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In radio nowadays, everybody is a star overnight!

Sunday, September 23, 2012    

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IN 1955, I went to the Extra Mural Department to work as a typist for Philip Sherlock - he later became Sir Philip. I was coming straight from training sessions at the YMCA where Leila Beckett and Carmen Lusan had taught me office routine. Mr Sherlock's secretary was going on leave and he needed somebody to type for a couple of weeks, so Miss Beckett sent me as the temporary replacement.

I remained with the Extra Mural Department for five years because the Radio Education Unit (REU) had begun and I was shifted over to work with its head, Hugh Morrison. As the secretary to the REU, I typed scripts for adult education programmes that were circulated by the West Indies Broadcasting Service (WIBS) and other stations in the Caribbean.

One afternoon - in 1956, I think - somebody didn't turn up for an REU recording. Mr. Morrison said: 'Read this out loud' and I did. He said: 'Fine. You're coming to the studio with us.'

That was how my broadcasting career began. Soon afterwards I recorded a Spanish by Radio series with Mr Morrison, in which I played his niece Lolita. The series was broadcast on RJR and also did the Caribbean circuit. Shortly after that came the Government Information Service (GIS) programmes with Carey Robinson, in which he would dramatise government messages: for example, about the consequences of praedial larceny and what the laws were and how to make contact with various social services. Then in 1959 the Jamaica Broadcasting Corporation (JBC) began and a radio producer named Robin Midgely came from the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) to help set up JBC's Radio Theatre. I got parts in a number of his media productions. I read some poetry as well.

Then I learnt that JBC was looking for announcers. People such as Dick Pixley, Erica Allen, Adrian Robinson and Reggie Carter were already on board. Encouraged by Dick Pixley, I went for an audition. A fortnight later I got a call from the general manager's secretary asking me to come in the following morning at eleven. I got time off and made my way to Half-Way-Tree. Captain William Strange, the JBC general manager, said quietly: 'The job is yours if you can start on Monday.'

I raced back to the university and told Mr Morrison. He said: 'Jolly good. I've been telling them to pay you more.' He helped me write my resignation from the REU and took it over to the Registry.

On Monday morning I was at JBC. I kept up my work in radio theatre. Most people didn't know I was to be an announcer until my training period was over and they heard me on the air giving time checks and information about the weather.

I learnt a lot from the earliest JBC people. One watched and listened and learnt as much as one could and then tried to apply it. This doesn't happen so much in radio nowadays - everybody is a star overnight.

My first little programme was fifteen minutes long, called Dip and Fall Back. I had to get information on some of the other islands - for instance, what we call naseberry in Jamaica was called sapodilla somewhere else, and what we call guinep is ackee somewhere else. That sort of thing. We weren't allowed to ad lib, we had to write everything down - sometimes you'd feel Adrian's eyes on the back of your neck in the studio and he'd come in and say: 'Let me see what you just said,' and you'd say: 'Let you see what I just said?' He'd say: 'Yes. You're supposed to write it down.' So we travelled with our notebooks and our pencils and there was a book to log things. But it was exciting because we had a lot of outside broadcasts, and for me it was quite an experience standing there in front of all these people (it was not the same as acting in a play). JBC used to have weekly variety shows from the Carib Theatre or the nearby Regal Theatre and a stage show where the Top 10 was announced. At that time JBC had an orchestra and I was learning to play the xylophone and drums - officially though, I acted as an announcer, sharing the honours with Erica Allen. I was challenged once by the audience who only wanted to hear their Top 10, not the coconut oil commercial from Seprod - who sponsored the segment - and I broke out with: 'Cho man, no gwaan so! How we gwine pay for the show if we doan do the commercial?' They roared with laughter and didn't give any more trouble.

At that time too, JBC was involved with fundraising for charities. Nuggets for the Needy was the programme by which we solicited donations. It was a successful production and lasted many, many years. I remember somebody paying five pounds to see me walk up the steps in a hobble dress. Contributions were made for all sorts of things, serious and frivolous.

Carmen Manley was writing our first soap opera, Shadows of the Great House. I used to earn a little money typing the scripts for her, and occasionally she'd give me an incomplete character and say: "Precious is the character you play. Fill it out as an exercise." She and Alma Mock Yen gave me a lot of guidance in scriptwriting, so by the time I typed the script I had the Precious character delineated.

Before returning to the BBC, Robin Midgely insisted I do an audition for the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art (RADA) because a scholarship might be available. I asked Cecil Watt to record the audition tape I planned to send to England. I filled out the application form, supplied photographs of myself, packaged them neatly and delivered them to Midgely who willingly acted as courier. I was excited at the possibilities but nonetheless soon forgot about it all, convincing myself that to get to England to study drama and theatre was a mere pipe dream.

About six months later, RADA accepted my application on the basis of the recording, and granted me a scholarship to study in London. But the scholarship covered tuition only. It was left to me to deal with living expenses and general subsistence. I searched right, left and centre for a solution. It came from Peter Orr, who was attached to the British Council office in Kingston. He helped me to get a British Council bursary. I left for London in 1961.

Tomorrow: The bitchiness of students who resented me at British drama school

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