Jesse Alexander talks to Colin Balls
Colin Balls has been involved in audiovisual since the late 1960s, as a practitioner and as a manufacturer of audiovisual equipment. His sequence Motorway that he made in the early 1980s was in pursuit of his passion for transport, and developed into an exploration of ideas about the disjointed nature of the body and mind when engaged in monotonous activity such as driving. He has recently begun to establish a collection of exhibits for a museum of audiovisual equipment, documenting their evolution from the Victorian Magic Lantern to the present day. The museum is located within the British Commercial Vehicle Museum in Leyland, Lancashire and will be open from April this year.
Jesse Alexander: How did you become involved with working with audiovisual?
Colin Balls: I've been involved in AV for forty years now. The beginnings were in 1968 when I saw an AV show by Richard Tucker. He did work for Nikon and took his shows all over the country. He did a show with a manual control unit that impressed me sufficiently to make me want to take the subject up. I've been doing it as a business - making AV equipment - as well as a hobby ever since. I became involved towards the end of the 1960s, and I got my fellowship with the RPS and did workshops across the country with a specialist in sound, John Edson.
Jesse Alexander: What sort of equipment did you manufacture?
Colin Balls: I worked for Leyland Motors as an engineer in the 1970s, and at the time, the equipment being used for AV presentations was very cumbersome: you needed projectors, a controller unit, amplifier and speakers, and a tape recorder. I thought there was a niche market here, so I designed a unit that stood alone and did everything. That was marketed and known as the Royale AV System. It took two years to design and build it, and my wife and I set up a company and proceeded to design, make, market and sell the unit, which retailed initially at £1,500. We made a living from it for the next twenty-one years and sold about 1,000 units (including re-sales). We sold a lot to industry (commerce, education) and a lot to private individuals because there was nothing else available at the time.
Jesse Alexander: So was the Royale a standard piece of equipment?
Colin Balls: It was recognised as the piece of equipment to use for those who could afford it. I transferred the design to a digital version which we have been making for the last seven or eight years. However, many of the companies we sold to didn't have the expertise to make the programmes, so we could provide this service for them as well. There were three of us involved in making these programmes: myself, Peter Coles - who wrote the words - and Andrew Brittain who provided the voice-over. Once, at the end of a professional recording session, I had the script for Motorway and asked Andrew if he would mind reading it. He did a quick read-through and recorded the final version in only one take. We've moved on considerably since Motorway. It is very old now and you have seen out of context: It is important to see the programmes on the equipment for which they were intended, as all equipment has limitations. It really needs to be seen on a big screen, with big sound, in a big room with an audience.
Jesse Alexander: I enjoyed Motorway, not least because it feels like something of a relic of another era.
Colin Balls: The roads are still just as wet! Originally I didn't take the images for the purpose of that programme - I just enjoyed photographing the motorway in the worst weather conditions that I could. When I had the images I asked Peter Coles whether he thought we could make anything of them. Peter described the idea that when you are travelling on a motorway your mind can wander almost separately from yourself. We do of course eventually arrive at our destination together. But sometimes my mind prefers its solitary company and wanders aimlessly in daydreams. Peter worked on the words for about three weeks and then we put it all together. It's gone on to do very well at AV festivals worldwide. I don't know why but the French in particular love it. The English are not too keen - they think they should understand the words intimately, but in this case they are not really meant to be understood; they are an ebb and a flow and are really part of the music and the mood. Hopefully that came across.
Jesse Alexander: How did the Phil Collins music get in there?
Colin Balls: Peter suggested that there was a song within it and he sent me the record with a suggested track on. I listened to the album and really liked one which I put in to the soundtrack, although actually it wasn't the one that Peter had initially suggested. The idea was that you could be driving along listening to the radio, and then your mind starts to wander. If you did that today you'd be crushed under the nearest 40-ton lorry! Traffic has certainly moved on a lot since then. Some of those images - I'm sorry to say - I took whilst driving. To try that in the density of traffic today would be crazy! I used to make a one hundred mile journey to Loughborough on business once a week at that time, and I just liked the change of conditions in the weather and how it changed the appearance of the road. The subject is rather unusual isn't it?
Jesse Alexander: Yes, perhaps quite mundane?
Colin Balls: But I hope the pictures are not mundane. It sounds mundane but the subject rapidly becomes historical. I love industry; slagheaps, steelworks, coalmines... they're all gone now. I simply find a visual attraction in them, and I'm a transport enthusiast anyway. I just enjoy doing it.