Are You Experienced?

There’s a perennial hurdle to leap without falling flat on your face and grazing your knees when you’re starting out in the industry. In fact it applies to any industry, the media isn’t special even if you think it is. And if you think that you’re special now you’ve got a job in media and you’re sipping cocktails in Shoreditch House then get some perspective.1 You can’t get a job without experience, but how do you get the experience? You write, you call, you wander up and down outside the local television studios with a megaphone shouting `please give me a job, I’ll be really good, promise’ then break down in tears. On the upside a few people throw some change at you in sympathy or fear.

I had started thinking about a media job towards the end of my time at university. I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do with my life, but my previous thoughts through childhood were…

1 Soldier like my dad – decided that might be a bit dangerous, so gave up that idea around 12.
2 Dictator – need a country and psychopathic tendencies. Had neither.
3 Actor – was quite good in our school version of Jason and the Argonauts and Henry V, but in small supporting roles, so didn’t think that was a goer.
5 Comedian – I’ve partly been trying to do that for years. Started with my friend Alan and our double act, The Raving Bolsheviks. We were a big hit at the school Christmas shows. Sadly, we split due to comedic differences before the last show and that was the end of a potentially ground breaking partnership in the mould of Hale & Pace.
4 Professor of History – was well into history (form a queue to hear my thoughts on the nascent French state from the 10th-13th centuries, ladies), but after three years realised that I didn’t fancy being stuck in an institution all my life and I wasn’t going to get a first anyway, so best scrap that idea.

But all those ideas combined, certainly failed actor/comedian and dictator, pointed to a career in the media. Had I known this earlier then I certainly would have been trying to get experience during university holidays etc. As it happens I did have plenty of normal work experience. Growing up in a B&B and then a hotel, my working life started with emptying the bins for 5p pocket money2, doing odd maintenance jobs around the building3 and serving behind the bar and in the restaurant, which usually involved opening wine bottles incompetently and dropping fried bread in guest’s laps at breakfast time. I had also worked in Sergeant Pepper’s Fun Pub 4, a baked goods factory5 and a fruit packing factory – that was a particular low point.

Alongside my efforts to get an actual job, I had to try and get some experience to put on the damned CV alongside all that unskilled stuff. I was writing to everyone I could, but thought there must be something locally in Plymouth where I could make a start. At the time I was living with my good friend and fellow unemployed graduate who wanted to get into the media, Mark Foxsmith. And it was Mark who discovered CSV Media – I think it was through a friend whose brother managed the local ‘Action Desk.’ This was a group of volunteers who provided community based material for BBC Radio Devon in the form of information bulletins and features about community groups and events. I can remember Mark’s excitement when he returned to the freezing cold flat we shared on Plymouth’s historic Barbican (which is hopefully still there and not underwater) and told me that he might have found something we could do to kickstart our faltering and non-existent careers.

Mark and I went to meet them and there was an interview of sorts, I think, and then we were on board. To be honest, I can’t remember much about the process apart from meeting the two main guys who ran it, Jeremy and Marcus6, who were both friendly and helpful, and being excited that they were keen for us to be involved.

To repay the favour, here’s a link to the showreel/taster I shot with Mark on a New Year’s Day morning some years ago. If any factual producers are reading this, then get Mark on the television please.  I have tried and got very close a few times, but now I’m in comedy it’s time for someone else to take this project on…

The CSV Media office was not in the Radio Devon building, but in a shabby little office. At least it was near our Barbican flat and it was a start. There were a couple of Apple computers, an ancient reel to reel editing machine and two Uhers – hefty, but portable reel to reel tape recorders used by reporters to gather audio material for news and features.  Here’s a pic…

Even in the nineties it felt like we’d gone back in time, but these were still used in local radio stations with editing done using a razor blade and sticky tape. Jeremy and Marcus taught us how to record material and then edit on the big reel to reel, moving the tapes slowly while listening with the headphones and then slicing the tape with the blade. That first tentative cut, hoping that you’d done it in the right place, bits of tape all over the place, was an incredible feeling.  I hadn’t thought about that in years and I’m getting a bit emotional now, sorry.  And then I remember the first mistake in an edit and clutching bits of tape in despair wondering how I was going to tape it all back together in the right order or at least an order that made some kind of sense.

