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Archives for November 2008

Suzy Wins Again

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Jeff Zycinski | 21:51 UK time, Thursday, 27 November 2008



It was way past my bedtime on Tuesday when I got the good news from London. We'd won the factual radio prize at this year's Mental Health Media Awards. The series - Tales From The Flip Side - had been presented by former MSP Rosie Kane. Rosie had interviwed people who, like herself, had experienced mental health problems. It was one of two gongs picked up by BBC Scotland on the night. The story is reported here on AllMedia Scotland.

For our producer, Suzy Beaumont, it's been quite a year. She also scooped a Sony award back in May for her work on Give Me A Voice.

The awards ceremony was held at the offices of BAFTA in Picadilly and were hosted by Ruby Wax.


Window Shopping

Jeff Zycinski | 23:27 UK time, Wednesday, 26 November 2008



Tonight, in a quiet bar in the centre of Glasgow, I had arranged to have drinks with an attractive - and quite famous - young woman. This woman, it has to be said, works for another radio station and I had suggested we meet well away from any BBC premises for fear that people would get the wrong idea or that her current employers would take the huff. In professional football they call this process "tapping up" and it's against the rules. In radio we call it "gossiping" and it's an industry requirement.

So, in order to get to this bar, I had to get the tube from Kinning Park to Buchanan Street and then walk through George Square. The square has been decorated for the festive season with the kind of carefree style and flair you associate with a drunken binman. Honestly, it's a shambles. A helter-skelter cone sits cheek by jowl with a stinky hamburger hut. Sir Walter Scott's column has been festooned in tubes of red neon and a curtain of fairy lights. In the distance there is a bulky mis-shapen Christmas tree, but you have to negotiate a maze of funfair rides, railings and plywood hoardings to get a glimpse of it. Comparing it to my trip to Belfast the other night I felt a cringe of embarrassment for my native city. It was horrible.

At the bar, I was describing all this to my mystery companion but it was obvious she didn't share my opinion. There was something about that glazed look in her eyes and the anxious way she glanced at her watch that told me this was so. I'm guessing she was saying a silent prayer of thanks because she worked in a place where the boss didn't hi-jack you with his bitter ramblings. Nevertheless, I pressed on.

"You see, when I was a wee boy, " I told her, "My Dad would take me and my sister on late night car journeys into the middle of Glasgow. We'd look at the lights and then go window shopping."

"Window shopping? Are you sure this was Glasgow and not Amsterdam?"

I ignored this and told her how my sister would chase me around the statues in George Square until we were both out of breath. Then we'd admire the nativity scene and the big Christmas tree. After that we'd stroll down to Argyll Street and stare open-mouthed at the glittering displays in Lewis's windows. Simple pleasures.

Funnily enough, it was not long after saying all this that I found myself on those very streets and once again I was staring into shop windows.

On my own, of course.

Party Animal

Jeff Zycinski | 22:19 UK time, Tuesday, 25 November 2008



Last week I gate-crashed a party and I meant to tell you all about it. The party was happening in one of the fourth floor radio studios at Pacific Quay and, as far as I could tell, I was the only guest. It was being held by Bryan Burnett and his producer Barbara Wallace as the Get It On programme celebrated the thirtieth birthday of BBC Radio Scotland. They took 1978 as the theme and the party food reflected that. There were chunks of ham and pineapple on cocktail sticks, little crackers covered with cheese from a tube and glasses of non-alcoholic fruit punch. Bryan had invited me in to see the spread and, well, I kind of out-stayed my welcome.

"You can say a few words on air, " warned Barbara, " but only if you keep it short."

She directed me to a microphone, put my finger on a fader and told me to push it forward when Bryan asked me a question. I mean, honestly! She must think us management types have no common sense at all.

"Hello Boss, " said Bryan, after he had introduced the show and played montage of clips from the opening day of the station, "do you feel like a proud Father?"

I'm guessing no one heard the first few words of my answer because at that moment Barbara leapt towards me and pushed the fader forward. Just a tiny lapse of concentration on my part.

I then talked about 1978 as the year when I seriously began to buy records. In my attic I still have that little black box of vinyl singles. There's music by Blondie, ELO, The Jacksons and various tracks from Grease in that box. I also revealed to Bryan that I had actually bought the Wings greatest hits album and he confirmed that this was probably the root cause of my loneliness at school.

