It’s press day and Tim is working on a story about tax evasion. Poll tax is the latest in a series of unpopular policies introduced by the Tory Government of the time and a lot of people have refused to pay as a form of protest. It’s tasty. It’s topical. Tim has a list of defaulters issued by the local court and is on his feet, pacing, as he calls a prominent Tory councillor for a comment. The phone is a big stick for stirring things with…
“This is Ray Scranage. Who’s this?”
“Er, it’s Tim Bowdler from the St Albans Observer. I’m working on a story about the poll tax…”
“Tell him it’s the front page lead,” Ralph calls across the room.
“Er, yes. It’s our lead story this week and, anyway… Ray, the thing is, er, we’ve got a list of people who are due to appear in court for poll tax evasion…”
“Well, let me put it like this, Ray. You’re on the list. You haven’t paid your poll tax. Do you have anything to say?”
“It’s a fair cop.”
That was the headline and our work was done. We rejoiced in the fact that Mr Scranage wasn’t going to be elected next time the ballot boxes opened. He’d have to hang a pork chop round his neck to get even a dog interested in him. And it would have to be a pretty special pork chop at that. His political demise was pleasing.
Hoisting a politician on his own petard was a high spot in a newsroom which churned out copy like a sausage factory. We were writing an average of fifty stories a week. Each. Now and again Ralph would let us write a feature and there was a two page arts section called ?Outlook? which had creative possibilities. Actually, we had a pretty free reign to do features whenever we wanted, but most of the things we wrote about came from press releases, council meetings and occasionally police, fire or ambulance contacts. Crown court reports came from an agency and magistrates court was almost completely ignored.
Sometimes, Ralph would send one of us over the road to the coroner’s court to write up inquests. Inquests were dark slaps in the face with harsh reality, dealing with sudden deaths?accidents, suicides and illegal killings. They were about mortality and the fragility of life. They were not only depressing but often deadly dull to sit through. Anyone on the edge would have jumped after two hours of incomprehensible witness statements and coroner Arnold Mendoza muttering more jargon. Nine times out of ten Dr Mendoza would come up with an “open verdict”.
This kind of darkness—the pointless, meaningless deaths—inspired equally black gallows humour and we’d go back to Ralph with suggestions for headlines like ‘Death plop’ for a story about a fatal fall. “How about ‘Dullard writes readable copy’?” he’d retort, followed immediately by an exaggerated stage sigh, “No, forget it. It will never happen.”
For someone who read eight or nine paperbacks a week, Ralph’s shtick was pretty lame. We’d written up his six stock phrases in the front of our contact books and suggested he simply refer to them by number rather than continue wasting his breath trying to break into stand up. Well, when I say “we” I mean the royal we, of course. Harvey mostly ignored our youthful exuberances and simply ground out copy.
Harvey covered county council and wrote nearly every page lead in the paper. Local government is the biggest business in Britain, second only to central government, so the potential for news was a bottomless pit. Harvey was backed up by his bottomless pit of contacts and, apart from The Sayings Of Chairman Ralph, his little red contacts book could answer anything. What he didn’t know or couldn’t find out ended up with a phone call to Roger “I’ll get back to you” Osborn in the St Albans Council press office. Roger got back to us about fifty percent of the time, which was pretty good considering how often we phoned him. He also had five other local papers he was trying to help, although of course we were the best.
Ralph and Harvey with input from Roger were effectively the driving force which produced the St Albans Observer. Over in Watford, there was the group editor, Peter Wilson-Leary and his deputy, Malcolm ‘I’m not bitter’ Waller, who had joined the paper as a boy and was now facing retirement. He would never achieve his dream of becoming editor and everyone knew it. Together, these people were ‘the system?’which we had to beat. There were a number of younger journalists, although never more than three at a time over in the small district office at St Albans. We had to get to a stage where we were better than our managers if we were ever going to escape. Or simply outwit them.
Tim moved back to Watford after a few months and observed that, socially, it was a much better place to work. “There’s just a lot more going on. It’s a bigger office. There’s more people you can talk to, more life. There’s a buzz.” He suggested I should get back there and have more of a life. I put the idea to the back of my mind. There were some advantages to working unobserved in the quiet district office. I could leave most of the keying-in until the weekend and do it undisturbed. And I could claim expenses for what I termed ‘flying a desk’ when I did same. Was I interviewing these people? Or copying their words into inverted commas? Who knew. That will be £40, please. Ka-ching!
Tim’s oft repeated question to me was, “Have you got an escape plan yet?” to which the answer was mostly negative, although I continued taking film making classes whenever I could. Grelle White, the Watford arts editor, let me write up monster movie reviews and there were some interviews with actors and directors appearing in there too. I hoped that all this would eventually pull in enough contacts to make sense of an industry I wasn’t involved with but hoped to break into.
