There was a time when I read the local TV news with Anthony H. Wilson.
As a television presenter he had the rare ability to be the same human being in two dimensions as he was in three.
He also had the gift of writing out loud. What went down on paper and then came out of the telly was always Wilson.
Tony also enjoyed making things as difficult as possible for no apparent reason.
In 1985 he decided to mark the launch of the Liverpool based movie Letter to Brezhnev with a live report from the city.
The technology at his disposal was as follows: new but unreliable outside broadcast facilities in the shape of shiny blue Range Rovers with big antennae on top; ENG tapes for his packaged pieces; massive ACR cassettes for movie clips and other bits and bobs of archive footage; and quarter inch audio tape with which to play in music.
Wilson being Wilson decided to use everything and his script was a wonder to behold. When it landed on our desks it looked like a printout of the human genome.
During our half hour show he was to report live from different locations in Liverpool and all his various clips, interviews, packages and God Knows What Else would be played seamlessly into the show from myriad sources.
I was very new to television presenting. In Manchester I waited nervously for the evening to unfold. My co-host, the experienced Bob Smithies, seemed less concerned.
During rehearsals the production team’s voices in our earpieces had the tone of those on the bridge of the Titanic when the order came to increase speed through a night both pitch black and ice infested.
There was a sense of impending doom.
My memory of what exactly went wrong remains dim and confused.
What I do remember is that Tony’s vaulting ambition was thwarted by technical faults.
Contact with him was patchy and it was feared he had not quite finished the final pre-recorded segment of his epic piece that included interviews with writer Frank Clarke and stars Margi Clarke and Peter Firth.
Someone yelled at me to sum up what he would have said.
Someone else decided it would be helpful to place his script on my Autocue.
It was a kind thought but of no use whatsoever.
As far as the voices in my earpiece were concerned an iceberg had just gouged a big hole in our televisual hull.
The situation was grave.
Anthony H. Wilson, for my part the finest, sharpest and brightest television presenter I have ever worked with or watched, would have coped with such a studio crisis.
He would have ad libbed gracefully and no one at home would have known anything had gone wrong.
Sadly I did not have his talent.
So it came to pass that Wilson’s pre-record did end abruptly. He had not had time to edit on his closing piece to camera, the words now on my Autocue.
I appeared in north west homes, grinning, as a chimp might do when frightened. I read what was in front of me: “OK, now it’s time for me, Frank, Margie and Peter to go and take our seats and watch their fine film. Who says nothing good ever comes out of Liverpool?” Or words to that effect, the sort of words Wilson would say. “Remember, it’s called Letter to Brezhnev and opens at cinemas…” I should have kept on going; I would probably have got away with it. Instead I buried my head in my hands and said, “Oh God,” and nothing more.
The vision mixer cut away to Bob Smithies who chuckled at my misfortune – and began to read the weather forecast. “Today’s picture is by Rachel who’s 8 and from Nelson. It shows rain clouds over…”
In my ear someone said, “Mark, you’ve 10 seconds to say goodnight.”
I quickly thought of an ‘ad-lib’. “Have you ever had the feeling it’s not been your day? Sorry we’ve had gremlins in the works tonight. We’ll get it right on Monday! For now, from me and from Bob, a very good evening to you.” I scribbled it on my script.
The forecast finished and as I was punched up on to the screen once more the voice in my ear said, “Shit! 40 seconds!”
In front of me was the crutch for all inadequate newsreaders: a pile of standby stories.
I smiled into the camera. “Have you ever had the feeling it’s not been your day?” I asked.
Then I looked down at the pink scripts and read the one on top. “Well, at Preston Crown Court three men have been jailed for life for the brutal murder of a man who was stabbed more than…”
I described intense violence condensed into 30 seconds and finally said, “Goodnight,” and the show ended.
Tony’s piece was a bit of a cock-up, but a glorious one. He had brilliantly pushed the technology and means of production to their limits.
I had plumbed the depths.
A voice up in the control room said, “Well done, everybody! Well, almost everybody.”
So it goes.