Behind the headlines

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 11 July, 2000, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 11 July, 2000, 12:00am

TOO MANY YEARS AGO MY first editor told me I had the perfect face for radio and everyone - except my mother - agreed. So when the boss broke the news that a BBC television crew were on their way to the South China Morning Post newsroom to film a fly-on-the-wall documentary, I immediately rang home for a confidence-booster from the woman who knows best. It didn't work.

Before you could say lights, camera, action she'd dropped the receiver and was out the front door grabbing neighbours and anyone else who'd listen to tell them about her boy's big break into television.

Thanks a lot Mum. Sure, in this business you get used to the ubiquitous cameras, the microphones and the lights - in fact, newspaper people are quick to develop a healthy disdain for the paraphernalia of TV news gathering because those who use it seem to believe it gives them mystical powers of privilege in the race to gather the facts. As D-day approached I conned myself - with the not inconsiderable help of fellow hacks - into believing my part in the whole caper would be minor. It would be a team effort and the embarrassment would be shared.

However, it soon became clear that was not to be the case and what was more, fly-on-the-wall was to be more like fly-on-me. Colleagues - who out-shimmied French playmaker Zidane to body-swerve the pending action (one even jetting off to Thailand to keep a distance between him and the camera) - assured me it would be a walk in the park, a laugh. Go on, you'll love it, they said. The initial plan, by design I am sure, was sketchy: an as yet un-named UK celebrity would spend four days at the paper as a rookie, the purpose being to see how they fared being thrown into a job they'd never done before. Fair enough - but there was a catch. The rookie needed a mentor - which the Oxford Dictionary defines as 'an experienced and trusted adviser' - and I was it.

I suppose 13 years in the job might just squeeze me into the experienced bracket but, as anyone who knows me will testify, trusted adviser I am not. Not only that but there was a screenplay and what looked suspiciously like lines. The BBC producer, a fellow Scot, Mark Downie, would require me to stand up, walk, sit down and actually talk to the camera. I was absolutely terrified.

And just when I thought it couldn't get any worse, it got a lot worse. The celebrity I was to guide through the rudiments of reporting was one-time TV action girl and former Hong Kong resident Anneka Rice. There's nothing wrong with Rice, you understand, but the last time I'd seen her was when I was an impressionable teenager and she was entertaining British telly addicts in a string of adventure-quiz type programmes in the 1980s.

Rice - who lived and worked in the territory between 1979 and 1983 doing stints with TVB as a news reader, a radio programmer and a public relations executive - was a prime-time weekend family viewing icon, a star in other words.

She is fondly remembered for jumping in and out of helicopters in search of buried loot in Britain's Channel Four now defunct Treasure Hunt programme. Millions will never forget the screen-hogging shots of her subsequently award-winning behind, which - for a time - captured the imagination of Britain.

She had fronted holiday shows, appeared on chat shows, done TV adverts, been a radio personality and she was a woman, and she was blonde. In my book this was the big time and no mistake. Again, terror gripped me. I needed a drink.

The producer Mark Downie and his assistant Shona failed miserably in trying to convince me that, really, Rice and I were in almost the same boat. She'd been out of television for five years studying fine arts at London's prestigious Chelsea College of Art and she might be a bit rusty, so we could help each other through it - yeah right.

'Doing this is like riding a bike,' Rice confided in me as the camera rolled for the first time. As bemused office colleagues looked on, a man with the big furry animal on a stick wired me for sound with something called a radio mike and we were off - to Wan Chai. Great, a drink I thought, but no, I was to be filmed interviewing someone - with the film crew in attendance, so Rice could watch the master at work. The nightmare had begun.

Thankfully, the Information Techn-ology Services Department's Chief Systems Manager, Frankie Lai Yu-hoi, the subject of my interview, took it all in his stride. He even agreed to do the whole interview again once we'd finished, just so they were happy.

This was probably down to the fact that Lai had no idea who Anneka Rice was, whether I was from the SCMP or the BBC, why the crew were there in the first place - and decided it was best just to humour us.

After a couple of embarrassing bloopers on camera, Downie assured me that after about 20 minutes I wouldn't notice the camera, another lie, but hey, this was television, I would soldier on.

The next day it was Rice's turn to put the skills she'd learned from the master to the test. Her mission was to write a colour story from the last night of racing at Happy Valley. She was late back and the story didn't make it into the paper which fitted nicely with the plot. I was beginning to lose a grip on what was real and what was telly.

Next morning the producer suggested sending her on another job, so off she went, this time to the complete bewilderment of a handful of 80- and 90-year-old nursing home residents, who someone was trying to persuade to go on-line. The subject matter was sufficiently quirky and the story made the paper.

By the time it came to my final 'confiding to the camera' bit - speaking to a small lens like it's your best pal - where I spilled the beans on whether I thought Rice cut the mustard, I was a pro, at least that's what Downie said.

He must have said thank you at least a million times as he curried favour and cajoled SAR officialdom - and my boss - to get the shots he wanted and after it was all over he said filming in Hong Kong had been, well, an experience.

'The problem with TV crews is that we are always late and everything is done by the book in Hong Kong. Every time we wanted to film we needed written permission and there was always a reception committee waiting for us. It was all very well organised but tended to take any spontaneity out of things,' he said.

Spontaneity? Try walking and talking with a camera up your nose if you've never done it before and get it right first time. That said luvvies, I very slowly warmed to the task if not the camera and after what seemed like an eternity filming, the ordeal was over.

As for Rice, don't believe everything you read in the papers about precious telly folk, she was all right.

Oh yeah. Apparently Downie and the crew went back to London with 10 hours of film in the can, enough for a whole series. How long is the programme - which incidentally hasn't got a name yet. '13 minutes,' Downie said, 'but it's better to have too much than too little.'