In 1967 I worked part-time as a Special Effects helper on a TV game show at the Beeb – the BBC, or British Broadcasting Corporation – where I saw crosswords and heard cross words.
BBC-TV was black and white in 1967. But the BBC had a second channel, BBC2, which was shortly going to broadcast in color. Oops: colour. For several months in 1967 the BBC broadcast a a variety of shows for few hours a week to “colour-launch”, or roll-out the new technology. Maybe the launching period also gave people time to buy colour TVs before the full-time regular colour broadcasts started in December 1967. (No matter to me – I could not afford a TV or the license that British people had/have to pay to watch TV.)
A game show was created for the rollout period: Crossword on Two, produced by Leslie T. Jackson, who was well-known in TV circles as the producer of a several favorite programs. Leslie Jackson was the father of my school friend Paul Jackson (who is now a renowned TV Producer and successful businessman). I think that Mr Jackson and his wife liked me enough that, in generous kindness, I was offered some part-time work to work with Paul and another young man to help the Special Effects technicians on the Crossword on Two program.
The quiz game show was based on crosswords of a brainy kind; perhaps created by the crossword puzzlemeisters of the The Times or The Guardian. The contestants were MENSA-type geniuses. The two teams of contestants had to answer the Across and Down clues quickly: whoever came up with the right answer got to choose the next word. There was ticky-tocky suspense music as the contestants conferred. I cannot recall how the teams won – perhaps by winning the most letters. Anyway, the appeal of the game was limited to a small slice of viewers, likely rich enough to buy colour TVs, although the colour TV screen would often have just showed a big black and white crossword puzzle layout.
We three helped to put the puzzle layout together. The numbers and black squares adhered lightly to the opaque white plastic screen. Behind the board was another screen which had the words of the crossword puzzle laid out in sticky black plastic letters. And hidden behind the wall board was a table switchboard, one switch each for the matrix of possible squares of the wall screen. A template was slipped over the switches showing the words and black spaces behind the screen for the current crossword puzzle. We assembled the front screens of black squares and numbers; the rear panels with the words, and the switchboard answer templates. We watched the game from a monitor. When the contestants gave the right answer, we were told by the Control Room through our headphones, to switch on the letters of the words, one by one, so they showed up on the wall boards.
It was manual, grunt-type work; but it required some smarts and attention to detail. But it was also so much fun being part of a TV show crew; meeting brainy contestants and the host, Peter Wheeler; and, for me, the opportunity to win praise from Mr Jackson now and again. But there was also the risk of winning his cross words. It happened once when we spelled a word wrong. And the show had to stop, while we fixed the word and then had to switch the lights on again for some re-taping. Another time, we noticed in the monitor that one of the numbers had fallen off. So one of us, maybe me (but more likely spunky Paul), crept around the front and tried to re-attach the letter to the board mid-game. Of course, a hand waving around at the screen was captured by the camera and we captured more cross words from the Control Room.
Working at the BBC was romantic for me. It was like no place I had ever seen before, or since. We were free to wander around the other studios and enjoy the behind-the-scenes views of other productions on complex sets, with actors walking around in costume. We saw pop stars when we danced amongst the invited young people at the Top of the Pops show. I saw famous people: Tony Bennett graciously chatted with me for many minutes one afternoon. And I never knew who I would bump into. I once walked around a corridor corner straight into Marty Feldman, a comedian with an unfortunate squint and a wild exuberance. He scared me for a moment, and his gushing apologies embarrassed me. But there were no cross words from him. I also literally bumped into the pop star singer Lulu at the BBC bar, joggling her drink. She, my age, shouted coarse cross words at me. I blushed and stammered in distress.
The unkindest cross words came about a year later long after my part-time stint at the BBC was over. I had been paid generously for the few weekends of fun labor. And I had not paid the income tax on my extra earnings. It was not a lot, anyway. But a few months before I planned to leave for Canada, I was visited by an officious Inspector from the Inland Revenue Service, who told me that he could make me stay in Britain if I did not pay the tax I owed; or even worse, have me deported from Canada if I got there despite his warning. I was too young to realize that he was paid to frighten people like me, too poor to own a black and white TV. He scared me enough that I quit my job as a lowly-paid trainee computer systems analyst and talked myself into a warehouse laborer job which paid well even if it was menial work. (But I have never had a problem with lowly, dirty work).
Eventually, I saved enough to pay off the tax, and with very little money left over, I got to Canada, in a romantic fashion. I was soon was working in mineral exploration in the far north of Canada, work which seemed even more glamorous than working at the Beeb, although sometimes more scarey than encountering Marty Feldman, or having to listen to Lulu’s cross words.