Two names synonymous with the pioneering days of creating visual effects for television are Bernard Wilkie and Jack Kine. Back in the 1950s, they were the Visual Effects Department of the BBC even though at the time it wasn't even known as that, BBC Television Centre was yet to be built and neither of them had created effects for television before.

Bernard Wilkie's previously unpublished memoir, written in the 1990s, arrives from Miwk Publishing this September. Although Wilkie wrote The Technique of Special Effects in Television in 1971 (considered the effects industry bible by many) and his notes and diaries were accessed for Mat Irvine and Mike Tucker's excellent BBC VFX: The Story of the BBC Visual Effects Department published in 2010, this book provides an in depth, illuminating and often hilarious account of his profession directly from the horse's mouth, as it were.

He takes us, via some amusing detours, from his inauspicious introduction to fibreglass techniques during his first interview with Richard Levin, the BBC's Head of Television Design, in 1954 to his retirement from the BBC in 1978 shortly after overseeing the Visual Effects Department's move to Western Avenue in Acton.

As he told the Radio Times for its Doctor Who 10th Anniversary Special in 1973: "Special effects are a combination of engineering and artistry, with a spot of conjuring thrown in." Conjuring is from whence Wilkie's inventive and creative impulses seem to have sprung. The trouble is, he wasn't terribly good at it.

He was clearly passionate about showmanship and stagecraft (regular family visits to the Lewisham Hippodrome inspired a love of comedy and variety acts) and as an eight year old had already decided he was going to be a stage magician. However, a disastrous performance at the school Christmas concert, where all his tricks conspired against him, taught him a valuable lesson: "a performer should always rehearse with his props before going on stage."

This rule certainly applied to the testing of effects that he and Jack Kine undertook at the BBC but even then the pair of them were asking for trouble when certain effects got out of hand. But we're jumping the gun.
"do you know anything about fibreglass?" 
He spent the Second World War as a draughtsman and engineer at the Air Ministry before joining the Royal Air Force. Towards the end of the war he worked for Eisenhower's Supreme Headquarters Allied Expeditionary Force and then in Germany was part of an Air Force entertainment group. Here, he was set designer, scene painter, carpenter and stage manager for shows mounted at a former health spa with a 300 seat theatre. Talking of guns, he provides an amusing anecdote about a prop gun which underlines his edict about rehearsing before going on stage.

The BBC's relocation of their Engineering Research Department to Kingswood in Surrey proved fortuitous. His family had moved there after being bombed out of London and Wilkie discovered the BBC were about to move into a nearby manor house, Kingswood Warren. A prompt letter to them asking for a job secured him six years of employment "drawing wiring diagrams and component layouts."

His eventual restlessness resulted in a mountain of job applications, for many positions way beyond his experience, to the BBC television service. Despite his local manager getting rather frustrated with him, the BBC granted him a special interview after showing such determination. It's when he is interviewed by Richard Levin that the book plays to one of its great strengths.

Wilkie captures the sense of place extremely well, whether it be his journey to Television Centre, not even built when that fateful day he got the bus to White City, or his later wanderings around the subterranean studios at Lime Grove and Ealing. There is a palpable sense that Wilkie was going to be part of television's future in 1954, a witness to the modern television facility that would rise from the White City rubbish tip. It is an evocative recollection of the period.

Levin's question of, "do you know anything about fibreglass?" was the catalyst for a completely new career. Wilkie bluffed his way in by claiming he did, by swotting up in a public library on the subject and then impressing Levin in a meeting with a sales rep.

A three month secondment to create a fibreglass unit making lightweight scenery in the workshops eventually led to his encounter with Jack Kine, a scenic artist working at the BBC's Scenery Block, and the creation of the Visual Effects Department. When Wilkie was disposing of a bucket of smoking resin, Kine spotted him and tried to help, ending up with burnt fingers and ruined shoes for his trouble.

