Monday, January 28, 2008

Conference phobia and the Carlisle Switcher

I find conferences a pain in the neck. Literally.

Once I walk into a room with people wearing name badges, for some reason I turn into an insecure wreck. I convince myself I’ve forgotten the names of people I’ve spent my whole career working with, and consequently look down at every single name. Or, if I do recognize someone, I’m fearful that some dreadful catastrophe has befallen them since we last met. So instead of saying “How’s business?” I study their badge to check they haven’t been sacked.

It’s quite a knack greeting someone who knows you well whilst surreptitiously gazing at their chest. Especially when they’re female. And as I’ve now reached the age when I can’t read with my normal glasses on, I have to bend my neck even further in order to peer over the top of the frames. Worst of all are women who tie their badges to their handbags where they hang with the names annoyingly facing inwards. You have to pretend to tie a shoelace in order to see them. Conference phobia even extends to meetings with relatively close friends. I panic that I've confused them with someone else, then, having established their identity beyond all reasonable doubt, I don't mention their wives or children in case since I last saw them they've got divorced, or one of their offspring has been smitten with some fatal illness. I'm sure a therapist would have a field day with all this.

So imagine how thrilled I was last week to discover I’d signed up for two conferences. One was on the future of television in the regions, and the other was on training needs of the media industry in the North. Now those of you who survived the last sentence and aren’t currently in the middle someone else's more entertaining blog, will be reassured to know that these subjects aren’t quite as tedious as they sound. Last week Mike Neville, the North East's most famous local television host, who only fairly recently retired after presenting the local news here for about a hundred years, emailed me to say he looks forward to my column (finally, fan mail), and when I emailed back to say I was off to a conference about regional production he said “It’s going to be a pretty short conference, then”.

Mike and I come from a tradition of regional television: not only programmes made for the North East, but also network television made here for the rest of the country. We first worked together when I was a trainee on Look North. I was only allowed on camera once, reporting on the 1974 sugar shortage. Mike introduced my piece by saying “Now Mrs Gutteridge in Tynemouth, you must be very proud. Here’s your son on television”. That was one way of cutting me down to size.

Later, when I was a director on Nationwide, I enjoyed working with Mike because he was the presenter who could hold things together in times of crisis. With that show, just staying on air was pretty touch and go. One of my biggest nightmares was a man we dubbed ‘The Carlisle Switcher’. For some reason the circuits (the lines carrying the signal) from all the regions north of Manchester had to be routed through a switching centre in Carlisle. One night we knew The Carlisle Switcher was on shift because in the middle of an interview on abortion with a bishop in Glasgow, the picture (but not the sound) suddenly cut to the Newcastle studio. There lounged a floor manager smoking a cigarette, his feet on the desk, reading a copy of The Sun.

In those days, regional television programmes were properly funded and an important part of our television culture. It’s ironic that the conference on Tuesday coincided with the funeral of one of the North East’s best regional producers, Harry Green.

How things have changed since Harry was making shows. Next year, ITV is axing its last regional timeslots which have been filled with fine programmes like Grundy’s Northern Pride. Instead, our local producers will have to compete with thousands of others for network timeslots. Just how our regional voice will be maintained is an important cultural and commercial issue for the region. Hence the conference. One of the people there I recognized without his badge was the director general of the BBC. He’s moving five departments to Manchester and, as we nibbled our sandwiches at lunchtime, you could hear the massive construction site for the new “Media City” outside. Sadly nothing at all is planned for the North East. Maybe we need another conference to discuss it.

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