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.
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.