It would take a bigger cynic than I not to be excited about working in television, so I put my disastrous security pass to the back of my mind, and followed Simon into the lifts.
‘It’s so lovely to see you again,’ he chirped. He checked his watch. ‘We’ve got another hour before the show finishes, so shall we go to the studio first?’
‘Yes, please,’ I said, remembering the exciting dark of behind the scenes from my work placement a few months before. ‘Who’s on the sofa today?’
‘The usuals – Dermot and Francesca – although she’s pitching a fit because someone from the Beeb wore the dress she’d planned. Between you and me though, it’s because it didn’t zip up when she went to Wardrobe this morning!’
‘Really?’ I asked, laughing.
‘Really,’ he said, dryly. ‘She’ll be on a juice fast for the rest of the week so I’d steer clear of the studio toilets.’ I wrinkled my nose. ‘Oh, what glamorous lives we lead!’ he said, then the lift doors slid open and we walked out into what appeared to be a vast warehouse. ‘We’ve moved studios since you were here last. Changes a-foot apparently. Anyway, this one’s bigger and better, so no one’s complaining. Apart from the presenters, whose dressing rooms are on another floor, and the wardrobe ladies, who are also dashing between floors, and the runners, and the Green Room people, and you get the idea.’
He turned the corner, and we left the grey space behind, immediately walking into a brightly light corridor. I could already hear the buzz of people, and another turn brought us into a buzzing café.
‘Gallery or studio?’ Simon said. ‘Or Green Room to meet the ladies; you’ll love Amanda, or the runners’ office?’
‘Good shout. You can meet everyone later, when they’re not rushing around. By the way, I’ll be training you.’
‘You will? That’s great. I thought you’d been promoted.’
‘Oh, I have. But Jason – can you believe anyone is actually really seriously called that? Poor boy – so Jason, he’s, shall we say, temperamental, so I thought I’d volunteer for the job.’
‘He’s your fellow runner, darling. He was on his jollies when you popped in to see us. Don’t worry, he’s fine really. Right, quiet now.’
Without a second to process this (whatever Simon said) frankly worrying development, he’d pushed open a door and I followed him into the gloom.
Feeling rather than seeing him thrust something into my hands, I grabbed and taking his lead, slipped the headphones over my ears, and the Walkman-like bit into the pocket of my jeans. He thanked the guy who’d produced them for us, and then spread the heavy black curtains in front of us and we reappeared into semi-brightness.
A scene familiar to every viewer at home lay before me. A comfy-looking plump purple sofa was at the centre, with a glass-topped curving table in front; behind was a giant backdrop of the London skyline, and the whole area was lit by several massive and incredibly bright spotlights overhead.
Perched on top of the sofa, in a beautiful fitted cream dress with perfectly blow-dried bouncy chestnut hair, a face of make-up so expertly applied she appeared radiant rather than caked, and which highlighted her big hazel eyes, creamy skin, and satiny pink lips, sat Francesca Lowry.
She looked every bit as gorgeous in real life as she did on screen, and every bit as glamorous too. Right then and there, I vowed I’d be sitting on that sofa one day. Especially if my co-host was as lush as hers.
Rather brilliantly, Wakey! Wakey! hadn’t fallen into the Freudian trap of pairing a ripe twenty-something with a dashing late forty-something. With more luck than perhaps skill, they’d hit on the dream combination of Francesca’s stunning (yet also relatable) early thirty-something looks and a handsome late thirty-something silver fox partner– Mr Dermot Graveson.
Taking the Cary Grant-approved approach to make-up, he sported a year-round tan, which un-coinincidentally brought out the intense royal blue of his eyes. Clean-shaven, and dressed in a crisp pale blue shirt with a French navy bespoke tailored suit over the top, he was every (carefully researched) housewife’s fantasy.
Oblivious to our entrance, both presenters chatted easily to each other and the cameras, sharing a laugh and a joke, and drawing their viewers in with thousand pound smiles. I was hooked, but their little microcosmic living room was just that, and a few feet further from the fancy designer coffee table, blackness reigned. Not in a melodramatic metaphorical depressing kind of way, but in a very literal one.
