Friday, January 27, 2012

Come in, Mary by Ian Walker (New Society 29 November 1979)

Another piece from the Ian Walker New Society archive. It dates from November 1979 and, to be honest, it is not one of his better articles.
I think it initially caught my eye because of the mention of Brian Hayes. A long time ago a couple of SPGBers insisted that Hayes was strongly sympathetic to the SPGB's politics. I never knew if there was any truth in the claim but it was the case that the SPGB members did regularly appear on LBC phone-in shows in the first half of the eighties. Maybe Hayes was just a canny operator, and he gave out that vibe to all number of political groups who provided the cheap knockabout entertainment for LBC back in the day.
Reading the article thirty years on it all seems so sedate in comparison with the drip drip drip of political poison that passes for talk radio today.
Come in, Mary by Ian Walker
Some say it is democratic. Some say it is the best way of finding out what people are thinking. Some say it gives advice and help to people who need those things. Some say it was only invented because it was a cheap way of filling up air-time. Some say that only cranks and bores ever bother to call the phone-ins. "It's an intense way of earning your living," says Brian Hayes, in a break for ads, before the 10.30 news bulletin, here in Studio A at the London Broadcasting Company.

"More than just a phone-in. It's Brian Hayes on LBC, bam-bam-bam." This jingle is called a sting: it distinguishes certain elements of the show, says the engineer who sits in front of a console, separated by glass from the studio, where a grey-suited Brian Hayes speaks into a microphone. He is telling his 200,000-odd listeners that at eleven o'clock he will be talking to Professor Keith Simpson, a renowned pathologist who has just published a book on death, "And he will be here to answer your calls." At twelve, Clark Todd, NBC correspondent in London will discuss Ted Kennedy's decision to run for President.

For two years now, the switchboard on the Brian Hayes Show has been run single-handed by Mark Smith, who has long red hair and beard and who worked in an off-licence for a year before he came to LBC: "What would you like to talk about? . . . Can I have your name? . . . What part of London do you live in? . . . Stay on the line and you'll be on the air in a few minutes." Mark scribbles GILES, CAMBERWELL in black felt tip on yellow paper, which is then stuck behind the engineer's console, where Brian Hayes can see it. "Now we talk to Giles from Camberwell. Hello Giles."

"Chris from Lewisham got a kid who's school phobic," says Mark to the producer, Lawrie Douglas, who replies, "Yeah, I want more on school phobia." Yesterday a report came out on school phobia and this is one of the topics Brian Hayes has asked listeners to focus on this morning. School phobia is ideal for this show: it is current, the listeners will be concerned about it, the callers should have some interesting anecdotes, and it is not too highbrow. "We've got more Cs and Ds than As and Bs," says Lawrie, the producer. "The show can't be too intellectual."

Mary from Maida Vale is telling hayes that her child was ridiculed in front of the class, with the full approval of the teacher. "This sounds a perfectly valid reason for a teacher to be sacked," he replies, keeping his eye on the cloack as he speaks. He must go to the ads and the news every 15 minutes, trail forthcoming items on LBC. His response to Mary is tailored to the requirements of the second hand. He then jerks his finger to the engineer, who plays in a commercial. "Whiskas is always called and healthy. Sam know it's best."

The ads are scheduled either side of the news headlines. "The maximum permitted by the IBA is nine minutes per hour," says Lawrie. "And we get in, er, nine minutes." A 60-second spot on the Brian Hayes Show costs £162 and a 30-second spot, £90.

A stencilled note headlined "Profanity" is pinned to the wall of the tiny control room. Phone-ins, these days, are not quite live: they are received ten seconds after they are broadcast, allowing the "profanity button" to wipe out any obscenities, libels, or "excessive promotion of products." But Lawrie says that the only people he used it on are the Bishop of Woolwich and the Pencourt reporters. At ten seconds to eleven, the news reader presents exactly three minutes of news bulletins.

The pathologist, Professor Keith Simpson, disturbs no stereotypes. He is grey and balding and exudes enthusiasm about his job. "I prefer dead bodies to live ones," he trills. The switchboard is jumping. "This woman has a dreadful fear of being buried alive," says Mark questioningly. Lawrie shakes his head. The Prof has brought with him a man from his publisher, who collaborated on the books he has just written, and who is telling everyone in the control room that the Prof advised the Japanese on the cause of death of the King of Siam and investigated the Sharon Tate murders for the American government.

"The dead body for me is rather like a jigsaw puzzle," says the Prof. "I suppose you called him a necrophile," says Mark.

