Head of BBC Radio Scotland, Jeff Zycinski, with a sneak preview of programme plans and a behind-the-scenes glimpse of his life at the helm.
For It Was Mary
I was at the Glasgow Film Theatre on Rose Street this afternoon watching the recording of Watson's Wind-Up. A packed house and very funny material aided by one of the most bizarre news weeks in a long time. Sometimes truth is stranger than fiction.
I watched the show with Sharon Mair, who is the Editor responsible for all the independent productions on Radio Scotland. Afterwards we went for lunch with Colin Gilbert and April Chamberlain, the top executives at the Comedy Unit, the company that produces Watson's Wind Up. We had a lot to talk about, including the new series from Karen Dunbar that will be introduced into the morning schedule while Fred MacAulay takes a summer break.
Colin revealed his special connection with the GFT which stretches back to the days when it was known as the Cosmo cinema. Apparently his Mother was watching The African Queen in that very cinema when she went into labour and, some hours later, Colin appeared on the scene.
Later, back at Queen Margaret Drive, there was another Hollywood connection when I joined Fred's team to say goodbye to Mary Begley. Mary is one of the producers on the team and, in her farewell speech, she played a very funny piece of audio recorded during last year's Edinburgh festival. She had secured a backstage interview with Christian Slater who was in town performing in One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest. On the tape we heard Mary coaching Christian on how to pronounce Edinburgh in a Glaswegian accent. She then talked him through a very complicated joke about a mail-order catalogue and persuaded him to do take after take until he was word perfect.
Mary told us that she had been a bit star-struck and nervous while doing all this, but you wouldn't have known. Apart from the fact she was speaking so fast we thought there had been a technical problem with the recording.
A chap called Bruce Munro came to interview me this morning and, to be honest, I wouldn't give him the time of day. Neither, in fact, could I tell him which month it was. As soon as he put the microphone towards me, my mind went blank and when he asked me to identify myself and state the date I managed to remember my own name but then had to get up and consult a wall calendar for the difficult part of the question. If only he'd offered me multiple choice, that would have been fair.
Bruce is a freelance reporter with the allmedia Scotland website which features podcast interviews with Scotland's top movers and shakers. Clearly none of them was available today so he came knocking at my door. Well, regular diary readers will know how I loathe any kind of self-publicity. I dragged him inside and pulled the snib.
He asked me about our new football podcast, the BBC's future strategy and how we might attract younger audiences to radio. I babbled on hoping the sheer volume of my words would disguise the fact that few of them were willing to get together and form coherent sentences. As Bruce made for the door I tried to bribe him with a Radio Scotland pen. Shameless.
Then this afternoon the tables were turned as I found myself on an interview panel quizzing applicants for a job. They performed a lot better than I had. Mind you, I didn't ask any really tricky questions. I assumed they knew that today is Tuesday...or whatever.
Creative Future And Colourful Past
In Aberdeen this morning I found a desk next to Fiona Aitken, sat down, pulled out my secret brown envelope and told her I felt like a submarine captain. Fiona is the Senior Producer in charge of music programmes and, as far as I know, has no detailed knowledge of naval procedures. That must explain the blank look she gave me. Well, that or boredom.
"You see, " I continued, "submarine captains are given sealed orders which they lock in a safe until they are well out to sea. At a pre-arranged time they are allowed to open their orders and reveal their mission to the crew."
"Uh huh, " said Fiona, who turned her head away from me slightly and may have been silently mouthing the word 'help' to her colleagues. I pressed on.
"Similarly I have been given this sealed envelope which contains briefing notes about the BBC's Creative Future strategy. I'm not supposed to read them until ten o'clock this morning."
Fiona looked at the clock. It was five minutes to ten. She looked back at me. I tore open the envelope. I could see she was shocked.
Five minutes later I was hosting a staff meeting in the Aberdeen canteen. This began with a presentation from the Director General, Mark Thompson, which was being beamed from London to BBC buildings around the country. He spoke about the need to respond to changing audiences. Viewers and listeners want more programmes 'on-demand', we need to attract more young people, we had to allow licence payers to have access to the BBC's archive of programmes. It was all very exciting and was punctuated by short films in which members of the public spoke about their relationship with the BBC and what they expected in the future. At the end of the session I took questions from the Aberdeen staff and then e-mailed them to London.
Ironically, when I returned to the production office, I got involved in a lively meeting about a new radio programme with a focus on the past. Magentic Memories is a new series in which people let us hear their old tape recordings. Many were made in the fifties and sixties when it became fashionable to record messages for friends and family who had moved overseas. That's when international telephone calls were expensive and cumbersome. The series will be presented by Claire White who has been listening to boxes and biscuit-tins full of submitted tapes. There's a lovely recording of a woman who visits the Royal Highland Show in the early sixties and goes on to describe the construction of the Forth Road Bridge. Another recording involves the mysterious disapperance of a Scottish ship which eventually turns up off the coast of Africa stuffed with guns and money.
This prompted me to return to my submarine theme but, strangely enough, Fiona was nowhere to be seen.
Getting The Boot
Spiderman was doomed. His red and blue Spidey-mobile was all out of plastic web-missiles and that, in my book, made him a prime candidate for the car boot sale. The youngest Zedette didn't agree but I sat him down and told him a few hard truths.
"Times are hard, son, " I explained, "and it's either this or we'll have to think about sending you up chimneys again. Now what's it to be?"
He handed me the toy and I chucked it in the big cardboard box alongside a complete set of Dr Seuss books, some least-favourite Disney videos and a very annoying board game called Don't Wake Dad.
