John Agnew - Transcript
[Interviewer is Janet McBain, Date of Recording 14 07 2018]
[Start of Recording]
I: So, this is an interview with John Agnew for the Scottish Broadcasting Heritage Group's oral history project. The interviewer is Janet McBain, the date is 14 July 2018 and the place is the STV's studio in Glasgow and the copyright of the recording is vested in the Scottish Broadcasting Heritage Group. I am going to do the boring thing and start at the very beginning, John - where and when were you born?
R: Oh, I was born in Rutherglen maternity hospital, 28th October 1957.
I: Right, so you are a local?
R: Oh no, it wasn't, it was in Rutherglen, Main Street. Not on the main street. My children were born in the maternity place, yes, Rutherglen.
I: Rutherglen. 1957.
R: Yes, 1957.
I: OK and were you brought up in Rutherglen? Is that where you went to school?
R: No. I was born there and after about three months we went to East Kilbride and until I left home that's where we stayed.
I: So, you would have been the first generation of the family living in the town?
R: Absolutely! Yes, oh absolutely! It's a good place to have been brought up as kid, that's for sure.
I: And when you were a child were there any, what were your kind of hobbies and interests? Did you have any hobbies that would lead you in towards television?
R: Yeah. Well, not necessarily television but certainly media. I used to, I joined the St. Andrew's, when I was about thirteen I joined St. Andrew's Ambulance, sort of like, group, you know, for first aiders. And part of that, the only reason I joined it was 'cause they ran a radio station called Radio Hairmyres in East Kilbride so my first technical gazette, they had to put me in as a Presenter at one point which was rubbish but I found that I liked the technical part, putting the discs in and all that so that was what really started and kindled my interest in hi-fi and broadcast, I suppose, yes.
I: OK. So it was the sound, the audio bit?
R: Yes, that was radio. Yes, Radio Hairmyres 'cause obviously, at that time, no one had cameras. They might've had stills cameras but no one had video cameras so sound would be something that would be very easy or easier to get into.
I: So and that's when you were still at school?
R: Still at school, yeah.
I: So, talk us through what happened when you left school and how you ended up?
R: I left school at seventeen and I joined a company, Glasgow Corporation used to have this broadcast, Schools' Broadcast called Glasgow ETV [Glasgow Educational Television Service].
I: Oh, they were in Bath Street!
R: Bath Street, 151 Bath Street. And that was a fantastic place and I joined them as an Assistant Engineer and the duty of an Assistant Engineer was to be in the VTR [Video Tape Recorder] area so they'd be playing in, they broadcast via a - it was very advanced at the time, so that was in the mid seventies so they broadcast in black and white to all the schools in Glasgow. They had two production studios where they made programmes dedicated for that. They had a Film Department. John Gow worked there, as did Steve Beck so there's a lot of people that I know through the industry came through that door, if you like. Unfortunately that door slammed in my face very quickly after about a year and a half. First cuts and it was closed and then I moved to an Audio Visual Centre. Rather than being made redundant I was made, I was sent out to Dreghorn in Irvine to be an AV [Audio Visual] Engineer. Two months after that, luckily enough, I got an interview with the BBC. BBC Scotland. And I got a job as an Assistant Engineer based in Aberdeen - Beechgrove - and after about a year and a half from that, I then came back down. I didn't like being an Engineer. Engineering was not a lot of fun! You were first in in the morning, last out at night and you just saw all these fantastic programmes and you saw all these interesting people but you couldn't touch! You couldn't touch! Aberdeen was different because it was a smaller place rather than Glasgow. It tended to be more hands-on and, again, you would be Communications so you're doing all the lines for radio and TV. You do all these lines, setting and monitoring and jacking things up and then doing News at night so you would set the cameras up and work studios and stuff like that. But it was no fun being a Technician and I moved to Glasgow. I got a shift to become, to join the Audio Department in Glasgow and the same weekend I came down I think for an interview down there, there was an interview for Scottish Television for Assistant Dubbing Mixer and I did both interviews and I got both positions and I just felt like, I don't know why I wanted to move away from the Beeb as opposed to STV. Maybe I just wanted to, well, it was better money actually! STV was definitely better money! And I joined STV as an Assistant Dubbing Mixer. And then, from an Assistant Dubbing Mixer, I became a Sound Recordist. I've been on News and then a Features and Drama Sound Recordist and then luckily over the next, you know, thirty years I drifted into camera work. Became a News Cameraman, a Features Cameraman and then became freelance on one of the last purges at Cowcaddens. I'm sure you'll go back over these in detail! That was a potted history of the progression.
I: Yes. That's great. So, you would have, when you went to Glasgow ETV that was straight from school?
R: Straight from school, yep, first job.
I: So, did they have any kind of formal training?
R: Yes, the training they had, in a formal way, was all hands-on, which was great, but City and Guilds Electronic Engineer Radio and Television Technicians Course - whatever that meant! But it was something that was pertinent to the job. And, as I say, unfortunately it only lasted a year and a half. And the BBC had training courses down at Evesham which was Hedley Engineering and, as I say, I was not particularly engaged with that. I was definitely more an Operator than a Fixer, that would be accurate.
I: So, when you came to STV what age would you be when you started as an Assistant?
R: Twenty. Twenty.
I: So STV would also have training programmes, I presume?
R: No. No, STV, I went, I might have done a Health and Safety Course. I did a Lighting Course and I did a Time-Code Course and that was in the twenty-seven years! I did three courses for STV!
I: So basically you learned on the job?!
R: You learned on the job.
I: So, it would be almost like an apprenticeship? Were you working with a skilled...?
