The Diary of David Heathcote (12)
26 Nov 2016 0 comments. tbs.pm/10199
My bid for a BAFTA
While working for ITV Central, my most memorable vox pop was when I spotted a woman and her grown-up daughter out shopping. The report needed opinions on a forthcoming change in nursery provision; I asked mum the question, then asked the daughter the same question. But, glancing down at her abdomen, I asked the daughter a supplementary question: “How will this affect you, when your new baby is born?” Her reply was: “I’m not pregnant”. I was mortified, and apologised as much as I could as often as I could.
As we walked away, the cameraman was generous in his support for me: “Shit happens, David.” Indeed it does.
Much of my time was spent in the Chilwell Newsroom. As I have already mentioned, Midlands ITV viewers had the mistaken impression that the East Midlands sub-region was the “poor relation” compared with the West Midlands. Not so. The East Midlands was fully covered from Nottingham with additional reporters based in Leicester, but by about 9.45am all the reporters were out covering stories, which left editors and production staff in the Birmingham Newsroom, but the Chilwell facility was deserted. Except for me.
Any broadcasting organisation has to take security seriously, and Central was no exception. So it was that members of the public could walk through the first door into ITV Reception at Chilwell, but had to press an intercom button and summon someone before they could get through the second door. When I was on my own, that gave me the opportunity to assess the motives (and sanity!) of any visitor before deciding if they should be allowed in. Our weather presenter, Lucy Kite, attracted a swathe of adoring fans, and people would arrive at the Newsroom bearing gifts and expecting to see her. More often than not, she was not there, so I politely invited visitors to leave cards, flowers, presents etc. on the table in the lobby “for her to collect when she was next in the Newsroom”. They did not pass!
Lucy had no illusions about the ardour of her followers, especially middle-aged men, and there was “unsavoury” speculation about what they got up to in the privacy of their sitting rooms while watching her on screen. She often shared presents of boxed chocolates with other journalists later in the day, which was generous of her.
The weather forecasts that followed the late night news on weekdays at 10.45pm were pre-recorded in the morning at about 10.30am, often in the Chilwell Newsroom. When all the reporters were out covering stories. So I was asked, by the director in the gallery (in Birmingham), to move to a desk in the Newsroom to be “casually” observed working away in the background while Lucy was doing her forecasting to camera. I’d learnt to type on a manual typewriter, so I was very heavy on the keyboard: I therefore had to type quietly or even just pretend to type, else my clatter could be heard on the recording. How viewers must have been impressed that this journalist was still slaving away over a keyboard so late at night! Except I wasn’t. If there was a BAFTA for Best Performance In The Background Of A Weather Forecast, I should have got a nomination.
I continued to present the weekend night shifts at High Peak Radio. I had also been urging the radio station to get an internet presence: they needed their own website. The directors agreed, they commissioned a website design from a local graphic art company, and Roger Price set up the website, www.highpeakradio.co.uk. Roger had contacts everywhere, so it was no surprise that he was the only one who knew the service provider and the passwords. What could possibly go wrong with that arrangement, you say?
I pointed out that I had done a course on website editing at Nottingham Trent, and the directors did not take much persuading to appoint me editor. This would be a time-consuming commitment, so I made it clear that I would charge for my services. That was fine. The website had been set up using Joomla! software, which – certainly in those days – was spectacularly user-UNfriendly. I had the option of editing the screen as I saw it – WYSIWYG or “what you see is what you get” – but there was still code hidden in the layout, and, if you tried to edit with the cursor in the wrong place, the results could be disastrous.
The alternative was to switch screens and edit the code directly. If truth be known, my course had not covered html at all, so I knew I would be playing with fire. Even so, I was very cautious and rarely got my fingers burnt. The trick seemed to be, whenever I had worked on the website for several hours and it started to go wrong, I just saved the code and returned to it the following day, when the site would display without errors. Mostly.
Comparing the High Peak Radio website with other radio station websites, ours was clean and uncluttered, whereas the others were a mess – without exception. I hadn’t been responsible for the design, so I wasn’t blowing my own trumpet. Yes, our website looked staid and untrendy, but that was High Peak Radio: we weren’t trying to get “down wid de kids”, they weren’t the listeners who spent the money.
High Peak Radio was taken to people’s hearts in North-West Derbyshire. HPR car stickers were to be seen in rear windows in Buxton, Glossop, Chapel-en-le-Frith, and in the Hope Valley. And on-air competitions made the studio phones light up. As one of my television broadcast student exercises, I filmed local scenes and the radio station staff at work, and then edited the footage to the longest HPR jingle – duration 1:00. It was cheesy, but I thought it captured the tone of the area and the station well.
In its early years, High Peak Radio prospered, so much so that the directors, led by Paul and Steve Jenner, proposed a sister station for Ashbourne and the Derbyshire Dales, and Ofcom agreed to grant them a licence. I don’t think anyone believed Ashbourne could sustain a radio station on its own, so a satellite operation made commercial sense. Ashbourne’s Breakfast Show went out live from studios in the roof space of a one-time private school in the town, and to begin with so did the weekday DriveTime show, but all other programming came out of the computer, using another copy of Roger’s ENCO DAD system.
News for Ashbourne Radio was prepared and recorded in the HPR studio and emailed across as .mp3 file attachments. Roger was in charge of the presentation style of both stations, and bizarrely (to my mind) he refused to allow the news staff ever to identify themselves on-air. It seemed a wasted opportunity for listeners to identify with voices they heard regularly on the stations.
Paul “Gadget” Hewitt had been an engineer and presenter with Paul and Steve Jenner from the very early days, and he still worked with Roger on studio maintenance at both stations. One day, Paul surprised us all by announcing that, henceforth, he wished to be known as Paula. She had begun receiving gender reassignment treatment and wanted to live her life as a woman.
She had also been a diabetic for years, and regularly injected herself with insulin. Her main work was as a self-employed telephone engineer, so she often worked on the studio equipment in her spare time late at night when the building was deserted.
One morning, the Ashbourne Breakfast presenter arrived to start his show – and discovered Gadget lying on the floor. The emergency services were called, but Gadget had been dead for some hours: her heart has just given out. A tragic loss to the radio stations, her colleagues and friends. Of course, the show had to go on, but there is a brass plaque on the side of the Ashbourne Radio sound desk commemorating Gadget’s life and her contribution to local broadcasting.
Round about this time, the world financial crash occurred, and the economy, both nationally and locally, took a dive. Paul Jenner headed the sales teams for both stations and even he, talented as he was, could not always persuade local businesses to renew their advertising contracts. Revenue was dropping and the stations had to pursue an economy drive.
One night, I had driven across to Chapel-en-le-Frith to the studio to record features for my weekend overnight shows. Roger was working late in the office there, as he did from time to time, and when I finished my recording he came over and spoke to me. “David, we can’t afford you any longer” was the bombshell he dropped. I was stunned, but understood the seriousness of the financial situation: I was one of the cut-backs. I’d never been paid for my presenter work, but I did claim travelling expenses, which were tax-free.
Because of the way my pieces were recorded, they ran their programmed course – and then suddenly stopped. No farewell sign-off to my tiny listening audience, no explanation: that’s show business!