The day finally arrives – after briefings, training, pep talks etc – that the listings desk begins work on the first multi-channel edition of Radio Times. By this time I am quite nicely settled in and considered a valuable member of the team, even mentoring some of our newer arrivals to boot. It doesn’t mean I don’t make mistakes. All of us do and as a result face the possibility of ritual humiliation by P–. But I have a bit of perspective on that particular risk of flagellation and feel like I know what I’m doing. I still harbour naïve hopes that working on RT may lead to a glittering media career, but for the time being I am having a nice time with my fellow subs, who are a nice bunch.
All of that is about to change as a result of the chaotic, stressful few weeks we are about to embark on. The first multi-channel edition leads to one of those weeks where everything changes. In the olden days we would wait for the BBC-only listings material to arrive, a predictable and straightforward process leading to four slightly varied editions. From this week we await the arrival of listings from ITV and Channel Four, and the production of some thirteen quite significantly varied editions. On the anticipated day, the BBC send their listings to TV Times. Channel 4’s information arrives with us, and is fine. ITV‘s info arrives a little late, and is scanty, with big gaps in both information and cast lists. As they have routinely been supplyiing this to their own publication for over thirty years, I will leave it to you to speculate why the informaton they supply to us is inadequate. We did a hell of a lot of speculation ourselves at the time, and came to certain conclusions.
A ripple of panic spreads across the listings desk. How are we going to put our pages together unless we make stuff up, which is not ideal for a publication treasured for its authority and accuracy. To use a four-letter word … egad! What’s to become of us?
The answer to that is, twenty years later, a bit of a blur in my memory. We do make a chunk of stuff up, frantically scrabbling around to work out who on the desk knows something about Emmerdale, or about Taggart, or whichever ITV programme. TV trivia is hurriedly exchanged from desk to desk in order to fill gaping holes in our column inches, but without cast lists, episode titles etc it does not look good. Senior RT staff frantically lobby ITV to extract the information we have been promised from them which does finally arrive, albeit agonizingly late.
The effect of all of this is to turn press day into a scene from Dante (“And we’ll have more tortured souls rotating on a spit after the break!”). Let me describe a pre-multi-channel press day to you. Press day is Tuesday, and on those days subs work on late until P– has approved their pages. Sometimes this means last minute adjustments, sometimes just a bunch of waiting around until P– approves your copy. Once your pages are approved you can go. The following morning when you come back in (slightly late is OK) you make slight variations of your pages for the Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland editions. The late working every Tuesday is compensated for by a so-called WOODS Day (I can’t remember what this stands for, sorry), which essentially means every other Friday off, which is nice.
in the multi-channel era WOODS days go, at least temporarily, out of the window. It’s all hands to the pump to get this baby to press. The first week, as we frantically try to magic up the programme information ITV has not provided for us, is stress-filled chaos. Somehow, those empty-column inches are filled, and we go to press. It has, however, been a long press day – 10am to 10pm for pretty much all of us. It’s so late and we are so punchdrunk that the editors order cabs for all the subs, rather than just pushing us out onto the tube. We head for home exhausted, but also knowing that we have to be back the following morning to generate another 13 or so variant editions. Not only is the workload exchausting, but the quality of work is also affected as there is just so much to do.
Although nothing in subsequent weeks quite matches that first week the pressure on us only eases slightly. In the end, ITV grudgingly start coming up with the necessary information on time, so at least we have encough “stuff” to fill our pages. But it remains a very pressurised environment. We spend hours hunched over our terminals. Good posture and screen breaks go out of the window because of the pressure to get the magazine out – what we produce has to be at least as good, and ideally better than our competitors.
In that intensive environment, symptoms of RSI, which I had first encountered through assisting a suffering colleague in my first weeks on the listings desk, start to hit several subs. So not only are we under huge pressure – some of us are buckling and as a result putting more pressure on those who remain. It is not a good situation at all. We all feel exhausted and stressed out. Then one morning, when I settle down at my desk and start work, I suddenly start to feel pain in my hands and arms …