Saturday, 31 January 2009

Jumping out of a lifeboat into the Thames

So on Friday I get up and put on my jeans and trainers, because I am going to jump into the Thames in January and I don't want to do it wearing one of my suits.

I am jumping into the Thames to illustrate the dangers of its currents, and the story that led to the piece being commissioned is the average 30% hike in emergency calls to the RNLI's 4 Thames stations in the last 12 months.

A car picks me up at 9.30am and at 10.15am I am chatting to Alan, the manager of Chiswick boathouse, just behind Chiswick pier.

If you've never been there it's just off Corney Reach, which is just off Corney Road, which is just off the A316 at the Hogarth Roundabout, supposedly the busiest road junction in Europe.

Despite this Corney Reach is a haven of residential tranquility with the only noise coming from the boats on the river and the planes (still at a decent height) heading towards Heathrow.

The cameraman, the Legendary Bill Jones, is running a bit late so I bag the last remaining parking space with a reserved sign that Alan gave me and wait for someone from the RNLI to turn up. The first person to do so is Paul who has just finished a night shift, gone home and returned to help out at the RNLI station. He is a professional lifeboatman and I probably want his job when I get older. He makes me a cup of tea and we shoot the breeze for a bit.

Although ideally we'd be filming, this is a rare chance to find stuff out that will be very useful when writing the piece's script. Things that occur to you in the course of an unpressured conversation, and things that you're told can lead to unearthing that great factoid which can become a top line or telling statistic.

I get a call from the RNLI PR, Tim. Fri 30 Jan is a big day for the RNLI as they focus a lot of their community fundraising activity around it. The theme this year is SOS, and the conceit is that the various lifeboat teams around the country can use the initials to stand for any event they might be doing, so one team is holding a BBQ called Sizzle Our Sausages, one team have put their building's security team in stocks and invited the public to throw sponges at them, calling it Soak Our Security.

The Chiswick lifeboat team are having a Saunter Or Scamper from Teddington lock to Tower Bridge in full gear. They too are running late, as is the manager of the Chiswick lifeboat who is on his way in the car. Eventually Bill turns up and Paul makes him a cup of tea.

Then one of the crews of one of the boats (an E-class rib especially designed for use on the Thames) come in looking suitably weatherbeaten and soon there is a deluge of tea being brewed and drunk.

Everyone seems to be in a good mood. It's a cold but stunning day, Chiswick looks absolutely beautiful and these guys get paid to save people's lives on the river. It's therefore perhaps not surprising everyone is in a good mood.

Only one person I meet is a volunteer lifeboatman - the rest are paid, but the manager later tells me there are 51 volunteers attacked to the Chiswick boathouse and 11 full time staff - running 2 ribs. I've been asked to do an as live for the 1.50pm bulletin which will be biked back to Gray's Inn Road (aka GIR, the ITN HQ) by a Despatch Rider (DR).

As soon as the manager arrives we get down on one of the moored boats and do the as live. I am too cold to speak properly and keep f***ing it up. That's the annoying thing about an as live, especially one where there's no time pressure, because you can start again you often find you keep mucking it up.

We get through it eventually and Bill suggests we also do the Bong now so it can go back to base. The Bong always needs to be in early as it is graphicised and goes at the top of the programme as a way of selling the story to the viewer.

The team walking from Teddington arrive. It is a cold day, but they look hot and bothered. There is much moaning about blisters and the boathouse kettle gets a further bashing. It deserves a medal of its own. It's nearly always on the go.

I am starting to get jumpy at this stage as we haven't filmed anything (other than some "downtime" shots in the boathouse) for the piece and now the men are having a serious pitstop. A photographer arrives and starts coralling them into a pose (see photo above). I wait, looking at my watch.

Eventually they get going and I do a walking interview with one of the crew, and get lots of nice shots of men in full RNLI gear walking down a picturesque part of the Thames path. We leave them to it and head back to the boathouse to get on with our filming.

