Are you sitting comfortably? (as that nice Daphne Oxenford used to ask on Listen with Mother on the BBC wireless back around, er, 1950)….then I’ll begin.
Back when I were a lad, and God wore short trousers — well, perhaps a bit later, around 1982 — I was [Ed: were?] writing for Practical Photography magazine (I was the technical editor) but was about to move down from Peterboro-ughhh to London, to join our publisher’s nascent cluster of computer magazines.
How to become a pro
Half-dozing one night, around 2 am, I had the radio on. It was an all-night weekend filler programme: Liz Allen fronting You and the Night and the Music, easy-listening music and chatter.
Liz was replying to a postcard sent in a week or so before when there’d been a photographer on the programme, and whoever had written was asking “how can I become a professional photographer?” Liz gave out some elementary advice, but she wasn’t really sure.
Half snoozing and half-listening on a little portable radio/TV/cassette recorder (remember those?) I pressed ‘Record’ and sleepily mumbled something about following around your local newspaper’s regular photographer to get experience, and then maybe even get a job on the paper as a part-time Saturday snapper (as did my friend Paul Massey).
I posted off the cassette and forgot all about it. For a time.
A fortnight later, Liz wrote, or rang, and asked if I’d like to go in and record a piece about photography. Or, she said, if I was “really daring, come in and do it live”. As I was just about to move back to London, I said I’d do it live the following weekend.
The next week I presented myself at BH (Broadcasting House), in CON(tinuity suite)-H, and we chatted for about twenty minutes between slices of music. Then, at the end of the conversation, Liz said: “See you next week?” And so began a year and a half’s Saturday and Sunday night jabbering on Radio Two about photography.
After a couple of weeks, I thought people would get tired of listening to me and my radio voice, so I took my (up-market-ish) Sony heavy-duty cassette machine, to go out n’ about with two different microphones — a ‘wide-angle’, omnidirectional stereo mic, which could record from all around me, and a narrow-angle ‘gun’ or ‘rifle’ mic, which would record only what was in the far distance ahead.
I thought that these two would give the audio equivalent of a wide-angle and a telephoto lens so that listeners could get more of an idea of what those lenses did.
I stood outside the café at the National Film Theatre, in London beside the Thames, recording passers-by with my wide-angle ‘Altai 704’ mic, and then — with the ‘telephoto’ mic, from the same spot — recorded what was happening way over the Thames at the opposite end of Waterloo Bridge.
Then I went to Star Street, just off the Edgware Road — which was still, in ’82, London’s electronic-scraps Mecca — and bought an old Brenell reel-to-reel tape machine for about £15. Wow, yikes, I’ve just seen one on eBay at £199. I copied my little stereo one-and-seven-eighths-inches-per-second cassette onto a 4x faster 7½-inch-per-second ‘professional standard’ half-track stereo tape, mainly so that it was easy to edit (actually with great accuracy, with seven-and-a-half inches of tape for each second of sound) and partly so that when I took in my tape I’d look like a seasoned pro, and not a second-rate amateur.
Incidentally, I’d worked on the radio before, from when I was twelve and on Children’s Hour, so I knew a bit about mics, tape-editing, tape speeds, quarter-track vs. half-track and so on.
I cut up the recorded tape, with red and green leader between each segment, so that Malcolm (Liz’s charming knob-twiddling studio manager husband) would know when it was going to run out and was time to switch back to music or live speech. I couldn’t be bothered typing a proper transcript of all the words on the tape — officially needed in triplicate — so I just jotted down the “intros” and the “outros” on slips of paper for Liz and Malcolm.)
This would be more interesting, I was sure, for listeners. So the next week I went off to find some real proper photographers to interview, so they could give their listener-friendly ‘Stories and Advice’.
I doorstepped David Bailey (and then-wife Marie Helvin), popped round to see Patrick Lichfield, and decided to intersperse, on alternate weeks between all the well-known names — photographers whom I reckoned no-one had ever heard of, but who had interesting tales to tell.