So there we were this morning, up like a lark and heading for the charity car boot sale in Milngavie. We had John Fitzsimmons' Greetings Programme blaring in the car to keep us awake. You have to get there early, you see, if you want a decent 'pitch' . As it was, at quarter to eight, there were already thirty or so other sellers in the car park, unloading boxes of household clutter very much like ours. I gave the attendant our £8 entrance fee and we were guided to a bay at the very top of the car park . We put up the garden table and unloaded our wares.
Now, as boot-sale veterans will be aware, this is probably the most stressful point of the day because you are immediately besieged by the early bargain-hunters who circle your car like vultures, hoping to prey on your greed and inexperience. They scoop up armfuls of your stock and offer you "ten quid for the lot". It's a bit like that new telly programme Deal or No Deal. Should you take this offer, or hold out for a better price later in the day? OK, Noel, ask me the question.
We usually take the money. Mainly because we attend these boot sales only once a year and we're keen to get the whole business over and done with as fast as possible. So, after the initial flurry there's usually a quiet period before the ordinary shoppers arrive. This gives you a chance to check out the competition. The two women to our right, for example, were trying to flog all sorts of baby equipment. The woman on the left had about a zillion VHS videos laid out on the tarmac. As the customers started to appear we realised that our marketing strategy was pretty sound. First of all we had individually priced and labelled each item. This means shy shoppers don't have to ask the price. We'd also brought plenty of loose change and an enormous supply of carrier bags. This encourages people to buy more.
Trading was brisk, as they say in the Financial Times, and market conditions were buoyant. The sunshine helped. We'd gone for the low cost, high volume approach and, by eleven o'clock, we'd pocketed about a hundred quid. At that point I slashed prices even further and started calling to passers-by.
"Everything fifty pence...come on now, we don't want to take any of this home with us. Come on Missus, get yourself a bargain".
Mrs Z and the Zedettes just stared at me and then shuffled to one side, pretending they were with someone else. I could see how this could become addictive. It was tempting to rush home, strip the bookshelves and return with more stock. That way lies madness. Before long you'd be selling off things you really need.
"Lets face it, do we really need that kitchen sink? Let's flog those curtains in the lounge, the room looks so much bigger without them".
In fact, just as I was planning my resignation from the BBC and applying for a stall at The Barras, the car park attendant came along and told us that he'd seen marriages fall apart at car boot sales. One couple had started yelling at each other and it had gone from bad to worse. It had ended in divorce, he told us.
I looked at Mrs Z and she looked at me and we both decided to shut up shop.
We'd had a good day. Sold just about everything. Quit while you're ahead.
Of course, we hadn't sold everything. For some reason the Spidey- mobile kept disappearing under the table, or under piles of paperbacks. It was still in the cardboard box when we got home. The Zedettes were delighted.
Curses, Spiderman, I'll get you next time. Just you wait!
A bit of a culture clash in my office this afternoon when a very enthusiastic young man from BBC Radio 1 came in to talk about plans for the Big Weekend in Dundee. Now, my idea of a big weekend in Dundee is a quick stroll through the Wellgate Centre and a drive up to Broughty Ferry for ice cream. But Jason Carter -for it was he - thinks a little bigger than that. He's the man who is organising Radio 1's big music event in Camperdown Park in the middle of May.
He swore me to secrecy and then listed all the big-name bands who'll be taking part. I have no problem keeping quiet about this because I have a memory like a sieve and, besides, there was no mention of Mary Hopkins or the New Seekers . They're both still in the hit parade aren't they?
All right, I've taken that too far, but there was something about Jason that made me feel old. As he sat there with his trendy jacket worn over a t-shirt I felt self-consciously straight and boring in my shirt and tie. As the minutes ticked by I began to feel myself age. By the time the meeting ended I felt like Old Father Time.
Never mind. He offered me a free ticket for the Big Weekend and I might just go along. Please look out for me. I'll be the one under the tartan blanket, sitting in the bath-chair.
It's been far too long since I was last in Kirkwall or Lerwick, but I've now established a monthly conference call with our man in the north, John Ferguson. John manages our community stations BBC Radio Orkney and BBC Radio Shetland from his base in Kirkwall. I was there in September and you couldn't walk ten yards down the street with John without listeners approaching him with a comment on the programming or a suggestion for a news story.
I spoke to John first thing this morning and he had clearly forgotten that I could listen to his programmes using the Listen Again function on the Radio Scotland website. I told him how I'd heard a recent community announcement about a new art class in Kirkwall and the appeal for people to pose as life models. You do feel you're eavesdropping on other people's business when you hear this sort of thing. Yet it's compelling.
Late last year I'd also spent a day at BBC Radio Shetland and had been impressed with the new studios in Lerwick. I had once made programmes from the old BBC studios which, if memory serves, were located in a condemned tenement block. The new set-up seems to have given the station a new lease of life and our senior producer there, Caroline Moyes, is forever suggesting programme ideas and ways that other Radio Scotland producers can cover events in her patch.
Of course our afternoon presenter, Tom Morton, lives on Shetland and, when not in Aberdeen, he presents his programme from a studio attached to his own home. He's such an enthusiast for his adopted homeland. He once gave me a tour of Lerwick telling me how the local record shop was one of the best in the country, how the sports centre was top notch, how the Chinese restaurant was fantastic... I wasn't sure if he was trying to convince me or convince himself, but it was convincing.
