Making of the "Free Radio" documentary

Having been involved in landbased pirate radio back in the 1970's firstly with Radio Jackie and then Radio Kaleidoscope, I was always slightly miffed that I had never seen a comprehensive documentary on the landbased scene. With the rise of the documentary, at least on television, all kinds of esoteric subject are being covered. Surely with the passage of time – and we are talking over 30 years or more – someone should have done it, after all pirate radio is a little slice of social history. The offshore pirates of course have been covered multiple times, but rarely the less 'romantic' landbased scene. Sure there have been bits and pieces on the TV that touched on the subject. The BBC's Nationwide programme did a couple of pieces on Radio Jackie back in the 1970's and there have been several attempts to understand the 'towerblock' pirates of the 80's and 90's, particularly those that play 'alternative' music. But nothing that attempted to tell the wider story. So I decide to make such a documentary myself - not necessarily for TV (would be nice though) - but for release on that most modern of formats DVD!

Luckily there were several things in my favour. The recent revolution in digital video and computer based editing systems has meant the cost of equipment needed to produce video to 'professional standards' is now within the bounds of the mere mortal. My contacts in the radio world should allow me to gain interviews with the movers and the shakers of the time – and my brother-in-law Bob Vine is a video editor!

So in February 2003 I started to pull together the strands that would make up the story of "Free Radio – The Story Of Clandestine Radio In The UK". It soon became obvious however, that it would be more the case of what to leave out than what to put in. A documentary needs a story line, with a timeline of events being the simplest. However the 'Free Radio Movement' was mainly small groups of people, mostly operating independently, putting on radio stations over a large geographic area and time scale. So after much head scratching I decided to start with the closure of the 60's offshore stations whose demise kick-started the landbased pirate boom, and finish with the closure of the mid 1980's 'super stations' as a result of the Communications Act of 1984 which criminalised what had up until that time been a civil offence.

Of course I could have started much further back – maybe Marconi was the first pirate! He didn't have a licence when he first started his wireless experiments did he? Of course he was soon forced to apply for one from the Post Office as 'wireless' telegraphy was still telegraphy and you must have a licence Sir! Then there were Gerald and Wilfred Barker, two naughty school boys from Norwich, who fancied setting up in opposition to the BBC back in 1934. I was really tempted to start here but as I soon found out, a filmed interview with the pair shot at the time by Reuters and now owned by ITN, would cost me a fortune to license for my documentary. Indeed archive material from any large broadcaster would cost between £400 and £900 a minute for its use! As outrageous as this may seem of course these people hold all the aces, and if you want to use their material then you have to pay the money. After buying all the video equipment (the price alone being equal to an average new car) I didn't have any spare cash for archive footage from footage libraries. So it would have to be private sources only. This would be fine as this material would be more interesting anyway, it being unlikely to have been seen by many people.

The next point was to map out what I did want to cover and find footage and/or interviewees to illustrate the story. I decided to concentrate on the London scene – or at least the South of England scene – for reasons of knowledge and geography as much as I originally intended to include stations from further afield. No doubt lots of folk will come out of the woodwork to question why their station wasn't included (and I can't blame them). In all honesty of the 100's of stations that broadcast even semi-regularly be they in London or any other part of the country, the story of one is pretty much the story of most of them. "We got ourselves a transmitter, recorded some shows, went on-air, then we got nicked!" I felt I needed to concentrate on those that did something to push the story along. The move to VHF being a prime example.

With video equipment purchased and some sort of story outlined, in mid 2003 Bob and I set out to do our first interview. The subject was Nick Catford of Radio Jackie, who is a font of all knowledge on the pirate scene in the 1970's and 80's and the 40 minute interview we taped could well have been the backbone of the documentary had I wanted one person to dominate! During the next 9 months we travelled far and wide. Up to Solihull in the West Midlands to interview Lindsay Reid of the original Radio Free London (who as Michael Lindsay is better remembered for his work on Radio Northsea International) and down to Shaftesbury in Dorset to interview Martin Lee of London Music Radio. We talked to the pair behind the much respected VHF pirate Radio London Underground, to Colin King of the Free Radio Association, to the notorious Brian Horne aka 'Abe Cohen' of The London Transmitter Of Independent Radio (the pirate version of the IBA), and (as they say) many more.

Great fun was had doing the recreations. We wanted our first scene to show how a typical medium wave location was set-up – but who would play the "pirates" given that we all too old now? We were filming in the wooded grounds of a Youth Centre at Redhill which was being used as the studio for RSL station SUSY Radio (Sussex Surrey Radio Group), so getting three suitable 'actors' of the right age wasn't too much of a problem. However making them look like throwbacks to the 1970's was more of a challenge as their hair was far too short! There was only one thing for it – wigs. Admittedly what we ended up with was more fancy dress than Old Vic, and the lads idea of 1970's clothes didn't quite match up. Given that flares are back in again, none of them had a pair! However this was a recreation for a documentary not a Hollywood feature film, so it didn't matter that much. The equipment used in the opening scene however is authentic right down to the 'standard issue' Philips 3302 cassette machine and 807 valve transmitter.

