What are the challenges that OB engineers have faced on the road?
From filming revolutions in eastern Europe, to warming up members of the royal family and dealing with troublesome air-con systems, Alice de Picarda asked outside broadcast engineers about the challenges they've faced on the road

Nic Christodoulou, engineering manager, BBC Outside Broadcasts

Nic Christodoulou worked as a car mechanic before joining BBC OBs in 1983. Recent jobs have included events such as Five's coverage of Darlow Smithson's Stonehenge Liveand North One's Fifa World Cup for UKTV G2 and BBC sport.

In his view there's no such thing as an average week in OBs. 'We've had weeks when we've worked 20-hour days and then times where you only work five hours.' Flexibility is key, he says. 'Until three years ago I was living out of a suitcase. Most of the work was international, especially with the Formula 1 racing for ITV and news coverage for BBC.'

The spontaneity of the job is part of the package which is why having a plan is essential, as Christodoulou learned when he was called out to do an OB on the Velvet Revolution in Czechoslovakia in the late 1980s for BBC news.

'We picked up $20,000 in cash and took out two tonnes of kit to use for five days - and ended up staying for six weeks,' he recalls.

Christodoulou observes that as budgets get tighter and competition increases, people are more willing to take a risk with programmes. The key, he argues 'is to know how to get out of the kaka when it goes wrong'. In many situations, he says, this involves 'thinking on your feet and surviving on a pile of kit, a brain and lots of cash'.

But in a sector of the industry where people work hard and play hard relationships are also vital. 'It's very much a people business. You spend time with your own crew or production crew- problems are solved more easily. Trust then builds up and that's very important to what we're doing.' Christodoulou modestly compares working in OB to working in McDonald's. 'You churn out loads of stuff at short notice as quickly as possible. It's fast TV.'

Bill Morris, technical producer, CTV

According to Bill Morris, OB crews are a close-knit bunch travelling the world together. 'It's nomadic - and the variety is the attraction for me.' Morris studied English literature at university and developed an interest in television after a stint doing work experience at Australian network Channel 10 where he worked as a camera assistant on the cult Aussie drama series Prisoner Cell Block H.

After returning to the UK Morris joined the now-defunct OB company Trilion as a runner, where he learned his trade before eventually joining Visions as unit manager. He moved on to CTV six years ago. 'As a runner I learned the job from the engineers around me. When they think you're ready, they put you out there and you sink or swim. The more OBs you supervise, the more you learn. You never stop learning.'

One overriding challenge that comes with working in OBs is the transitory, nomadic existence that attracts people to the industry. 'It can be tough, especially when you're starting a relationship. It's a life choice,' says Morris. 'There's an esprit de corps on the road. I see my colleagues more than my family - [the crew] is an extended family. Life tends to revolve around OBs and the clients at the time.'

But the excitement, the significance of recording huge events and a 'sense of being part of history' counteracts the long hours. Morris has worked on a fair share of royal occasions, including Prince Andrew's wedding to Sarah Ferguson and the Queen Mother's funeral, which had been planned for 12 years. 'Every January we would route it all and go through the plans. But when I heard the news I had only just arrived on holiday. So I packed my suitcase again and went straight back to London and got my daughter to help book the crew. We would normally crew [that scale of operation] for weeks [but] because of all the planning that had been involved we managed to crew up in four to five hours.'

The OB engineer is not only relied upon for his technical expertise. Sometimes a simple item of clothing can make a big difference. During ITV's coverage of the Symphony for the Spire concert over a decade ago, Princess Diana had said she was cold so Morris's chivalrous colleague lent her his jacket to keep her knees warm and even offered to buy her a burger.

Joe French, unit manager, NEP Visions

Another former Trilion employee, Joe French got into the industry through a course in technical college and an apprenticeship at Midlands-based broadcaster ATV (which became Central TV in 1982) before setting up Visions in 1984. French's introduction to OBs was more of a rock 'n' roll affair, providing audio support for Queen in the 1970s.

However, recording sporting events over the years has proven particularly precarious, especially when it comes to the weather where the flexibility and innovation of the OB engineer is really put to the test. He recalls how in 1999 Visions recorded a programme, Winter Solstice, for US channel A&E in northern Finland. 'We set the cameras up on a skating rink at 8am, but as the day went by the temperatures rose by 10 degrees and the ice melted. The skaters couldn't skate so we abandoned it. We pulled the kit apart, drove

to an ice breaker [boat] and sailed out into the Baltic Sea that evening. We had built a control room on the ship, and cameras were cabled from the control room onto the [frozen] surface of the sea, [where] we cut an ice rink throughout the night. The temperature on the sea was about minus 15C so the skaters, wearing their flimsy outfits, could only skate for about 15 minutes. The next night, we filmed the skaters and then went back; it was a 44-hour continual operation with no sleep. People were falling asleep everywhere.'

Despite the long hours and harsh weather conditions French describes his job as 'a very challenging and rewarding experience - especially when you get a production finished and it's successful'.

Simon 'Foz' Foster, senior sound engineer, Telegenic

Simon Foster sees HD as the big change in technology that's affecting OBs. 'It's changed everybody's world. In sound, no one used digital audio unless it was a music job. Now it's all digital within the scanner. There's more stuff and so more can go wrong - it's a steep learning curve. It's all a challenge, [such as] the move from analogue to digital and getting your head round the different ways that digital works to analogue. You're learning all over again.'

