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Subj: A Peculiar Effect on the BBC - The Story of Bernard Wilkie.
Posted: Wed Dec 27, 2017 at 09:46:55 am GMT (Viewed 495 times)
Television in Britain was still in its infancy when twenty-something Bernard Wilkie first took an interest in guiding his prospects towards a career within it, and what would slowly but surely lead to his recognising a gap within the production set-up that was, as yet, unrecognised by producers and executives, but would become in time a vital and important accessory to realising the sort of extraordinary scenes and moments that a very young television service would come to depend upon as it began its life competing directly with the spectacle and resources of Cinema.
It was 1954, W12 - The landmark Television Centre - did not yet exist, it was nothing more than a lot that was used as a rubbish dump, the BBC was an organisation was instead spread across a wide area, in various locations and in various make-do buildings, and apart from the radio service servicing just the one television channel. And arriving in the city in the hopes of furthering a career in the Corporation Wilkie makes his way to the offices of executive Richard Levin, and optimistic expectations...
'A Peculiar Effect on the BBC' is the posthumous memoir of Bernard Wilkie, one half of the originators and primary managers of the BBC's long-running Visual Effects department. What began as a specialist annex to the Scenic Design department had a difficult genesis, and beginning in a distinctly small and insufficient office space Wilkie, in good spirits, gently takes us back to the days of 'make-do' and post-war economies, as along with partner Jack Kine the two take instruction from Richard Levin and have to establish a workshop without a budget, stocked purely from whatever scant rudimentary tools the two can find spare at home and the use of a fair amount of ingenuity to conjure non-existent furnishings and materials from the aether to make it a reality. The tale of their first efforts in fashioning a usable tabletop bench and coating its top with a paint that never dries sets the tone for much of what follows... This book isn't any treaty on what makes professional Effects, nor is it any comprehensive breakdown and run-thru of the many many jobs and feats the pair worked upon in their near thirty year time at the BBC, there are other books that do that. What this is, as Wilkie himself puts it, largely a series of personal anecdotes. Of memories that stand out from his time at the Corporation, of how he and Jack Kine developed a lifelong friendship, and of the slow but steady emergence of a specialist department within the Corporation that could only exist within the era it existed in - the era in which the BBC made its own programming in-house, and therefore required the necessary resources and design departments to support and furnish that ever developing programming. That era is gone now, the fact that the BBC once produced, first-hand, all of its own programming is a fast receding memory, another world of which few today would be capable of grasping the reality of or appreciating. And Wilkie's story as it unfolds tells one person's views and experiences of what it was like to be there from the start of it - from a youth spent experimeenting with conjuring tricks and fireworks, his venture into German theatre at the end of the War, his time spent on the very outskirts of the BBC, when BBC Television Centre was a gleam in the architects eye only, of wild and free experimentation when there was no such thing as 'Health & Safety' dictating ones every thought and action, and the reality of two men with limited training and experience having to find the sparks of ingenuity and creativity to conjure impossible things from virtually nothing, and as it ends the harsh realities and frustrations of the BBC system that would eventually crush the spirit of Jack Kine and force his early retirement...
This is no glum sad tale however. Not at all. Wilkie's enthusiasm for his craft and his time with the Corporation is never far from the page, and all told in a very self-effacing manner, with a fair bit of wit to go with it. His memories of the early days are especially vivid, with the pivotal trip to Shepherds Bush and a key interview with Richard Levin in particular these are events that are clear and impressively sharp in his memory. Of how he bluffed his way along throughout the interview and ultimately managed to convince Levin of his supposed expertise in the new field of fibre-glass, and the first disorientating days as he arrives at his new position and finds a sharp learning curve lies ahead of him. After some time not long after comes his first meetings with Jack Kine, the two unexpectedly brought together by the progressive Richard Levin to develop his, and their, ideas of a specialist service within Scenic Design that would cater for the unusual requests that were beginning to be made on the department and of which required an unusual degree of both imagination and technical thinking to make a reality. And with the beginnings of an office tucked away within scenic Services their early mis-adventures within the world of television begin...
