After this week’s football lunacy, I decided to reflect on my own inadequacies as a fan. It seems to have entertained, bewildered and engendered hatred as is the way of the internet. Saddened to see several Torquay United fans enjoying it…
After this week’s football lunacy, I decided to reflect on my own inadequacies as a fan. It seems to have entertained, bewildered and engendered hatred as is the way of the internet. Saddened to see several Torquay United fans enjoying it…
‘It’s not what you know, but who you know and who you can bullshit.’
Is this the mantra that has launched me into the stratospheric position I occupy now? Yes. If you follow my advice, you too could be nominated for a regional Royal Television Society award and, eventually, even win one. Actually, Absolutely Fine, the online series I produced with Tom Rosenthal for Comedy Central has just been nominated for a Broadcast Digital Award . Things are on the up.
I’ve never really liked the ‘it’s not what you know’ line because it doesn’t reflect the work someone put in to make those contacts and get themselves noticed. Sure, there are a few people who are so well connected they’d have to vomit on the shoes of every significant person they met to fail, but for most of us creating those connections is all part of the journey. Don’t stop believing etc.
But this blog is not about that, it’s about bullshit. How far should you twist the truth in a career situation? There are times when I’ve claimed to have more knowledge or skills than I really did. I never exactly lied, but maybe I was a little economical with the truth. Or generous with the ever so slightly inaccurate.
You have to tread the line of credibility so you don’t come across like a bullshitter — and I have met a few — knowing that, if offered the job, you can do it. Otherwise your bullshit will land you in the shit which will then splatter upwards hitting a fan revolving at high speed and you’ll have a big load of shitty egg on your face as well as being sat in a big, miserable pile of it. An absolute shitfest. And that’s not what I want for you.
There’s one moment that sticks out for me at a crucial, or it seemed it at the time, point in my career. I decided to leave the bright, seaside lights of Plymouth, where I’d been working as a Researcher then Assistant Producer (AP) at Two Four on seminal productions such as Westcountry TV’s short-lived Mad About Shopping1 and BBC One’s short-lived daytime show What Would You Do?2 and head for the bright, smoggy lights of London to work on Living TV’s highbrow, yet cruelly short-lived, offering Relationship SOS. What do you mean, you haven’t seen it?
Relationship SOS was a studio show featuring people with personal issues who were given advice by a panel of experts. We’d then see how the advice worked by filming the participants at home or an appropriate location before they later returned to the studio to discuss how it had worked.
I had to apply for the job first, of course, and being just a young boy from the Westcountry trying to make his way in the big smoke was a bit daunted — it’s kinda Dick Whittington meets a budget Nathan Barley. So, when I was invited to an interview for an AP role, I was incredibly excited.
At the interview I discovered the producers needed people with DV (Digital Video) skills — the ability to shoot these VT inserts3 as well find and book the participants. Now, while I had picked up and played with a camera and been on plenty of shoots watching directors and camera operators work, I’d never really shot or directed anything. In the interview one of the producers said something like, ‘Your DV skills will come in very handy.’ In my head I was thinking, ‘Er, what DV skills?’ But, desperate to make my mark in low budget daytime television, I said, ‘Yeah, absolutely.’
Amazingly, I got the job; a three month contract in London. I was convinced I’d be found out within seconds and ignominiously shoved on the next train from Paddington back to Plymouth with my tail between my over-stretched legs. In a bid to prevent that humiliation, I borrowed a camera and sound gear (as I’d have to be doing both), took advice from anyone I knew who’d ever shot or directed anything and practiced. I had one weekend to gain those much vaunted ‘DV skills.’
Somewhere in my disorganised archives, there’s a funny picture of me holding a camera but I couldn’t find it, so here’s a pic of me about the same age looking ridiculous with a cocktail and sporting ineffective facial hair…
In the end you’ll be relieved to know, dear reader, that it all turned out okay. I mean, the show was absolute bobbins but somehow I managed to scrape through. By throwing myself into it and doing as much preparation as I could, the unravelling was averted. In fact, and this is a bit trumpet-blowy (while being entirely aware that I wasn’t quite following in the path of Spielberg), the producers told me I’d made the best VTs across the series. My fear of coming a cropper in the big city abated. Bravo’s Future Fighting Machines, Channel 4’s Bare & Breakfast and of course Channel 5’s Shaving Ryan’s Privates4 all lay ahead on my glittering career path…
So, yes, bullshit to your hearts content. As long as you’re prepared to put in the work needed to get away with it.
