Join us in a walk back through time, exploring almost 70 years of BHBS history…
1952: The beginning without a studio…
When BHBS Hospital Broadcasts came along we had several immediate advantages: we were local and able to bring items of local interest to our audience (notably sport and interviews with local entertainers), our signal quality was better than the BBC, and we had the time to mention individual patients’ names.
Hospital Broadcasts started with an idea by TOC H, a charitable organisation, that it should endeavour to help patients in hospital, the idea was further promoted by Rediffusion who had installed and controlled the landline distribution of radio programmes around the City of Bristol. They saw the provision of Hospital Radio in the City’s Hospitals as a natural progression of their service, and in a letter sent by their General manager to TOC H proposed the start of a service. This was duly reported in the Evening Post on the 28th January 1952. The first programme broadcast was the match between Bristol Rovers and Shrewsbury Town on August 23rd 1952. The first broadcast was relayed on Post Office landlines to five hospitals with another joining the network the following week. Both the Bristol Evening Post and the Bristol Evening World reported the event. This meant that BHBS first started broadcasting from the sports venues themselves and not from its own studio.
In Bristol the members of TOC H led by Laurie Lucena went cap in hand to the two local soccer clubs, and used his careful negotiation skills to come away with not only facilities at the respective grounds but also with a donation of £50 from each club. So it was that when the 1952/53 season opened, six of Bristol’s hospitals were linked to the Rovers ground at Eastville by post office land lines, and several thousand unseen supporters joined the 23,000 crowd in the stadium enjoying the match. The original idea had been gleaned from an incident at Fratton Park, the home of Portsmouth Town Football club. When the ground became overcrowded, the gates were locked leaving many thousands of fans outside the ground unable to see the match. A young police sergeant sensed impending trouble and climbed onto a wall to give a running commentary to the crowd outside the ground. This act gave the policeman and a few of his friends the idea of relaying commentaries to patients in hospital. And so hospital broadcasts were born.
1956: Rugby and cricket
The next expansion to the service was the inclusion in 1956 of rugby from the Memorial Ground where our commentators sat in the midst of the crowd in the grandstand. In the following year cricket commentaries began from a commentary box mounted on the roof of the club house at the County ground in Neville Road, the home of Gloucester Cricket Club. Ball-by-ball commentaries on all home games became a regular feature on the airwaves and by the end of the 50s we were broadcasting full match commentaries of all the home games from Ashton Gate (the home of Bristol City), Eastville Stadium (the home of Bristol Rovers), the County Ground where Gloucester County Cricket Club played and also The Memorial Ground, home of Bristol Rugby Club.
Other sports were covered by taping commentaries and then replaying the tapes from the studio, including speedway from Knowle. Other sports later broadcast live included those when Eastville stadium became the home of the Bulldogs, Ice Hockey from the Mecca Ice Rink, and wrestling from the Colston Hall (which was taped so that the edited highlights could be broadcast later) and boxing from the Bristol Sporting Club in Clifton.
In the mid 1950s, the Post Office put up the rent on landlines that connected Bristol City and Rovers football clubs to Rediffusion and 12 hospitals. The increase (to £400 a year) posed serious challenge to the TOC.H members of the Bristol Hospital Broadcasting Society. After some deliberation, they decided to make more use of the landlines by starting a recorded programme called “Autograph Album”. Then-Chairman Lauri Lucena commented: “It started from a big hole! A very large hole was being dug in the centre of Bristol in full view of the patients in the BRI and patients asked about it. For the first programme, one of the diggers was interviewed. We thought that a chap talking about a hole might not interest the ladies so we bunged in a chap who measured the fattest lady in the world for corsets etc. Brian Powell interviewed them, made them sing or tell a story, and I stuck the patient’s Autograph Album under their noses“.
While every programme contained interviews with national celebrities who were visiting Bristol, the local touch was not forgotten with frequent interviews with the nurse of the week and patient of the week. Topical local events were also covered including live music when circumstances allowed. The programme also kept a scrapbook which read like a who’s who of show business in the 1950s. Names that are prominent are Max Miller, Petula Clark, Benny Hill, Morecambe and Wise, Billy Cotton, Terry Thomas, and many, many more. The equipment used on these early OBs was crude and simple by today’s standards but nevertheless the quality of programme produced was comparable to those aired by the BBC. Each outside broadcast was usually recorded using one microphone and a Grundig reel-to-reel tape recorder. The most difficult part of the whole exercise was transporting the tape recorder to and from the hospital. Very few of our members had cars and the only means of affordable transport was the bus or a bicycle, a very tricky business with the very heavy tape recorder balanced on the crossbar.