With the bulk of the interviews finished by the end of 2003 it should have been a case of finishing the script and stitching the whole lot together in a meaningful way. But – oh no, this is where the fun really started. I had been promised various segments of footage including a unique piece shot at Radio Kaleidoscope in 1974 by a Canadian film student. This proved to be the most difficult and ultimately disappointing part of the project. The footage is owned by Tony Collis, ex-Kaleidoscope, ex-Caroline engineer and current owner of the revived and fully licensed Radio Jackie in South West London. He had promised me the footage, but it took the best part of a year (for various reasons) to actually get hold of it. Being recorded on a now redundant SONY format it needed converting to Digital Video (DV). This is a highly specialised business and not many people in this country can do it. After polling the Internet I got a list of likely candidates and started phoning them, settling in the end for a company based in St. Anne's-on-sea. After sending the precious tape off (recorded delivery of course) I waited, and waited – and waited for them to actually do the conversion. To cut a long and frustrating story short, after three months, a number of phone calls and a gee-up letter, I 'sacked' them and got the tape back! Now I had to start all over again! Eventually I contacted Lucinda Reeve of The Video Ark who said she could do it and drove over to Ealing in West London to deliver the tape in person. It still took three weeks, but I did get a DV dub in the end, only to find that the original tape is damaged beyond repair and the best result to be obtained from it would need the patience of a saint to sit through. In short in was unusable without the help of a NASA computer to clean it up – a real shame. Luckily we do have a number of photographs of Radio Kaleidoscope so it wasn't the end of the world. However I was able to get hold of some fantastic video footage of Radio Jackie and Skyline Radio which was perfectly viewable – be it a little fuzzy (but probably no more so than the 16-mm footage shot by BBC and others up to the early 90's before BetaCam video tape became the norm).

Ex-Newspaper Photographer David Kindred (who along with Martin Stevens) was the main chronicler of the offshore pirate era from the 1960's to the mid 80's, was a fantastic find. He was able to furnish me with some wonderful super 8 colour film of many of the pirate ships, some shot from a aeroplane! Bill Kelsey of the later Radio Free London has also been a great help, both technically (he built a replica 'pirate style' medium wave transmitter for our intro sequence) and also provided us with video footage and off-air recordings.

During the early part of 2004 we worked on the 'final script' and started the editing. At the same time kept getting e-mails from people with offers of help – which then meant rewriting the script if they came up with the goods and more disappointment if they didn't! In June the script was finalised enough to have the voice-over recorded. We all trekked over to the Isle of Sheppey where Radio Caroline's Bob Lawrence had kindly let us use his studio for the evening. The voice-over was done by former Kaleidoscope/London Music Radio man Steve Hampshire, after which it should have been plain sailing – but of course it wasn't. Various little problems came up which had to be worked round, as had the sticky subject of music licensing for any commercial music which may be heard anywhere in the documentary. Luckily much of the incidental music can be easily knocked up (I mean carefully composed) in one of the many 'loop editors' on the market – Apple Computer's Soundtrack being the software of choice for this project as was their wonderful Final Cut Pro editing program running on a dual processor Macintosh G5 computer.

By October we were very nearly there. More good luck came in the shape of an old Kaleidoscope listener who had dropped in on the website with an offer to compose some original music for us – all the way from Australia where he had moved to in 1974! So listen out for two pieces composed and played by David Wilks of Private Vault Records – "The Dream" and "To Be Free" which is used over the credits. Finally in November, the DVD sleeve and label were designed, the DVD encoded and authored ready for sending to the pressing plant. Unbelievably, after nearly two years, our DVD "Free Radio - The Story Of Clandestine Radio In The UK" is now available!
September 2003. Our actors assemble to recreate a typical medium wave pirate site
The recreation TX nearing the end of construction by our Technical Consultant Bill Kelsey
First interviewee Nick Catford complete with Radio Caroline valve to his right (for some reason!)
Mick Lewis aka Joe Lung of Radio Concord "We were in it for the music - man"
"So were we" - Bear Freeman of rock specialist Alice's Restaurant
Brian Horne aka Abe Cohen of the London Transmitter Of Independent Radio
Rare footage from 1983 shows Geoff Rogers in the Radio Jackie live studio.
Peter Carbines and Richard Elen get ready for their interview in May 2003
Bob Vine being camerman for the day. For those interested in such things its a SONY DSP-570 WS

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