Reporter and presenter Ellie Barker shines a spotlight on one local media institution making up the fabric of city life
It’s 4.15am and your alarm rings – correction: howls – followed by actual human howling from your husband, demanding you turn the darn thing off. Such drama at such an hour normally has to be for something magical, surely? Going on holiday, catching a flight, setting off early to beat the Bank Holiday traffic? Going to work doesn’t feel quite the same. But this was my life for six years and four months. Three nights a week I was tucked up before Coronation Street, then come 4.45am, I’d share my drive to work with, mainly, students staggering around the city – their night just ending, my day beginning.
But (and this, I promise, is not due to delirium after years of sleep deprivation) there was something magical about where I was going.
I have worked at ITV West Country for the past 11 years – more than half of this time as a part-time ‘early presenter’. The show may have changed its name and its looks over its five decades of life – and staff have come and gone – but what has remained constant in that building on the Bath Road is the excitement of working on live television. It’s probably what bonds us in our ‘ITV West Country family’ too. Even in the winter, when the sun hasn’t begun to think about rising, we’re still able to feel that buzz when someone over in London says; “Stand-by, one minute to you.” No matter how many years you’ve been doing it, you still feel the butterflies in your stomach, the slight feeling of dread and the need for it to go perfectly even though it’s often out of your control. All that is then followed by the exhilaration that comes when it all goes okay (or a lot of chocolate if it doesn’t). It’s a feeling that lasts throughout the day, from the lunchtime news to our six o’clock show and on to our late bulletin. And that is quite special.
One of our longest-serving family members, Jeanette Flaherty, remembers the first time she stepped through the then HTV doors for her interview in 1979, before starting working in the post-room and being promoted to the media library. “I was excited and nervous,” she recalls. “Back then it wasn’t just a news organisation; many dramas were made by the Bristol studio: Robin of Sherwood, Ghost of Canterbury, Jamaica Inn to name a few. You never knew who you were going to bump into in the canteen.”
As Jeanette spent her days watching and recording every shot of our programme, she was able to see it change and develop, thanks to new technology. But one part of her working life has never altered. “I’ve worked with such great people over the years,” she beams. “I can honestly say it’s a great team and I’ve made friends for life. Some no longer work at ITV, but I still see them. I have seen many firm friendships made.”
Julie Ebbs, a relative newcomer compared with Jeanette, has worked with the company for more than 28 years and is now a lead production specialist directing programmes and bulletins. “When I first arrived, it was my job to make sure the autocue was correct for the presenters,” she explains. “The producer, Simon Whitby, would type out the script – handing it to me sometimes with five minutes to air. I would then have to type the words into the machine, ready for when we were live. It was so stressful – I can’t lie – especially when there were last-minute changes. But it was so exciting too, to be part of something like that.”
“I’ll let you into a secret: the buzz is even bigger when things go wrong but we manage to save it…” – Julie Ebbs
Over the years, technology has changed. Our autocue is instantly updated, for example, the minute you type something in the script on your computer, and is often operated by the presenter’s foot. Even so, for Julie, the excitement has never gone away. “I think the assumption is that newsrooms are intimidating places with much shouting and people losing their tempers. Perhaps, in the past, this was the case but our newsroom is friendly and welcoming. It does feel like an extended family, especially as I have known my colleagues longer than my husband! Some days are hard when things go wrong on air; we care about what we do so it’s easy to get frustrated. The best thing about working here is the people, as well as the buzz from being on air. And I’ll let you into a secret: the buzz is even bigger when things go wrong but we manage to save it.”
Just as technology has evolved, so have many careers. Ian Axton recently switched from presenting the flagship programme alongside Kylie Pentelow, and our late bulletins, to become our head of news. “I’d been in front of the camera at ITV West Country for almost seven years and before that I presented the news in another part of ITV,” he says. “I’m a great believer that in any career you need to push yourself to develop, and I’d held senior management positions in the radio industry before entering television, so the chance to lead the team was too good to pass up.”
“Like any family, we have ups and downs but we always look out for each other and each night at 6pm we work as hard as we can to deliver the best possible programme to our viewers” – Ian Axton
Ian remembers visiting HTV when he was just 11 years old. “I’ll never forget feeling the magic of television for the first time,” he smiles. “When I returned 30 years later to present the news, I couldn’t believe my luck – that magic is still there for me every day. Like any family, we have ups and downs but we always look out for each other and each night at 6pm we work as hard as we can to deliver the best possible programme to our viewers.”
