Working Lives

Behind the Scenes in Broadcasting (1985-2003)

Location: Norwich

Diane worked for the BBC and Anglia Television in Norwich in the late 20th century. She did bookkeeping and worked the autocue. It could be very exciting, like the time when the news of release of the hostage John McCarthy had to be held back till the last moment.  It was all very interesting, fascinating work, meeting different people and different personalities.

I worked for Radio Norfolk for 13 years, doing their books, payments and such like. I started in this position at the age of 41! Going into media never entered my mind. I had a very serious illness for a year and had to stop work. I had been doing secretarial work in several different places. Previously I was a hospital secretary in the Norfolk and Norwich Hospital, and I was there when the Queen Mum came down to open the new maternity unit. But eventually I started looking for some part time work when I was well enough to go back.

I began again by working part time doing the books for a private television company ‘Imago’ that filmed very intensive films about animals, such as ‘Rogue Elephants’ and ‘The Anaconda’. I often see them on air now and I think there were programmes about tigers and lions also. They did a whole series of programmes for Discovery Channel and I think for Planet, as well as National Geographic. I did all the finance, looked after their stationery and made sure everything was provided. If people were going abroad I had to sort out the currency, organise where they were staying, and all the insurances. Everything had to be paid and accounted for. It was very interesting and I do remember seeing one programme on sharks being recorded. It was a bit frightening, but interesting. The programmes were all recorded on site, all outside broadcast. They also did a big series on Whipsnade called ‘Animal Park’. It was similar to their other productions but all about Whipsnade. The boss I worked for moved to the BBC when he was made redundant and suggested I go and work for them also.

So I rang up the BBC just on the off chance and said ‘Do you have any work?’ An American lady (who actually rang me last week from New York as we are still in touch) said ‘I have just been allocated some money to take on an assistant’. Whatever she asked for I replied ‘I can do that, I can do that – why don’t you give me a trial for a month and if I don’t crack it then fine?’ She said, ‘I’ve got other people to interview’. But she hadn’t as she had only just been allocated the money! I thought well, I’ll give her her pride back as she didn’t want to just take the first one that came along. We eventually worked it out and I did a month’s trial at Radio Norfolk and then stayed for 13 years. So it was completely out of the blue, just pure chance. Whilst there my young boss was made redundant, but they kept me on.

While there I did part time work across the road in the local BBC TV studios and worked on the autocue. I was working on news programmes like ‘Look East’ and even the late 10.30 bulletin. They recommended me to Anglia Television and I did a lot of shifts with the shows there. I worked on ‘The Vanessa Show’, and the ‘This Morning’ programme with John Stapleton. But I had a dilemma. There were several other entertainment programmes coming up at Anglia Television at that time including one with Graham Norton. So I had a very wide range of work to do including autocue and balancing books.

Then my old boss had moved on to a private television company and he wanted me to work autocue for him on contract work. He waited a year until I was free, because I was eventually made redundant.

BBC television and radio merged together to air in ‘The Forum’ in Norwich and a lot of jobs were doubled up. I had therefore worked for thirteen years with these companies concurrently.

The BBC was very exciting and especially the night that John McCarthy was released. People talk about the atmosphere being electric and it was magic. I was up on the same floor as everybody else working behind the scenes. I was not in the gallery where they do the output, but at that point everybody around me kept saying, ‘He is going to be released’. The story was coming through and I just kept moving it down the running order because I couldn’t put it up on the screen until I was told it was actually happening. The story kept moving down and everybody was waiting. I think it was the last item that went out and it was a fantastic atmosphere. You hear about these things but to experience it is wonderful.

The BBC was a very good place to work, but unfortunately I had started there years before and could have used the facilities more. At the BBC it was only news that I was involved in, but at Anglia I did all sorts of entertainment programmes. If somebody in Radio Norfolk wanted to try for a job in the BBC they could get a six months trial and Anglia Television would bring somebody in who’d like to try to get your job. But you always knew you could go back to your old job. You’d got the security even if you didn’t want to carry it on any further. I would have done that, but it was too late in my life to start taking risks. To know that the job that you are doing is safe while you try to move on and grow is a wonderful thing.

As for the BBC radio side it was just a joy for me. I was very lucky as I was obviously part-time, but I thoroughly enjoyed it. When I first started with Radio Norfolk there they were a little bit, ‘Oh, you’re in television!’ sort of thing. But I never had any trouble. People would say, ‘Oh, you’re going across the road!’ But nobody treated me any differently and they were all brilliant. I don’t know if it was in their minds, and it certainly wasn’t in mine, but people never treated me any differently and it didn’t affect me. The boss was responsible for everything and I did all the nuts and bolts. I always had a boss, but in reality I had four bosses of whom three were women. However, the main boss was responsible for over one million pounds in money. As a station we had to pay for everything and get in all that was needed for the work and the running costs. The figures then had to be sent to London, every week, initially in great big ledgers. But all of a sudden these marvellous computers came in. They were absolutely basic but we got the hang of them and managed to send all the information off to London. By the end of my time there it was state-of-the-art where you pressed a button and all the information vanished and London got it instantly.

