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Finding a Television News Scoop – The Girl with X-ray Eyes

If you read the post about working on the news desk (http://wanttoworkintelevision.com/so-you-want-to-work-on-the-news-desk/) you’ll know I mentioned how Natalie (the news producer at the time I was editor of ITV’s This Morning show) bought me the girl with x-ray vision. I promised to return to that story and here it is:

Natalie spotted a tiny piece in a newspaper about a young Russian girl who appeared to be able to see into people’s bodies – literally like a human x-ray.  Natalie spotted the potential in that story and was not put off by the fact that this girl was in Russia. Instead she bought it to me and convinced me we should get her on the show.

Natasha Dimkina, the girl with x-ray eyes

Now a daytime budget is small and it doesn’t run to paying people to travel from Russia, however Natalie not has an eye for a good tale, she is resourceful!  The Sun newspaper were also interested in the girl with x-ray vision so Natalie arranged for the paper and us to share the costs of bringing her to the UK.

It was an editorial risk. The chances of her actually having this skill were exceedingly low, the chances of her proving it probably zero, and yet we planned to put her live on air. She was to arrive on Sunday and be on the show on Monday morning.  And the plan was to have her take over a fair proportion of the running time. If she turned out to be a fraud the show was going to bomb big time!

My view is that any long-running daily show needs to push the boundaries occasionally – otherwise it’s all too easy to become complacent, predictable and dull.  So push the boundaries we did.

That morning in the very short rehearsal time available we put her to the test, looking at a range of people we had bought in. Some with internal problems we knew about, some who didn’t have any broken bones, metal implants or any other internal anomaly that they knew of. And therein lies a compliance issue – and compliance is a whole book/blog all on its own – but basically we could not let her announce live on air that a person had any serious medical condition unless that person was already aware of the problem. This is because of the distress it may cause the person learning bad news, and of course because they may not want the world to know.

This is why we had her check the subjects first – off-air in a small dressing room. In this cramped space was Natasha (the girl with x-ray vision), the interpreter (fabulously named Igor), the researcher and the case study.

They were locked away for a while. I am pacing outside or in the gallery. The researcher emerges. I virtually grab her by the throat.

“Well? Can she do it?”

“I’m not sure. It’s taking a long time. She says she has to start from the top and work down the body and it’s taking for ages.”

“But has she seen anything yet?”

“No.”

Yikes. How long can we stretch the cookery item if we decide to drop her from the show?

So I tell the researcher to direct Natasha to the general area of interest in the case study – upper body or lower body. No more clues but speed the damn process up! Natasha appeared to be virtually scanning the body, first one layer then a deeper layer, checking out all the internal organs and bones in detail. Live television waits for no man and we had no choice but to adapt the plan.

The researcher returns to the dressing room and closes the door once again. The pacing continues. The rehearsals and run-through continue. Fern and Phil, the presenters, are asking for an update. I prevaricate and sound positive without lying. This is an art you will need to develop if you hope to con your talent that all is fine even when it isn’t. Confidence is everything in this game. Show fear as a producer and your team will follow suit – then all is lost!

We are less than half an hour away from starting the show live; we have to record a trailer telling the viewers what’s coming up on the show. This is played live towards the end of the previous show. We tell them we have a girl with x-ray vision. We want them intrigued enough to stay for the show. But do we?

The researcher emerges. I fall upon her. She is vague. I resist the impulse to throttle her. Bless her. People with x-ray vision are new to us. She is a good researcher and trained to be factual. Can she confirm this girl has x-ray vision?  A team of the world’s scientists would struggle with that! But Natasha has seen something. She thinks.

That’ll do. It’ll have to. We are due on air.

To cut a long story short, Natasha Dimkina, a 17 year old girl who’d left her native Russia for the first time to appear on a daytime TV show in the UK, sat in the studio, talking through her interpreter. We produce a line of case studies, the ones she’s checked out earlier and ask her if she can spot any ailments. She can.

One person had a back problem and had a metal implant as part of their surgery. Natasha correctly identified this.  She also spotted that a woman had only one kidney. It was compelling television although no doubt there were many doubters watching.

The cookery item with Ken Hom was dropped. We couldn’t leave this and move on to stir-fried chicken now.

Our on-screen doctor, Dr Chris Steele was there to comment.  He was impressed. Although a trained doctor Chris has an open mind.  Natasha had also checked him out and proceeded to list a number of internal ailments in his body.

By this time the show is coming to an end. We are running out of time and Natasha has dropped a bomb shell. Does the nation’s favourite television doctor have a serious illness? Dr Chris looks shaken and admits he has been to his own GP recently to check out various symptoms.

Time is up. The show must end. Everyone is on the edge of their seats. Moments like this are rare in daytime television.

This story is a long one so I’ll finish by saying that we managed to keep that feature going for most of the week, even though Natasha left the country the following day. We pre recorded another interview with her before she left. We sent Dr Chris for a scan to check out her ‘vision’ of his internal organs and talked to experts about her apparent power. The ratings for the show were phenomenal and continued to be as long as we featured an update on the girl with x-ray vision. Having left Monday’s show on a cliff-hanger viewers we promised to come back to the subject and the doctor’s health the following day.  We spread whatever material we had on the subject over nearly four days, including making viewers wait for the results of Dr Chris’s scan results.

You can find plenty of information about Natasha on the web and her appearance on ITV’s This Morning show.  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Natasha_Demkina

Production companies fought hard to get her as a documentary subject after her appearance (including us at ITV – we didn’t get it. That’s another story I may get around to telling some time. A story of how playing internal politics can wreck a golden opportunity!).  Natasha went on to be studied by scientists around the world and featured in a number of television shows. But I am proud that a small, relatively low-budget daytime show broke the story in the first place on television.

The moral of this long story?  Television should be about pushing boundaries, taking the odd creative risk, finding fantastic stories and telling the world about them.  It is also about doing your research, being honest and not pedalling fakes. Natasha stills baffles the scientists. Maybe she has this power. Maybe she doesn’t, but her story is fascinating.

So don’t ignore those tiny little paragraphs in the corner of the newspaper. They might just lead to major headlines. Have confidence in your instinct. Don’t give up too easily, be resourceful and never be afraid to offer an apparently barmy idea to your producer or editor!

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