By the way, this is part one of a series of two blogs about bullshit. The next will be about why you shouldn’t bullshit for anyone else…
1 I made a pitch for the theme tune… ‘We’re just hopping / BONKERS / mad about shopping.’ Sadly, it was not picked up but I’m suing Dizzee Rascal as he clearly stole the idea. Can’t remember what the chosen theme was, but mine would definitely have been better and turned the show into a massive ratings hit.
2 Theme tune pitch (sing to a jaunty melody) ‘Ooh, ooh, I’m in a stew / What Would You Do-ooooh?’
3 VT stands for Video Tape and is still used to describe short filmed items that are then played into a studio show – such as news reports, ‘sideways looks’ at something or other on The One Show or cringeworthy attempts at topical comedy on The Daily Politics.
4 That one’s not on my CV and I can’t quite remember if that was the title, but I definitely went to Naples (well, an industrial estate in a Naples suburb) to shoot footage for the programme, a one-off ‘documentary’ about pornographic remakes of Hollywood blockbusters. I was filming behind the scenes of a remake of Cleopatra, cue shot after shot of hilarious items obscuring intimate parts. Oh dear. It was, naturally, a huge ratings success.
Ever get the feeling you’re missing out on the party? You know, the party where ‘all the important people who decide everything’ are at? Roger Mellie The Man On The Telly is there with Frank Bough and he’s off his nuts on showbiz sherbet (I’m showing my age with a Viz reference – if you don’t know Viz, it was the viral hit of the grubby paper age of my youth featuring Roger Melly ‘The Man on the Telly’ a consummately unprofessional presenter who, at the very least, has not been cited in historical criminal cases).
I reckon many people feel they are not connected even if they are working regularly in television – that there is some kind of clique making all the decisions around a table littered with £50 notes and white powder while seething external catering service workers clear up while desperately, and completely understandably, wanting to punch everyone’s lights out.
Like you, I don’t particularly feel a part of the glamorous set. The glitterati. We’re just the Yentobi-wannabe-kenobis (#labouredstarwarspun). Admittedly, now I’ve spent 20 odd years in the showbiz firmament I have been to the odd thing and I do have friends who’ve done some brilliantly cool things. Most of those are people who, like me, have done okay and are occasionally invited to a glamorous event. My friend Jane and I once went to the Hampstead Bark Off where she was a celebrity judge alongside Rachel Riley off of Countdown. She does a brilliant blog about dog friendly travel, phileasdogg.com, featuring her dog and my best canine mate, Attlee. It’s all glamour in my life now.
If there is a dinner party set then I’ve never made it to the top table. I’m not sure there is one. Of course, there are well connected people but if you start to think that you’re somehow deliberately NFI then you could be sliding down a rickety spiral staircase bannister to despair and bruised nether regions when you hit the nubbin at the bottom.
When I started my career in television at Plymouth’s most successful export since Sir Fancis Drake (this was before Tom Daley made a splash), Two Four Productions, I thought I was on a road to glamour, golden toilets and a budget for ‘office sundries.’ And when I say ‘office sundries’ I don’t mean post-it notes, guys. That road, via the office on an industrial estate in Plympton, was not paved with golden toilets, there was no budget for ‘office sundries,’ in fact you were lucky to get actual office sundries. Fortunately, now I could probably afford the occasional splurge on ‘office sundries,’ I have been educated enough to ethically oppose their procurement. Ignorance really is a blissful high sometimes.
One reason for writing this post is the memory of my early days in Manchester, when I was setting up a production company, forging relationships with writers and comedy talent. I was new to the city and didn’t know many people so I invited a few people I’d met and liked for a birthday drink because it was my birthday and otherwise I’d have been sat in my flat playing online backgammon into the early hours – heady and the disappointment on their faces when it was about five of us in the Crown and Anchor sipping pints of Timothy Taylor’s Landlord. Best birthday ever. I can’t speak for my glamour-expectant guests, however.
