ABOUT three years ago, I was asked a question by a student that I will never forget. Teaching a module about programme development in television I was asked, “What do you do if you’ve got no ideas?”
This was one of my first times in front of a class and I had no idea what to say in response. It was the moment I realised that this job was going to be tougher than I had imagined.
From 1988 until 2009, I worked full-time in television production. Well, as ‘full-time’ as a freelance career ever is. In Birmingham, London, San Francisco and (eventually and mostly) Glasgow, I moved from contract to contract – making telly. As researcher, assistant producer, director, producer and series producer, I was involved in the production of hundreds of hours of programmes for the BBC, STV and Channel 4.
Four years ago, I became a lecturer in broadcast production at the University of the West of Scotland. Full-time, permanent, paid holidays, pension – my first-ever proper job.
I realise now that when I started lecturing, I hadn’t fully realised that I had changed jobs; that I was embarking on a completely new profession that demanded new skills and techniques. Part of me thought that I would be able to stand up and talk about the day I had dinner with a Blue Peter presenter and my work would be done.
Since then, I’ve learned a lot about being a lecturer. I’ve adopted the working patterns and the vocabulary of an academic. I’m happy operating in ‘virtual learning environments’, I’ve got to grips with ‘assessment mapping’ and occasionally slip the word ‘pedagogy’ into conversation.
The key question I needed to answer was ‘what did I know?’ After 20 years of working in television and picking up what I could from experienced and talented camera operators, sound recordists and editors, it’s easy to forget how little you once knew and what you have since learned.
The permanent dilemma for the ‘practice-based academic’ is that, as you learn more about how to teach, you forget what it was you were there to teach in the first place. The world of television is fast-moving and, if you don’t work within it, you run the risk of losing track of how it’s done.
So, for a few weeks every year – if I can find a job – I move from the ‘chalk-face’ back to the ‘coal face’. This summer, I will be spending five weeks edit-producing ‘The Celebrity Antiques Road Trip’.
This is the kind of show that Scotland has made more and more of in recent years. High volume, returnable, formatted programmes. They’re programmes that some of my students could easily end up working on – in fact, some already have. And the ‘Road Trip’ is a good show – it won a Scottish BAFTA last year.
So in a few days’ time I’ll sink nervously into the edit producer’s chair wondering if I’ve still got what it takes.
Like an old pro drafted back into midfield, I’ll wonder if the regulars are watching me, thinking ‘has he still got what it takes?’
Can he still take the viewers on a journey?
Is he still able to mint a line of witty voiceover?
Can he still choose music that is neither wilfully obscure nor comically overused and can he still do all of this, if necessary, into the wee small hours?
If previous years are anything to go by, I’ll soon start to relax and remember why I love making television programmes. I’ll remember all I have learned in 25 years – keep it simple, keep it short, write to the picture, get the start of the programme right, don’t spill your cappuccino on the keyboard.
Then, before I know it, my time at STV will be over and I’ll be back trying to pass my newly buffed-up knowledge to the new intake of students.
And if one of them asks me what do you do if you’ve got no ideas, I will know what to say.
I suspect that the answer will be what it’s always been: what you do if you’ve got no ideas is you go to the pub.
Paul Tucker is a lecturer in broadcast production at the School of Creative and Cultural Industries at the University of the West of Scotland. He has worked as a producer/director in broadcast television for over 20 years.