Initially the fortunes of this odd new niche hidden away in the workshops of the Scenic block were not at all encouraging. Long spans of weeks and months might go by between commissions, too much time on the hands for anyone to bear, but gradually the challenges did come down. The first major jobs the two were approached to contribute to were the landmark serials that were Quatermass and 1984 - and both still stand tall even today whenever the history of television in Britain is talked about. But as with all of their early contributions these two shows were anything but plain sailing for Wilkie and Kine. To be able to summon forth images of alien infestations and electronic contraptions tested the abilities of the duo just as much as a relatively straight-forward simple Rocket take-off did. Experimentation, dramatic misfires, and two fools who didn't know what they were doing. Wilke's text is never less than open about his and Kine's struggles and occasional carelessness as the two had to learn on the fly and literally invent new ways of doing the things no one had done before. But there is never any suggestion that either man didn't love what they were doing. Even as the book reaches its final chapters and a long retired Wilkie is invited to the final day of Lime Grove Studios in the early 1990s, a building that played such a large role in his early career at the BBC, with its labyrinth of corridors and dungeon-like subterana bowels, Wilkie's love of his work and what he contributed to television is still something he stands proud over. The closure of Lime Grove marks the passing of an era for him, and relating this sad moment one is made to feel that sadness as Bernard describes his determination to be the last man out of the building that final night, before the bulldozers arrive tomorrow he determines that he will be the last one out of the building and therefore turn out the metaphorical lights... But life does, and did, go on. That the department he founded with Jack Kine would close for good not long after his death in 2002 is a sad post-script. What his thoughts were on the development of television, and the radical changes within the BBC through the 1990's, by this late stage of his life go undocumented. Wilkie's text only goes so far as that 1991/2 closing function at Lime Grove. An incomplete work then, and it falls to son Martin to add a fitting and entirely appropriate epilogue to his fathers memoirs...
In a career than spans almost thirty years at the BBC alone Wilkie, as he himself makes clear in his opening, condenses his story out of necessity. Focusing on the earliest years his vivid memories are a gift for anyone with an interest in those early years of television, his firsthand account of watching Television Centre's several year construction is invaluable and fascinating, the development of BBC television mirrors the slow but sure growth of his and Kine's department from small unassuming office to proper Workshop, and from there a series of moves over the years as a two man team evolves into a forty-plus crew and a vast workfloor to keep pace with the demands of the production teams and programming now made possible by Television Centre and its several studios working almost round the clock.
As the story of he and Kine's arrival and embedment at the BBC is told Wilkie's focus gradually shifts to discuss some key shows that he and his partner directly worked upon. By necessity this is a very select list indeed, and yet it is clear that these are selected for as much their personal affection for Wilkie as their technical difficulties and challenges. Comedian Dave Allen in particular looms large in Wilkie's affections, but time spent with Monty Python's Eric Idle is also a fond memory as the two make their way the long way round to a shooting location and a series of unfortunate events means they don't arrive there entirely sober...!
Then there is life with Frank Spencer, he of the legendary sitcom and still a byword for hopeless ineptitude. Patrick Moore and The Sky at Night. Crackerjack. The founding of Blue Peter. And Doctor Who...
Doctor Who. From The Ice Warriors through to Giant Spiders the truly interesting parts of Wilkie's text arrives as he unexpectedly broaches the subject of Tom Baker. It's a curious moment within the narrative as having willingly disassociated himself from the show with Jon Pertwee's final series Wilkie has no need at all to to discuss Baker. Yet discuss him he does. And despite having no real firsthand experience with the man his thoughts are rather fascinating, describing a discreet visit to one of Baker's first studio recordings and his opinions of a "pompous and arrogant" man Wilkie subsequently amends those impressions to be more sympathetic. Whether it was subsequent experience in his contributing to the various Doctor Who Exhibitions, or as he says reading Tom Baker's biography, is a little unclear, yet it does make for a surprising set of impressions when read in the context.
'A Peculiar Effect on the BBC' comes from MIWK Publishing, and shows a tyically impressive choice in subject for the publisher. Bernard Wilkie's memoirs as seen here had sat unpublished for many years, and while some extra polish would have been preferable the publisher graciously notes in the preface their decision to respect the material as presented and leave it largely as Wilkie left it.
Yes, there are other books on the subject of the BBC Visual Effects unit, indeed Wilkie himself wrote one or two of them, but this book is rather different as it is Bernard Wilkie's story, a memoir of his professional life and an affectionate tribute to an era of television now gone... told with great warmth, a surprising degree of honesty, and while occasionally feeling incomplete it is a story told with an endearing sense of self-deprecation, a nostalgia for times past, and all done with not a small amount of sharp wit. A worthy tome to add to your shelf and return to in years to come...
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