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The Vacuum - Issue 14 - Media spacer The Vacuum - Issue 14 - Media
Aspirants
by John Morrow
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In the beginning there was folk: -singing, that is.
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In the clubs of the booming 60's we wailed for a Ban on the Bomb, South African oranges and the dark forces of international capitalism. A magazine of the time described me as 'The Big Daddy of Belfast Folk'; so when a radio producer with a tape-recorder came brandishing a handful of pound notes I, appropriately, was one of the first to sell out. (About that time
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This producer, in the perverse way of his kind, had no time for folk music 'I'm a Beethoven man myself'. He was also an aspiring novelist.
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The first progs we did for him was a series recorded in provincial hotels as a showpiece for local talent with us city pros as the backbone (we already had a single in the cod Radio Caroline charts). On arrival at the venue he would disappear into the bar snug with local dignitaries. His secretary-cum-assistant, a dark-haired young beauty called Babs with a stop-watch round her neck and a clip-board clasped to her bosom, would then proceed to distil a half-hour of sanity out of a three hour drunken shambles. In those days there were few women producers: later, it was nice to see girls like Babs getting their rightful due.
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I shall not dwell on our only gig on live television in this period (no recording then). The horror of it still haunts me in the small hours. I recall standing beside a minute English pop star, the act preceding us, and watching him throw back his head and open his mouth, like a blind baby gannet straining for a morsel of fish from mammy, into which his manager dropped two big black pills just as his name was called. All I had was a Capstan Full Strength.
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Then there was scribbling The world of folk had been blown asunder by our new 'troubles'. The only bomb we now had to worry about was the one being created out of artificial shit in a backyard just up the road possibly by an erstwhile ban-the-bomber.
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For some time I had been contributing stories and short pieces to small magazines, notably the Honest Ulsterman. I was reading one of these at a literary gathering one evening when another tape-recording radio producer appeared (this one an aspiring playwright). He had heard that my stuff was funny, just what he needed to liven up his current series of art progs. And indeed my reading that night was punctuated by heartening guffaws but not from him. He futhered with tape and stop-watch, scribbling on a pad, and later commissioned a 10 minute original story to be recorded in three weeks time but never as much as a smile then or subsequently when I was reading in the studio and he behind the glass panel, his head down, futhering, while behind him his secretary, the sound engineer and other minions fell about laughing at my coarse witticisms.
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Time and deadline, bespoke writing's twin poles of tension. At first it was the later I found particularly harrowing, never having experienced even the essay pressure suffered by varsity students. For that first 10 minute piece, from the word go over three weeks I laboured through God knows how many drafts. I knew that 10 minutes was roughly five sheets of A4 in my longhand; my first draft went to 12 sheets and in the middle of the final week it was still at a tightly packed seven. But I made it on time and recorded what was a mere skeleton of the original to a delighted thumbs-up from the box.
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The broadcast was to be a week hence. With three days to go I got a phone call 'John, we have a timing problem. D'you think it would be possible to pare a minute off your piece?'. I did it, of course (the money was good), by dint of throwing out adjectives, adverbs, parenthesis and a slice of dialogue in the middle, the absence of which I thought made a nonsense of the entire thing. But everyone else thought it was marvellous; so who was I, the mere writer, to quibble.
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In time I became a deadline junkie, getting my kicks from playing chicken with the clock. On a three week deadline I would wait until there was barely 48 hours to go; then I would take off up the new M1 to Dungannon and back again, a boring journey seemingly five minutes each way, at the end of which the spark of an idea would hopefully have been fanned into a substantial flame. Quite recently I was pleased to read this method of inducing creative coma recommended by no less a person than Seamus Heaney. (Warning: do not attempt this on anything other than a motorway or you could end up with bits of old people sticking in your front grill.)
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As I've said, ad nauseum, there is nothing like a radio producer's stop-watch to burn the fat off your deathless prose. If time is the essence, it is therefore inevitable that for some the quality of what fills it becomes of secondary consideration. But never for the best, themselves practitioners The luxurient eyebrows of Sam Hannah Bell, expressive as a Roman Emperor's thumbs, could without a word impel the hasty re-jigging of a paragraph on the hoof; and the curled lip of Muldoon projecting contemptous disbelief through glass and across ten feet of studio space ('In the name of God, Morrow / Have you lost your bloody mind!')
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These two and others John Boyd, dramatist; Davy Hammond and Tony McAuley, singers and instrumentalists I had in mind years later, when asked what I considered the main strengths of local radio to be. I replied that I thought it was the contribution made by the above mentioned and others, artists in their own right.
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The question came during an interview in his office with a new departmental boss. A young man, thin almost to emaciation, he had been promoted from sport. Wearing a two-tone tracksuit and Reeboks, he prowled incessantly around the office and me, squeezing a rubber ball in his right hand. (I was told later that at University he had been an aspiring poet, affecting a cloak and black cigarettes in the Union bar.)
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He didn't agree with my answer. 'Broadcasting today is a much more complicated business,' he said. 'Producing is now a fine art in itself.' Whenever I hear the term 'dumbing down' I think of that rubber ball.
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But at least he did consult me. His predecessor loathed all outside contributors, considering them at best intruders, at worst spies. A middle-aged bachelor, he was by day an immaculate 'suit', by night a slightly dishevelled gin drinker in hotel lounge bars. Only once did he address me, and then indirectly With two actors I was rehearsing a sketch when, purple-faced, he bounded into the studio waving a copy of the script. 'The term 'bugger' will never be broadcast from this station while I'm in charge,' he roared. Exit to shocked silence: I deleted and inserted 'Clear off'.
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A frustrated Thespian maybe, but he at least was not numbered amongst the monstrous regiment of aspiring novelists. One such was a member of a breed I would have never suspected of creative endeavour: a presenter. An affable Dubliner, he chaired a weekly discussion panel on various subjects, his melliflous Killiney tones trickling like sweet oil among the hard northern vowels. His secret of success was that he was a good listener, everyone agreed. Which is probably what caused me to relate in his presence, the subject that day being cinema, the true story of Ethel, a girl I once worked alongside in a Belfast linen warehouse.
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The time was the pre-television late 40s. When a new release came to any of the city centre cinemas the queues could reach riot proportions. Most of us would therefore wait until later, when it would move to our cheaper suburban fleapits but not Ethel. On that first Monday evening, straight from work, rain or shine, she would be wedged in the one-and-ninepennies at the Ritz, the Royal Avenue or the Imperial, with a bag of Spam sandwiches and a bottle of lemonade. And next day at lunch hour we would all gather round her and she would tell us the picture.
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'Well, here dear ' she would begin, and for the next half-hour or so would hold us in thrall. Her delivery was a version of the sort of breathless, seamless chatter which I heard daily at home and at work a 'style' that's at the core of female literature from Jane Austen to Alice Munro. But Ethel had an open-mouthed audience at her feet, and she was, above all, a performer. So much so, indeed, that when we eventually got round to seeing the picture ourselves we found that Ethel, responding to the moment, had slightly changed elements in the plot in one case, I recall, drastically: in her Gone With The Wind Scarlett and Rhett lived happily ever after, breeding horses at Tara.
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Anyway, shortly afterwards the Dublin man went off to better things in London and I heard no more about him until about five years later when his debut novel was published. It was entitled The Girl who told Pictures.
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I've heard that when in Belfast on a promotional tour, in a radio interview he gave me credit as being the source of the idea. Which was nice of him.
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But sure that was all twenty-odd years ago. Now I can truthfully say, with hand on heart, in the words of the navvy poet:
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I bear no spite Agin the shite.
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The end.
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