Tuesday, 13 October 2015

Broadcasting: the shaved gonads

What I said to John Prescott and why a Canadian star missed lunch
(c) Steve Palmer 2015

1997: I was begging John Prescott
The International Journal of Fatigue is dedicated entirely to the full range of scientific and technological issues associated with tiredness. Why haven’t they written about me? Have you ever been so tired that you go past tiredness? 

On reflection, one of my life decisions was particularly naff: when I changed careers to broadcast journalism, and where I was on shifts, at the same time that Mrs Steve started bringing babies into the world.

I remember working nights at the BBC and arriving back home to sleep in the day. My eldest, Harry, was a toddler and once, just as I’d fallen into a deep sleep, around 11.30 in the morning, he ran in the room and sat on my head. I can still feel the nappy nuzzled against my face. I’ll get him back. He’s seventeen now. These days I’m like Cato from the Pink Panther films; ready and poised to attack him at any time, day or night, in revenge.

And then there’s people I’ve shared this state of insomnia with. On one particular radio show, the editor’s job started at three in the morning. Yes: three am. The secondary producers and reporters had a lazy lie-in, starting at five am.

We were all tired but the most embarrassing things only seemed to happen to Rob. Like Judy and Simon, Rob’s kind of drawn to this sort of thing. Even when he went for the BBC interview, he got stuck in a Mexican stand-off in a revolving door with a woman who, of course, turned out to be the interviewer. 

Mind you, I did a similar thing myself at Talk Radio, coincidentally around the same time as Rob’s interview - and before we’d ever met. I thought that the revolving door was particularly stiff as I tried to open it, and only realised, as I exited it, that I’d been pushing it – harshly - the wrong way. Waiting on the other side was the Talk Radio boss, and former Sun editor, Kelvin Mackenzie. It was my first day there. Rob and I are calamity cousins.

Groundhog day

Anyway, back to our time working together. Every day at five, Rob started working on his story for the morning. As reporter, it was his responsibility to do a ‘two-way’ with presenter Paul just after the news bulletin at 6am.

So, Rob had an hour to learn the main parts of a news story that a producer had put together for him the day before. It might be about a tube strike, a school with a headmaster who roller-skated to work, or a council that sent its officers to the nearby park, to hide in the undergrowth, only to pounce out and fine dog-owners at the first sign of an inappropriate fouling mutt. (Yes. It happened.)

How functional is the human body at that time of day? Day after day? One day, Rob, always the enthusiast, wanted to come out with an early-morning line that summed up the basic facts of that day’s story; the nuts and bolts; the bare bones of that morning’s story, if you will. Except Rob, completely knackered, said, on air: “Paul, I want to show you the bare nuts.”

How either of them coped, live on air, I and the rest of the production team will never know. Editor Harry and I were in the control room and there was a moment of open-mouthed horror; perhaps two seconds of total recoil. Then we burst out laughing. For Rob it was painfully awkward but for us it was laugh-out-loud.  We found him later, alone in the BBC gents, head in hands.

Because for the rest of his time at the radio station, Rob had this as a millstone around his neck. So I want to thank him for his permission to repeat the story. Presenter Paul was still going on about ‘shaved gonads’ on the day he left the station.

Kurd and no way

And after the early-morning ‘two-way’, Rob would be off in the radio car to a destination elsewhere in London, to bring a story to life. Now, if I was lucky enough to be on the day shift, it was my job to ‘set up’ the story and to weave all the elements together. If there was a student demonstration, I’d be on the phone to organisers the day before to arrange for Rob to meet them about 6:50 am so he could ‘go live’ at 07:05. That sort of thing.

One day, Rob had to hot-foot it from the Marylebone studio to Hackney, where I’d arranged for him to meet a Kurdish intellectual. I can’t remember what the story was about. But there were always the most stressful logistics involved. It wasn’t just a case of turning up. There were parking considerations; not just where to park, but also where to put up the radio car communications mast, which could take some time to load, and which had to be a good distance from any overhead wires. Always a challenge in London.