On my last trip to Lerwick we were walking from one pub to, well, another pub when we got to talking about music and, in particular, the American singer-songwriter who recorded Marlena on the Wall. It became one of those frustrating episodes where neither of us could remember her name. It threatened to spoil the whole night and prevent us from discussing other weighty matters. Finally I was forced to call Deirdre Leitch a producer in Inverness who, it turns out, sits by her home computer waiting for calls like this. She gave me the name and, after tormenting Tom for another five minutes, I shared the information with him.
What a relief. We were then able to get on with our mission and, much later, forget our own names.
As for the singer? Well...I'll tell you tomorrow.
My son's ninth birthday. Can it really be nine years since that day in Raigmore Hospital in Inverness? I was exhausted, I can tell you. We were in that labour room for hours and Mrs Z looked a tad worn out as well. Understandable, I suppose. Still, the nurses were so kind. They offered me a lovely cup of tea and some buttered toast. Mrs Z wasn't hungry so I had her share too. Ah, the memories.
Fast forward nine years and here's our baby boy with his new BMX bike and wireless Playstation control pad. I'd also bought him a pen which doubles as an FM radio. These listeners of tomorrow, you have to start them young. There was also a great cake in the shape of a Dalek. You pressed a button and it said "exterminate...exterminate". I'm going to sneak that into the next BBC Scotland management meeting.
Of course, I was supposed to be at someone else's birthday celebrations tonight. Robbie Shepherd is 70 this year and there was a special concert in Perth to celebrate that and to mark more than 70 years of Scottish dance music on BBC radio. I was all set to jump on a train, attend the reception, stay overnight in Perth and then head for a meeting in Edinburgh the next morning.
Somehow all those plans crumbled. The Edinburgh meeting was cancelled and then I got word that there would be no reception after all. Some problem with the venue it seemed. So I called home and told them to save me some of the Dalek cake. Mrs Z reminded me that I was on a diet.
I thought of adopting a robotic voice and screaming "you will obey...you will obey" down the phone.
But I didn't.
Just enjoying my tea and toast now.
Blokes With Blades On Fleshmarket Close
The first guy was holding the the blade against the back of my neck as he began his commentary about the number of Polish immigrants in Scotland.
"Even my doctor is Polish," he announced, "I've always thought of him as a horse doctor."
Not that he was talking to me. This was just the banter with his fellow scalper across the floor of the barbers' shop. They didn't know anything about my own ancestry and I wasn't planning to tell them. At least, not when they were still holding scissors.
It had been an impulse decision to get a haircut while en route from Edinburgh's Waverley Station to the BBC studios at The Tun. Recklessly I had climbed the steep steps through Fleshmarket Close without rope or harness and, halfway up, (base-camp) had noticed the sign in the shop window. Had I been tempted by the promise of a stylish cut? No. Was it the array of bottled gels? No. Was it the special offer of an eight quid trim? Bingo. Thank you for playing. It turned out to be one of the fastest haircuts I've had since I outgrew nappies. Six minutes. Snip, snip, snip and a quick look at the back of my head in a mirror. You know the drill.
In fact, I had spent more time sitting in the black leather and chrome chairs waiting to be taken. I leafed through the Daily Record and noticed that most of the papers had picked up on comments made by Billy Connolly on Radio Scotland. Seems like the 'Big Yin' and Sean Connery have thought about buying a struggling Scottish football club. I was planning to use this as the basis of my small-talk with the barber, but it wasn't required. Instead I sat tight-lipped as they talked to each other about Polish dentists and scoffed at the thought of Polish barbers.
Fifteen minutes later I was at The Tun. No one commented on my haircut. It may have cost eight quid but it looks as good as a nine quid cut if you ask me.
Jane Fowler, our Editor of Speech Programmes, told me about her recent trip to London and how many Polish people she had met there. Would there soon be a backlash of resentment?
I thought again about the barbers and felt guilty that I had said nothing in defence of the Poles. Instead I had made a silent protest. No tip. But I should have said something. Something pithy and powerful.
Or something cutting.
Easter Monday and we shoot over to Craigend to visit my Dad. He's eighty-five but keen to impress us with his grasp of modern technology in that he has just had cable television installed. Worringly he did this because he has heard that the Government is "just about to switch off analogue television". I told him that the switch-off wouldn't happen for a few years but he shrugged, handed me the remote control and asked me to show him how he could get SPL football matches on the screen. Of course I had to break the bad news that he would have to subscribe to a pay-tv channel to do that. So we worked out the sums and discovered he would have to fork out almost forty quid a month to get all the services he was keen on. On the plus side, he doesn't have to pay for a TV licence any more.
We switch off the set and he hands out chocolate easter eggs to the Zedettes and a ring of Polish pork sausage for me. This prompts a nostalgic conversation about childhood Easters when he would take the family to Drumpellier Loch so that we could roll our eggs down a hillside. Not chocolate eggs, of course, but hard-boiled eggs that had been dyed and painted with faces. This proud tradition is maintained in my own household but now children can buy special kits with stickers and hats with which to transform their eggs.
Meanwhile all this talk about the good old days means that we open up the famous Zycinski black bag of photographs where my Dad has stored school photographs, holidays snaps and his amazing collection of Polish navy photographs from his wartime years. There are not many photographs of me in the bag. When you're the youngest of eight children you have to accept that the novelty of taking photographs of your breed must have worn off by the time the last nipper put in an appearance.
Mrz Z was keen to find a photograph of me as a child so that she could compare it to the Zedettes. I finally found one taken at primary school when I was seven years old. Oh those happy innocent days. Hard boiled eggs and just three channels on the telly. Football included.
