, one of the early satellite TV channels.
In subsequent years his voice was instantly recognisable on a large number of UK TV channels, including the ITV Network in the late 80s/early 90s. In London his was the last pre-recorded voice from Thames, heard delivering the sign-off line: “Thames. A Talent for Television”.
Until 2014, Bruce was also the voice of sport for Sky Television, where he voiced almost all sports promos for 25 years, as well as the announcements for Sky News and Sky Movies. Every week, from 1989 until 2017, Bruce also voiced IMG’s international sports magazine show ‘Trans World Sport’, alongside Sue Carpenter.
On a personal note, I would like to extend my grateful thanks to Bruce for his time in answering the questions and for sharing his memories of this fascinating era in television presentation.