My Life in Television (and what I learnt along the way) Chapter 3: Backpacking Journalism

(Previously on ‘My Life in Television’ – http://wanttoworkintelevision/category/my-life-in-television-and-what-i-learnt-from-it/)

So my Americas jaunt finally came to an end and I returned to the UK to look for a proper job. You didn’t just walk into TV jobs even in those olden days so I got myself some temporary secretarial work. My mother was a great one for saying “have something to fall back on” and “you’ll always need another string to your bow”. Never is such advice as pertinent as in the world of television!  You do well to heed it now. When you are struggling to find that on-screen role or find yourself drumming your fingers on a lengthy gap between contracts then you’ll be glad of having another way to earn money.

My extra string was secretarial training and it subsidised my university grant. I joined a secretarial agency based in New Bond Street, London. One of the owners was blind. He gave me a typing test and relied on his hearing to gauge my speed and rhythm on the keyboard. I was mighty impressed. Anyway, the relevance of all this lies in the companies the agency specialised in – the media, particularly the BBC.  As a result I got temporary jobs in various departments of BBC radio – typing scripts for Radio 3 (double-spacing, two spaces after full stops – still do that today!); a stint in the personnel department and a long-ish contract in the Radio Training Department.  These little jobs were to become very useful additions to my CV some time later in South Africa.

One of my contracts was with the BBC World Service. When I eventually decided my wanderlust was not sufficiently sated and booked a one-way flight to Kenya I asked a contact there if I could send taped interviews back for possible broadcast. To my surprise they said yes – well, no skin off their nose. If they didn’t like my material they wouldn’t use it and I wouldn’t get paid. They gave me some cassette tapes for my Walkman, showed me how to hold a microphone (wrapping the cord around my hand to avoid any disturbance from loose wires) and waved me off.

I’d love to bore you with my adventures through Africa but that is another blog altogether…

I think I only recorded about three interviews along the way. One was with a young Ugandan talking about his theatre group and the play he had written about women rescuing Uganda. It was called ‘The Cigarette’. (There will be a copy somewhere. Yes regular readers will have guessed it – probably in the attic…)

Uganda at the time was still in turmoil, post the military dictatorship of Idi Amin and the Uganda/Tanzania War. I stayed, along with a few other foolhardy backpackers, in the grounds of a temple in central Kampala known to be safe as they locked their sturdy gates at dark. We would lie in our sleeping bags on the (exceedingly hard) stone floor listening to the gunshots of drunken soldiers. Alex Mukulu was my interviewee. (I’ve just Googled the name and turns out someone of that name is a well-respected actor, dramatist and director whose established a drama group in Uganda in the 1980’s – he’s got to be the same man!). I visited him at his home and recorded a long interview about his work, his life and the dangers he faced in Uganda at a time when free expression was perilous.  Unfortunately when I checked it later there were problems with the tape and I had to ask him to do it again.

This time he came to the temple and we sat on a bench with the door open to the street outside. He looked uncomfortable and kept glancing towards the street – obviously worried about being seen talking to a European journalist.  Looking back on it now I have no idea why I didn’t stop the interview and move us to a more discreet location so he could feel more secure. You live and learn. Remember the more comfortable and secure an interviewee feels the better interview they are likely to give you.

Sometime later while in Zambia I recorded an interview with Gwendolyn Konie, one of the women pioneers that opened the door for gender equality and representation in Zambian politics. For the life of me I can’t remember what she did at the time but she eventually became an opposition party leader which was undoubtedly a major achievement. She was in some way related to a Zambian friend from university. I was staying with his family and they appeared to be connected to all sorts of interesting people. Reluctantly I must admit I can’t remember the nature of the interview but it was most likely on the subject of women in African society – a subject close to the heart of this dynamic and articulate woman. My research tells me she died in 2009

BBC Contributor Payment

It was this interview that the BBC chose to broadcast. Getting that little brown envelope with confirmation of the broadcast and a fee (something huge like £30 I think) was one of the best moments of my media career. There’s nothing quite like the feeling you get when your words, your pictures, your work finds its way on screen, in print or on the radio waves. The idea that other people are reading, listening, watching something you have done is wonderful! (And thank you Roger Ketskemety for signing off my payment. Shame I didn’t think to claim for the expense of travelling through Africa!)

In between Uganda and Zambia I travelled through Rwanda to Burindi via the tiny village of Kisoro. Kisoro is in Uganda on the border of Rwanda and Zaire.  At the time there were no trains, no planes, no hotels or hostels – just a very rough track travelled by an uncomfortable Izuzu truck.  While there I walked up a hill close to the village, followed by two inquisitive local children. From the top I looked down onto a lake, in the foreground below me a solitary herder with his cattle, in the distance the lands of both Rwanda and Zaire.

I sat here admiring the view and wondering at the pure beauty of the place, the fascinating culture of the people in this little outpost who rarely (at that time) saw white people; how I enjoyed the spontaneous dancing the women did with their babies strapped to their back, jumping up and down like pogo sticks, making their own music with their chants for no apparent reason; loving the colourful clothes, the simplicity of their lives.

The view from my hill, Kisoro, Uganda

Sat on this hill, with this view, I knew what I wanted to do with my life. I wanted to tell others about the wonder of such places and such people, to introduce new experiences and locations to those who hadn’t yet visited them. If there was any doubt before there was none now. I wanted to work in television so I could make programmes about things people hadn’t heard about before – particularly the joys of travel. I took a photo of that view and a large print sits on the wall of my bathroom today.

I was eventually to make travel programmes. I was lucky enough to have a travel idea commissioned.

The result was nothing like my dream. In fact it was one of the worse experiences of my entire broadcasting career. But that is another chapter…..

The lesson from this chapter? Take any opportunity you can to create media and ask questions. The world is full of fascinating people, fabulous places. Great stories can be found as easily in your local street as they can the other side of the world. It doesn’t matter what you media is, everyone needs good stories, strong content. Be inquisitive, keep your eyes open and look for opportunity wherever you are – on holiday, at work, backpacking around the globe, doing voluntary work, even chatting to strangers down the pub or coffee shop. In fact, particularly chatting to strangers down the pub or coffee shop!


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