R: Oh, brilliant! Yeah, I mean I see nowadays in comparison - night and day. With us, being an Assistant Engineer, no, an Assistant Dubbing Mixer, you engaged with Film Editors, Assistant Film Editors, Sound Recordists and you got a real broad-brush feel for how to construct a programme. So, although I was strictly Sound, it was how you would marry that sound to make something really good with the product and you learnt so much from the Assistant Editors. Why they would need these things because Editors ask for them but the Assistant, this is all film! This is the Film Department within STV. So you would learn from problems and problem-solving and why you did things in a certain order and how you constructed a programme from a technical point of view, not from a journalistic or a programme-making point of view but how you actually honed all these ingredients together and finally there would be the dub, which would be the last stage in any programme, would be the picture was cut and you would lay all the sound tracks and you would make the final programme and it would then go to Transmission. So, training then was actually learning from people who knew how to do things properly and efficiently.
I: And did you find that, in the main, these people you were learning from were very generous in passing on their knowledge?
R: Yes. Very few people were protectionist. Amazing generous as I like to think I would be! But they also had time and the crewing arrangements were a bigger, broad brush. Being an Assistant Dubbing Mixer, what, an Assistant Dubbing Mixer basically was the head of Transfer, Sound Transfer. What would happen would be, we'd film an interview, a sequence, a programme, on film and obviously with sound as well. There were two ways at that time that you would actually marry the sound to the picture. One, you could actually have 16mm film with what they called 'stripe', which was a magnetic stripe down the edge of the film, which then, when you recorded or filmed, would record the sound and picture simultaneously. Unfortunately those were out of sync in terms of almost twenty-three frames behind the picture. The picture was an intermittent, almost like twenty-five frames per second - a snapshot, snapshot, snapshot! Sound you need a linear speed over the sound-head so it had to be twenty-three frames later that the sound would go on it. So, it meant that if you went into Editing and you just cut the picture, suddenly you've got a flipping gap of twenty-three, almost a second, you know, before the sound caught up! So, what would happen would be on News, they would shoot it and the Editors would work with that. They had a magnet which would erase sound to join up things. Oh, fun stuff! But with us, I would then, if they wanted to edit the footage they would need to get the sound brought up in line with the picture so that meant you would transfer the original film with magnetic sound or you would put it onto what's called 16 mil fully-coated, which was basically a 16mm gauge audio tape with sprockets and you would transfer that and then they could slip the sound to marry the picture. And so when they cut the picture, they could cut the sound. So, that was one system and that was quite archaic and fast and cheap. And the other way would be the Sound Recordist would record on a 1/4 inch tape format using an Nagra, a Condensed Nagra, and you would then transfer that 1/4 inch tape to the fully-coated and the Editors would then sync every take with that up. It was time-consuming, more expensive and therefore STV probably didn't like it too much!
I: So, if you were going, if you were working on News for example, they might use the stripe thing but for a Drama or a Feature or a more, something with higher production values, they would be recording on an open reel?
R: That's correct. That's correct.
I: So, there you are as a twenty year old Assistant Dubbing Mixer, how did you - but that's Studio-based, isn't it?
I: Where did you move from then?
R: I had an opportunity, I had an itch to, I saw these, I was learning from these Sound Recordists. I mean, I was in constant contact with the people who cut the footage and the people who actually made the footage and I was this sandwich in between. Liaison and everybody wanted to hand in the rushes and I'd transfer the rushes and hand them over so I got an idea listening to these guys going to, you know, just the sound and then the Edit meeting and pictures meeting and going not exactly exotic places but certainly going out and about, having a really full life! Obviously you would hanker for something like that. I mean, where I worked was in a dark room listening to all these fantastic sounds and thinking, oh! And I can nae get away because I'm doing my job and monitoring sound levels and whatever! So, I was able to move very, very slowly, with permission from upstairs, Phil Johnson, head of department, Tim Amyes, who was the Dubbing Mixer, I was able to move and became a Boom Operator on Take the High Road so I was getting my first teeth into actually production sound, learning, again, from really good Sound Recordists - Len Southall, John McGuire, Alan Nicol, Clive Wood - they were really, really good Sound Recordists! Very, very generous with their time. Again, if you were a Boom Operator, you did a lot of rubbish as an operator so it's in your interest to actually get that person to be good because it reflects on the Sound Recordist. You can be the best Sound Recordist in the world but if the Boom Operator is not getting anywhere close to where it wants to be then you're not going to go. You won't survive. So, I was learning from these fantastic people and then, maybe for about a year, I was getting more and more outdoors, more and more outdoors and they created (I can't remember what happened) but there was another crew made up and I ended up going onto News so I jumped from Assistant Dubbing Mixer to Sound Recordist but exclusively News and it was a guy called Varick Easton and I was with Varick for about a year and a half.
