The Diary of David Heathcote (10) 

12 November 2016 tbs.pm/10116

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A student once more

I was able to arrange my departure from Capital One so that I began the next week at CBJ. My Capital One colleagues did me proud at my farewell party: it was very touching.

I should not have been surprised at their generosity, though of course I didn’t take it for granted. Some years earlier, in my mid-50s, I’d asked them to sponsor me on a 10k run in Lincoln. I’d spent most of my life as a couch-potato, but – acting on advice from my GP – I decided to take control of my health and work with a personal trainer. When I took the sponsorship form round at work, many of my Capital One colleagues dug deep.

I completed the course (partly over Lincoln’s cobbles) in 52:34, barely able to put one foot in front of the other by the end, but very proud of my achievement.

Which charity should benefit from my fund-raising? Camels sprung to mind! You see, my widowed mother had re-married in the 1990s; my step-father was a retired executive at Sainsbury’s. The man was used to ordering everyone else about (except – wisely – my mother), and he and I did not get on. Our sole interaction was a joke of his that I should provide him with a dowry for marrying my mother and “taking her off my hands”(!) He suggested the gift of a camel. So funny.

I found that Oxfam used donations to buy female camels for villagers in Somalia: the camels provided power for ploughing, their dung was fertiliser, they would be bred from, and they supplied milk… I raised enough money to provide FIVE camels, a pair of goats, and a field toilet. It briefly wiped the smile off my step-father’s face. Oh yes!

The next week I was a student. Largely invisible at the Freshers’ Fair, because I was so old compared with the typical young student. I meant to keep a low profile amongst the 15 others taking the Television Journalism course anyway, but I later learned that the lecturers were apprehensive about whether I would be able to work as part of such a young team at all.

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I got on well with the other two male students – John from North Kent, and Gurjeet from Reading. Keiko from Japan stood out as a talented future broadcaster, as did a young woman from Northern Ireland, and another from Germany. The Irish woman was very self-conscious about her accent, and her linguistic mannerisms – saying “You know…” – and yet these were what defined her, and were to make her excellent reports even more interesting.

A young woman had come from China to take the course: she had limited English language skills, which made it difficult for her to understand and be understood – a major disadvantage when she was recording pieces to camera. She had some “interesting” ideas about the Western world – I’m sure equally I would have had plenty of misconceptions about China if I was studying there. Some of the other women tried to engage with her and discuss cultural differences, but it was quickly clear that there could not be a meeting of minds – and I made sure I remembered something I urgently needed to do in the next room whenever these discussions arose.

There were also one or two “princesses” on the course who would prove challenging to me (and me to them) in the coming months.

Nottingham Trent CBJ lectures were a revelation! In my youth, I’d been an Engineering student at Cambridge, then a Physics teacher for nearly a quarter of a century. Maths and science topics I could cope with easily, but anything else was a novelty. Our Media Law lectures were delivered by Amanda Ball, a no-nonsense, “tell it how it is” person. For the first time ever in an academic environment, I was entranced! By comparison, astrophysics and thermodynamics had left me largely unmoved.

I’d previously had little idea how UK law impacted on press and broadcast reporting: Mandy introduced us to a new world, one where at the end of one lecture I could hardly wait till the next. Contempt of Court, Defamation, Copyright, Election Law – bring it all on!! I loved it.

It was the time when “Baby P”’s case was being widely reported, and behind closed doors Mandy was able to give us journalism students an inside view of what was happening in Court, and why newspapers and the other media were reporting the news as they did. Gripping.

The best day of the week, though, was Thursdays. Overseen by our professional tutor, Chris Hesketh, a seasoned ITV Central journalist, we had a News Team meeting at 9.30am, and by 4.30pm we were expected to have a 15-minute television news programme going out live from CBJ’s studio. We took turns to be news editor; then the rest of us would be sent out to cover news stories we had pitched. If we were savvy, we would have planned something in advance: during the year, I was up at 4am to video the dawn chorus in a local country park and at 6am for a special Marks & Spencer Penny Sale (I don’t do late nights, so Nottingham’s vibrant club scene was safe from my reporter’s eye!)

