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Chapter Eight

1960 to 1964 - Queensway Recording Studio and Leevers-Rich

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Some time in 1960, I decided that it was time to go out and earn a proper living but instead fell in with a chap from Battersea of independent means who had bought a private recording studio and hired a retired tenor as his sound guy and me as his engineering guy. We spent long hours cutting discs of peoples weddings and I can still recite "Dearly beloved, we are gather together here today, in the sight of God and in the face of this congregation, to join together this man and this woman . . . . . ."

Mostly we had great fun. The equipment was good and we got to go all over the country recording choirs and orchestras in all kinds of settings Our biggest gig was the St Bees Music Festival, a week long series of concerts in a private school in Cumberland with some really well known performers. The highlight of that job was setting up to record a concert in Carlisle Cathedral.

We also did odd jobs like the Westminster Medical School annual musical. I remember doing the original audition disk for Dusty Springfield who later became a pop idol. One of the highlights of my time at QRS was to get rid some original Rolf Harris records. The previous owner had produced two LPs of the young Rolf and we inherited the unsold stock. The Customs and Excise Dept insisted that we pay the duty on all the remaining stock or destroy it. As the engineer, it fell to me to put the axe through them all in the presence of the Exciseman.

At about this time, I bought a Thames 12 seater van, a 15cwt van with fore-and-aft bench seats and windows in the back. It was British racing green and I had had a high gear ratio differential fitted and performed like a Ford Zephyr, one of the top line sedan cars of the day, capable of 80mph on the motorway. This was very useful for OB recording gigs but it also served us well in our social life. We could take many people to parties and all our friends enjoyed this service. Eventually I had to sell it because too many people wanted to take advantage of the free late night bus service and we found we were driving all over London in the early hours of Sunday morning and not getting to bed until sparrow-fart.

While I was working at the recording studio, Jean had accepted my proposal of marriage and we set the wedding down for 11th March 1961 in her home town of Whitchurch in Shropshire.

Having no relatives in England, I was able to invite all of our close friends from Battersea and we caused quite a stir by filling up the town with people from all over the world. My best man was Ivor Wong, a Chinese West Indian and there were people from many places including India, Ceylon, now SrI Lanka, Malaysia, Denmark, England and even Zanzibar. We were married in style in the Parish Church with the whole bit "Dearly beloved, we are gathered . . . . . " and afterwards the church bells rang out the changes.

We had arranged the reception at a place just a few miles away but across the border in Wales. One of our guests who was married to a very lovely Danish girl convinced her that she would have to take her passport with her to cross the border!

We had chosen this place because they could do the wedding feast and we could party on to live music afterwards. Also, there were several bedrooms available so all the marrieds including us stayed the night there. A wonderful time was had by all, even if a little unconventional.

Immediately prior to the time came for my speech, they played a recording from Dad and Rosa. I was so overcome with emotion that I was, on that one rare occasion, rendered speechless!

When we were first married, we lived in an upstairs flat in Narbonne Ave, Clapham South. The bedroom had a sloping ceiling decorated with floral wallpaper in which one could, with a little imagination, see lions. Once you had seen them, they were always there. This was OK except when you had to stay at home all day in bed with the flu.

We had our first and only robbery while we were there. Every flat in the house had been broken in to. I been given a bottle of whisky by a grateful sub-contractor and it went together with the silver cutlery and the jar of shilling coins which we kept to feed the gas meter. The police told us we were lucky to have been done by professional thieves as young tearaways would have done lots of damage to clothes and furniture.

Jean had been working as a temp in the City and the West End but she was offered a full time job by her favourite client. When the company moved to new offices in Putney, we took a new flat there. The husband of the landlady was a Queen's Chorister and she thought she was very grand. We didn't think much of her because she used to boil beef for her dog stinking the whole house out.

Jean's boss got a new job with a diamond mining company in Sierra Leone and offered us the use of their house in Shirley on the southern edge of London at a nominal rent while they were away.

