BLACK IS BLACK, I WANT MY FACILITY BACK

LONDON – GROUND ZERO

I cross the park in Soho Square, go up to a black shiny door at number two and press the buzzer. It’s 1964 and I’ve just arrived from Australia.

Eventually the lock on the door clicks open and I walk down the hall to a small sliding window. I am inside the all-powerful ACTT union headquarters.

“Hello, my name is Stefan Sargent. I wrote to you from Sydney. I’d like to join the union.” The lady behind the window smiles. She tells me that the only way to join is to have a job – “but, of course, you can’t get a job without a union card.” The window slides closed.

A week later, I have an interview with the Chief Executive of ITN, Geoffrey Cox. He’s a New Zealander, I’m Australian. It helps. We watch a short film of mine. “Terrific! I’ll take you on. Make friends and you’ll get into the union. No worries.”

COLOUR ME BLACK

My first day at ITN, I’m in the cameraman’s room. “Who are you?” “I’m the new cameraman.” “Not bloody likely!”

He goes to the door and stops anyone else from entering. Bemused, I get up to go and talk to him. Now it’s his, and the other cameramen’s, turn to enter the room. I walk from the door back inside, they all get up and walk out.

I am declared black. No one will work with me. They won’t even talk to me. Until one day, sitting in the secretaries’ office, an ITN cameraman walks in.

DON’T GO DOWN IN THE TUBE TODAY

“Would you like to go on a shoot with us?” I gratefully accept. We go down into the depths of the work-in-progress Victoria line. It’s an underground building site with workers drilling into the rock. We walk into a new deserted tunnel. My colleagues have torches. Then without saying a word, they suddenly vanish. I’m alone in the dark. It’s pitch black. I grope my way back along the rough walls. I know it’s time to quit.

The ITN management makes some phone calls and a week later I’m employed at BBC Ealing Studios. I seek out the ACTT rep., “I’d like to join the union.” “Great, we need more members. There’s a meeting this weekend. Please join us.”

I’m in. No longer black, I am a card-carrying member of the ACTT.

MOLINARE SOUND STUDIOS

Now it’s 1975, I have four successful sound studios in Broadwick Street, Soho, called Molinare. We have a great staff and I’m free to continue as a filmmaker.

One of my clients is Redifon Flight Simulation. The pilot in the simulator cockpit sees the outside world from a television camera moving over a large model landscape. I decide the best way to capture it is to put blue card on the cockpit windows, give the pilot a small monitor and shoot on video. I need an OB truck and book Trilion. In their Soho machine room, we chromakey it all together. The video scene in the simulator windows is sharp and clear. My client is delighted. I’m now an expert in video production.

Redifon invests in Evans & Sutherland, a high tech computer graphics company in Salt Lake City, Utah. Following my Trilion example, E & S book an OB truck from Burbank based, Compact Video. The shoot is a disaster. Compact’s cameras cannot record the projected picture.

As the reigning expert, I am flown to Utah. I ask the simulator pilot to take half an hour to land the plane and run my modified Éclair film camera at 4 frames a second. My hope is that the six times longer exposure will capture the faint projected images.

While the 16mm film is being processed in New York, I visit Compact in Burbank.

SMALL AND PERFECTLY FORMED

Compact Video is a revelation.

While Trilion in London is using giant, three lens cameras, Compact has lightweight shoulder mounted Norelco PCP-90s – not much heavier than my own 16mm Éclair.

While Trilion has tank sized 2” quad recorders in their OB truck, Compact has small battery powered Ampex VR-3000s.

And while Trilion’s editing facility is just two engineers in a machine room, Compact’s edit suite is Californian redwood walls, Eames chairs, and plush leather seating. The sliding doors on the left conceal the noise of their 2” quad machines. The sliding doors on the right, lead to a restaurant kitchen.

I return to London determined to build a Compact Video look-alike in Soho and immediately start looking for premises.

My wife, Tricia, tells me she’s found an empty building in Foubert’s Place that would make an ideal audio video complex. There’s no FOR SALE sign but we track down the Peachey Property Company. Peachey quotes £2 a sq. ft. for the school building but says if we take the adjacent building as well, they’ll drop the rent to £1 and lock into that rate in for five years. We take it all at just £1 a sq. ft..

SETEMBER 21, 1976

By chance, in Upper Regent Street, I see a sign, INTERNATIONAL BROADCASTING CONVENTION. I go down the stairs. The first exhibit is Ampex. On display is their new video recorder, the 1” VPR-1A.

It’s a friendly 1” tape recorder that is totally unlike the big 2” machines. Stop the tape – there’s a freeze frame – hand-turn the reel – watch one frame after the other. It’s just like editing film. I spend an hour playing. I’m in love. On impulse, I order three £40,000 machines from salesman, Ron Atkinson.