My second boss – who was a lovely lady – had worked in television doing autocue years before. Everything was  typed up and the paper sheets stuck together and put on a roller. But she was slightly laid back and the rolls of paper didn’t stick well, and once when she was turning the machine round for the newscaster to read it all fell apart! She was the boss but I’d have been mortified if that had happened to me whilst working in live television. There were always backup scripts and whilst I was working at Anglia the scripts started to come in by e-mail, and these would have all camera instructions and lighting instructions in as well. All I needed was the actual text but everything was there for everyone including the VT’s (video tape operators) You just took all that out and left yourself with the text to put on the autocue for the presenter to read. It was brilliant,  all the information needed by everyone working on the show was there! Before, you had to type everything up for yourself. Technology has moved on tremendously. When I worked the  autocue once I’d got the script I loaded the text onto a screen (one of a bank of 35) by pressing a special button. This is in front of me on a screen but is up in big letters on another screen in front of the presenter, so many letters to each line. And I would then turn a button to make it move at the pace that the newscaster or the presenter could read. Some were so fast you couldn’t keep up with them!

Some notable characters

My best memory comes from working with Terry Waite, the gentleman who was captured in Lebanon. He took part in a programme that was aired from the library at the Cathedral, and I had a wonderful day with him. It was quite funny in a way, because me and my husband were trying to move house but we couldn’t sell ours. Three times it had nearly sold but fallen through at the last moment. So I sat having a chat with Terry and was telling him that I was feeling a bit stressed about all of this. I think he had a word with a higher authority, because we had no trouble in selling the house after that day! He had been praying for us. For the last hour of the recording we went right into the roof of the building and the rain hammered on it so hard that you couldn’t hear yourself speak. So the programme couldn’t be recorded. Terry was very generous and said, ‘Should I come back tomorrow and we’ll finish it?’  And one of the sound men said ‘, but you might not turn up …’  – because he had been captured before. He took it all in good part and it was a wonderful moment with everybody falling apart laughing. But we waited a bit, the rain eased off, we carried on, and finally managed to finish the programme. I shall never forget that moment, it’s funny how it stays with you, and it was a special time for all. However, there were other problems also that day. I hadn’t used the outside broadcasting unit equipment before and didn’t realise that you had to charge the batteries. It got to the point where the autocue wouldn’t work, and Terry needed it because the programme content was quite involved. The sound men were very good and got it sorted, but I did panic.

There were times especially whilst working at the BBC when 10 seconds felt like a lifetime. I could be loading the story for a live show onto the autocue and the machine would be going so slow that I could hear the opening music coming up! I never had any real disasters but I do marvel at how I got away with it. It’s a machine, what can you do? Most of the time it was fine but a gremlin got into the works on occasions, and it might have just been an overload, you just don’t know, do you? Well, as I say, when the autocue won’t move when the opening music is coming up, and you’ve got nothing on your screen for the presenter to read, it’s tough. On one occasion all of a sudden, the autocue loaded half way down, it missed the top half of the script completely. I called down to the director and said, ‘Use the script, the autocue is playing up.’ In dodgy times by the time we got through the first news story there would normally be a VT doing a bit of nifty picture work and such like, so things always got sorted. You had to learn not to panic because the newscaster has got a script even if they don’t like using it.

Now Stewart White, he was a lovely chap to work with. I used to say to him, ‘If we could record this news programme in the morning we could all go home.’ He was very efficient at his job and wanted everything absolutely right. But he’d be changing the story on his machine even as the opening music was coming up. I’d then got to load that on as you can’t just change the story! It all had to be printed up on the screen. So when I saw his fingers going I thought, oh no, and he was the chief presenter. I see people come up on screen now  and think – oh, I worked for them!

Paul Ross, Jonathan’s brother, fronted a series of shows and I’d been booked to do a block of 13 but could only do 12 because I had booked to go away for a week’s holiday. And he was not a happy bunny about this. When I did the autocue I would put instructions on the text like ‘look at camera 3’, then perhaps a bit of script, then maybe ‘turn to camera 2’. This all helped them with their presentation. So I did this for him and he liked it. But when I got back after my week off he said, ’Wherever have you been?’ as he’d come to rely on these instructions and the temp coming in didn’t do it. It would have been easy enough for him to ask, but it felt good for me personally to be missed. He’s a very highly educated man and I think he studied classics at Oxford. He brought me a bottle of champagne when the programmes were over.

