I'm in danger of wallowing in my past lives a little too much lately.
Not that I'm complaining - quite the opposite infact. Following the emotional time I had with all of my musician friends at the Cryer gig a couple of weeks ago, I had an encounter this week with another group of friends and work associates...namely the shopping channel Gems TV.
Here's the back story - it was the end of May 2002 and I'd just been let go by BRMB after 6 years of service, and I hadn't honestly expected such a situation to arise given the continued success of my Barmy Brummies drivetime show. But the writing was on the wall - or should I say bus - when I saw my replacement's show being advertised on the sides of the local transport network as I drove into work on the Monday of what turned out to be my last week there...it seemed I was the last to know about my future, and it knocked me for 6.
Over the next few weeks I was promised a new weekend show by the station that never materialised and my foul mood was only slightly tempered by the fact that I was able to watch every single minute of the World Cup in Japan & South Korea from the comfort of my sofa. But for the first time in my broadcasting career, I was without a home, although I was extremely grateful to Tom Ross at the time, who not only kept me on as a reporter for BRMB Sport, but also made me his No. 2 commentator for the next 2 seasons.
That was great to know, but my mortgage depended on more than my football work and so I was clueless about where to go next.
Enter local businessman and entrepreneur Steve Bennett, the founder of Software Warehouse and Jungle.com who had just launched a fledgling satellite shopping channel from a studio complex in Redditch and called it TGH (short for Toys Games & Hobbies). He was a huge fan of the Barmy Brummies and one of his fellow board members, Debby Cavill, had worked with me at BRMB too. I was offered an audition/screen test in August 2002 and jumped at the chance despite no experience of working in TV
The general perception of shopping telly conforms to all the stereotypes shown in Bridget Jones' Diary and various comedy sketch shows, and for the most part those perceptions are unerringly spot on. Steve Bennett had a different perspective however - not in terms of what was being sold, but more about HOW it was being sold.
He wanted less stuffiness and more character from his ideal presenter, and my audition was to sell a collection of England player mini-figures, and so I did a load of England player impressions whilst extolling the virtue of the toys, naturally. Minutes later, the cameras were switched off and I was told the job was mine if I wanted it. I was only too happy to accept, even though I was well aware that the work was going to be rather sporadic at first - only pre-recorded infomercials, no live presenting and only needed when products were bought in to sell.
Vicky Burton and Debby were the other presenters I worked with over the next few months, usually a set of 3 infomercials recorded every fortnight or so and my initial nerves about being in front of a camera rather than the anonymity of the radio studio soon receded. And as my nerves were reduced, the potential for the business grew and grew. First Steve came up with the idea of changing the name and the ethos of the station to Factory Outlet TV and sell designer goods at discounted prices - as well as that, the station was to go 'live' for several hours every afternoon on the Sky platform. New presenters were brought in, like Theo Van Dort and Nick Davies and you just felt that the place was on the verge of creating something worthwhile.
It was a very hit and miss time - some ideas worked some were epic fails and we quickly learned how not to do live TV. The more we ironed out mistakes, the better we became whilst still retaining a fun format.
More presenters arrived like Rod Jinks, Drew Nicholls and Liv Edmunds, the live hours grew and my confidence was coming on in leaps and bounds. Then along came Snatch It as 2002 became 2003, as Factory Outlet TV morphed into a reverse auction channel with even more live hours every day...which was going to make or break the whole enterprise. It worked. Spectacularly.
The whole place was such fun to be at - sales for Karaoke DVD players turned into mass singalongs with not-so-reluctant camera crew, presenters tried (and failed) to stay upright on electric scooters as they whizzed around the studio floor, whilst others were either happy to bounce up and down all the way through sales of portable trampolines whilst others complained it would ruin their Kashmir trousers. I'm not joking. The fun must've come across to the viewers as must the personalities of all the presenters, whose collective likeability made people pick up the phone and place orders...you buy off people you like by and large I believe.
Some viewers liked me a little too much it seemed. I had regular letters and packages from one lady in the North of England who apparently put a cardboard cut-out of my face, put in on a blow up doll and...kept it in the lounge as she watched the channel - the doll was clothed, I have pictures of my good self placed alongside similar dolls featuring members of Westlife!!! Figure that one out! But then in truth, she was about the only 'fan' who sent me mail - others like Vicky were inundated with letters from male viewers proposing marriage and all sorts...she took it all in good grace, bless her.
Snatch It saved the station, the cashflow skyrocketed, more channels and presenters were added as one simply wasn't enough to cope with demand, and all seemed set fair for the format - but Steve had other ideas. A meeting one day in 2004 with a gemstone dealer from Thailand got Steve so excited, he quickly decided to do a complete 180 and turn one of the Snatch It channels into Gems TV and retrain the entire presenting staff in their knowledge of jewels and gemstones.
It was a risky move, but again it paid off. All presenters were sent in turn to Thailand for an intensive training course, including trips to sapphire mines and the factories where rings, necklaces and earrings were designed and made from the ground up. It was an exhausting few weeks as the studios were also rebuilt for the channel's relaunch in October of 2004. The Gems TV idea worked so well that a second Gems channel selling sterling silver items launched in 2005.
I was blissfully happy - by now I had started working for talkSPORT at weekends and I worked during the day in midweek for Gems TV - and despite only jewellery being sold and the days of knife sets and digital cameras being gone, the presenting team still managed to inject a sense of fun into 18 hours of live broacasting every day. You cannot beat that sort of experience in live television, but you also couldn't beat the cameraderie that existed between all the presenters. There were no egos, no tantrums and no nonsense - just a great bunch of people with a passion for their work.
And so when I got a call from Drew Nicholls a week or so ago asking whether I could come to his wedding reception on Thursday night, I jumped at the chance of seeing the old gang who I'd left behind in 2006 when my talkSPORT work started to take over forcing me to choose sports broadcasting over Gems. It was a tougher decision than you might expect, given my love for football & cricket etc, but I did make the odd sporadic appearance on the channel over the next year or so.
The wedding reception was exactly as I'd hoped - a chance to catch up with some truly wonderful folk, most of whom are still at Gems TV now and still having a ball. Sometimes you need a night like I had in the company of old work colleagues to realise what great times they were at Gems TV Towers - and again, this isn't rose tinted specs from yours truly - rather a realisation that, whilst you move on in your career, you should always have time for those you leave behind on your journey.
So, to Drew & Lucy, Nick & Angeline, Rod & Lynn, Scott & Fiona, Liv, Matt, Vicky and all who've mercilessly flogged Tanzanite until it's coming out of their ears - I salute you. See you very soon for another get-together :o))