Category Archives: BBC

From the memory archives.

This story is one I’ve told many times in person,  so if you think you’ve heard it before you can go and have a beer or something while I get it off my chest.

I was reminded of it when Andrew Steele, my former boss (well, my former-boss’s boss’s boss but who’s counting?) told it as part of his valedictory address at the combined summer barbecue and retirement party they held at BBC Park Western on Thursday night. This is the full, true (as far as I can remember) and unexpurgated reality.

It would have been March or April 1990. I’d been a cameraman, a fully fledged, post holding cameraman, for rather less than a year, so I was still pretty much the new kid on the block.  There had been torrential rain and flooding in parts of North Wales and one town, Towyn near Llandudno in Conwy, was apparently particularly badly hit. I was sent up there to cover it. For reasons I don’t actually remember I didn’t have Denis Howard my usual sound recordist (sound recordists, those were the days, eh?) for this. I was temporarily partnered with someone who shall remain nameless –he’d been a sound man for a few years having started a little while after me.

We drove up to Towyn and the next day filmed around and about for a while. Towards the end of the afternoon we realised it was approaching high tide and went out to an area where the sea had come over the defences and was inundating the railway lines. I got some nice pictures of all that and we headed back to the car to take the cassette to the link truck a couple of miles away.

That was when we found it had all gone a bit wrong.  We’d driven up the main road with no trouble but–well remember I said it was approaching high tide?  The sea had come in and flooded the road both  in front of and behind the car. We’d parked on a bit of a high spot so the car was more or less dry but there was no way we could drive through the new lakes on either side of us. We didn’t even have a clear idea of how deep the water was.   We were trapped.

I called the producer at the truck and explained and we settled down to wait.  After a while the BBC Breakfast crew came past. They’d had the foresight to fly up to Liverpool and hire a Range Rover so they were still mobile. They took the pictures off us (“Nice pictures,” someone said later)  and we waited a bit more.

It was getting dark when I decided I could see the waters receding. I don’t think they were; I suspect I saw what I wanted to see but that’s hindsight for you. I told the sound recordist it was shallow enough to  try driving out. He started the car and we edged cautiously into the pool.

We got about twenty yards before the engine sucked up a lungful  of water and died. I shouldn’t have been surprised; the water was about level with the doorsill at that point. We tried starting the car but (obviously) it wouldn’t and that flattened the battery. Now we were even more stuck.

Ages later, or it may only have been half an hour, a fire engine came past and the crew, bless ’em, stopped to see if they could help. They tried jump starting the car but even the huge battery in the truck couldn’t get us going. (Of course it couldn’t. The cylinders were full of water. ) Eventually they towed us out of the flood to a safe bit of dry land near the links truck. We grabbed our camera gear, locked up and walked the rest of the way. I think we cadged a lift back to the hotel with the the second news crew. The next day I saw the car on the back of a low loader being taken home.

One of the nice things about the old job was the cameraderie. After a wet, miserable day like that you get together with your colleagues and have a drink and chat and cheer each other up. I tried to buy a round for the four of us  in the bar and couldn’t find my wallet. Panic. Where the hell had it got to?

I figured it out eventually. When the fire brigade had dragged the car out of the flood I’d dug out my wallet to give them a tenner (“…for the widows and orphans fund” as Andrew said in his speech.) I was wearing waterproof overtrousers at the time and must have put it back through the pocket slit but not into the actual trouser pocket below. The wallet was probably halfway to Ireland by this time.

It took a while to live all this down–in fact I’m not sure I ever did. Even as recently as last year people were still making jokes about not sending me to cover flooding.

One of the reasons I couldn’t live it down was because the other cameraman on that job made it his business to spread the story about and  keep it alive. Fate saw that he suffered for it though.

About six months later we were, again, both on the same story– a miner’s rally and conference near Durham. I was working for Newsnight; he was again on news.  He was covering a march and at some point his sound recordist, a really nice bloke on attachment from TV studio sound, dropped the car keys. That would have been awkward but survivable given that they had a set each. The problem was that  the keys had the registration number on the tag. Someone–probably a miner–found them, located the car and in what we surmised was retaliation for the BBC’s perceived bias in reporting the miners’ strike some years earlier, drove it into a field and set fire to it.

Total write off, along with a fair bit of expensive TV gear. Not the camera, that was in use, but quite a lot of other stuff. The blackened skeleton of the steering wheel was on display behind the assignments desk for years.

So now I could point out, every time my fraternal colleague had a few beers and began the story of how I drowned a car, at least when they’re wet, they’re that much harder to burn.

 

 

 

The final party.

