Cheats Sometimes Prosper

Unlike the clandestine crime fighting unit in the BBC One drama or Charley Boorman moving around the world, but without Ewan McGregor, I don’t like to achieve my goals ‘by any means.’  What I’m saying is that I’m not a psychopath.  I like to think that I’ve reached the dizzying heights of moderate accomplishment without screwing people over.  And most people I’ve met in the industry are the same.  Having said that I’ve not met loads at the very, very top.  They’re probably all total bastards.

However, sometimes you have to be a little bit cheeky, embellish the truth a little or sometimes, I guess, cheat.  Just a little.  While the cat’s away the mice will up-sell their skill set.  There are a couple of times in my career that spring to mind, but here’s one from my very early days…

It was my interview for the Post Graduate Diploma in Broadcast Journalism at Falmouth College of Art.  This was a very important day.  Having narrowly failed to make it onto the BBC Journalism Trainee Scheme my career was looking pretty much non-existent unless I could get a place on the course.  It was very competitive with thousands applying for about thirty places.1   And I wanted this as much as an X Factor or The Voice contestant wants to get to the live shows.

On the day of the interview one element of the process was a written test.  I think it was a series of general knowledge and current affairs questions, but with a few specifically about broadcasting.  I was given the test sheet, but told that there was quite a long wait for the interview – it must have been at least an hour or so – and I was allowed to wander off. So I did.  Sheet in hand I headed to the college canteen.  I knew most of the answers, but there were a couple of broadcasting questions that I had no idea about and I feared that this could be the crucial knowledge gap that would send me back across the Cornwall/Devon border empty handed.

In the canteen I managed to find some students (I know, a difficult mission in a college). Importantly they were doing the BA in Journalism and they had the answer.  They were absolutely certain   I can’t remember exactly what the question was, but something like who was the first director general of the BBC2 or something to do with regional radio or television franchises.

I’ll never know whether or not getting that answer correct tipped the balance in my favour.  Probably all the work experience I’d done was the main factor in getting a place, but I’m sure it didn’t do any harm.  And I like to think that tracking down the students with the answer to the question was me showing the kind of skills needed to be a successful journalist.  It was just research.  I’m sure my old tutors Colin Caley and Guy Pannell will forgive me for what I have done.  Getting a place at Falmouth was the thing that really got my career started.  They can’t do to me what they did to the banks over PPI can they?  You can’t take it all back now.  You can take away those episodes of Mad About Shopping for Westcountry TV3 I worked on, but you can never take my freedom…

1 I have no idea if that’s true, but a lot of people did apply.

2 I realise I should have known this. I do now, obviously. Who was it? I’m not going to tell you. You’ve got the internet and all your smart phones and iPads, which we didn’t have back then so I’m being a right miserable old git about it.

3 This series about the retail industry in the region was possibly the worst show I’ve been involved in. I was a researcher.  We had a laugh making it though.

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.

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.