As soon as the story was in the camera, we had to rush back to the newsroom and edit the recording down to the 2:00 – 2:30 that was the norm. Many’s the time some of my best shots had to be discarded – they were “arty” but not pertinent to the story.

I believe my best report was covering the death of a grandmother and her grandson on a railway crossing near where I live, and I came up with evidence that the local traffic noise and nearby waterfall could have masked the sound of the approaching train that killed them. I videoed my report on a perishingly cold Winter’s day, when the sunlight was shining almost directly into the lens. Learnings from that experience were: 1. Take a filled hot water bottle on assignment when it is cold, and 2. Find where the neutral density filters are on the camera!!

Chris paid me a great compliment when he saw my report, and noted my suggestion that traffic noise had drowned out the sound of the approaching train – he said that none of his reporting team at Central had come up with that angle. Praise indeed. But I struggled to find the right tone of sympathy and dismay in my commentary voice: it sounded false and insincere. I still had much to learn.

One of the jobs on the rota was news anchor, two of us would present the show from a studio set. If we were going to do the role properly (and perhaps use the recording as part of our “show reel” for future jobs) we needed to master the art of make-up. No problem for the women, but none of we men had ever used make up before. Gurjeet and I had a “we will never speak of this again” conversation and made a pact that we would each use make up when in the anchor role.

I went further. With my wife tagging along for moral support, I booked a “makeover session” with one of the make up consultants at the John Lewis store in Nottingham! I told the consultant why, that I needed instruction for TV work, and she was happy to take me through the mysteries of foundation, concealer etc. I came out with a comprehensive (but expensive) make up shopping list – then slipped across to Boots and bought their own-brand items for a fraction of the cost! Armed with my make-up bag, I’m not sure if I shone in my anchor role, but at least my forehead didn’t.

In the second half of the year, the Media Law lectures finished and the Amazing Mandy led us through Public Administration. After years of grappling with ideas of national government, local government, quangos and the like, at the age of 60 I found this riveting stuff.

We also had a course on website design: it seemed rather cobbled together and haphazard, but I got an inkling that this was The Future. How right that would turn out to be! Two years down the line I would be earning far more from editing websites than from any other journalism work I did.

It was important that, as journalism students, we gained plenty of work experience: I applied to the BBC, who repeatedly ignored my application – I’d expected to encounter ageism in the industry, but not from the BBC! I applied to Smooth Radio in Nottingham – and High Peak Radio in Chapel-en-le-Frith. Also the Mansfield Chad weekly newspaper. I got placements at all three, no problem. All very interesting. It came as a revelation to find that the Chad got story leads from social media, but that their social media accounts needed monitoring every 15 minutes to take down abusive or defamatory postings from members of the public!

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Having been snubbed by the BBC, I aimed to land a work experience fortnight at ITV Central: there were just two places available. Five of us applied: we had to write a critique of an ITV Central News local programme and then go for interview at Central’s Nottingham newsroom in Chilwell. I wrote my critique – blisteringly critical, giving it my nerdy best. I didn’t expect to be called for interview, but I was! I knew I was up against 4 bright young 20-somethings – why would I stand a chance? But the interview would be fun. The interview panel consisted of Alan Rook, the Head of ITV Central News, and one of his journalists. To my surprise, Alan was somewhat hurt at my criticism of the local news I’d seen, he’d produced it after all, and I realised – perhaps for the first time – that everything appearing on our TV screens was the result of hours of effort by many people, all of whom really were giving their best. That “pile of rubbish” programme I switched off the other night was actually months of work dismissed in an instant.

I was offered one of the two placements!

MORE: [Part 1] [Part 2] [Part 3] [Part 4] [Part 5] [Part 6] [Part 7] [Part 8] [Part 9] [Part 10] [Part 11] [Part 12] [Part 13] [Part 14] [Part 15]

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