One of the things I’ve enjoyed about the last few weeks is that I never seem to have been far from some sort of  party. I was bought lunch (a very up market burger) on my last operational day; we all went down the pub on my birthday; I had a barbecue in my garden a few days later and on Thursday just gone I was invited as a retiree guest of honour to what is becoming the annual summer party at the BBC News operational base in Park Royal.  They get caterers in to do the barbecue properly,  lay on some beer and wine (and soft drinks, don’t forget the soft drinks)  and just relax for an evening.  They chose the date in the hope that it would be a quiet spot between big stories–after the World Cup and Commonwealth Games but before the Scottish referendum and the party conference season.  This year they got Bob Prabhu to issue a general invitation through his retired staff newsletter.

It was already going when Karen and I turned up. Plenty of people eating and drinking and just about the first person I bumped into was  an old picture editing hand who got the evening off in the right spirit with an anecdote about the old days. Apparently he showed up to edit on a job I was doing and I promptly forced the camera on him because I needed the loo.  I’ll have to take his word on that because I don’t remember it at all. All I can say is that I knew he’d cope because we’d done the basic ENG course together thirty years ago.

Then I was accosted by a someone I knew by sight but had not ever had an occasion to speak to–Andrew Steele, a senior manager in Operations. He’d actually been my manager about three levels removed for the last  year or two but somehow our paths hadn’t crossed.  he said he wanted to introduce himself because in an hours time he was going to severely embarrass me and I should at least know who he was.

That was nice.

We had a burger; we drank beer (They got in some good stuff. London Pride and Marston’s Ped for a couple although unusually I ended up drinking San Miguel, mostly because it was kept cold) and soon  Andrew called the meeting to order.

After a few words about the trials and tribulations and successes of a stupidly busy summer he took us back to 1979. Margaret Thatcher and so forth and how, on the 29th October, a young man called Roy Gillett started with the BBC and I held my breath

It was mercifully brief. He didn’t give a full rundown of my time, just mentioned that I was one of only a few who’d come through engineering to the camera unit (actually he reckoned I was unique in that respect but I don’t think so) and only told one embarrassing anecdote: a tale from 1990 about how I drowned a camera car in Wales, losing my wallet in the process.  You can read my version–the true version– of that incident here.

Then he gave me a leaving  gift . Another present! I thought the assignments desk had taken care of the leaving present but here was another one.  I scrabbled to unwrap it as Andrew segued from my departure to saying goodbye to Andrew Latham, who’d been running Operations for many years and was also leaving.  I got the parcel open and…

OK, I wasn’t quite as stunned as I was when I got the paintings from Karen (here and here) but it was quite a shock.

Some history. When I left Manchester  (UMIST)in 1979, a bunch of friends got together and got me a leather beer tankard with the UNIST Socials logo on it. I still have it. I never actually drink out of it; I suspect it would be unwise after thirty five years. At the very least it would need to be re-conditioned (soaked in beer for a couple of days) but I keep it on display in the living room.  Steve Hughes, who was part of that team,  had the idea to do it again, for the sake of symmetry. He conspired with a mutual friend, Jackie Burns, who knows people in the art world and recommended the craftsman  and with Karen whose task it was to get my precise joining date out of me without spilling the beans (because it seems HR couldn’t oblige)  and commissioned a leather tankard with my career dates.

And as I stood there gazing at it in disbelief, Andrew thrust the microphone at me.

I babbled. I gabbled. I’m not entirely sure what I said. I think I eventually burbled something about thanks and how the two mugs perfectly bookended my career. There is a threat of a video. Bob Prabhu was filming the whole thing for prosperity. If it goes on Facebook I beg you not to watch it.

And with the formalities over, we settled down to some serious partying. I was pleased to see a couple of recently retired  colleagues show up, including Monty Johnson who gave me advice on being retired (get up in the morning!) and Dave Heath. Everyone I ever speak to who has retired has never regretted it. I was amused to find I’d become the advocate for leaving. Several serving members told me they were seriously considering their options and I told them, with all the authority of my three weeks’ experience of retirement, Go For It.

I got a couple more little leaving tokens from Grant Henderson (wine!) and Alan Murdey, which touched me greatly and we eventually weaved our way home when things wound down at about 10.

I managed not to take any usable photos at the party itself (camera in self-timer mode, photographer in  beer mode) but here’s one from the next morning: me with both mugs.

Mugs1

 

I look pleased I think

So thanks to Steve, Andrew Steele, Karen, Jackie , Bob Prabhu and everyone who came to Park Western that night and gave me a great send off.

Maybe I’ll see you next year.

 

Courgettes, I’ve had a few…

Sorry about that. One of the things I’ve been doing for the last ten days is helping Karen harvest her kitchen garden and the aubergines and courgettes are coming in.

