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.

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