My incredible award laden career1 in television has not always ridden on the zenith like crest of a wave that it does now. Before I got into the TV industry, for example, it was in a trough. A great big deep nadir like trough from where I couldn’t even get a glimpse of Alan Yentob’s eyebrows. Nowadays I can see them any time I like if I hang around the BBC for long enough. A few days is all it takes sometimes.
Maybe I shouldn’t have done a history degree. I don’t regret it, but I might have been better served by going straight into work (experience). So when I ditched my plans to be a history professor, because I didn’t fancy being institutionalised with a bunch of lunatics obsessed with the past and how it repeats itself, I thought why not work in an industry where nothing is ever repeated and everything is startlingly original.
I’d always been a comedy fan, but had no idea how to get into the business. In fact it didn’t even cross my mind that I could work in comedy and that’s probably why it took ten more years. So when I returned to Plymouth after university my plan involved signing on the dole, writing letters to television companies, applying for jobs and occasionally appearing in identity line ups at Charles Cross police station for ten cash pounds that would fund a night out on the Plymothian tiles. And those tiles were pretty glamorous I can tell you.
Monday’s Media Guardian was the first stop for enticing job adverts. I wouldn’t like to say that it was either easier or harder to get into television back in the mid nineties, because I don’t think that’s ever fair and no one likes an old codger banging on about how tough it was in their day. Information may be easier to get hold of now what with the internet and all that, but I suspect there’s even more competition, so if anything it’s probably harder in the tenties.
Spying an advert for a job you could apply for was a thrilling moment, so when I spotted the box containing `Zenith Productions – Trainee Script Editor for Byker Grove’ in big bold letters I thought `Yes! This could be the job for me. I have no idea how to script edit, so I’ll definitely need training.’ I was aware of `The Grove’ obviously, but hadn’t watched it much because when it started I already thought I was an adult (I think I was about 17), but I knew it was a successful kids show and my younger brother had the PJ & Duncan CD, so I could do some research and get myself suitably prepared to rumble.
I applied and got an interview. I was surprised, because I knew that they would be looking for someone with at least a hint of experience and I had absolutely none in that field, but what I did do was write a shit hot letter. I knew I’d knocked that letter out of the park. The job advert had talked about issues facing adolescent children and I essentially used my brother. I wrote all about how difficult he was – the drugs, the violence, the other assorted crimes (sorry Luke, I am joking. Mostly) – and how having a younger brother of relevant age meant that I understood the story lines to tap into. Unfortunately the interview was not hot. It was shit.
The appointment was in London, so I had a four and a half hour train journey to prepare myself and that preparation involved becoming increasingly nervous. I had no idea what would happen, what questions would be asked, what questions I should ask them, because everyone likes a candidate who asks good questions. I did know that asking Ant & Dec to sign the PJ & Duncan CD would not be a good question even if I did really want them to.
When it came to it the main thing that stood against me was my complete lack of understanding of anything to do with the television industry. I thought that, what with it being a trainee position, they would teach me about all of that. But of course it helps when you have done a bit of research and don’t just say that you’d love to visit Newcastle. I found out that they only interviewed about ten people, so I’d done very well to get that far, and they planned to take three shortlisted candidates to the production for a day each to see how they got on. I never made it that far. The North East spurned me, but I have had my revenge and have visited Newcastle2 (well Hebburn, just across the river when we shoot Hebburn).
The killer question was the classic `where do you see yourself in ten years? As a producer or director?’ I didn’t have an answer, because I didn’t know what those roles really were and I was flummoxed. The interviewer helped me out, but right then I knew I’d not be making the long trip to the North East from the far South West. My brother’s CD would never be worth auctioning on ebay.
It served a valuable lesson, however. I started to look into the industry in more detail and try to discover what those roles meant. And I’ve been trying to work out what a producer does ever since. If you find out, please let me know. As for executive producers…3
After the interview I waited for the inevitable rejection letter from Zenith, which I filed in my ever expanding folder of rejections. I think it’s somewhere in my cellar. I’ll have to dig it out and have a look some time to remind me of my long hard road to the middle. And it wasn’t the only time the North East rejected me. I once received a rejection letter from Viz for some ropey material that I sent them. But I was quite pleased to receive that one. A letter from Viz. With the VIz logo on it. Amazing.
1 Two regional RTS awards and a How Do Award (How Do was a North West based media news website that closed down soon after my triumph).
2 Actually I have been to Newcastle on a few other occasions. To watch Plymouth Argyle get beaten, take part in the Great North Run and do an interview for some terrible factual show I worked on for UK Horizons – I think that was the broadcaster. Did that channel exist or am I making it up? Tony Slattery presented it.
3 A flat white please.