Ann Allan: Me and the Beeb.

After the birth of my second child in 1977 it did not take an Einstein to realise that we were going to have to add to our income. In 1979 six months after Margaret Thatcher became Prime Minister interest rates hit 17%, the highest since records began in 1694. Yes 1694. Now that may have been wonderful for those with savings but for those of us with a mortgage it was crippling. So it was decided that I should look for a part time job. Not the easiest proposition with two children and no family living near enough to babysit.


So operation ‘find a job’ went into action. The Belfast Telegraph had a jobs section on a Thursday night and every job was scanned in great detail to see if anything would suit.

Nothing suited and I began to panic. The car was becoming a liability and we really couldn’t patch it together any more. Which reminds me of an embarrassing incident.

In those days, most mornings the car needed a push to get it going. Gordon cycled to work leaving me the car to do the school run, but he always started it to make sure it was ok. On this particular morning it wasn’t, so he called me out to sit in it and steer while he pushed. Still in a nightie and with a flimsy dressing gown on I got into the car. After a few minutes pushing, the engine sprung to life. Take it up to the top of the park, Gordon shouted, it will charge the battery. I did so and as I turned at the top of the road the car stalled and refused to start again. No mobile phones in those days.

I knew Gordon was on his way to work and there were two young children alone in the house. There was nothing else for it. I got out of the car and in my flimsy night clothes charged down the road, tears tripping me, trying to ignore the motorists who were wondering who was  this mad women. I swore I would take the next job I saw whether I liked it or not as long as we could get a new car.

But I digress. One evening, after all hope of finding anything suitable was fast disappearing, an advert appeared on TV. They were looking for Interviewers for BARB, the audience research department of the BBC. It seemed ideal. I could arrange it around play school, primary school and Gordon’s lunch time. And I could work in the evenings. 
I applied, got an interview and headed confidently into Broadcasting House. There must have been about 40 others there and my confidence began to wain.

I see you have two children Mrs Allan, the lady from the Beeb said, Who will look after them?

Sorry, I said, Why do you want to know?

In fact I went further and said I’m not sure you are even supposed to ask that.  Would you ask that of a man? 

Part of me was saying, shut up Ann, you want this job but I couldn’t let it go.

My children will be fine I said. Oh well I said to myself as I left the Beeb at least you got an interview. Back to buying the Belfast Tele.

You can imagine my surprise when that evening I got a phone call offering me the job.

Being an interviewer in Belfast in the troubles was problematic, to say the least. Many interviews were carried out door to door. Suspicion was rife. Was I secretly trying to find out if the household had a television licence ? 

Was I trying to find identities of those in the household? Many refused to give names which meant after doing a whole interview I couldn’t use it.  The introduction ‘I’m from the BBC ‘ didn’t always go down well as in some areas the Beeb was seen as biased against certain communities. 

Many interviews were on the street and I would park the car along side where I was interviewing and on days when I was stuck for someone ( Gordon) to keep an eye on the kids they would sit in the car.  Fifteen interviews a day for five days on a quota basis meant chasing the last two or three interviewees to fill the quota. Usually the hardest category to find. 
However there was plenty of work and I threw myself whole heartedly into it. I must have impressed the bosses as out of the blue I got a telephone call from the big boss in London, offering me the post of Assistant Supervisor for the southern half of Northern Ireland. 
This entailed being on duty two mornings a week, dealing with queries, interviewing new staff, accompanying new interviewers, but the best bit was that every two years during the time I worked for the Beeb I got a trip to London and to the BBC.

Now I have never been a good flier so on my first trip I opted to travel by boat. When I mentioned the trip to my mother she mentioned it to my aunt and they decided they would accompany me. They would shop while I ‘worked’’.  I happened to say to a friend where we were going and it turned out he was driving to London on business around the same date. He offered to take us with him so we traveled from Liverpool by car.  It was turning into quite a trip. 
It turned out to be a very stormy night. The three of us had a cabin with bunk beds. My mum and I were violently ill. I can still see my aunt, perched on a top bunk,  opening a plastic container full of tomato sandwiches and trying to get us to eat one so as ‘ to line our stomachs.’ On her third attempt I lost it and told her where to stuff her tomato sandwiches.

We arrived in London late afternoon and booked into our hotel. After the boat trip I felt like I was constantly tilting to one side. Not a great feeling. Went for a short walk outside and passed Jeremy Thorpe. The notorious M.P. Later that evening my brother who was in London on business arrived at the hotel intending to stay the night. There were no rooms available so the hotel moved an extra bed in with my mum and my aunt and my brother got mine. This was turning into a right family affair.


The next morning I left the oldies with my brother and I took the tube with my NI colleague into the city and we made our way to Broadcasting House.
 After an information session we went to a nearby Italian restaurant lunch where believe it or not I had my first Italian meal. Profiteroles for desert. What a treat.

The afternoon was spent in the special effects department in Television Centre where we were able to smash bottles over each other’s head. Made of sugar glass  of course. So interesting to see how it all worked. Costume department was next.  Beautiful period costumes made for the dramas that we were seeing on tv in the eighties. 
We then were taken to the news room where the 6 o’clock news was about to go out. We were able to sit in the  viewing gallery and watch. It was, on that occasion,  read by the late Peter Woods. Although I was unaware of it at the time it turns out that Peter Woods was a distant relation. 

On our way to the green room for dinner we passed through the Top of The Pops studio where a show was about to go out. The audience was being warmed up and the acts appearing were the Nolan sisters and I think Cliff Richard.

After a lovely dinner with an after dinner speech from a young Michael Burke we headed home by tube exhausted after a long day.

The next morning I headed back to Broadcasting House to collect my expenses for the trip and then headed off to look for a pair of white shoes for my 6 year old who was a huge Shaking Stevens fan. I actually found them and he was delighted. He loved to imitate Shaky which I know will embarrass him now.  He did a great version of Green Door. In the afternoon my mum, my aunt and me headed for the Paris theatre for a recording of a radio programme which I’ve forgotten the name of but it was hosted by Sue Cook and Clive James was on the panel.

In the evening we met up with my friends and headed off to the Savoy theatre to see Noises off.  Not sure whether it wasn’t as funny as was made out or we were unsophisticated culchies from Northern Ireland and didn’t appreciate the slapstick humour but it was a unanimous decision to leave at the interval and head back to our hotel.

Next morning we headed for the station to take the train to Holyhead where we caught the boat to Rosslare. Thankfully it was a calmer crossing than the trip over.

This was the first of two trips. If I’m self distancing for the rest of the summer I may recount the second trip when I almost bumped into Rolf Harris!