Sunday, 21 December 2008
I was the late-shift television continuity announcer on BBC1 that evening, and we were into the network's main evening entertainment schedule when word came through from the newsroom that there had been a plane crash in the Borders. Probably a military jet on a low flying exercise, I thought, knowing the Borders as a prime area for RAF training sorties. Some more time went by, and then a clearer picture began to emerge. By the time it became clear this was a large passenger jet, we were broadcasting a lavish and hugely expensive drama production, which had been the subject of major-league promotion and and media buzz. Interrupting such a programme for a Newsflash was not something the BBC did lightly, but this was clearly a major story and - in the days before internet and tv rolling news channels - we ought to get it on air as soon as possible. As soon as Newsroom were ready, the Presentation Director faded the drama to black, I selected the "News Report" caption to my vision output, opened the microphone and explained to the viewers that we were interrupting the programme to cross to Nicholas Witchell in the Newsroom.
As Witchell broke the shocking news to the audience, up in the Pres suite, we faced a little concern of our own: how are we going to get neatly back into the play we interrupted? (This is typical of life in a Presentation department. World changing events may be going on outside, and we worry about the minutiae of making the channel look smooth! But, hey, that's what Pres is there for!) In this instance, luck was on my side. I'd actually been watching the play and enjoying it, rather than - as usual - reading the paper with my feet up. "Don't worry" I said to the Director "Rewind the tape by 30 seconds or so, I'll do a recap of the story so far, then you run the tape when I start waving." (no instant start video servers in those days. Programme tapes needed a 5-second run-up) At that, the newsflash ended, we put up an appropriate caption and I embarked on my impromptu recap, waved manically at the Director at an appropriate point, and we got back into the play. If you ever fancy testing your knowledge and observation of a drama you've just been watching, I heartily recommend doing it live and scriptless on BBC1 as a way of concentrating the mind!!
There was a further moment of mad juggling at the end of the play. News were all set to appear at the programme junction, with a fuller report on the incident. As the credits rolled on the drama, our preview monitors showed a shot of an empty chair on the news set. "You ok, News? With you in 1 minute." Yes, they'd be fine, they assured us. "30 seconds, News. You ready?" Still nobody in the presenter's chair, but still they sounded confident. The producer credit and BBC copyright notice froze, centre frame, and the theme music ended. As the vision began to fade to black, the talkback from News erupted: "Don't come to us, Pres, we can't go ahead!". It's at a time like this that human hands on buttons and faders score big time over a computerised transmission system. With a splendid display of fast fingerwork, we got the BBC1 network symbol up on screen, and I began to chat away on air about the delights to come, while the Director hastily shuffled her options in the main gallery next door. An adrenaline-filled few moments, but we got away with it!
So, that was my Lockerbie night, exactly 20 years ago.
The enormity of the incident itself was brought home to me soon after, as I made the drive from London to Glasgow, for a seasonal break. With me in the car, my wife and my newly born son, Jamie, just a few days old. The route to Glasgow took us up the A74, slowing to a crawl as we passed Lockerbie, since the road was down to half its normal width, on account of the damage the plane crash had caused to the southbound carriageway. Our slow passage past the site afforded us a clear view of the devastation wrought on Lockerbie. Houses, roofless and scorched, starkly illuminated by temporary floodlights, and the enormous crater gouged out at the roadside, where a wing laden with fuel had crashed to earth, unleashing the fireball that vapourised not only bricks and mortar but also the residents within. By now, the crash investigators knew it had been a bomb. On the back seat of the car, Jamie slumbered on. He'd entered the world on the 12th of December and, two weeks on, I couldn't help but wonder just what sort of a world it was that he'd entered.
Tuesday, 9 December 2008
These were simple creations, but utterly charming. No computer wizardry, just humane warmth. As the narration said, of Bagpuss: "Just an old, saggy, cloth cat. Baggy and a bit loose at the seams." For those of us who are also beginning to feel a bit baggy and loose at the seams, these characters evoke some very special memories. So, cheers, Mr Postgate and, as the Clangers' Soup Dragon would surely have said: "Whoo-woo-woop? Woo wu wooooooh."
Thursday, 4 December 2008
This hardy perennial can be guaranteed to pop up every winter, and I swear it only does so to irritate me.