Although we were kept at a distance from the BBC itself, we were allowed to venture up to the main building occasionally to deliver the material and sometimes get experience on the shows themselves. BBC Radio Devon was housed in a massive building in Mannamead, a well to do, fairly central suburb of Plymouth, and going into the building was daunting.  Through CSV we learnt about the various shows on the station, the presenters and the news output.  Mark and I both worked on Douglas Mounce’s programme taking phone calls, setting up guests to appear on the show. Working on live radio was an incredible buzz and Douglas was very kind, particularly when I booked a guest for a half hour slot assuming it would be a fizzing piece of broadcasting, thinking the phone lines would be ablaze with callers – it was about pensions, I think. God knows why I thought that would be good, but you soon learn and watching Douglas find ways to fill the gap left by my incompetence without throwing the blame at me was a huge relief.  I sadly discovered that he passed away last year.

I had now found some kind of potential career path and started to meet people at the station who might consider me for a job in the future. I still wasn’t sure exactly what I wanted to do, but this felt like the right kind of thing for me and while I would certainly make bigger mistakes than booking a dull guest, I started to make progress. In fact, there’s one error that I’ll write about in my next blog where I made a massive foul up, so you can look forward to that.

If there’s any advice I could offer from this then it’s just to seek out any opportunity that relates to the field you’re interested in. You may have a fixed goal in mind and you may be able to clearly focus on it and hopefully it’ll work out for you or, like me, you may have a vague idea and need to discover that goal through trial and error.  Or rather trial and error after error after error until you finally manage to find something you can do that is fulfilling.  Maybe then you’re on your way.


1 Mine’s an espresso martini darling.

2 Not sure if that flouts employment laws, sorry if I’ve shopped you Mum and Dad. They’re retired now, so their days of using child labour are over.

3 My girlfriend wonders what the hell happened to those alleged DIY skills.

4 Not a fun pub.

5 Not a well known brand, but it was shit. Really awful.

6 Jeremy Jeffs and Marcus Bailey who I believe are both now successful documentary producer / directors.

A Hat Trick of Disasters

When you’re trying to get into a creative industry you would think that being a bit creative and trying to make yourself stand out is the thing to do.  Unfortunately, just like when you are desperate to get a date with someone you really fancy, desperation can be off-putting.  Animals do all sorts of show offy stuff – prancing about flashing their feathers, doing a dance, waggling their arses.  The human equivalent would be wearing a tight t-shirt with my amazing guns almost bursting out of it while clubbing on Union Street1.  Unfortunately the guns are more like those toy pistols with the BANG! flag and I had no tight t-shirts, just charity shop shirts and jackets.  Sometimes it’s better to protect your modesty.

Sadly, in 1994, desperate times called for desperate and ill-thought out measures.  I had tried writing the usual formal letters to production companies begging them for work experience to no avail.  I had applied for jobs and kept getting rejected, unless working in HMV counts.  What I needed to do was show my creativity.  I loved comedy, so why not write to one of the biggest comedy production companies and wow them with how hilarious I am?  A sure fire route to success.

I had enjoyed Jimmy Mulville’s work on Who Dares Wins, Chelmsford 123 and was a big fan of Drop the Dead Donkey and Have I Got News For You. My plan was to write the funniest covering letter to Jimmy at Hat Trick Productions and he would find enclosed the most brilliantly comic made up CV possible.  He would read it, literally wet himself and hire me on the spot.  Deal.

The letter and CV probably exists on a now obsolete floppy disc somewhere in my archive of shame. I can’t remember much about the content, but the CV was entirely fictional and the letter probably contained an offer to prostitute myself to the entire company.  One thing I do remember very clearly is writing that I would be happy to prepare lines of cocaine for Angus Deayton.  It was a long time before that scandal broke, so little did I know this was obviously too close to the bone.  Jimmy probably burnt the letter while on his own powder binge cursing my name and vowing never to employ me.2  I’m sure this is why Hat Trick has never given me a job, although I don’t think I ever applied for one after this.