He believes the way we approach our jobs has also changed the way we work: “The modern way of working gives people more opportunities. In the past, people’s talents could be constrained by the job they were in but many barriers have now come down and that’s really allowed people to flourish. I’ve seen reporters become amazing camera operators; admin staff develop an editorial career; and journalists become talented members of the technical team.”
He may have left Kylie on-screen but he takes with him some unforgettable moments shared – the most memorable, he says, is available on YouTube. “It involves me, Kylie and a cucumber,” he laughs. “I’ll say no more – go and watch it.”
Kylie, meanwhile, who also presents ITV’s national news, has an analogy for describing our family: “Imagine Christmas lunch. Someone is stirring the gravy, another is laying the table, someone is peeling potatoes while another is carving the turkey. All this is done to a tight deadline and everyone has to work together to get everything on the table by 6pm. We are a brilliant team. We all work hard, but manage to tell the odd cracker joke while doing it.”
She believes the biggest change has been the way we consume news: “It brings challenges for us in TV news. Lots of people will know the stories of the day from social media, so it’s all about the extra content and analysis we can give viewers around those stories.”
It’s not always as glamorous as some may imagine. “Most viewers are surprised that I do my own make-up and buy all my clothes,” she says. And in the era of reality television and constant ‘behind the scenes’ images on our Twitter feeds, we wonder if that same old magic is there for our younger members when they come in. According to Laura Heads, a production journalist who joined just over a year ago, it is. She had been working in the area as a journalist for a news agency and ITV West Country seemed the next logical step.
“I knew I’d love the place if I was ever lucky enough to get a job, because I’d met so many of the lovely reporters while I was out and about,” Laura tells me. “It was actually one of them who told me I should apply and it all turned out perfectly. My first day is all a bit of a blur, being honest. I remember at one point being sat at a computer to shadow the lunch bulletin and suddenly getting very overwhelmed. As the day went on, people were constantly coming to say hello; introducing themselves and offering help.”
“I love what I do but it’s the team I love most. It really is a welcoming family, loyal, maybe a bit dysfunctional at times – but isn’t any other family?” – Laura Heads
It’s the first time, she says, that she has lost that dreaded Monday morning feeling (just as well when she is working on the early shift). “I love what I do but it’s the team I love most. It really is a welcoming family, loyal, maybe a bit dysfunctional at times – but isn’t any other family? They always have your back. You’re pushed to do your best work, but in the nicest way possible.”
Finally I speak to our newest member, Mark Longhurst, who joined us after decades of working in news. “I knew, on the day that I came in for my screen test and sat next to Kylie, that it would all work. It’s a very professional set-up but also very friendly and those two things don’t always go together in television news. The newsroom is a vibrant, young place with lots of energy and ideas fizzing around. I have worked in quite a few newsrooms in my time and this is a very happy and productive environment.”
Perhaps the secret to our success is one of Mark’s first discoveries at ITV: “They like cake, here. After joining, I found the email system had a catch-all address called ‘Cake’ which informed everyone when goodies were being distributed.” (For the record, Mark would like it to be noted that his favourite is coffee and walnut.)
For myself, the best part of it all is how my work family has helped me so much with my own family. For starters, I met my husband (reporter Robert Murphy) at work. And during the nerve-wracking, exhausting days of my two pregnancies, my work family saw me through. They took me to Burger King when I had cravings for onion rings and told me I didn’t look huge (even though I knew I did).
“Going back to work after having my children was the best decision…It was hard leaving them when they were younger, but being able to come back part-time was ideal” – Julie Ebbs
“Going back to work after having my children was the best decision,” Julie Ebbs agrees. “It was hard leaving them when they were younger, but being able to come back part-time was ideal. There have been difficult times, when my daughter was ill for an extended period for instance, but my colleagues were amazing. I honestly think that without them I would have had to give up work altogether.”
Personally, those early starts meant I could still work in the job I had always dreamt of, yet still spend my afternoons with my boys. It wasn’t always easy – teething babies aren’t worried about what time their mum gets up for work, nor toddlers with bad dreams, or a five-year-old who has just remembered which dinosaur is his favourite, at 1am. But every morning when I arrived at work, there was someone there to put the kettle on and make me feel everything was going to be okay.
But I have just switched off the 4.15 alarm clock for the last time. As my boys start staying up later than Coronation Street, so must their mum. We’ve had a bit of a swap-around at work and I am going back to reporting for our 6pm show while my lovely colleague Matthias Kurt swaps sport for the early presenter job which suits him too.
ITV has given so many of us so much excitement, and moments we’ll always remember as well as a few that, perhaps, we’d like to forget! It’s given us friendships, partners and most of all, excellent cake. It has meant, as a working mum, I’ve had the best of both worlds and, for me, that really is magic.