And then they created a new crew with Jim Peters, who's an excellent Cameraman, more Features-led and younger than the rest of the boys and so they paired me with Jim so I escaped Varick and landed with Jim and I stayed with Jim and I learnt so much! As a Sound Recordist you cannot not be interested in Picture! You cannot not understand how a programme is made because you've got to know what's missing sound-wise. If someone says something and it's not in camera well we'll go into reverse and we'll pick it up then! That's OK. So, you learn the skills and so, from then, Jim moved on. Not through me. Jim moved on from doing some of the really high end documentaries, Held in Trust. STV, every so often, had to apply for the franchise and they would always spend money on a big budget production - Sense of Freedom, Held in Trust. Now, Sense of Freedom, I was still in transfer for that so that was prior to...but the next one was Held in Trust, where we had Diana Rigg and we were all, it was like a three-month shoot and we were all over Scotland! What a fantastic, and all the best places of the Trust! From the Fair Isles to, och, anywhere! It was really good. So, then Jim wanted to go freelance. I didn't. I was scared stiff to go freelance. I had no confidence in myself and in the freelance world, I suppose. Family and all that. A Sound Recordist's position is peculiar in the relationship. People would choose a cameraman before they would choose a Sound Recordist so I was lucky in that Jim was chosen and I was always doing the good work but because of Jim, if you understand the relationship. Not that I wasn't a good Sound Recordist myself but definitely that. We were a good team and it worked! So when Jim wanted to move off and I didn't. The truth be told, there weren't many Cameramen at that time that I really wanted to work with as a Sound Recordist. Jim was challenging and he was excellent and we got some good stuff.
And I then applied - because E.N.G. was coming in, which is Electronic News Gathering so it was away from Film but was still a single camera so I had all these techniques learned on Film and I understood the imagery. I'd always been interested in camera work photography and I then moved to single-camera News, which, again, was a fantastic learning place. People in our industry, a lot of them pooh-pooh News as being, not in a lower class but yes, it's not high-end. But every day you are challenged with something absolutely unique. You have to find out what it is you want to cover and how you want to cover it and therefore it's a great learning place. So, STV decided to make a lot more local programmes under Agnes Willkie. One of them was a programme called NB, which was an Arts programme and coming from an Engineering background I was a very, one must do these things in a certain order and be within certain degrees of control. And an Arts programme wants to throw these things out the window but you had to have an awful lot of trust that the Director would say to you, "I want to do it this way" and then when he then takes the footage into the Edit suite and the Editor says, "I can't cut this! Who shot this?!" And he says, "John Agnew shot it!" So, you've got to trust that the Director is going to take the fall. He's asked you to do something that would be normally like putting gain in the cameras - they didn't like that, it made the camera picture. Again, I mean you could work on much more light, lower light levels but there was a pay off that the pictures would be softer and noisier but in an Arts programme, chah! You know, that's OK! But you had to trust the Director wouldn't say, "I don't know why he shot it like that!" So, NB under two Directors, Steve Flack and David Counsel and Agnes Willkie was the Producer. Fantastic!! I really, really cut my teeth on that. I learnt so much about breaking the mould, being happy to break the mould (in the right conditions) and then Agnes's department grew arms and legs and she went into Features which meant we did Scottish Passport, Wheel Nuts, which was a car programme, Home Show. We did, there was, like, two cameramen. Myself and Richard Cooke essentially did the lion's share of that. Great times. Hard work. Good work. Fantastic work!
I: When you were a Sound Recordist you were working in the Film analogue environment?
R: Yes. Yes.
I: You were out there with the Nagra?
R: Nagra. Yes.
I: How did you relate to the camera in terms of synching? Did you have a...
R: Yeah, we never really had, although eventually I got the deluxe one, I had the only Nagra that had time-code on it but the camera didn't have time-code so what's the point! Anyway!
I: So, when the move from film to video came in, you never worked as a Sound Recordist in the video era or did you?
R: Yes, for about a year. It was one of those, I was doing both so there basically wasn't a job for me at TRA, Temporary Responsibility Allowance, that's what I, I was made up to do camera when there was a hole when someone went on holiday and then put on News and that became more normal and I got the job permanently but yes, I did a cross-pollination. I left as a Film Sound Recordist to a Sound Recordist where you used to have a separate recorder with a video recorder and a plug into the camera - the original stuff. I was across that transition period, yeah.
I: OK. So, as a Sound Recordist in the video era, were you physically attached? There was a umbilical link, wasn't there?
R: Very early, yes. The early SP cameras, Sony SP, they, XP I think it was, XP. They actually had a BIG recorder that I carried about and it was physically attached to a camera which could not work unless it was attached to the recorder. Now, there was a reason for that. They could dock them together but everybody was scared stiff that the cameras, as of now, would just self-shoot and the Sound Recordist's job would go out the window. So they could be dockable but they would be very, very heavy! I mean incredibly heavy so we tended, at STV, we never filmed docked until the cameras came together with sound and recorder. Camera, camcorder complete. That was when that docked together.
I: So that must have made a difference to you as a Sound Recordist - the physicality of having to be right beside the camera all the time, is that right?
R: Well, again, we were kinda used to it because of stripe. We had to be beside the camera because of stripe. The only time you were able to be free of the camera was when you were using a Nagra, quarter-inch tape. That was the only time you were actually able to leave the camera's side so I was kind of brought up on a camera that needed the sound to be plugged in with a recorder over my shoulder, sending sound to that camera so I never, apart from being physically heavier as the batteries were heavy, everything was just chunkier in those days! Well-made but just chunkier.
I: So, moving to camera and E.N.G., there must have been a sense of more like freedom and even just, you can run around because the cameras are...
R: Absolutely! Absolutely. There is nothing, I mean they still even today, you can have a radio link between the camera and Sound Recordist which is great for freedom but the majority of Sound Recordists I still work with as freelance will plug into the camera. It's the safest, most reliable, dependable way so even next week, last week, my camera, a Sound Recordist, will physically plug the cables into the back of the camera and be stuck to me. But, I can take them out and use the front mike and I would be liberated to go and do mute, essentially mute visuals so, yeah.
I: So, the relationship between camera and sound, you know, you do need to work as a team, don't you?