Incidentally, the only other party I have ever gate-crashed was one being held by Richard Branson. This must have been about eight years ago. The millionairre was having a bit of a thrash in a Glasgow restaurant to celebrate the opening of one of his Virgin mega-stores. I had been dining with friends in the upstairs section of the restaurant and we had wandered down to see what all the fuss was about. Not only did we spend some time drinking his free wine but we actually persuaded him to fetch us another bottle. Then, with my faculties under the same level of control as a smashed jar of marbles, I engaged him in a lengthy conversation about the dangers of over-extending the Virgin brand. For good measure I also told him that he had opened his shop on the wrong street. Oh yes.

Eventually it dawned on him that I was not one of his employees, nor was I the business guru my mouth thought I was. He was very good about it, though. He left us with the bottle.

Still, thirty years on and BBC Radio Scotland is still thriving, but where's Virgin radio and whatever happened to those mega-stores?

Festive Belfast

Jeff Zycinski | 20:16 UK time, Monday, 24 November 2008



This afternoon I flew direct from Inverness to Belfast on a hush-hush mission. I was met at the George Best city airport by Susan Lovell, my opposite number at BBC Radio Ulster. She was supposed to pass me a brown envelope containing secret documents, but these were still being checked and double checked by her people back at headquarters. Instead she hurried me into a coffee bar and interrogated me about my beverage preferences.

"I'll have a latte, " I told her, "medium size, not shaken but slightly stirred."

I raised one eyebrow and had another standing by in case things turned ugly . Susan nodded. It was the right answer. It meant I also qualified for a jammy biscuit.

Ok, enough of that. This is what happens if you go to see the new James Bond movie the night before a big meeting. The truth is I'm in Belfast to help Susan with a recruitment process and share my experiences of BBC Scotland's move from Queen Margaret Drive to Pacific Quay. It's useful to compare notes with things like this and I always enjoy my trips to Belfast. It's become such a modern, confident and very European city. Its proximity to Scotland makes you think it will be a bit like Glasgow, but to my eye it looks a lot more like Cardiff.


Tonight I took a wander into the heart of the town. There's a Continental Festive Market in the grounds of the City Hall. There are lots of little huts selling everything from Peruvian ponchos to Polish pastries. I lingered around the Bratwurst stall with my tongue hanging out, hoping for a free sample. Finally I handed over four quid for two big fatty sausages in a bread roll. Well, you know me, I always go for the healthy option. With mustard.

There's also the Belfast Wheel. It's on the same scale as the London Eye and towers over the surrounding buildings like an alien spacecraft. I thought about buying a ticket and climbing into one of the pods, but the landing at George Best airport had already satisfied by thrill quota for the day. How can I describe that? It's like landing on an aircraft carrier while it's sitting in dry dock. I'm surprised they don't have those high tension wires to catch the planes as they touch down.

Still, if it's good enough for James Bond, it's good enough for me.


Out Of The Comfort Zone

Jeff Zycinski | 23:31 UK time, Sunday, 23 November 2008


We were about forty minutes away from letting the audience take their seats when the producer decided to tell the piper he had to stand outside in the cold..and boy, was it cold. I'm not sure how cold, exactly, but it was two degrees below zero when I had parked my car and the moor was already frosted with ice and snow.

All this happened last night at the Culloden Battlefield Visitor Centre, just outside Inverness. It was the venue for a special concert involving a quartet from the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra, augmented by harpist Helen Thompson and hardy piper Niall Matheson. It was all linked to the BBC's Scotland's History project and we were recording the proceedings for a special edition of Classics Unwrapped.

The presenter, believe it or not, was Yours Truly. I'm not sure why, but I think it is just one of those things that happen when you don't read your e-mails properly. When I had agreed to introduce the event I imagined I'd have a walk-on part and the opportunity to say a few words of corporate greeting to the great and the good of Highland society. Instead I found myself so far outside my comfort zone that I almost needed a visa to get home. I was actually presenting the whole show.

I mean I like Classical music as much as anyone, but the format called on me to step up to the microphone every ten minutes or so and entertain the audience with astounding insights into the lives of various composers and then make the connection back to the history of Scotland. Luckily the producer, Bill Lloyd, had done all the research and had presented me with a script that that could have made a chimpanzee look good, if only chimpanzees could speak.

But then, there were times when I lost the power of speech and the only thing coming out of my mouth was a kind of chattering sound. After tackling one paragraph for the third time I threw myself on the mercy of the crowd.

"I'm more used to telling other people how to do this than actually doing it myself," I confessed.

Well, at least it got a laugh. But then, so would a chimp.