One of my favourite things to do was to visit my old school friend Paul, a model and prop maker, at Shepperton Studios where he was working on Thomas The Tank Engine, plus commercials and even feature films. I wrote up a feature on him once—local boy makes good—justified as he’d learned his craft at St Albans college. Ralph’s headline was ‘Modellers out to scale the heights?. Groanworthy but not totally dire. “No, no, no, no, no,” said Malcolm Waller, throwing down his pen when he saw it over in Watford. “You can’t use puns like that!” He underlined it in heavy red ink and sent us a copy of the paper, as he always did, marked up with his comments all over. We ignored him. Another advantage to working miles away.
As I learned more, my writing improved, at least a bit. I made more contacts and I knew where I could find out pretty much anything I needed to know. The district we covered had a fantastic amount of resources, although people rarely put them together. It was all just information and publicity for small pockets of people who never connected. I felt like I was collecting the biggest ever collection of digging equipment but finding that there was nowhere to start work on the escape tunnel. Metaphorically, I was on the first floor and there was no way down except through the window. The feeling of being trapped came home even more strongly after Roger met up with us in the pub one lunchtime.
“Tell them what happened to your wife on Christmas Day,” Roger said to Ralph, slapping him heartily on the back. “This is a good one,” he winked to us. Ralph opened his mouth to speak, “Oh, I don’t know…” He was about to continue but Roger, who’d heard it before, beat him to the punch. “Did you know Ralph locked his wife in the cathouse for Christmas Day? She was only wearing her nightie.” Ralph gave him a withering glance but it simply bounced off Roger’s irresistable bonhomie. Everyone loved Roger. “Well, I’m not going to tell now you’ve told them,” said Ralph petulantly. “Oh, go on,” said Roger, “they haven?t heard it.” So Ralph did.
The Slaters bred rare Persian Blues in a huge cattery in their back garden and apparently Mrs Slater had been inside a shed within one of the cages, feeding the cats. Ralph went out and saw the gate open, so he diligently locked it. It wasn’t until a few hours later that he wondered where his Christmas Dinner was and it dawned on him to check outside. Poor Mrs S had been outside for hours, freezing in only her nightie, while Ralph had sat by the fire watching videos.
We laughed. At least it wasn’t snowing. Mrs Slater didn?t come to any harm and even had the forgiveness to cook Ralph’s dinner. The irony was, we were as stuck as Ralph’s cats in the tiny cage of local journalism. The Slaters’ pedigree furballs weren’t allowed out to breed beyond the confines of their cages and we didn’t have enough money to buy ourselves out of the inevitable bank loans and overdrafts taken on to support a reasonable lifestyle.
“How’s the escape plan coming along,” asked Tim again one evening in the pub. “I don?t know,” I said, honestly. I’d been applying for various things in television, and even radio, but had had rejection after rejection, mostly from the BBC. They advertised great sounding posts all the time, every week, and the application forms took hours to complete. Sometimes I even got an interview but then came the letter. Always “Thank you…” never “pleased…” It seemed like they just didn’t want to play with me. It was May 1989. It was time to find a new pork chop.
It happened one morning, much like any other. Ralph was going through the mail and dishing out anything he thought worthy of writing up for the paper. He tossed a press pack over on my desk. I looked down.’Cable is coming’ it proclaimed. I opened it up. The press release inside said that Herts Cable Limited had put in a bid for the local cable TV franchise. It covered St Albans District (where I worked) and Dacorum (where I was born and brought up), an area which included two major population centres plus various smaller towns and villages in between. If they succeeded in their bid, Herts Cable would offer up to 45 channels of television including a local channel. I dialled the number.
“And will you be employing any local people?” This was blatant self-interest and my desk was right next to Ralph’s. However, it was also a fairly standard question to ask any new company. “Oh, yes,” came the reply, “we’ll need subcontractors to dig the trenches and lay the cable. We’ll need marketing staff and…” “What about television production?” “Well, our local channel, once it gets up and running, will be manned by volunteers but we will be employing a local programming coordinator.”
The story appeared in the St Albans Observer that week. ‘Cable TV aims at community’. It was a very positive piece. No one had seen the trenches and black tar stripes down the pavement then. The digging chaos was yet to begin. Somehow, Herts Cable’s press pack found its way into my briefcase for future reference. I filed it and all but forgot it until the next time Tim asked me about escape plans. “Well, I have got one idea,” I said. “I was thinking I might set up a TV station…” and I outlined all the resources already available, such as college TV studios, the police TV unit, local theatres, council grants, on and on and on. I’d begun to visualise—the first, most important step in any creative process—and it was good.