Down the stairs and across the corridor from Super Channel was Music Box, a 24-hour cable and satellite TV channel that broadcast popular music programmes – much like MTV (it was launched only three years after MTV). It was taken over by Richard Branson’s Virgin Vision in 1983. I well remember the day Richard came to visit the studios and took a close interest in the wind-up 78rpm record player I had bought in as a prop on a show I was producing. The track I played him on that scratchy vinyl was ‘He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands’ and indeed at that time it seemed it did!
But we are jumping ahead. How did I get here from Super Channel? Having learnt about trailers and presentation and done my stint as live gallery PA I was itching to produce programmes. I applied for a job as producer/director over the way at Music Box and got it. My learning curve continued to rise steeply.
The programmes were all based around popular music. This was the early days of pop videos and VJs – video jockeys. The presenters often came from the world of radio or club DJs. The budget for these programmes was zilch. We had a presenter, a small studio, a couple of camera operators, a floor manager if we were lucky and a minimal gallery team – and, of course, a library full of music videos (and a very efficient computerised system for finding and retrieving them).
The boss was Mike Hollingsworth, husband to presenter Anne Diamond, and the key talent included Anthea Turner, Nicky Campbell, Nino Firetto, Michaela Strachan, John Leslie, Timmy Mallet and Simon Potter. Many of those presenters reappeared in my professional life long after we parted ways at Music Box.
They were all great but Nino Firetto really impressed me with his presenting abilities (you can pay me later, Nino!). This was a man who could hold a live TV show as long as you liked with energy, enthusiasm, laughs and precision timing. Nino excelled at live and was deservedly winner of the Children’s ITV Personality of the Year for his role on their flagship kids magazine show, ‘Splash!’.
In the summer we got too hot in the studio so we sent Nino to the pub across the road (The Bricklayers on Rathbone Place; it’s still there), took the cameras on their leads into the corridor, opened the windows and pointed them at Nino who lounged foppishly at a table outside the hostelry. The viewers didn’t seem to mind. Not that we are sure there were many of those. We encouraged viewers to write in and greatly appreciated the two or three envelopes that turned up – usually from the same person….
My job as producer/director was, well … just about everything. Someone would book the music guests; on some of the shows you occasionally got use of a researcher but otherwise the script, the props, the ideas, the VT inserts, the gallery directing, the graphics list – was all mine. And yes I had to type up my own Aston graphic titles in the gallery as well as directing the show and vision mixing!
The Coca-Cola Rockfile was a sponsored monthly show involving events and music guests from around Europe. On that show I got to travel to several European cities with a crew and presenter, interviewing the latest pop stars, making features on the fashion, style and trendy haunts of the city. We’d race around the city virtually making up features as we went along. Now who wouldn’t like a job like that?!
Formula Onefeatured the charts from Europe and was presented by a new VJ, newly
promoted from club DJ, John Leslie. It was the first time John and I worked together in TV but certainly not the last. I witnessed John’s rise to popularity on TV in those early days and was there to witness his professional demise many years later. But that’s another story for another day. John was great to work with – always cheerful, always friendly. Strangely enough he was a great live performer but try and pre record his links and you’d be there forever (I’m sure he won’t mind me saying that)!
Some bright spark came up with the idea of an animated cartoon dog that we could key in over the live shot of John in studio along with sound effects. This darn dog was meant to appear on John’s shoulder or on the sofa next to him reacting to a link. A lovely idea but given I was directing, vision mixing and typing up the Astons myself this was a job too far. I could just about manage the very simple mixing desk and even managed to spin videos in and out but keying in that wretched dog in the right place on screen nearly finished me off!
Music Box also made programmes for broadcast on Super Channel, one of which was the Super Time Club. Another new launch for me as we developed and set up this weekend children’s show. It played for around three hours on weekend mornings. Fortunately we didn’t have to fill all that time – we were making what were effectively extended continuity links between bought-in kids programmes; a bit like the BBC’s ‘broom cupboard’ but longer. We developed new features, such as a film review slot, celebrity interviews and plenty more. That was followed by the launch of another new kids show, Funbus. Oh what fun…. And I’ve even managed to find a trailer to bore you with, thanks to TV Ark:
While we had no budget we did have access to facilities – great camera operators and editors so we used our ingenuity to create features out of nothing. Many a happy hour was spent on the Oxford Street and Tottenham Court Road around the corner from the office doing vox pops with bemused tourists. I clearly remember asking people to demonstrate Michael Jackson’s moonwalk or to react to a man in a gorilla costume (don’t ask me why, I’m sure there was a tenuous link to something!). Cutting the funniest reactions together made for a couple of minutes of cheap telly!
Strangely enough I don’t actually remember anyone telling us what to do – there was a lot of creative and editorial freedom within the format of the shows and we thrived on it. You can get an idea of the kind of anarchy it involved from this YouTube clip of Nino selling off the studio and props on the last show.
Cheap and Cheerful TV! Oh – and the hours spent sitting alone in a two-machine edit suite cutting my own montages and short inserts together, crying for help when the damn thing crashed… It may sound archaic now but as they say what goes around, comes around and the latest generation of young TV-makers are probably sitting at their desks through the night editing their own features on their desktop.
We provided our own props – whether the old wind-up record player I’d dug out at Camden market some years before, or the day I drove in with all my pot plants to create a jungle scene in the studio. Needing a still for a green screen backdrop I even supplied my own photos, taken on my backpacking trip through Africa.
And my own personal image had an overhaul around this time too. I started at Super Channel dressed in M&S pleated skirts and twinsets but Music Box was a world of the super cool. Suddenly I was sporting ra-ra skirts, lace fingerless gloves, short hair and very long dangly earrings – definitely channelling Madonna in her early years! Strangely enough I had to undergo a similar transformation when recently working at the MTV studios in Camden. But we’re jumping ahead again…..
Coming up next, a topless Carol McGiffen, meeting Kylie Minogue in the kitchen, tabloid scandals and adultery. Don’t want to miss that, now do you? Then subscribe now to be sure you don’t miss it when it comes!
Lessons from this chapter?
Don’t waste time complaining if you don’t have a big budget. You learn so much more from having to use your ingenuity to create low-budget shows. Low budget does not mean poorer programming, it just means you have to think more creatively and that, surely, is what the job is all about. If you can make your show better by working through the night on your own desktop then why not go that extra mile (just don’t trying doing it every night!).