Wednesday, 25 July 2012

Olympic cycling road race broadcasts: Box Hill recce

We're doing two breakfast outside broadcasts in a row this week, both from the same location - the Smith and Western restaurant on Box Hill. This is because Mark Cavendish and Bradley Wiggins will be zipping past our broadcast point nine times on Saturday afternoon, and I am tasked with setting the scene and reporting the build up.

As I will be arriving in the dark on Friday morning, I drove up there for a little recce today.

Box Hill was looking rather lovely in the sunshine.

The Zig Zag Road itself was closed, so I parked in the Smith and Western car park (which is the last building before the National Trust section of the property) and introduced myself to the duty manager.

Then I hitched a lift with an angry sweaty man in a supply truck who, after several minutes of battling security stewards, was able to drive his lorry onto the Zig Zag Road.

He told me he was going to invoice the BBC for giving me a lift into the LOCOG lockdown zone as he wanted something back for his licence fee. I pointed out that until I had got in his cab he wasn't going anywhere.

The angry sweaty man got stopped again after a few hundred metres so I left him to it and took the above photo at the South East-facing observation point.

Then I strolled past Donkey Green where the big (very big) screen has already been put up.

And I finally made it to the cafe area where I bumped into Andrew Wright, the National Trust countryside manager responsible for Box Hill.

I've spoken to Andrew a number of times on the show, but this was the first time I had met him. I recognised him from his twitter profile (well worth following, btw) pic.

Although, on this occasion, he wasn't holding a pig.

Andrew said yes the cafe area had had a lick of paint since I last visited, and that he had closed Zig Zag Road this morning not just to road vehicles, as planned, but to cyclists, which wasn't the original idea. 

Some of them were refusing to respect the one-way system he'd put in place for today and were hooning it down the Zig Zag without much thought for the people and vehicles getting everything ready.

We were chatting in the virtually deserted cafe garden right on top of Box Hill. Andrew told me before they'd closed it off that morning the place had been buzzing with lycra-clad Wiggo-groupies all getting terribly twitchy about Saturday. 

One thing Andrew was very keen to emphasize was how much work had gone into ensuring the thousands of people who are tramping up Box Hill over the weekend have no permanent impact on the wildlife. After we parted I hitched a lift back along the Zig Zag to Smith and Western with a lady from Natural England. She spent most of the journey moaning about how much impact all the tents, trucks and concrete would have on the wildlife.

When I got back to Walton-on-Thames I dropped by P&Q stores, which faces onto the road race route, and which just so happens to have the perfect spot to catch an early part of the road races on Saturday and Sunday. 

Acting on instructions from our sports editor, I asked if they would mind if we parked our radio car on their property at the weekend and broadcast from there. It is a great vantage point, as it will allow our reporter to mix it with the crowd whilst watching the cyclists climb up Terrace Road and then tear through Walton town centre.

The P&Q people were most amenable to the idea. It means, if all the other logistical bits and bobs fall into place over the next 48 hours, that my colleague Adrian Harms will be reporting from the end of my road on Saturday, whilst I do my bit from Box Hill.

It is the closest I am going to get professionally to an Olympic event (unless you count last week's torch reporting), and I am looking forward to it immensely.

