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Bound for the former Soviet Union
On boarding an Armenian airline Russian Ilyusin 86, it was clear, some hadn't been told that the Berlin wall had fallen and we were friends.
The following took place sometime in the early nineties when I had packed in my job as Deputy Controller at Border Television to make my own television programmes.
It was the early nineties and I was a freelance Producer/Director filming in the Scottish town of Jedburgh with my favourite crew and presenter, David Bean. David was a one off, a brilliant writer and journalist and, let’s just say, an eccentric personality.
Every day about lunchtime I would call my wife to find out if any film work had come in.
Today was different. She informed me a lady called Persephone Miel wanted to contact me and could I give her a ring? “She’s in Moscow though”, said my wife. This was in the days before we all had mobile phones. So, I headed straight to Jedburgh’s nearest phone box with lots of loose change.
“I want a someone to get to Yerevan two weeks from today,” said a very confident American lady. “I need a consultant to help set up a free speech television service and your name came up.” Without the slightest hesitation, I said yes.
I returned to my crew feeling very international and even Lawrence of Arabia-like (goodness knows why, wrong continent.)
“I’m going to Yerevan lads!” “Where’s that?” said David, “Ah, I didn’t ask” I replied. Luckily, David (who considered himself to be the intellectual member of the crew, and actually was) took charge and, following a quick visit to Jedburgh library, we worked out that it was in a place called Armenia.
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Two weeks later, I was aboard an Armenian airline Russian Ilyusin 86 - the only British person among its 200 passengers. There was no food or water, and the air-hostesses, all with curiously orange hair, hadn’t been told the Berlin wall had fallen and we were now friends!
We landed in the dark in a city of more than a million people who had only two hours of power a day their Chernobyl-style reactor. I was met by my bodyguard driver Roland, a tough ex-soviet soldier with a voice that made Louis Armstrong sound falsetto.
On our way to my hotel (loose description) we were stopped several times by police and managed to be fined 20 Som for various alleged misdemeanors. When I asked later, I was informed that this was Armenia, and the police were supplementing their pay.
The next day, I met the amazing, dedicated Internews bureau chief Nouneh Sarkissian, who informed me that what I was going to do was of vital importance to her country and if I wasn’t up to standard I would be on the first plane home. Seemed fair enough.
Over the next few years I returned to Armenia, then Kyrgyzstan and later a selection of other “stans”. I experienced and learnt many things. I felt privileged to be allowed to help these intelligent and dedicated new programme makers. I learnt that a litre of vodka per day would ward off food poisoning (particularly undercooked horse). However, the local distillation gave you a curious pink film to your vision (we were later issued with safe vodka in cans!).
Shortly after I arrived Roland kindly asked me to have a vodka with him. He ceremoniously laid out bread, cheese and a glass of vodka. Barely had I taken the first sip when Nouneh burst in and furiously berated poor Roland, who looked terrified. I later found out that, on a previous occasion, a welcome drink with the last consultant meant the poor man had to be put on the next plane back to the USA! Luckily, I had had full drink training with British film crews and was largely immune.
I also learnt it was best not to travel internally on the twin engine jets bought by former Mig pilots because they couldn’t’t afford spare parts and I also got caught up in a war that was still going on. I had to be smuggled out of one country in a four door Lada with only 3 doors (mine was the one missing). I didn’t share the joke when the border guards, waving pistols took me out of the car and made me kneel in the road to alleviate their boredom…
Most of all, I understood how awful it is to live in a country where the rule of law doesn’t exist for ordinary people. That the victims are always women and children, the elderly and the vulnerable. I realised how much I appreciated the laws in my own country and some years later, I became a magistrate to do my bit to help preserve them.
Note: I called this site “Hopeful Traveller” in tribute to David Bean who, when I asked did he think I could write a book, said “no mate, you couldn’t, you’re illiterate.” By his standards, he was probably right!
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.