R: Very close. If you have issues with the Sound Recordist, the Sound Recordist has issues with you, it can be a nightmare! You have to be, a Sound Recordist, I loved it, for example, when I was put with Jim Peters and, as I say, I'm trying to predict where he's going to go because I don't want to be, boing! The cameraman darts over there and I'm going that way! So, I was always aware and this is where this soft engraining of how to shoot something is that Jim would do the wide two-shot, would do the singles and then do something else and I would know where he, instinctively, we worked really, really well and a good Sound Recordist will know instinctively that cameraman's style. Takes a couple of days. Jim and I obviously worked for years together but we, and I loved it! I loved the idea that I'd second-guessed, "I know where he's going now!" I loved that! But that was only because I understood how he understood how to film.
R: And that's in my brain now and that's how I film and if you ask the Sound Recordist that I work with (a girl just now called Lisa, Lisa Higgins), I work with her a lot and she's got me down to a T! She knows where I'm going. We never, we never pull. I mean, the camera moves and there's a cable and the Sound Recordist. She never gets snagged. She knows where I'm going and I love that. I love that teamwork and we work together. There's no point in having the best picture in the world if the sound's rubbish. There's no point in having the best sound in the world if the pictures are rubbish! So, we get the two together and phewsh! It works! It works!
I: Great! So, this would be, what, mid eighties, round about when E.N.G. came in?
R: Yes, that would be right. That would be right.
I: So, you started out with E.N.G. with the News and then you moved to...
R: Progressed to Features, yeah.
I: Features, yes. So, and that suited you? Has that given you...
R: Duck to water! Duck to water. Just loved it! Loved it!
I: What were the, well, you've talked quite passionately about obviously the aspects of the work that you enjoyed - were there some aspects of it that you perhaps didn't enjoy quite so much?
R: Rose-coloured glasses you look back - I had a great time! Of course, there were long hours. Of course there were, certainly you couldn't get on with everybody. I've got to say most Directors were, it's not in anyone's interest to be disruptive in a small crew and because you're a small crew, you're all, when you work in a large Outside Broadcast you can be dislocated from the meaning of the work so therefore you can grump! "Och! When are we going home?!" "Oh, God!" The first thing you do is, "When are we going home?!" Because I'm going to sit here all day. Now, when you're in a small crew you get those vibes. Of course you want to go home. You know, you're there to work. If you can enjoy your work that's a bonus. You are there to work so that you can pay for your home but our job was so creative and if everyone is engaged in that creativity. Sound Recordists, I worked with fantastic Sound Recordists because I'd like to think, I worked with a guy Stevie Gordon and Ken McNeill, two Sound Recordists that I was regularly tied to. They would be suggesting shots because they were interested! So, we all had a really good time and we worked hard and we kind of played hard and a lot of times we were away from home and we all had a great social life together. In fact, a lot of us had social lives together outwith the work because we got on so well! So, yeah. You get frozen! You get scared! You go to a News job and some nutter wants to whack you with a stick! That's not a nice day out but you got to say, you've got to have radar up.
I remember once, myself and Neill McLarren and Alison Macdonald who was just a new Sound Recordist, a new Journalist, we were setting out to Powell Mill at the east end of Glasgow and I like to think that I'm kind of aware of backgrounds and danger. You just don't know. You think you are but you're not! So, a particular occasion was we were out this particular family where the baby had been killed and both the mother and the mother's boyfriend were charged with the murder but they didn't know who actually killed the baby. So, that's a news story. Now this is, we're not doing these things every day but we got a lot of dithering outside High Court. You know, when you talk about a job I don't like, I don't like High Court! I don't like standing outside High Court trying to film somebody I didn't, I didn't know what they looked like, you know! Anyway! We go out there and we go to the father's house. Now, this, so Alison, who's a new Reporter, she goes and knocks on the door and there's nobody in. Great! So she decides we'll just do a piece to camera outside. Generic Powell Mill, just to say, Well, no one's in, type thing. And as we're setting up I see this young bloke walking towards us. Really gallous. Shorter than me and I'm no' tall! Walks towards us. Barlinnie haircut. You know. And he walks in and I said to Alison, "He's just going in!" Was it the brother, you know, of the girl? And this was a really heavy family! We didn't know, that was the trouble! You come from East Kilbride and you don't know the local politics of anywhere! So, he goes in and she says, "Oh, I'll go and talk to him." So she goes in and knocks on the door and it's all very polite. When people don't want to talk, that's fine. But he starts laying in to her and I thought, well, I put the camera up surreptitiously and I'm filming away and if there's any legal precedent, it will be on camera. Not for broadcasting. And out she came and her face was red. "We've got to go! We've got to go!" "Alright! OK. We've got to go. We've got to go, alright!" So I put the camera in and Neill's putting the sound equipment away and Neill says to Alison, "What did the guy say to you?" And we didn't realise that the guy's hanging out the window listening to us and he says, the guy said to her, "What did I say?! What did I effing say?!" And he comes down. We all jump in the car and he comes down with a brush! Right! A full brush and he whacks the car, right?! He whacks the glass! And it was a Volvo Estate. We used to get Volvo Estates but it was a new one 'cause it had a diesel engine and so it was on appro, which is approval, to see if it would be alright. And I couldn't find my keys! I've got a new jacket on and I have, if you meet anyone on a film crew they always have jackets with lots of pockets! Neil's sitting beside me, this guy's whacking away and I can't find my keys so eventually, so Neil starts to get out to and I said, "Wait!" and I found my keys and we drove off! Now, that's what I mean when you're, I don't know why I brought this up but we were a good crew and you think you know what you're doing and you can still get into trouble and I would hate to think what a lot of the single camera people, getting sent out on their own now, who've less experience than me and at that time maybe I'd been there, what, they're going to get, there's a real danger of getting, walking into a lion's den and you did nae know the lions were there, you know?! Anyway, we digress! Sorry.