Worse than sending the letter, I tried another kamikaze approach.  On a visit to London – possibly at the same time as the abortive Byker Grove interview – I decided to pay Hat Trick a visit.  I don’t know why, but I must have read stories of people turning up on doorsteps and walking into a job.  London is Britain’s city of opportunity, you go there to make something of yourself.  You take risks.  You make your mark.  It was lunacy.  My method was a bit like when Michael Moore or Mark Thomas turn up in the lobby of an evil corporation and demand answers while the poor receptionist wonders what to do.  The difference is that Michael and Mark have charisma, a camera crew and a reason to be there.  I turned up, shuffled in, gave the receptionist my name and told her that I’d sent a CV.  I was convinced that they’d recognise my name and want to chat.  But it soon became apparent that my communication had not had the impact I desired.

Time decided that it would move horrendously slowly just to milk the moment as I sat nervously sweating while the receptionist wondered what on earth to do with me.  She did pop into the office and returned to tell me that they weren’t aware of me.  There was no sign of Jimmy, nor any of the celebrities associated with Hat Trick. It did dawn on me almost as soon as I’d entered that this mission was doomed to failure.  Maybe if I’d had the presence of say Matt Berry or Johnny Vegas then things might have been different, but even then they’d have probably just wondered what a brazen, voluminous, beast was doing in the building as opposed to the shy, quiet, slim, young man that I was.

At the time the failure just seemed to prove how difficult and how painfully far away my goal was.  What I eventually learned was that just trying to be funny in an approach is not enough.  And just doing that looks like you’re trying too hard.  You need to have substance.  If I’d sent my hilarious letter with a brilliant idea for a show, a script or a video then maybe they’d have overlooked the facetiousness and appreciated that I had something to offer.

I often get emails that try this method and occasionally people turn up at the office, but they’re never anywhere near as embarrassing as my effort and if they do appear at the door, they usually have a CV, a script or DVD to hand over.  If someone makes some attempt to be funny then I don’t mind that and sometimes I even drop my hard hearted executive air and laugh.  But that alone is never enough.  It has to come with some signal of intent that you’re serious about working in the industry.  Produce some evidence that you really are up to the job, before trying to help celebrities indulge in substance abuse.3

I’m very lucky that, having ditched my early career development techniques, I have been able to work with some great comedy producers.  Sadly I have never worked with Jimmy or the late, great Geoffrey Perkins, who was at Hat Trick, became the BBC’s Head of Comedy and then moved to Tiger Aspect when I was freelancing for the factual department and had the air of a very lovely man, but I do have the pleasure of developing comedy with Jim Reid and Alan Marke at Channel X and have worked with Henry Normal at Baby Cow, thankfully without having to make an arse of myself in their reception areas.


1 Union Street is a notorious Plymouth night time destination.  As a teenage goth, then indie kid, my friends and I would be out in our ‘alternative’ gear avoiding eye contact with the drunken hordes. Many would have beaten us to a pulp just for accidentally looking at them.  We had to walk the entire length of Union Street, because the indie club was at the far end past the glossy nightspots of Jester, Garters and Sergeant Peppers, where I once worked as a glass collector and barman.  Fights broke out every weekend, but I could duck behind the bar.

2 Jimmy Mulville has talked publicly about his personal life in many honest and inspirational interviews.

3 When I finally got a job in television I was disappointed to discover that cocaine was not to be found in every cubicle and what I’ve seen has never been anything like an episode of Mad Men.  I’m glad, because I’m not really like that, but the occasional bit of glamour wouldn’t go amiss.

It’s Not What You Know…

In my first post I told the heartwarming story of a man who wrote a great letter, got a job interview and then royally screwed it up. This time a story of bloody minded self sabotage.

I was still searching for a job ‘in the media’ while my parents despaired. They couldn’t believe that I was struggling to find a proper job after leaving a good university with a good degree. The following tale suggests there were plenty of reasons.

A good friend of the family mentioned they knew a renowned local radio journalist, Malcolm Carroll1. I’d never met him, but he was Head of News at Plymouth Sound Radio and had one of those voices that boomed authority while having the tone of someone who was always questioning it. He was a bit of a local legend. The friend suggested that I get in touch with Malcolm and mention the connection. Sensible advice, but at the time my stubborn streak kicked in and I decided that it would be immoral to use such connections to help my career. I’m not going to be like those posh tossers at university whose mummies and daddies helped them into jobs. Idiot..