Return Of The Old Guys

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Jeff Zycinski | 22:06 UK time, Wednesday, 19 November 2008


The last time I saw the old guys was more than two years ago back at Queen Margaret Drive and I wrote about them on this blog. Tonight they were in our spanking new high definition television studio here at Pacific Quay. The "Old Guys" in question are, in fact, the central characters of a new situation comedy that is being made for BBC 1 and will be shown throughout the U.K. It's been interesting to see how the project has developed since I was in the audience for the original pilot. I enjoyed what I'd seen then but tonight's recording was twice as good and a great cast headed by Roger Lloyd Pack, Clive Swift, Jane Asher & Katherine Parkinson. I wont give away any plot details but there were some real laugh-out-loud moments of visual and verbal comedy. Oh and and just a wee bit of toilet humour too

Filing out with the rest of the studio audience tonight I was suddenly approached by a young woman.

"Are you Mister Zycinski?" she asked. This had the effect of making me feel like an old guy myself, but I guess I'm just surprised by anyone showing me respect these days. Anyway, the young woman turned out to be Amy MacBeath, a student on the new multi-media journalism course that's been launched at Caledonian University. She told me she was a fan of this blog and, of course, that's why she's getting a mention. Then, somehow the conversation turned to my decision to move to Inverness and I was just getting into my stride with my standard lecture on the virtues of the Highland Capital when she stopped me in my tracks.

"I'm actually from Inverness myself, " said Amy, "born and bred."

I should have recognised her accent but I was too busy listening to myself. Oh well, that's allowed when you get to my age.


No Hard Feelings

Jeff Zycinski | 16:06 UK time, Monday, 17 November 2008



If you've ever wondered how you can become part of the audience for a BBC radio or television show then have a look at this website. From now on you'll be seeing a lot more Scottish events listed here and that includes some of the new comedy shows we're recording for BBC Radio Scotland.

Alas, the next recording of No Hard Feelings is already fully booked. This sitcom continues where Free Falling left off, but this time John Gordon Sinclair takes up the role of Raymond Swan.

In the photograph above are some of his fellow cast members including Des Clarke, David Walker, Samantha Young and Julie Coombe. The actual show hits the airwaves on Friday 12th December.

We're All Going To Kazoo Tomorrow

Jeff Zycinski | 23:44 UK time, Thursday, 13 November 2008


Tomorrow (Friday) is the big BBC Children in Need day , but all this month we've been celebrating with a series of Pudsey Parties up and down the country. By the end of November we'll have ticked off no less than thirty parties...thirty because we're combining the fund-raising with the celebration of BBC Radio Scotland's thirtieth birthday which also happens this month.

Tomorrow those parties will be happening in our studios and on the airwaves, starting with Fred MacAulay in the morning and then Tom Morton live from our new Inverness building in the afternoon. In the evening we're back at Pacific Quay in Glasgow where our sport and music programmes will be continuing the fun.

I've also been given a part to play. Tom Morton has asked me to revive the famous Kazoo orchestra which was last heard of in the days when Tom presented the mid-morning programme from Inverness studios and actually lived in a camper van in the car park.

The other day I went into a kiddie's toy shop in Inverness to buy up all their kazoos. The shop assistants were intrigued and I had to tell them what I was up to.

"You see, " I explained, "anyone can play the kazoo, can't they?"

There was much shaking of heads and I was told that many customers came in, blew into the kazoos, heard nothing but the rush of their own breath and decided the blasted things were all broken.

Then, believe it or not, I was asked to demonstrate the thing right there in the shop. So I gave them a rendition of Jingle Bells and waited for the applause.

A tumbleweed moment, I think they call it.

I'm No Oil Painting - That's Official!

Jeff Zycinski | 13:52 UK time, Wednesday, 12 November 2008



Just two days to go before our big Children in Need extravaganza and everyone is getting into the swing of things. Today in Pacific Quay Gerry Slavin, who works in the graphics department, was selling caricatures to passing staff.

I was encouraged to have mine done. In less than fifteen minutes, Gerry has sketched out this little masterpiece. Many say it looks more like our rugby guru John Beattie, but don't tell John that. He'd be furious.


Don't Bank On It

Jeff Zycinski | 15:06 UK time, Tuesday, 11 November 2008



I nipped down to the bank at lunchtime and was almost tempted by the gammon steaks. The bank, you will realise, no longer operates as safe haven for savings, but then, which banks do these days? No the bank in question is the former headquarters of the Caledonian Bank in Inverness. Its lower floors are now given over to one of those nondescript family pubs where every meal comes with big chips. The interior décor contains no reference to the building's former life. That's a shame, really, because we could all learn much from the story of the Caledonian.

