In Johannesburg, South Africa, broke and no ticket home the first priority was a job. No work visa led me to the obvious places and I got a waitressing job in Hillbrow (akin to London’s Soho area then – a no-go area now!). An advert for Production Assistants at the South African Broadcasting Corporation caught my attention. The job included training. Was this my chance to get that telly role?
I applied and this is where those temporary secretarial jobs at the BBC came in useful. On the application form, under previous experience, I simply wrote “various temporary assignments with the BBC in London”. No word of a lie, was there? Ok so it could easily have been read as temporary production assignments and had they asked I would have admitted they were temp jobs as a secretary. But they didn’t ask.
For whatever reason, I got the job and the training and the chance to get a working visa. The SABC was largely set up by BBC personnel and the training was a real asset. Those were the days before media studies and the only way you could get any kind of media education was to get onto one of the coveted courses run by the BBC or ITV. The SABC training was run by British ex-BBC staff and it gave me a very good grounding in the theory, the technology and the practicalities of making television. We made our own little shows in the training studios, taking it in turns to play the role of production assistant, presenter, producer, director. Oh what fun that was!
I found a talented local musician and my production was a profile of him, including making a music video for one of his songs – dry ice, sexy models, moody back drop, a car – the works! This was played into the as-live show which included an interview and a studio performance. How I wish I could bore you now with a clip.
After a few weeks of playing at television I was made production assistant on the SABC’s flagship weekly, live entertainment magazine show, called ‘Prime Time’. It included interviews with the stars, filmed inserts of events, live OB’s to the UK and USA to interview international guests and music performances. My job as production assistant was to prepare the scripts, write up the autocue, and work out the timings. This is where I learnt to count backwards and in 60’s rather than 100’s! Why did no-one think to make sure a minute was 50 or 100 seconds instead of 60? Obviously whoever invented time had never worked in television.
And the autocue – you youngsters have no idea what that was like! You had to type up the script on a separate roll of narrow paper – much like a loo roll. This would then be fed through the autocue machine by hand, turning a wheel in time with the presenter’s words. If there were changes, you had to retype the new words, cut out the old part of the loo roll and stick the new part in with Sellotape. You can imagine what happened when this was done in a hurry and the sticky tape got jammed in the system…..
(Did you know the inventer of the autocue died this year? http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-1381041/Hubert-Hub-Schlafly-inventor-autocue-dies-aged-91.html )
My worst experience during this time was mid-way through a live show. We had a live feed to a special guest somewhere in the UK. My job involved making the telephone call from our gallery to the studio where the guest was waiting to ensure they were ready for us and then counting down to their slot on the show. I called them in good time, talked through the timings and put the phone down while we went through the earlier part of the show. Seconds before they were due on I picked up the phone again only to find someone completely different on the line. On asking who and where they were, a strange voice informed me they were in a phone box in an obscure part of South Africa trying to call their mate! My response was to panic and yell at them to get off the line.
Eventually I was promoted to Assistant to the Producer which wasn’t quite assistant producer. In fact I’m not sure what it was being a specially-created post. However my duties expanded to just about anything that needed doing including liaising with the independent production companies who made the filmed inserts, booking and briefing guests, devising new strands, answering post, and researching.
The assistant producer was in fact a personable and highly talented man called Shan Moodley. He was a rare thing on a production team in South Africa being an Asian. This was during the era of apartheid in South Africa. Google tells me he became an award-winning producer and was appointed the first Chairman of the National Film and Video Foundation in SA. He also consults for the country’s cultural and communications industries. Shan was a great colleague and a good friend in a strange land.
Our producer was Moira Tuck (front row, second on left in photo above) and someone who taught me a lot. She would close the door to the office one afternoon a week and take time to teach us something about television production. She was friendly with the director of a major film and TV series in production at the time, ‘Shaka Zulu’, starring Edward Fox and Robert Powell (http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0093950/ ). There was a memorable day trip to the see part of the film being put through the dub.
Eventually I was to make inserts myself for ‘Prime Time’ and appear on the live show as a member of the reporting team. Politics and dirty dealings led to the production team being disbanded – but that’s a tale for another day….
The lesson from this chapter?
Firstly, sell yourself in the best way you can to get that first foot in the door. Do NOT lie EVER but any small job or connection can make a difference on your CV.
Secondly, there are some television formats that provide a great environment for developing your professional skills and ‘Prime Time’ was one of them. Much like ‘This Morning’, ‘Daybreak’ and other live magazine shows, it provided an opportunity to experience live and pre-recorded programming on a wide range of subjects with a variety of guests. Do what you can to get any job on a show like this and take every opportunity to learn from every aspect of the show.
You can find previous chapters in this strand here: http://wanttoworkintelevision.wordpress.com/category/my-life-in-television-and-what-i-learnt-from-it/