A trial by fire as new presenter Paul experiences the chaos that is open talkback.
I was sitting in the consulting room having a mould taken of my ear. This was it I thought, you’re here, a real television presenter getting your very own earpiece. This earpiece enabled the director in the control room (or the gallery) to pass on instructions to newsreaders and presenters during a live broadcasts. As I was to quickly find out, this could not be a practiced skill, you simply had to experience and go with it.
Now, there were two types of ‘talkback’. Open and closed. Closed required a switch in the gallery to activate and, until it was, you didn’t hear anything. This is the ideal situation, you know when the director is explicitly telling you something. Open, now that was something else! Every sound in the gallery and every microphone was simultaneously fed into your ear while you were presenting. And we had open! Countdowns, instructions to both the cameramen and the vision mixers, as well as directions for me were all fed relentlessly into my ear.
I quickly learnt that those in the gallery had little concern for the presenter. To some we were just the “turn” with massive egos and high salaries (to be fair this was sometimes true). In fact, if when filming, we did addressed the camera directly (called a piece to camera) the editors called it a “Hello Mother.”
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Early in my career, with my new earpiece firmly connected, I discovered how distracting open talkback could be. I was interviewing a senior politician when I suddenly heard the word ‘Tenerife’. Panicking I thought, Tenerife? What’s that got to do with the employment figures? It was quickly followed by a snort of derision. “Tenerife, I wouldn’t go there if you paid me. Now Majorca, there’s somewhere I can recommend.” It turned out that the vision mixer had recently returned from Tenerife and the director was not impressed. And, as my interview dragged on, every member of the gallery joined in on the discussion sharing the best place to go on holiday! In fact, it continued until the programme assistant interrupted with “wind up Paul”, a simple command to end the interview.
Another director, when faced with a traumatic breakdown of communication on another programme took to standing up in the gallery and shouting “Chaos, Chaos!” down my earpiece, interesting…
One of the worst experiences I had was only resolved recently during a discussion with an old colleague. At that time, I was the “Anchor” (or lead presenter) on a live late-night results show that followed a tightly-fought local council election. As the results were expected to be spread out it was decided that only a small staff was needed.
The show began well, results and analysis were fed by Digi prompt (rolling scripts shown just below the camera) and notes were quickly passed to me by the floor manager and, of course, open talkback was delivered through my earpiece. However, it soon became apparent that the various counts wanted to be the first so the results started flooding in. The producer rapidly became overwhelmed and I found notes and scripts coming in from all angles. I could have coped with that but in my ear all I could hear was discussions between Director and Producer. “Tell him to read this” said the producer. “No we’ve read that” said the director, you need to concentrate. “Should we go to the interview?”
Then, nothing…the producer went quiet…
My good friend Andy Leitch, who had just started at ITV had been given the task of minding the ‘graphic artist’ who was in charge of creating the visuals for the election results. An artist he may have been, but speller he was not. Several local towns had been rendered unrecognisable, appearing more like Himalayan Mountain villages. Andy was tasked with stopping the worst of it. When the graphic artist excused himself Andy became spare and thought he’d take a quick trip to the canteen to examine the trays of sandwiches laid out by the cooks. He was about to make his choice when the producer, who had disappeared from my earpiece moments before, walked in. Even after all these years the expression on the producer’s face could still be recalled. As Andy put it “blank, no one at home.” It seemed like the graphic artist was back at it and doing his worst!
“Are you ok boss?” he asked the producer. No answer. Then brushing past Andy, he took the large tray of sandwiches placed them on the floor and began jumping on them and then walked out.
Ah! So that’s where the producer went, I thought. It was odd that he had just disappeared, but trust me, live Television can do that to a person.
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.