How to stay in television 

18 April 2020

Jackie Mackenzie smiling


The Television Annual for 1958

From the Television Annual for 1958, published by Odhams Press in 1957, edited by Kenneth Baily

For the uninitiated, the entrée into television is to write a letter requesting an interview. Duly you receive an answer stating a date and a place, and you go. You are interviewed in an office inhabited by filing cabinets, harrowed secretaries and inexhaustible telephones. You are told that an audition will be held sometime in the future – you will hear when.

During the intervening weeks, you rush round to your friends for advice. They tell you that you must be natural on the screen, stay relaxed and never make faces. If you intend to act, a variety of short sketches are recommended – dramatic, comedy, dialect. If you are an act, a variety of gimmicks are recommended. If you are a personality no audition is recommended.

Eventually the audition arrives. In my day I did it in a sound studio ith no cameras. Mysterious disembodied voices told me to start, listened, told me to stop, and said “Thank you.” I eventually located a lot of women behind glass, sitting with their hands over their eyes. (I must warn you that my day was some time ago.) As a result of my histrionic solo (I intended to act), I was offered the part, in a play, of a silent dancer at a ball. Then a spate of stage-management jobs, which kept me firmly away from the cameras.

For the initiated, the entrée into television is to have a huge capacity for beer and to linger in the TV pubs. If the money lasts out, you might be offered a half-minute in a women’s afternoon programme, or contribute a noise in a commercial.

Having achieved a brief moment on the screen your ego is so inflated that you assume that you have “arrived.” At this stage it is advisable to buy the Radio Times and the TV Times. From these you note producers’ names and write to them, telling them the date and hour of the programme in which you took part. If they reply, they will tell you they didn’t see you: immediate deflation of ego. This takes some months, after which you apply humbly for the most menial studio task. This entails pursuing a completely new breed of television personnel, who live at inaccessible places; and if you are not a member of a union they won’t even open your letter.



Balked at every turn, you resort to your own pastimes, hobbies or job and get on with it. For instance, you are a Sagger Maker’s Bottom Knocker. The Variety Department hear of you through one of the studio chauffeurs, who is a chum of yours. Variety Bookings ring you up and you appear on a quiz programme. You are a riot because you are rude to a television personality “in vision,” i.e, in front of the cameras.

The Talks Department are watching, and offer you an interview series at an astronomical figure. You accept and become a national figure. Newspapers beg for articles, and people who spend a great deal of time at dinners ask you to make speeches. By now you are too busy to appear regularly on television. The one thing left to do is an occasional play, but the Drama Department cannot afford you.

At this point you are at a crossroads. If you insist on remaining in the public eye, you will receive adulation and notoriety wherever you go: but your money will pour out on travel fares, tips and hotel bills. Not to mention paying for secretaries, press agents, managers, business agents, chauffeurs, servants, fan mail, photographs, clothes and laundry bills. Now, the only regular salaries at your precarious level are paid on the administrative side of the TV organizations. So you accept an administrative job.



You are mollified, at first, because your fares are paid by the company, so is your secretary, mail and hotel bills. Very little of your clothes show behind a desk, so it is merely a question of changing tops. Most of your salary goes on cigarettes; but that’s fine, as all meals are covered by the expense account.

“you are speechless”

Your ego’s appetite is satiated by issuing derogatory memos about your rival’s performance on the screen. If you manage to triplicate your memos enough, you may sell a programme idea to an unseen body called “Programme Planners.” They collapse under the storm of paper and give you some screen time.

At last you’ve come into your own. You decide you are going to conceive, direct and appear in your programme, all on your own. However, your secretary, in the last stages of exhaustion, suggests you request a staff to deal with the memo filing cabinets and the mass of programme aftermath. She hits on the idea of a programme spot dedicated to the discovery of new talent. You agree and the programme is launched as A. N. Other’s Show.

At this stage your perspective goes. Your small office becomes a suite in order to absorb the new staff, the filing cabinets and the talent spotters. You find your work is (literally) cut out, to keep all these people employed. Your new talent floods the already bulging market of mediocrity. You are obsessed by the floods of revengeful memos criticising your programme. You are persecuted by viewers in full cry, because Priscilla Bushwack is not as good as their own daughters. The technicians become a nightmare of frustration against your ideas.

You lose weight running from the control room, where you direct the programme, to your position in front of the cameras. You are so out of breath you are hardly audible. Sometimes you are speechless, because the camera breaks down and you have to run to another one, which is working, but out of focus. Visually this is not very complimentary. As you are not making any sound either, viewers switch to another channel. As a result, audience reactions are very low indeed and the programme ratings positively macabre. The programme planners, who have come up for air by now, take your series off the screen.



However, you have come a long way. You have had plenty of experience. You are at your peak. Astral powers in television decide you are fully equipped to interview more television addicts. You are transferred to another office, where you live with filing cabinets, harrowed secretaries, and inexhaustible telephones…


Kif Bowden-Smith writes:

I knew Jackie Forster (she used her ex-husband’s surname in non-television life) when she was a committee member of the Campaign for Homosexual Equality (CHE) in the early 1970s, where I was Assistant General Secretary. As seen above, she had a fine sense of humour and a love of the absurd; she could diffuse the standard tensions of any committee meeting by using either.

I was taking minutes at my first ever meeting of the CHE Executive Committee and needed to clarify a point, but was confused between Jacqueline Mackenzie of the BBC that I knew from childhood and Jackie Forster the woman in front of me: which was her real name? Which should I use? What was the etiquette? My solution was to say, timidly, “Could I just clarify the comment by the lady at the end of the table? Did you mean…” to which she roared “I’M NO LADY! I’M A LESBIAN!”. There was a short moment of silence (it seemed to be about three days to me) before she followed it with a roar of laughter, to which everybody else, myself included, joined in.

She was happily loud and proud on the fledgling Gay Pride marches of the early 1970s, as well as holding court at the meetings of Sappho, a popular lesbian, bisexual and feminist social group she organised that spawned a long-running magazine of the same name. Jackie and her partner, Babs Todd, were always fun at the many CHE conferences and events of the 1970s.

She died in 1988 at the age of 71.

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