Just as Wilkie had struck upon the idea that the BBC needed such designers he again met Jack Kine, this time sitting in Levin's office. Kine had had the same thoughts and now Levin was bringing them together to create the Effects Department. Over a couple of pints at the White Horse, they put any differences aside and plunged headlong into the unregulated world of television production. There's a wonderful chapter devoted to Kine, where Wilkie's mutual respect and shared humour shines off the page about a colleague who claimed "if it can be imagined, it can be made." He recalls Kine's background as a model maker, Slade trained artist and as a draughtsman at Alexandra Palace and when, in his late seventies, Kine underwent corneal surgery to partially regain his sight.

What would seem to be simple tasks - creating spiral captions (deemed the very first television visual effect they created for a 1954 edition of the arts programme Mobiles), generating dry ice with tin baths (there's a whole chapter devoted to the perils of working with the stuff), smoke effects and simulating snow - paled into insignificance when it came to organising their workshops and setting up their first office. They painted their long workbench with a maroon paint that refused to dry and it almost ripped the seat out of David Attenborough's pants and they blew up most of their office with an advertising gimmick designed to promote their skills.

However, he also illustrates the hazards and hard lessons they learned. They pulled their workshop apart to retrieve a chip of yellow phosphorous that could explode and start a fire that would have gutted Television Centre and, at an effects demonstration, a Thermos of dry ice exploded and covered the front row of the audience with glass shards. Wilkie constantly iterates that, despite the lax regulations, he and staff were safety conscious, especially when it came to involving artistes in effects and stunts.

These 'experiments' and 'accidents' formed the backbone of their Heath Robinson expertise and they slowly accrued work on various productions. However, inadvertently setting off very loud explosions in the Design Block or interrupting the Buying Department's lunch hour football with a ricocheting pyrotechnic gained them a less than respectable reputation.
"It can't be easy to act out naked fear while peering at two gay rats having it away like knives."
Despite this they were involved in some of the key television programmes of the 1950s. Wilkie's love of comedy and variety found him rigging props and effects and sharing the Shepherd's Bush Empire stage with Morecambe and Wise as they recorded their television bête noire Running Wild (BBC, 1954). Their first show for television was a disaster, eliciting that infamous newspaper review: "Definition of the week:- TV Set: The box they buried Morecambe and Wise in."

It's a fascinating account of Eric and Ernie's growing sense of insecurity as the recording of the show progressed. They would ask Wilkie and Kine their opinions of the jokes and sketches, whether they felt their director was competent and apparently started losing confidence in their own partnership. This was exacerbated by certain effects not working on cue when water syphons refused to work and exploding amplifiers were miscued.

If you are looking for chapters on their work with Rudolph Cartier and Nigel Kneale then you'll not be disappointed. Wilkie provides some lovely detail about working on Nineteen Eighty Four (BBC, 1954), Quatermass II (BBC, 1955) and Quatermass and the Pit (BBC, 1958).

Using tiny budgets they created the props for Nineteen Eighty Four out of scrap, including the surveillance Telescreens which were made from salvaged roadside oil lamps and pocket torches attached to the spindles of wound up gramophones. These had to be cued in live on air and you mislaid the winding handle for the gramophones at your peril.

They were also responsible for the props and effects in the infamous closing scenes of Kneale's adaptation of Orwell's book. Winston Smith (Peter Cushing) is tortured by O'Brien (André Morell) with rats enclosed in a cage strapped to Smith's face. The sewer rats used for the scene acquired stage fright and wouldn't perform and the tame rats they used were more interested in sex. As Wilkie recalls: "How Peter Cushing and André Morell didn't collapse with laughter I shall never know. It can't be easy to act out naked fear while peering at two gay rats having it away like knives."

Quatermass II saw them using rocket effects, which escaped from a test launch and flew down Wood Lane, designing space suits, and making a brief appearance on TV as white coated technicians helping John Robinson and Hugh Griffith into their suits. Any book that mentions Hugh Griffiths' private parts getting crushed in a space suit deserves your attention. Finally, Wilkie fondly remembers the appearance of the tentacled monster as "merely a toilet cleaner's glove being waggled about by a bloke in a wet shirt, pissed off and smelling of cocoa."