R: When you go back (I know you are not recording just now), there's not a lot you'd think you'd change.
I2: Actually, we are recording!
R: Oh, are you?! Oh right! Well, you can use that!
I: What I was going to say is, I mean, you obviously took a pride in what you were doing. When you went home at night did you watch television for pleasure?
I: And could you just watch a programme without bringing a cameraman or a Sound Recordist's eye or ear to it?
R: In a very soft way. I mean, watching television at home, in my own time, you'd have to say you couldn't take your cap off. You learn. You'd see there's a particular move - "Why did they do that?" Annoying moves - "Why are they doing that!" You know, so, but it wouldn't spoil necessarily. I mean, a good programme is a good programme. So, you would learn. You would learn techniques from watching other programmes. One of things I will say is that I loved watching my own stuff because when I used to do Wheel Nuts, very technically challenging car to car stuff when Top Gear was, you know, still in its infancy as well, we were doing a really, really, good job and if it worked and the music was together and it made a dynamic thing and the Director had asked for all these zany shots and it worked, you know, "I did that! I did that!" I mean, of course, it's not just me. The Director wanted me to do it and I would do it and the Editor has to put that together and the Dubbing Mixer then has to put the music in so, a great team effort to see that. And then we used to do this programme called Scottish Passport which sent me all over the world to the most fabulous locations! You know, I'm leaving the wife and two kids and I'm away for two weeks in the Bahamas or whatever, you know! But when you saw it, it was like a holiday show! I was there! I was on that beach! I had that meal! I did that! I did that! You ask my wife, one of the things I used to say quite a lot - "I did that! I actually did that!" Great! Great! Love it!
I: I mean, if you are looking back on the, on the extensive amount of material that you worked on, is there something particularly that you feel proud of? That you think, oh, I did that, and that was something special?
R: Yeah, I would think the Wheel Nuts thing was a real push. It was a real challenge. Team challenge. Strapping me to the back of a truck. An open-backed truck and the tripod's down and walkie talkie issues between the Presenter and us up in the, I mean it was a very, it had to be quite a, from a safety point of view, it had to be well organised. That was good. I also did a lot of helicopter stuff before. They did the bubble. You know, they've got these fantastic mounts nowadays they put on helicopters. Well, I did two, all the lighthouses in Scotland and the mountains of Scotland with me sitting outside a helicopter and it's fantastic! The experiences I had there with danger and I can assure you there were some really sticky situations but the fun we had! We're not talking reckless! We're just talking, like, "Nip me!" I can't believe I'm getting paid to do this! Honestly! I mean, there were times when it could be quite dangerous.
There was once when the Director, Malcolm McKissock, decided, we're flying over, we'd just left Fort William and we're heading towards Oban and it was beautiful, white, fluffy clouds and blue sky and we thought, we didn't know the ceiling height of the clouds. Now, remember I'm actually sitting in a seat with the camera on a gimbal over my shoulder and my legs and hands are actually outside the helicopter. The pilot's door is off as well because that's the way it had to be configured. Twin Squirrel. Dave Brown was the pilot, fantastic pilot. So Malcolm decides, do you think it would be quite nice, you know that lovely shot of mountains with white clouds below? Now, we're flying low and we don't know the heights of the clouds so we decide to take a chance. We'll pop up into the clouds to see if any of the peaks are peeking through. Most surreal position to be in and up we go, straight into a cloud because we don't know how deep the cloud is so we just keep going on up and up and up and up - freezing! I'm now flying in ice crystals of pure white! I mean the most pure white! Everything is within the helicopter is crystal clear! Every bit of metal is crystal clear and it's a complete whiteout. The pilot has to put on de-icers because the helicopter's rotors are starting to ice up, right, and we keep up, up, up and then Dave says, "I don't think we're going to get the shot. Don't think we're going to get the shot so we'll have to come down." We're now in a cloud. There's mountains all around us, below us, beside us! We've no idea where we are so we have to sort of bob around to find a bit of blue sky so we can come down, right. And because this helicopter is - and I'm freezing! I mean, super cold! I'm well dressed for it but I'm now super cold and he's cold as well! The Director's alright because he's got a heater on his feet and we find this space where we can see to safely come down and we find it and we career down, very, very quickly but we bring a bubble of ultra cold air down with us into warm air and every bit of glass - in the camera, the screen, everything - freezes up, mists up and we can't see now! I'm the only person that can see because everything's frozen up so we just hover about until it clears and then we get to Oban airport and get me soup because I tell you, I was absolutely scared, not scary, very controlled! Very controlled! And so these are fantastic memories.