The DR, an old, seriously Glaswegian feller with an unnacountably trendy scooter, is lost. Corney Reach is a new development and doesn't exist on his A-Z, he doesn't have Sat Nav (I gave the desk the postcode) and whenever he calls me his accent is so thick I can only pick up the gist of what he's saying.

Eventually I guide him in and put the tape in his hand. The boathouse manager, Wayne, is Canadian and seems a bit aloof, but he puts two boats at our disposal and we go out onto the river. I am wearing a drysuit (see below) which has rubber seals at the wrists and neck and should keep any water out.

Underneath I'm wearing me keks, a t-shirt, sweatshirt and what the crew call a Noddy Suit - a full body fleece. I am Just About Warm Enough and slightly alarmed that they will not guarantee that the drysuit will keep me dry. They sometimes spring leaks. Great.

We do some river shots, boat to boat and all that, and a Piece to Camera (PTC). We interview Wayne and film some check calls to the Coastguard, engine revs etc. Then, at the end, I film a PTC where I get into the river. My boots, which are attached to the drysuit, are a size too big, and therefore contain lots of air, so they float up to the surface and tip me back. I lie, bobbing in the river, without springing a leak. My hands, which have neoprene divers gloves on, start to get very cold.

I do another PTC in the river. I get hauled out of the river after about 3 minutes. Because I lowered myself into the water off the back of the boat, my hair isn't even wet. We moor up and say goodbye to Wayne who has some duties to attend to elsewhere, and have a chat about the last sequence.

Me lowering myself into the river isn't great telly. Not having wet hair looks half-arsed. We're going to have to do it again, and this time I'm going to have to jump, and get fully submerged.

We do it again. I jump in - the camera gets the reaction it wants, which is that gasp of shock you get from being submurged in a river with a temperature just a few degrees above freezing. I swallow a little bit of water.

The boat goes back to the pontoon to drop off the cameraman, who is going to film me coming in, so I am totally abandoned, floating upstream (tide coming in) looking up at the clear blue sky and trying not to think about what I've just swallowed.

I look around at the river and the houses and consider that this is a very strange situation to be in.

In the last few months I've hovered above London in a helicopter, gone into some of its unopened deep Underground tunnels, and now here I am, lying on my back, on my own, floating up the middle of the Thames in a drysuit and RNLI lifejacket.

The boat eventually returns and the crew drag me aboard. There are many "well dones" from the cameraman and crew, as if I have achieved something.

I am slightly concerned when one grizzled crew member comments he was rather it was me than him. I am even more concerned when another crew member suggests I get back into the boathouse sharpish and wash my hands and face.

Back in the boathouse there is even more tea on the go and I am very grateful for it. I find some antiseptic washing-up liquid and give my hands and face a good wash. Bill and I put a few quid in the RNLI collection box, and we head off, having made good time with the filming.

Almost everyone we met could not have been more friendly or helpful and you really got the sense they knew how lucky they were to have they jobs they do. Unfortunately the drive back to GIR was a nightmare. It should have taken half an hour and actually took an hour due to bad traffic. Then I let my reporting colleague Marcus Powell use my editor for 15 minutes, when really I should have been in there. I didn't mind, but I knew it was going to be tight. And it was too tight.

We had to have our piece ready to hot roll (played out directly from the edit suite rather than off the server) at 6.05pm - unfortunately the top live failed and the presenters went into the cue for our piece at 6.02pm when it wasn't ready, so it looked like that had failed to make too.

They then went into the newsbelt, everything calmed down and we buzzed through to the the director telling them we were ready to roll. I went into the gallery to call the Supers or Astons (the live graphics which appear on the screen to tell you the name of the person speaking) live (usually the timings are put in technical information in the script).

There was no blame attached to us for the messy start to the programme - we were told we were second story to be ready at 6.05pm and we had agreed a hot roll at 5.50pm. It obviously would have been better if we did have the package saved into the system and ready to go - after all, lives can fail at any time, but then Marcus said his piece wouldn't have made if I hadn't given him the extra time with my editor, and we were ready when we were told to be.