"Motorists" for a start. I'd like to see this term banished to the history books. It's redolent of a bygone age, of the illicit pleasures of Mr Toad, a new and daring pursuit for the well-to-do. It belongs in that era when a smart young cad-about-town would take a young filly for a spin through country lanes, or a family might pack the perfect picnic hamper and set-off with their perfectly scrubbed children for a charabanc outing to a summer meadow, there to meander without care, or bask in the afternoon sun, blowing dandelion clocks and taking in the heady aroma of wildflowers, as the ....... well, you get the picture. The point is, life on four wheels just isn't like that anymore! It may sound like a minor thing, but I actually think that the continued use of this term is damaging, as it allows governments and regulatory bodies to continue to paint the car user as somehow removed from the rest of responsible society. Once you've positioned them thus, it becomes a bit easier to clobber them with draconian regulations, of the sort that require the suspension of normal rules of evidence and legal procedure. After all, they're Motorists, they're not like you and me. Wrong! They ARE you and me, and it's time, I say, for those in authority to acknowledge that driving a car is something that people do, and will continue to do.
Oops...heading off on a rant. Calm down dear!
When is a journey necessary? Well, again, it's all anchored in the past, isn't it? Those jolly country jaunts weren't necessary, but who makes that sort of trip in miserable winter weather conditions? In fact, given the state of Britain's roads and the level of traffic congestion we have today, does anyone really head out there for pleasure? A dark night, blizzard conditions, floods, plage and pestilence? I know: let's go for a drive! I'm not convinced.
As I write this, darkness has fallen in London and it's started to rain again. You wait. Any minute now, some herbert will be on the radio with another of these infernal warnings. Well, I just don't care. Home is where I want to be and that makes my journey necessary.
Wish me luck as you wave me goodbye. I may be some time.
Thursday, 27 November 2008
Thursday, 20 November 2008
The famous Grand Bazaar is something to behold, though the most accurate marketing statement is probably the one offered, with a large grin, by one of the vendors near the entrance: "We won't cheat you as much as the others!".
I'm leaving the ship now, as duy calls back in London. Many thanks to the good folks of Cunard for such a memorable time and, of course, to the TOGS, without whom.....
See you back in Blighty!
All going swimmingly, apart from one poorly TOG who they think might have appendicitis. Either that or she's getting her excuse in early for dodging Alan Dedicoat's karaoke efforts.
Today we anchored off the Turkish port of Dikili. Many of us braved the rain and went ashore to explore its delights. To describe it as a one-horse-town might be to do a disservice to the horse, who may simply have been on annual leave at the time of our visit. Actually, Dikili did have a very nice sweetie shop, a tremendously well stocked bucket emporium and a number of outlets selling shiny fresh fish. Outside each fish shop was a scraggy, but hopeful looking cat. There was also a cat seeking refuge from the rain in the engine bay of the local police car. We returned to the ship, pausing only to neck a Turkish coffee in a Turkish cafe.
I promised myself an early night tonight, yet it seems to have become unexpectedly late. I blame the two TOGS who detained me in the bar. And one of them stole the slice of lime out of my gin. Trying to ward off the scurvy, I suppose.
Must close now. I've just seen the members of the string quartet heading, instruments under arm, for the exit. If they put on warm clothing and strike up with Nearer My God To Thee, I'm heading for the lifeboats, or perhaps just back to the bar.
Tuesday, 18 November 2008
Dickie bows and posh frocks were required for this evening's Black & White Ball. A bit of a shock for me, as this was a late change to the schedule and I hadn't packed for a Formal Night. As luck would have it, Alan Dedicoat had left his DJ hanging in my wardrobe for safe keeping, ready for his return to the ship next week. Only one problem: he and I are about a foot different in height. Nothing the on-board tailor can't sort though. Which is good news for me but may be tricky for Deadly in a few days' time. Mind you, the extra braid round the cuffs may suit him. Don't tell him, will you? By the time he rumbles it I'll be safely back in Blighty.
