Getting on the television as a reporter and presenter just seemed to happen. While I was interested in all parts of the media I had never really seen on-screen presenting as my main goal. But given that the inspiration for my life in television came from my high profile television-presenting godmother it was bound to be of some interest.
My day job was as floor manager for the South African Broadcasting Company; my weekend job was reading the news on a popular Saturday morning radio show; I moonlighted for the floor managing department on independent productions, and I even managed to fit in a few stints on my waitressing job in Johannesburg’s notorious Hillbrow area. But the multi-tasking (or would it be called a portfolio career these days?) didn’t stop there. Part of my previous role working on South Africa’s flagship entertainment show, ‘Prime Time’, involved liaising with independent production companies who made the filmed inserts for the programme and I went out on location with them occasionally to help out. At some point the idea of me presenting some of the inserts came up. Again my memory fails me. Did I put my hand up and express my interest or did someone suggest it? I suspect the latter.
It was decided I would present a short film we were about to shoot with a company called K4TV News, run by Russell Kay. Needless to say I spent forever worrying about what to wear, whether my hair and make-up looked alright and learning my script. I turned up at the location nervous but raring to go – only to find they had changed their mind and brought the ex-Miss South Africa along to present! Naturally I was very disappointed; my heart-sinking I made no fuss – there was no way I could compete with a beauty queen.
I swallowed my disappointment and took on the role of production assistant instead. Another lesson learnt – beauty and fame will generally win hands down in any competition to be on-screen. Some things never change….
But my time eventually came. It was a feature I had suggested myself – a new flea market recently set up in central Johannesburg. Alongside all the other jobs I was doing I had also joined the South African Society of Videographers run by an SABC producer and a few weeks previously we had used the market as a venue to practise our video shooting skills. Being a big fan of such markets, and this being a particularly colourful one, I proposed a feature for ‘Prime Time’. They said yes. Russell at K4TV agreed I should present it and off we went. I was going to be on the telly!
I went on to present a number of those inserts; I interviewed burly mercenaries in the jungle on the set of a film they were consulting for, introduced the nation to a dating service for drivers (Bumper Mates – brilliant idea – find love in the traffic!); tried my hand at square-dancing on camera and thoroughly enjoyed myself on every film.
Eventually I was asked to guest present in studio for ‘Prime Time’. Now that was the big time! I went shopping for the best outfit I can think of. I pulled out all the stops to look my best – and God, did I look awful!
My outfit was the most colourful, garish, jungle print you can ever imagine and it covered me head to toe, being a full skirt and substantial jacket in matching material. It’s the late 80’s so obviously it includes very large shoulder pads. I could maybe have got away with that – it’s Africa; people wear colourful clothes – but I teamed it with a bright yellow scarf wrapped around my head as a headband (think Olivia Newton John in the gym!). Ouch. Why did no-one give me advice on how to dress for television? Never mind, It was fun – even when the VT machine died just I read my link into the next film and I had to ad lib gibberish until they fixed it!
Looking back – how lucky was I? All that moonlighting was perfectly legal. The SABC had no problem with their employees taking on other roles as long as they did the one they were paid to do properly. And every role taught me something new. I was presenting, directing inserts, researching ideas, floor managing, getting an insight into the pressures on independent production companies as well as the workings of a major broadcaster, I was dabbling in radio and even learning from the videography society meetings. I soaked it all up.
But South Africa wasn’t home. After three years I decided it was time to go back to the UK. Was I going to find it as easy to get into the television business there as I had in South Africa? It was time to find out.
The lesson from this chapter?
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again – please don’t be afraid to give people feedback, especially those on-screen. No-one should be allowed to turn up on a live TV show for the first time looking a refugee from a psychedelic gym. Tell ‘em when they get it wrong. They’ll thank you for it eventually – honest!
And the other lesson? Say ‘yes’ to everything. Whatever the job, the task – take it on, learn from it, add it to your bank of experience. Volunteer your skills. Ask for the job you really want to do or offer to help the person who’s doing it. Don’t just do the minimum and go home; forget the nine to five mentality. If you are the researcher, ask to stay in the edit after your shift is over so you see what happens there. If you are the runner, offer to spend your day off carrying the cameraman’s tripod on that location job. Every lesson, every contact will help you along the way.