AP mast (2K)


by Arthur Dungate


200 Oxford Street

BBC Engineering 1922-1972.
Edward Pawley.
(BBC Publications 1972) ISBN 0 563 12127 0

During World War II there were three main studio centres for the External Services of the BBC. One was at Bush House, in the Strand, London, another was at Aldenham House.

BBC Engineering 1922-1972 by Edward Pawley, Ch 4.3 p251-3 --

The third major studio centre for the Overseas Services was 200 Oxford Street. This building, which had been the East Block of Peter Robinson’s store, was requisitioned in June 1941 and the planning of a broadcasting centre there began almost immediately. The installation in ‘PR Building’, as it was at first called, was a large and urgent job and the small installation group, which had Aldenham and Bush House to deal with as well, was strengthened and became part of the Station Design & Installation Department, the forerunner of the later Studio & Transmitter Planning and Installation Departments.

Planning these major war-time studio centres was a very different matter from planning a pre-war studio centre. Before the war, all installations had been designed as individual layouts; each desk, each apparatus bay, was drawn very carefully with all its details, even down to tag numbers on the connection blocks at the bottom of the bay. Every studio was different. In war-time, many materials and components became very scarce and rigid standardisation was necessary. Ideas introduced into one project could often be applied in another, such as the use of multi-core cable for inter-bay wiring and the design of cubicle desks.

Before the war these desks had been designed to present a pleasant physical appearance. In war-time, however, there was no time for architectural design, and the studio desks at 200 Oxford Street were made from office tables faced with plywood. A standard OBA/8 amplifier was placed on the top, with a five-way key-switch unit and a standard MX/18 mixer. The mixer was tilted on a piece of wood so that the cue keys could be placed under the front panel. These keys were wired to an elementary terminal block. A porcelain-based copper knife-switch (common in earlier days in domestic installations for shorting the aerial to earth in a thunderstorm) was fitted inside the desk to terminate an emergency line to control room so that the microphone could be switched through direct if the amplifier failed.

In addition to the cubicle desks, standard apparatus bays were also designed. There was, for example, a control position bay carrying the main APM/1 (Amplifier Programme Meter, a rack-mounted version of the OBA/8 amplifier), a row of twenty studio signalling keys, a small telephone communication panel, and a programme meter panel.

There was also a trap-valve amplifier bay and a standard jackfield bay was introduced. This had a number of rows of jacks, some wired in ‘Listen/Line’ formation, i.e. with a jack for listening purposes wired across the line jack. Other jacks were wired in the ‘Listen/Line/Apparatus’ formation, so that the line was normally connected to the amplifier, with a listening jack in parallel, but plugging into the line disconnected the amplifier from it and plugging into the apparatus jack disconnected the line from the amplifier. This arrangement, which came into general use at studio centres and transmitting stations, provided the maximum facilities for monitoring across the line and for checking whether a fault was on the amplifier side or on the line side of the jacks.

The system gave rise to a number of faults on its own account through poor contact within the break-jacks. There were also jacks with one input connected to ten outputs in parallel. The jackfields were wired up in multi-core cable in the workshop; when installed they were connected to a distribution frame. The inter-connections between the input and output sides of this frame were made in ‘jumper’ wiring and could be varied to suit changing requirements.

A drawing of a typical talks studio suite layout showed all the power points, red, white and green lights, buzzers, talks desks, cubicle desks and TD/7 gramophone desks; this could be given, whenever a talks studio was wanted, to the staff responsible for building and wiring, or to contractors.

The control room and studios at 200 Oxford Street were in the basement, and much heavy steel reinforcement was applied to the floor and ceiling of the ground floor; concrete was used in the basement and the lower ground floor to stop flooding and also to give some protection to the studios and control room from any missile that might fall down the lift-shaft.

Installation was begun in December 1941, and during May and June of the following year a gradual cut-over took place. It had been intended that the accommodation above ground level should be duplicated below ground level for use during air-raids. In fact, the accommodation above ground was occupied more often than the ‘security’ accommodation below.

The offices had to be planned on an austere basis, with short partitions and mostly without direct access to outside windows. Despite these limitations, 200 Oxford Street provided sufficient studios and other accommodation for what had by then become a large operation.

On the night of 30-31 May 1942 the Overseas Services were transferred from Aldenham. Radio Newsreel arrived from Abbey Manor at the same time and occupied one of the mixer suites from which many of the great stories of the war, either in recorded form or live, were broadcast to the world. The Indian Section came from Abbey Manor in June 1942. There were at first nine studios, of which the cubicles of two were equipped for multi-channel mixer work. One of the continuity suites was the source of the Green Network, which provided a World Service for most of the twenty-four hours. The continuity suite for the Red Network served mainly Australasia and the American Continent. Two other networks, Purple and Brown, served particular areas with special programmes.

Just as the noise from the Bakerloo Tube could be heard in the basement studios of Broadcasting House when it was opened in 1932, the noise of the underground trains on the Central London Line could be heard in some of the studios at 200 Oxford Street, which were about 50 ft below ground level. It was, in fact, possible to distinguish the arrival and departure of the trains, and the opening and closing of their doors. One of the many overseas visitors who came to visit Bush House after the war claimed that he had been able to identify a particular studio when listening 5000 miles away by the sound of the underground trains — and he was right.

There was an obligation on all staff in possession of secret papers to destroy them in the event of an invasion. This would have been facilitated at 200 Oxford Street by the fact that in the cubicle of Studio 1 there was a large manhole cover; when removed this revealed another cover which, when removed in turn, revealed a waterfall still further down. This was the River Fleet from Hampstead, finding its way down to the Thames; in the words of the Engineer-in-Charge, W. Furze Mills, ‘We hoped that our papers would be lost in the swirling waters beneath Fleet Street.’

[from: BBC Engineering 1922-1972, Edward Pawley, Ch 4.3 p251-3]

200 Oxford Street had accomodated the studios for the General Overseas Service (GOS) and was vacated in November 1957 when all the "external services" had moved to Bush House.