13 April 2012

We've found your mother



Goodness me, I appear to have something in my eye. Long Lost Family last night. What an astounding, heartwarming programme.

I was trying to avoid it, as I'm always a bit squirmy about watching television that focusses on the real emotions of real people. I feel a bit intrusive. But eventually I put it on (at 10pm, on ITV 1+1) because Nicky Campbell is a bit of a hero of mine and, frankly, there wasn't much else on. The tweets from people I respected as the programme went out at its allotted time (while I watched a 1970 interview with Brian Clough on ESPN Classic) also persuaded me to take a look.

Official advice may vary, but I suspect the best time to tell someone about their adoption is as soon as possible after the child is old enough to comprehend what it means. The two people who found their birth mothers on Long Lost Family both knew from an early age and had a lifetime of unanswered questions running through their heads. Cleverly, the programme focussed on one parent within one potential reunion and the child within the other, so the viewer got to see both angles; the guilt and despair of the desperate mother, the nervousness and self-consciousness of the child that grew up elsewhere.

Both reunions were incredibly touching, but the one of a mother who clung on to her daughter for the first 18 months of her life before letting her go really got to me. The father of her child had muscular dystrophy and died young; her own parents were ill and soon this teenage mum was looking after her parents, her child and her younger brothers while also having to hold down two jobs. It got too much; it was her GP who gently suggested adoption, and the image of her little girl waving from nursery for the last time to a mother who was too upset to turn round and wave back is one that dried every throat in the country.

50 years on, and they were reunited. The process of doing so was executed poignantly and beautifully, with the exchange of photographs and letters and the two presenters - Campbell and Davina McCall - acting as go-betweens. Campbell himself is a well-known adoptee and is a published authority on the subject, whereas McCall (who is fabulous at proper telly, actually) had a complicated childhood that flitted between France and England while her drunkard of a mother decided whether she ever wanted anything to do with her, and so both were eminently qualified to empathise with the people involved and ask the right questions.

Obviously there was some stage management involved in the actual reunions, and the camera being so close when the two sets of parent and child finally met again felt a tad uncomfortable, but it was still exquisitely done. The rainstorm of apologies from the bereft mothers and the reassurances of the relieved children had me gasping for my masculinity and my Britishness. I struggled, believe me.

It was glorious television, and that it was an ITV production made it all the more remarkable. Naturally, being ITV they had to insert some crassness into the hour that had nothing to do with programme-making; the Genes Reunited sponsor credits were trite and ill-fitting to the tone of the show, while sticking McCall's execrable hair products ad on as the first - yes, the FIRST - commercial after she'd just done a touching piece to camera about an ex-rugby player bursting into tears at a photo of his natural mum - was gruesome to the extreme. And possibly unlawful too.

I'll watch the series now. It's made me realise just how important one's own identity is, whether it's cut and dried from birth or takes 50 years to finally make sense.

11 April 2012

"30 seconds on this, then we need a minute into the ads..."


Double shifts this week - mid-mornings in Bradford, drivetime in Wigan. Nine hours of radio a day, including a tiny chunk of pre-record while I dash from one studio to the other.

Today is even more extreme however; after the drive show finishes at 7, I'll remain in the studio until 10, pressing the buttons and ordering takeaway pizza while football commentary comes down the line.

The technical operator - the T/O, as they're known, and it's always a slash rather than a full stop separating the initials, for some reason - is the faceless hero of every radio station. They are required less than they used to be thanks to networking of stations and updated technology, but nonetheless they are vital and stations can't often run properly without them.

When I started out, computer playout systems only contained the jingles and adverts. The music was still on CD, encased in a protective plastic box and shoved into a Denon player, therefore if you ever needed to pre-record a programme (in my case, once a year - when the group of stations was hosting its annual awards) you needed to make sure a T/O was willing and available.

As I was on the nightshift back then, this wasn't easy. T/Os were casual, paid a small fee shift by shift, and had full-time jobs to hold down elsewhere. Engineers, bank clerks and driving instructors had little sidelines as button-pressers at their local station and luckily for me, the driving instructor had a quiet day of bookings ahead so agreed to come in to "play out" my nightshift while I attended the awards.

The process was laborious. Once permission had been granted and the T/O booked, you then decamped to a studio with a copy of your music log for the given date, put together and printed off with a hurumph of reluctance by your head of music. It was then a case of recording dry links into the computer, trying to make them sound as 'live' as you could. Timechecks were impossible to get accurate, but if you felt confident you could do the odd 'nearly 20 past three' routine, giving you a good three-minute leeway. Nobody on the nightshift was especially arsed about what time it was anyway.

Once each link was done, they had to be clearly labelled ("!!!2AM HOUR LINK 01" - the exclamation marks crucial as they would put the links automatically at the top of the file) and saved into the system. Then you had to write the same file name on the music log, indicating to the T/O which link to play and where. It was then up to the T/O to find the links and play them out over the records. One error meant I would be gleefully nattering about the great new single from the Manic Street Preachers while some dirge from Alice Deejay was actually playing out; hence why you didn't piss off a T/O, as he had the tools to make you look a prize berk. If they were responsible professionals they didn't do that, of course, but I expect radio people have at least one story of a scorned T/O exacting some kind of revenge.

