Over the course of eight years, I reviewed over 300 films for BBC Radio Manchester. On occasion, I was invited to what is called a ‘press screening’. They tend to take place in the morning during the week, anywhere up to a fortnight before the film’s public release. The screenings are for critics, and several of us gathered in the theatre to watch the latest flicks. At the time, I was also working a full-time job as well as doing the radio show for the BBC, which made getting to press screenings difficult, so I normally headed to the cinema on a Friday morning, picked a film to review and made sure I was at the earliest possible showing on a Friday morning (new movies are normally released on a Friday in the UK, and it was my day off). We had a deal with the local multiplex stating that I was allowed, once per week, to see the movie for free. And in return, I didn’t have to do or say anything on the radio, primarily because the BBC don’t have adverts, nor were we really allowed to mention or promote any type of brand. So, to that large multiplex cinema on Deansgate in Manchester, I say thank you.
The amazing Sam Walker was the first person to give me a chance to prove my worth as a critic. We met at another radio station, where on Sunday mornings, we greeted each other with a quiet hello, knowing full well we’d both rather be fast asleep in bed. I looked after the Sunday Morning Breakfast show from 7am-10am, and she presented the programme after us. Suffice to say, I don’t remember a single occasion where weren’t both hung-over from the night before. I’m not entirely sure how it happened, but at some point she asked if I wanted to review films on a BBC show. I’d clearly spoken to her about movies, but this was a time in my life that was fuelled by a famous energy drink and I remember nothing (one of the presenters on another show had mentioned they drink this beverage, so the drinks company sent out hundreds of cans to the station, that’s how it works if you want free stuff).
The first show I worked on was broadcast live, every Monday at midnight, presented by Sam. At the tender age of 22, midnight was still early in the day; there is no way I could do that now. It also gave me a 48-hour window to watch, digest, think about and write the review for whichever movie I had seen on Friday. All very relaxed, not too difficult.
If you’ve ever been to a radio studio, you’ll know that they are not particularly exciting places. It’s a small room, containing several chairs, several microphones, and a whole bunch of buttons and faders. When I first started the reviews, the BBC studios were on Oxford Road, in a building called New Broadcasting House, and reminiscent of a horror movie. The carpet was grey, the walls covered in scuffs and with what felt like an endless stream of the longest corridors you’ve ever seen. It took a good five minutes to get from the entrance to the studios. I felt really sorry for Nat, the producer of the show, whose job it was to walk back and forth all evening collecting guests, only to have to do it all over again ten minutes later when they needed to be escorted back.
Next is the waiting area, containing a selection of 1986’s finest chairs, a small coffee table and a vending machine that, I soon learnt, worked once in every ten visits or so. This is a time to relax and go over your notes, making sure you’ve got the correct director and cast written down, and finally figure how to say that foreign guy’s surname on-air so you don’t sound stupid.
Most radio stations play their output in the waiting area. You just hear what everyone else is hearing, only instead of it just being a voice from a speaker, you’re sat twenty-feet away from the presenter who’s behind a sound-proof door in another room. On Monday 7th April 1998 it was time to do my first ever radio review for the BBC; the marvellous British comedy Son Of Rambow, Garth Jennings coming-of-age comedy set in the 1980’s about two boys that want to make their own movie inspired by the Sylvester Stallone action-classic Rambo. I was confident, my notes were constructed and clear, I was pretty sure that all the cast and crew were correct, no worries.
But all the research and analysis in the world doesn’t prepare you for the first time you’re live on the radio…