And things he would do, this particular pilot, Dave, superb pilot! Superb pilot! Absolutely trust him. He did nothing wrong. Things happened that made things and a good pilot would get you out of that situation but when PDG [PDG Aviation Services] bought these helicopters, they buy them second-hand. They don't buy them new. Well, maybe they buy them new now. But when you buy a car some come with a sunroof, some come with this, right. This particular helicopter came with a loud speaker on it! Why?! I don't know. So, Dave would connect this children's ray gun to the loud speaker. It was a wee microphone, right, and we were in Oban airport, international, and there's a caravan site just beside it. Now, see when you get these how much you enjoy your job, right, there we are, top gun! OK. The Pilot, Cameraman, Director and I'm all geared up, right, and these wee kids, standing, they're watching us going into the helicopter and they're on the caravan site and they're on the fence and they are just looking and, of course, we gear up, harness up and Dave's winding the thing up and everyone's click, click, click so Dave lifted up, waved to the kids and Dave just pulls on the juice, right, and he screams away from the kids! Away, away across the runway - now, there's nobody flying there, you see - at about twenty feet off the ground from nothing to sixty! I don't know what that would have been, right. So, he screams up, right, as fast as the helicopter can go from nothing to, as fast as it can go, pulls the thing up and we go as vertical as we can! I'm sitting outside, right, and he doesn't tell me, he just said, "Hold on", right. Up we go and, of course, it stalls because it can only go so far and then he lets it fall, right. So we are over water by this time, right, up we go and Phewsh! Scream down and the earth is running towards us and he flares at the last minute, right, pulls up, screams towards the kids - dooh, dooh, dooh, dooh, dooh, dooh! - and off we went!! As though we did that every day! So! I could tell you all day about things that, fantastic! Fantastic! Lucky! Lucky! But you had to be good to be lucky! Otherwise you don't get the shots. Sorry!
I: Something that's come through in interviews that we've done with your colleagues was that...
R: I was rubbish! Consistent! That's another thing!
I: And I think you've kind of touched on it is that STV, as a Company, was a great place to work. There was a real, it's a very, I suppose it's kind of an old-fashioned concept that there was a sense of family about it.
R: I don't think that's an old-fashioned concept. I think it is live and it's well but it's not corporate. Corporate now is the new God. When I joined from BBC, that was corporate. You'd a badge that said BBC. Loved it. [Sound of a siren] (I'll wait until that goes away, alright. You see, as soon as I mention BBC, there's an alert! That's an alert.) When I joined...(I'm just eager to get this over and done with, Tim, I'm sorry. Oh, the police are down there, too, now.) Anyway, when I left the BBC, really indoctrinated in a very soft way, you were a corporate. A corporate identity. There were people like you in London, Birmingham, Manchester. They cross-pollinated all the time but you were part of the Corporation. I'm not sure whether it's quite as strong now as it was then but that was it. STV - much softer approach. Far more family. That word, family, which they lost in the nineties when STV became SMG, became a Corporation in itself to be absolutely honest. They then had to get experts in to tell the Management how to make us happy. Get best performance out of us. Experts that had never worked a day in their life in our industry now telling us, we had this thing called People Plus which much look great on a balance sheet that you are getting experts to come in to tell you how to run your staff! Because you can say to your shareholders, "Look, we've invested in our staff." But the reality of it was, one, it was ineffectual and two, it was really just disruptive.
I remember that we, every year, we used to get an annual assessment and a lot of people, companies, get annual assessments and I was doing alright. Brian Clark, who was my boss, he said, "John, you're asked for." "I cannae!" He said to me, "I've got to give you a task. Is there anything you, you want a task." I said, "No," because I was always engaged in in trying to better myself and my job was only, I could only get the good jobs if I was good at my last job and I knew that. In a soft way, not in an aggressive, domineering way. But in a way that I knew that's, in my way that's how I wanted to be asked for. I wanted to be liked. I wanted to be sought after and there's lots of people, there's gems in that building that you just knew - safe pair of hands, safe pair of hands! In editing, in dubbing, you name it, safe pair of hands. Other people, maybe not necessarily good for that type of programme. There's programmes I wouldn't be suited for. No, no, you don't want to do that. So when they lost that, Brian said to me, he says, for my annual assessment, "Now, what can I give you? What task can I give you to improve on for next year?" And he says, "I know what. Use less tape." Oh. So, I'm going to say, "This programme, I'm sorry, I've to blow a whistle because you're a Director, but I've used two sixty-minute tapes so far and that's it for the day!" It was nonsense! And everyone knew it was nonsense! The Management knew it was nonsense. Everybody knew it was nonsense apart from Upper Management who hadn't a clue! I hope I'm not being disparaging but they didn't know what we did. There was just a divide and that's where your family thing comes in, I suppose. Bill Brown, when I joined, was the Managing Director, and he was clever enough, I think, to be hands off and clever enough to get people who did know the industry to run it. I think that would be the crucial difference, I think.
I: Does that have a bearing on why you eventually left STV because when you joined it was potentially a job for life, wasn't it?
R: Oh absolutely. Absolutely. It was also a job for life only in sound because I when I joined the Film Department, you would never become a Film Cameraman. When electronics came in, that was an open door for Sound Recordists. Not saying that you would never become a Cameraman but that opened a door for us to move from Sound to Camera. What was the question?
I: Well, what led you to leave?
R: Why leave STV? Oh, STV wasn't STV anymore. I probably could have stayed. I remember talking to my Line Manager and I'd thought about it at the previous, every so often, every five or six years there was a new way ahead. You used to call it a new way ahead and I was worried and I didn't ever want to become freelance, I wanted a job for life. I was getting all the pleasure and satisfaction of being in-house - that was drying up. And therefore, if I was to stay, I would on News and I've nothing against News but the pressures on News were, I wanted to do Features, I didn't want to do News. As a Freelance, I went freelance, I did, I've done maybe, I don't know, twenty days News in thirteen years. It's not that I don't like it, I just don't want to do it and if I did, I invested heavily in my own equipment and if I worked for a company that would supply their own equipment then, for a lesser rate because the News rate was low, it just didn't make sense.
I: So, when did you pack up and leave STV?
I: Right and had you been a member of the Union?
I: When you were here?
I: But when you went freelance, you would still be in the Union but as a Freelancer?