On this occasion, Rob hit traffic and arrived at the venue at about 06:57. Still a miracle under the circumstances; but a time-pressured situation when it comes to the live broadcasting of fast-moving news stories. He knocked on the shutter of the café that I’d organised for him to visit. It was slowly opened by a man, who Rob talked to before the iron gate had fully opened. Come on; he was on a time-sensitive mission here. The man nodded in agreement and motioned for Rob to sit down at one of the tables. But, instead Rob ran off to put up the mast; and then came back to the table, rather anxious about the overbearing time limits. ‘Sailing close to the wind’ is the saying, perhaps.

07:03. No Kurdish intellectual. Poor old Harry was back at base, trying to get Rob on his phone. (Guess what: it didn’t work in the café). Rob hadn’t even had a chance to meet and brief this guest. Rob would have to get him to the radio car and come straight out with the questions. No practice. But he felt confident. He was a professional and experienced speech radio broadcaster and I was a producer who he could trust to set things up nicely. He could pull this off, although did it always have to be this close to the wire?

And then the original man came back.

With a bowl of soup.

I hadn’t booked Rob an interview with a Kurdish intellectual. I’d ordered him a bowl of soup. It was now time to go live and Rob had, in front of him, soup. “I’m joined now by a bowl of soup.” We still don’t know why Rob was brought soup, rather than a radio guest.

Luckily, both presenter Paul and Rob were very good at bullshitting their way through a performance. Once, the mixing desk had problems; we could get no guests on air, and Paul did a paper-review with himself for 45 minutes. Radio gold. And so, on the occasion when Rob only had soup for company, he was in Hackney and he just talked to Paul, like he had done an hour earlier, in person, in a warm studio.

And Rob reminds me that the man with the soup actually opened up the café especially for him. And made him soup especially. Doubly awkward.

Name dropping

Back to Rob in a moment, but I’ve remembered a couple of incidents from my broadcasting career. They’re not my greatest moments, it has to be said.

1997. I was the work experience person. I was on placement from my university one-year diploma in broadcast journalism. I had an internship at Channel One, a London-only 24 hour news cable channel. Now, having a placement at Channel One was great because it was ‘all hands to the pump’. I was expected to be able to write scripts, book in guests, make the tea and…use a video camera. Not the hand-held type that many journalists use today, but the big, over-the-shoulder variety with an accompanying - and perishingly-heavy - tripod and case.

Who am I to complain? As I write, the General Election campaign of 2015 is in full swing. It’s 13 April and the poll is in less than a month away. In 1997, at exactly this time, I got to cover the election which saw a change of Government. I filmed Tony and Cherie Blair; I spent the day on the election stump with rising Conservative star Michael Portillo; and I got to interview John Prescott.

Let me qualify what I said about the cameras. I basically tried to avoid going out on my own and more often than not I tagged along with a more experienced reporter. But every so often, I was told by the editor’s desk to get out there solo and to come back with pictures. Stunning, newsworthy pictures.

Prescott procrastinations

So, to John Prescott. Prezza. He’s famous for an incident that actually took place four years after I interviewed him, in the 2001 campaign, when he punched a voter who threw an egg at him. It’s here: youtube.com/watch?v=5XTiI1e-wVc. He could be a volatile character. Anyway, back to 1997. I had the opportunity to interview Prezza.

You know the ‘pause’ button on machinery? The II button? The one that stops everything? Well, I’d pressed ‘record’ and then ‘pause’, so I was ready to go. Then I tried to get the white balance right. The internet tells me that this is the process of removing unrealistic ‘colour casts’, so that objects which appear white in person are rendered white in your camera. For me, this meant taking a piece of paper and sort of focusing in. I’m sure the new-fangled cameras do this automatically but, with Prezza standing there getting more and more impatient – you could see why: Labour wanted to maximise on its popularity – I just couldn’t get the white balance right.

I actually begged him to stay there so I could ask him my question and not get into trouble at work. I was pathetically begging John Prescott. It was either get a king-size bollocking from Prezza or get an emperor-size bollocking from the news editor. I chose Prezza. Finally I was ready and it was time to press ‘pause’. I got him excited by asking a question about travel disruption caused by an IRA bomb threat. It was a golden reply with lots of animation in Prezza’s voice, and I couldn’t wait to get the tape back to base, where the news editor was salivating for more and more exclusive material. (On a channel that no one watched).