Both Sarah and Iain were born while we lived there, Sarah in an annexe of St Georges Hospital in Wimbledon, and Iain at home in Shirley. It was quite normal then to have home birth for the second and third child of women who had had no trouble with their first delivery. The midwife came at about 5 am and went home to cook her husband's breakfast after the delivery. I witnessed the birth which was pretty wonderful even though he was born with the cord round his neck and only quick action by the midwife saved him from trouble. I had two weeks leave to look after the mother, the two year old daughter, and the new baby. Going back to work seemed like a holiday after all the work I had been doing. Men generally don't appreciate how much hard work there is in housework.

In 1961, I left the recording studio to take up my first "real" job. A company called Leevers-Rich, makers of professional tape recording equipment, had advertised for a development engineer. I applied, was interviewed, and given the job. Little did I know what I was letting myself in for.

The company made very good equipment and had developed an enviable reputation in the broadcasting and film sound fields. Their success had gone to their heads and they had tendered for and won a contract to supply data recording equipment to the Admiralty. They had found that modifying existing equipment would not meet the specification and they needed a new design but had no-one to do it. I started work there the day after the contract delivery date with a staff I had never worked with before, no experience in designing anything at all let alone tape recording equipment of the highest performance for a very professional customer.

I had a design draughtsman, an electronic technician, and two fitters. We set to work and eighteen months later, we delivered the five machines.

My boss was a strange man who never confided in me. After the delivery of the machines, he told me that I had to attend a meeting at the customer's place but he didn't tell me what the meeting was about. I had no inkling of what was to transpire. The customer had decided that the gear we had sold him was not what he wanted. It wasn't the same as the American Ampex equivalent and he was unhappy. I asked for details of where we had failed to meet the specification and he could not name one thing we hadn't achieved. I was getting no support from my boss or the Sales Manager. Having rebutted all of the customer's criticisms with no effect, I finally told him he should have bought Ampex gear if that was what he wanted even though it would have cost twice as much as our gear. Just as I was preparing to leave expecting to be out of work by dinner time, a stranger from the customer side, who was clearly supposed to be the independent witness and who had said nothing up to this point, asked his colleagues if what I had said was correct, that we had met everything in the specification. The customer agreed that this was true and my new found ally from the other side of the table said "What are we here for, they have fulfilled the contract and you have to accept and pay for the equipment". End of meeting and I lived to fight another day, no thanks to my boss.

I was promoted to Chief Engineer and took over from the boss responsibility for the engineering of all of the company's products both existing and new.

On another occasion, I was taken by the boss , again without any briefing, to a meeting with the head sherang of sound recording at the BBC. The meeting took place in The Recording Hall at Broadcasting House, a vast, marble-floored space, filled with hundreds of Leevers-Rich machines. The meeting was to discuss some unreliable behaviour that some of the machines were exhibiting. There was I, with no fore-warning and no chance to investigate the problem, expected to provide some kind of answer. I calmly asked for a technician to remove one of the covers on an offending machine and to remove one of the springs which he would find had been installed in the wrong place during their maintenance not our manufacture, reinstall it correctly, and test the machine. This was done and, as if by magic, the machine worked perfectly. I suggested that they do the same for all the machines which were misbehaving and left them to it. If I had expected congratulations from my boss I was sadly mistaken. I can only assume that he thought I was employed to work this kind of magic without any help or praise.

We had to design and build some strange equipment. One customer wanted a machine which would allow recording on the magnetic stripe of unexposed 16mm film. I never did discover why you would want to do put down a sound track before you took the pictures. Nevertheless, we did it and it worked.

One day, I was called into a meeting between the boss and an important customer who ran a film recording business. His problem was that he was getting tape recordings synchronized to film if every one of the five or six track standards that existed and was using different equipment for every transcription job. He wanted to know if we could build him a machine which would handle all of this work. The boss's question to me was how much would it cost to generate enough power from the sync signals to drive a whole bank of film recorders, about 15 KVA in all. My response was why would you do that when you could run the tape machine with the speed controlled by a feedback system to lock the sync track to the mains. The boss was not pleased by my flagrant failure to defer to him but the customer was most impressed. We built him a machine which would play any tape and synchronize it to the mains no matter what recording standard had been used. We even catered for 24 frames per second I recall. The transcription could be recorded on any of his existing film recorders running normally from the mains. He was delighted with the results.