On the 13th April 1956 BHBS broadcast its first scoop. The Queen was to visit Bristol on her way to open the Chew Valley Reservoir. The BBC were covering the event, but, because television did not start until 6.30 each evening, they would record it for later use. They offered the live commentary to BHBS and, with Laurie Lucena perched high on the old CO-OP building at Narrow Quay to link the BBC commentary, the live BHBS broadcast scooped the national media.
1967: Our first studios in Victoria Street
Over fifteen years after its inception, Bristol Hospital Broadcasting Society (as it was then called) moved into its very first purpose built studio. After years of recording programmes in members’ houses and in the back room at Rediffusion, Bristol Hospital Broadcasting Service at last had a home of its own. Located in an office block in Victoria Street, right in the heart of the City with restricted hours of entry, it still seemed like a palace. The new studio consisted of two rooms divided by a plywood partition. The larger of the two was used as a studio and the smaller as a control room. At first the simple equipment from the Rediffusion premises was used to produce record request programmes. The outside broadcasts switching equipment was still at Rediffusion and was switched by remote control from the new studio.
In the new studio, all of the programmers came together for the first time. Prior to this, the Wednesday nights programmes had been recorded the previous evening in the small studio in the Colston Hall and then taken over to Broad Plain for transmission the following evening. Now, with everyone together, we were able to expand. The first move was to design and build a studio console. The first custom-built BHBS mixer had ten channels, used quadrant faders and contained a Ferrograph tape recorder with a Quad tuner and amplifier, two Thorens TD124 turntables and a talkback system built in. The desk was specially built in the control room so when the time came to move in 1972 it had to be torn apart to get it through the door. Of that desk, only the turntables remain.
1967: Colston Hall studio
The programmes by this time had expanded to fill five evenings a week (afternoons, actually, as the programmes started at 5pm and went on until 6pm). The Colston Hall studio was now no longer used to record programmes and had in fact been commandeered by the BBC which had formed a training orchestra based in the Hall. They had also equipped a room at the rear of the Green Room as a studio and installed an electric hoist for a microphone.
Until this time any broadcast that we did from the hall had to be rigged separately for each event (a task that took several hours) as a nylon rope had to be stretched across the balcony and a microphone suspended from it. Thanks to John Hunt, an ex-BBC engineer, we were able to use the BBC control room and all of their equipment to relay our broadcasts to the hospitals. With this facility at our disposal, the number of concerts relayed from the hall increased tremendously and we were able to cover every concert during the concert seasons.
Chris and Charlie in the BHBS commentary position and basement studio respectively. Both were sadly demolished in 2018 as part of the major redevelopment work within the Colston Hall’s auditorium.
1974: The Cottage Block
After the move from Victoria Street it took almost two years to get the new studio fully operational. The studios in Cottage Block were based in rooms above Ward 17 of the Bristol Royal Infirmary. The studios were very spacious and consisted of two control rooms and two studios, backed up by a workshop and equipment room. The larger studio was big enough to house up to 20 people in a discussion programme whilst the smaller studio was a two-man affair.
We had so many guests who had been invited to the opening that we couldn’t house them in the studio. We divided things by having the Lord Mayor come to the studio to perform the opening ceremony while the 36-piece band and our guests were in the HTV studio several miles away. After his speech declaring the studio open, which was relayed to the audience at HTV, the Lord Mayor was driven to the studio and took part in the concert which was relayed back to our studio and then on to the hospitals. The whole operation was made even more complicated because Bristol City were playing Blackburn Rovers at the time and Blackburn Hospital Broadcasts wanted to listen to the commentary. This meant that, as well as broadcasting an opening ceremony from two sites, we also had to broadcast a football commentary to the other end of the country. The studios were well and truly declared open!
In the early 1990s there were moves to redevelop the central area of Bristol around the St James Barton Roundabout and, as part of that scheme, the hospital would sell some of its land to provide space for the new plans. Cottage Block was central to these plans and we were warned that we might have to move but no firm date or new site was forthcoming and with the onset of the recession, the plans for this development were shelved. However, just as we were beginning to feel settled, we were told that there were major plans for the Department of Medicine to convert Cottage Block into research laboratories. The good news was that they would provide us with a suitable site and build us a new studio to our designs. The bad news was that they wanted the whole move from suggestion to completion done in no more than three months!
