The Ice Cream Always Rises to the Top

One day it will come.  That epic day that you have envisaged for years.  The day you have to go into a proper workplace.  When that day comes you’ll be nervous, you won’t know what to wear, you’ll realise that you haven’t got a suit and have to buy one from Top Shop. In the process you’ll be persuaded to get a store card and over time that suit becomes a more expensive investment in your future than you intended.  And it looks shit.

After a period with CSV Media, in spite of the many errors I made, I was starting to make progress.  I would occasionally get paid shifts at BBC Radio Devon covering as a Broadcast Assistant in the newsroom or helping out on shows in the evening or weekends.  I was advised to apply for a Broadcast Journalism Post Graduate Course – this would be a good way to start apparently.  There were only a few courses across the country (there are more now) and it was competitive to get a place as they gave you a great chance of getting a job in radio or television.  I applied for a several including Falmouth College of Art as it was not too far from home and had a great reputation.

At the same time I applied for the BBC Journalism Trainee Scheme.  This was even more competitive, but somehow I managed to get through an initial interview and was shortlisted for a final big scary selection process.  It’d be like the Strictly, X Factor, I’m a Celeb and Bake Off finals all rolled into one massive non-public telephone vote off extravaganza of news.  Who would be the winner?  News?  Or me?  Or another shortlisted candidate?

I knew this was still a long shot.  If successful then I would be paid by the BBC to learn the journalistic ropes instead of having to go back to college for a year and pay about ten grand for the privilege.1  Still, I was hoping to strengthen my applications with more work experience and managed to get a week with Westcountry Television News.

Going into Westcountry was scary.  I’d seen it on the TV, now it was time to get a really long and tortuous bus followed by a long walk to the prime industrial estate location on the outskirts of Plymouth that was clearly designed for people who had a car.  That meant there was plenty of time for nerves to build up and for me to try and think of something witty to say that would then fall flat as soon as I’d walked through the automatic doors.

Scarier than the automatic doors was the fact that they actually asked me to do stuff. I didn’t just sit there and watch as if an episode of Drop the Dead Donkey2 was being performed live around me.  I had to make phone calls and research people who might be interviewed. Thankfully they put me under the wing of a new, young journalist called Sasha Herriman3 who was very tall, which I was not and I imagine both of us are still relative in height terms.  She seemed very capable as well as very kind and helpful.  It was a pressured environment and I feared that I’d get shouted at and marched out the doors if I made an error.  She told me I’d done a good job after I’d set up an interview for that night’s news programme that went well. A bit of praise goes a long way.  Remember that when you get to the top and are looking down on the poor mass of scrambling hopefuls below.

During my week at Westcountry I proudly told Sasha that I had a final interview for the BBC traineeship the next week.  I was excited, nervous.  Did she have any advice?  She didn’t say much apart from expressing how great that sounded, which I thought was a bit odd, but maybe she didn’t want to be too encouraging and make me complacent.

I managed to get through the week without being shouted at by the big bosses. Although there was once incident which could have gone either way.  For someone’s birthday/leaving/promotion/pregnancy (delete as appropriate), they’d bought in a load of gourmet ice cream. It was a big thing back then.  Nowadays there are loads of fancy artisan dairy producers, which is wonderful if you’re not lactose intolerant.  I made my way gingerly to the tubs which were attracting staff members like news hounds to an emotionally vulnerable victim, not wanting to take my turn too soon as I was only on work experience.  As i started to scoop some lovely sorbet into a paper bowl I misjudged my technique, flicking a piece directly onto the trousers of moustachioed news anchor David Foster.  I looked up to his imposing face of news expecting a full barrage of Ron Burgundy.4  Thankfully he laughed off the incident.  I think he said something about it being lucky it hit his trousers, because he always took them off for the show as he likes to feel free and unfettered below his desk while presenting.  Who knows what might have happened if it had hit his top half or if it had landed in his impressive ’tash and remained unnoticed.  It could have been a scandal that brought down the station.  But it wasn’t.

The next week I prepared for my final interview.  It was to be a full day of exercises and a session before a panel of three BBC bigwigs.  On the day I got out my Top Shop suit, ironed my shirt and set out with a ridiculous amount of time to spare to avoid any Plymouth Citybus related disasters.  You could never be too sure with Citybus drivers.  As a schoolboy I once had the doors closed on me as I was getting off trapping me half in/half out of the bus in full view of a group of Plymouth High School for Girls pupils who, understandably, found it hilarious.

As I arrived at the BBC reception, I was taken through to a waiting room where I was greeted by the only two other candidates who had made it through to the final round.  And one of them was Sasha. I knew immediately that I stood absolutely no chance whatsoever.  She immediately apologised for not saying anything before, but she was on a short contract with Westcountry, so she couldn’t mention an interview for another job. It was probably a good thing for me too as I would have spent the whole week thinking I was totally banjaxed.