Always something new to learn

The first day I started at Anglia I didn’t realise that the terminology they used was different as it was entertainment programmes that I tended  to work on rather than factual news. One of the women there was called Lorelei – what a lovely name that is. Nobody really spoke to me as they were all engrossed in whatever they were doing. I thought to myself, ‘I don’t know whether I like this’. I’d been booked for two days on a contract. So the second day I turned up and I said to Lorelei, ‘Everybody is a bit self absorbed.’ She said ‘Well, none of us have ever done anything like this before.’ You could easily think they were being a bit standoffish, but it wasn’t that at all. They were as worried as I was, for all their own different and personal reasons. We were under the direction of a Director and he wanted certain things going on the screen done his way. And he would tell the vision mixer what was being kept on the main screen, and what was going to be cut out. The cameramen would have to make sure he was in the right area for the pieces to be picked up for the vision mixer to sort out. So much going on all at the same time! And there’d be another chap who would be sorting out the names and titles that go at the bottom of TV screens, and these had to be typed up and prepared to be put into the machine in an instant. When the director said ‘I want it now’ he had to be sure that he had got the right name. Very complicated, but also very interesting. So Lorelei was the vision mixer and she told us that this was the first time any of them had done this sort of thing. In fact it was the first time for all of them under this new director, but I was worried as I had only done news programmes before. There were actually quite a lot of women working in TV at that time.

All the autocue operators were women and the BBC News had many women. Penny Bustin was a very good broadcaster, she was one of the important ones, along with Stewart, and Kym Riley. There was also Suzy Fowler-Watt who you see now regularly. Had I known all those years ago that there were other opportunities for us girls I would have tried all the different jobs going as it would have been so interesting. Even with the vision mixing, I didn’t even think about a woman doing it until I saw Lorelei. These jobs were all filled by men at the BBC, but Anglia were encouraging women to work with them and this was something they embraced. But if the stations could not find anyone to fill the available contracts they would bring somebody in from further away, and these were always men! But whatever programme we were all working on we had someone to direct us, and somebody with a stopwatch timing every second of the programme –  the time was critical for getting into the mainstream broadcasting and also getting out. Absolutely critical. There was one  person from the radio station who I did recommend a job in TV to. She tried it for six months but she couldn’t really cope with the pressure, it was so great for her. I went to her retirement party last year and she had stayed in the radio job that she was happy with. She had always wanted to try it and got the opportunity, but realized she couldn’t cut it and her old job was back there waiting for her. The other way of looking at it is that she could have made a success and could have then moved on. But You must count the words to make sure everything fits in. It is very involved, and is not a job for everybody. The quality needed is patience, and you must not panic! Panicking gets you nowhere. You’ve got to deal with the situation as it arises.

It’s show time

On ‘The Vanessa Programme’ they had audiences, and other entertainment programmes also had audiences who would come in for the recording or live show. It’s just like you are now seeing on ‘The Trisha Show’ but I hear that has recently been axed also. The audience would come for the day because we had to record three shows in a row. So they’d arrive, sit through a show, we’d then feed and water them, and bring them back for another one. Sometimes I’d spot the odd regular in the audience and think to myself ‘ I’ve seen you before…’ These people did not get paid for coming in, but they got enjoyment from the day and of course the hospitality. Some parties even arrived by coach and it was very interesting to see how a whole show was recorded. We didn’t have a lot of problems on the shows but I do remember one day at Anglia when I worked on a run of 13 cookery programmes with Phil Vickery. We recorded three a week – and as it happened somebody that I knew was in the audience, but I didn’t realise this until after the filming was finished. We were ready to wrap up and I just casually mentioned to a work colleague  ‘When we started the programme he put on a bowl of chocolate to melt,  but when we finished he hadn’t used the chocolate.’ It bothered me as I had not seen anyone pick it up and no-one had noticed either. But I asked again ‘What’s he going to do with the chocolate that he’s melted, as he told us at the beginning that he was going to use it and he hasn’t.’ So they had to go back and it took another hour to re-record the whole programme again. And this person that I recognised in the audience said,  ‘Why didn’t you keep quiet?’ Well you couldn’t put the programme out if it weren’t right, could you?