Thursday, 19 July 2012

On the mic - Surrey Life - July 2012

Good morning Britain. I am not in Surrey. I am on holiday. Somewhere Else.
Our holiday cottage is, for a moment, quiet. My wife and children are sleeping. I am downstairs watching dawn break with a cup of tea in one hand and the laptop on the breakfast table before me. Peace and happiness abounds.
It is, needless to say, raining.
A holiday with three young children is not really a holiday.
During the course of a normal week in Surrey, the kids have any number of distractions - school, nursery, friends, grandparents - to occupy them. On removing those distractions, by going on holiday, we have put the onus of childcare completely upon ourselves.
It’s fine, though. They’re having fun. Boat trips, train rides, usual stuff. On Monday we visited a castle. Yesterday we visited another castle. I couldn’t bring myself to go in. When I was a child I had a profound objection to traipsing round country houses/museums/galleries/gardens. Now I’m older, my profound objection has matured into a deep loathing. Of course, that hasn’t stopped me becoming a member of the National Trust. Darling, I live in Surrey.
Thankfully, yesterday, my son fell asleep in his pushchair just before we reached the castle gates. On enquiring at the ticket desk we were told this particular castle was not buggy-friendly (outrageous!), so I volunteered to stay outside in the rain, guarding my sleeping son. 
I found some shelter near the castle entrance. A nice man in an English Heritage waterproof called over:
“You’re standing far too close to the English Heritage annual membership salesman for me not to ask if you’d consider joining.”
“I’d rather poke my own eyes out.” I cheerily replied. 
“Is that why you’re not going in?” he asked.
“Sort of.” I said, pointing at the sleeping infant beneath his rain cover “Your castle was not apparently built to accommodate families with pushchairs.”
We got talking. I told him I held a family membership for the National Trust. He told me a lot of people play the National Trust off against English Heritage by taking advantage of a joining offer for one organisation, then letting it lapse to take advantage of a joining offer for the other organisation the following year. Then they pick up another joining offer to go back to the first organisation… and so on, year in, year out.
Until our conversation I thought English Heritage and National Trust memberships were complementary, something you accumulated like a set. Now I see them as two giant empires, locked in mortal combat, fighting an epic and perpetual battle for our cash. 
“So you’re like the AA and RAC of middle class tourist attractions. ” I suggested. 
The rain had turned to hail by this stage, so the man in the English Heritage coat decided to move inside. We parted agreeing that when my National Trust membership lapses, I’ll see what joining deals are on offer from English Heritage. Maybe I will.
Time to go. The boy is crying upstairs. It’s 6.30am. Happy holidays.

Tuesday, 17 July 2012

Olympic Torch OB, Crawley

This morning was quite a challenge - up at 3.15am to get to Crawley to co-present our Olympic Torch Relay coverage from 6am to 10am (the above photo was taken at around 5.30am).

My co-presenter, Neil Pringle, the BBC Sussex breakfast show presenter, started the broadcast in Brighton outside the Pavilion. He waved the torch off, I saw it arrive.

We also had a reporter on the vehicle which follows the torch bearers (and carries the flame between towns), a reporter on the ground in Crawley and several production staff trying to keep things flowing at Brighton, Guildford and, of course, in Crawley itself.

Very few OBs (outside broadcasts) have both presenters out (unless it's a whopping set piece like the Open golf on 5live), and it was a production challenge to get it right. But we stayed on air, and I hope we did it with some panache.

My personal challenge was to avoid the linguistic banalities which seem to infect so much live broadcasting nowadays. If I were a news editor I would ban my presenters and reporters from saying the following words forthwith:


I failed. I did issue one "excited", in four hours on air.

By trying to remove those words from my vocabulary for the duration of the broadcast, I was forced to think about what I was saying and what I wanted to say. It made me consider the phrasing of my sentences. I found I was more accurate, original, and hopefully, entertaining in my descriptions of what was going on around me.

Listen to the masters - the Clare Baldings and John Inverdales of this world. When they do OBs - their pickups, funnies, descriptions, interviews and eye for detail sets them apart from middling hacks. It takes effort, research, forethought and presence of mind to sound that natural and relaxed, but it is possible. And when you take the time to bother, surprisingly easy.

If you get caught in the moment and you've got nothing to say other than the worn out cliches listed above, you're not broadcasting, you're emoting.


Wednesday, 11 July 2012

Nick Grimshaw "not a morning person"

I'm not allowed to listen to Radio 1 any more out of duty to the BBC. They're trying to get rid of elderly gentlemen like me as it distorts the average age of their listeners.

Mrs Wallis, though, works there, trendy young mother of three that she is. This week she has been sharing an office with Nick Grimshaw.

I've never met Grimmy, but I listened to a couple of shows he did ages ago on Radio 1 on a Sunday evening (? I think) and remember being struck by how natural, relaxed and genuinely funny he was.

This morning Grimmy told Mrs Wallis the story of how he was offered the Radio 1 breakfast show. It was yesterday, and Big Boss Ben had called him in for a 9.30am meeting. Grimmy thought he was in trouble, and to compound it, he was running late. He rushed in to Ben's office all of a flutter, sat down, apologised, and the first sentence he managed was: "Sorry. I'm not a morning person..."


Just a note about Chris Moyles. I think he is one of the greatest talents to work in radio. Frank Skinner is extraordinary (download the podcast now), Jonathan Ross was a class act, Adam and Joe, Sara Cox, Danny Baker and all the rest are people who all do what they do with some verve, but Moyles has something extra. Not everyone feels the same way, so I'll try to explain it.

