The Diary of David Heathcote (4)
1 Oct 2016 0 comments. tbs.pm/9656
Cambridge University was a disaster for me. I didn’t “get” the fundamental teaching points in several Engineering lecture courses – forty years later, I still haven’t a clue what entropy is (something in Thermodynamics?) I sought solace in the mechanisms of broadcasting.
I discovered that the University Engineering Department had a television studio! Sadly, when I saw it, I found that it was just a dumping room. With two, older Engineering students, I began plugging in pieces in equipment to see what worked. After the third, unexpected electric shock, I decided I needed to seek challenges elsewhere…
A chance conversation then led me to Homerton Television, the studio in Homerton College (at that time, not part of Cambridge University) down Hills Road, safely over the railway bridge. (Keeping the “gels” safely away from the “young gentlemen”. But “Have bike, Will travel!”) The raison d’être of the studio, it seemed, was to record female teacher trainees as they taught – it was called “micro teaching” – so they could see themselves and iron out any irritating mannerisms they might have.
Bill Coleman was the lecturer in charge of Homerton Television: he became my saviour. I think he saw me as a soul in torment (not far from the truth!), and he invited me to make regular visits to the studio. It became the highlight of my week.
The girls were tolerant of my presence, especially when, as part of their course, they were required to make a previously-scripted television programme: this was to give them experience as camera crew, director, vision mixer, sound engineer, etc. None of them wanted to appear in front of camera and be seen by their friends, so I became the genial presenter, delivering pieces to camera in my inevitable sports jacket.
I was even honoured by being invited by Bill on occasions into Afternoon Tea in the Homerton College Staff Room. It was a delicate operation to balance my hunger (I’d probably skimped on lunch to save money) against the expectation that I had at least a modicum of table manners. (Returning from Homerton with a full stomach, I was able to laugh at the offerings in Caius College Hall, though their “Vegetable Macédoine” which appeared with depressing regularity still makes me shudder decades later: we used to call it “Mace-doine” to demonstrate how we felt about it. It was a subtle world.)
One of the inevitable truths when your Cambridge college was founded in 1348 is that it has a lot of money. Not to splash around on improving the vegetables being served, oh no – but enough to offer Scholarships to improve young undergraduates’ minds… At the end of my second year, I saw an advertisement outside the Junior Combination Room (I have no idea why it was called that: you didn’t ask.) Undergraduates were invited to apply for Payton-Taylor Travelling Scholarships.
It was always my plan to visit America. Out of my Local Education Authority grant of £390, I saved the £59 I needed for a transatlantic airfare (we didn’t realise how lucky we were, compared with students today.) I had already landed myself a counselor (sic) job at a summer camp in Maine – Robin Hood was a camp for over-privileged children, and yes, we all wore Lincoln Green uniforms. After camp, I promised myself a $99 Greyhound bus ticket to travel all around the United States for 30 days. So I put together an application to the Payton-Taylor trustees, saying that I would use a travelling scholarship to fund stop-offs along my route to see local television stations compile their news programs. I won the Scholarship, and was £60 the richer!
So on several days in August 1971, this sun-bronzed “Limey” would step off a Greyhound bus first thing in the morning, phone the local TV station and – using my best RP accent – ask if I could sit in with their news team. A remarkable number of stations said yes! Sometimes I sat at a desk in the newsroom, other times I’d get taken out on location, and always I’d be allowed to sit in the gallery or out of shot on the studio floor while the early evening news went out. WABI Bangor, Maine, and WOAI San Antonio, Texas (surprisingly still a W… station, not a K… station so far west) were especially lovely.