I: When you were with the Company in STV, were you aware of the Freelance community out there? Was there any relationship between STV and the Freelance?
R: Not really. You were obviously aware of the Freelance community, yes, we hired freelance boom operators and freelance bits and bobs and maybe News would take in an extra guy maybe. There was enough buoyancy of staff, not members, that they didn't really need to bring freelance people in so there wasn't an awful lot of cross-pollination of bringing them in. But an interesting thing when I first went freelance, I was working for TERN television and I was interviewed to do some Beechgroves [Gardens]. I think it was Beechgroves'. And they were concerned, before they employed me, that STV had a bad reputation of, like, being clock-watchers, being Unionised and inflexible. It was the complete opposite. Yes, I was Unionised but not in a negative, in a positive way part of a Union, not in a negative way.
I: Not in a jobsworth.
R: Not in a jobsworth, yeah. And I was taken really in a, and if the industry actually outside didn't like STV and therefore didn't like STV's work practices then I was going to find it very difficult to break into that. I did break in to it because as soon as you go in you swim in their circles and it's fine. It's fine but outside had a strange attitude to STV.
I: Do you think that's part to do with history because there was a notorious period within STV's history with, I don't know, call it demarcation. We used to have eight or nine folk going out to shoot things and everybody had their job and hell mend you if you even moved a prop which was the prop man's job. Do you think it, could it have been something that...
R: Absolutely! You're absolutely right. If someone had experience at STV as I would have gone through it, I mean it certainly was very much when we used to go and do Features with Jim Peters and myself - we would have a Cameraman, an Assistant Cameraman, a Sound Recordist, they were the key technicians. We could also have a Stagehand if there was going to be any furniture moving and whatnot. You could, you would certainly have a Lighting Electrician and a Lighting Electrician would only, their equipment could be very heavy and bulky and they, at times, felt that they were going to get taken advantage of, the one guy, and the Cameraman would ask them for a band pool of lights so they tended to be quite strict with what lights you could take out. The lights they would take out would be highly operational in a normal setting but, other than that, you would maybe need two sparks. It was a very sensible thing to do because it makes you efficient but we'd also then have a Director and a PA and if the Director wanted it, we would have a driver so yeah, you could have ten or eleven people into somebody's front room! And it was appallingly, everyone would, "you lot sit out in the car and the three of us will go in and do it." You know what I mean? And I remember doing a really good documentary, going to France. It was a Charles Rennie Mackintosh documentary. Alistair Moffat's baby. And the driver, who was just a facilities driver, he didn't like driving in France. Abroad. And he asked me would I mind driving for him as a Sound Recordist? So I drove as driver. Nice bloke. Don't rock the boat! That's the way it is! But strange!
R: And couldn't go on! We knew it couldn't go on.
I: Yeah, so it may just have been reputation and all that.
R: I think you're absolutely right. It was, yes.
I: And the other thing is, when you left and you went Freelance, I think you said it was 2004?
I: 2005. There was, that was a period, well, it really started in the nineties, you know, with Devolution and Scottish Parliament, there was a lot of debate about 'is there a Scottish Film Industry?' Were you ever aware of all this stuff that was going on about, or how the programmes that you worked on contributed to that sense of, you know, Scotland having an industry or Scottish culture being represented in television?
R: Very, very much aware. STV used to take the lion's share, I would say, of Scottish cultural programmes. We were up in the isles an awful lot. Scottish issues, Scottish stories, Macintosh and that sort of thing. STV really furbished that demand! What they didn't do, apart from Taggart, was they didn't do Dramas. And Dramas were incredibly expensive because STV, they are a commercial company. They couldn't take a chance. They had to have something like a Taggart, something that ITV would want and the thing is, what really killed STV's broadcasting of all these fantastic, small programmes under Agnes Willkie and other better, no, not better, different, more featured documentaries and dramas, what really stymied them was ITV. The Network scheduling. You would start on a programme like NB, which had fantastic ratings, really fantastic, local ratings and I'm not just talking Glasgow, I'm talking about Scotland - you know Aberdeen, Edinburgh and Inverness, people watch this programme and the programme would go out, say, 7.30 on a Tuesday night. They would bounce it to eleven o'clock at night on a Thursday because the schedule had changed! So then STV would say to Agnes, "Oh! Your ratings have dropped!" Like, you know, from forty thousand or half a million to forty thousand! Well no wonder! So, in actual fact, STV wasn't really throttled by its production problems, it was throttled by the Network. From my prospective, by the Network allocation of time as to when they could slot those programmes in so how could you possibly, so Taggart would always get a Network slot where the smaller programmes, which were the programmes people wanted to see, I think, and what we furbished them with, were bounced all over the place so nobody followed them. The figures, the ratings were down, "Oh, we can't afford it because the ratings are down!" And then they don't make any and that's why I left STV. I could have stayed to do News but the Features stuff, I wanted to continue to do that, which I still do.
I: So, that would be in the new environment, Channel Four and...
R: Up against that, yes.
I: OK but it sounds like you made some good career choices and you've had a great job and it's given you a lot of satisfaction in your life.
