Media Frenzy — March 2019
It’s Tuesday, March 19th 2019. In the afternoon, I’m contacted by a BBC producer called John Owen. He wants me to go on the Victoria Derbyshire TV programme the next day. This popular current affairs breakfast programme goes out live to both BBC2 and the BBC News Channel. Also with me will be Dr Marta Di Forti. It’s agreed that I’ll make my own way to Oxford Circus & Broadcasting House by public transport. The reason they want me on board is that Dr Di Forti, a prominent King’s College psychologist has just published the largest cannabis — psychosis study ever made. It shows that there is definitely a link between the two. It eventually dawns on me why all this is happening. Dr Di Forti had asked me back in November 2018 if I’d be happy to “do any media”. I’d said yes, but that’s the last I’d heard of it ’til now.
Twenty minutes after my chat with John, Alice Roberts (also from the BBC) gets in touch. She’s a producer from The Today Show and she wants me to go on their show as well, the same morning. The Today Show is live radio and is broadcast about an hour earlier. Helpfully, Alice arranges for a car to pick me up the next morning at 5.20am. This is live radio and then live TV both on the same day.
It’s Wednesday, March 20th 2019. My phone alarm wakes me at 4.40am, 4.45am & 4.50am. Today is not the day to oversleep — I’ve never had a car sent for me to go anywhere before. I run through my morning routine: teeth, coffee, clothes & breakfast. Then, I notice a text on my phone saying that the driver’s 20mins early — and the text is already ten minutes old! I don’t want him to come for me, lose patience, then go. I leave the flat to find it still dark and see a parked, empty black cab. Is he searching for me on foot? Had I imagined the important discussions from yesterday?
Starting to panic a bit, I call the number Alice gave me in case of emergencies & it turns out he’s parked just ‘round the corner. I quickly go there and see a car with its hazard lights on. He’s still waiting! Driving through the London streets headed for Broadcasting House, there’s hardly any traffic on the roads. We chat about cannabis and mental health & before long, we’re there. I’m actually at BBC Broadcasting House! I walk eagerly through the big, revolving glass doors. At reception, I give them my name and who I’m there to see. I have my picture taken & I’m given a bespoke guest ID card.
I know I’m supposed to meet Dr Marta Di Forti (author of the study for the Lancet magazine), but I don’t know what she looks like — I really should have Googled her. I sit down on one of the reception sofas. I ask the lady next to me if she’s Marta Di Forti, but no. Then, I’m collected by a runner and taken up to the 3rd floor. I catch a glimpse of John Humphreys (I recognise him from TV) as I’m taken past banks of computer screens. I’m taken still further, through a number of further doors & corridors. At this point, I’m feeling both important & slightly overwhelmed — but mainly, excited. Finally, I’m shown in to the green room.
The Today Show green room sadly wasn’t really very green. But there’s a buffet table, a big sofa and several speakers broadcasting what’s going on through the soundproof glass. It’s here, later on, that I catch sight of Michael Buerk (also recognised from the TV). I chat briefly with a lady (also summoned that morning by radio 4) who’s there to discuss domestic violence. Then, Dr Di Forti walks in — I leave my seat briefly to shake her hand. She’s the consummate professional & puts me at my ease. We chat about our immediate situation & the conversation flows easily. Then, we’re called. We’re taken into the studio. “On air” signs are lit up on most of the walls.
Because of the gravitas of the place (& that this is my first time) I’m gently reminded to keep silent. I’m told to sit by the purple mic. Marta and I both take our seats opposite the presenters. But this doesn’t last. The guest we’re supposed to be following has finally arrived late, so we’re told to leave the studio again — silently. This is all very exciting, but I’m focussing on not saying the wrong thing. I especially don’t want to give out personal details & accidentally incriminate others. But, I think I may have been overthinking things.
After a brief pause on the sofa, Marta and I are shown back into the studio, while a rabbi gives his Thought For The Day. I’m sitting by the blue mic with Marta on my left. Ready. During our introduction, the female presenter surreptitiously passes us a note apologising for the extra waiting. There are smiles as I pass the note on to Marta. We then both field some fairly easy questions and it’s over. The mood is good as we leave the studio and we’re ushered back into the green room.
