Brian Masters MBE
1 Jan 2002 0 comments. tbs.pm/2270
Brian Masters was born in London in 1939. The son of a BBC engineer, he chose to follow in his father’s footsteps upon leaving school. He joined the new ITV London weekday contractor Associated-Rediffusion, initially as a post boy, rising to the post of junior telecine grader “and senior tea boy!”
Leaving in 1965 to attain a scholarship at the Royal College of Music, he returned to the now-renamed Rediffusion London upon graduating. However, the scene that greeted him was one of political turmoil – Rediffusion had been forced to merge with ABC to form Thames, a move that was unpopular throughout the London television industry.
Instead, Brian took a post at Decca Records, whose most prosperous era was about to draw to an end with a creative flourish. In the mid-1970s, he moved to the BBC, where, with the exception of a brief flurry at London Weekend at the end of that decade, he remained until he retired through ill health in September 2001. He died on 29 October 2001. Brian agreed to talk to EMC in August 2001 about the early stage of his career in television. Although suffering from a terminal illness, he approached the task with considerable enthusiasm, anxious that the following story should be recorded for posterity. It is with this in mind that we publish the following conversation as a tribute to Brian Masters, MBE.
“It was a strange atmosphere at Rediffusion. I started only months after the station opened, in early 1956. It was a mixture of ex-BBC, back in the days when the BBC was almost exclusively staffed by old Etonians, and ex- or current Fleet Street. Associated-Rediffusion’s part-ownership by Associated Newspapers saw to that. You would be rubbing shoulders with grizzled old hacks and ex-Pathe cameramen who couldn’t quite see the point of television, and very stuffy old-school BBC types who, despite being there, couldn’t quite see the point of Independent Television! And here was I, a callow youth of seventeen, who had too much enthusiasm to care whether he was working for ITV or Outer Mongolian Television!
My father was a BBC person, which embarrassed me at the time: I wanted to make my own way, in the same industry, without being held open to a charge of nepotism. My father was all for me going into the BBC – he had enough clout to get me into a menial post with no questions asked, from where I could rise through the ranks. And when I say “through the ranks”, I’m not exaggerating – the BBC at that time was virtually a retirement home for old soldiers. But even then I didn’t see what the fun would be in having doors opened for me. I didn’t want an easy ride.
The fact that I had the nerve to go and work for Rediffusion, who were severely looked down upon by the BBC, meant that, as far as the BBC was concerned, I was as far away from “proper broadcasting” as possible while still within arm’s reach. I genuinely believe that they were expecting me to come knocking, cap in hand, within a few months; in reality, it took nearly 20 years, and even then, they asked me.
On the other side of the coin, Rediffusion had poached several people from the BBC, not least of all Leslie Mitchell. I’d known Leslie since I was a child, from the occasional days when I’d visit Broadcasting House to meet my father from work. An amiable, yet slightly nervous fellow, he remembered me instantly, and seemed to form a protective veil around me. I’m sure people wondered why the post boy kept engaging the senior announcer in deep conversation in such a way!
I met the indomitable Brownrigg a couple of times. The first time, I held a door open for him, and he appeared to totally ignore me. I continued about my business only to freeze on the spot when the terrifying bellow of, “You! Boy! Come back here!” echoed down the corridor. After approaching him gingerly, he apologised for not acknowledging me, still in the same loud, barking tone, before tipping me a shilling and telling me to be on my way. The next time I met him was five years later, in 1962, when he still recognised me as “the door boy.” Considering the man ran the place, and was supposed to be ever present, I can’t help wondering where he spent his time, and doing what!
After around a year as a post boy, it had been noticed that I spent large amounts of time around the film rooms, watching the editors closely. The whole business of editing fascinated me, particularly in the newsrooms where they worked incredibly quickly.
I was invited to apply for the post of Telecine Grader (Junior). This involved calling up and checking any film that was to be sent for transmission; it also involved making cups of tea for people in my spare time! Unfortunately for me, any film meant literally that – ANY film. Our “Associated-Rediffusion Presents” optics [frontcaps] came on huge reels of 35 and 16mm film, and so did the telecined testcard. I had to sit and watch a static image on the screen for 40 minutes at a time, making note of any blemishes, bouncing, racking or wobbles on the picture. The optic reels had the ident music – “bap-bap-ba-baaaaa-bap” – repeated ad infinitum every ten seconds or so. The testcard had optically-recorded tone, to which I also had to listen.
Later on, when we became Rediffusion London, the optic changed, and so did the music. This film at least had movement – the spinning star revolved without stopping for a full half-hour per reel, with, once again, interpolated music. It didn’t half make your head spin!
While still on probation as a Junior Grader, I met Daniel Farson. The stories about Dan are legion, and don’t bear repetition here – although his autobiography, “Never A Normal Man”, is highly recommended. Farson and I shared a love of Victorian Music Hall. Indeed, he attempted a theatrical revival around this time, which sadly proved to be ill fated.
Dan was working on his ground-breaking series, “People In Trouble”, described in the above book as a series “dealing with the problems of meths-drinkers, midgets, illiterates, spinsters, discharged prisoners and people who were disfigured.” As a Telecine Grader (Junior), it was my task to view all of the unedited material and check that it was in a state fit for broadcast. Dan used to come into the viewing room, eager to watch the material with me before taking me to the pub (for far longer than my lunch break permitted; it was eventually noticed, and I was hauled over the coals until I said that “Mr. Farson always insists I stay for another”; this changed my interrogator’s attitude totally, and I was sent on my way with no more than a minor flea in my ear.)