When the BBC bought Ealing Studios in 1955 for the princely sum of £350, 000, Wilkie and Kine were instructed to audit the studio's assets. It's a remarkable account of how they wandered through the abandoned studios and recalled the glory days of filmmaking at the facility, noting the workshops, the lots, the cutting rooms, and saw a bright future for a visual effects unit based there. As well as working at Ealing, he and Kine were also given use of the Puppet Theatre space in Television Centre, which became known as the Model Stage, as one of their bases near the television studios.

Wilkie recounts the purchase of his first car and taking his driving test alongside his effects work on The Sky at Night (BBC, 1957-), getting lost in the fog on a remote Scottish Loch while providing model effects on location, suffering sea sickness as he worked with Michaeljohn Harris on simulating a fire on a coastal cargo carrier and designing a huge rubber fish for Cartier's television opera Tobias and the Angel (BBC, 1960) that shed its iridescent paint over all and sundry.

In 1958, Wilkie worked with Kine at Ealing Studios on Quatermass and the Pit and they were required to provide a melting spaceship, three legged Martian bodies and disturbances of the ground. Nigel Kneale's brother Bryan inspired the design of the tripod Martians with one his paintings and they were duly created in fibreglass. One of the scariest moments in the serial came about totally by accident. Hanging up the Martian corpses with nylon lines, Kine broke a thread and one of the creatures suddenly dropped. Cartier immediately saw the potential that this sudden, dramatic movement would have on the audience and incorporated it into the episode.

Other effects for the serial unfortunately ostracised them from sharing the tea trolley and a lunch time drink with colleagues. The serial's rout of the Martian civilisation had to show several Martian heads breaking open and they simulated the splattering contents with spaghetti and tomato sauce. But the effects were prepared two weeks in advance and under the hot studio lights they decomposed further. The melting spaceship was achieved with covering the model with lashings of Golden Syrup. It got everywhere. The studios not only stank to high heaven but were now also covered in a sticky residue.

Reorganisation at the BBC in 1964 took Wilkie and Kine to premises in Woodstock Grove and they had several effects staff under their auspices, including Peter Day and Ron Oates, covering a wealth of children's programmes, documentary, comedy and drama. At Television Centre, Wilkie amusingly recalls their invite to the opening of the BBC Club, that began as a refectory dinner table set for twelve people in a single room on the fourth floor and eventually became the legendary bars and roof garden where, in an era long gone, it was famous as the meeting place for actors, producers, technicians, composers and writers.

In his witty and unpretentious style, Wilkie traces the development of Television Centre and his encounters with bosses such as Richard Levin and Michael Mills. Mills epitomised the upper echelons in charge of production back in the day, an ex-seaman who equated programme making with the chain of command in a major military operation. If you weren't ex-Navy then your time in the services would count for little in the pecking order he established, especially if you were on a boat filming an inflatable Loch Ness monster being dragged across a stretch of water in the Highlands. 

Nothing seemed to phase Wilkie, whether it was the eccentric joys of working with a fibreglass whale for Michael Bentine's It's A Square World (BBC, 1960-64), almost burning Eric Porter in the house fire set up at Ealing Studios for an episode of The Forsyte Saga (BBC, 1967), trying to create a water filled ice wall for Doctor Who (BBC, 1963-89, 1996, 2005-) which promptly leaked all over the studio floor, preventing John Scott Martin from falling off a cliff in his Dalek, or travelling up to Scotland to film Monty Python's Flying Circus (BBC, 1969-74) in the company of Eric Idle and, en route, enjoying the hospitality of the Loch Lomond annual junket held by the Scottish Whisky Distillers' Association.
"like a rogue elephant with a bee up its bum" 
The sense these were happy days and that he couldn't believe he was getting paid to blow things up or set things on fire, so obviously an extension of his misspent youth making his own fireworks and roping in his younger brother to set them off or inspired by his father's use of gunpowder to clear the flue of the kitchen copper boiler, permeates these memories.

Of Doctor Who, there are particularly strong recollections as he and Kine were there from the beginning and advised Ray Cusick about realising his designs of the Dalek. To meet the deadline for construction, Wilkie suggested faceting the skirt section in case they needed to make them from plywood rather than fibreglass.

