By the mid-1980s the BBC's Visual Effects Department was often the butt, rather unnecessarily in many cases, of some obvious jokes about the quality of their work (let's get the digs about washing up bottles out the way now). Naturally, this was in the wake of Star Wars and various other science fiction blockbusters of the period, upping the ante with new, sophisticated techniques that included motion controlled cameras for model filming and by the end of the decade the nascent emergence of computer generated imagery. Audiences expectations were coloured by this revolution in effects technology but until then many BBC programmes had already achieved a degree of excellence in visual effects, expertly convincing the viewer that they had seen a real church blown up in Doctor Who or a train rushing across the Russian Steppes in Anna Karenina.
 


The BBC was never economically in a position to compete with the likes of Douglas Trumbull, John Dykstra and Dennis Muren but what they lacked in budget they more than made up for in sheer ambition. Filming Blake's 7 on the budget of Softly, Softly was unlikely to produce consistently good visual effects but there are many effects sequences in the early episodes that still stand out as the pinnacle of model effects filming and the design of the Liberator remains iconic even if it did cause numerous headaches in the model shop as it constantly underwent repairs. Granted there are as many failures in the long history of the Department but it is clear that, despite time and money always hampering the delivery of decent effects for such programmes, enthusiasm and determination alone would lead to some astonishingly good visual effects.

Visual effects gurus Mat Irvine and Mike Tucker spectacularly redress the balance in this lavish book and once and for all prove how incredibly versatile the Department was, coping with the demands of lavish costume dramas, space opera, comedy and documentary programmes. By the time the Department closed in 2003, one more victim of John Birt's 'producer choice' dictum of the 1990s that saw various departments either downscaled or closed due to lack of space, costs or where staff producers at the BBC could either use the BBC's own facilities or go to outside contractors for effects, costumes, music, it had matured, all too late it seems, and was already embracing the sophisticated use of digital effects. Mike Tucker's work on Red Dwarf also displayed some gorgeously produced and designed model effects shots that would not look out of place in a far costlier programme or a film. Ironically, one of the last projects the Department worked on was Russell T. Davies's revival of Doctor Who in 2004 just after it had been wound down in 2003 and had become the BBC Model Unit.

Tucker and Irvine detail the history of the Department, describing how it emerged in 1954 when Richard Levin of the Scenic Design Department brought together the two men who would eventually develop the whole area of visual effects in the BBC, the legendary Jack Kine and Bernard Wilkie. From the first 'special effect' created for a programme called Mobiles in 1954, Kine and Wilkie would work together on numerous light entertainment programmes through the decade, including those hosted by Bob Monkhouse and Morecambe & Wise; create a 'flying pig' for The Man in Armour; and take on their first major role in an SF drama, the now highly regarded version of Nineteen Eighty-Four, for which they built all the practical machinery, including the telescreens and torture devices.

From here it was only a short journey to dramas such as Quatermass and Doctor Who. The authors trace the development of the Department through the 1950s and into the 1960s, detailing the various moves it made, the buildings it occupied (from Television Centre to Western Avenue and, finally, to Kendal Avenue) and the many personnel that they employed over the course of its expansion. These names will naturally have a familiar ring to them with Kine and Wilkie joined and succeeded by Ron Oates, Peter Day, John Friedlander, Ian Scoones, Michaeljohn Harris, Dave Harvard, Andy Lazell and both Irvine and Tucker amongst many others. The 1980s is described by them as a 'golden era' for the group with over 100-strong effects staff being employed and careers in visual effects forged while working on a vast array of television programmes at the BBC.

As well as a detailed history of the rise and fall of the in-house effects team, they also look at the breadth of effects techniques that the BBC departments might call upon to realise their vision. Detailed here are the sorts of practical 'floor' effects like fog, snow, rain and explosions (a particular forte of the Department judging by their over-enthusiasm on location for shows like Doctor Who and Blake's 7) that were in demand as well as special props, fake bodies, masks and miniatures, including giant hammers, over sized versions of Dougal from The Magic Roundabout, sections of the human body for Bodymatters, cannons for Dick Emery and prop syringes for Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.

Irvine and Tucker also profile 50 programmes where they demonstrate how all these techniques can often be used to create one specific effect or range of effects in programmes. Their A to Z takes in the use of miniatures, blue screen (the oft derided CSO as it was known), prosthetics and masks in Barry Letts' production of Alice in Wonderland from 1986, to the intricacies of depicting a full scale train crash for Casualty, how Kine and Wilkie made the Martians for Quatermass and the Pit, the miniature train and scenery for Anna Karenina, the various effects required for Dad's Army, EastEnders, Edge of Darkness, Moonbase 3, Star Cops and many, many familiar and not-so familiar television programmes. All the profiles are packed with a wealth of behind the scenes photographs and drawings showing how the effects were achieved, often in collaboration with production designers, costume and make up artists, and Irvine and Tucker methodically explain how they were realised, noting particular triumphs and failures along the way.

It is a book long overdue, and it is by no means exhaustive, but it captures a real flavour of what it must have been like to work as a visual effects technician within the BBC during that half century, including the frustrations and pressures that lack of time and money would bring to bear upon such a hard working group of dedicated people. It is the story of a BBC that no longer exists but it is one that is at least rather beautifully preserved here in a very accessible manner and in the millions of hours of television that many of us have enjoyed over the decades. Highly recommended if you are interested in how visual effects are designed and produced for television, it is also a valuable history of the Corporation before the accountants moved in and dismantled it all.

BBC VFX - The Story of the BBC Visual Effects Department - Mat Irvine and Mike Tucker
(Aurum Press - Published 12th November 2010 - ISBN: 978-1-84513-556-0 - Format: Hardback)

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