Chris Atkinson – Sound Recordist

C_71_article_1079604_image_list_image_list_item_0_image-2Chris Atkinson worked as a sound recordist on Coronation Street during the 1970s, recording both on location and in studio. He continues to operate as a freelance in the UK television industry.

I started working on the Street about 1978, 1979. I was a boom operator, that’s a recordist’s assistant. I would hold the mike in the air on a long pole, occasionally dropping it into shot ! Exteriors were shot on film in those days, with a locals crew. The film crews at Granada in those days were – a couple of crews assigned to local programmes, and others assigned to such things as World In Action, dramas, and so on. One of the locals crews was also assigned on a Monday morning to do any exteriors for Coronation Street. Then after that we’d do Granada Tonight. It was just exteriors we did for Coronation Street, no studio work. It was always outside.

I would work with another sound man. There were never many scenes to do. Now and again we went out on location, away from the set, but never very often. Most of it was done on the exterior of the set, in the street itself. Location work was always around Manchester, you could usually spit on Granada from where the location was. We never went far away and they were mostly streets that were in character with Coronation Street. The set in those days used to be down by the Bonded Warehouse where tours is now. And then before that I think there was another set. When we had cars on the set they always had a problem because the street was virtually a dead end and if a car was driving down the street they had to slam their brakes on.

Of course when you opened the front doors of houses on the set it was just scaffolding. All the street was was a front, there was nothing behind the front, no rooms or anything like that. You might see a little bit of a wall if a door was open, but not much. There’s a lot more now, the houses are more substantial although they are still not full size. The cameraman always shot slightly sideways to the door so that you could not see far inside.

Sometimes we might use a radio mike if we were doing a long shot down the street but most of the time we had a boom mike on the end of a long pole. We tended not to use radio mikes because in those days they were so unreliable. They’re a lot more reliable nowadays. But in those days you’d get three feet away and the quality of sound would go. Sometimes we’d use a gun mike, a rifle mike. It’s a directional mike, it gets rid of traffic noise. We’d start at 8.30am in the morning which was smack on rush hour, so the traffic around was quite heavy so we used this directional mike which would cut out the surrounding sound. The boom mike used to pick up all that traffic sound. The sound of traffic would bounce off walls everywhere. Traffic noise is always a problem, still is.

We would track down the Street with the actors and the mike as they walked down the street, being aware of reflections which you do see now and again. Because of the way the street is built it has picture windows which were always a problem with reflection with the boom. You still see it. We also used to have to be careful doing scenes over shining cars cos again you get a reflection and the boom can be spotted.

The most memorable scene I recorded was when a wagon load of timber turned over the went through the Rovers Return. Deidre’s daughter Tracey was supposedly underneath. We dragged that out for a couple of episodes. No, it wasn’t too difficult to shoot. They laid the truck down on its side with a crane onto mattresses so that it wouldn’t damage the truck or the street itself and they didn’t actually break any walls or windows in the Rovers. When it was cleared up you wouldn’t have known it had been there.

I also did a wedding in a church in Kearsley, the wedding between Bet Lynch and Alec Gilroy. That was memorable because Anthony Booth was in it as well; he was one of the guests. There was quite a few extras. That was   one of the rare occasions when we got away from the set. There were lots of people watching wondering what was going on. It was a lovely sunny day as well. Ray French who had shot Brideshead Revisited did that scene. I did a scene once in Stockport with Pat Phoenix. She was alright, she was lovely.

Our job is to get the dialogue as clean as we can without too much exterior noise. Then they will put sound effects on afterwards. Basically I sit with a recorder, it was a Nargra in those days, but now it’s digital. Then it was quarter inch tapes. I sat with the Nargra and a little mixing desk and by then I had a boom operator, somebody who would hold the mike for me. I would have earphones on and had to listen to get the cleanest sound I could. If I could hear traffic, police sirens, planes or anything like that you would have to stop. Imagine if you’re cutting a sequence between two people, you can’t have different sounds in the background. Of course it’s very annoying having to stop if the sound is bad but it has to be done. You can always hear the changes in background sound. But what we then do is to take a wild track, that’s an atmos track – that’s general sound background and we then lay this over everything, smooth out the edits and then you can’t hear the changes. It’s just hiding the rough edges. We do the wild track by just telling everyone to be quiet and them putting the boom mike into the air and recording for a minute. That gives us the atmos track. The secret is to get the background as quiet as possible.

The actors were all very good. They were like one big family. They all knew their jobs. Everything was shot on 16mm film. Everything is done on videotape now. After we had shot the scenes the film was taken to the labs just around the corner. The soundman’s job is pretty much the same today. But the sound quality is not as good but it is good enough though with videotape

I used to like Geoff Hughes, he was a good laugh. He had a thing about cars, he was always driving new ones and we were always asking ‘what are you driving today Geoff ?’ But only shooting one morning a week with them, and even then it wasn’t every week, we never really got to know them that well. They were very friendly but not really the banter.

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