We're sailing through the night as I write this missive. I was sitting in the comfortably appointed Commodore Club, listening to an entertainer who sounds uncannily like the late Hubert Gregg singing George Formby songs, while I made a thorough assessment of the accommodation for next week's live radio broadcasts, but then I heard the mournful sound of a foghorn off the starboard bow, which appeared to be gradually getting closer. Natural caution made me abandon my position near the front on the foggy side and take refuge with two TOGS from Holmfirth in the ship's Casino. I can't hear the foghorn anymore, which probably means the danger has passed. Or could it mean that those manning the foghorn have simply nodded off? Time will tell. Whatever, I have confidence in the crew of this mighty ship. I'm sure they have someone up at the bow with a decent torch.
Here's a pic of me in action at last night's TOGS' Champagne Reception, with Pudsey keeping a weather eye on proceedings.
Here are a few of the grop, preparing for departure, complete with Pudsey the Children-in-Need bear. I hope the monks don't take exception to his lack of formal attire.
I waved the TOGS off on their adventure and then returned to my cabin for a ship's biscuit and some restorative cocoa. It was just too windy and cold for me to contemplate the hill climb to the famous monastery and, besides, I didn't have room for warm clothing when I packed my case for this trip. I've made good use of my time in the Queen Victoria's excellent Gym, and I'll be poised with the hypothermia treatment when the TOGS return at teatime.
Monday, 17 November 2008
As soon as we were under way, a champagne reception kicked off the TOGS' Voyage in style. We saluted the TOGS and their great achievements in fund raising for the Children in Need charity. And now, at the end of a long and arduous (Don't you mean "drink laden"? Ed.) day, I've now retired to my Stateroom to write these words and, perchance, to dream. Tomorrow is another day, this time in the port of Volos. Assuming, that is, that the ship safely navigates what looks to me like quite a tight path through the various small islands that punctuate the Aegean Sea. It is very dark out there. But I'm sure these guys know what they're doing... Don't they?
Volos has a Monastery, and tomorrow we're going to visit it. Very strict dress code, apparently. Women must wear skirts. Not above the knee. Trousers are right out, it seems. Questions come to mind: What's wrong with trousers? Will the monks be inspecting the skirts for suitability? If yes, how do they avoid studying too closely and giving the wrong impression? Will one particular monk be in overall command of the skirt regime? If yes, will he be called Brother Skirtchecker? One thing is for sure. My journalistic instinct will come to the fore and I shall doggedly pursue answers to these questions and more. Further reports will follow. Probably from a police cell, or possibly the British Consulate.
Manning the TOGS Desk, with (L) PR guru Dan Kirkby, and Alan Dedicoat.
Saturday, 15 November 2008
What do we think? Am I made for the role? Should I set aside some filming dates in my crowded 2009 diary? Do I get the girl?I guess it's over to EON Productions and Barbara Brocolli. Operators are standing by to take your call.
Thursday, 6 November 2008
I can think of a number of convincing reasons why I shouldn't wax too lyrical about all of this. It does expose a number of interesting problems and questions, though.
- Is swearing and cruelty the common currency of young, thrusting, cutting-edge comedy?
- If it is, does it have to be, or will there be something new along in due course?
- How does cutting-edge comedy find its place on a popular mainstream broadcast channel without sometimes causing offence?
- How does an organisation the size of the BBC run an effective system that prevents Really Bad Stuff from going to air, without also strangling creativity in a web of paperwork and rules & regulations?
I don't claim to know the answers!One thing that really strikes me is the changing role of the Producer in radio. When I started in this game, 30 years ago, the Producer was the one sitting in the control room with the running order and the stopwatch. He or she was also listening to what came out of the loudspeakers. Today, on some shows, the Producer is in the studio with the "turn", joining in the fun and games, laughing at the jokes and playing an on-air role in the programme. I'm not levelling criticism at any individuals, but I do wonder if enough thought has been given to the difficulty of retaining objective oversight when the producer has become one of the acts in the circus.
Whatever, in all this, Radio 2 has lost the services of a Controller who knew the station forwards, backwards and sideways. It's very unsettling and we're all wondering what comes next.
Ho hum ...
Wednesday, 29 October 2008
This isn't how life's supposed to turn out. Surely I'm supposed to be the one telling him: "You call that music? Turn that awful racket down!".
Oh dear. Where did I go wrong?