There isn’t a great point to this blog, but I guess it’s just try not to get stressed about that stuff and get on with doing other stuff. Those parties are probably full of wankers anyway.
Most great ideas start with a great idea (I’m amazing at this, I should do a workshop and charge one million dollars). But they also start with an absolute bucketload of terrible ideas. Or average ideas. Let’s call them meh-deas and that could become another brilliant media term for tossers like me and you to use. What may come as a surprise is that there are some very commonly pitched meh-deas.
I had an email from someone recently with their idea for a sitcom. I won’t say what it is or who it came from as that would be unfair and just because I didn’t like it doesn’t mean they aren’t capable of brilliance. You should see my folder ‘Awful Pitches of Yesteryear,’ it makes for terrifying reading.
What I don’t want to do is tell people is they’re wasting their time and not to darken my door again. Working on the characters, story and script can be a useful exercise, but to get any interest in an idea it has to have something unique about it. Does it generate a genuine reaction of interest when you mention it to someone? If so, that’s a good sign. You have to be a good reader of facial expressions or learn which friends or family members actually give you an honest opinion.
So here are a few concepts or settings that seem to occur regularly…
There are probably many more and if anyone can think of any then do let me know. It’s not surprising that many of the ideas above get pitched frequently. Several involve links to other creative fields; so an actor, comedian or songwriter is probably more likely to want to create a sitcom than someone else. Others are simply recognisable, everyday places.
It can be a tricky conversation to have, because the writer might wonder why they haven’t seen the idea on screen. I think it’s a kind of self-fulfilling vortex of doom; because that concept has been pitched before and rejected, it’s more likely to be rejected when it comes through the door again. That doesn’t mean to say it can’t and won’t happen, but (and I know this is vague) it has to have something amazing about it. Eddie Redmayne has decided he wants to star in a sitcom set in a Plymouth guest house? Yes! (‘Oh, hang on, mine has a female lead character. No, it’s okay, we can change it. Or you can wear a dress, Eddie, it’ll be fine. Oh, you want to? That’s great Eddie, it’ll work perfectly.’).
As well as my list, often there are concepts that seem to be ‘in the zeitgeist’ (apologies for using the word and the quote marks, but it seemed the only way). So, you’ll be pitching an idea to a commissioning editor only to find there’s already something similar in development or there are other similar scripts floating around. For example, a few years ago there seemed to be quite a few stories involving young people moving back in with their parents – Hebburn was one of those of course, but a combination of a brilliant pilot script, the North East setting and a couple of other elements, such as the young couple having already married in secret, helped set it apart.
Others can be surprising. There was a period when I talked to a couple of writers who had really good scripts set in an arctic station or a moon base — it turned out there were a few similar scripts floating around and I don’t think any got made. A while ago I had an idea for a comedy set on a submarine. I was thinking about female personnel being allowed on board Naval vessels and how that would be interesting if it was the enclosed space of a submarine. Maybe I’m wrong, but I never pitched it because I started to think that a submarine is probably one of those settings. And I realised I didn’t really care that much about submarines and submariners — screw them and their hilarious life-threatening undersea shenanigans. Maybe I should just go back to the Plymouth guest house thing. Shit.
My advice is to either look outside what’s close to you or examine what’s around you more closely.
And does anyone have a number for Eddie Redmayne? Or an email would be fine.
This is a re-recorded and mastered version of my most popular song on Spotify (largely due to confused fans of Norwegian indie band highasakite listening to it, but if it works for Adele…) I wrote it after my girlfriend and I went up on Plymouth Hoe to see if a prop kite she’d made would fly. I filmed our attempts on my old phone and here’s a re-cut video to accompany it. The song is also available as a free download on Bandcamp. It’s the first track I’m releasing that will be on an album which will be out in 2016…
Sometimes in life you get struck by a feeling. Like Spidey Sense or The Force. You can either use The Force or ignore it. Why bother about that whole death star thing? What’s the worst that could happen? Oh, the empire has just blown up a planet destroying a civilisation. Shit. At least Princess Leia survived.
Okay, it’s unlikely that your sensory failings will lead to such a catastrophe and television isn’t life and death. It’s less important than that. But when you get a nagging feeling something is wrong then it’s worth doing something about it or at least checking.
