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Preserving TV's technological heritage


Jenny Priestley meets a group of enthusiasts who are working to preserve TV technology from across the decades, including cameras, OB trucks and telecine machines

By Jenny Priestley

Published: April 11, 2024 Updated: April 12, 2024

Jenny Priestley meets a group of enthusiasts who are working to preserve TV technology from across the decades, including cameras, OB trucks and telecine machines

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Since John Logie Baird made the first experimental television broadcast for the BBC in 1929, the pace of technological change within the TV industry hasn't stopped.

From SD to HD and UHD, satellite to IP and 5G, and film to digital, the TV industry is not backwards in moving forward.

But what's happened to all the technology that's fallen by the wayside? A group of TV enthusiasts is aiming to preserve the industry's heritage with the launch of a museum at Hemswell Cliff, just outside Lincoln.

The Broadcast Engineering Conservation Group (BECG) was set up five years ago, almost by accident admits chairman Paul Marshall. I've been collecting this stuff since I was about 14, and I've had three large outside broadcast vehicles for a long time, he tells TVBEurope.

We wanted to take my Southern one, which is the oldest fully operational outside broadcast truck in the world, to the last big Scampton Airshow and there were problems of getting into the RAF base without being a formal organisation.

Thus the BECG was formed and following further discussion, the group decided to make things formal by registering as a charitable incorporated organisation (ICO).

Marconi MkII camera Marshall points out that there is no other organisation in the UK working to save these engineering wonders for the country. And it's not just the kit that the BECG wants to preserve. We are trying to save all the knowledge base that goes behind it, he explains. This is analogue television with a smattering of digital on the end of it, and it's a skill set which has been lost. Analogue engineering is still very much in demand alongside digital.

It's not just TV anoraks' that are part of the BECG's remit. The Group wants to make the general public aware of the equipment used to create some of TV's most iconic moments. Among the kit on show at Hemswell Cliff is a Marconi MkII used to film Queen Elizabeth II's Coronation in 1953, as well as one of the four Link 125 cameras that shot the video for rock band Queen's hit, I Want to Break Free. All of our bits of kit have got a history and the general public do latch on to that, states Marshall.

The BECG is now in the process of expanding the Broadcast Engineering Museum at Hemswell Cliff, which will be home to all of its equipment, including multiple OB vans. They have taken over the 30,000 sq ft Sergeants Mess at the old RAF base, which had been derelict for over a decade. At the moment, the BECG is only able to hold open days rather than keep the building open all the time, with the next taking place on 25th and 26th May.

The Broadcast Engineering Museum before the BECG took it over And how it looks now All being well, we will progressively open more, says Marshall. We hope to be able to get more volunteers together that will help make it possible. We're trying to create a fragrant nosegay' of what a television station would look like back in the 50s 60s 70s and 80s.

We've got some of the first digital equipment designed in the UK and sold all over the world, including DICE, Digital Intercontinental Conversion Equipment, which was the means of converting American pictures into European and vice versa. It was designed in 1972 by the Independent Broadcasting Authority, who looked after ITV years ago. There were only 18 sold and they were about 250,000 a pop in the mid 70s.

As well as being able to open more often, another key priority for the BECG is to catalogue its equipment, as Marshall says they currently have no idea how much they actually have.

I think it's fair to say we've got the largest collection of Telecine machines in Europe, possibly in the world, he adds. I think we've got about six at the moment, with one more to come.

There are at least five outside broadcast trucks currently active, with the same amount in restoration mode. The most challenging has been the restoration of a former BBC OB Unit MCR23, 390 EXH, also known as Project Vivat. We started with a vehicle that was seriously derelict and it was really fit for the scrap yard, explains Marshall. The equipment that we decided to put in it is from the mid-'50s. We fitted it out with equipment that has come from all over the world. The principal monitors, transmission and preview, came back from Australia.

Project Vivat' We were on the cusp of going fully operational when the prospect of the Hemswell Cliff building came up, which was just short of three years ago. So sadly, Vivat didn't reach a conclusion, although to the lay visitor, it is complete, because bits of it work .

Other trucks that have been restored by the BECG or are in maintenance mode include a 1969 Bedford VAL used by Southern Television, a 1953 BBC Generator, and one of the Yorkshire Twins that opened the broadcaster's service in 1968 when its studios weren't ready. Marshall says the BECG is also open to housing trucks from more recent times. For instance, last year we took on a 2005 ex-BBC satellite truck. That's history, it's nearly 20 years old.

All visitors are encouraged to take a closer look at the OB trucks on display. But it is slightly difficult with health and safety, particularly with Project Vivat, which has steps on it and I find it a bit challenging at times. But they're original, so we can't
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