Flowers of Radio Scotland
A family gathering on the couch tonight as we watched the first episode of the new Doctor Who series. The Zedettes are big fans and consensus in our house was that new leading actor, David Tennant, makes a fine Time Lord. Mrs Z wasn't so sure, but I told her how friendly he had been when he was in Glasgow last week being interviewed by Fred MacAulay. That seemed to convince her.
Meanwhile, we all had a bit of a surprise when the progamme finished and on came the new promo for Radio Scotland's music programmes. If you missed it on the telly you can download it from this website. It's the first time we've given such prominence to our music output. Many people know the station for news, sport and other speech programmes, but our music strands are very different from those available on other stations. That's the message we're trying to get across.
It's been interesting following the development of this campaign. It begins with an analysis of the audience research and then discussions with our Head of Marketing, Mairead Ferguson. She, in turn, briefs her own creative team and they develop a concept. In this case they suggested the colourful variety of music on the station could be likened to varieties of summer flowers. That led to a surreal animated sequence in which row after row of red and yellow tulips are displaced by a wild jungle of exotic and multi-coloured flora. Each animated sequence highlights three different programmes in the schedule and ends with specific information about one of them.
If you do get the chance to see it, let me know what you think. More importantly, do let me know what you think of the music programmes on the station. We have twelve new ones launching between now and the end of the summer. Bursting with new varieties, you see.
The Stink From Studio Ten
Studio G10 is just down the corridor from my own office and is home to the MacAulay & Co. I popped into the control cubicle this morning when I heard that Fred and co-host Frances Healy were interviewing Sharon McAllister, a contestant in the BBC2 programme The Apprentice. At least, she had been a contenstant until last night, when she heard Sir Alan Sugar tell her "you're fired".
The Apprentice is one of the few TV programmmes that myself an Mrs Z make a point of watching together and I knew she'd be interested to know what Sharon looked like in real-life. In other words, I went in for a nosey. I only wish I'd been able to leave my nose behind. Why? Because something fishy was going on.
In the control cubicle I met "chef-to-the stars" John Quigley who was holding a large round tin with Scandanavian writing on the label. John and I go way back to the days when he made a weekly appearance on the old Scottish Connection programme. We exchanged chit-chat and then I looked through the glass into the studio where Fred, Fran and Sharon were having fun with the Daily Dementor quiz. Then it was time for John to go through to the studio.
It turns out the tin contained a Norwegian delicacy which, if I remember correctly, was some kind of fermented herring. John asked Sharon to hold the can in place while he got to work with a tin opener. There was an audible hiss as the can was punctured and, at that point, I saw the colour drain from Sharon's face. She stood up, threw off her headphones and ran from the studio. From my safe position behind the glass I watched as the odour from the herring gradually touched each person in the studio. John remained calm, but Fran stood up and reached for a bucket. Fred also go to his feet and edged back towards the studio wall.
Then Sharon came into the cubicle and, as she did so, the stench came in with her. It was like raw sewage. Soon enough it started to drift along the corridor. Presentation staff in the offices across the corridor came through asking if there had been a gas leak.
To their credit, Fred and Fran talked their way to the end of the show and then made a dash for the door. Fred phoned into the production office later that day saying that was now in his car, seventy miles from Glasgow, but that he could still smell it.
Back home, Mrz Z asked me about Sharon McAllister. "A little smaller than she looks on TV, " I said, "but otherwise what you see is what you get."
But if today has taught me anything it's that I need to stop being so sniffy about television. Sometimes radio just stinks.
What's The Big Idea?
I once killed a man. True story. I was young and stupid, straight out of school and working in the wages office of a colliery. You may remember collieries? Big scary places full of coal. I was working at Cardowan Colliery on the outskirts of Glasgow and I never had to get my hands dirty. My job was to count the number of miners on each shift, record their details in a big ledger and hand out their pay packets once a week. The miners would come up to a little window, give me their name and payroll number and I would hand over the money. I remember being astonished that so many of them seemed to wear eye-liner until it dawned on me that this was the coal-dust that hadn't been washed off in the showers. Told you I was stupid.
So stupid, in fact, that I once opened the wrong ledger and transferred one man's details into the Terminations book. This was the book where you recorded the details of anyone who had died. It set in train a process which resulted in the man's wife getting a letter of regret from the Coal Board. Well, you can imagine the shock and the subsequent apologies!
I wasn't a complete idiot, however, because after a few weeks in the job I noticed a fundamental flaw in the our paperwork system. There were about twenty different forms required for different actions and, for some reason, we were always running out of one or the other. This meant, for instance, that overtime payments were delayed or holiday requests were denied. One night, at home, I devised a simple inventory system so that we would always re-order the necessary forms at least a week before we ran short. I came in to the office the next day feeling very pleased with myself and shared my idea with the office manager and the rest of the staff.
To my astonishment, no one wanted to know. The existing system had been in place for many years and, whatever the flaw, people didn't want it to change, or at least not because some sixteen year old upstart had an idea.
I remembered this story today during a meeting of department heads as we discussed the culture of creativity within the BBC. My view is that just about everyone is capable of coming up with bright ideas, but they can quickly become frustrated if no one encourages them to do it again and again. It takes a certain strength of character to stay motivated in the face of rejection.
A theory confirmed late this afternoon when a man walked into my office with a brilliant idea as to how radio programmes on our Listen Again site could best be illustrated with text and images. Obviously I can't tell you more than that, because it's his idea. What struck me was that this man - who works in the Health Service - has been trying to tell people about this idea for - wait for it - TEN YEARS. But no one would listen, until now.
Perhaps, finally, this is an idea whose time has come. At least I wont be the one to kill it.