Later, as the technology developed, the need for a T/O to play out a self-contained music show was reduced as the music was now on the system, which meant you could load the whole show yourself and press a button that guaranteed everything would play out in sequence. The only thing that you needed to keep an eye on was timings, especially as off-peak hours meant IRN bulletins and therefore you had to be on the nose. This is how a lot of shows work to this day.

Nowadays, the T/O is needed only for outside broadcasts. Every weekend when you hear a football commentator in a gantry banging on about a striker's eight-game goal drought, there is someone in the studio making sure he sounds good and waiting for the cue to play the adverts and then chat to him off-air, ready for the next swathe of instructions. These guys are also recording the commentary as it goes out and quickly cutting and pasting goals and incidents into new files, ready to be replayed in the post-game hour. It's a tough job. It's a skilled job.

The relationship between a presenter out in the field and a T/O in the studio is a tentative one. The presenter is in charge in theory but the T/O is in charge in practice. I've been in studios when OBs have been going out and I've overheard presenters totally monster their T/O down the line when something has gone wrong, and I've seen T/Os walk out in disgust at such actions too. When I commentated on football, I tried to be civil and cool with T/Os - especially as they were friends as well as colleagues - but sometimes the strain of the occasion did prompt a harsh word or two. Fortunately, all soon calmed and we were still mates when the show ended. And a good T/O will make a presenter on an OB sound amazing, especially when the task of closing the show bang on time comes up - the presenter is doing his final spiel, trying to be articulate and authoritative to the last, while the T/O in his headphones is counting down from 30 seconds. From each of them, it's an art.

T/Os are capable of making you laugh too. One non-footballist who was T/O-ing a football show I was hosting also had the job of telling us latest scorers and scores on the talkback button for us to announce on air. His stab at pronouncing the Swedish striker Fredrik Ljungberg's surname will live with me for a very, very long time. I'm not sure I ever properly stopped giggling for the whole programme.

No T/O for my overlapped shows this week, as the bits of pre-recorded output are self-contained on the playout system. Sometimes I wish there was a T/O as, for all its sophistication, a computer can go wrong. A good T/O never does. Tonight I have to be that good T/O so the listeners only have to worry about their team's performance, not the radio programme bringing them it.

10 April 2012

She'll just think she's still asleep


Ruby, my mischievous middle Basset, is starting to go blind. Her eyes have begun to cloud over and she is now prone to bumping into things a bit more than a fully-sighted, absent-minded Basset would do.

She's ten later this year, quite a good age for her breed (and especially for a female), so it's a bit of news that has to be taken on the chin, really. Bentley is already ten and, despite making some of the grossest lifestyle choices you can possibly imagine, remains in rude health, so evidently he's getting the luck and Ruby isn't.

The thing is, Ruby was the first of the Basset gang that only belonged in this house. Penny, her auntie who is still mourned, was already a cynical and arsey one-year old with one previous (neglectful) owner whose trust had to be earned when she became Basset number one round these parts. Ruby has only ever known this house and this life, as she arrived straight from the kennels as a 16 week old puppy who tripped over her own ears. Therefore, acknowledging the beginning of her decline isn't comfortable but, given she has lived a blameless existence up to now, the inevitability of nature eventually has to catch up.

Her sight is going only slowly, which is something of a blessing, and she's still remarkably good at locating a biscuit on the floor or, as the most boneidle dog in existence, her warm bed of a night (and morning, and afternoon). Of course, there is no way of knowing just how much deterioration has set in - I chuckle at the thought of her doing a traditional eye test ("Doubleyoo, Oh, Oh, Eff") - but she is capable of offering hope. On her walk last night, just as I was concerned she couldn't see the lamp-post two feet ahead of her, she managed to squeak in her charmingly child-friendly way at the presence of a toddler across the road. So she obviously still has some capability of distance, and enough to keep her safe and content.

On the set collective walks in North Yorkshire with the Basset Hound Welfare down the years, a number of aged dogs have taken part with their eyelids sealed up, having long lost their sight, and their attitude is always reassuringly robust and their balance remarkably good. At least I know that Ruby's prospective blindness is an inconvenient disability rather than an illness, and therefore it isn't going to cause her pain, and it isn't going to kill her.

9 April 2012

Q The 80s is now somewhere else

For the latest Q The 80s log (and all the others) you can now go here. Feel free to bookmark, tweet, spread the word and all that. And apologies if you ever left a generous (or even catty) comment on any of those posts, as obviously I can't transfer the comments from one blog to another. Soz.

I've shifted the lot off this blog as I think the show needs its own place and because the twice-weekly preview/review guff on here was making me lazy as regards writing other stuff. Hopefully I can now start blogging properly again, if only for my sake. I miss it, and recently I've not been able to do anything about it as my creativity has been pretty close to nil and my confidence a bit varied.

I'm always wary when doing the navel-gazing post on here about lack of blogging. It's just a blog. A small one. It means nothing to anyone and won't change the world. But, well, that's how I've been looking at things recently.