That afternoon, I’m back at Molinare, 43 Broadwick Street. “Where’s Tricia?”

Late that night our daughter is born.

THE TECHNOLOGY REVOLUTION

At a stroke, Compact Video is out of date.  So are Trilion, The Moving Picture Company, TVi, Goldcrest, Keith Ewart and ITN Facilities. Their 2” quad recorders all obsolete;  1” helical tape is the way to go.

I phone Ron at Ampex. “What’s happening?” “Sorry, I don’t recognize your name. Stefan Sargent? Molinare? Oh yes, now, I remember …I thought you were joking. Three machines! You’re really serious!”

At the time, I have no idea that mine is Ampex’s only VPR-1A order.

Our builder, Alan Stewart, agrees to work on a “pay me when you can” basis. Little by little, we move our sound studios out of Broadwick Street to Foubert’s Place. I hire video engineers and video editors and, with great excitement, drive to Ampex in Reading to collect my machines.

BLACK IS BLACK

One day, an engineer from Trilion comes to see me. “Bad news, last night there was a meeting of shop stewards from the union approved facilities companies and Molinare has been declared black. The main reason is you are using new technology that hasn’t been approved by the ACTT.” He gives me the minutes of the meeting. ITV stations have been told not to play out any tape from Molinare. I’m shocked.

I contact Roy Lockett at ACTT HQ. “Sorry Stefan, you’ve lucked out. Your 1” technology is black. Make what you like, the ITV stations won’t play it.”

Tricia, had graduated from Sydney university with barrister Geoffrey Robertson. Geoffrey made a name for himself in the 1971 Oz obscenity trial. He thinks we should have a left wing solicitor to represent us and suggests David Offenbach. It is a good choice. David is sympathetic to trade unions and knows labour laws.

I show David the letter to ITV stations declaring Molinare black. He feels we have a legitimate case of restrictive trade practices and we both go off to see Alan Sapper, General Secretary of the ACTT.

RIGHT BACK WHERE WE STARTED FROM

So here we are again at 2 Soho Square’s black shiny door, except it’s 13 years later. The meeting is cordial with Sapper telling me that I should have consulted the union before daring to buy “new technology”. I explain that if can’t use my video facilities, Molinare will probably go bust and that I have no option but to sue the union.

The mood turns icy. “Nobody but nobody sues a union, especially this one. If you do this Stefan – I promise you that you’ll never work in this industry again.” “Are you threatening my client?” says David. “No, Mr. Offenbach – it’s a promise.”

NOW IT’S WAR

In a way, Alan Sapper is right. No one can sue a union. The Wilson/ Callaghan government has seen to that. David says they are acting like feudal barons and we can sue the ACTT executives. He asks for names and addresses and is told to get lost.

David obtains a court order forcing the ACTT to send us the names and home addresses of their executives. Someone at 2 Soho Square mistakenly thinks the court order is requesting a full document disclosure. The next day, delivered by courier to David’s Bond Street office, there arrives a large file with all ACTT/ Molinare correspondence. It’s a gold mine.

LETTERS FROM SOHO SQUARE

The gem is a letter from the union to the management of competitive facilities companies asking them if Molinare were permitted to use 1” tape and new technology, would they lose business? There are replies from my competitors saying keep Molinare black.

David Offenbach, a sincere, idealistic socialist, is horrified. “Trade unions are there to protect worker’s rights – and here they are writing to top management. It’s like the Mafia consulting the Feds.”

Geoffrey Robertson agrees; the ACTT has blown it.

Outside the Royal Courts of Justice on The Strand, Sapper comes up to me. “Are you sure you want to do this? There’s still time to back out.”

SHOWTIME

Inside the Law Courts, the barristers stand and make their cases. Then a surprise, the ACTT’s barrister is called over by Sapper. He returns and tells the judge that the ACTT will meet all Molinare demands. The new technology is approved for use at Molinare. All Moli staff can join the union – remember this is in the days of the closed shop, there will be no backlash, no reprisals; in short – a walkover victory.

Outside, braving the traffic noise, Alan Sapper greets me like an old friend. “We never thought you’d have the nerve to go all the way. We’re good losers. No hard feelings …” I force a smile and shake hands. “So I can still work in the business?”

A PICNIC IN THE PARK

Tricia makes a picnic and we eat in the park, on the grass, outside 2 Soho Square. We toast the shiny black door. Bliss …

Returning to Molinare, our receptionist hands me a box. Inside is a large chocolate cake with a handwritten note: “From Kerry, Jane, Max and the folks at LWT. Congratulations. Well done.”

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One Response to BLACK IS BLACK, I WANT MY FACILITY BACK

  1. Have you ever considered creating an e-book or guest authoring on other blogs? I have a blog based upon on the same subjects you discuss and would love to have you share some stories/information. I know my viewers would enjoy your work. If you are even remotely interested, feel free to send me an email.

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