R: Unbelievable. I couldn't wish for a better job, outdoors, seeing Scotland, seeing the world! I mean, the Scottish Passport thing, I think I did three series of that and, I mean, there's very few places on the planet I haven't been to, which again at the end of it you became quite blasé about it! You thought, oh crikey! They want to send me to China! Who wants to go to China?! You know what I mean? I didn't because I kind of did Wheel Nuts. But that was the thing, you see. There was a lot of, when I say negotiating, there was a lot of vying to get these programmes between two or three Cameramen who would always be best suited. You needed these people. You needed, you couldn't just have one. So, there was two or three of us of similar order. Some were better at this than that and some, you know, and Wheel Nuts was, Agnes Willkie said to me that Wheel Nuts was a car programme but she said, "I've got you down to go to China", which would have been the trip of a lifetime and I thought, well, kind of a trip of a lifetime or a TV series that I really want to run? So, I chose, with Agnes's permission, not to go to China but to do this Wheel Nuts series which gave me so much more work! Good work and experience. So yes, you did have choice. You did stuff that was rubbish! You know that you had to, you know, just stand and bear it, you know, stand outside High Court and football at times could be, when it was just wet and miserable, you know, but you did your job. If it's wet and miserable you're a professional, you've got the right clothes for it and you've got the right kit for the gear and you've predicted that it's going to happen so you make it as light as possible.
I: If you were a youngster coming out of school today, would you have the same appetite for going into production?
R: Yes. Without a shadow of a doubt, I would have that appetite but I think it would be very difficult to be realised. I have been asked in a capacity as an experienced Cameraman, the University of the West Coast[sic] of Scotland and Glasgow University have done lectures for students on lighting and TV Production and I never had that. What I had were Journeymen who taught me the way to do it and it feels to me a lot of academia that are teaching these students. The tutors spend a lot of time just paper-chasing - they've done Module A, Module B, Module C, the students aren't getting, aren't getting the fun and the drive or even the expertise to do anything with. It's on the job. It's on the job. I did a thing with the University of the West Coast[sic] of Scotland and it was TV Production and the Head of the Department at break time came over to say hello. "Are you the guy, John Agnew? Hello, how are you doing?" And this German student came up and intervened and, you know, thanked me. He said, he said to me and to the Head of the Department that he learnt more about TV Production with one morning with me than he did with four months of the course! Because the course expands to fill the thing and its tedium and everybody has to get a shot and everybody does and yes, they are learning and yes, there will be stars that will come through but boy! It was never hard to get in in the first place but I think it's a lot harder now!
I: Yes. And do you see a difference in quality then of production now? Do you see that that's...
I: ...in a sense...
I: ...that not having that...?
R: It's very interesting that even as a Freelance, when I went Freelance I furbished myself with technical equipment that I wouldn't expect STV to want broadcast equipment. At huge expense and it has paid for itself because I'm used for Beechgrove Garden and all sorts of things and Sport and I'll be used at, but even if you now go to websites that you would buy equipment for, the thing that they're doing is low-cost high turnover units rather than high-cost low turnover units so everyone's got a DSLR that'll take fantastic pictures but are difficult to use in any meaningful way so everyone's cutting their teeth on equipment that's inherently a picture, a stills picture camera rather than a video camera! So, it's hard for them and they're learning and maybe when they actually get to see proper equipment they'll think, bloody hell! I made it hard for me. So yes, they will be there. There still is, there still are people prepared to pay money for quality. People employ me. They could get somebody much cheaper but again, when I said to you (and I mean it), "Get John!" Job's done! There's no, we're not learning. The guy's not going to turn up late with the wrong kit and broken kit! If you get me and my kit, it just flipping comes out the car in an ordered fashion and we do the job and it's done and we're all smiling at the end o' the day rather than tears. Big difference between getting somebody at a lesser rate who wants to do it but how did he learn? I know! I know! People have said, "Can I trail you?" "No." It's such a sporadic thing and I can't impose another body onto a production that I'm going to be distracted with, you know. It's very hard. It's very hard!
I: That's it, John. Is there anything else you want to...?
R: Two things. Two things about the programme. You talked earlier about when I watched my own stuff, did I like it? Yeah, of course! Well sometimes I think, Oh jings! That was probably a late night thing! No, that didn't quite work! But two things. My sister lives in America and she phoned me up one night because there was a public broadcast over in the States. They were broadcasting, airing the original Taggarts, of which I did fifteen. All the Mark MacManus ones. He did more than that but I exclusively did Mark MacManus and she saw one of the episodes, right, and at the end of it the credits came up and obviously it was in Glasgow and she said it was great seeing Glasgow and she'd talked to her pals and it was Glasgow this and my name came up in the credits - John Agnew - right and she just purred! She had to phone up and she said, "There's my wee brother's name!" And I could tell ma sister, all my pals, "That's ma wee brother did that!" Right.
And then, the other thing was, I've quite an unusual second name. There's not many. It's Agnew and there's not many of us around. That was a good thing but I was doing this thing, as a Freelance, it was down at the Comedy Club over in Glasgow and one of the comedians was a guy called, I think it was Garry Agnew, right, and my ears pricked up. And he had a call sheet and he saw John Agnew and he came through. We were setting up. I was lighting cameras and we were setting all the stuff up for the stage and all that and he says, "Are you John Agnew?!" And I said, "Yeah!" And he says, "I'm Garry Agnew!" I said, "I'm not related." He says, "You know, I live in Castlemilk. For years and years and years we saw your name! I can go home and tell the family that I've finally met you!" And I thought, that's a pro! That's why you want credits! Get out! So it's been, and I mean this, and not even in a humble way, it's been an absolute privilege, there's not many people in Scotland, in Britain, my work has been round the world in terms of broadcast but in Scotland my work has been potentially in everybody's house! Everybody's house! How many people can say that?!
I: Terrific, isn't it?!
R: Here endeth the lesson, thank you, Tim!!
I: Yes, thank you very much! No, that was excellent! [65:48]
[End of Recording]