The day a chat with Arthur Scargill set Sue Lawley's heart aflutter
...and other TV foibles of the famous
Friday 15 November 1996
Foibles of the most famous television presenters form a part of the Royal Television Society Huw Wheldon Memorial Lecture to be shown on BBC2.
Will Wyatt, chief executive of BBC Broadcast and formerly managing director of BBC Network Television, devotes his lecture to "television presenters and their audiences". While he is lavish in his praise of the BBC's best- known names, he reveals some moments they might have preferred forgotten.
Chief among these is the interview Sue Lawley carried out with the miners' leader Arthur Scargill live on the Six O'Clock News at the peak of the miners' strike. "She had the mike attached somewhere near her cleavage," Mr Wyatt says. "The sound man came to her thinking there was something wrong with her equipment - there was a strange battering sound. It turned out to be her heart beating at 160 to the minute - twice the normal speed."
Sue Lawley's heart may have thumped at the prospect of facing Arthur Scargill. Producers would quail at the prospect of working with the late poet laureate, Sir John Betjeman. Mr Wyatt reveals that when working on the famous documentary Metroland, Betjeman had difficulties with the metro itself. He and his researcher planned to meet at a Tube station, but had not realised they could have more than one exit and each waited for more than half an hour before discovering each other.
When he was finally brought to the golf course where they were to film, Betjeman was in a foul temper, saying: "Oh, don't worry about me, I know I'm only the artiste and I'm the least important." And he went off and played golf.
Mr Wyatt remembers as a personal disaster a talk show he helped to produce called Friday Night, Saturday Morning. It was thought a coup to get Harold Wilson, shortly after he had resigned as Prime Minister, to chair it. "He had chaired the Cabinet," Mr Wyatt says. "You would think that he could chair a television show. Well, he couldn't and we should have known that, to save him, and ourselves, the agony.
"The guests included fast bowler Freddie Trueman and Tony Benn. After five minutes, I realised that this was the first time I had seen such terror in the eyes of interviewees. Terror, not that they would be asked something they could not answer, but that they would never be asked anything at all."
Looking back on one of the seminal documentary series in television history, Civilisation with Kenneth Clark, Mr Wyatt recalls that Clark could not memorise scripts and wanted to do the series from behind a desk. His producer, Michael Gill, coaxed him out on the road by taking with them an autocue and a new genre was born.
The greatest presenters had habits which they stuck to religiously. The late Sir Richard Dimbleby stayed behind in a darkened studio sticking bits of paper below camera lenses for the next day's programme - notes of names, facts and figures. He also used his cuffs.
Mr Wyatt reveals too what viewers write in to ask presenters. Delia Smith is asked not just about cooking, but how to fix viewers' stoves. Barry Norman is asked not just about films but about people's local cinemas.
Ironically, in view of the fact that so many of the BBC 60th anniversary awards went to contemporary figures, Mr Wyatt, who is said to have encouraged this, devotes nearly all of the praise in his lecture to the great presenters of the past.
However, he does quote an adage from one current star presenter, Desmond Lynam, who said: "If you're a sporting star, you're a sporting star. If you don't quite make it, then you become a coach. If you can't coach, you become a journalist. If you can't spell, you become a broadcaster."
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