Although my colleagues suggested that Farson had ulterior motives, I for one was not only too young and naive to understand such connotations in those more innocent times; suffice to say, Dan never attempted to lay so much as a finger on my person, we remained good, friendly colleagues, and I was deeply upset to see him later spiral into alcoholism as he did.
I was recently reminded of one specific film item that I had to view. It was of the author and bigot James Wentworth-Day, one of the motley assortment of acquaintances that passed for friends that Farson acquired, who offered an opinion in most editions of “People In Trouble.” This specific edition regarded transvestism, and needless to say, Wentworth-Day opposed it, quite vocally.
I found the film highly amusing as Wentworth-Day got worked up on the subject of transvestites, citing them to be an unnatural corruption of God’s Holy Law. Farson though, who normally chuckled along with the interviews, was strangely silent.
The film then took a more sinister turn when Farson, off-camera, broke into Wentworth-Day’s monologue abruptly, saying that they had enough material to be getting on with. Wentworth-Day continued, however, ranting on that homosexuality was a crime, and he would personally send such deviants to the gallows if given the chance. The look in his eyes suggested he meant every word.
This disturbed Dan – he himself was homosexual, at a time when this “crime” carried a substantial prison sentence. The programme was scrapped, uncompleted, on Farson’s highly uncharacteristic insistence that the ITA wouldn’t tolerate the broadcast. Wentworth-Day was subsequently quietly dropped from Farson’s programmes.
By 1964, I had decided to move on within the industry, and applied for the post of Sound Assistant at Rediffusion London. I was declined. A few months later, our main telecine grader left to work for Pathe. I applied for his job, certain that I would get it as I had been his junior for five years, and I was confident I could do the job better than anybody else within the company.
I was horrified, then, to be declined out of favour to somebody else who had only joined the company twelve months before. When I asked why, I was told, “oh, he went to Harrow.” So much for the forward-thinking dynamism of independent television.
I realised that I had to take decisive action, and what followed was a momentary sideways career move that would shape the rest of my life. I was accepted on a scholarship at the Royal College of Music, on the promise that a position would remain for me at Rediffusion on my graduation, somewhere in the music department.
When I left RCM, however, the scene at Rediffusion was far different to anything I could have imagined. For reasons better outlined elsewhere, Rediffusion had been forced to merge with ABC. It was not a popular move, and it offended most people at the company. The biggest insult was that ABC had been given a 51% controlling interest in the new company – Thames Television.
In those days, television companies would often telerecord each other’s output to see “what the opposition were up to.” Rediffusion wasn’t particularly impressed by ABC. Admittedly, they had The Avengers and Armchair Theatre, but their other programmes tended to be cosy, parochial little affairs featuring lots of shots of Didsbury High Street. The company knew nothing about, and had no apparent interest in, London, and yet they had been awarded a controlling interest in the London weekday franchise. It would have hurt us less had Lew Grade’s ATV been forced into a merger – at least they had broadcast to London (I suspect Grade, however, would have felt differently).
So, I returned to the dying embers of Rediffusion London as a sound balancer. Around me, the offices of my friends, peers and bosses were being turned over to the brash, bolshie ABC staff, who had been sent down to familiarise themselves with us, and ready themselves for the start of Thames. They knew that they had the upper hand, and their attitudes toward us reflected this.
It was very unfortunate. Rediffusion were making great headway with colour tests – one specific programme I remember watching was The Dickie Henderson Show, while visiting on summer leave. It was being shot in colour, and I watched it on a colour monitor in a room just off the gallery. The rest of the nation could only see it in black-and-white, of course, and we sadly couldn’t record colour pictures yet, but I remember feeling that television history was unfolding in front of me, and I felt incredibly privileged to be one of less than a dozen people able to witness this event.
I still believe that Brownrigg was right to some extent when he claimed in the press that Rediffusion was “killed” for being “too independent”. Rumours and counter-rumours flew around the industry at the time about Lord Hill and ABPC. Some of us even started to believe them.
As I had returned to the company following some years away, I reasonably expected to be handed my cards, as were so many of my colleagues. However, there was nobody more surprised than me when I was offered a job at Thames, specialising in “pop music programme sound” (no, I can’t think of any early Thames pop programmes, either!)
I said I would consider the offer.
It was a confusing time – here I was, in the job I had wanted all along, sitting in a crumbling empire, having been offered a job at its successor. However, at the time, the atmosphere was foul – even once or twice nearly degenerating into a punch-up. Thames eventually turned into a great company, but at that point in time, its future looked shaky to say the least.
I applied for a job at London Weekend, and David Frost personally asked me to go on a guided tour. I had worked on his Rediffusion series, and was impressed with what I saw. However, I wasn’t so impressed with what I heard. The company ethos at the beginning seemed to be “2 days of broadcasting, 5 days of playing golf.” It was hardly surprising, then, that the London Weekend shake-up came as soon as it did.
Eventually, I decided that it would be better for me to head for pastures new. While at college, I had developed an interest in recording sound, and I wished to pursue this interest further, in a way that working in television could hardly fulfil. After applying for various jobs, I landed a technical post at Decca, where I would remain for the next nine years. But that is another story entirely.