The weekend of 10th and 11th September was a really great couple of days to be a tourist in Northern Ireland, whether you're just visiting or even if you live here. It was time for the European Heritage Open Days, you see. For those unfamiliar with the concept, it's essentially Northern Ireland's contribution to the European Heritage Days programme and takes the form of a weekend once a year where lots of (usually private) heritage sites open for free to the curious public. There are free tours and the likes too. Every year I intend to go and do something and every year I forget completely about it until it's too late to make any plans. However, this year, having enjoyed my recent local tourism adventures, I came prepared!
Being somewhat obsessive with my organisation, I perused the brochure, made a shortlist of the things I wanted to do, and then consulted the (somewhat bewildered but equally intrigued) Yorkshireman about his preferences. Our plan was thus set. In the run up to the events I got booking tickets where required and even went so far as to factor in food and coffee breaks to our busy weekend of sightseeing (well you've got to get your priorities straight!).
First up, as generally happens in your standard weekend, was Saturday, and our first stop of the day was to be a tour of BBC Broadcasting House on Ormeau Avenue. You may recall that whilst we were in London over the summer, we took a tour of BBC Television Centre, so we were interested to see how the local version would measure up. I have to say, it was brilliant… I actually enjoyed it more than the London tour.
First off we went into the studio they use to film Newsline, which is apparently pretty much always set up for that purpose, although everything on the set is easily moveable. We were allowed to sit behind the news desk or, like the Yorkshireman and I did, on the sofas they use for the sports news. I also must admit I had a bit of a play with one of the cameras too. I was interested to find out that the scene of Belfast city centre they show behind the news readers is indeed actually a live feed from a camera on top of the BT Tower, so if you wanted to embarrass someone in a very public way, you could just make a really big banner and put it somewhere in the camera shot. Something to bear in mind for future birthday humiliations (be afraid, friends and family… be very afraid!).
They then took us up to the gallery above the studio and let us sit behind the control desks. People, there were so many buttons and I wasn't allowed to touch any of them! It nearly killed me but somehow I survived. It all looked massively technical and the tour guide describing the jobs of the people who usually sit up there didn't make it seem any less intimidating. I don't think I could cope well with the pressure these people must be under during a live show! I'm happy to be in a job where, for the most part, ctrl + z is available whenever I muck something up, whereas if you mess it up in that room, millions of people are instantly witness to it. Eeek!
Next we went to the BBC 2 continuity room. The guy in control of the room was pretty young and obviously was very competent at his job (a Continuity Director if memory serves). He ushered our tour group of twenty people into his tiny little room and explained briefly what all the different screens and controls were for. It was all very interesting… but then it got even better!
BBC 2 NI was broadcasting the Sinn Fein Conference (ard fheis) live from the Waterfront Hall at the time and it just so happened that, while we were there, it was time for the coverage to end and for the next programme to begin. Continuity Director dude asked us to close the door behind us and make sure our mobile phones were off. Then he cleared his throat, put on some headphones… and started speaking live to the nation, telling them that, later than scheduled in some listings, The Sky At Night was coming up next on BBC 2!
Yes, ladies and gentlemen, not only was this cool dude in front of us the actual guy who introduces the programmes, but we got to be there live whilst he did it… twice! There he is, sitting in front of us, speaking into a microphone and fiddling with a computer while every sound he makes and action he takes actually affects what is being displayed and heard on televisions across the country. Calm as you like! With twenty-odd people standing behind him! And then he just takes off his headphones, turns around and nonchalantly explains what he's just done to the order of the programmes on the computer. Like it's no big deal! We all just kinda gawped a little bit.
Oh, well, except for one dumbass old woman. It may not have been immediately obvious that our little room was about to go live on television, but it got to a point when the guy was actually starting to speak when, well, duh. And yet she felt so overwhelmed by the situation that she squeaked, "Oh gracious!" You. Are. Live. On. Air. Be. Silent! Another lady and I both slowly turned and looked at her with some disdain, following which she seemed to realise the error of her ways.
After our silent debut live on BBC 2, we bid adieu to our awesome host, thanking him profusely for letting us stay, and then headed round to the radio studios. Gerry Kelly was doing his Radio Ulster show from the bigger studio on the floor at the time and apparently the one that Stephen Nolan (*shudder*) uses is on a different floor (apparently not for any particular reason but I know I would want to be as far away as possible from him if I worked there), so we only got to see a smaller studio. It was still pretty cool but to be honest I've spent enough time watching the Chris Moyles Show on the red button and the web cams for this wee studio to seem pretty mundane and pedestrian in comparison.
After the radio bit we were all finished with our tour but had had a blast: I would thoroughly recommend the tour (especially if it's free!). Then it was off on our next European Heritage Open Day adventure… onwards!