 The nuts & bolts of working in television

I did the early morning shift on the days I didn’t work at Radio Norfolk. I’d go in at seven and leave at one. Then for the afternoon shift I’d do two until the last news bulletin. If there were any changes in the schedule I’d just have to stay ‘til it was over. But the stations were very good and they’d send me home in a taxi so I was safe, which I thought was excellent. I could have tea breaks and things as often I liked and there was never any problem. The news would go out in the afternoon,  so with the half-hour programme you would be needed and I had to be there to do that bulletin. It was different towards the end of my time working there with the rise of the five-minute bulletin every hour, and it became the norm for us all to do our own autocue. I think it was foot operated. You put your foot on a pedal and the words came up so you didn’t actually need somebody to turn it for you. Well, it wasn’t a problem and I’m assuming they are still using it. But to me it was something else for them to think about though. When you are live on air you don’t really want anything extra to deal with. But not having been back I don’t know how they do it now and whether they still cope like we did. The wages were excellent. Working on autocue at Anglia was very good. At the BBC I started on basic money and  after three months they gave me a 15 percent rise. So they were pleased with me and I was very glad of the extra. I then got periodic increases and it was very good money compared to the outside marketplace. We all used to say to each other ‘We are very lucky’. If you had worked in the outside world, you would know what it was like. In commerce, it was much harder for a lot less money. I think I started at about £4 something an hour in the office although I could be wrong. That must be twenty years ago, which is a long while so I can’t remember. But my wages were £7 an hour or something like at the radio station. At Anglia TV I was paid £8.75 an hour and it finished up at £12 by the time I left. Had I stayed it would have gone up to £16 an hour at the next  review, so all in all I was paid very good money.

At the BBC there was a canteen. When I first started working it was wonderful, absolutely wonderful. Because Radio Norfolk was just across the road they used to bring over a trolley. And you’d hear over the tannoy, ‘trolley lady’, so everybody would vanish from their desks and rush down to the main office where we’d all be waiting for her. Fresh cakes, rolls – oh they did custard creams with the fruit – everything was freshly made that day. She was very good about it  and we couldn’t get enough of it. We had to pay for it although it was the normal going price. We could also go over to the canteen and buy what we wanted cake-wise, and the meals in the canteen were also superb. The puddings, oh….  But it was nice that she came to us because we’d have a little chat round her, a laugh and a joke and it broke our day up. If I’d been in since 7am, she’d come over about 11 and I’d get a little bit of gossip. I do remember there were times when there was the odd child murder and other horrible things like that. It is a terrible thing to say, but it is just part of doing what you do every day.

Letting go

I stopped working in television when I was nearly 59, because I was nursing my husband. I had to look after him for 18 months but then I became ill myself so I didn’t go back. The Anglia TV work was contract only for so many days, which I did, and I moved between other jobs to fit it all in. Radio Norfolk was my staff job though, doing the books three mornings a week seven to one and any extra on top that was needed, the autocue more often than not. I’d finish at one, have my lunch, and start work again at two. I mean, one day – it doesn’t bear thinking about – I did the Radio Norfolk office from seven to one, went across the road to BBC television and started the two o’clock autocue job, and then got a phone call from Anglia saying they were doing a programme and had been let down so could I stand in? I had a word with the lady at BBC and said, ‘Could I just come go in and help them out?’ ‘Yes, as long as you’re here to do Look East – be back by six.’ So I had half an hour to get myself sorted. I went and did the rehearsals with Anglia – had to walk all the way along Castle Meadow – did the rehearsals and went back to do the BBC television news till 7 o’clock. When that finished I went back to Anglia and recorded the programme I’d rehearsed earlier in the afternoon. You’d never believe it, but when I was walking between the studios I came across a man begging and I thought, ‘Just you ask me for money! I’m doing three jobs today, just ask me for money.’ I would have lost my temper but whether he saw my face … he never asked me for a halfpenny. I thought, ‘You can do what I’m doing you know, work!’. That wasn’t a good day, but I got through it and everybody was saved, weren’t they? It was however a long and exciting day. So you never knew what was going to happen.

I don’t know if people like local radio work more than the television because they are now under the same roof in The Forum whereas we were two separate buildings. Before that Radio Norfolk were in Norfolk Towers in Surrey Street and the BBC TV studios were in a very old Edwardian or Victorian house in St Catherine’s Close on All Saints Green just further along from Bonds. It was a very olde worlde house with a great big winding staircase. Christmas time was really lovely as they put up a tree that went right to the ceiling from half way down the landing. It was really beautiful. All the rooms had very high ceilings and it was a very elegant place.

My husband was a police inspector and he always said ‘You go to work and you never know what’s going to happen in a day with the police.’ And you don’t in any other kind of work do you? But I never got the chance to be fed up. It was all very interesting, fascinating work, different people and different personalities. Yes, the BBC was wonderful for me, absolutely wonderful. I am glad I had that time in my life.

Diane Martin (b. 1944) talking to WISEArchive on 15th January 2009 in Norwich.

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