The Woman From The Web
I had a secret meeting with Thea Newcomb this afternoon. Well, it was meant to be secret because Thea presents a programme on another radio station and some station managers get a bit sniffy if their presenters are seen coming in to the BBC. It turns out, however, that Thea had already blabbed to her boss about the meeting and that he was cool.
Thea moved to Scotland fourteen years ago from her home in sunny California and made her name with the launch of a website called So You've Been Dumped which was recently quoted by the Wall Street Journal alongside Friends Reunited and other well-know sites. She told me it was inspired by her own experiences with broken relationships. More recently she has launched another site called doyouwannago.com . This is for people looking for groups of friends to attend events or try new sports.
Thea told me that this was also inspired by her own experience as a single woman, because so many of her existing friends have grown a little older, got married and have to look after children. This rang true with me because I know any time I want to go out with Mrz Z we have to weigh up the availabilty of reliable babysitters. Otherwise, of course, we'd both be out there attending rave parties every night.
So Thea also got to talking about her experiences as an American in Scotland and how people sometimes hold her personally responsible for the foreign policies of President Bush. She says that, despite living here for most of her adult life, people still treat her as a visitor.
"Are you planning to go home to California?" is the question she is asked most often and, indeed, I had asked her this myself. I only now realise how rude it sounds but, as I explained to Thea, when you look at the rain pouring down in Glasgow, it's no wonder.
Run For Your Life
Someone, somewhere is trying to tell me something. This morning I received an e-mail from Bryan Burnett inviting me to sponsor him as he runs this year's London Marathon. He's also taking part in the Great Edinburgh run two weeks later. It's all in aid of the Marie Curie charity. Of course, I've seen Bryan in action before. He won the 5K run which we organised as the final event for our SoundTown project in Dalmellington. The rain was coming down in sheets but there was a great turnout from people in the village. Bryan took the lead early and I was trying to follow him with a video camera, taking short-cuts through side-streets and so on. But I just couldn't keep up with him and missed his great moment as he crossed the finishing line.
This was all in my mind when, at lunchtime, I made my way to one of our conference rooms to meet colleagues from the BBC's Sport Relief team. They've been touring BBC centres around the U.K, to talk about this year's plans and to show a film about the success of the previous event two years ago. Naturally there was the usual faffing about while we worked out how to connect the DVD player to the projector, but then the film started, we dimmed the lights, pulled the blinds and on came Gary Lineker and various scenes of celebrities and famous athletes mucking about for a good cause.
I have to confess that my attention began to wander a little bit, mainly because there was a huge plate of cheese rolls on the middle of the table and I hadn't eaten since breakfast. So I subtly reached out for one and was just about to stuff it in my mouth when the film moved on into a harrowing sequence of child poverty in Africa and South America. Not wishing to seem insensitive, I manouvered the roll back to the table.
As the lights came up we heard some facts and figures about Sport Relief and how over a million pounds was spent in Scotland last time around. I was interested to hear that a "conflict resolution" group in Easterhouse has received some of the biggest grants. We discussed the possibility of a radio outside broadcast from Easterhouse Sport Centre in May. This would be six or seven weeks before the big Sports Relief day in July and would allow listeners plenty of time to register for one of the mile-long races taking place around the country.
Something tells me I'll have to look out my own running shoes and take part in some way. I'm not sure if my knees will hold out under the weight, especially since I gained five pounds in the past fortnight. Quitting the cheese rolls might help.
This Is Glasgow
Back at the desk today and I had a bit of trouble getting my brain into gear. I also forgot that I had scheduled the meeting of Glasgow radio staff for the afternoon and had to pull together some rough notes. It was not a triumph! I had hoped to unveil the new TV animations that we'll be running as part of our campaign to promote the summer season of music programmes. I was told it was still locked in a computer being "rendered" and I'm afraid my attempts to mime the thing were ill-judged.
On the way to the meeting I met Peter Gourd, the Head of Presentation, and I was telling him about a book I'd bought in a huge second-hand market in Alnwick. It was called This Is London and was written in 1949 by Stuart Hibberd one of the BBC's original radio announcers.
There are some lovely stories in the book, which is drawn from Stuart's diaries before and after the second world war. Even then the Continuity Announcers would complain if a producer let a programme run beyond the alloted time and there was a feeling that the announcers maintained the standards of the BBC while the programme producers lived in a dreamy world of self-indulgence.
"So nothing has changed really, " I told Peter, who smiled and pointed out that the laws of time and physics have not changed and so the issue of over-running programmes persists.
I also loved the notion that early radio news bulletins were cancelled if there was not enough news to fill them. In that event the announcer would choose a nice piece of music and play that instead. My last meeting of the afternoon was with Blair Jenkins, our Head of News, but I didn't mention the idea to him. I was tempted to mime it, though.
Back Across The Border
Our week in Northumbria is over. We packed the car to bursting point and decided to take the scenic route home. This meant a cross-country journey through Wooler to Kelso and then on to Selkirk. Mrs. Z was keen to see our old home. She hasn't been back to Selkirk for more than ten years so we drove around the town trying to remember our old address. When we found it, nothing much had changed.
"They've painted the garage door a different colour." was Mrs Z.'s only observation. By this time the Zedettes were getting hungry and restless so we headed on to Peebles with the promise of lunch. That's when the weather turned nasty. First we noticed the temperature plummet to zero then came the rain which soon turned to snow. We inched into Peebles on slush-covered roads and then piled into a small tearoom for toasties, tea and juice.
