The BBC (part I)
Technician To The Flies –
Skelton Transmitting Station, (‘O.S.9’) 1967, Cumberland
This was going to be Lord of the Flies but William Golding already got that, blast him. Anyway . . .
Antenna T.A.s (Technical Assistants) used to congregate in a room at the end of the main transmitter hall. This room held a selection of foul-weather gear including yellow oilskin raincoats with hoods. Each TA had his own BBC store-issue Wellingtons, or received an allowance for purchasing his own. Wellingtons, otherwise known as Wellies, are essential in sheep country.
Typically two or three TAs would man the antenna room. Every time a programme change ocurred on a channel (broadcast), likely enough a TA would don a miner’s helmet with miner’s lamp, mount a bicycle, and ride away into the antenna farm along paths one paving stone wide (the narrow part) liberally plastered with sheep shit.
The miners lamps didn’t exactly light up the night, and often enough, the poor TA, late for a ‘switch’ and going like hell, would encounter a sheep sleeping across the path, and go flying over the handlebars into a shit-assisted landing.
On one particular night I had to do an ‘instant’ antenna switch, the type we liked least of all. This involved absolute trust, in that the SME (senior maintenance engineer) on duty had to turn off the transmitter exactly at the right moment, phone the TA at the antenna, wait while the TA switched the antenna, then reinsert the interlock key and authorise the transmitter TA to commence with full power again.
It was a very cold night at 3 AM and so I was glad to discover a tiny hut, not much more than a vertical coffin, next to the antenna phone position. I went inside and closed the door and waited for the phone to ring.
Funny; the walls seemed very dark, quite blackish in fact, whereas I remembered these huts were all painted in pale BBC grey. I switched the miners lamp on. The walls were indeed a blackish sort of colour, and what’s worse, moving!
The next moment a huge swarm of flies took off from where they had been sleeping, or whatever flies do on a cold night. The space inside the tiny hut filled with them.
Several seemed to be intent on making their way up my nostrils, and of course I dared not open my mouth.
Eyes shut, face coated with flies, more buzzing in my ears and nose, I staggered out into the night. Just as I stood there going ‘phroo’ blowing bluebottles out of my nose, the phone rang. It was the senior maintenance engineer (SME) standing next to the transmitter with the keys in his hand. “Right!” he said, “It’s off!”
Only about 45 seconds or so was allowed to switch the antenna’s ‘direction of fire’ and this involved running about in a field, unclamping and reclamping short-circuit devices attached to wooden poles, and – using another tool at the end of a wooden pole – moving a set of brass contacts from one position to another. The contacts dangled from several feet of wire, not ordinary wire but ‘wire cages’ like extended birdcages.
Some flies buzzed into my face again – of course it being dark I could hardly detect them except by their buzzing – and going ‘argh’ and ‘shit’ while swatting them away I turned in the wrong direction and set off with my pole-mounted hook-manipulator, otherwise known as a slewing pole, to the wrong antenna.
I now demonstrated why it was the custom to use the slewing pole to bash the dangling cage-feeder together, prior to unhooking the ‘business end’. This particular antenna was ‘live’ as it happened, since it ‘belonged’ to a different transmitter.
I bashed the cables together and a huge radio-frequency arc lit up between them. The arc sustained for a moment, so I distinctly heard that it was BBC World Service (an arc acts like a loudspeaker.)
On the way back to the correct antenna the phone was ringing again. I picked it up. “Yes?”
“Was that you causing that transmitter trip a moment ago?”
“Oh. Are you all right?”
“Oh. Well you’d better change that antenna damn quickly. The right one this time.”
“Right.” I put the phone down and went rushing around the (right) antenna like a maniac, changing all the wires around.
Later on nobody believed me about the flies.
When a sheep coughs it sounds exactly like a human cough. This can be pretty startling at 4 am in the middle of a field miles from anywhere with a dense mist falling over you like maidens milk and memories of the story of the Black Abbott, that seemed so ridiculous a little while ago.