So, Prezza ‘gave it up’ and walked off. Finally; I’d tamed the beast that was this camera. This was it. My golden career as a broadcast journalist was springboarding into success. I can still see Mr Prescott’s back as he went off to his next appointment. And I can still feel the moment of horror as I played back the clip, only to find that I’d pressed ‘pause’ twice and had a shot of John Prescott about to talk and then one of him saying: “Thank you”, and moving off. I’d put Prezza on permanent pause. I had nothing.

I was frantic. In the taxi, I was fearful that any credibility I had back at base was going to be shot to pieces. I was going to be ‘sacked’ even though I was only an intern at the TV station. Then the editor rang. On the first mobile I’d ever used. I was terrified of that phone (it was 1997 and mobiles were rare). Anyway, I don’t know why, but I held back from telling him the bad news. Then he said: “I’m really sorry but we’ve got some great shots of Blair in Birmingham and we can’t use your Prescott stuff. Don’t worry. I’ll get you on a good story tomorrow to make up for it.” I could have kissed the taxi driver.

Back at base, I went to see the bloke who maintained all the cameras and got him to magnetically wipe the tape clean, so that only he and I would ever know. It’s been my secret, with him. Until now.

Anyway, what goes around comes around. In 2000 John Prescott, by then Deputy Prime Minister, was discussing housing policy on TV and said: "People who are living in a single house…can we do that again? I made that crap." A pause followed before the BBC's Nick Robinson told him that they were still live on air. This and other microphone gaffes can be found on a news report at bit.ly/1UttWzH.

What a guy

Let’s talk about the famous Guy Goma incident. IT specialist Guy was waiting in the BBC’s reception, about to be interviewed for a job. Someone called out “Is Guy here?” 

Then, when he put his hand up, Guy was asked if he was still OK to ‘do the interview’. He replied in the affirmative. I mean, you would. Before he knew it, make-up was being applied (a 
bit strange for a job interview) and he was soon being quizzed, on air, live, about a news story regarding the internet. The proper guest, also called Guy, and abandoned in reception, could presumably only look at the TV screens, in horror.

We’ve all had dreams where we’ve turned up for a job interview and suddenly we’ve had to do a presentation on quantum physics in front of the brainiest people in the world, in only our boxers. Only me then? Except this sort of thing really happened to Guy. If you want to watch the incident on YouTube, you know what to do. The face he pulls when the penny drops; it’s gold dust. A word for the poor presenter Karen Bowerman. She does brilliantly. After almost a minute and a half, she goes to a reporter, who’s obviously been told what’s going on in his earpiece, because you don’t get to smile like that at work without a good reason.

When I worked at the BBC I was given the job of collecting former Chancellor of the Exchequer Norman Lamont from Breakfast TV; and of taking him over to Radio 5 Live. Except together we got lost in the labyrinthine vaults of TV Centre. I got increasingly panic-stricken, but Mr Lamont was polite and patient as we pounded the floors. We arrived after a painful hour traipsing the corporation’s corridors. The presenters and producers gave me a patient look, as they rearranged the running order to accommodate Mr Lamont’s late arrival.

Double decker

One incident I remember from my radio days was when Carol Decker, from one-hit-wonder mega-eighties group T'Pau, came in for an interview. She was with her daughter, at the time a baby girl aged about three weeks. About as young as my eldest, Harry. It was 1998. So; Carol had been out of the limelight for about ten years and we hadn't yet seen the gig-revival-circuit, created for bands like T'Pau, to do their thing. So Carol probably wanted the publicity.

She did present one challenge. She didn't know what to do with the baby during the interview. I volunteered to look after her daughter because I had current experience; my Harry was pretty much the same bundle of joy as Carol’s baby. And Carol was happy and reassured that she was handing her newborn over to someone with experience. I've just looked it up and her name's Scarlett.

So, Carol Decker left me in sole charge of Scarlett. And, for 
those who've already worked out what I'm about to say next, I apologise. Scarlett was like china in my hands. (You need to know T'Pau. Oh I see; you do - and it's still not funny. Well, I've written a whole chapter on my failed comedy career. Bet you can’t wait. Chapter six.) Anyway, it was pretty cool.

Which is more than can be said for the bloke from Due South. The radio programme I produced didn't have a budget. It was done on a wing and prayer. The publicist from Due South rang, with demands for the guest I’d booked in, and I quickly realised that this show, a popular crime / comedy drama with the main guy dressed as a Canadian mountie, was accustomed to its team receiving gold-standard 'green room' treatment. The phone call was difficult because they asked if lunch would be provided. I said: "Yes." Because, without the offer of food on the table, I was worried that they may pull the guest, Benton Fraser, who played the mountie.

