So far my television career in South Africa had encompassed assistant producing, directing filmed inserts, presenting, floor managing and reading the news on national radio but now that I had returned home to the UK I pretty much had to start all over again. The problem with starting your media education in one country and then moving to another is that your ‘foreign’ credits won’t mean much to potential employers. Prime Time may have been the biggest factual entertainment show in South Africa but television producers had never heard of it back in England. It was difficult to know where and how to pitch myself
After scouring jobs adverts and collecting rejection letters while temping as a secretary I eventually secured a job as the assistant to the Head of Presentation and Deputy Director of Programmes, Martin Everard, at a brand new cable and satellite company called Super Channel. The Director of Programmes was Carol Haslam, who went on to become Managing Director of Hawkshead an independent production company.
Super Channel was a pioneer of satellite broadcasting and I joined before it went on air. In fact they were still building the offices and we worked around the joiners and electricians to establish the different departments. Much like many of today’s ‘classic television’ stations Super Channel was to broadcast “the best of British television” around Europe. Amongst the library of classic British programmes were to be our own new productions for sport, music and children’s. To this end we had to recruit producers in all those areas, as well as a presentation department to sit alongside the sales team.
About six of us sat around a conference table in the only room that was completed. There was one telephone sat in the middle of the table. When it rang there was an unseemly scramble, people throwing themselves across the table to be the first to get it. Whoever did would announce their own department:
“Hello, Super Channel sport.”
“Good morning, you’re through to Super Channel presentation!”
Hello, Super Channel childrens’ department, how can I help you?”
Oh what fun it was! This was probably where I got taste for being in at the start of a project. There is nothing to beat it. Setting up a new series or format, being part of the launch of a new project, being there at the beginning and being part of the development is hugely stimulating and satisfying. Stressful yes – there is no existing structure to fall back on. You are part of building it. The rules are being made up as you go along. The learning curve is steep but everyone is in it together. You are giving birth to a creative project.
Martin asked me to help find suitable voices for the channel’s presentation department. I had no idea where to start but found some voice agencies and took it from there. One of the auditionees was a certain Trish Bertram whose voice immediately caught our attention. Trish became not only one of the best-known presentation voices on ITV, but also a very good friend
There were plenty of problems along the way. At the last minute it occurred to someone that they needed clearance from the actors in the many British dramas we were planning to broadcast. It was, after all, outside the scope of their original contract now that it was being broadcast throughout Europe. There were frantic last minute negotiations with Equity, the actors union. I remember many moments of panic, but even more moments of excitement and laughter.
We spent many a happy hour at the pub next to the offices – The Wheatsheaf. There being no canteen in the building someone high up agreed that they should open an account at the pub so we could get meals from there while working long shifts. For some reason it hadn’t occurred to them to limit this largesse to meals so copious amounts of alcohol were consumed in company time at company expense. A continuity announcer (not Trish!) who shall remain nameless would down a couple of double whiskies during a break and return to the continuity booth with another couple to keep him going. Ah, those were the days….
Eventually the station launched and we all held our breath watching that very first broadcast called, ‘This is Super Channel’. It took the form of a live broadcast from a glitzy launch party at the
Limehouse Studios in Canary Wharf. The presenters were Anne Diamond and Paul McDowell (who was also part of the production team) and the guest of honour none other than the Prime Minster, Margaret Thatcher, who made a speech to mark this momentous chapter in broadcasting history. (Should you be that interested you can get the full text of that speech here: http://www.margaretthatcher.org/document/106738).
Better still (you are that interested, aren’t you?) you can watch an abridged version of the opening of ‘This is Superchannel’ on TVARK http://www2.tv-ark.org.uk/otherchannels/superchannel.html.
My role was a varied one given the varying things that needed to be done but included being the gallery production assistant and Aston operator once we were on air. We made a childrens’ show called Hippo presented by a young Gaby Roslin; sports programmes presented by ex-Newsround presenter, Paul McDowell and commissioned music shows from our neighbours in the building, Music Box – a precursor of MTV-type programming.
Eventually I plucked up the courage to ask for a promotion, and was vaguely surprised when they said yes so easily. I became a presentation producer, making trailers, viewing, complying and inputting details of the bought-in programmes into the brand new computerised presentation system. It was another valuable lesson in my media education and an opportunity see a different side to television broadcasting – the bits in between the programmes and how they got there!
The team there taught me a lot. I learnt how to make a dull programme look great in a fast-moving trailer. I’d go into the edit with no idea what to do but armed with timecodes of some of the best bits of a particular episode. The editor kindly made suggestions and offered fantastic graphic effects, someone explained the importance of using the right sort of music and the ‘voices’ would amend and deliver my scripts with such aplomb that they really turned out looking quite professional.
We were a tight team and many of us remain in touch today. In fact it must be time for another reunion… And they were heady, hard-drinking days… but you don’t want to know about that side of it, do you…?
Coming up: making music and children’s programmes, travelling Europe for location shoots and my first job with new kid on the block, John Leslie.
Lessons from this chapter?
If you get the opportunity, get in at the start of a new TV project. You learn so much more from things don’t already have a plan and a structure. Teams tend to be much less bound up with job titles and descriptions when putting something together from scratch and the opportunities for getting more closely involved are greater.
Never be afraid to ask for promotion. If the boss doesn’t feel you are ready and says no then at least you have an opportunity get valuable feedback, but chances are no-one will consider that you want to move onwards and upwards unless you actually tell them. There is no harm in showing ambition and eagerness to move up the ladder.
Get those who know more than you to show you the ropes. Most people are very willing to pass on their knowledge and help out a newbie. Don’t pretend you know everything until you are absolutely sure you do! Asking for help or advice from other members of the team is not a sign of weakness or ignorance but a sign of a keen learner.