Still, I gave it the best I could.  We were given exercises such as how we’d compile a news show out of a selection of stories.  We were doing this in front of three important BBC people who would ask us questions throughout.  I remember talking about how I’d cover a story about a hospice for children with terminal illnesses and I told my X Factor style BBC judges that ‘I would emphasise the fun aspects of the place.’ And one of the panel said ‘Ooh, that jarred a bit.’ If Simon Cowell had been invented then I would have compared her to the overly trousered dark master of manipulative pop riches.  I tried to ride out the awkwardness, but it was clear that this was not to be.  Falmouth College of Art here we come (I know I shouldn’t have spoilers in the blog, but I got on the course).

There was a small part of me that felt aggrieved, of course.  Sasha was already making her way in the world and it was a traineeship, but the fact was that she was only on a very short contract with Westcountry and I think that was her first job after some other training and of a 12 month traineeship with the BBC would be a great step forward and getting the place was prestigious.  So I was disappointed, but not bitter.  She absolutely deserved to get that job.

I guess what that taught me, as well as the need to hone my ice cream scooping technique, was resilience.  It is a tough business and you’ll get knock backs at every turn.  I’ve had one this week with the news that Hebburn won’t be returning to the BBC for a third series.  It’s always gutting, but you have to look forward immediately and work on how to make the best of the future.

1 I understand that, sadly, this is a paltry level of student debt these days.

2 If you’re young and don’t know it, this was a great, must watch show created by the brilliant Andy Hamilton and Guy Jenkin.

3 Sasha has carved a career as a news presenter and, as I have discovered using the power of internet search, a star of cabaret too with her outfit The Bluebirds.

4 Anchorman wouldn’t come out for some years, but it gives you the idea. Here’s a link to the news legend David Foster back in the day.

Making Sacrifices

The pattern to this blog so far has mostly been me telling a personal tale of fuckwittery followed by a bit of inspirational advice. Like Jerry Springer’s closing moralising monologue, the Modern Family end of episode montage or a David Cameron speech (although his efforts are like that, but in reverse). This time, however, I’ll start with the advice, and that is simply ‘don’t be a dick.’ Or to be more subtle about it, sometimes it is best to make choices that are less fun to make progress in your chosen career. Make sacrifices. Unless you are Hunter S. Thompson.1 If you think you are Hunter S. then you’ll probably end up making a similar balls up to me as an attempt to use my initiative became derailed by youthful exuberance and turned to shit. I really should have known better. Maybe I haven’t learnt my lesson as I’m typing this in a pub accompanied by a pint of Timothy Taylor’s Landlord. Yum.

It was while attempting to gain experience with CSV Media, that the error of judgment occurred. I had been doing fairly well, learning how to record and edit radio features and was excited when short packages I had made were played on BBC Radio Devon. I was still young, 21 I think, so when I met new people and asked to record interviews with them it was a nerve wracking experience and they probably wondered why anyone had trusted me with any kind of job at all. I remember making a feature about a wheelchair basketball team in Plymouth – the captain was friendly, helpful and accepting of my youthful incompetence, while other characters in the team were less forgiving. But I hope they were happy with the few minutes of radio I produced once I had edited out all my poorly conceived questions.

After a month or so I started to gain confidence and noticed that there was a literary festival, ‘Ways With Words’, with some big names attending. It was at Dartington Hall, near the hippy South Devon town of Totnes. Dartington had a small art college.2 Was BBC Radio Devon going to cover it? Well, they’d mention it but they didn’t have the staff to go and spend the weekend interviewing people, so that’s where enthusiastic volunteer Matt Tiller came in. I suggested that I go and interview people and it’d be brilliant. So the CSV Media bosses let me loose with a Uher – these machines, though ancient, were expensive and were to be taken care of.

I spoke to the organiser of the festival and she agreed to be interviewed and was happy to help. This was going to be a massive break.

One slight issue was that I didn’t have a car and the bus service to Dartington was somewhat intermittent. I made it there, but wasn’t entirely sure how I’d make it back. I guess the confidence I had gained from hitch-hiking around Europe when I was 18 made me think that I could just wing it. I’d spent nights in train stations, found rooms to stay with local students and had hairy French lorry drivers incompetently proposition me.3 I’d be fine.

I arrived on the Friday evening and went to the recording of Radio 4’s Any Questions which was part of the event. It was incredible to watch. Even now events like this are exciting to me, but when you’re young and enthralled by the spectacle it is incredibly intimidating and I just didn’t find the confidence to speak to anyone and actually try and capture some content that would have made a good feature. Anyhow, I had arranged to interview the organiser the next day, so I would have something in the bag. Sorted.

After the Any Questions record, well, my memory is a bit hazy and it would become hazier still, but I knew there was no bus back to Plymouth, so I’d have to either find a place to kip with no money and or just wander around all night. The festival was attached to Dartington College, an arts and theatre educational establishment, so I guessed that the best place to blag a sofa to sleep on might be the student bar.

