Trust Your Instincts

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.

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.