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Tuesday, 16 February 2010

A Face for Radio

In the lobby of Broadcasting House I gave my name to the man on the front desk and was provided with a pass and shown over to the waiting area. I recognised the two other men seated there already as being Simon Hopkinson, the former Head chef at the renowned restaurant Bibendum and the poet Matt Harvey. Mandip had e-mailed me a copy of the scheduled guest list which she had found online, allowing me to carry out some research in advance on my fellow interviewees so that I would not appear a complete ignoramus.

A woman came over and led us up to the production offices. Other than the odd internal window frame highlighted in the corridor, little remains of the original art deco interior. As we waited on sofas to go into the recording studio another woman, who I took to be that day’s producer, explained the schedule. It seems my segment would start approximately half way through the proceedings in order to give me sufficient time to relax. Privately I thought I might be a bag of nerves by the time a further 30 mintes had elapsed.
“Do feel free to comment during the recording,” the producer said to me. “Don’t feel you have to be silent until your piece.” I smiled but quietly resolved not to make any comment until after my segment, lest the audience be confused as to why a stranger was suddenly interjecting.

Matt said he had read my article in the Guardian magazine when it was first published. They both asked me questions about my experience. The producer returned with listeners’ comments from the previous show for Matt and Simon to read out on air. There was then a debate as to how to correctly pronounce Lord Christopher Thynne's surname as it was going to be used in an anecdote about the writer Ernest Hemingway. I had my own concerns about correct pronunciation. At home, I had found myself mispronouncing the presenter’s name.

Then it was time to go into the studio itself. A platter of fresh fruit was set out on a table and remained untouched by the time I left. We were seated in a circle with microphones in front of us and headphones at the side. Only the presenter Fi Glover wore headphones throughout in order to hear her production staff.

The presenter was petite and reminded of my university friend Lynda with her tiny frame topped by a mass of thick dark hair. She wore a sleeveless top, black trousers and a green Lurex scarf and looked far younger and more delicate than her publicity photograph would suggest. She said unfortunately she was going down with something so she couldn’t shake hands.

Remembering how some people came a cropper with the microphones at the Town Hall, where I had made my successful speech in defence of the proposed redevelopment of the site next door(voice of the people), I told Fi I was not sure how to use those in the studio so she proposed a sound check. Whilst waiting for the show to start I looked around the room. Behind me was the glass wall separating the studio from the production staff. I counted 6 women in all seated at various desks. Our room looked much like a meeting room with terracotta and black coloured and textured walls. At the back of the room was a light box: the yellow light meant the studio was in use and the red light meant we were on air. A producer announced that the final "mise en place" preparations had been completed. We then listened to the news being broadcast from another studio before going live ourselves.Saturday Live Schedule 13th February 2010

The opening music seemed to be a sound collage of themes for that day's show. Fi began by interviewing Simon. A celebrated former chef, he is also seen as being the cook’s cook and regarded by fellow chefs as being one of the finest cookery writers of all time. At one point the conversation turned to quenelles. What the hell are quenelles, I thought, hoping no-one would ask me. Matt was somewhat thrown when he was asked to describe a photograph of Simon’s tomato curry. It would be hard enough at the best of times, but to have to do so in front of the one of the world’s best cookery writers and to have to comment on Simon's own dish must have been extremely daunting. Simon's recipe for tomato curry

I took the opportunity to write down some notes. On each of the pieces of white paper in front of me, I wrote “FEE,” that being the phonetic pronunciation of the presenter’s name. When I had practised it at home I found myself saying Fie. I just needed Fo and Fum and I could have recited the famous line from Jack and the Beanstalk:Fee-fi-fo-fum, I smell the blood of an Englishman. I also scribbled down the name of two people I wanted to name check if the opportunity arose, as I owed them an extra special debt of kindness following the fire.

When Fi went to a pre-recorded segment, Simon handed out some bread rolls flavoured with truffles he had brought from Bibendum. He had enough for the production staff as well to their obvious delight. I said I would eat mine after my segment.

The journalist and broadcaster John McCarthy popped into the studio to make a trailer for his own radio show, which was being broadcast immediately after ours. In terms of personal ordeals, mine was as nothing compared to his. He had been held captive for five gruelling years as a hostage in the Lebanon in 1986 having been kidnapped, along with other western hostages, by the Islamic Jihad terrorists. It was then time for me to speak. Almost 12 minutes later my interview was over. Matt read out one of his poems and we went to another pre-recorded segment allowing Simon to pass around his home made rice pudding for us to taste. I asked him what special ingredients he had used to give it such a rich creamy flavour. He replied that he had used full fat Jersey milk, cream and vanilla extracted from a pod. Again, he had arrived with plenty for all.
The producer came in and said that my interview had been “fantastic,” and that a number of listeners had called in to thank me for reminding them to get smoke alarms installed. She said later that a professor of architecture had rang in asking if she could contact me, as she felt my comments on the reality of being trapped in a house fire would be of interest and potential benefit to her design students. I asked the producer to forward her details on. It would be nice to think that my experience might possibly save someone else’s life in the future.

When the broadcast ended we had a mini debriefing session and were asked to sign the Guest Book. I did not realise the pages would later appear online. The three studio guests then said our goodbyes to Fi and were escorted down to the lobby, where a photograph was taken of us by one of the production staff. I got her to take one using my camera too. The security guard told us we could not take pictures in the lobby but we had them in the bag, even if one of them had his arm stretched out in protest behind us. We then went our separate ways. I was green with envy when Simon said he was off to spend a weekend at Knole House, one of the grandest country houses in England, and the setting for one of my favourite novels: Orlando by Virginia Woolf. Matt said he would be taking public transport home. I had a driver to take me back to Wimbledon. Well, even Cinderella had a coach and driver to carry her home after the ball. Podcast

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