They tackled the demarcation disputes about who was responsible for assembling and operating the TARDIS console, created authentic looking giant spiders, and wrangled the recalcitrant radio controlled K-9 prop, which often behaved "like a rogue elephant with a bee up its bum."

Even the strange beauty of the waterlogged clay pits used in filming 'Colony in Space' for Doctor Who were a delight to him and his effects assistants Ian Scoones and Colin Mapson. Mind you, Scoones suffered when he had to carry the full weight of the IMC robot prop on his shoulders when one of its castors malfunctioned. 

The closing chapters focus on much of the work he did for comedy shows such as Not Only... But Also (the utter madness of filming the title sequence on Tower Bridge in 1970 would send the Health and Safety Executive in a spin today), The Dave Allen Show (BBC, 1968) and Some Mothers Do 'Ave 'Em (BBC, 1973-78). The latter two shows featured exploding outside toilets, a Stonehenge and a chicken house both set to collapse on cue and dangerous stunts launching cars into the sea or off the edge of cliffs.

Working on Some Mothers with the martinet producer/director Michael Mills appeared to be more stressful than anything that the BBC had previously thrown at Wilkie and his team. How to stop a Morris Minor from bouncing up and down on the roof of a coach and do it in your lunch hour epitomised "the fate of everyone who worked in Visual Effects". There also appeared to be little thanks from the likes of Mills as Wilkie, Scoones and Rhys Jones had to suffer for their art putting together and testing a cupboard, eventually containing Michael Crawford, that was required to topple down a set of stairs.

This delightful book is rounded off with Wilkie's thoughts on the Department's move to Western Avenue in Acton in 1977. Here, the facilities and space were greatly expanded to meet the increasing demand for visual effects and would incorporate improved workshops, a dedicated model stage, offices and car parking. However, Jack Kine was unhappy that the Department was to be administered by former scenic designer John Cooper (also uneasy about his own promotion over Wilkie and Kine) and opted instead to take early retirement.

New techniques and processes had superseded the "string and elastic philosophy" of the original founders of the Department and Wilkie himself was planning his own retirement. Kine and Wilkie would meet up again. most memorably for the closure of Lime Grove studios in July 1991, celebrating with a sherry in Studio E. It was the end of an era.

Martin Wilkie, Bernard's son, and effects designer Mike Tucker, now supervisor at the award winning The Model Unit, provide suitable afterwords. Martin sums up his father's immense contribution to the development of television and visual effects and Mike heaps appropriate praise on that effects bible written by Bernard, The Technique of Special Effects in Television, that inspired his own career.

Bernard Wilkie and Jack Kine pioneered what became the largest TV Visual Effects Department in the world, where art and engineering combined to produce magic. Martin reflects on Bernard's humble recollections of "just another day at the office", and outlines his father's post-BBC activities writing for Russ Abbott and the Grumbleweeds, providing effects expertise for West Deutsche Rundfunk and assisting Lorne Martin with Doctor Who exhibitions. It's a suitably moving coda to this hugely enjoyable tribute to one of television's genial magicians.

A Peculiar Effect On the BBC
Bernard Wilkie
Foreword by Mat Irvine
Afterword by Martin Wilkie and Mike Tucker
Miwk Publishing Ltd
29th September 2015
ISBN-10: 1908630221
ISBN-13: 978-1908630223

Note: I am indebted to Mat Irvine and Mike Tucker's BBC VFX: The Story of the BBC Visual Effects Department for some of the images used to illustrate this review. No copyright infringement is intended. Thanks also to for background information and images of the Scenery Block and TV Centre under construction.

SOLDIER AND ME - The Complete Series / DVD Review

Soldier And Me, Granada's 1974 BAFTA award-winning children's drama, comes to DVD this month courtesy of Network.

The nine half-hour episodes, broadcast in a Sunday tea-time slot between 15 September and 10 November 1974, were made by producer Brian Armstrong and directed by Carol Wilks, both formerly producer and researcher respectively on Granada's hard-hitting documentary strand World in Action.

