When I Looked North

BBC Yorkshire & Lincolnshire at Queen’s Court, photographed in July 2017.

It is often remarked that one cannot appreciate what one has until it is gone. The twenty-tweens are a good example of this in that few people at the time would have thought them a golden age, yet they can appear as such by comparison to 2016-19, let alone the pandemic era. Aesthetically that period is a little strange as well, being part of the transition from an analogue world to a fully digital one. Most of the major social media were well-established by then by then but had not yet achieved their current level of cultural dominance. High Definition video was widely available but still far from universally receivable, and web design was a few steps away from its current incarnation – photographs and videos shown online were much fewer in number and lower in resolution compared to 2014-ish and onwards when multiple large graphics can be chucked into every page with little care for data capacity.

The particular event to be covered in this article is BBC School Report 2011. Preparations at our school began weeks in advance when we were shown a promotional video by Huw Edwards. A letter was also sent out to parents on 15th February announcing a BBC Hull project called “Life on the Docks – The People’s Archive” for which they wanted pupils to look through old newspapers and interview elderly acquaintances. Most pupils would be completing the project at school, but four delegates would be picked to visit the BBC in person. News and journalism became the topic of our English lessons for most of that month. We were set a homework task on 9th March of watching and taking notes on that night’s broadcast news to then discuss in the lesson the next day. On 16th March my parents received another letter telling them that I had been picked as one of the four delegates.

That morning I was driven from school in a minibus with the three other pupils who were chosen. Along the way the conversation turned to television more generally and somehow we wound up singing the Family Guy theme song. We parked the van in an area of the city where the buildings were in a state of decay and the tarmac rather worn. I remarked on the general dinginess of the place only for one of my comrades to tell me I would get myself shot. When we arrived at the BBC building we were reshuffled into groups with pupils from other schools who had come. I was put into the television group because it was otherwise all-female. The two girls who had come with me were put into the online team and would stay at the office all day. The other boy was put in the radio team who would be walking around with the TV team for most of the morning.

From the way this has been set up you would be forgiven for thinking that we then devised a television segment for ourselves. Certainly that is what we thought going in, but we were a little disappointed to find that the script had already been written and the stock montages composed before we arrived – we were just going through the motions.

The location shoots were fairly close by so the groups traveled on foot. In what I think was the Hull Maritime Museum we interviewed an old man (called Jim in the script) about what the elder days. Amusingly there was a bit of a mix-up at this point and Jim was interviewed by one of the pupils assigned to the radio group, who didn’t realise until later that day that she was on television as well.

We also had to record short teaser sections, including one standing by the railings on the marina. I recall a couple of interesting moments during this time – one was that we were supposed to reference the Cod Wars of the 1970s only to find that the script had said 19070s instead, another was a discussion between our guides as to whether it would cause continuity problems if I took off my blue coat between shots. Early in the day I asked about the technical details of the production and was surprised to be told that news footage was still captured on videotape rather than digital cameras.

After we had finished the shoot we returned to the centre for lunch. It happened also to be the birthday of someone in the office and we enjoyed an excess of chocolate cake in addition to the packed lunches we had brought, which made it a little difficult to move around that afternoon. I also remember at this point getting a little lost on the way back from the toilet. It was also at this point in the day that I realised I had left a bundle of papers on a side table. These were the research notes than I and my classmates had been assembling over the past few weeks to take on the excursion, only for me to completely forget about them. Obviously my group didn’t actually need them, though the online team probably would have appreciated their availability.

All of thus were subsequently treated to a tour of the complex, including the Look North studio itself where I briefly sat in Peter Levy’s chair. My recollections of the end of that day’s events are a little hazy. I think I and some other children – not the ones who had been with me earlier – were seated around a boardroom table strewn with recent newspaper cuttings and we had a group discussion on journalistic ethics. The only piece of conversation I retain now is one woman – not sure if teacher or BBC staff – bringing up an anecdote of a struggling mother being interviewed for the news and saying she sometimes thought her children were worse off than third world kids. This was used an example of where reporters have to tread sensitively around things which their interviewees sincerely believe but which objectively are absurd – oddly prescient of the Brexit era.

We went back to school grabbing as many freebies as possible (I even stuffed post-it notes into my socks.) and arrived just in time for the big bus home. My segment was on local news later that night though my mother complains to this day that she was out at the time and never saw it.

Ten years later it is hard to find much record of our contribution online as even now iPlayer tends not to retain local news very long. The BBC even has a webpage listing all of the schools taking part in the event from which mine is mysteriously omitted. I didn’t take a personal camera with me and nor, to my memory, did any of the others. Until late last year I still had the flimsily-laminated BBC pass hanging on my bedroom wall, but now even that has disappeared. Happily I have been able to find the script we used for that day as well as many of the notes and research from the preceding weeks. I do not have any of them in digital form so will need to scan or photograph them (or, God forbid, type them out again) to show them here. Perhaps the bulk of the material would be better suited to the remit of Homework Direct, but recent experience with Monty on the Green has reminded me what a pain it is to update Wix, so I am reluctant to add anything more to that site without a major redesign.

I was a little amused, five years later, when ITV Calendar came to Wilberforce for a debate about the EU Referendum and once again I was scripted to ask about Hull’s fishing industry. Not wanting to be caught out by follow-up questions, I did a lot of hurried online research for that one as well, but that also proved entirely redundant.

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