So what is retirement like?
I don’t know yet. I don’t think it’s quite sunk in.  At the moment it’s a bit like being on leave, or in the middle of a long weekend. I spent the first three days getting the house ready for having a few people round for a barbecue. We got in enough booze to launch an ocean liner only to discover that everyone was driving. I’m now self sufficient in beer and wine for months and the freezer is bulging with burgers and sausages.  Then I came over to Southend and relaxed for a bit. Swimming, cycling, bringing in the veg–exactly what I’d do on an August weekend any other year.

Something inside me still hasn’t quite disengaged. Several times over the last week or so I’ve seen a news item or a friend’s Facebook update from location and instantly thought, that will be my job soon. No it won’t! But the gut reaction is still there. Yesterday I briefly found myself wondering when it would be my turn to stake out Cliff Richard’s place in Berkshire and this morning I had a moment trying to work out where I’d park for the Ecuadorian Embassy.

“I don’t miss this at all” I commented on Facebook.

“Liar” came the response.

The truth is perhaps somewhere in between, but rather closer to my comment. There are things I’ll miss, but not so many I want to change my mind.

Definitely “…too few to mention.”

 

 

 

 

The Present

My OH, the lovely Karen decided that a Significant Birthday needed a Proper Present. So she commissioned a couple of paintings from a Liam O’Farrell.

Here they are on my wall.

Pictures1

They’re studies of the Old Bailey and the Royal Courts of Justice with a slightly forlorn cameraman in the foreground

Bailey RCoJ

The Old Bailey has a lone cameraman trudging down Old Bailey to take up his position in the early morningDeatil1

and the RCoJ features the cameraman and his correspondent doing a  piece to camera

detail2

Karen tells me she sent the artist every photo of me on location she could find so he got the idea–and then he filtered it through his style. Apparently he loved the  the woolly hat (which I was wearing the very first time she met me at the Bailey eight years ago; a story I will come to sooner rather than later) and really wanted to include it.

I think they’re wonderful and I think in some ways  the hat says everything.

Thank you so much dear.

 

…Gone

So that was it. My very last official day at the BBC.

No one expected me to film anything (although I did take the precaution of ringing in at 7 o’clock, same as usual, just to make sure) so the schedule was up to me.  I had a few bits of admin to do and then I was going down the pub where I would attempt to stay upright and coherent at least until Karen poured me into a taxi.
First up, handing back my camera and stuff.  I had a relaxed  start, walked round the corner to the BBC’s engineering base and hauled the stuff out of the locker.
photo (3)

Couldn’t resist one last selfie–if I can call it a selfie when someone else actually took it.
The maintenance manager and I stepped through his list and he didn’t grimmace  too much at the occasional ding or evidence of  <cough> wear and tear.   I even had everything on his list still in the kit.

Job one, <tick>

At New Broadcasting House later that afternoon I handed back the laptop that I’d never edited on. I tried to hand in the phone but they told me to keep it until the number got transferred to my new handset.

Job two. <tick>

Then–the surprise. The assignments team took me to one side and produced tea and cakes; a few then someone made a short speech thanking me for my efforts.  At that, Louise Croft produced a card absolutely crammed with good wishes, a bottle of what I am assured is top notch wine (Chateauneuf du Pap) and two magnificent cut glass goblets to drink it out of.

I was stunned speechless. (and not for the last time that day either but we’ll get to that) It wasn’t something I was expecting and I was rather touched. <sniff>

Then: the pub. I got there a bit after Karen did having got slightly wrapped up in tidying my BBC network area but she bumped into a producer she knew slightly

I lost track of who came. A couple of dozen at least. I lost track of who bought me a beer and who I bought beer for. I think we drifted away sometime after ten. A good night. Masons arms

That was about half the number who came. I won’t name them all; they know who they are. Thanks.

The highlight of the evening though was the present from Karen. Entirely unbeknown to me she’d commissioned a couple of paintings from one Liam O’Farrell. They show the Old Bailey and the Royal Courts of Justice with a tiny cameraman in the foreground.Paintings

That was when I was really, truly struck dumb. They will have pride of place on my walls for ever more.

RoynKaren

We got a cab home (courtesy of the app on Sara Shepherd’s phone) and collapsed into bed to sleep it off.
And just so you know, I didn’t have that much of a hangover.

The presents

Presents

‘Poo from Bobski Prabhu and craft ale from Sara.

Many, many thanks to everyone and I may see you again at future events.

 

 

 

Going, going…

Thursday was almost certainly my last day on camera for the BBC. I have one more day on shift, next Wednesday, but that’s going to be taken up with handing back my camera kit, editing laptop, phone, ID and other stuff. Unless various kinds of gooey stuff hit the fan in a big way between now and then I won’t be expected to film anything.