I did write to Malcolm. But it was an appallingly hand written note that made no mention of the connection. The neatness prize I won at school age nine was a distant memory2 and my handwriting to this day is an embarrassment. Back then it was still just about acceptable to write letters with a pen and paper, but typewriters, electric typewriters and even inkjet printers had been invented, so a bit of effort in that arena when trying to get a job would not have gone amiss.

The letter didn’t say `Please give us a job Mr. Carroll, you tosser,’ and I can’t really remember the content, but I know that it was short, written in black ink and not very good. The family friend asked me if I’d written to him and I said I had and then she asked if I’d mentioned her in the letter and I said I hadn’t. She told me I was an idiot. And she was right.

Now, I’m not advocating non-meritocratic nepotism or using the old school tie – although I was well able to put mine on (see footnote2) St. Andrew’s Primary School was not a hotbed of media families – but if you know someone who can help you and you are deserving of that help then it’s understandable and fair enough. I deserved everything I got which was nothing. Malcolm did not reply.

Years later I received an approach, as it happens from the granddaughter of said family friend who was doing a media studies degree. The connection was stronger than the two degrees of separation that Malcolm and I had, so I would have felt obliged to reply, but I wouldn’t have felt obliged to actively help had I not been impressed by the approach. The email was well written, polite, not expecting or demanding anything and asked that if I had time to give her some advice then she’d gladly welcome it. And because I was impressed by the email and also when we spoke on the phone I tried to help. I recommended her to some contacts and she got in touch with them, managed to get a work experience placement that led to paid work. She deserved it.

If you don’t know me and you want to get in touch then I can’t guarantee that I’ll reply, but I do try particularly if someone has made a polite, well researched and thoughtful approach. If you think you have done that and I have not replied then I apologise. You may just have caught me at a particularly busy point in a production and it passed me by. Try again.3

I did eventually get a job as a journalist at Plymouth Sound Radio with Malcolm Carrol and I did mention the family friend connection, but not the self-destructive letter. Malcolm was great fun to work with and having been in the business for years knew the back story to every local issue. Years of broadcasting had taken their toll in some ways though – his hearing had been affected. If you used a pair of headphones after him on an edit machine or in the studio they’d be at a volume that blew your ear drums to bits.


1 I’ve not had chance to track Malcolm down, but if you’re reading this. Hello! Or if you know him send my regards.

2 The rest of the class must have had really shit handwriting. Winning that prize still baffles me. I was a right swot at school though. At the age of four I saw that my sister had work that she’d brought home from school. I was jealous so I asked my teacher if I could have some. I was also the official ‘tie helper’ in class because I’d learnt how to tie a tie. I was a very advanced child when it came to fashion accessorising. Like the neatness skills that talent has long since disappeared.

3 If you sent me a script or a link to a taster or similar then I almost certainly have taken a look at it. I read and watch as much as I can, but I can’t respond to all those, sorry. I really do know how hard it is and how much work goes into them. Try again. Write more. Rewrite more. Shoot more. Research successful shows, films, scripts. It’s the only way to learn, improve and give yourself a fighting chance.

Romance is not dead…

With Valentine’s Day approaching I thought I’d post a little video. It’s about day my girlfriend and I tried to fly a kite on Plymouth Hoe.  She’d made it as a prop for a TV show and although it didn’t actually need to work she wanted to give it a go.  Here’s how it went…

And here’s the full track…

The Nadir of the Zenith of my career

My incredible award laden career1 in television has not always ridden on the zenith like crest of a wave that it does now.  Before I got into the TV industry, for example, it was in a trough.  A great big deep nadir like trough from where I couldn’t even get a glimpse of Alan Yentob’s eyebrows. Nowadays I can see them any time I like if I hang around the BBC for long enough.  A few days is all it takes sometimes.

Maybe I shouldn’t have done a history degree.  I don’t regret it, but I might have been better served by going straight into work (experience).  So when I ditched my plans to be a history professor, because I didn’t fancy being institutionalised with a bunch of lunatics obsessed with the past and how it repeats itself, I thought why not work in an industry where nothing is ever repeated and everything is startlingly original.

