Television is an invention that permits you to be entertained in your living room by people you wouldn’t have in your home. ~David Frost
And today, Matthew, it was my turn. If you snorted Cheerios through your nose, I can only advise you to upgrade to a less lubricious brand of cereal. I spent another three minutes in Tellyland today, as a guest of Auntie Beeb’s hospitality, which for me is a novel enough experience to be worth talking about, although to the magic elves behind the curtain, I’m sure it’s as commonplace as custard.
They sure move fast in Tellyland: a phone call on Friday for a slot on Monday (somehow I’ve sneaked onto a last resort Rentagob Rolodex under ‘S’ for schools, or ‘O’ for opinionated), and the machine sparked into life. And it’s slick, like the Vatican. When they say ‘the taxi will be outside the front door at 6:20’, then Shazam– there it is at 6.15, accompanied by a text telling you what car and where. The cars are agreeable without being ostentatious, as if to say, you are important, but we are not profligates. The drivers are conversational without ever actually tipping over into intrusively racist or aggressive. The cab is deodorised but without the Alpine Forest Little Tree dangling from the rear mirror. And so on.
BBC White City is as familiar as every episode of Blue Peter, like a film set of Children in Need; it is, to be honest, a utilitarian and oppressive looking structure, no doubt much loved by the kind of architects who swoon over post-modernism and high rises, but wouldn’t actually live in one. Stalin would feel affection; Hitler would find the brickwork shabby. But it is what it is, and what it is, is an icon. And walking into an icon is always exciting. Ask Ray Charles at the Oscars.
The foyer was unmanned; in fact the whole building is surprisingly empty at 7.30 in the morning; perhaps I was expecting Terry Wogan delivering the milk, and Brucie scarecrowing through the corridors. At the desk I saw a box of poppies, which I had worried about in the cab: Poppy or No Poppy? Being of a generation that never learned its manners, I couldn’t tell if Remembrance Sunday marked the beginning or end to the season. What a minefield. So I grabbed what I assumed was a complimentary memorial flower, and left a guilty quid in the box.
Ted showed me around. I have to say, everyone there at that time was charming; exceptionally so; charming in an early morning way that I have never experienced, but given that my sole experience of early shifts has been opening restaurants, I expect that bin men, fishmongers and alcoholics aren’t a fair comparison. The Green Room (which is so tiny as to suggest that I had swallowed a tart with the words ‘Eat Me’ hand piped in icing on it) was, licence hawks, Spartan but agreeable; coffees and pastries, rather than the Champagne Trolleys that Clive James memoirs had led me to believe. There were a succession of friendly, youthful looking people dressed in shabby-chic who all looked enthusiastic, intelligent and glad to see you. It must have been their superpower.
After the greetings and the thanks, they sit you down (where I met my other participants, a lovely woman campaigning for more anti-bullying legislation), and we watched people from the Plasma Screen TV on the wall magically turn into real people as they walked off the set and back into the room. Honestly; it’s like watching a cartoon come alive, and you find yourself doing the double take that famous people presumably get all the time. Then I was taken into make-up, which for a man is an uncomfortable experience at the best of times and frankly, I can’t even imagine what that time would look like. Let’s say it’s odd to be powdered and brushed, and simply understand that without it, I would give the cadaverous appearance of Dot Cotton and my flesh would glow with Celtic waxiness.
Ten minuets before show time, I nipped off to the loo. Staring at the porcelain wall, a manly whole urinal away from the only other user, a well known face from the box stepped in, and placed himself between me and Barrabas. ‘It’s busy in here!’ he said, in a way that would have brought him nothing but pain in a Glaswegian pissoir. Telly folk! ‘Perhaps we should form a Barbershop Quartet,’ I said, trying to respond in kind. Fortunately it got a Mexican chuckle that I believe is rare in such situations.
Then we were led through to the studio. Have you ever seen the set of the Today show, or Tonight with Jay Leno, that kind of thing? Well it’s nothing like that. This is the British version. There’s about five people including the presenters and the sofa, and if there is a producer somewhere holding one finger to his ear and saying, ‘Camera five go to the profile in six…five…four…’ then I have yet to see him. This is the austerity Beeb; this is the Beeb facing off to a belligerent coalition of Murdoch-fanciers. The lining might be Damascan silk and ermine, but the top cloth is most definitely Yorkshire cotton.
Just as I sat down and the floor manager carefully threaded a mike onto me, she looked down at my lapel: ‘Bill and Sian aren’t wearing poppies. You can of course do what you like, ‘ she whispered, ‘But they’re not wearing one.’
I took mine off, lancing my thumb seconds before the camera cut to us.
Almost alone in the studio, it felt like we were having a chat in someone’s front room (were that someone Chris Tarrant, or Philip Schofield). The minimalism was a blessing, because it clears all nerves. Bill and Sian are, giving them both their due, flawless. It makes me realise that ‘broadcaster’ is actually a professional job, rather than just something that ex-Big Brother contestants claim to be once they’ve done a few live spots down the Inferno (Clapham North’s premier nightspot). If you saw it, then you’ll know it was over in a flash; we got bumped later and shorter because some Somalian pirates decided to release two hostages on the same morning I was on the sofa, rather selfishly I thought, but then as pirates I suppose they know no decorum or sense of occasion.
Two minutes after the interview, I’m stepping into a taxi and it’s all over. The amount of thought and planning that goes into that short slot was boggling; some people put less into planning a wedding. And as I pulled off, I noticed something tucked away in a corner of the forecourt that warmed my heart in all four chambers: a police box. An old fashioned blue police box. This was the BBC, you see. A seven year old child inside me hooped and whooped as we drove away.
Just because your voice reaches halfway around the world doesn’t mean you are wiser than when it reached only to the end of the bar. ~Edward R. Murrow