The Diary of David Heathcote (5)
8 Oct 2016 0 comments. tbs.pm/9659
Seeing my misery with the nuts and bolts subject, my Engineering Director of Studies – John Thwaites, one of the Truly Great people I have met in academic circles – compassionately suggested I might look at the Education Part II Tripos. A feature of Cambridge undergraduate courses is that, after – generally – two years of study [Part I], you can switch to a totally different course, or continue on the same course at an advanced level. So you could literally study, say, Engineering in Part I and Fine Art in Part II – your choice; you might make yourself unemployable as a result, but that was your problem.
I opted for Education, and discovered I really enjoyed teaching Physics – the “toys” we had in any Physics laboratory were the best in the school! I found myself on a term’s teaching practice at The Hewitt School in Norwich. I passed Anglia Television’s headquarters every day on the bus, so when I was teaching air pressure and barometers, it seemed a no-brainer to contact Anglia’s weather presenter and ask for a weather map, complete with isobars. No problem: it was there for me to collect from Reception the following day.
I must have thrown the map away years ago(!) but I still remember the intensity of grey used for the land mass, on which the pressure contours were marked in black, seemingly with a felt tip pen. The demands of black and white television in the 1970s.
The clock was ticking: I was approaching the end of my time in Cambridge. I was 24: what was I going to do with my life? Television called. I applied to the BBC for the post of Programme Operations Assistant – it seemed to be the recognised graduate entry path for behind-the-scenes recruitment – and I also applied to Granada Television. I was called for interview at Granada first, in their glass-walled Golden Square offices in London. Looking back, apart from my Cambridge entrance interview, the Granada interview was my first ever – and it was a disaster! I got myself so tied up in knots, and didn’t have the presence of mind to stop and start again. My interviewer was watching a car crash unfold before his eyes, and I’m sure he had plenty to say to his colleagues when they debriefed at the end of the day. I was not surprised to receive a rejection letter some days later.
The BBC POA interview went much better and I learnt I was through to the second round. But I looked more carefully at what the BBC were offering: an annual salary of £1,800 to live in London in 1973… the sums just didn’t add up, and I wouldn’t ask my parents to fund me. They had supported me through uni: enough was enough. With a heavy heart, I withdrew my BBC application, and started thinking about a career in teaching.
Having read an exciting adventure story about children holidaying in Shropshire, I applied to a tiny grammar school in Wem in the north of the county, and was appointed Physics teacher there to start in the Autumn of 1973. Once again I returned to Robin Hood camp in Maine to work the Summer, but then was a little surprised in September when I was introduced in school assembly as having flown in directly from New York to be with the pupils! Echoes of globe-trotting David Frost. I think the Headteacher was a little star-struck: it took me a while to live down that introduction with the (naturally much more cynical) Sixth Formers!
I expected to continue my days, Mr Chips’ style, teaching for the next 40 years, but in June 1974 I got a letter out of the blue from the BBC! They were recruiting continuity announcers for BBC2, thought that the POA applicants might be a useful talent pool, and invited me down to an audition in London. The look on the Head’s face when I told him was a picture! I spent a wonderful afternoon in Television Centre, writing and delivering continuity scripts. Sadly, to no avail, I got the BBC’s “thanks but no thanks” letter a few days later. But it had shaken my boss, and that wasn’t a bad thing.