Foster describes the young crew who he works with at Telegenic as 'technical gypsies' and the company has provided units for OBs ranging from ITV's coverage of Princess Diana's funeral to the Premiership for Sky.

He joined the company eight years ago as a junior sound engineer after studying a professional broadcast course at Ravensbourne College. Foster has covered broadcasts including the V music festivals and Miss Universe for CBS. But again, it was ice skating that caused one of the biggest dramas. 'We were covering the world figure skating championships in Russia, taking the OB truck out to Russia with miles of cable. The cables ended up being buried beneath three feet of ice within three days, which was a nightmare. We had to bribe a Russian trucker to drag it out!'

Backup, backup and more backup is another fundamental rule for a successful OB. 'For the Queen Mum's funeral, we did the ITN news inserts and live coverage. It's quite scary when what half the world is watching is hanging off of two XLRs [connections attaching audio cables]. You have to stay cool, calm and collected and rely on backup and the eyes and ears [of the team] that are backup. You fall off air occasionally - like when the air-conditioning was switched on once and tripped out the scanner during live coverage of a football match - but we got it back in three minutes.'

Dafydd Rees, chief engineer, Bow Tie Television

For Dafydd Rees OB work was 'in the blood' after being dragged around various studios and taken filming during school holidays by his parents who both worked in the industry.

He started out with a Saturday job at BBC Wales recycling tapes for the radio department and doing 'grubby jobs like cleaning muck off cables after an OB at an agricultural show'.

After working for HTV in Cardiff, he joined Bow Tie, a company that counts Live 8, the Melbourne Formula 1 Grand Prix and snooker for Sky One among strings to its bow. Experience and foreseeing problems before they happen is vital for learning in the job, says Rees. 'The experience of working on a variety of shows brings with it the ability to second-guess and prepare for production team requests before they've been requested.'

That experience is key to any challenges that do emerge and one sticks in Rees's mind: 'The first time I was in charge of a truck for a big event was for an add-on at a golf event. We ended up with a load of hired-in, unfamiliar kit- and when I was just getting on top of things, the truck was parked at such an angle that water in the air-conditioning system started overflowing in the drip trays and trickled down through all the gear. I was sitting there, watching one bit of kit pack up after the other.'

Which, he says, is where the element of planning comes in. 'On those nice quiet days when everything's going well you should sit back and wonder what you'd do if the mixer blows up or the comms matrix stops working- because one day it will happen.'

However, that is the nature of OBs - things go wrong. 'After all, we're rattling tonnes of equipment up and down the country in 14-metre-long trailers.' This year companies such as BBC OBs, Arqiva and Barcud Derwen have updated their facilities to service new contracts. How does Rees think technology has changed?

Ever aware of air-con, Rees notes that the gear's becoming much denser and therefore hotter, which in itself has forced truck drivers to pay much more attention to heating, ventilation and air-conditioning.

But the main change, he says, has been the move to software. 'Once upon a time when something stopped working you'd whip off the lid and poke around with the soldering iron for a while. Sometimes a firm tap with a screwdriver handle would do the trick. Now you're much more likely to open the front panel, connect to a laptop, phone the manufacturer for help and wait for an upgrade to be emailed over.'

Tim Summerhayes, chief engineer, Fleetwood Mobiles

Fleetwood specialises in the sound recording for concerts, providing the audio for other OBs, and is currently working on the music series, Transmission, for Channel 4.

'It's a totally different discipline, because you take into consideration the studio techniques so artists get what they are expecting from a top-end recording studio,' says Tim Summerhayes. Having started out as a studio apprentice in the mid-1970s, Summerhayes worked at Rak Studios, which was used by the likes of Status Quo. By the mid-1980s, he left the comfort of the studios for the unsettled and transitory OB environment and started at Fleetwood. 'In studios, you're involved in creating a performance,' he says. 'It takes a long time to create a record. At [the OB] end, you're capturing a performance, not creating it. It's such a different ball game to try and get the essence of what they're doing on stage and the excitement of the audience at a gig. It's good to see a concert on TV with the excitement there as well as the music element.'

This summer, Fleetwood has recorded a range of festivals broadcast on TV and radio, including the Download Festival in Donnington, Wireless Festival in Hyde Park and Rock am Ring in Germany; since the beginning of June the company has recorded 85 bands.

According to Summerhayes the technical challenges are just as prevalent on the audio side as they are at the visual end. 'You usually have between 30 and 50 outputs [sources of sound]. When we recorded the War of the Worlds concert [for DVD], we had 120 incoming music sources and 96 tracks of audio. We had to sync the timecode from the show to the timecode of our own truck and the Visions truck. That involved a lot of trust for those concerned. It took two months to plan it; you only get one shot at it and there's a horrible amount at stake. There's little room for error. It takes a lot of time and your patience can be tried.'

But there are some pluses to all that travel: 'On long-distance work you can take three to four days' holiday at the end. We've done the MTV Asia awards show in Bangkok for two years. It's hard work but you go sightseeing after it and you appreciate where you are; that's a perk.'