The Editor was shocked when Eamon and I became Father and Mother of the Union Chapel in our first week away in Manchester. The Editor had thought we’d be useful support for him in his first big management job and brought us over from Ireland to serve as loyal troops and sometime spies. This reverse Plantation worked no better than than the original model: Eamon, known as the Trot for his political views, was not cut out to be a management lackey. I, while happy to down lavish meals and copious drinks, immediately went native, siding always with the Open Air team when the Editor was feeling sorry for himself; or wished to bang heads together; or hoped for my help in effecting a rout.
Open Air was the BBC’s first daytime program, filling acres of airspace every weekday morning on BBC1. It wasn’t very good but shut-ins and students watched it because there was nothing else on. This was 1986 in the UK: television watchers still had to stand up and move towards the set to switch between all four television channels.
The premise of the program was simple: to give viewers an opportunity to talk about last night’s TV with our presenters and the stars of the shows. We had banks of phonelines and well-thumbed copies of both the Radio Times and TV Times–this was a time before the listings magazines carried details of every program and so the BBC and the commercial opposition each had their own publications. Most stars refused to travel to Manchester to sit on our studio sofa and the viewers, such as they were, showed a terrifying lack of imagination when it came to questions. Robert Powell (persuaded from London because his mum lived in the North West) was forced to
spend time discussing his favorite color. Paul Shane from Hi-De-Hi and Bob Holness from Blockbusters were insulted by unemployed male callers, Thatcher casualties who vented their frustration by yelling down paid phonelines at luckless stars of light entertainment. I visited a Children’s hospital at Christmas with Leslie Crowther. Did the license fee pay for the presents? Who wrapped them? I don’t remember. Keith Floyd got drunk in an Indian restaurant kitchen after the show. Rolf Harris–well, best to draw a veil given his current troubles. I don’t think there can have been any women on TV then, or at least none who were prepared to subject themselves to Open Air.
The shortage of stars willing to commit to an early start in order to respond to idiotic questions from seniors on Sanatogen or students on a dare meant we had to be ingenious in our efforts to fill 90 minutes of air time each day. BBC Manchester had an outside broadcast unit used only at the weekends for football match coverage or a recording of Songs of Praise. We were obliged to press it into service. Pity the producer stranded on the streets of Sheffield or Oldham or Crewe at 10 in the morning with a big van and a microphone. We’d try to stop passers-by who, by virtue of the fact that they were up, dressed and out at that time in the morning, had never heard of Open Air.
“Did you watch Neighbors yesterday?”
” No. I work. And you’re making me late”
“Any views on matricide/cul-de-sac living/Daphne’s cook-out recipes/Kylie’s haircut?”
By then, our intended victim was well away. Many of our outside broadcasts started with “Well, it’s still pretty quiet here, but…”
I was the Monday producer and an early pioneer in reality tv. The then editor of Panorama, the BBC’s flagship current affairs program, professed himself delighted to be sharing the green room with eager entrants in my Singing Granny contest. The oldies practised their medley of Sit Com theme tunes as the eminent journalist looked at his notes and worried about the questions the public might ask. “Don’t worry” I told him, handing him a Tunes cough sweet leftover from my ladies “Our viewers aren’t out to get you. They ask everyone the same thing”. He sailed through a story about his most embarrassing moment, explaining that the grannies had made him sing the hook for Howard’s Way.
The BBC has recently invested millions in setting up a huge production center in Salford, Greater Manchester. The goal is to spread talent and public money across the country, making sure that license fees don’t pool in London. The Open Air team was an early example of the same thinking. Many of us were transplants from other parts of the UK and this was our first network job. BBC Manchester had to staff-up to run the show and because experienced folks from London weren’t interested, it created an opportunity for people based in Manchester to work on a network show, and for the rest of us to flood in from the provinces.
New to the city, we traveled in a pack: curries in Rusholme, drinks in Didsbury, summer outings to the Lake District and sex everywhere but in our open plan office–something widely rumored to be a BBC sacking offence. I wore huge hooped earrings made from black rubber and had what I fancied was an Annie Lennox haircut. I thought I was fat.
Open Air wouldn’t need a whole TV channel to do its job nowadays. We could run viewer polls via Twitter:#Sherlock #loveit #loatheit. Singing Cumberbitches could compete via You Tube. Viewers could text us a selfie instead of having to send us a photo in the mail. The daytime audience could be global and, even in the UK, would comprise a much wider cross section of the whole society. I’d like to think the questions would be more searching, pointed and appropriate. Certainly, today’s 25 year olds are capable of producing more polished moving pictures although their journalism might be even more wobbly. I wonder if they still burn to work for the BBC?