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Reflections upon an extraordinary day

I don’t know what other Rusters were doing yesterday but for the most part I ‘did my thing’ against a backdrop of the developing political situation in the House of Commons which – for want of anything better to do and in my capacity as a semi-official observer – I followed at various times by listening to the radio and/or flicking between the 24-hour television news stations.

In times like these it is in the nature of things that media journalists and reporters crank themselves up as if, on a personal level, they are playing a small but important and potentially career-defining role in a moment of national importance.

It may be straining acceptability to make the comparison but it is almost as if – echoing that iconic “What did you do in the war, Daddy?” poster – it is not just that they don’t want to be left on the side lines as key events unfold, they are transparently aware that at some point in the future, when one day they and the world are looking back on the period in question, the “I was there” ribbon will testify to the part they played in it, however small.

[Don’t get me wrong, I intend no criticism here because I was in their position I’d not only be doing similar but probably in front of them in the queue.]

In this regard – and I only pick him out because at one stage he was anchoring the BBC News live coverage from College Green as it criss-crossed randomly and sometimes swiftly between events unfolding in the Commons chamber, various reporters in and around Parliament, and a succession of pundits, commentators and politicians appearing beside him on the gantry – I would like to give Hew Edwards an honourable mention in dispatches.

For all I know he may be a bit of a diva behind the scenes but with his combination of a sonorous Welsh lilt, serious face and slow but steady delivery he gives off a distinct and apparently effortless impression that if the BBC are fielding him then the nation ought really to pay attention because it must be important.

I used the words ‘apparently effortless’ above because two of the key attributes of any radio or TV presenter, especially when it comes to live coverage, are a facility for keeping calm under pressure and – as, or even more, important – at least conveying that impression when around them all hell has broken loose and chaos reigns.

Anyone who has ever been on the inside of the world of broadcasting, or has had the opportunity to observe those who are, will testify to the unique atmosphere of adrenalin-fuelled heightened tension in which live output is produced.

Analogies such as a swan appearing to glide gracefully and serenely through the water against a fast-flowing tide whilst under the surface their webbed feet are working like crazy, or even Marshall Foch’s legendary message to his superiors when his French forces were desperately holding on against the odds during the first Battle of the Marne in September 1914: “Hard pressed on my right. My centre is yielding. Impossible to manoeuvre. Situation excellent. I am attacking …” come to mind.

Stop me if I have told you this story before.

Decades ago, when I worked in television, my younger brother – sports-mad and possessed of a certain skill for mimicry which he sometimes deployed to comic effect by imitating his favourite commentators and presenters – was keen to discover whether these attributes might actually qualify him for a career in sports broadcasting.

By a circuitous route and privileged contact, I therefore arranged for him to spend a day as a ‘fly on the wall’ in the master control room of ITV’s World of Sport (Saturday afternoon) programme anchored by the debonair Dickie Davies, he of the dapper moustache and wavy head of hair with a streak of grey close to what I think is sometimes called a widow’s peak.

To be brutally honest about it, at the time Davies was generally regarded in the circles I moved as something of a B-Lister when compared to BBC greats such as David Coleman, Peter O’Sullivan, Desmond Lynam, Harry Carpenter and Ron Pickering.

The following week I caught up with my brother to hear his verdict on his ‘behind the scenes’ experience of the previous Saturday.

Over a pint or two in a local  pub – rather gratifyingly for me because this had been my hope –  he explained in great detail how stunned he had been by his exposure to a live sports programme lasting four or more hours actually ‘going out’.

However, as we sat down, he opened with the words “First things first …” followed by a solemn vow that never again would he be heard criticising or denigrating Dickie Davies’ abilities as a TV sports presenter.

He immediately went on to describe the mayhem that occurred in the World of Sport control room (and indeed entire studio) as, from the moment they went on air, Davies kept constantly babbling away at one of the three studio cameras – exactly which one as directed from the control room via an ear-piece – whilst introducing an incoming report, afterwards commenting upon it, and then moving smoothly on to introduce the next.

Or not, as the case might be.

On occasions, as Davies was say winding down a report from a soccer ground, he’d receive an instruction in his ear “Going to the snooker next, Dickie, in 15 seconds …” and he would end the first piece and then tell the viewers “And now, let’s go over to the Crucible, where … [“DICKIE! We’ve lost the line … go to the horse racing!”] … no, I’ll tell you what, why don’t we nip over to Kempton first and get confirmation of the result of the 4.30pm race first …”

And so it went on – studio guests arriving late or not at all, Davies about to read the football results only to be told that the machine supplying them had broken down – all afternoon, for four hours without a break.

As my brother put it, the vast bulk of us go to work in our offices, or the bank, or on the farm or in an NHS hospital and – well, save perhaps in the last of those – we broadly know in advance how our day is going to go.

We’ll be pen-pushing, making phone calls, chatting by the office water-cooler and/or going to meetings. And then we’ll go home by train at 5.30pm, make ourselves a drink, have a meal with the family, watch some TV and eventually go to bed.

And do it all again the following day.

What must Dickie Davies be thinking (my brother asked rhetorically) – as he departs the London Weekend studios of a Saturday evening, albeit perhaps in the comparative luxury of a limo supplied by his employer – after spending four hours of being beamed into millions of viewers’ homes in an atmosphere of complete mayhem in which, at any moment, he might be faced with half a minute, to three or more, at a time of a blank screen which he has somehow to fill?

The answer, of course, is professionalism.

In Davies’ case, over twenty years spent slogging away on local newspapers and radio stations before he ever got his first break in television.




About Miles Piper

After university, Miles Piper began his career on a local newspaper in Wolverhampton and has since worked for a number of national newspapers and magazines. He has also worked as a guest presenter on Classic FM. He was a founder-member of the National Rust board. More Posts