The Diary of David Heathcote (11)
19 Nov 2016 0 comments. tbs.pm/10185
My work placement at ITV Central started at their base in Birmingham. Not the huge building that their predecessor ATV had occupied: the Golden Era when Sir (and then Lord) Lew Grade ran the Midlands ITV franchise was long over. (I discovered that cameramen – and women – were the great philosophers of the newsroom: they’d been there, done that and definitely got the T-shirt, but they wouldn’t be seen dead wearing it. One of the longer-serving cameramen told me of Fridays when Lord Grade would come round, and if it had been a good week at ATV, then he would order champagne all round! They must have been amazing days.) In the second decade of the 21st century, ITV facilities were rapidly contracting across the country. When I arrived at the Gas Street premises, one of the two studios there had already been mothballed: the one that, I was told in hushed tones, had been used for TISWAS, the cult children’s TV programme on a Saturday morning.
With only one studio, no longer was it possible for live local news programmes to go out simultaneously to West Midlands and East Midlands viewers. The solution, to a television geek like me, was breathtaking. At 18:00:00, when the ITV network split into its regions, Central would feed separate opening titles and headlines to West and East sub-regions, followed by stories relevant only to that area. This sequence – of 6-8 minutes’ duration – would finish with a jingle and “bumper”, after which a single live programme would be fed “pan” from Birmingham to both sub-regions.
The way this was achieved was for one or other sub-regional opening to be recorded by the two anchors – usually, Bob Warman and Sameena Ali-Khan – at 5.30pm. Then at 6.00pm the same anchors would present the other sub-regional opening live. Many viewers, especially those in the East Midlands, believed that the East Midlands “opt” was always the recorded version, and BBC East Midlands Today presenters did nothing to dissuade viewers when they emphasised that BBC local news in the East Midlands was live. However, the decision on which Central sub-regional opening would be live was made each day purely on news values, and which stories would be available at 5.30pm for the pre-record. Both East and West Midlands news were deemed equally important in the eyes of the journalism and production staff, whatever viewers might have thought.
If there was a particularly strong news story that affected the whole of the Midlands, the Head of News would make the decision that we would go “pan” from the outset, feeding reports from both the East and West Midlands into an across-the-region live broadcast. That was exciting – and it was something the BBC could not do: I don’t think Midlands Today and East Midlands Today ever combined.
Provided I abided by the common sense rules of broadcasting, I had free run of the building, and was allowed to sit in at the back of the gallery and in the live studio, whenever I wanted. One of the most dramatic events was when Pip – a lovely, kindly female director – was in the gallery “hot seat” as the live news programme went out, and, with seconds to go, the next report was nowhere to be found on the system. In his relaxed style, Bob Warman began the introduction to the piece: it was about Midlands motor engineering, but the still image on the preview screen was of a reporter in a cheese factory! Pip’s voice took on a harder quality, Anglo-Saxon crept into her vocabulary – “Where is the [expletive] report?” With no alternative, Pip ran the “cheese factory” clip…
It turned out the reporter had begun with a piece to camera along the lines of “Although the village of Stilton is well-known for cheese making…” (jump cut to the same reporter on a vehicle production line) “…they also make cars just down the road.” And the reporter had not thought to forewarn the gallery of his “quirky” opening shot! At the debrief following the programme, poor Pip expressed embarrassment at her behaviour, but everyone agreed she had carried out her duties as she should. For me, it showed one aspect of the television news industry at its finest: not a single viewer realised there was anything amiss.
My second week of work placement was at Central’s Nottingham Newsroom, located at that time on an industrial estate next to Chilwell Army barracks. There was a full team of reporters to cover the East Midlands, with some based in Leicester rather than Nottingham. There was also a degree of overlap and exchange with other ITV companies – ITV Yorkshire in Lincolnshire, and ITV Anglia in Northamptonshire, for example. Quite often, one company would cover a story, and then offer it to the neighbouring station: sometimes it would be taken as it was, with simply a different sign-off: “John Smith, Anglia News, Kettering” would become “John Smith, for Central News, Kettering.” Sometimes the video would be re-edited and re-voiced by a Central reporter. I got the impression this happened far less frequently on the West Midlands side: there was less exchange with ITV Granada, ITV Wales and ITV West.
