It might (just) be overstating it to say that everyone who works in Broadcasting House is stark staring mad, but my experiences over the years have led me to the conclusion that being unhinged does seem to guarantee you a role in Portland Place.
In 1974, as John Peel’s teenage roadie (a difficult role, considering I hadn’t learned to drive) I spent many a cheerful evening sitting on the floor of Continuity Studio 1a, while Peel played obscure Can tracks, or a session by Slapp Happy. If I was there early we would discuss a wide range of esoteric subjects (I say ‘discuss’, he talked and I listened, in the main) from the vogue for fondue sets, to the relative merits of Liverpool FC against my fondness for Chelsea. The only Chelsea football player that Peel had any time for was Gary Locke, the shaggy-haired full back.
At this time, Tony Blackburn and David ‘Diddy’ Hamilton, wary of the then notorious ‘Audience Appreciation Index’, were encouraging their listeners, and they meant housewives (forgive me, it was 1974) not bricklayers, to send in a brief description of what they were doing as they listened to the shows, and, crucially, to send in a photo.
We might have expected in a rather strait-laced 1970s, that these would be innocent pictures of the Blackburn/Hamilton listenership enjoying a mid-morning cup of tea, at their Formica-topped breakfast bar.
No. It was clear that a majority of incoming photos were of smiling ladies from the Home Counties, often wearing a minimum of clothing, and that they accompanied a letter inviting the two djs to ‘pop in’ if they were ever passing Abinger Hammer, or Chiddingfold, or wherever these excitable ladies lived.
John Peel was rather po-faced about this whole business, if perhaps mildly amused, but what irritated him (and by default, me) about this, was that sitting on the floor, I was constantly in danger of being trampled on by a Radio One producer (not Walters) who spent much of Peel’s live programme, rifling and sifting through these photos, breathing rather heavily, and stuffing several ‘interesting’ examples into his jacket pockets. I imagine ‘Diddy’ David and Tony Blackburn became rather surprised that their wall of photos in Studio 1a didn’t ever seem to increase in volume, or especially not after evenings when the heavy breathing producer was on duty.
Life, as we all know, twists first this way, and, well, then that way, if you see what I mean. Some thirteen years later, with Griff Rhys Jones as trainee producer, I was working as a freelance contributor on Radio Four’s ‘Weekending’, an up-to-the-minute weekly, satirical pop at politicians and the hot news stories of the last seven days.
Turning up each week for the Wednesday ‘script conference’ (more a light-hearted, shouty, babbling mayhem than a conference) I was approached, without fail, by a titian-haired production assistant who would advise me that Broadcasting House was directly controlled by God, and that He was alive in every brick, turntable and canteen sausage roll. Every week, she would find me, no matter what different route I took through the maze of Broadcasting House. One day, she, literally, came running along the corridor to tell me, and one of my fellow writers, that she had witnessed a miracle. A wheelchair bound producer had risen from his chair and was seen walking in his office.
“Who saw this?” we asked? “I did!” she exclaimed!
“Anyone else?” we pursued. “Errr…no…” was the all too predictable response.
This exchange set a new pattern. Each week, an update on the miracle, with additional embellishments; each week, we saw the producer still in his chair.
Then one week, we heard the red-haired miracle announcer had ‘gone on a training course’ and we never saw her again. She’s probably Head of the Department of Innovation by now.
What brought back these memories to the front of what’s left of my mind, was a visit to see a BBC executive this week, and I told her this next story. She was gracious enough to laugh, but expressed no surprise or disbelief at the incident, which I think confirms my ‘bonkers at the BBC’ theory.
About eight years ago, Rachel McIntyre, (then my agent, still a good buddy) and I, were invited to Broadcasting House for me to pitch my idea for a radio comedy/drama based around the machinations of Downing Street (a quick nod in the direction of Armando Ianucci. Pah!).
After we arrived and ‘signed in’, the producer, (who we shall call ‘Peter’, because that was his name), with whom we had an appointment, came to reception to meet us, and guided us into the lift. During this brief journey, he kept mumbling to himself, “Terence red, Rachel blue…Terence red, Rachel blue.”
Rachel and I exchanged glances but didn’t think too much of it, as we had no idea what he was talking about.
Then, into a small glass fronted office, where Peter’s junior colleague was waiting for us, welcoming us with a beaming smile. I was only glad that she was wasn’t titian-haired and claiming to have witnessed miracles on the third floor of Broadcasting House.
Peter had in front of him a foolscap pad of paper, shortly to be joined by a host of pens that he removed from his rather effeminate ‘clutch bag’.
We swiftly learned the meaning of the whole “Terence red, Rachel blue…Terence red, Rachel blue,” thing, as he then began to chant “Peter green, Sarah black”. He was allocating pen colours to each of us in the meeting.
At the top of the first sheet of paper on his pad, he confirmed the colour of pen allocated to all those present.
I was invited to give an outline of my proposal. As I did so, he grabbed his red pen, and literally (I do mean literally) wrote down every word I said. Every word.
Then if Peter had a question, he would vigorously drop the red pen, snatch the green one, and write down every word that he said.
If Rachel chipped in, with a clarification, the green pen would be dramatically placed on the table, and in a seamless swoop, the blue pen was used to faithfully record her every syllable.
I did not dare catch Rachel’s eye, as she is one of nature’s gigglers, and somehow got through my pitch, as the pen movements blurred before me, and page after page was swamped in multicoloured ink.
It may not come as too much of a surprise that Peter did not get back to Rachel and thus the BBC missed out on my no doubt Sony winning proposal.
Rachel said we should go and try and find another producer, but I told her, we may find someone who sits on this side of sanity, but we will probably end up with another photo snaffling, miracle seeing, pen snatching, fetishist.
To this day, I feel slightly queasy if I see more than one pen on a table at any one time.
Lord Reith! What have you bequeathed us?