I bought some newspapers which immediately brought me out of the holiday mood. The Southern Reporter had an article on Radio Scotland's search for a new SoundTown in the Borders. The Herald's radio critic, Anne Simpson, gave Gary Robertson's phone-in programme a brief mention. It also carried a lengthy article by Graham Spiers based on the interview he conducted with Celtic mid-fielder Neil Lennon for a Radio Scotland programme. The Scotsman flagged up two other Radio Scotland programmes George MacKay Brown in Love and The Gospel According to Hollywood. I sipped at my tea and watched the Zedettes look longingly at the chocolate muffins on the teashop counter. Forty miles from home. Too late to go back to the beach?
The Bird on The Beach (7th April)
Here in Northumbria you hear very little about Scotland in the news, although the exploits of Gretna football club did seem to be dominating the headlines at the start of the week. A different story today as we learn about the bird-flu confirmation in Fife. BBC Radio Newcastle covered it in every hourly bulletin although I noticed that some of the younger newsreaders may not be aware that 'Scottish Executive' is the term used to describe the Government in Edinburgh. I'm sure I heard one bulletin kick off with the words "A Scottish Executive is telling the public..."
Television news programmes are all over the story too. We watched the late news on ITV last night presented live from the tiny harbour at Cellardyke with a some local neds in the background waving at the camera and calling their friends on mobile phones. It makes you cringe to think this is going out across the U.K.
Worse than that, the Zedettes seem to have become aware of this whole bird flu scare. Each evening, after tea, we've gone down to the beach at Seahouses to play football. Tonight we discovered a dead bird on the beach which immediately prompted all sorts of questions. Of course, you often see dead birds on beaches but now we were in a dilemma about whether or not to report this one.
We checked the latest Government advice which seemed to suggest we shouldn't unless we discovered two or more birds of the same species in the same area.
It was a grim end to a bit of a dud day which had also included a trip south to Amble. We'd gone there because we liked the sound of the name, but there wasn't much to see. We doubled back to the little village of Alnmouth which we had passed through earlier in the week. It really is gorgeous and well worth a visit.
On the way back to Seahouses we listened again to BBC Radio Newcastle where Melvyn Bragg was being interviewed on the Julia Hankin Show. Melvyn was talking about his new TV series and book and, as Mrs Z pointed out, "he does seem to like the sound of his own voice." Julia is an excellent interviewer, however, despite the lack of obvious 'edit points' when Melvyn is in full flow. She pursued an interesting line of questioning about the number of researchers Melvyn has working for him when he writes a book. The famous man suddenly sounded very defensive as he admitted he had "one or two" on some projects but that he does a lot of the work himself.
Julia is a real star and I'm wondering why we don't hear more of her on network radio or television. I have an idea that we might ask some BBC Local Radio presenters to co-host various Radio Scotland programmes for a day or two during the summer. It would be fun to get that different perspective and range of voices from around the U.K.
Alnwick Castle (6th April)
What happens when Hollywood threatens to hi-jack your history? That was the thought that went through my mind today as we headed into Alnwick to visit the famous castle "made famous by the Harry Potter films."
In fact, as the tour guides at Alnwick seem determined to remind you, the castle is famous for a lot more than J.K. Rowling's magical hero. Indeed Alnwick was used as the location for just a few of the movie's scenes, notably the flying broomstick lessons in the first Potter film which was shot against the backdrop of the castle courtyard. It's Prince Harry Hotspur's statue that greets visitors and whose legend is kept alive by the strolling storytellers who gather young children around them and begin their tales with the words "there's a lot more to this place than Harry Potter you know" which almost sounds like a telling-off.
Nevertheless it's clear that many of the families who visit the castle do so because of the Potter factor. Children get the chance to dress up in period costumes and run about with rubber swords. There's also a a glimpse of magic in the shape of Martin the Magician an enthusiastic childrens' entertainer who held his audience spell-bound with his box of tricks and very funny banter. I laughed out loud at his use of emotional blackmail as he persuaded the adults in the crowd to join in the fun.
"Hands in the air everyone, " he instructed, " and if you see a grown-up who isn't doing it that means they don't love you."
Naturally every child's head swivelled in the director of their own parents and naturally every parents' hands shot skywards.
We broke off from the official 'Harry Spotter' tour and made our own way through the lavishly furnished rooms of the castle. The Zedettes were given a clipboard questionnaire to complete. It involved answering questions about the objects and paintings in each room. They soon tired of this, but there was a shock in store.
As we made our way through the final room and towards the exit, a rather matronly attendant stepped forward, took hold of the clipboard and began to give marks for each correct answer and to explain where the children had gone wrong. She took this task as seriously as a school examiner and, for one horrible moment, I thought she was going to stamp their question sheet with a big 'F' for Failure and send them back into the castle to start again. Luckily her mood brightened and she handed each of them a sticker saying that they were now a Lady and Knight of Alnwick. Phew.
It was still cold outside and we made our way to the coffee kiosk where a mournful-faced girl called Jodene sat shivering at the window. I asked her if she had a little heater inside her wooden box.
"Not allowed, " she explained, "it would be a fire risk."
I suggested the plentiful supply of hot drinks might keep her warm.
"We're not allowed to drink them." she said.
I looked at my watch. It was almost four o'clock and I tried to cheer her up by pointing out she would probably be finished by five.
"I'm on until seven, " she corrected.
I ordered four hot chocolates for the family and moved along. They were delicious, despite the nasty taste of guilt.
Pitney, Kielder & BBC Radio Newcastle ( 5th April)
Where were you when you heard that Gene Pitney had died? For me it was on the road between Rothbury and Otterburn, heading towards the Northumberland National Park and listening to BBC Radio Newcastle.