I’d always been a comedy fan, but had no idea how to get into the business.  In fact it didn’t even cross my mind that I could work in comedy and that’s probably why it took ten more years. So when I returned to Plymouth after university my plan involved signing on the dole, writing letters to television companies, applying for jobs and occasionally appearing in identity line ups at Charles Cross police station for ten cash pounds that would fund a night out on the Plymothian tiles.  And those tiles were pretty glamorous I can tell you.

Monday’s Media Guardian was the first stop for enticing job adverts.  I wouldn’t like to say that it was either easier or harder to get into television back in the mid nineties, because I don’t think that’s ever fair and no one likes an old codger banging on about how tough it was in their day. Information may be easier to get hold of now what with the internet and all that, but I suspect there’s even more competition, so if anything it’s probably harder in the tenties.

Spying an advert for a job you could apply for was a thrilling moment, so when I spotted the box containing `Zenith Productions – Trainee Script Editor for Byker Grove’ in big bold letters I thought `Yes!  This could be the job for me.  I have no idea how to script edit, so I’ll definitely need training.’  I was aware of `The Grove’ obviously, but hadn’t watched it much because when it started I already thought I was an adult (I think I was about 17), but I knew it was a successful kids show and my younger brother had the PJ & Duncan CD, so I could do some research and get myself suitably prepared to rumble.

I applied and got an interview.  I was surprised, because I knew that they would be looking for someone with at least a hint of experience and I had absolutely none in that field, but what I did do was write a shit hot letter.  I knew I’d knocked that letter out of the park.  The job advert had talked about issues facing adolescent children and I essentially used my brother.  I wrote all about how difficult he was – the drugs, the violence, the other assorted crimes (sorry Luke, I am joking. Mostly) – and how having a younger brother of relevant age meant that I understood the story lines to tap into.  Unfortunately the interview was not hot.  It was shit.

The appointment was in London, so I had a four and a half hour train journey to prepare myself and that preparation involved becoming increasingly nervous.  I had no idea what would happen, what questions would be asked, what questions I should ask them, because everyone likes a candidate who asks good questions.  I did know that asking Ant & Dec to sign the PJ & Duncan CD would not be a good question even if I did really want them to.

When it came to it the main thing that stood against me was my complete lack of understanding of anything to do with the television industry.  I thought that, what with it being a trainee position, they would teach me about all of that.  But of course it helps when you have done a bit of research and don’t just say that you’d love to visit Newcastle.  I found out that they only interviewed about ten people, so I’d done very well to get that far, and they planned to take three shortlisted candidates to the production for a day each to see how they got on.  I never made it that far.  The North East spurned me, but I have had my revenge and have visited Newcastle2 (well Hebburn, just across the river when we shoot Hebburn).

The killer question was the classic `where do you see yourself in ten years? As a producer or director?’  I didn’t have an answer, because I didn’t know what those roles really were and I was flummoxed.  The interviewer helped me out, but right then I knew I’d not be making the long trip to the North East from the far South West.  My brother’s CD would never be worth auctioning on ebay.

It served a valuable lesson, however.  I started to look into the industry in more detail and try to discover what those roles meant.  And I’ve been trying to work out what a producer does ever since.  If you find out, please let me know.  As for executive producers…3

After the interview I waited for the inevitable rejection letter from Zenith, which I filed in my ever expanding folder of rejections.  I think it’s somewhere in my cellar. I’ll have to dig it out and have a look some time to remind me of my long hard road to the middle. And it wasn’t the only time the North East rejected me.  I once received a rejection letter from Viz for some ropey material that I sent them.  But I was quite pleased to receive that one.  A letter from Viz.  With the VIz logo on it. Amazing.

    1 Two regional RTS awards and a How Do Award (How Do was a North West based media news website that closed down soon after my triumph).

    2 Actually I have been to Newcastle on a few other occasions. To watch Plymouth Argyle get beaten, take part in the Great North Run and do an interview for some terrible factual show I worked on for UK Horizons – I think that was the broadcaster. Did that channel exist or am I making it up? Tony Slattery presented it.

    3 A flat white please.