"Look who we've got coming on next," smiles the engineer to Lawrie. "Dewhurst, the Master Butcher." "Oh, really? Is he on next? Haven't we got another ad? Colgate?" A pathologist and a butcher is (like death and the Kennedys?) an unfortunate juxtaposition.

"The trouble with dying, as Mountbatten said, is that you're so stiff the next day." The Prof is telling a caller he is not afraid of death. The 11.45 bulletin contains the news that Sydney Tafler, the actor, has died, age 63.

Back on the air, the Prof mentions his book again. "He's a good publicist," says Lawrie. "He's done that twice." The man from the publisher protests that he didn't tell him to do that at all, "I never briefed him." The PR plug can be pulled out by pressing the profanity button, but of course it rarely is. PR is advertising and radio stations are well aware of that. The writer or the actor gets to push the product; the radio station gets a good show.

"You've got a buyer," says Mark to the man from the publisher. "Someone wants to know where you can get a hold of the book." The man from the publisher is happy. Lawrie makes a winding action with his arm to Brian Hayes and Mark writes Kennedy on the tape which will record the next part of the show.

A caller wants to speak to "Mr Clark." Hayes and Clark Todd, of NBC, both smile and shrug. "Chappaquickwick," mispronounces the caller. "Why do they keep on about this unfortunate girl?"

"You haven't heard anything yet," replies Clark Todd. Brian Hayes adds that "Already the jokes are starting, even here. I heard one the other day, from a comedian called Bernard Manning. He said: 'I don't know why they bothered to impeach Nixon. They should have suggested that Ted Kennedy drove him home in the car.'"

Someone walks into the control room. "That's probably the lead now," he says, handing a slip of paper to the producer, Lawrie. "No. I've got one already on Vickers." "Oh shit," says the man who thought he had written the lead.

At 12.29, Lawrie walks into the studio with the bits of paper which contain the three minutes of news. He comes back, rubs his hands in anticipation of the whisky he will shortly receive in the boardroom. The man from NEW SOCIETY is to get the PR treatment.

IBA rulings about balance can make life difficult, Lawrie explains over his whisky especially during general elections, when lists of political allegiances of callers have to be kept and the ideological books balanced each week. Brian Hayes, who drinks neat tonic, says he agrees with the principle of balance, but can get irritated by its cosmetic application. But Hayes says there are practical reasons too for his keeping a low political profile: "For the listeners it categorises you for evermore. Stifles discussion. I mean, just the fact that the listeners know I'm Australian is used against me when the chips are down."

At two minutes to three, George Gale, ex-editor of the Spectator, sits at the sand brown felt-topped table occupied two hours earlier by Brian Hayes. He's wearing a green tweed jacket and has long grey hair which periodically flops over his half-moon glasses and he has to sweep it back so he can continue leafing through the newspapers. Mark works the switchboard for his show too, but there is a different producer, Gary Donovan, who says, "It's a question and answer session. Like dial-a-pundit." Whereas the Hayes show is "structured,: the phone-in is "unstructured": George gale will take calls on more or less anything.

The switchboard is very quiet, only a few calls so far. First on the air is a man who wants to know George's opinion of the Iranians holding hostages at the American embassy. Gale calls them "religious maniacs."

"Lunatics yesterday," says the producer. "They were religious lunatics."

Fifteen minutes later, Gale has still only dealt with one call. "I'll pass these through to give him a hint some other people are on the line." Gary takes in some names on yellow slips of paper and places them on Gale's table.

"Hello, George." The callers on the show are more chummy. "Yes." "How's the line now, George?" He had a bad line earlier. "Yes?"

This caller wants to know how the government arrive at their balance of payment figures. George Gale explains. "Thanks very much George," says the caller as he signs off. One more satisfied customer. The next caller wants to know if david Steel would make a good Prime Minister. "You can't tell in advance whether Prime Ministers are going to be good or bad," replies George gale. "But his entire life is based on the assumption that he won't be Prime Minister."

One caller suggests that "the BBC should be had up for treason," for their collaboration with the IRA, and that's all there is time for. "That's all from me. I'll be back tomorrow." George Gale puts his pen in his pocket, gathers up his newspapers and walks out of the studio, out of the building. He doesn't hang about, they all say, doesn't George. Mark plays me a "cart" (tape cartridge) which is an edited version of all Gale's stutters and mumblings and ers in one programme. Once, he says, this cartridge got played into George's earphones by mistake. But he only laughed.
29 November 1979

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