It was as if someone had painted a black line down the middle of the room; in fact, looking more closely, that was precisely what someone had done. And everything beyond that line strictly adhered to the dress code – the thick theatrical floor to ceiling curtains, the walls, the cameras, the cables, the microphones – even the people, excepting Simon and I. My cream blazer suddenly felt very bold, and I almost felt drawn to the sofa and the light, stopped only by the knowledge that would have seen my television career start and end in the very same day.
Urges to rush the set controlled, I focused on the on-screen talent. With Simon at my side, leaning across occasionally to add helpful facts, I could have stayed there all day, but after ten minutes or so, he nudged me, and pointed to the doors. Reluctantly I went to hand back the headphones but Simon gestured to me to keep them on.
‘When you’re on the studio floor, and if there’s enough, you keep the headphones on. It connects you to the Gallery, haven’t you noticed?’
‘Of course,’ I said, reluctant to admit I’d heard nothing with my concentration firmly on the famous sofa.
‘We’ll go there now.’
If the studio set is the Lady of the Manor, the Gallery is very much the downstairs staff. The talent in the latter is just as impressive, but this time, both literally and metaphorically, it’s kept in the dark. With the lights lowered to barely a dull glow, all eyes were fixed on the wall of television monitors and screens at the front of the room. Actively detached from the studio, the digital feed was vital, and the screens showed not only the studio I’d just left, but also all the other terrestrial channels also broadcasting, with the main rival in a slightly bigger screen. Directly in front of the screens was a bank of desks with feverish-looking people staring intently ahead.
‘That’s today’s director, Eamon. He’s only twenty-five; he’s sort of a wunderkind.’
I looked at the man he’d pointed out, who was confidently pressing and pushing buttons and knobs on the insanely complicated desk. As I watched, he consulted a woman sitting to his left, and seconds later Wakey! Wakey!’s logo appeared on screen before switching seamlessly from the sofa to a weathergirl.
‘All the show’s producers sit here too, unless they’re wandering around panicking that is! And the sound and lighting guys are just there. And the autocue is controlled there. And th-’
Simon was cut off by a frantic man, who dashed past him, knocking into his side, and placed a sheaf of paper in front of Eamon. He then ran back past Simon, without apologising and disappeared from sight.
‘And that,’ continued Simon, as if he hadn’t been interrupted, ‘is Jason.’
‘So, what did you think?’
We’d left the studio floor and returned to the main offices several floors above. By now, full daylight streamed through the windows and at nine o’clock on a Monday morning, the office was beginning to fill up as the day shifters came to take over from their night counterparts.
‘It was so exciting,’ I said.
‘Isn’t it? I’ve been here for three years and I still love it. And now, I suppose, we should get down to brass tacks.’
‘So, first off, the tour.’
Simon whizzed me from desk to desk, throwing names out like bullets as I smiled and shook hands with person after person. And then we moved on to another floor, and another set of people and names. And another floor. It was beginning to dawn on me that I would be expected to know all these people and their names, and where they sat, and what they did.
‘Is there an office seating plan?’ I asked as Simon explained about delivering internal and external mail.
‘Not really, I’m afraid. We tend to move around quite a bit, but you’ll soon pick it up. After the post, we check all the kitchens to see if they’re stocked, and tidy up from the night shifts. Then we’ll man the runners’ desk and deal with everything and anything really – stationery requests, organising transport and hotels for guests and staff. Then if you’re on the night shift, you’ll be booking cars for the morning, collecting the newspapers, restocking the Green Rooms and kitchens, arranging for food deliveries.’ As Simon carried on, I could feel the panic rising in my chest, as well as a sinking feeling, the resulting emotion being mainly sickness.
How on earth was I going to remember all the things I was meant to do? That was why I was panicking. But as for the sinking feeling? Suddenly my new job didn’t look half as glamorous as it had thirty minutes before. My official title was Programme Assistant, but it was becoming rapidly clear that Dogsbody would have been more appropriate. I consoled myself with the fact that since I was on the graduate programme, I only had nine months, tops, to endure. And apart from those lucky gits whose dads own a production company or whose mums are the Editor in Chief of a glossy magazine, everyone has to start at the bottom.