Lucy Kite, Central’s then main weather presenter, lived closer to Nottingham than she did to Birmingham, so she often called in to the Chilwell Newsroom to record her forecasts, or do an outside broadcast from the Nottingham area. There was an ITV Central garden at Chilwell (and another in Birmingham): the garden was a triumph in “cheating” perspective and it looked much, much bigger than it actually was when she presented weather forecasts from there.
I was given work to do in both newsrooms, but made it my business to provide tea and coffee for the “proper” journalists, especially as their deadlines approached. I had a “T” hand signal and a “C” hand signal – quite often the journalists would be recording their voice-overs at their desks, so a degree of silence was helpful. I also had a double-handed stirring action for “builder’s tea” which was the drink of choice for some.
I got to go out with journalists on location. The rivalry between the ITV and BBC news teams was friendly but intense. On balance, I felt the ITV reporters were better, despite having more modest resources. One senior BBC reporter in the East Midlands – he’d better remain nameless – had a serious inferiority complex: he would always, I was told, check with his ITV counterpart on location to see what the other person’s “angle” on a story was going to be. He wouldn’t trust his own judgement.
My two weeks of work experience went all too quickly: we graduated and received our diplomas, then there were emotional farewells with our lecturers. They seemed genuinely sorry to see us go, and we were sorry to leave them.
I’d enjoyed myself so much at ITV Central that I asked if I could “stay on”. Alan Rook agreed, on the understanding that I was an intern – that is, I could work in the newsroom, but there was certainly no pay. I was not unduly surprised by this, and – because I still had my teacher’s pension coming in – I could afford to work for no pay longer than a penniless student might have managed.
Chris Hesketh, my professional tutor at CBJ, often worked alongside me at Central, and offered me a project to manage called “People’s Millions”. Essentially, each ITV region invited bids from charities and volunteer groups in their area; six per region were shortlisted, and they would then go head-to-head with televised presentations, and viewers would vote by telephone each evening for who should get Lottery funding of £50,000. So, in the ITV Central region, there were six “filmings” to set up in advance – producer, cameraperson and presenter (usually one of the anchors) – and then four live OBs when the result would be announced to the successful bidder during the news programme. (The fourth OB would be to award money to the runner-up with the most votes across the week.)
I really enjoyed this project management role. My previous experience as a teacher came in handy when I had to “wrangle” groups of excited schoolchildren live on air (invariably, youth groups got more votes than groups of older people): sometimes they had to cheer, sometimes they had to cheer quietly(!), and sometimes they had to be completely quiet. I would position myself beside the camera, having arranged suitable hand signals with the children – who were always amazingly cooperative. The anchors would not have witnessed my rehearsals, so they would do their piece to camera and see, out of the corner of their eye, a demented old guy waving his hands around excitedly and getting reactions from the surrounding children. If you looked very closely at OB recordings, there is a fleeting look in Bob’s and Sameena’s eyes when they first witness this “stage management”: “What IS that guy up to??!” The performances I extracted were excellent, even if I say so myself.
This work gave me the chance to get to know both Bob Warman and Sameena Ali-Khan. Bob was unflappable: he took everything in his stride. He knew what he had to do, and – understandably – wasn’t going to take advice from a rookie. I was politely and charmingly ignored. Sameena was really nice: she was a graduate biochemist, but chose to keep a low profile about that. She was a great listener, and it was fascinating to see how people would spill out their stories to her.
As Christmas approached, it turned out that one of the Chilwell journalists – indeed, the woman who had interviewed me with Alan Rook for the work experience placement – was taking maternity leave, and I was invited to stay on as her maternity cover. I accepted without hesitation, and so began one of the happiest 12-month periods of my working life.
If another reporter needed vox pops – tiny clips of instant opinion from members of the public – I was often sent out with a cameraperson to get such clips. People in nearby towns began to recognise me, and if they didn’t want to appear on camera I was able to clear Beeston High Street in seconds!