There’s one terrible example of this in my early career. I had reached the heady heights of researcher at Two Four Productions in Plymouth. When I first arrived at Two Four a director looked at me with surprise and said he’d heard me read the news on Plymouth Sound Radio and thought I would be a tall, dark, handsome beefcake. At least that was a compliment on my voice. But I took that in my stride and worked on many amazing shows. Who can forget the BBC Daytime series What Would You Do? or Westcountry Television’s Mad About Shopping? I tried to compose theme tunes for these, but management rejected my ideas. Trying singing these; ‘Ooh, Ooh, I’m in a stew / What Would You-oo Do?’ or ‘We’re just hopping / [BONKERS] / Mad About Shopping.’ If only they’d used my compositions then I’m convinced the shows would have been massive global hits.
After about a year I graduated onto their long running Channel 4 daytime show, Collectors’ Lot. If you were a student or pulling a sickie in the late nineties then you may remember it being on before 15 to 1 when Watercolour Challenge wasn’t running. The researcher’s main job was to find people with interesting collections and then suggest whether they would be a good guest for an Outside Broadcast (O.B.)1 or if we should film them and create a VT2.
For logistical reasons we would find collectors to film for VTs and set up shoots in a particular area. Now, I won’t go into what the collection was or where it was located, but I had found a potential guest from a magazine or newspaper clipping. The photos suggested a brilliant collection that would make a fascinating item. I chatted to the collector on the phone, something that is vital of course as you need to find out if they’ll be able to bring their obsession to life3. This hoarder seemed lovely on the phone; friendly, helpful and he sent me more photos and information which confirmed that we would have plenty of interesting stuff to film. It was an incredible collection and the director would come back from the shoot, pick me up, carry me on their shoulders out of the production office, through the car park of the industrial estate in Plympton and into the canteen of Chaplins Superstore for their excellent value fry-up. As well as Chaplins, late morning every day the Ivor Dewdney pasty van would pull up and you could get a hot, greasy, Cornish pastry delicacy. The glamour of television in the South West. Proper job.
Sadly, it wasn’t to be. I set up a filming date with said collector in a month’s time and left it at that. I did try and call them a couple of times over the next few weeks, but to no avail. This would be even more worrying now, in an age where everyone has mobile phones and emails. However, after a few unreturned calls you would start to feel that something was up. The problem for me was that I was becoming complacent. Also I was about to go on holiday and would be away during the shoot. That wouldn’t usually be an issue. I had given the production team all the information and the crew would arrive and shoot the item. The researcher wouldn’t normally be with them as that would be an extra cost. But the reality was that I could sense something was wrong and I should have flagged it up as a concern.
When I returned from my holiday I discovered that the crew had turned up at the collector’s house and rung the bell, knocked several times. They waited. They were beginning to think it was a bit weird when a neighbour came out to reveal the horrific truth. My lovely sounding, gentle, polite collector was in prison. And in prison for something bad. Really bad. The kind of thing they would have got away with had they been a politician of yesteryear. Worse still they had been using their collection in the course of their crimes. Grim.
Upon my return I got a right royal bollocking from my producer. And I thought that was fair enough, I’d made a balls up, I deserved to be told. It’s true that after a few months on the treadmill of collection based daytime television I had become stale and disillusioned. I was shifted off to other projects like an incompetent police officer, public official or media executive. Sadly, I wasn’t booted upstairs with a pay rise. I think I went on to research the classic Westcountry series On Hoof. It was about horses in the region. Great series.
I guess the lesson from this applies across the genres of television. If you just assume everything is going to be okay then you can easily get caught out. And if you get that nagging feeling something is not quite right then it really is best to act on it to ensure you get a lovely fried egg from the Chaplins canteen in your gob rather than a horrible, rotten egg splattering on your stupid face.
1 The Collectors’ Lot O.B.s involved taking over a large house which itself had some interesting collections and then essentially using it as a studio to record a week’s shows. We’d invite loads of collectors to bring their collections and display them to be interviewed by the host, Sue Cook or Debbie Thrower.
2 VT is a term used for a filmed package or report that is used within a show. It literally means video tape, so it seems a bit archaic in this modern digital world, but it is still used. And some people still use tape. I know. Get a hard drive, Grandad. Here’s a useful glossary of media terms.