Soldier and Me was an adaptation by writer David Line of his own best selling book 'Run For Your Life', originally published by Jonathan Cape in 1966. Line was the pseudonym of thriller writer Lionel Davidson.

As Jake Kerridge noted Davidson, born in Hull in 1922 and who died in 2009, was perhaps the last of the great adventure writers of the 1950s and 1960s, casting his unwitting heroes in the tradition of the ripping yarns spun by writers such as John Buchan. He was referred to as "today’s Rider Haggard" by Daphne du Maurier and his early novel 'The Rose of Tibet' was praised by Graham Greene as a "genuine adventure story." (1)

Davidson's career as a writer started with him as an office boy opening the post at The Spectator (it published his first story when he was 15 after he smuggled one of his own pieces into the submissions he forwarded to the literary editor), writing syndicated features for children and an agony column and, after the Second World War, working at Fleet Street's Keystone press agency. As a freelance writer he travelled to Czechoslovakia in 1947, smuggling himself aboard a lorry deporting Slovaks from Hungary back to Czechoslovakia as per Stalin's diktat for Eastern Europe. (2)

COMPETITION: Wolcott: The Complete Series Blu-Ray (Closed)

Released on Blu-Ray and DVD on Monday 17 August by Network Distributing, Wolcott hails from 1981, a groundbreaking drama made by the ITC subsidiary Black Lion Films for ATV. Broadcast from the 13 to 15 January 1981, it was the first example of a prime time mini-series stripped over three nights in the ITV schedule. The episodes have now been newly transferred into HD from the original film elements for this long overdue release.

Displaying the same rough, streetwise vibe as The Sweeney, Wolcott stars the charismatic George William Harris as a tough, loner detective with a gift for rubbing people up the wrong way. Winning massive viewing figures, its controversially unflinching depiction of racism and crime ensured that it has never been repeated or released in any format until now. With all four episodes now transferred in High Definition from the original film elements, Wolcott includes early roles for Christopher Ellison, Hugh Quarshie, Warren Clarke and Rik Mayall – cast against type as a racist policeman. - See more at:
Most importantly, it was the first British crime drama with a black actor playing the lead role and it did not shy away from depicting the corruption and villainy in both the black and white communities. Played with great power and charisma by George William Harris, Wolcott is a man in the middle, facing hostility both from the community he polices and his colleagues in the Force. His investigations into the fatal stabbing of an old woman and a journalist soon uncover a brutal drug war being fought between criminal gangs.

Co-writer Patrick Carroll notes: "At the inception of the project there were no black officers in the Met C.I.D.  By the time the programme aired we were told that there were three, all of whom were involved in undercover work relating to drug dealing." The series' unflinching and controversial approach to race and policing at the time captured something of the deprivation, distrust of the police and authority, and inequalities of the period that culminated in the inner city riots in Brixton, Birmingham and Liverpool.

Wolcott made for uncomfortable viewing judging by the mixed critical reaction at the time but it gained impressive viewing figures of 13 million. ATV lost its franchise to Central in the summer of 1981, and when producers Barry Hanson and Jacky Stoller approached Central "with a view to developing a follow-up series they were told that, despite the original serial’s impressive viewing figures, the project was simply too much of a political hot potato.  When Barry and Jacky brought their proposal to the BBC they were given much the same answer."

Nigel Kneale's QUATERMASS - The Complete Series / Blu-Ray Review

After successfully adapting the three Quatermass television stories of the 1950s and with the box office tills ringing from the well-received cinema version of Quatermass and the Pit (1967), Hammer Films approached creator-writer Nigel 'Tom' Kneale for an original film script featuring the titular scientist with a view to continuing the franchise.

The studio announced another film but nothing developed beyond an outline and preliminary discussions with Kneale. Hammer had faced delays getting Quatermass and the Pit to the screen after their partnership with Columbia faltered and it was perhaps disinterest from distributors, Hammer's struggle to adapt to changing audience tastes and the slow decline of the industry as a whole that stalled their fourth Quatermass outing.

