Nights in White City: On the BBC Breakfast Sofa with Charlie and Louise

'Missed him again!'
Somewhere there is a Rolodex with my name on it. Because I am a teacher who hops up and down on the hilltop, pretending anyone reads me, I sometimes get asked to do rentagob spots on TV. It's always very enjoyable, although it does little for my sleep pattern the night before (editor's note: the Talisker may be a contributory factor. Memo to self: ask science, later).

THE CALL happens the day before, usually speculative at first- they sniff out where you stand on an issue to establish if you've got breakfast chemistry, I presume (swearing, corpsing, streaking, being deal breakers, I imagine). In fact I can usually tell when it's the BBC because it comes up BLOCKED on my phone, which either indicates the Auntie or a significant creditor, so I play roulette with my day and answer. I'm thinking of having a large red Bakelite phone installed that flashes red, just for these occasions.

When I first started doing this a year or so ago, they sent you a taxi there and back; in these days of fiscal anorexia the offer stands one way, unless I presume you are important, or Graham Norton. Relax, dear reader, your tax dollars aren't being wasted.

I needn't tell any teachers out there how odd it is to be in a suit and tie during the Easter holiday, let alone rising in the dark. Equally it never fails to feel odd driving into the old White City folly of Television centre, laser-carved into every Briton's genetic memory as the home of broadcasting, Blue Peter, Swap Shop and poverty-bashing Telethons. It's also one of the few postcodes that most people over thirty could recite by heart, like a Jungian archetype: W12 8QT (did you get it right? Answers on a postcard). It's an old Stalinist heap, the Gordon Brown of architecture, but lovable like an old dog with a cataract in one eye and a happy smile, wagging its tail.

Seizing my moment, I POUNCED
Once through the gates, it's empty as the My Family fan club inside (seriously: does Robert Lindsay own stag negatives of Mark Thompson?), when you might think it would be like the newsroom you faintly see in the background of news reports. The Green Room is tiny (danishes, coffee, water; no toot) , which is fine, because they turn and burn guests on the show like tables in a rollerskating-diner. There's the lovely feeling of watching the show you're about to BE on as you sit down, and it makes me feel a bit like Mike Teavee from Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, as you see large, 3-D people remove themselves from the sofa, shrink down to the size of a mid-price Sony wide-screen before your very eyes, before returning to human ratio a few minutes later.

Charlie: Busted.
Make up. Every man will testify that this is AN ENTIRE WORLD OF WRONG (unless you're Eddie Izzard of course). I sat down in the chair and said, 'Make me handsome, hahah,' in an attempt at congeniality, before I realised that I had probably committed the make-up artist's equivalent of the 'What time do you finish?/ Have you been busy?' cliché of the taxi driver. The first time it happened, I didn't wipe the foundation off my boat race, and one of the kids at school later said to me, 'Sir....are you wearing make-up?' wide eyed. It was a uniquely Mrs Doubtfire moment. I couldn't even say, 'Yeah, got it from off one of the waitresses.' It wouldn't have sounded right.

The studio itself is quite small, and no, there is NO newsroom behind the sofa. You get led swiftly on in one of their many twenty second clips, wired and miked in seconds and before you know it, you're being gently grilled (more sautéed) by, in this case, Charlie and Louise. It's hard to make something so tightly synchronised run so apparently effortlessly, and given that my guts were full of snakes and self-doubt, I'm amazed they come back each day and do it over and over.

My first couch co-pilot was Matthew Taylor, RSA Chief Executive and former Chief Adviser to Tony Blair. So, no pressure then. He was an old pro, of course, and there's always a sinking second in the hospitality room before you go on that the person they've picked to contrast your views with might be adversarial, but quite the opposite. He was an engine of practised charm and efficiency. My experience of RSA thinking hasn't been terribly positive; like all well-meaning organisations their hearts are absolutely in the right place, and they have the best interest of the kids at heart, but then, doesn't everyone? Don't we all? It's all a bit, 'Teach them 21st century competencies' and 'Group work not drone work', which I've dealt with elsewhere as being two of the great legerdemains of the faux-progressive educationalist movement.

Matthew: LOVES group work.
Have you noticed how many non-teachers have quite strong opinions about what goes on in schools, and how to teach kids? The RSA is guilty of this kind of thing; child-centred theory that sounds lovely but is made of good intentions and clouds in practise. There was little of the gladiator arena in our discussion, but when he started to say that schools didn't do group work, I nearly choked on my own tongue, and would have exorcised that myth, were it not for Charlie's soothing 'That's all we have time for.' THEY CAN'T HANDLE THE TRUTH.

I also liked when he made a, 'Which is why great teachers like Tom, here...' comment. And I thought, you OLD SMOOTHIE. You could tell he'd been in politics.

I was on an hour later, so I had forty minutes to chain smoke outside and update Twitter, which by this point was melting with kind people. There's a TARDIS outside (sorry- THE Tardis) opposite a life size photograph of Will-I-am, Jessie J, Tom Jones, and the useless one no one knows, from The Voice. I resisted taking a picture of myself 'hanging out' with them. I failed to resist the TARDIS shot though. Of course.

The Green Room: impossibly glamorous.
The second round was easier than the first (Nicky was a pleasure to talk to- it was a regular couch love-in), and in between slots I had the pleasure of meeting the recently expelled candidate from the Apprentice in the Green Room, who oddly enough seemed to have a handler, like he was Tinchy Stryder or someone. Nice enough chap, with the most carefully sculpted eyebrows I have ever seen on a man outside of Captain Hook in panto. I couldn't take my eyes off them. Alas, Surallun was not impressed, so here he was with me. And his handler.

And that was it; escorted out by the efficient, agreeable men and women of the Beeb. My ants-eye perspective was that it runs a very tight ship, at least on the ground. I couldn't see any Bohemian Boardroom profligacy at this level. I really admire the institution; having seen what commercial programming looks like in other countries, I marvel that we still have this bastion of anti-monetarism left for us.

I do hope Cameron and his pals in the League of Super villains don't sell it to anyone beastly.

*I asked people on Twitter how to download my recording of this onto a computer. I got a few responses, all useful. A few days before I 'crowdsourced' (read: too lazy to Google) a request for two words to be translated into Latin. I got THIRTY FIVE people who were lining up with offers to help, up to and including MARY BEARD FROM JAMIE'S DREAM SCHOOL/ CAMBRIDGE UNI (delete depending on cultural touchstones). I think I need more techies in my life.


  1. Not to disregard the value of the remainder of this blog entry but YES!!!! to the weird eyebrow thing on Mr FreshlyFired. I quizzed Mr KarDoh about that during the Apprentice airing. They were like expertly trained slugs playing statues on his forehead. He's probably a very nice man but his eyebrows disturbed me somewhat. And I am married to a man for whom feral eyebrows are a trademark.


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