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Ringing “Tim” for the time and ending up a BBC Legend.
It was the mid-seventies and Paul Baird had begun his career in broadcasting, or so he thought.
The plan was simple. I was going to get a job at the BBC. I was extremely young with very few qualifications and working as a clerk at a local garage. A relatively new local radio station had opened and I was going to work for them, they just didn’t know it yet.
I formally applied for a position at the BBC but had failed to make the grade. They did, however, take pity on me (I looked about 12 then) and they said I could observe some of their operators. They assumed I would pop in for a few hours. I, on the other hand, quit my job at the garage and started turning up at 5am for the morning shift.
There were few people on in the morning and certainly no managers. I thought, if I made coffee and didn’t get in the way I could learn the job. They were a nice bunch in those days and were very kind to me. I made the coffee, brought cakes and the technicians showed me how to operate the equipment and the newsreaders introduced me to writing for radio.
So far so good, but this is how I nearly blew it…
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In those far off days, one of the first jobs in the morning was to check that all the station clocks were accurate. This, I was told, was of the upmost importance. The time must be accurate, and at all costs. Wow, I thought, this is serious stuff, I’m finally part of the giant machine they call the British Broadcasting Corporation.
To find out the time was simple. Since 1936, anyone with a phone could call “the speaking clock” to check the exact time. Back then, just like today, phone dials also had letters, and it was decided that T.I.M would be the short dial code. For Americans this is quite normal, not so much in the United Kingdom. So, to find out the time you called TIM.
The operator, or station assistant that day was a lovely women called Irene. It was a busy day and as she set up for the morning programme it became a bit hectic. “Paul, can you ring Tim and check the time please?” Wow, what a responsibility. I was getting somewhere at last. Unfortunately, I had not had cause to find out the time by ringing a number in my entire life and didn’t know the speaking clock existed. I did, however, know that the manager, the man at the top, the guy running it all, was called Tim. Perfect.
You can see where this is going. I thought, this is so important that this high up God like creature must have a special clock of his own. So, at 5.30am on that fateful morning I called (and woke) the manager. “Good morning Sir, I am Paul working on the morning shift, could you please tell me the time? The reply was swift “It’s 5.30 and your sacked!”
What made it worse was the manager was renovating his house and living in a caravan. He had a bell linked to the phone from the house to the caravan and had to leave the caravan to go to the house to take calls. On that day, at 5.30am, and in my youthful enthusiasm, I had dragged a very senior BBC staff member through his garden on a freezing winter’s morning.
Well, I couldn’t be sacked because I wasn’t actually employed, but when the manager calmed down he realised that he would “dine out” on this for years as the story swept through the whole BBC and made both Tim and I famous.
I tried to live it down of course. Realising that he would look mean and without a sense of humour if he actually sacked me, the manager relented and I stayed on, perhaps as some sort of mascot!
When, sometime later, I actually got my first BBC staff post in Inverness I thought I had lived it down. How wrong I was. When Alistair Milne, The Director General of the BBC, paid a royal visit to our little station (he was very good friends with the manager), we were lined up to greet him. As he swept in he gave a cursory hello to the manager and came straight to me. He put out his hand and said, “your the person that rang Tim to ask the time. I thought you were just a legend.”
Hopeful Traveller is a weekly newsletter and archive of stories about broadcasting in the 1970s and 80s. It is written by former-newsreader and programme maker Paul Baird. For new stories each week, subscribe. To access our archive, upgrade to paid.
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