Paul Massey — who was by now tailing Lady Di around town — and Frances Dumbleton, a Cambridge photographer who specialised in shooting babies (figuratively), and Margaret Lavender, who was a royal-loving amateur photographer who every year won the Martini Royal Photography Prize for taking heart-warming snaps of the Queen, Charles, Philip and Margaret.
I went to see Bert Hardy, at the National Museum of Photography, Film and Television up in Bradford — now the National Media Museum — and locked myself out of my car, and had to get a policeman to (cunningly, but I’m not allowed to say how) get me back into it, to rush back to London in time to play my — quickly transcribed and edited — spool of tape.
Click images to expand
Topless but cheerful
I went to see Jon Gray, ‘glamour’ photographer, to talk about his job —with his cheerful topless model chattering beside us — telling us how delightful it was to work with Jon. A then, the next week, I went down the road from Jon to see …what was her name?… who specialised in shooting pets and animals, mainly for pet-food-tin labels. (You need an assistant beside you, or on the floor between your legs, to tempt your waiting pet with morsels, then shoot the dog — if that’s what it is — as it runs towards its food)
I went to see every known photographer you can think of —with the exception of Snowdon, who said he was “too busy” in a very polite handwritten note — and many whom you’d never think of, and spent an hour or two each week editing, trimming, splicing and typing. I cut myself out of each interview so that all that anyone heard was that week’s photographer talking about exactly what they did and how they did it.
One night, ever so tired, I woke up under the desk hearing Liz say “I’m sure he’ll be here any minute; he’s usually right on time” so I dashed to the car with my tape and with London’s first mobile phone — a two-pack-of-cards-sized ‘Technophone’ — to burble “On my way!”
Patrick (Lichfield) had ended his interview with “and if anyone wants to have their picture taken, call my secretary on 01…” ..or whatever it was, and I said that I’d have to cut that out, as there’s no advertising on the BBC.
I’d asked Margaret Lavender, at the end of our chat, how she knew where the Queen was going to be (polo at Windsor, a horse show somewhere else) and she said that she just rang the Buckingham Palace press office. But then Margaret asked could I please cut that out, as she thought it might be a security risk if listeners knew how to find out where the Queen was going to be on any given day.
Very reluctantly, I chopped it (even though the number’s in the phone book) and so we broadcast the tape without that little helpful tid-bit. But, as the next slice of music started, the big ‘phone’ light started flashing (can’t have a noisy phone bell in a radio studio) and it was Buckingham Palace ringing us to say “and if anyone wants to know where the Queen’s going to be, just ring this number” Them were’t days [Ed: was’t days?]
I went out with Mr Papparazzo, Richard Young, cornering him on Brewer Street, opposite where Lady Di was turning on the Regent Street Christmas lights from Aquascutum’s balcony. Of all the photographers I talked with, he was the only one to use a pair of Leicas; small, swift, silent.
Big, black, glass
While Patrick had a crazy little darkroom under the stairs, with medicine bottles of developer and fixer stoppered with old stained corks, Richard used the darkroom at the big black glass Daily Express building on Fleet Street, where I met John Downing, then the Express’s chief photographer, and we went round to his house for a bottle of Amaretto and a chat in the garden (That was the nicest of tapes; full of cheerful stereo birdsong!)
I thought I’d still got the Brenell — maybe I put it on eBay! — and a few old tapes but I found last year that one of the broadcasts has been archived online — can’t remember where — by some radio fanatic….er, sorry, I mean ’serious broadcast enthusiast’.
Bailey’s now creaking along in his eighties, Patrick died, and so did Bert Hardy, and Richard Young — oh, he’s my age says Wikipedia — now runs a photo gallery in London. And, look, Frances Dumbleton lists “Professional Photographer Retired” on her “Presenter – Model – Entertainer – Extra” Castingnow profile. And the Queen’s outlasted them all at Buck House when she’s not out and about, still presenting trophies at Guards Polo, Windsor.