An Australian and three Irish walk into a bar after a night shift at the BBC in London – that’s not the starting line of a joke, it’s actually how I ended my time at this beloved news and entertainment institution. Carmen and I are going travelling for an indefinite time quite soon and my last shift at the Beeb’s offices in Central London ended at 7.30am on a Friday morning. I strolled out the front doors, popped a bottle of Cava with three of my work mates and hopped into a taxi to a pub in Smithfields that caters for thirsty night workers. As we drove across the traffic clogged streets toward the boozer I thought back on my last shift and how much I’d miss the work I have done there for two and a half years.
For my last week at work I produced a news programme we call ‘Twit’ – a play on the acronym formed by ‘The World Today.’ It goes to air between 5 and 7 am and it’s a show I have worked on for many years. Despite the very long overnight hours it’s a programme I loved producing.
So what does that involve, this ‘producing’? Well, it’s hard to describe. I’m often stumped when people ask me to explain what I actually do. Basically, we make sure that all the news stories are there and ready to be read when 5am rolls around. That means writing, editing, commissioning, stealing, dragging, convincing, begging, calling, urging, shouting, charming and doing whatever other ‘ing’ is necessary to bring the news to the BBC’s millions of viewers on time with accuracy and quality. It can be very stressful but most of the time it’s a lot of fun.
The news presenter will usually arrive by 3.30am and I spend half an hour briefing them on what’s in the programme. There could be some live guests or a correspondent talking about something from a far flung location so they need to know what the issues are so they can ask good questions. Also, they read through the scripts I have written or commissioned and suggest changes or tweaks of style. They also contribute ideas on how the stories can be tackled and what editorial direction we can take.
Of course, all of this goes out of the window if there is a breaking news story. I was on shift the morning that Bin Laden’s death was announced at 4:50am, 10 minutes before the carefully constructed bulletin we had been working on all night was due to go to air! That was quickly ditched and we rolled on the story for 24 hours, sustaining our coverage with guests, correspondents and live footage. You never know what could happen.
5am rolls around and I sit in the television gallery as the output producer. This is the fun part. I have often compared it to playing that old Nintendo game Tetris (which i was quite good at!) I work with a News Director to broadcast each individual segment of the running order, sort of like a list of songs that a band decides beforehand to play at a concert. But something may not work. For example, the connection for a live interview could fail 10 seconds before we cross to it so I need to act fast and decide where to go next to cover the gap. Or a massive news event might break while we are on air (Oscar Pistorious springs to mind.) The idea is to stay on air and keep things going as smoothly as possible.
The bottom line is that the programme must be no longer than 26 minutes, and there is an unforgiving countdown clock ticking away – you may have to cut, slash, re-order or interrupt the items so it all fits nicely. Some shows go so smoothly that you come out of the gallery, make the sign of the cross and buy a lottery ticket! But it’s usually a rollercoaster ride where you have plan B, C, D and Z and still have to hustle a solution. All of it when your brain just wants some sleep!
Anyway, when my last broadcast went out I felt a twinge of sadness. It’s a job I have greatly enjoyed and feel privileged to have been able to do. I made a lot of good friends and met some extraordinary people in my time at the BBC. So walking out was a hard thing to do. But travel and all the creative work that comes with it is what I really want to do and I can’t wait to see what happens.
To celebrate all of that I went to a pub straight after the shift ended with three mates from work who all just happened to be Irish. It’s called the Fox and Flag, just opposite London’s Smithfield Markets and it opens very early for the market traders who also work overnight shifts. The place was absolutely packed and when I told the barmaid we were also night workers she replied ‘don’t worry, I don’t think you’re an alcoholic!’ and served us four pints of beer to get things started.
The Fox and Flag also do breakfast so we ordered a round of bacon rolls to go with our second, or was is third? pint. The old hands in the BBC newsroom are full of stories of the more boozy days of journalism when going for a pint after the night shift (or lunch break) was standard operating procedure. Now that we’re all fitness fanatics the practice had ebbed away but it was a proper way to end a tough week. Best of all I was a cheap date; sleep deprivation sure makes those pints effective!
After a few more rounds it was time to go to bed and I said a sad goodbye. I can’t think of a better way to end my time at the BBC than with a few pints with some great mates. It’s what I always imagined journalism to be, work hard and play hard, and I’ll be sure to take that spirit with me on my next adventure.
The BBC’s motto is ‘nation shall speak peace unto nation’ and I’m proud to have been part of the discussion. Long may it continue.