Last night I watched the opening episode of series two of “The West Wing”. It was broadcast initially in 2002 and it followed on from the cliffhanger ending to series one, a shooting outside a town hall meeting. As the first episode of the second series unfolds you realise that the President has been shot in the side and his Deputy Chief of Staff, Josh Lineman (played brilliantly by Bradley Whitford) has been critically injured, with a gunshot to the chest. I’d seen it all before, but not for a few years and it held me spellbound. The thing that carries you along is the sheer pace, the ordered scrambling. The staff at the hospital emergency room when the cavalcade arrives (you can’t help but think of Dallas in 1963) and then the security detail that come and bundle the Vice President away and the press baying for information and then the meeting in the Situation Room and the dilemma of who is in charge when the President is not dead but under general anesthesia. My favourite line belongs to Leo McGarry, Chief of Staff, who gives a message to the Iraqis to be relayed via the King of Jordan, “Don’t mess with us tonight.”
I was thinking about the programme this morning and it reminded me of situations in my own past when things were moving at pace. Live radio and live television. Five seconds of black screen is a lifetime in television, people have changed channels, especially now when they have so many options. I was working for Sky TV when they first went to air. I was helping put live sport to air and we were dependant on satellite links and the weather on the other side of the world when it was the middle of the night for us. I directed many Wimbledon telecasts but I will always remember my very first one. About half an hour before the first match of Day One 1990 and I was on the phone to my counterpart for Channel Nine Australia, who was in England. We had some small programmes standing by on videotape in case we needed them. I asked, “What do you do when it rains?” and he paused and said, “How good are you at tap dancing?’ That’s fear.
Live radio is much the same, when things unfold on air it’s in real-time and sometimes you have no control over the way it goes. When I was working for Radio Liberty I used to read the news and some of my more daring compatriots used to do everything they could to unnerve me. Less idiotic things included pulling their shirt sleeves over their hands and flapping them in my face. More idiotic included putting a rubbish bin under my seat and holding a lighted match over it. I’m proud to say I soldiered on and always got to the end of the bulletin.
It seems a lifetime ago and I guess it is. These days I write, I go get my hair cut, I put the rubbish out on a Thursday morning and have time to pause and listen to birdsong and the distant bark of a dog, I make homemade scones to have with homemade strawberry jam and whipped cream for afternoon tea and watch a five-year old hungrily scoff the lot. And every evening I take a trip back in time to the days when I first watched West Wing and I wanted to be the Press Secretary, C J Craig, and order around the journalists.