We've grown very fond of this station in the past few days.Personally I've enjoyed listening to radio for sheer pleasure without any nagging sense of responsibility for the output. The music of Radio Newcastle - Everly Brothers, Abba, Simon & Garfunkel - is just the sort of singalong stuff you need when you're clocking up the miles on winding country roads and it's funny how you can become familiar with a station's schedule and personalities after just a few days.
Mike Parr presents the breakfast show and sounds like the fatherly authority figure on the station. This morning he was interviewing a "teacher of the year", though not this year, as it turned out. The best moment was when a former pupil of this wonderful teacher called in to confirm that he was indeed as wonderful as evetyone said he was. She prattled on in this fashion for five minutes until the poor teacher managed to get a word in himself...
"First of all, " he said, "can I just say that it's been a good few years since you left school and you really don't have to call me 'sir' anymore."
Later we were enjoying a lively debate about tatoos and whther or not Noel Edmonds has one on his hand when the news broke about Gene Pitney's death. At the age of 65, Gene had apparently collapsed in a hotel room in Cardiff. He'd been on a U.K. tour and the Radio Newcastle presenters sounded genuinely upset.
Meanwhile our journey had taken to to Otterburn Mill where we stopped for tea and muffins and a look at the looms. Upsatirs there's a bookshop that doubles as a travel agency. You find yourself persusing paperbacks while women on computer terminals arrange foreign car-hire bookings.
Back in the car and we made our way to Kielder Water. A eye-popping journey through and ever-changing ladnscape of forests and moors and on a road that climbed and dipped and twisted and turned. Our arrival at Tower Knowe was something of an anti-climax. The place looked like a motorway service station. We didn't linger but drove to the next bay - Leaplish - which, to be honest, was equally bleak. In an almost empty restaurant we found some menus. Braised beef seemed to be a speciality and there were two versions of this. You could have the beef served in a giant Yorkshire pudding or else with a dumpling plonked on top. I had the latter, the rest of the family went for sandwiches.
A brochure had enticed us to Kielder Water with, among other things, the promise of a crazy golf course. The Zedettes are keen on this so I asked the waitress if she could direct us to the "crazy fairway". Alas, it hadn't been built yet. Apparently there had been some argument about the proposed colour scheme for the crazy golf course. Artistic differences, she said. I kid you not.
After lunch we wandered through a gift shop attached to the restaurant which, it seems, also serves as a grocery store for holiday-makers staying on the on-site chalets. A few pathetic tins of pink salmon stood alongside racks of weatherproof clothing. In a rare act of fatherly generosity I bought the remaining stock of Curly Wurlys (all four of them) and handed them out to the family in lieu of dessert. A mutiny erupted so I agreed to stop off at Rothbury on the return journey and buy ice cream.
Lindisfarne & Berwick (4th April)
We listened for the tide times on BBC Radio Newcastle and headed for Lindisfarne Priory on Holy Island. Crossing the causeway is an eerie experience with the seawater on either side of you and the wisps of sand snaking across the road in front.
Once on the island you're encouraged to leave your car in a pay 'n' display car park just outside the village. A five minute walk, really, but it feels longer with the wind whipping at your face as you climb the hill. We immediately took refuge in the Oasis cafe where I studied the menu and then stupidly asked the waitress if I was in time for the "all-day breakfast". This prompted much hysteriical laughter from Mrs Z. and the Zedettes and of course the remark and laughter was repeated ad nauseam for the rest of the day.
The Lindisfarne Priory was where me met Geoff Porter from English Heritage. He sold us our tickets and then asked Mrs Z. if she was from "north of the border."
"Yes, " she said, "we are."
This turned out to be one of Geoff's trick questions because he then went on to ask us if we were from "north of the Northumberland border."
"You see, " Geoff explained (he was now on a roll), "the original Northumberland border stretched as far north as the Firth of Forth. We actually claim Edinburgh as part of Northumbia. It's Edwin's Borough really."
Sensing that this revelation had left us crestfallen, Geoff consoled us by handing out little treasure maps for the Zedettes and we went to look at the priory. It was an amazing sight and left you wondering how such an intricate structure could have been built on this site so many centuries ago and frankly astonished that any of it still survives. It left us eager to learn more, but not so eager that we were prepared to buy the guide book of course.
We called in at a nearby gift shop which contained the usual array of lettered rock and souvenir jars of lemon curd. I'm convinced these things are all made in some big factory in Slough and then badged with the appropriate tourist destination. I can't imagine giving them as present to anyone who would be happy to receive them.
Back in the car, back across the causeway and we headed north to Berwick-on-Tweed. We were so close to the border I was able to pick up Radio Scotland on FM and was happily enjoying the Tom Morton Show until Mrz Z realised what I was up to and switched us back to Radio Newcastle.
"You're supposed to be on holiday." she scolded.
Berwick has many peculiarities, including petrol stations which ban the use of CB radios in the forecourt. Does anyone still use CB radio? And Berwick also has a pleasing shortgage of American burger bars and other fast-food outlets. We had dinner in a little bistro on Hide Hill called Popinjays which appeared to be run by Filipinos. The food was good but I did get a bit of a fright when the chef stormed out of the kitchen to ask if I'd ordered rice or baked potato with my chile con carne.
"Rice," I replied, rather nervously.
"Good. Good." Then he marched away, wiping his hands on his apron.
Just think, if I'd ordered the baked tattie I might not be here to tell you about it.