We collect our coats and bags and another runner takes down to the next green room. This is by the main news studio, where Victoria Derbyshire will interview us live on BBC2 and BBC News Channel. As we go, I ask if I can take some photos. Our runner here, Jay, is kind enough to take a few of me with the news area behind me. We’re offered refreshments in this green room. I notice a big plasma screen on the wall (featuring footage from just yards away in the main newsroom). Although Marta has her own Earl Grey tea bag, I find a Diet Coke in the fridge. Ever the accommodating host, Jay obliges both of us and soon, I’m drinking the Diet Coke and Marta has her favourite tea. It turns out there’s been a big humanitarian aid disaster, but I’m trying to focus on not straying embarrassingly off-message while I’m on air. Unhelpfully, I keep thinking about what happened to sports commentator David Icke when he went live on Wogan years ago. He claimed he was the sole son of God and it was quite embarrassing for almost everybody. I didn’t want the same thing to happen to me.
Another change of plan. The BBC health correspondent appears at the door and wants to do a quick interview alone with me just before the main Victoria Derbyshire show. And he whisks me away with him. We’re in such a rush that I leave my coat and security pass behind. As I’m taken back past all the computer screens and out to the tall, glass doors in reception, he tells me the interview’s outside. He has a brief chat with security about letting me back in afterwards and we’re outside. Luckily, it’s not too cold. A cameraman is waiting for us and is quickly told things are time-sensitive. He puts up his tripod and fixes me with a radio mic. This consists of a lead run up under my T-shirt and clipped to my collar. At the other end, a small box is clipped to my belt. This is officially my first TV interview. The questions are, again, fairly easy to answer and, understandably, focussed on Marta’s cannabis-psychosis study. The interview is then finished and the camera and tripod are dismantled. The mic is removed from me and the correspondent takes me back to the glass doors. There’s an issue with security. I hurriedly have my photo taken again at reception and I’m brought back to the Victoria Derbyshire green room where I’m reunited with Marta.
I find Marta busy on the phone making further arrangements. She’s talking to ITV news who also wants to interview the two of us. She has been approached to do an interview with Radio 2 that same morning. At one point, the clamouring for us both to comment on the study means that we’re both simultaneously on the phone to different people in the same department both wanting the same thing. It was far easier just to hand Marta my phone, to reduce any possible confusion.
Next, I’m collected and taken to make-up. The make-up lady puts some small dabs of powder on my face. This is so that no light can reflect off my face when I’m under the studio lights. This is quickly completed and I’m returned to the green room. Next, it’s Marta’s turn. Another lady then arrives to sit with us. She’s in the segment ahead of us. I ask if she has any advice cos it’s my first time on live TV. She tells me I should try to mention the two or three things you really would kick yourself afterwards if you didn’t say. I thank her for this (even though I’m trying to focus on what not to say.) I visit the bathroom during this time and inadvertently rub water on my face. I then remember I’ve already had make-up done. So, I ask Jay if I can be touched-up again. I don’t want the makeup lady to get in trouble if my forehead starts gleaming mid-interview.
Victoria Derbyshire then comes to the green room and introduces herself to Marta and I. We run through the questions she’s going to ask me with the cameras rolling. I tell her I attempted suicide six times. It is agreed that I should definitely not explain how I tried it, just in case a viewer gets inspired. At last, I have something real to avoid saying. Then, with the arrangements for our next two interviews (with ITV & Radio 2) finalised, Marta & I are shown onto the main TV news set. We’re fitted with mics and told to stay silent. We wait there behind the scenes. Looking at the ceiling, I remember marvelling at just how packed with technology it was. There were what seemed like hundreds and hundreds of expensive-looking lights and booms and thick cables everywhere and all over the floor. Now, it’s our turn. Even though Marta & I are wearing radio mics, I notice a couple of tiny mics with bendy necks sticking out of the sofa, in case any sound is lost, I suppose. Soon enough, the LGBT rainbows on all of the surrounding plasma screens in the studio are replaced with big images of cannabis leaves — seconds to go. Victoria then introduces the cannabis-psychosis study ready for the interview with Marta and I.
I field the first question. I try to answer wisely and clearly — staying calm. As we’re talking, people walking behind big cameras on smooth, silent wheels glide around the studio to get their dedicated shots of the action. Before I know it, we’re being individually thanked and Victoria starts her next segment. My first ever live TV interview is over, without a hitch. I’m very relieved. A runner gathers us both up and we’re ushered silently off set where our radio mics are removed.
