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Border TV’s answer to Mad Lizzie
From creative acrobatics to televised aerobics, Paul finds that work can quickly become a workout.
It was the early eighties, I was a Presenter/Reporter at regional station Border Television, and unlike national news, we had to be a little more flexible in our approach.
“If you can’t tuck your dress into your knickers then Border’s probably not the place for you.” So said the head of news some years after I joined Border TV. For those without a Cumbrian sense of humour, what was meant was that if you take yourself too seriously, you weren’t in the right place. I wish I had been given that advice before I joined, as I would have been better prepared for life as a local TV presenter. I must also add that the head of news was a she and the dress only referred to female presenters but, to be honest, it could have applied to us all.
The first thing you realised when working at Border TV was that there were few people, less money or technology than any other TV station in Britain. This meant that you had to work harder, learn faster and adapt quicker.
We were often working against technology, not with it. For instance, this was television and television required pictures but we were often short on these. We only had a few slides in the library. What made it worse was we were using early “chroma key”. This allowed us to read the news in front of a blue screen and a picture could be put behind us. So, as long as we didn’t wear blue (as you would disappear) then it was fine. Now, the problem was, with chroma key combined with a limited library what happened was we’d read a story about fish, and a large salmon would be behind us, appearing to go into one ear and out the other. Likewise, if the story was about water, then we’d use a picture of an old fashioned tap. You can use your imagination on that one.
It didn’t end there. We didn’t have digi prompt. This technology would have allowed us to put our script on a small screen just below the camera. We’d then be able to look ahead, straight at the camera. Well, not a Border. Our scripts were printed, and placed on a desk just in front of us. We’d look down, learn the next few lines, look up and speak, and then down again. We called it “the nodding dog”. Some of the news readers could last 10 minutes, but this took some determination, it was a workout. If we lost our place we were in trouble, and we could have thirty bits of paper to deal with.
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And that’s just the warm up. In one thirty minute programme we might have two film crews, ready to go. We could do two live interviews, then read two news segments and then do a cooking sequence at the end. It was relentless. And sometimes a segment would be dropped last minute and the script wouldn’t be updated, we had to be sharp.
We had to be creative with the way we filled our thirty minute spot. Oh my goodness, did we use our imagination. We had experts on knitting, health, bees, gardening and we had our own doctor and chef!
Our chef was called Tony Stoppani and was recognised everywhere he went. After a busy day out filming it wasn’t unusual for us to arrive at the studio with minutes to go before going live, only to find that not only would we be reading the news and doing an interview with a local MP but also be required to lead Tony through his recipe with a live gas burner, in the studio! It also meant that if we ran out of time Tony would have to cut some corners and we would end up having to taste a raw dish whilst looking like it was amazing.
In 1983, TV AM, the national network morning show was launched and with it a whole new raft of ideas including “Mad Lizzie”. This lovely lady was one of the first fitness “gurus” in the UK and was an immediate hit. Unfortunately for me the head of news had seen it and wanted a Border TV “Mad Lizzie.” So far so good. However, my female colleagues said that, under no circumstances, would they don a leotard and dance about on TV as it would kill their career.
“You’ll be fine” said the head of news as I was sold the idea after a very long day. “I’m not a girl, I’ve never done keep fit and I value my career.” “You won’t have a career if you’re not careful” “and besides, it’s not as if you’re a serious journalist”. To be honest, she was right, and I was really just glad I was working in TV. If it meant putting on a leotard, well it could be worse, I thought.
WelI I needn’t have worried. The two aerobics teachers (both called Sue) were fantastic and quickly helped me prepare 6 inserts. We called it “It’s your Life” and also roped in one of our regular contributors Peter Tiplady, who was also director of health. The viewers loved it.
True, it would have killed a career in national news stone dead, but as the boss said, I just wasn’t that kind of reporter!
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.
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