BBC VFX: The Story Of The BBC Visual Effects Department: 1954-2003 by Matt Irvine and Mike Tucker (book review).

November 25, 2013 | By | Reply More

The art of special effect is not to be seen as such. It’s part of the story and not supposed to stand out or thought to be real or at least not done at scale. It is only with our genre where we know things aren’t really there that we see the work of a Visual Effects Unit and where it might get criticism. What we don’t see, especially a few decades ago, is what they have to do with shoe-string budgets. Case in point is the BBC VFX where ingenuity ruled. I’ve been meaning to pick up the long-titled ‘BBC VFX: The Story Of The BBC Visual Effects Department’ for some time and although it’s been out three years now, it isn’t likely to age because it’s a history book. Even better, it’s written by Matt Irvine and Mike Tucker, two people who worked there and have access to the people, photographs, knowledge and insight that an outsider would not have. Indeed, much of this book focuses on the other people’s work than their own which is commendable but also means no Boris the spider.


Reading the history of the unit and the various locations they sat up their workshops over the years, I thought their endurance for change had to be incredible. Although seeing the limitations of some of their workshops, like having to cut models down in size to fit in a lift or being spread miles apart, it’s easy to understand why any move was favoured. Seeing the group photos of the staff, I only spotted the odd female face, so in those forty-nine years, this was really a male dominion.

When it got down to the nitty-gritty of what they were going to show, the authors point out that with 20,000 programmes, they could only choose a cross-representation so had to leave a lot out. So there’s only a hint of Michael Bentine’s shows through two photos and nothing at all to do with ‘The Borrowers’. However, what they do show is simply breath-taking and would give the novice model-maker pause for thought even today and a definite learning tool because a lot of technical information, especially the names of products are noted, which should make it easier to track things down if you have a desire to learn the craft at home. Considering that’s how many get into the industry by providing a working CV of what they’ve done, this book has to be seen as an asset. CGI might rule now, but there’s always a call for model-makers and physical effects.

I was a little dismayed that the fifty choices were in alphabetical rather than chronological order, simply because it would have made more sense to see how the effects evolved rather than jumping into 1986 with ‘Alice In Wonderland’. I suspect a lot of you will be cross-checking as you read to see how many are available of these shows are on DVD to see the final product. Discovering that the 2005 ‘Doctor Who’ series was their last model and fire effects so early in the book tends to make putting things in context a little weird for a while.  Interestingly, after ‘The Storyteller’, alphabetical order seems to be thrown out the window.

It goes without saying that all the major SF shows are here, which for those of you who don’t know, apart from ‘Doctor Who’, this also includes ‘Blake’s 7, ‘Moonbase 3’, ‘Quatermass’, ‘Red Dwarf’, ‘Star Cops’, ‘The Chronicles Of Narnia’, ‘The Day Of The Triffids’, ‘The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy’ and ‘The Tripods’. Saying that, it’s the work on the ‘normal’ shows that tends to stand out more because they match up to real life requirements. Then again, with only a few minutes use, there is less up close as to what they are doing. When you see the quality of the model work, it’s amazing how good it is before a lot of it is promptly destroyed in a scene. The galaxy of photos behind the scenes and within the shows are plentiful and jaw-dropping. Going back to ‘Who’, seeing the model of the building that was destroyed in ‘The Seeds Of Doom’ before its paint job and many thought was the real thing at the time, still looks impressive.

One of the things I found interesting is seeing bits and pieces reused from ‘Doctor Who’ and even old Century 21 props getting a second life in various BBC shows. If nothing else, it affirms my prop recognition when I’m doing some of my other reviews.

Oddly, the Visual Effects Department (VED) rarely got any awards, mostly because there wasn’t an award for special effects. The most significant was May 2006 when they finally got one for the 2005 ‘Hiroshima’ programme. You would have thought we British would have been quicker to applaud the work of any visual effects company.

I had some wry amusement from ‘Rentaghost’ (1976-84) where they turned a Triumph Herald into the 1966 Batmobile. I’d love to have seen original designer George Barris’ reaction to it.

As you can tell, I’m still putting my jaw back into place. This is simply a gorgeous book that I can see me picking up and just wandering through the photos from time to time. Although it’s been out for a couple years now, I suspect there are still a lot of you who haven’t seen this book yet and you should consider adding to your buy list as there is enough of everything from the major shows to pique your interest.

GF Willmetts

November 2013

(pub: Aurum Press. 239 page illustrated indexed very large hardback. Price: £30.00 (UK). ISBN: 978-1-84513-556-0)

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Category: Books, TV

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About UncleGeoff

Geoff Willmetts has been editor at SFCrowsnest for some 21 plus years now, showing a versatility and knowledge in not only Science Fiction, but also the sciences and arts, all of which has been displayed here through editorials, reviews, articles and stories. With the latter, he has been running a short story series under the title of ‘Psi-Kicks’
If you want to contribute to SFCrowsnest, read the guidelines and show him what you can do. If it isn’t usable, he spends as much time telling you what the problems is as he would with material he accepts. This is largely how he got called an Uncle, as in Dutch Uncle. He’s not actually Dutch but hails from the west country in the UK.

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