Founded in 1836, the Caledonian Banking Company once has 20 branches along the Moray Firth and as far north as Caithness and Wester Ross. It specialised in lending money to farmers, fishermen and, well, anyone who was bored and fancied building a whisky distillery. By the end of the nineteenth century it was running into trouble and in 1907 it was taken over by the Bank of Scotland.

In case you're wondering, I got all this information from the official HBOS website where it cites two reasons for the Caledonian's demise.

"Firstly, the bank's lending and investment controls were not stringent enough. Some of the famous Highland distilleries that were built around the turn of the century would not have been possible had the more stringent banking attitudes of the Edinburgh and Glasgow banks prevailed. Secondly, the failure of the Scottish India Coffee Company of Madras Province, which went into liquidation in 1902, left the Caledonian Bank with a debt of £30,000."

Seems a little ironic given the plight of HBOS today, but not half as ironic as the call a colleague of mine received when he was sitting at home the other night. Apparently a nice man from HBOS came on the line and offered a personal financial audit.

"What? From you guys?" my colleague was almost tempted to say, but didn't. He's just too polite.

As for the Caledonian building itself, well, you may think me mad, but every time I look at it I'm reminded of Indiana Jones and The Last Crusade. You know that climactic scene where they meet an old Knight of the Crusades. It was filmed in the
famousy Treasury building at Petra in Jordan.

There just something about the way the Caledonian building sits squeezed between two bland office blocks on the High Street seems just a incongruous as a temple carved out of the rock face.

What do you think?

My Hero

Jeff Zycinski | 19:18 UK time, Sunday, 9 November 2008



If it hadn't been for Adolf Hitler and Joseph Stalin then I probably wouldn't be here. Not just me, of course, but the millions of people who owe their parentage to the massive disruption of Europe's population during the second world war. Today is the day for remembering such things and, in my case, the day to pick up the phone to my Father. It's just a few days before his 88th birthday.

He was one of the million people imprisoned by Stalin during the Soviet-Nazi annexation of Poland. At the age of nineteen he found himself in a Siberian labour camp. Two years later, Stalin was allied with Britain and America and, as a "gesture of goodwiil" he released 115,000 Poles so that they could join the war effort.

As my Dad tells it, he embarked on a journey to Greece and then a sea voyage to Britain where he was supposed to join the Polish free army, but he enjoyed the voyage so much that he joined the navy instead. Once in Britain he became a crew member of the destroyer Piorun. It's a famous ship. The Piorun - it translates as Thunderbolt - was part of the hunt for the German battleship Bismarck and it was also the ship that defended Clydebank during the blitz.

My Father spent the remaining years of the war onboard the Piorun as it defended merchant convoys. He spent his shore-leave in Glasgow where he decided the people were as friendly and down-to-earth as the Poles. That's also where he met my Mother.

As I say, I spoke to him this afternoon and we talked only briefly about the war. Mostly we chat about football and recall daft episodes from family holidays. As the years go on I realise that I've inherited quite a few things from him, but mainly his eccentric sense of humour and love of garlic sausage.

He doesn't go to the remembrance parades these days. He used to go to the cenotaph in Glasgow and march with his former ship-mates. Now most of them are gone. Instead he watches the television and the event in London. That's what he did today.

"I was looking for any Poles in the parade," he told me, "but I didn't see any. Maybe they're all gone now."

And then we talked about sausages.


Pounding The Streets

Jeff Zycinski | 18:35 UK time, Saturday, 8 November 2008



Visible signs of the looming recession must include this image from Inverness. It's a sad day when even those ninety-nine pence shops start to go out of business while charities such as Shelter continue to be needed.

I have to confess to being slightly addicted to those quid-or-under places. I can't pass one without popping in to pick up a few birthday or Christmas gifts for the special people in my life. After all, it's the thought that counts, not the price-tag. Keep saying that out loud and eventually you'll be able to sleep at night.

The upmarket version of those shops is probably Poundland where they have turned our desire for unecessary bargains into something approaching an art form. Come on, don't tell me you're not the teeniest bit tempted by those rows of VHS video cassettes or the rubber hot water bottles in a choice of three lurid colours. Only a quid each.

But I'm waiting for the moment when one of the checkout girls finally snaps because yet another customer has approached her with the question I hear asked every time I go in there:

"Excuse me, but how much is this?"