3 Of course, sometimes people who are brilliant on the phone freeze on camera and others seem dull, but turn it on when the spotlight’s on them, but you at least have to get an idea of what they might be like.
Most of my ideas have, thankfully, never seen the light of day, although forthcoming appointment to view television series Britain’s Tastiest Village1 has definitely been ripped off from a proposal I sent to the Head of Daytime Twee Food Based Countryside Shows at the BBC many years ago. It’s a nest of creative blood sucking vampires out there. I guess I just didn’t have the vision to commit to the scale needed to take it from daytime to primetime without even a short toilet stop at shoulder peak. And that last sentence just proves that I have been to many commissioning briefings.
The value of the currency of ideas is something I learnt early on and TV gold is always a safe investment, even though no one has a clue which idea will transform from a scribble on the back of a fag packet into a gleaming ingot locked in the vault of Simon Cowell’s production company.
Having ideas and showing people that you can think creatively is, of course, going to help you progress in the media. But when I wrote to television companies as a young man I just thought, ‘This is a brilliant idea, they’re going to think I’m a genius and immediately make the show, stick it on the telly and this time next year I’ll be a millionaire. Or at least have paid off my student loan.’ So when I posted my letter to Chris Slade at Two Four Productions I was convinced my idea for ‘doing a programme about the Tinside Lido’ would have been brilliant even though the idea was just ‘let’s do a programme about the Tinside Lido.’ I think there were some other ideas in the letter but I can’t remember them, so they must have been even less exciting.
For those (un)fortunate enough to never have been to Plymouth, Tinside Lido is an incredible semi-circular Art Deco swimming pool that is the centre piece of the seafront. It was open when I was a kid in the seventies and eighties. I didn’t appreciate it then and just thought the water was very cold, something that didn’t seem to bother me when I snuck in with a bunch of drunken merry makers for an ill-advised midnight skinny dip when I was about 16. Happy days. Fortunately, I survived. The lido was then left to ruin until it was restored and reopened in 2005. It has been battered by the recent storms but will survive according The Evening Herald, Plymouth’s local newspaper. All very interesting, but not necessarily a great television programme without proper research or some kind of angle.
Amazingly however, Chris invited me in for a chat. Obviously I thought, ‘This is it. This is my time. We are going to make this show together, you and me Chris, and we are going to be rich,’ Chris was a television personality having presented shows in the South West for years and had co-founded a production company, Two Four, that was doing well. Turned out that it was just a chat. I guess at the time I was a bit disappointed that my life didn’t immediately change, but now I know how important those little advances are. It was just a chat, but a very encouraging one. Chris had taken the time to read my letter, invite me in, give me advice and tell me to keep in touch. Three years later I was working for Two Four.2
This was the first of many examples where sending ideas has helped me get a meeting or a foothold somewhere in the industry. There are very few of my own ideas that have been made. I did get two late night documentaries for Channel 4 commissioned – anyone see Bare & Breakfast about naturist guest houses? Hopefully not. The final shot features me running across the screen stark bollock naked. That’s what television executives might call brave, but I would like to ban use of the word brave in relation to television unless it refers to reporting from a war zone or very dangerous covert filming. My efforts just upset a friend who tuned in randomly to Channel 4 in the early hours, got excited when they heard my voice narrating this odd little documentary only to be appalled by the sight of me scurrying in my birthday suit. The reason for my exposing appearance was that it was all shot by me and I was filming an interview outside. It started raining so I had to run, turn the camera off and lug my gear inside, which seemed like an amusing way to end the film. And I was filming it naked because it was a documentary about naturism and I’m not arsed about the televisual appearance of my arse. That documentary got me through the doors of Tiger Aspect Productions where I freelanced as a producer/director regularly for a few years.
Contacting people with ideas has often lead to opportunities and I encourage you to do so. Do it with grace and research the people and companies you contact. It won’t guarantee a reply, but it will increase the chances. My current job with Channel X came about because I pitched an idea to a producer who had worked at Tiger Aspect, but was now working with Channel X. They decided to develop it and it nearly got me a job on the television fully clothed. I’ll write about it in more detail in another post, but the salient point is that the idea lead to a relationship with Channel X which convinced them that I might be worth offering a proper job to. And the rest, as they say, is a footnote in comedy history.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.