I had about half an hour to think up a plan, before Benton and his hungry entourage turned up. I concocted said plan. They arrived. I was surrounded by the group of Due South people, and I looked Benton straight in the eye. I said: "Would you like a sandwich?" Then I went next door and, with my own money, bought him a chicken bap. And I brought it back and gave it to him, ignoring the entourage. 

The interview went ahead, but without a smorgasbord luncheon laid out for the team. I needn’t have worried. Benton went to the bother of dressing up as a mountie for this radio interview, so he must have been very keen to go ahead, even if his entourage went hungry. “It’s radio mate. No one can see you. Web cams haven’t been invented. How was the sandwich?”

I was at the same station working late one night when a celebrity came in. I can't reveal who it was just yet. That's the punchline. This other producer started saying how much this celebrity's career meant to him. He said: "You're such a great presenter." Celeb replied: "Well, I've done some presenting." Producer: "Oh come on; you're brilliant. It's what you're known for." Celeb: "Well, I'm really known for my keyboard playing." Prod: "I didn't know you played keyboards." It was getting kind of silly. I was wondering if the producer should quit whilst he wasn't ahead.

Celeb: "Who do you think I am?" Prod: "Bob Harris." ('Whispering' Bob Harris, the Old Grey Whistle Test presenter). Celeb: "But I'm Rick Wakeman." (Prog rock keyboardist and grumpy old man from the TV). A bizarre lookalike suggestion.

This was all played out in front of me and absolutely no one else, in the wee small hours.

Give us a lift

Back to Rob and mostly, things we set up did go to plan. And once – in about 2001 - it went spectacularly well. And I’m proud of the part I played. I pitched an idea in a planning meeting about how to behave – and how not to behave - on the London Underground.

You know: people getting in the carriage when they should have waited for the passengers to get off; people not moving right down inside the carriage; people tutting inappropriately; and people sniffing without taking the precaution of bringing tissues. Or folks reading over your shoulder, like people have done to me whilst I’ve been writing this essay.

To put the idea in context, the London listings magazine Time Out recently published a guide to tube etiquette. It concluded: “Consider, for a moment, the ant colony. All the ants work together towards a common goal. Together they get stuff done. The more we cooperate, and put the group before the individual, the better everything works – that’s the golden rule for using the tube.” tinyurl.com/totubeeti.

The idea sparked a discussion that led to a fantastic piece of broadcasting.

It saw Rob in the lift at Earl’s Court station. He was standing there with his microphone. The lift filled to take passengers down to the next level. And as soon as the doors closed, Rob started talking into his microphone. “Well, here we are in the lift and I can feel people starting to look away. When you get this close it can be quite embarrassing.” And then, to make matters worse for commuters, he suddenly turned to one of them to talk to them; except this was a professor of psychology from a London university, who was happy to explain the phenomenon of people clamming up in a confined space.

That lift ride can take longer than you imagine. The passengers didn’t know what was going to happen next. This, of course, was all before crowd-surfing videos, on YouTube, became popular. You know, where someone asks someone to marry them in front of dancing strangers and then it’s replayed before an internet audience of millions. Well, we were there first, folks.

In this psychological experiment, we concluded that people don’t like going on live radio, in a cramped lift, in their rush hour. People can be selfish, you know. But we had a programme to fill.

So, on this occasion, it wasn’t me or my friends who found everything a bit awkward. It was total strangers who I’d unwittingly set up to embarrass. And Rob had pulled it off. He comes out of it a hero. Mind you, he did go on to be a TV sports reporter who claimed, one season, that if a particular team avoided relegation, he would be so shocked that he’d wear a dress to present the football news. Guess what? I’m not sure what size he is but the people at the boutique fitting were, apparently, very pleasant.

And, on the day I was editing this, Rob was so intent on listening to coverage of the day after the election of 2015 that he drove to the wrong airport – East Midlands instead of Birmingham – on route to a stag do in Amsterdam. What a plonker; but I’ve a sneaking suspicion it could have easily been me. Don’t tell him.

Anyway, in our radio days, we were totally knackered. 

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