‘Stella,’ said Simon. ‘I can see panic in your eyes. Don’t. Trust me. We might not have an office plan, but there’s a handbook with everything written down in it. You can pretty much follow it point by point, it’s even time scheduled.’
‘And you’ll have me by your side for two weeks. Now, let’s go and get a coffee.’
As it turns out, one of the perks of working in a huge national company is a Starbucks in the basement. A free Starbucks. One of the disadvantages of working in aforementioned company with free Starbucks is the huge queue. Almost forty-five minutes later we were back at the runners desk. This time, instead of an empty chair, there was Jason.
‘Jason, Stella. Stella, Jason.’
‘Hi,’ I said, and extended my hand.
‘Hi. So you’re the newbie.’
‘Yup.’ I smiled as warmly as I could.
‘Simon?’ Someone called from behind us.
‘Just a second,’ he said to me. ‘I’ll just deal with this, and I’ll be back in a tick.’
I stood by the computer, and as the silence grew between Jason and I, I grabbed the nearest chair and pulling it close to the desk, sat down.
‘It’s so exciting, isn’t it?’ I said.
‘What is?’ he replied.
‘Working here. Seeing it all in action.’
‘So how long have you been here?’
‘And you’re a Programme Assistant too?’
I almost gave up but I had to work with this man so I persisted. ‘Is there anything I can do to help?’
‘I doubt it.’
‘Ok then,’ I said, and matched his silence. When Simon came back, that’s how he found us.
‘Making friends already, Jason?’ He turned to me. ‘Right, we’ve got to do the fashion returns. Shall we?’
‘Yes, please.’ I jumped up. ‘He’s, erm, temperamental.’
‘Told you. Anyway, ignore him. He’s just mad because you got on the grad scheme and he didn’t.’
‘They only take on a few grads each year. All the other runners are just that. I mean, they can get promoted, but the grads usually go first.’
‘That explains a lot.’
‘He’ll get over it.’
I secretly doubted Simon’s optimism, but just listened as he explained our next task – bagging up, labeling, and organising the return of all the clothes, shoes, bags and accessories the fashion team had had PR teams send over in the week for various shoots.
We loaded bin bag after bin bag into a van, and while I waited for Simon to come back with another trolley load, I entertained myself by looking over the labels. Zara, Topshop, Reiss, Warehouse, all my favourite shops were there, and I wondered if you ever got to keep anything. A loud honk from a car horn frightened the hell out of me and reverberated around the underground car park. I poked my head out of the van.
An enormous shiny black Range Rover with blacked out windows was idling. I looked around, but I couldn’t see what the car was honking at. I went back to rifling through the bags but the horn went again, and this time it didn’t stop. I got out of the van properly but still utterly clueless. After drawing the honk to a close and adding one short sharp blast for good measure, the driver’s window was rolled down.
‘Move out of the fucking way,’ drawled the speaker. I gawped at him, instantly recognising Kevin Stevens for the primetime chat show host that he was. ‘Are you deaf?’
‘I’m sorry, what?’
‘I said, ‘move out of the fucking way’. You’re in my parking space.’ I couldn’t stop myself looking around at the almost empty car park. He caught my action. ‘That,’ he said, pointing where the van was parked, ‘is my parking space. Are you a fucking cretin?’
‘I’m sorry,’ I said, repeating myself like an idiot. ‘I- I-’ My words trailed off and my hands were shaking.
‘Oh, for fuck’s sake,’ he said, rolling the window up, and violently threw the car forward and abandoned it across two vacant spaces nearby, before climbing out, slamming the door and stalking across the car park to the access door without a backwards glance.
When the clock finally hit eight o’clock and I’d been at Wakey! Wakey! for more than twelve hours, Simon bid me a cheery goodbye. I couldn’t remember the last time I’d felt so tired. My whole body ached. The shoes I’d thought were so comfortable had rubbed blisters all over my feet. The waistband of my skinny jeans seemed to have got tighter as the day progressed. My spine felt out of alignment. And as I reached the tube, I realised I was absolutely starving, which was unsurprising since I hadn’t eaten anything.
Spending far more than my daily allocated budget in Marks & Spencer, I devoured a packet of sandwiches, some gourmet crisps, and I blamed the brownie entirely for the lack in concentration that saw me jump on a train going in the wrong direction.