1972: Goodbye to our Victoria Street studio
Less than five years after our move into the studio in Victoria Street, we were informed that the rooms would be required for someone else, and we had to look for alternative accommodation. In this respect, United Bristol Hospitals – the forerunner of the Bristol and Weston Hospital Authority – turned up trumps, and provided us with our custom-made studio suite. Thus it was that at 6pm. on 23rd November 1972 the last programme was relayed from our Victoria Street studio.
The Cottage Block studio complex was opened on the 12th January 1974 by the then Lord Mayor of Bristol, Alderman W.W.Jenkins. In his opening address he said that, as a recent hospital patient, he fully appreciated the service that we gave. He offered his assistance, not just as a name on note paper, but as a member. He was invited to make good on his offer in the summer of 75, when ill health compelled Laurie Lucena to resign his position as chairman of the service. Mayor Wally Jenkins stepped into the helmsman’s position and occupied the chair until 1985 when our present chairman Iain Elliott was elected. Iain had joined the service in 1965 and had been the station engineer for the past fifteen years.
1994: Moving to new studios in the BRI Old Building
The designs for our new studio, which was to be based on level five of the old BRI building, were sketched out in March 1994 and we moved in on May 23rd 1994, less than eight weeks later!!! The speed of the move was such that we did not have time to build any of our new equipment. The studio was officially opened by Roy Hudd on October 23rd 1994. The Special Trustees of United Bristol Hospitals provided the funds to build the studio and provided one of the new mixing desks, but we had to raise the money for all of the ancillary items such as chairs, cables, curtains and many of the more mundane items needed to make a studio work, as well as a second new mixing desk. A sign of the times was the cost of replacing the studio desks. In 1970 we built the desk (which gave us excellent service for 24 years) for £400. Twenty five years later we paid almost £6,000 for a replacement! Surprisingly the turntables which were bought for use in the Victoria Street studio back in 1967 are still going strong – 34 years later even though they were now much older than many of our members.
2006: New millennium, new technology…
In late 2006, with the use of new technology, we began broadcasting 24 hours a day, 7 days a week allowing us to entertain our patients with a greater variety of programmes, including some from our archives.
2012: Iain Elliott
In 2012 Iain Elliott suffered a stroke and had to retire from his role as both chairman (27 years) and chief engineer (42 years). Sadly Iain passed away in early 2013. With 47 years service, during his time with BHBS Iain oversaw two studio moves, building a lot of the infrastructure and equipment himself, chaired the programme planning committee, co-ordinated our Colston Hall concerts and served as Wednesday evening studio manager for many years. To list everything that Iain did would be too difficult – he will be remembered and greatly missed for a very long time. Family, friends and colleagues turned out to remember Iain at two ceremonies; the first saw the unveiling of a plaque in the BHBS studios and the second a specially built bench (from old railway sleepers) situated in the gardens of Bristol University where Iain worked for many years.
In 2012 our longstanding member, Chris Wood, took over as chairman following Iain’s sudden illness. Mark Trotman, another BHBS veteran, became our new chief engineer.
2016: A new studio and a new Chairperson
In October 2016, following the sale of the BRI Old Building, we moved to new purpose built studios on level 10 of the BRI Queen’s Building. We have two control rooms, a studio, an equipment room and a green room which also houses our vast record library.
Also, in that same month, Lynn Merilion became only the fifth chair of the service after Chris Wood, having overseen the completion of the studio move, decided not to stand for re-election following 4 years in office. Chris has taken on the newly created role of programme controller.
A hi-tech new home: Studio Manager Chris Mountain and Requestline/Saturday Sports presenter Dave Rawlings in the new BHBS studios – along with a lot of new space for the extensive BHBS vinyl archive!
Our programmes are still mainly record request programmes broadcast from our studio in the BRI. Our sports commentaries come live from Bristol Rovers at the Memorial Stadium, Bristol City and Bristol Rugby from Ashton Gate. Each sports ground is fully equipped with a mixer and microphones. Live musical entertainment consists of classical concerts from the Colston Hall.
Although there are a lot fewer hospitals today, and those turntables have finally retired, we provide the patients with a full radio service; we play music from every genre and era along with local news, sport, concert broadcasts and, of course, our popular record request programmes – a real mix.