Bernard Wilkie's previously unpublished memoir, written in the 1990s, arrives from Miwk Publishing this September.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.
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."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."
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"
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
Foreword by Mat Irvine
Afterword by Martin Wilkie and Mike Tucker
Miwk Publishing Ltd
29th September 2015
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 http://www.tvstudiohistory.co.uk for background information and images of the Scenery Block and TV Centre under construction.