Friday, 17 October 2008
Glamorously located behind a makeshift fence in a darkened corner of the function suite of a top London hotel, poised to announce the names of the nominees, losers and winners at a business awards ceremony. I love doing this sort of work. There's always a great buzz about it. You're a small cog in an extensive machine, working with a highly skilled team who descend on one of these rather anonymous function rooms and, in just a few hours, transform it with set, lights and theatrical magic, into a vibrant venue fit to host an exciting show.
"Voice of God" has become the industry term for my role. It's not my preferred expression, since I don't suffer from delusions of deity (well, only sometimes...). So, what to call it? Announcer seems a bit stiff and formal. Gob on a Stick, some say, but that sounds somewhat unsavoury. Actually, I've yet to find a description better than that coined by my former Radio 2 colleague, the late, and much missed, Ray Moore. "Coughing and barking in the undergrowth" he used to call it. The undergrowth being the decorative potted palms behind which the voice artiste is normally concealed as he barks out his sporadic bursts of unbridled vocal enthusiasm.
And here's another nice place to be. The voice-over booth at National Lottery HQ. The regular occupant is my esteemed colleague Alan Dedicoat, the Lottery's Voice of the Balls. When Alan is on holiday, or otherwise indisposed, it's time to draft in his stunt double ... yours truly! It's a trifle daunting, because Alan is very good and never gets it wrong. But it's live broadcasting, which is my great delight. The trickiest bit is being sure whether the ball tumbling out of the machine is a 6 or a 9. When they are sitting still, it's perfectly obvious, but add a bit of a spin and some sheen from the studio lighting and it can become confusing. There's always that slight nagging fear that I'll become the Voice of the Balls-Up but, so far, we've always got away with it!
Wednesday, 17 September 2008
Friday, 5 September 2008
Someone, somewhere, is training Call Centre and Tele Sales operatives in the infuriating art of asking spurious, pseudo-caring questions. I'm sure it's meant to "humanise" the experience but, for me, it usually winds up making me hate the company responsible.
Cold callers, for example. They're not bad people. We've all got to make a living, after all. But if you've interrupted my busy day, at least have the courtesy to cut-to-the-chase.
Caller: Hello, is that Mr Nove?
Caller: Hello Mr Nove, how are you today?
CN: (manfully fighting the desire to rant on about how my state of health and wellbeing is none of their concern) What can I do for you?
It's not just me, is it? Does anyone actually respond positively to this sort of thing?
Yesterday, I received a new mobile phone. A forced upgrade, after my battered old phone finally gave up the ghost and sputtered to a halt. Once you've got the phone, you charge it up and then ring the Activation line to get changed over from old phone to new. I rang the number and was warmly greeted by a call centre operative in warm Mumbai. I gave my details and awaited instructions. "And how is your life going, Mr Nove?" was what I got. That did it. One short diatribe from me later, he rather sheepishly agreed to get on with the business in hand. Then came a fulsome apology for having asked an inappropriate question. So now I feel bad for having barked at this poor man who's just trying to sound friendly. But what is it that makes his management believe that, when I call a number specifically designated for the activation of new phones, I want to be engaged in discussion about my life?
And ........ breathe .......
Monday, 1 September 2008
Onward into the evening, and the eagerly awaited Fancy Dress Competition with, of course, an expert panel of judges. Ours was a gruelling task, so I'm sure you'll understand that the glasses on the table are there for purely medicinal purposes....
Thursday, 28 August 2008
Mrs N has been doing what all good wives should do, and hectoring me about going to the doctor. I've been doing what blokes do and saying "No, no, I'm sure it's getting better."
Anyway, last night, in a moment of weakness, I thought I'd check out my symptoms on the web. I found a very promising site with a sophisticated Symptoms Checker which allows you to add in all your symptoms so that it can carefully consider your condition. I filled in my list of symtpoms. I shan't trouble you with the gory details. Suffice it to say that they are most of the symptoms you'd expect with a stomach bug! The computer went away to think for a while and then offered a long list of possible ailments. Prominent therein was:
DEAFNESS (an inability to hear sounds)
Er .... am I missing something? I think I might know if I was deaf. And it wouldn't be my stomach that was giving me the clue !
Wednesday, 27 August 2008
Thursday, 21 August 2008
One thing that struck me during this visit is how the US, long criticised for its status as a major world polluter, is now trying all sorts of ways to clean up its act. There are ads on TV and Radio encouraging fuel efficient driving and promoting ways to cut electricity and water usage. Many of the cities are now pushing cycling in big way. In LA, a local high school had done a sponsorship deal with local business to enable it to offer a free bike to any pupil who was prepared to sign an undertaking not to bring a car to school. What a great, positive idea!
