Songs of Praise, Budleigh Salterton

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On Wednesday 21st May 1969 we had set up an OB radio link at the Parish Church in Budleigh Salterton, Devon for the recording of Songs of Praise.
Budleigh Salterton Parish Church

The link was routed via the masthead at North Hessary Tor and injected into the Eggardon Link. The programme was recorded on the 405 line standard as BBC1 had not yet commenced UHF transmissions.

We had parked the radio link vehicle in the planned position alongside the church and rigged the 4 foot diameter dish on the roof. However it proved impossible to get a clear path for the beam so that it cleared a number of trees around the perimeter of the site. After shuffling the vehicle around we settled on a particular spot which held most promise, but there was a medium sized tree obstructing the link path. The solution was to tie a rope around the tree trunk and secure it at the other end to the BBC Landrover bumper. By inching the Landrover forward we were able to persuade the tree to bend enough for a clear path to be established. Braced with this successful horizontal thinking, we proceeded to set up the outgoing link. All was going well as lunchtime arrived.

It must be understood that the cry of ‘Lunch’ means only one thing to a BBC Rigger Driver. A fast exit to the local boozer. Four sounds were then heard in quick succession – the start of a Landrover engine, the crack of branches, a metallic clang as the rear bumper parted company from the Landrover and loud cursing from the Rigger Driver.

The Vicar was most understanding. He said he understood the technical need for a good signal, and observed that he appreciated we would be tidying up the tree debris. He commented that as we would be staying on after the recording of Songs of Praise for the live Morning Service the following Sunday we may notice the Offertory Plate being passed around during the service. We decided to throw some extra coins in the Plate on Sunday.

Because most of our SHF equipment in those days was valve-based including the H-wave cavity tuned oscillator in the head units, a period of time was always scheduled to allow for them to warm up and settle down on the correct frequency. So link line-up commenced two hours before transmission, with vision circuit line-up starting at 60 minutes before going on air. This meant a couple of hours of sitting around to allow the equipment to stabilise.

On this occasion, only a few minutes into link line-up the van started rocking around. Someone was leaping around on the van roof. Complaints were received from further up the link of signal breakup. Bundling out of the van quickly, we discovered choirboys in their white cassocks running up and down the ladder with two having a fight on the roof. Suitably descriptive words were used to advise the boys that they needed to get off the roof pronto. A few minutes later these same angelic faces were in the choir stalls singing sweetly to the nation.

The recording of Songs of Praise commenced around 8pm. After about the second hymn the congregation were asked to be seated and apologies were made for a technical fault which had halted the recording. The Eggardon Link was fading. To be accurate, the Link had faded, and indeed it did not come back. After a few minutes the recording was abandoned and rescheduled for the following evening. This was a bit of a shame as a local publican who did not usually attend church had to be away from his Hostelry for a second night, but it was good news for the crew who would receive another night’s Sched A (expenses).

The weather was fabulous. Beautifully hot and sunny with hardly any breeze, just the sort of conditions which one would want to enjoy in a lovely seaside town like Budleigh. Unfortunately it was also the type of weather that could play havoc with the Link.

Kate Adie, the BBC correspondent, in her autobiography The Kindness of Strangers relates how she was on attachment to OBs and was at Budleigh Salterton for the programme. She places the blame on the tides and recalls how she was sent out to find a copy of the Tide Tables to see if the live Morning Service needed to be postponed for an hour or so on Sunday.

Now I wouldn’t ever wish to question anything a journalist has written, but it is well known that they are a breed which enjoy (to mis-quote an old advertising slogan) making a drama out of a crisis. It is not plausible that the mighty BBC would delay a live programme until the tide was right when there was enough time to re-engineer the OB link with perhaps another midpoint so as to bypass Eggardon.

In fact, in my experience the symptoms experienced that evening were more symptomatic of ducting rather than water fades, although the latter might well have been a contributory cause. Reflections of side-lobes off the water surface which is so calm as to approximate to a mirror is a well-known source of fading. But even in the calmest conditions, water still retains some movement and then results in SHF links fading in and out repeatedly, sometimes rapidly, on other occasions more slowly. It is more likely that the beam skewed as the setting sun kept the upper air warm whilst the air nearer the ground cooled – temperature inversion.

Whatever caused it, the Eggardon Link showed its frailty that evening. It behaved the following evening and for the live Service on Sunday. Its time however was running out – it was not 625 line capable and two years later with the re-engineering of North Hessary Tor programme feeds it became disused and eventually removed.