The Pudding Club

Jeff Zycinski | 15:10 UK time, Friday, 7 November 2008



There was a party atmosphere in our Inverness studio today for the last of this year's Highland Cafe programmes. Presenter Bruce MacGregor was joined by the Irish folk musician Sharon Shannon, her band and, believe it or not, plates of Stornoway black pudding.

It all make sense at the time and the music was terrific. I popped into the studio with my camera, hoping they might leave just a morsel of food for me, but no luck. It had all been scoffed by Sharon and the band and then they went out into the streets of Inverness looking for a place where they could find more.

Offal, really.


Inside The Inner Wheel

Jeff Zycinski | 17:00 UK time, Thursday, 6 November 2008



I quite enjoy being invited to speak to groups, but perhaps I should read something into the fact that I rarely get invited back to the same place. Not so with the Inverness branch of the Inner Wheel where, this afternoon, I returned for my third visit in the space of four years. Truth be told I was a last minute replacement because the original speaker had to cancel.
No matter, I'm not proud and besides my Mother-in-Law is a member of the Inner Wheel in Renfrew so I accrue valuable Brownie points every time I turn up.

If you've never heard of the Inner Wheel I should explain that they are kind of the female militant wing of the Rotary Club. The ladies in Inverness have lunchtime meetings once a month in the Lochardil Hotel. Today I was met by the current President Eleanor Lamont and then got to tuck in to a two course lunch with coffee to follow.

All I had to do was stand up, show some videos and wiitter away about my job. I also mentioned the Scotland's History project , our audio Zones and our plans for Children in Need. I had brought my Pudsey collecting tin which, I'm happy to report, was stuffed with coins and notes by the time I left.

So that's my plan from now on. Where I go, Pudsey goes too.


Scotland's History

Jeff Zycinski | 23:10 UK time, Monday, 3 November 2008



My Auntie Jean and Uncle Jimmy taught me more about Scottish history than I ever learned at school. For a week or two every Easter my sister and I would be sent off to their house in Tullibody so that my parents didn't have to worry about child-care problems during the school holiday. Jean and Jimmy would fill the days by packing us into the back of their Austin Mini and giving us a drive-past tour of Clackmannanshire. They told us about William Wallace, Robert the Bruce, Bannockburn, Stirling Bridge and lots of local folklore and mythology.

Back in primary school we had a book called Conquering Worlds. This, as I recall, consisted of little essays about various British heroes. David Livingstone was in there and probably John Logie Baird, but that seemed to be it for Scotland. Winston Churchill's early exploits were well covered and there was a lot about various British kings and queens. The only Scottish history I recall from secondary school involved the Covenanters and how Robert the Bruce was ex-communicated because he killed someone in a church. I dropped history in third year and studied geography instead. (I still love Ordnance Survey maps).

Asking around, my experience doesn't seem untypical and it's against this kind of backdrop that BBC Scotland is launching Scotland's History - one of the biggest projects we've mounted in recent years. This coming Sunday sees the start of the landmark television series A History of Scotland, but also seven - count them - seven different history series on BBC Radio Scotland. One of those will look specifically at what we were and were not taught in school.

Now that I'm in my mid-forties (no..honestly, it's true) I've become a real enthusiast for things ancient and historic. The thing about travelling across Scotland is that you see history everywhere you turn. It's there in every statue, every rusted or eroded plaque on old buildings - these always draw my attention and provoke a desire to know more.


Yet we take it for granted. Outside Inverness Castle, for example, there's that statue of Flora MacDonald. I must pass it five times a week, at least. Yes, we all know how Flora helped Bonnie Prince Charlie escape to France by disguising him as a servant girl called Betty Burke. Not so many know that she then emigrated to North America and sided with the British in the American war of independence...or that she ended her life back here in Scotland.

The statue itself is now part of the heritage of Inverness, It was erected in 1899 and there are contemporary photographs showing the huge crowds that turned out for the formal unveiling.


Yet the best thing about history is that it's always good for an argument. My children were taught at school about the Jacobite uprising and the Battle of Culloden. The new Culloden Vistor Centre attracts tourists from around the world. But click on this link and you'll hear how historians can trade verbal blows when it comes to interpreting the facts.

I'm guessing we'll have lots more of that in the year ahead.

Winter Beckons

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Jeff Zycinski | 23:08 UK time, Monday, 3 November 2008



I thought I might begin a little visual record of the changing seasons by taking a photograph from the same place every few weeks. This is from the esplanade at Inverness Castle and shows the River Ness and surrounding buildings. If you look north towards the Black Isle you can see snow on them there hills.

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