PrintE-mail Written by Paul Mount

Older fans of Doctor Who – and possibly anyone who paid attention to the slow-rolling end credits of many BBC TV productions from the 1950s to the 1970s – will surely recognise the name Bernard Wilkie. After blagging his way into the BBC in the early 1950s, Bernard found himself heading up the Corporation’s extremely primitive first visual effects department, providing extraordinarily rudimentary smoke and practical effects for a raft of BBC productions as the corporation found its post-War feet and started to revolutionise the TV industry. At first Wilkie had no real idea what he was doing and pretty much made up his ‘art’ on the spot, aided in time by the equally-legendary Jack Kine in a partnership which continued until the latter retired at the end of the 1970s.

Wilkie, along with Kine, a two-man FX army, worked on pretty much every well-regarded production to come out of the BBC Studios during what might be known as its ‘glory years’. Wilkie passed away in 2002, but he wrote his ‘memoirs’ in the 1990s and now they finally see the light of day in the form of this charming, occasionally vague, but often quite amusing collection of memories, anecdotes and tall tales.  It’s very definitely not an autobiography; we find out little about Bernard himself except that he and his colleagues liked a drink or two after work. It is, though, a breezy and likable wander through an extraordinary and underappreciated career. Wilkie was present when the BBC aired its Quatermass serials, the ground-breaking live broadcasts of George Orwell’s 1984 along with countless unnamed one-off dramas, plays and series. Wilkie and Kine virtually created the special effects industry in British TV and Wilkie seems remarkably self-effacing about his contribution and his legacy – but that probably says more about the era he worked in than the man himself. Fans of Doctor Who might be disappointed that there’s no dirt to be dished here, just some familiar behind-the-scenes stories but the book really comes alive in Wilkie’s evocative descriptions of the early days of BBC Television Centre – he was working there before it was even completed – and early FX experiments which went hilariously wrong. Bernard writes fondly about his work with Dave Allen (one of his favourites) and chapters on Some Mothers Do ‘Ave ‘Em are more interesting than they have any right to be.

Warm and readable, Bernard Wilkie’s story is one of a true pioneer. Its lack of a narrative throughline is a bit frustrating – there’s no sense of a career developing, no dates to pin to certain productions so many of Wilkie’s memories exist in a sort of timeless vacuum. But it’s a charming if sometimes slight read – but you’ll be left with the feeling that the definitive history of BBC Special Effects is yet to be written.



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