The public doesn't know that, though, they just saw two false starts to the programme. Thankfully the piece itself was well received and it did look really good, thanks to the excellent camerawork and being blessed with the wonderful light that comes from that blue sky and hazy winter sun being reflected off the water. For my next assignment I am hopefully going out into the snow. I'll find out more tomorrow.

Harry Potter and the seriously injured stuntman

According to the front page of the Mirror, Daniel Radcliffe's stunt double was seriously hurt during The Deathly Hallows pre-production testing at Leavesden studios, which is 4 miles north of Watford.

I was initially down to do a live from outside the studios, which meant I had some time (ie most of the day) to kill, so I was sent to the GLA to interview the Deputy mayor of London - Richard Barnes - because another reporter who was doing that story was running late.

I went with Gemma the PJ or RJ - a sort of hybrid camerawoman/journalist, who I think prefers the camera side of things - filmed the interview then got a lift to Waterloo where she was meeting the late-running reporter.

I got a bus back to Gray's Inn Road and started digitising the tape. On the way back I thought my story deserved a package as well as a live. We had plenty of Daniel Radcliffe b-roll, the Half Blood Prince trailer and a couple of other elements and I was sure we could find a stuntman.

So I went to see the Prog Ed and News Ed and put my case to them. They thought it might just work. We found a stuntman in Essex - Steve Truglia - and so cooked up a scheme to write my script whilst driving to his gym in Repton Park, (Woodford Green) film the interview and set up there, meet Joe the Sat Truck at Repton Park to file track and interview, then head on to Watford to film a Piece to Camera (PTC) outside Watford General before heading to the live point outside Leavesden Studios. My producer would assemble the package back at base.

Amazingly, all went according to plan. Got the script written whilst navigating Kate the camerawoman (she refuses to use sat nav), arrived at the Esporta gym at Repton Park, knocked off the interview, during which Joe arrived in his Sat Truck (that's him below). We left our interviewee and ran round the back of the gym, filed the track and interview, said goodbye to Joe and struck out for the M25.

I navigated into Watford, filmed a bong (for the top of the programme) and PTC outside Watford General, grabbed a seriously nice chicken filet burger and chips from Zaks Grill n Go Piri Piri opposite the hospital and started navigating out of Watford towards the live point. When I told Kate it was the first time I'd ever been to Watford in my life she laughed at me.

On arriving at Leavesden studios I was unsurprised to see two Sat Trucks outside the entrance and correctly guessed the other belonged to Five News. Their chief correspondent Jonathan Samuels and the Head of the Camera Unit Adam Cottam were on this. Jonathan was editing somewhere and Adam was busy wiping dog crap off his shoe.

Our Sat Truck engineer, Dave, was busy helping their Sat Truck engineer find the "bird" as they call it. Kate left me to it as she was going off shift and my next cameraman, the Legendary Bill Jones, arrived within five minutes. There is nothing that is not nice about Bill, a Welsh ex-copper who appears to be able to get on with everyone instantly. Given we were factoid-lite on this story I asked Adam what he knew. He said they had a name and a photo (more than us) and quite correctly said he wasn't sure he should tell me any more. I said I hoped he didn't mind me asking (he didn't) and we agreed I would wait for Jonathan Samuels to return as he would be a better judge of what information he might be able to pass on.

When Jonathan returned we discussed the story. Journalists often do this. When I was an entertainment reporter I would often have lengthy discussions with my rivals as to what lines were important about a given celebrity and where we wanted our interviews to go. You could often judiciously withhold information from your rivals if you had something particularly juicy up your sleeve, but 9 times out of 10, you help each other out.

Given a) our engineer had just spent some time helping Five News get a satellite signal to get their package on air and b) they were on broadcasting their story exactly an hour before us and so any information they were holding onto would be in the public domain, I don't think our discussion betrayed each others' competitive advantage.

