If you’re a journalist with a fondness for appearing on television — and, let’s face it, most of us are — the Covid crisis has been a double-edged sword. On the one hand, you’re no longer expected to drag yourself off to a studio at the crack of dawn, whether it’s Broadcasting House in the West End or Sky’s headquarters in Isleworth. You simply tumble out of bed, open your laptop and do a ‘down the line’. You don’t even have to put your trousers on. But the big drawback is, you look terrible. In a television studio, you have the benefit of make-up, professional lighting and proper cameras and microphones. Broadcasting from home, by contrast, is a pride-swallowing siege. I’ve often looked on in horror as my esteemed colleagues have squinted down at their built-in webcams, Apple ear buds hanging round their necks, with the contents of their nostrils plainly visible.
As soon as I realised that this would be the norm for the foreseeable future, I contacted my friend Roger Bowles, a television cameraman and documentary filmmaker. How could I improve my appearance when broadcasting from home? For me, the problem is compounded by the fact that radio stations have taken to interviewing people on camera via Skype or Zoom and posting clips on their social media channels. If, like me, you have a ‘face for radio’, there’s nowhere to hide. ‘I better come along and have a shufti,’ said Roger.
He took one look at my garden shed and began shaking his head in disbelief, astonished at the sheer amateurishness of it all. ‘Where’s your softbox?’ he asked, almost indignantly. Eh? ‘You know, to soften your appearance, make it less harsh. You don’t want to look like you’re on day three of an interrogation in the basement of Gestapo headquarters.’ So, er, is that what I look like? ‘Not your fault,’ he said. ‘And don’t worry. If you’re willing to shell out a few grand we can make you look as pretty as Emily Maitlis.’
I immediately placed myself in Roger’s capable hands and over the next few weeks he set about converting my shed into a mini broadcasting studio. Various lights were placed just out of shot around my desk, and he ordered a Blackmagic Micro Studio Camera 4K, a 16mm f1.4 MFT prime lens and a Rode NT-USB microphone. He described this rig as ‘the lower end of professional studio equipment’. The total cost was about £3,000.
Needless to say, the first time I tried to use it — during an appearance on Kevin O’Sullivan’s show on talkRadio — it stopped working about halfway through. There I was, in full flow, when I heard the words no pundit wants to hear in these straitened times: ‘I think we’ve lost Toby there. Let’s go to our next guest, Owen Jones…’
I immediately complained to Roger, who must have been ruing the day he agreed to help, and he told me the problem was my internet connection. ‘If your children are on the Xbox at the same time, you’re not going to get a very good signal,’ he said.
Those pesky kids! There was only one thing for it: I’d have to get my own dedicated broadband line. Unfortunately, BT informed me that demand had gone through the roof since lockdown and customers were limited to one line per household. After ringing round I eventually found a company willing to help: Direct Save, although don’t be misled by the name into thinking you’re actually going to save anything. The installation fee was well north of £100 and the monthly subscription is about £25. Still, if you’re as vainglorious as me it was surely worth it?
I’m happy to say, it now works very smoothly. The downside is that Roger has done such a good job I look even sharper than I do when I’m in a television studio. And not having the benefit of make-up means that every broken blood vessel at the end of my nose is visible, not to mention the black circles under my eyes. Less Emily Maitlis than Ross Kemp after being up all night. I’m not sure the game was worth the candle. At one point, Roger and I discussed setting up a business in which we would offer to create ‘broadcast pods’ for other pundits stranded at home. But judging from my ‘professional’ appearance, I don’t think there will be any takers. I may have to go back to just doing interviews on my laptop, with a heavy coating of Vaseline on the built-in camera.