Kneale remained busy. His relationship with the BBC strengthened in the late 1960s and early 1970s and he succeeded in getting several key plays to the screen in this period. This was after he had refused overtures from the BBC to contribute a one-off drama to their Theatre 625 strand on BBC2. He felt he had never really been properly recompensed for the Quatermass serials he had made in the 1950s, something he made quite clear to the BBC's Director General Hugh Carleton Greene. A one off payment was duly agreed and Kneale undertook his new assignment. This would become 1968's celebrated play about television's Orwellian future potential, The Year of the Sex Olympics. (1)

He followed this with 1970's 'Wine of India' for The Wednesday Play, which centred on a 100-year old couple who must make plans for their funeral in a future where advances in medicine have resulted in a need for population control and where those reaching the age of 100 must submit to a government controlled euthanasia program. He contributed 'The Chopper' to Out of the Unknown in 1971, a ghost story about a dead motorcyclist haunting his wrecked machine, and followed this in 1972 with The Stone Tape, in which scientists researching new recording technologies at an old mansion investigate a haunting.

Coppers & Spies Revisited
This entry concludes the re-written versions of the original Coppers and Spies blog posts published on the MovieMail site in 2014. Each part contains additional research material and information on the various crime and spy adventure series the original blog series covered, timed to celebrate Network's highly-anticipated release of The Professionals in high-definition last March.

I hope you enjoy this final post.

6: Beyond the police - From The Professionals to Life on Mars

Creator of The Professionals, writer-producer-director Brian Clemens, boasted a six-decade career making iconic crime and adventure drama. In the 1950s, as staff writer, he scripted many half-hour crime series for the Danzigers production company. He wrote the pilot episode for Danger Man in 1960 and a year later provided the same for The Avengers, the series with which he is forever associated.

While he and producer Albert Fennell oversaw ABC television’s international success with John Steed and Emma Peel in The Avengers, Clemens also contributed to ITC’s The Baron, The Champions and Man in a Suitcase. He created ATV’s anthology series Thriller and, with Fennell, revived The Avengers in 1976 as The New Avengers.

As the second series of The New Avengers completed filming in October 1977 it was clear to Clemens that his co-production company The Avengers (Film and TV) Enterprises Ltd, formed with Fennell and composer Laurie Johnson, was running into financial difficulties. After French finance failed to materialise, the final three episodes of the series were cancelled and the prospect of making a third series evaporated. Four episodes, then being completed in Canada, provided an underwhelming coda to a troubled production.

Coppers & Spies Revisited
Continuing with the re-written versions of the original Coppers and Spies blog posts published on the MovieMail site in 2014. Each part contains additional research material and information on the various crime and spy adventure series the original blog series covered, timed to celebrate Network's highly-anticipated release of The Professionals in high-definition last March.

5: Jack or Knave - From Special Branch to The Sweeney

Euston Films, the subsidiary of Thames Television founded in 1971 by executives Lloyd Shirley (Controller of Drama), George Taylor (Head of Film Facilities) and Brian Tesler (Director of Programmes), set out to make television faster and cheaper. It swapped studio taping for lighter film cameras, ten-day turnarounds with minimal rehearsal, non-union crews, and all-location filming. Affectionately described by the crew of The Sweeney as the ‘kick, bollock and scramble’ approach, Euston’s operation transformed television drama in the 1970s.

Prior to Euston’s formation, directors Jim Goddard and Terry Green and writer Trevor Preston had already proposed to ABC the creation of a small group to produce work on 16mm film, a gauge normally used to film inserts on location for video taped drama but not considered as a format for an entire drama's production.

Viewing Figures

The Legal Bit

All written material is copyright © 2007-2015 Cathode Ray Tube and Frank Collins. Cathode Ray Tube is a not for profit publication primarily for review, research and comment. In the use of images and materials no infringement of the copyright held by their respective owners is intended. If you wish to quote material from this site please seek the author's permission.

Creative Commons License
Cathode Ray Tube by Frank Collins is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 2.0 UK: England & Wales License.