The Diary of David Heathcote (2) 

17 September 2016

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Prior to their departure to uni and elsewhere, the Southend Action “old guard” arranged a visit to Radio Stortford, serving hospital patients in the Bishops Stortford area. Looking back, it must have been a final attempt to give this rookie radio station manager some idea of what he should be doing.

As I recall, Radio Stortford appeared a very professional set-up – with sliders for each channel: at Southend Action, we just had rotary dials! They provided a much more comprehensive service than we did, but it was hard for us to balance A-level homework against broadcast commitments.

There was much talk of one of their presenters who had recently left, somebody called Noel Edmonds. They predicted he was going on to great things… I wonder what happened to him?

I was very excited about this visit: I was 16, I’d only gone on family holidays before then. Here I was on a “fact-finding mission”. It seemed very grown-up. We went to a pub afterwards; I think I may have had a half pint of cider, probably my first pub drink ever.

Returning to Southend, I began churning out the 45-minute programmes. We didn’t have the personnel to visit the wards, and even if we did, would the hospital authorities have tolerated teenagers visiting their sick patients? I doubt it.

I reached out to every radio organisation I could think of. CBS Radio, bless ‘em, in the USA responded enthusiastically, with – among others – an LP recording of Edward R Morrow visiting a German concentration camp! I broadcast extracts from it, but even I realised, naive as I was, that reports of Nazi atrocities weren’t good material for ailing hospital patients!

We tried outside broadcasts. Of sorts. One format required a “correspondent” to phone in live to the entrance hall payphone at the Royal British Legion headquarters in Westcliff. A large microphone was then rubber-banded to the earpiece of the telephone handset – connected to a 30-metre coaxial cable reaching to the studio mixer. What a Health & Safety nightmare! At the agreed time, the correspondent would call in – while a record was playing out; I would run and pick up the phone, attach it to the microphone, then race back to the mixer board to bring up the correspondent’s mike channel when the record finished. The only way I could cue in the correspondent was to shout a countdown as loudly as I could from 30 metres away along the corridor to the telephone voice piece: 10 backwards to 3 and then silence – I am amazed that it ever worked, but it did.

In the 1960s, Southern Television was claiming viewing audiences in the Southend-on-Sea area, so it was no surprise that they crossed the Thames Estuary and brought their OB unit to the Cliffs Pavilion. The programme was a quiz panel show, called – I think – “Happy Families”. Kenneth Horne was the quizmaster, and the Southend episode starred actress Phyllis Calvert and her family, pitted against the well-known, local Stonehouse family.

I got four tickets, and we, the radio station team, attended the recording. From somewhere or other I managed to get a very large but portable reel-to-reel recorder, and I remember sitting amidst the audience, microphone in hand, recording ambient sound, to the puzzlement of the cameraman nearby.

After the recording, we had permission to go backstage and I interviewed Phyllis Calvert in her dressing room. I had next to no idea who she was, and of course in those days there was no internet, so research was somewhat hampered. Nevertheless, Ms Calvert was professional and gracious enough to say lovely things about Southend, and I was happy with my recording.

I was a very young 17-year old by this time, not well-versed in the ways of the world. One weekday evening, as I was putting the finishing touches to a pre-recorded element of the following Saturday’s show, I was surprised when one of the “old guard” of Southend Action walked in through the studio door, accompanied by a young woman. He was equally surprised to see me, and more than a little “put out” as he had seemingly planned sexual congress with the aforementioned female!

I had a show to put on, I wasn’t moving. So he pinned a curtain over the glass window between control room and the rest of the studio, and it was made clear that I should not enter that area, as he closed the door firmly. He didn’t appreciate it when I started to play “Tijuana Taxi” over the studio speakers as background music, he made that very clear. But I felt I had to make my point somehow. His name was Roger; it was only years later that I learnt about nominative determinism.

After that, when I was working alone, I locked the studio door and put the key in my side of the lock. None did pass! But I do wonder how many famous studio sets have been similarly used, illicitly, for such purposes over the years. The stories television studio security teams could tell, I’m sure…

MORE: [Part 1] [Part 2] [Part 3] [Part 4] [Part 5] [Part 6] [Part 7] [Part 8] [Part 9] [Part 10] [Part 11] [Part 12] [Part 13] [Part 14] [Part 15]

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