Another very smart concept is the placing of bicycle racks on the fronts of all the service buses. An easy-to-use clamp holds the bike in place. The rider stands right in front of the bus driver when he is fitting his bike to the rack, so there's no chance of the driver not seeing him.
It seems like a great way to promote bicycle usage in town. If your working day is such that a bike would be useful for getting around, but your home-to-town commute is too long to make cycling all the way a practical solution, this could be just the ticket. Here in the UK, of course, the only time you're likely to see a bike on the front of a bus like this is when it's been impaled there and the rescue services are still looking for the unfortunate rider!
I'm really taken by these ideas, because they are about positive encouragement and enablement. Quite a contrast, I think, with the British approach which seems, sadly, to be anchored around punishment and taxation.
Tuesday, 19 August 2008
Too much heat, not enough fan. So your hands are scorched, but still wet.
Too much fan, not enough heat. Hands cold, and still wet.
Unit activated by a sensor which requires your hands to be very close to the bottom of the machine, and a few inches to the side of the hole where the air comes out. As soon as you move your hands around, the blasted thing switches off.
Trust me. These devices are sent by hostile foreign powers intent on disrupting our equilibrium. They must be defeated.
Monday, 18 August 2008
This opening gambit is being written 38,000 feet up, on a flight back to London from California. I've been there for a couple of weeks and it’s all come to an end a touch too soon for my liking.
I started my American sojourn on a work footing, with a trip to Los Angeles for an international Voice-over convention. Yes, it did just what it says on the tin: a convention of voice-over artists, from all over the world (though mostly from all over the US), gathered together in a hotel in the aspirationally named Avenue of the Stars, in LA’s Century City. For four fun-packed days, the voice community spoke, and listened, learned and discussed. It was great to put faces to names, kick around ideas on business strategy and discover how many of the challenges are common to all our markets. Such a relief to discover that voice artists everywhere occasionally struggle to find the desired interpretation from such gems of direction as: “Could you do that faster, but slower?” and “that’s a good read, but I’d like it less peach and maybe a touch more raspberry…”.
Curious place, Los Angeles. It is, famously, a city wedded to the car. On the way in from the airport, you can drive for many blocks without seeing a single pedestrian. It’s also, at least in the movies & showbiz districts, a place of some physical extremes. All around you are the skeletally thin, the bleached, the lipo’d, the nipped and tucked and the botoxed. Every so often you see someone who’s dodged the net of manufactured perfection and flies the flag for obesity. But where are the “ordinary” body shapes? They sure as heck aren’t in the Century Plaza Shopping Mall. I know. I lurked there for hours, in the name of scientific research! Security are probably still sweeping the area for the dodgy-looking Limey in the sun hat…
I love California. The sunshine, the breeze, the accents, the attitude, the welcome. I’ve always liked the experience of hiring a car in the US, too. Somehow, car hire in Britain seems rather difficult. It’s expensive, and you come away smothered in extra insurances you weren’t expecting and with the definite impression that the rental company is doing you a big favour by allowing you to borrow one of their precious offspring. I’ve always had better, cheaper, smoother experiences in America, and the pickup in LA was no exception. Things got off to a good start when, slightly overdressed for a Californian summer day, in my I’ve-been-to-a-business-convention jacket, I was greeted by the young lady at the counter with “Hello Sir, you look hot!”. I thanked her warmly for bolstering my faith in my often under-appreciated beefcake rating. She blushed to her roots.
I’d booked a convertible, for the full sunshine experience. I was grateful for the wise words of my friend and colleague Alex Lester, who’d told me to expect a Chrysler Sebring. A fine vehicle, but with a boot (trunk, for US readers!) big enough to accommodate the grand total of a paperback book and a pocket handkerchief once the amazing folding roof gizmo has done its thing. Behold, ladies and gentlemen, the stylish convertible with two cool cats cutting quite a dash on the Californian highway…. And three layers of luggage stacked up on the back seats!
After work in LA, onward to San Francisco for a proper break. More on this in our next, thrilling episode.