Marta & I get our things from the green room and we say our goodbyes. They’ve arranged for a car to be waiting for us on a street near Broadcasting House. It’s silver with green tomatoes on the side. After a quick phone call, we find the cab and we’re off to ITV HQ. The traffic in London here at around noon is terrible, but our driver perseveres. En route, Marta took an urgent phone from ITV who were concerned about our progress. Soon, and thanks to some expert driving, we arrive in time. I remember seeing a small Sicilian restaurant opposite the studios. Since Marta is Sicilian, I took it to be a good omen. In the ITV lobby we watched a girl on an exercise bike connected to a food blender surrounded by people. The more effort she put in on the bike, the faster the blender went. It was very noisy and it looked like they were making some kind of a raspberry smoothie. It was well and truly blended.
Before long, our next interviewer arrives with his cameraman and escorts Marta & I outside to the location of the interview. This time, we’re shot separately. Marta goes first, then it’s me. The interviewer and I pass the time easily with small talk as the cameraman sets up the shot. The interviewer was tall and well-spoken and he reminded me of Prince William. I was then fitted with a radio mic. The first part of the interview passes without issue. The next shot was at the mouth of an alleyway. This meant people kept walking along it, and each time we had to start from scratch. Finally, I was asked to walk with the interviewer slowly towards the camera twice over. I commented that it was like the ending credits of The Bill. I was pleased that I was the one of us who could successfully remember and hum the theme tune. My mic was then removed & Marta & I said our goodbyes.
In a true feat of logistics, Marta had arranged our next interview — with BBC Radio 2 — to be carried out six hundred yards from the one we’d just finished. It was to take place in something called a “Radio Van”. It was basically a mobile studio. We sat in the two front seats, with the technician in the back. Marta & I put on our headsets, complete with big spongy mics at the front. The van was parked incongruously in a loading bay. Who would have known that we were conducting an interview to be broadcast live to the nation? The area was heavy with traffic and labourers, but it didn’t seem to matter. We did a quick sound-check and waited for Jeremy Vine (the host of the show) to introduce us. I fielded my questions and Marta quoted her figures from the study and almost as soon as it had started, we were having our headsets removed again. We wished the technician well and got out of the van. This was the end of the road for Marta and I. I mentioned that I had some copies of my book with me and she kindly bought a couple for her friends. My whirlwind day of interviews was over.
Not so… While waiting to catch the train home, I get a phone call from a Mr John Magill. He’s a journalist from BBC London and he wants to interview me for that night’s programme. Chances like these don’t come along often in the scheme of things, so I agree to do it. I then wait while he makes some last minute phone calls. He wants the setting for our televised chat to be perfect and not everywhere allows filming. Before long, he meets me. He knows a pub that would be perfect and we make our way there. The cameraman is arriving separately to meet us soon after.
We find the pub and John approaches the bar manager to ask if we can film. We can — but with restrictions. There are to be no shots of the pub’s name and no shots of the patrons. These stipulations aside, we’re good to go. The cameraman arrives and finds a parking space and things are in motion. A radio mic is fitted to me, with T-shirt over the top and box clipped to my belt, as usual. Then, I’m required to move a smidge to the left — another smidge — and — yes. I’m standing in the right place. The cameraman has an issue with the pub’s blackboard, so John goes back inside to ask about this. He returns from inside and we’re allowed to move the sign out of the shot, but only for a few minutes. On camera, I then answer effectively the same questions I’ve been answering all day.
John wants me to be filmed swiping through some photos of me in dreadlocks while I was ill over ten years ago. I discuss my mindset at the time they were taken and the mood is serious. Next, I’m filmed walking casually out of the pub with John. Each time at casual pace — and twice over. To top it all off, the two of them want me to walk the length of Villiers Street by myself. I have to walk slowly and pensively. Thanks to their waving arms, I realise that I should also look off to one side. I finish my walk by heading just to the left of the camera — without once looking directly at it. This was a common theme throughout all of the day’s interviews. Never look at the lens. We were finished. We said our goodbyes and I caught the train home.
At this point, I was hoping no-one else would call. On the train, I realised just how many social media updates I had to do now. To recap, with less than 24hrs notice, I took part in six interviews. Two radio (both live) and four TV (one of which live). The following day, I had none, or the day after that. My message turned out to have been so provocative that I even attracted some ultra pro-cannabis trolls. But they’re just ignorant people out to steal my thunder. I had successfully left my comfort zone and met a strong learning curve.