Cut to…

Me drunk and chatting to a bunch of arty students about how I was going to interview Tony Benn and Stephen Fry the next day. It was a Friday night, so obviously there was a club night on and one of the group allowed me to leave the priceless Uher4 in his room while we rock the night to it’s very foundations. After the club we piled back to the student house after party, which involved more drink, chat and some of the arty students drunkenly trying to make art – what are they like, eh? I collapsed on a sofa.

In my head I was Hunter, going gonzo, creating the story.5 In reality I was just on the lash. Which was brilliant, but I let boozing and carousing get in the way of turning the initiative I had shown into something meaningful – a three minute feature that BBC Radio Devon could play to an off-peak audience. Something they might have been grateful for and might have made the bosses think I had some talent. It would have helped me on my way to getting a proper job.

I was the first to wake in the house, managed to haul myself up and drag my battered self out the door. I somehow managed to find my way back to the student hostel – my impromptu Uher store. Luckily the guy’s door was open and I snuck in. He was fast asleep, so like a hungover jewel thief I skilfully picked up my Uher and left with no disturbance. It was a sunny summer morning in South Devon, which kinda helped as I sat on a bench and contemplated the interview I had set up in about an hour’s time.

And then the moment of truth. I started to fiddle with my Uher, to test it before work began, and looked at the controls to discover something terrible. The sunshine metaphorically turned to storm clouds and the sky began to fall on my head, which did the hangover no good whatsoever. The switch was set to Power On. I had left the machine on overnight. How the hell had I managed to do that? I hadn’t even used it. I had not recorded one thing. I must have failed to switch it off after testing it the day before. I turned it off and on again and pressed play and record, the reels slowly turned. And then stopped. I tried again. Nothing. The battery was as flat as a pancake that had been squeezed through a mangle and then stomped on by an angry mob with heavy (and flat) boots.

I remember the feeling very clearly. It was an all consuming voice that just shouted one thing. FAILURE. There was no way to charge the Uher back up. Even if I could find a power source, the charging station was back at the office. The battery lasted for hours if you didn’t leave it turned on all night because you were pissing your career away at the student disco.

The only solution to my situation was to pretend that everything was fine. And so, when I met the organiser, a lovely, friendly, erudite and, of course, bookish woman, we just found a spot to record the interview and that’s what I did. I have no idea what she thought of the bleary eyed, embarrassed and awkward, young man before her, but she was very polite – a dream contributor. It would have been a brilliant interview were it not for the fact that the machine I had resting by my side, held by a leather shoulder strap, was incapable of recording a thing.

I went through the usual process. Pretending to check the levels and asking her what she’d had for breakfast while looking at the dials, which were static, while I hoped she didn’t examine my equipment lest my cover be blown. She had eaten something healthy like muesli, I reckon. My technique was to ask questions and engage her in eye contact, nodding with approval at her answers while I held the microphone a short distance below her mouth.

As the interview, which would be forever lost in the ether of stupidity, came to an end I thanked her for her time, wished her well with the festival and said that the feature would be broadcast sometime on Radio Devon in the coming week. A bare faced lie.

I had no choice but to shuffle off to a far away bus stop to wait for an hour to be taken, very slowly through country lanes and village stops, back home to wash away my shame and the stench of the student disco. The latter is hard enough to get rid of and as for the former? About a month later I recorded a more successful interview, in the sense that I managed to get it on tape, with a practitioner of Neuro Linguistic Programming. He asked me if there was a memory that I wanted to deal with, something that was playing on my mind that I would perhaps rather forget. I knew exactly what I wanted to erase. He told me to picture that moment as a photograph in my head. And that photo was me stood in the shade of a tree by Dartington Hall with a microphone in my hand faking that interview. He told me to reduce the size of that photo until it became a dot. The technique worked. I did feel better and although I still remember the incident and recognise that it was very shoddy I was able to move on. I never admitted what happened to my CSV bosses, obviously. No one got hurt and I have definitely never left a recording device’s battery drain while out on an all-night bender ever again. So there is a happy ending.

1 A man in a Toronto bar once asked me what I did and I told him I was a journalist, which was truthfully my job and what the bosses of Plymouth Sound Radio were paying me to do. He then berated me for not being Hunter S. Thompson, because a proper journalist creates the news. I guess if I’d taken acid and tried to read stories about the dockyard or Plymouth Argyle FC then that may have become a news story. It would have been entertaining, but would also have got me the sack. Maybe I should have done that. We’ll never know the consequences.

2 Dartington College of Arts is sadly no more, ironically consumed by Falmouth College Art where I studied the dark arts of journalism. I wonder if my failed journalistic efforts on this evening helped to bring the institution down. Probably not.

3 As described in the medium of song here.

4 It wasn’t priceless but CSV Media was not replete with benevolent funders, so it was a vital piece of gear and actually worth quite a lot of money. I am ashamed at the lack of care I took of it that night.

5 Gonzo journalism is written in the first person with the reporter as a key part of their own narrative – a protagonist who makes something happen that becomes a story. Or just make a load of shit up, so just like a lot of print journalism then.

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…
Uher1

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.