As I have said, the boss was a strange fellow. On my first Christmas at the company, he told us that anyone who took longer than an hour for lunch on the last day of work before the holiday would be sacked. We all went to the local at 12.30 to celebrate the festive season and everyone agreed to stay there till closing time at 3 o'clock. We all returned to the factory very merry to find the boss waiting for us at the door and very angry. Each one of us in turn wished him a merry Christmas and went back to work. He had the choice of sacking us all or none of us.

I should point out that there were no food facilities provided in the factory and the nearest place to eat, apart from the pub, was two miles away. This situation gave rise to several ingenious schemes. The girls on the wiring line all had griller elements installed on the under side of their work benches and they would load up the grill tray with sausages, bacon or whatever, and, at 12 o'clock, would all turn on their grillers. The electricity consumption would go sky high but they all got a hot lunch. In another workshop, I had installed an oven to cure epoxy resin mouldings. The oven could take a dozen meat pies so the young fellow who ran the shop would organise the work so that there were no mouldings in the oven from 12 o'clock until, after lunch. One day, the boss was showing visitors around, again without any warning to anybody, and showed off this curing process by opening the oven. There was a deathly hush when the pies were exposed, and then the visitors laughed and we got away with it. Once again the boss was undone.

The company was so mean that they employed an almost unemployable young girl to be the receptionist. We didn't have a telephone at home and the timing of my leaving for home was very variable, so Jean would ring up from a call box at the railway station on the way home. The receptionist was so gormless that she would answer the telephone with "Hello?" Fearing that she would lose her coins if she had got a wrong number, Jean would ring off and try again until she was sure she had the factory before she would press the button to connect the call. Try as I might, I could never get the boss or the Sales Manager to understand what a bad impression this girl was making on our customers.

The factory was in a very old building which was constructed from cast iron with glass panels, rather like the old Crystal Palace on a miniature scale. One day we took a lightning strike on one of the frames. The noise was deafening and the electrical side effects were remarkable. All the hair on everyone's head stood straight up and all the circuit breakers tripped. Happily no one was hurt but everyone was very frightened.

The last job I did was to design a battery portable machine. The specification was pretty demanding and it was quite a feat to achieve all the requirements with our very low volume technology. I delivered the prototype with all the test results to the bosses office one Friday morning. He received the news of my latest success without comment and said "You're fired!" He then asked me when I would leave and I said "About lunchtime". He asked how I was going to get all my work finished. I said "But you just fired me!" Fortuitously, we members of the senior staff had been given contracts with a three months period of notice on both sides. This was clearly to protect him from any of us leaving him without warning and I guess he didn't realise that it worked both ways. In the event, I got a new job two days later and chose to start there in the new year which gave me a nice six weeks break.

On reflection, I think he had to sack me because I didn't show him much respect and was always keen to push my own ideas. A year or so later, he had his General Manager, who had been my Chief Draughtsman and still a good friend, ring me to ask me to come back to my old job. I said I wouldn't even consider it if he wasn't prepared to ask me himself. Finally I gave in and went to meeting with him. He spent a long time talking about all the good things we could do together, feeding back to me many of my ideas he had rejected earlier. I suppose this was his way of apologizing but it was not enough for me. We talked about money and he said he couldn't afford the figure I said would be the minimum I could change jobs for. I was lucky I didn't succumb to his pleading because he later had a nervous breakdown and the company went belly up.

Jean was quite upset by my losing my job. She was five months pregnant with our first child and was clearly shaken by the uncertain future and lack of security. I got the offer of my next job on the following Tuesday so we were only adrift for three days but to the end of my career she would always freak out if I arrived home early without warning her.

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Created: 29/1/07 and last revised 6/2/07
Author: Robin Chalmers Copyright in all the material on this site is asserted by the author
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