Dunstanburgh Castle (3rd April)
Our exploration of the Northumbrian coast continued with a short drive to Craster where we parked the car and set out for a bracing walk along the shoreline to Dunstanburgh Castle. This was not as easy as it looked because we soon found ourselves negotiating pools of mud and sheep-droppings. There were also real-live sheep and the Zedettes began to panic. That's a city upbringing for you! I tried to distract them (the children, not the sheep) by asking them where they thought wool comes from. Blank looks. Clearly "wool" is not part of their vocabulary.
The mud degenerated into actual marsh and, no longer sure of our route, we followed two elderly ladies clockwise around a hillock until they stopped, turned and started signalling frantically for us to go back.
"We've come the wrong way," they yelled, "there's no way through."
Sure enough every other walker had taken the anti-clockwise path but we felt committed and so squelched our way through the bog until we reached a gate leading up to the castle.
I say castle but, in fact, Dunstanburgh is one of those collections of ruined stonework that makes you wish you'd invited Tony Robinson and his Time Team along to explain what you're looking at. Of course, having stumped up ten quid to gaze at the rubble we were too mean to cough up more cash to pay for a guide book. We wandered around aimlessly for a while until the youngest Zedette noticed a stairway leading to the top of a tower. At last! A purpose.
We trudged up the spiral staircase and were rewarded by a stunning view of the countryside and the waves tumbling in off the North Sea. I took in huge gulps of the fresh air and let my senses flood with the feel of the cold air, the smell of seawater and the sound of ...my mobile phone.
It was Tommy Weir in the BBC Scotland marketing office in Glasgow. He needed some urgent information about an outside broadcast we're planning in Edinburgh next month. I dealt with it as quickly as possible and looked at Mrs Z with a face more sheepish than the nearby sheep. On the way back to the car she began plotting revenge.
"Let's get his number and phone him when he's on holiday, " she ranted. I nodded agreement. Best to keep my head down, I thought, especially with all those sheep droppings on the path.
Seahouses 2nd April
We've rented a cottage in Northumbria for a week while the Zedettes are on Easter break from school. We're in the coastal village of Seahouses which is about 20 miles south of Berwick but does look and feel completely English, despite our proximity to the Border. Even the fish and chip restaurants - of which there are five in this small village - boast all sorts specialities which you don't find in Glasgow. Cod takes star billing over haddock and mushy peas abound.
Inside the pubs people are still (whisper it) smoking cigarettes! Yes, only a few weeks since the ban was introduced in Scotland but it already looks like a primitive practise when you see grown men put those burning sticks in their mouths.
I do like to stroll around small places like this, peering at the posters and notices in shop windows. It gives you a feel for the local community. In Seahouses this month, for example, you can get fit at the Wiggle 'n' Giggle club or "Mums-to-Be" can make friends at the Babes, Bumps and Babies Group. Polish immigrants can improve their English at special night classes and parents can contact a babysitter who seems to believe that being "a mature expectant mother" is a selling point. I thought I'd spotted some kind of sleazy night club at the end of Main Street. There was a red neon sign above a doorway.
It turned out to be the place where you buy carpets.
We've maybe arrived a week or two ahead of the official English tourist season. Many shops and cafes seem to be on "winter hours". The Tourist information office has only just reopened and the amusement arcade seems to be in the middle of a clear-out of defunct machines. The biggest disappointment so far has been the discovery of a brand new sports centre and swimming pool right here in the heart of the village. Disappointing because we've been told it's for residents only.
Our rented cottage is very cosy. It looks suitably rustic on the outside but the interior is equipped with all the latest gadgets including power-shower, widescreen TV, digibox and an amazing library of DVDs. As ever it seems many of us prefer the illusion of rural life to the real thing.
As for the weather, well the sun is shining but the temperature hasn't yet reached higher than 5 Celsius. That didn't deter me from taking the Zedettes down to the beach for a game of football, with goalposts made out of driftwood. I was distracted by the sight of North Sea waves crashing on the rocks. No wonder they beat me six-nil.
Falling Off A Blog
So, after three months of blogging, I've decided to take a short break from this diary and try to go for a full week without thinking about the BBC. Yes, it's the school holidays and time to fly kites, play football and bake huge chocolate cakes. Not sure what the children have planned, but that's me sorted.
It's been an interesting experience sitting down each evening to post my thoughts and recollections of the day. A bit like therapy. I've tried to strike a balance between offering the promised "behind-the-scenes glimpse of Radio Scotland" alongside personal stories of family life. Why? Well mainly because it's those kind of blogs that interest me most. They remind me of the Father's Day column that Hunter Davies used to write for the old Punch magazine.
Does anyone read this daily diary? Well, Tom Hodgkinson who works for BBC Interactive and who showed me the ropes of blogging, tells me he is a fan and apparently there are over a thousand others like him every week. I'm not sure how many of those are Radio Scotland staff, but a few of them have told me off for announcing things here before I communicate them within the BBC. Sorry. Then again, I also promised a "sneak preview" service.
So any thoughts on this diary and its future would be appreciated. Meanwhile let me recommend some other blogs you might want to look at.
BBC Scotland's own Island Blogging site is my first choice. It gives a real glimpse of island life and is replete with wonderful photography.
Tom Morton , our afternoon presenter, provides a non-BBC blog. It often includes his own music.
James Cook, former presenter of Newsdrive, is taking a year out and is currently blogging from China.
Nick Robinson is the BBC Politcal Editor who provides a background blog to his reports.
Mary Ann is a friend from Texas who has been blogging for five years about life, boyfriends, booze and cats.
I should be back on the keyboard next Saturday, meanwhile let me leave you with the thought that there are only two golden rules for a good blog
1. Always leave the reader wanting more...
The BBC is not responsible for the content of external internet sites