Yes; curiously, some of us still casually use “film” as the verb despite the fact that it’s been thirty years since we switched to tape and I’ve never shot a frame of film in my career. We’ve been through three different cassette formats and now shoot on solid state memory cards but the terminology seems dug in. It’s less common to hear the edit suites called “cutting rooms” but it has happened.

If I’d thought I was going to get an easy ride, a gentle, relaxed day at the end of a career I was sadly mistaken. Just as I was going home the night before I was handed the call sheet for a six o’clock start: a two camera interview in the NBH building with the outgoing CEO of energy company Centrica.

It wasn’t anything particularly challenging, but I could have done without needing to get up at half past four. Especially when I actually had to get up at half past three, unable to sleep. Still, it meant I was unlikely to be late.

The job went off painlessly enough and I was a bit chuffed that John Moylan, the correspondent took a minute to wish me all the best for the future.

Another quick job in the building followed and then, after a couple of large coffees, came the call. Could I please set up on the Piazza at the front of the building for an interview at midday?

Of course I could.

That, it seemed to me, was liable to be IT. My last job. Ever. My crack of dawn start meant I was supposed to be back in West London at half past three and allowing for travelling I didn’t see time for any more shoots.

My last job. Better get it right then.

Don’t panic, I got it right. I did keep obsessively checking that I was turning over; (See what I mean about the terminology? Memory cards don’t turn) it would have been mortifying to make that classic mistake at the finish. (I did do it once, in about 1995, and when the pain has faded in ten or twenty more years I might write about it)

I got the producer to take a couple of photos for posterity.

PiazzaMe

Perhaps I could have tucked my shirt in but then again it’s how most people will remember me.

piazza3

The guest is a James DeWaal from Chatham House, the international affairs think tank and he’s talking to correspondent Nick Childs about NATO’s response to Russian aggression.

 

 

And the camera’s eye view.  I can’t post a video due to filesize restrictions so here’s a grab

Piazza4

Admire how I threw the background out of focus.

And that was it. Unless  a truly major story–and it would have to be Senior Royal Death major I think– breaks in the next three days that is probably  the last thing I’ll ever shoot for the BBC.

I have to say It didn’t feel that momentous.  The sky didn’t darken and lightning didn’t flash. There was no portentous synthesiser accompaniment swelling in the background. I handed over the card, wrapped up and took the kit back to the car.

And apart from the very nice lunch the desk took me out for, thank you all, that was the end of the day. One more to go and I’m as free as a bird.

 

Why?

Camerasutra

So why am I retiring from what quite possibly could seem to be one of the best jobs there is? I mean we get to swan around the world at someone else’s expense, stay in four star  hotels and get front row seats at the best events, don’t we?

Well not really, no. And over time I may explain the reality of this peculiar line of work.  But it’s very far from the worst job in the world either. Looking back it’s probably one of the  the best and most interesting jobs I could reasonably expect to have had had given my qualifications, experience and aptitudes. I was lucky to fall into it. And I did fall but again, that may be another story for another post.

None of which explains why I’m retiring. I think the most succinct answer is, “Because I can.”

Six months ago I got a letter from the BBC’s pension fund. Six months hence my pension would, for want of a better term, mature. I would be sixty years old and have forty  years worth of contributions (the maximum) in the scheme. (I chose to pay slightly increased contributions from the word go in 1980)

For old gits like me that means  a full, index linked final salary pension which, I have been reliably informed by previously retired staff, is plenty.

(I’ll insert here the standard apology to my younger colleagues who’ve had their pension entitlements hacked back. Sorry, guys, but there’s not a great deal I can do about it. )

 

At the same time I was noticing that the job–at least for me– was becoming increasingly routine and even, on occasions a bit tedious.  That was partly my fault I suppose for not keeping up with the technology and learning laptop editing or one man satellite truck operation and a handful of other new skills but there you go.

The Old Bailey has a certain charm occasionally but getting up at 04:30 on a cold February morning to go and stand there for several hours in the rain is not inspiring.

And I was going to be sixty. The job was getting increasingly physically harder with more to carry . (Many colleagues have spinal issues. Something I have, thankfully been spared, but for how long?) In short, I was getting tired. Why not go while was I’m still healthy and with–I sincerely hope–many more years to find something else interesting to do?

So I talked it over with Karen, the other ‘arf, and in April, after a morning standing in Downing Street for little apparent purpose, I told by manager I was off on my next birthday.

I don’t think it came as much of a surprise. He probably knew I’d turned down a trip to Glasgow for the Commonwealth Games on the grounds that I might be retired before they ended. It didn’t actually work out like that but it would have meant being terribly busy at a time when I’ve been making strenuous efforts to wind down.

That’s all there is to it. I can’t do it for ever, so I chose to stop when wanted rather than go on a bit too long and have someone whisper in my ear that I really ought to stand aside.

If you want to try to talk me out of it–although it’s a bit late–comments are open.