It's always a potentially delicate situation, though. I once interviewed an old man about his classic 1939 Hillman car in Wiltshire. I'd driven down from London and got there at 10am. We filmed the car and did an interview with him outisde the car's garage. At 11am we were just leaving to do some filming of the car on the Wiltshire downs when a man from local TV arrived saying he'd got an appointment to film the old man too. The old man had probably double-booked us, but as we were just leaving I said we'd be back by 12.15pm and we headed off. Filming proved to be a very lengthy process. We returned at 2pm to find local TV man jumping up and down with steam coming out of his ears. We'd shafted him and he had every right to be furious.

In mitigation, we didn't shaft him on purpose - we were in a hurry and nothing would have made me happier than driving back to London with the rushes in the can at 12.30pm rather than 2pm, but there were certain shots that were necessary to make the piece we wanted to make and I wasn't going to compromise them in order to get back for the man from local telly. He should have taken my number.

Anyway I called base, told them to watch Five News - Jonathan did his live at 5pm - and I watched as he did so. Jonathan is very very good at what he does.

I then called base and we discussed what he'd said in his piece and if there was anything that needed changing in mine. Jonathan packed up and the Five News crew left, leaving Bill the same spot in which to set up for my live. As we were there in good time and my brain, unusually, appeared to be in good working order, I had a very clear idea of what I was going to say and almost memorised it very easily. I stayed in the warm car until 5.50pm, then got out, got rigged up and stood in position. The live top and tail was reasonably smooth. We de-rigged in the dark...
Men, de-rigging things.

...   and Bill gave me a lift to Watford Junction. During this journey the planning desk called and asked if I'd mind jumping into the Thames on Friday. I said I would if I could get a train straight home and a taxi to the river in the morning, which would save me having to go via Gray's Inn Road that evening to pick up my scooter. They agreed. I was home by 8pm.

Monday, 5 January 2009

6am eternal

Hello I am typing using my slow and dim netbook on a train from Manchester to Birmingham. Not the train I had originally intended to get. Not the train I was assured that would be leaving Manchester Piccadilly at 6.10am prompt when I called National Rail Enquiries at 1.20am this morning. No. That train was cancelled. When I realised this at 5.58am this morning I fearlessly hopped on the 6am train to Bristol (despite having a via London only ticket) hoping to pick up a Virgin Cross Country train to Basingstoke, then struggle back to Wlaton on Thames via there.

This time the cancellation wasn’t due to the air crash at Stafford, but a massive power failure around the Watford/Milton Keynes area which stopped all services out of Euston for all of Sunday. After a long discussion with the very helpful ticket inspector (or Customer Service Enforcer or whatever her job title is) Gail, we decided this would be fine and the trump card in any discussion with any Virgin or South West Trains person who thinks my ticket is invalid because I’m not travelling the stated route is that I am actually travelling a cheaper route by going through Reading and therefore if there’s any excess to pay, they should be paying me.

And anyway Gail wrote on the back of my ticket (see below) requesting my free passage through Berkshire and Hampshire in special official Virgin Trains felt tip, so I can hold this aloft as I pass through their ticket barriers and all will fall back in wonder.

Sunday, 4 January 2009


In trying to stop this blog being a constant moan I am tempted to cast about for something happy joy joy to wax about but I've just done a 3 hour programme on the Israeli ground offensive into Gaza.

Frankly I'm not qualified to offer a personal opinion about this, and given how much it inflames and polarises opinion, I'm not sure I want to, but in the course of the programme I interviewed a man in Gaza, who was talking quietly to me from his house whilst his wife and 3 children slept nearby.

He told me how scared he was and how he'd tried to explain what was going on to his kids - why they had to sleep with their clothes and shoes near the bed, what might happen to them if the troops reached his house, and he told me how he'd prepared for the worst, the possibility that he or a member of his family might be killed.

It put my facile concerns into perspective.