One day, back in 1988, someone asked me the question “Could you do live TV from the top of the Queen’s Tower?”. Up to that point I can’t say I’d really thought about it much, but it was an interesting question nevertheless. But we’ll come back to that in a while.
Anyone who has visited the South Kensington campus would have seen the tower at some point. It’s some 287 feet tall and has some 324 steps up to the dome area. One of the main times the tower is noticed is when the bells are rung and these are as follows:
Queen’s Accession: 6 February
Queen’s Birthday: 21 April
Queen’s Coronation: 2 June
Duke of Edinburgh’s Birthday: 10 June
The Princess Royal’s Birthday: 15 August
Prince of Wales’ Birthday: 14 November
Queen’s Wedding Day: 20 November
and of course both PG Awards and Commemoration Days each year.
It was on 20 November 1997 that we recorded the bell ringers for the first time. This was to mark the Queen’s 50th wedding anniversary and a special ring was performed. Carrying cameras and recorders up the tower is not an easy tasks as the spiral staircase was never designed for this. But we made it and proceeded to capture the event. What no-one had bothered to tell us was that the tower does move a bit when the bells are being run. First one way and then the other depending on which set of bells are being run at the time. Sets of bells are hung in different ways; one set ‘left to right’ and the other set ‘top to bottom’. This therefore gives a strange effect of movement swaying one way, then the other. The combined result when all the bells are being run is a very odd circular motion. Although I’ve recorded the actual bells with hanging a mic in the bell chamber, I’ve never captured them on video…but someone else has! If you go to this YouTube video you’ll see the horrifying sight of the whole set of bells ringing below the camera lens. I can’t say that it looks very safe up there and the volume of sound must be rather high too.
Another great reason to remember the Queen’s Tower were the (now long gone) performances in May each year of the 1812 overture. These were accompanied by live explosions provided by DramSoc and the bells in the tower were rung. I’m not certain why this event stopped, maybe it was the British weather! Anyway, in May 1979 I recorded the event in colour, the same summer that we actually got our colour equipment.
And so, back to the start and that question about live TV from the top of the tower. Back in 1988 during preparations for one of the first Alumni weekends the idea came about to broadcast the weather one morning from the Queen’s Tower. Francis Wilson was, at the time, forecasting the weather for the BBC Breakfast programme. Because he’s an Alumni of Imperial he was asked if he would do it and of course he agreed.
We did weather from the tower twice and you’ll notice the reference to hearing the sound this time around. In fact we were some minutes away from the live link and someone managed to move the equipment providing the ‘line of sight’ link. You can see some photos I took at the time and two of these show the amount of equipment we had to carry up the tower. One is showing the equipment set up for controlling sound and vision and the other is showing the infra-red line of sight link from the tower down to the area now known as the “tower rooms”. One thing we were lucky to have was mains power and down in the bell ringing chamber, a telephone line.
The recording you’re now able to see of the event was made down on the ground floor where the TV monitors were located. I’m still amazed it actually worked and the quality was pretty good too. The infra-red link had to be lined up with a telescope that had a cross-hair to align with the receiver, also set up on a tripod down on the ground. All you then had to do was to feed video and audio into the unit and you were in business. The only problem, as we discovered, was not knowing IF those down below could actually see and hear anything once you had started the event.
My colleague at the time Chris Roberts is seen operating the camera whilst I was pressing the buttons, mixing sound and running-in the videotaped sequences we were given from our colleagues in Physics. It was good fun, the Alumni visiting seemed to enjoy it, but it was very hard work indeed….there are a lot of steps up to the top and I was a lot younger then too!
The day before the event we had already taken most of the equipment up the tower and tried out the link. Those down on the ground floor were somewhat surprised to see this caption on the TV screens. It was broadcast from the tower and was announcing the forthcoming live link the following morning.
Colin Grimshaw April 2010