He isn't just a very funny man, a clever anecdotalist and an accomplished technician (watching him work a desk, record and replay sound clips, manage the other voices in his team and use the effects is like watching a conductor work an orchestra), Moyles also has a wonderful gift for using sound itself.

There were many times, especially early on in his Radio 1 career when you would hear long pauses, or links that you thought had gone on too long, but that was where his genius and belief in his own talent came in. He was working desperately hard to make every link special, every link memorable and if the link didn't have it, he would pause, re-group, and try to steer the link in the right direction before he pushed the button on it.

Moyles didn't mind if he was giving us dead air, because he had the confidence in himself to make sure the next thing he said, the next thing we all leaned in to hear (because we thought something was going wrong, or were keen to hear how on earth he would get out of it) would be funny enough to justify us doing so. In the early days not everything went right, but you could almost feel his brain ticking over, working, absorbing, learning and constantly going for brilliance, rather than settling for humdrum.

As the years went by, he became more skilled and grew his talent to make the pauses less frequent, as the right phrase or direction to go came to him quicker, but the reason he got better is because he staked out his on-air space his own way in the early days, by following instinct.

Moyles did all this whilst remaining acutely aware of the tolerance of his own audience - a football crowd who can spot a phoney, or pounce on a weakness instantly. Any sign he was getting carried away with his own celebrity would be quickly anchored by his audience and own self-awareness. There aren't many people who can stay at the epicentre of popular culture for 8 years and still sound like a bloke you know down the pub. His gift was giving you a window into that showbiz world, articulating its ridiculousness and making you laugh at it with him.

Grimmy will obviously be different. But he has a way about him - that sense of having something to say and an entertaining way of saying it, which I'm sure will see him through.

Right, I'd better go. I have a breakfast show to do myself.

On the mic - Surrey Life - June 2012

Sadly I failed to make the county's richest 50 again, but here is my June column for Surrey Life magazine. July's issue and my thrilling column therein is available for purchase now, kids!

In the gym

“I can help you lose that weight.” said Dan, my new-found personal training buddy. Good. I thought, because that’s what I want to do. That’s not all I want to do. I really want a body like Brad Pitt’s in Fight Club, but I’m not going to tell him that. He might laugh.

I have to get up at 3.45am for a living, six days a week. Then I put everything into my breakfast show on BBC Surrey. When I get home, all I want to do is eat, or sleep. The motivation to spend what little free time I have fannying about in a running kit has gone south, as has most of my physique. 

So I joined a gym. Just like that. Didn’t realise how easy it was. Tick a few boxes, hand over your direct debit details and you’re away. It was Dan who showed me round, and it was Dan’s polite enquiries which led to the awkward personal discussion about my spare tyre.
I have a problem with gyms. Why pay money to bounce up and down on a machine alongside a bunch of people you don’t know when you can do real exercise - running -  for free, in a vast and convenient gym situated directly outside your front door?

And seriously, does anyone actually enjoy wearing lycra? Or flailing about in a room stacked full of medieval torture machines? Or being subjected to appalling music videos played at ear-splitting volume? 

Yes, apparently. And it turns out I can cope with it too. Well, nearly. I am still no fan of the collective inhabitants of the free weights room.
If they could stay in the free weights room, that would be fine - but no, having bench-pressed themselves into a raging storm of testosterone, these fellows will insist on prowling the main gym floor, staring down pudgy, sweaty, normal gymmos like me. 

I can just about deal with looking like an exhausted, red-faced hippo in public, but I don't like my tubby frame being used to reinforce a muscle-bore's alpha male self-image. 

Secretly, of course, I’m jealous. And it hasn’t put me off. Since joining up two months ago, I have been going three times a week to gasp my way through evil Dan’s routines. I’ve learned how to do it properly too, with my little gym towel and water bottle, my sport earphones and stretchy clothing fibres woven by space mice from the future.

It works too. My stomach has flattened, my biceps have hardened and my manboobs are fading. But I still haven’t lost any weight.

I mention this to Dan. “Of course you haven’t!” he exclaims. “Muscle weighs more than fat. You’ve just replaced your fat with muscle.”

But I said I wanted to lose weight

“I thought you meant you wanted to lose that weight” he says, helpfully pointing at my midriff.

We still, clearly, have a long way to go.