A Peculiar Effect on the BBC

As the memoir of a highly-regarded and hugely experienced member of the BBC’s technical team is bound to bring with it certain expectations, let me get one thing out of the way straight out of the gate. If you come to this book expecting a dry treatise on the construction and maintenance of television-standard special effects, complete with diagrams and imperial measurements, you will walk away disappointed.

If, on the other hand, you happen to be looking for a fast, frank and, above all, funny look at how the BBC struggled to bring special effects to the small screen, this is definitely the book for you.

A Peculiar Effect is a book posthumously reconstructed from Wilkie’s notes towards a memoir. As such, it’s difficult to tell how much editorial control has been exerted, but however it was managed the final result is a great success. Wilkie’s loose, informal style is obviously aimed at the general reader – he had already produced a manual for fellow professionals which is commented on in the afterword as being a longstanding industry favourite. As a result, far from being the tedious drudge through technical specifications that one always fears these books will devolve into, this is an anecdotal romp through the history of practical effects for the small screen.

Skipping lightly over his childhood with only a couple of stories he feels relevant to his career path, Wilkie plunges us straight into the action by the second chapter. Years of association with showbusiness have clearly paid off, and he seems to have a partly learned, partly innate knack for storytelling; surely any raconteur would love to be able to start a chapter with a line like “It was 1945 and I was standing in the wings of a small German theatre holding a loaded revolver”.

Apparent throughout the book is Wilkie’s sense of humour, which is dry and self-deprecating. Evidently aware that the greatest pitfall of the memoir is narcissism, Wilkie paints a frank and entertaining picture of a career spent bodging effects together with gaffer tape and crossing his fingers; while it’s hard to believe that everything was quite so seat-of-the-pants as he makes out, he clearly follows the dictum that failure is the best teacher, and every success is preceded with a story about the mistakes made along the way. In this way he manages to keep the book light enough to be enjoyable as well as interesting; it enables him to be discursive without rambling. Of particular interest to the showbiz outsider might be later chapters in which he describes the way practical visual effects are co-ordinated; chapters on his time spent on Some Mothers Do ‘Ave ‘Em, for instance, are insightful and interesting on how his visual effects needed to combine with the efforts of the stunt team and, of course, the actors; star Michael Crawford famously did all his own stunts, making it even more necessary than usual that a rogue pyrotechnic shouldn’t blow him to pieces before an episode was completed.

A relaxed, affable narrator, Wilkie takes us through the history of special effects with a wry, sometimes rueful, smile and a generous attitude to the foibles of others. I came away saddened that this man, whom I never knew, had passed away before his book was published; on the basis of this memoir, I would very much like to have heard him speak.