City Grammar School - THEN and NOW Pages

Marcus Davidson

"I happened to be the last of some 40 applicants to be interviewed at the Sheffield Telegraph and Star in the quest to begin a career in journalism.  I was told to let them know my GCE results when they came through.  They arrived on an August Saturday morning and I complied immediately.  I was one of three to be appointed and indentured: two to the Star and me to the Telegraph.

It was a mix of vocational training and studies at the College of Commerce - for Advanced English: Economic and Social History: and World Central and Local Government.  Newspaper Law was studied by correspondence course and the whole period of qualification was six months longer than a Bachelor Degree.  Shorthand was to be learned in your own time and at your own expense and I bought a book from a shop in Chapel Walk entitled "Teach Yourself to Touch Type."

My hours were 2 p.m. - 10 30 and I loved it.  I was able to pass the Advanced English exam in one year, instead of the allocated two, and immediately brazenly requested a transfer to the Chesterfield District Office for the Derbyshire Edition on the strength of it.  It was agreed.  The tiny editorial room in the little building in the Market Square would, by today's legislation, have been arbitrarily declared unfit: five reporters (three Star, two Telegraph) were crammed into a space some nine feet by five.

Copy was sent to Sheffield head office either by telephone dictation or, more easily by me, via a teleprinter after the Star reporters left for home at 5 30.  I'd been there only two months when the Hungarian uprising began and was assigned to go with a photographer to a holding camp in Mansfield to meet newly arrived refugees.  Your name - a "by line" - was a rarity for any news reporter then, but after filing my piece by teleprinter on the Sunday night, to my extreme excitement a response clattered back on the machine an hour later with congratulations saying "...and it'll have Marcus D on top".  They sent me back there again the next day, and to my considerable immodesty, that consecutive report received the same accolade.

After two years I returned to Head Office sometimes penning features and frequently becoming "re-write man" of my colleagues' copy: at age 20 that didn't make me very popular with them!   One unforgettable assignment was my reporting from the Divorce Court.  You couldn't help feeling sorry for the plaintiff: he was a railway signalman.  He was citing a once-a-week adulterous relationship between his wife and a train guard in the guards' van during 15 minute train journeys between Finningly and Doncaster.  The poor husband was the signalman who'd been giving unwitting permission for the train to proceed on its lust-laden journey.  The Press Corps in court waited with baited notebooks for the judge to sum up.  You weren't allowed to report the evidence: you had to wait for the judge's summing up, praying he'd include all the juicy bits.

At one point he said to the Court: "You've heard how the plaintiff accosted the respondent and co-respondent at Doncaster station and said to them 'You'll pay for'll get your name in the News of the World."  Turning towards us scribes he looked over his spectacles and pronounced sombrely "And doubtless that melancholy prophesy may well come true..."  Of course it did - but my report appeared the next day under the headline "Kisses In the Guards Van."  Just imagine what the headline would be in today's "Sun" or "Daily Star."  No prizes for the lewdest!

I was offered a post as a reporter on Johannesburg's Rand Daily Mail and flew to South Africa at Easter, 1959.  Exiting times there: the shooting of Prime Minister Verwoerd: the State of Emergency and mass arrests of liberals: the Coalbrook mining disaster in which more than 400 men perished underground and the Sharpeville massacre when police gunned to death 67 African men and women.

It was on that day that I witnessed one of the many moments in my life which are etched into the memory.  This one was like some sequence from a macabre film.  It was at Baragwanath Hospital, the largest in the whole of Africa, on the outskirts of Johannesburg.  The wounded were arriving in droves.  As I toured the Emergency Wards, I came upon a group of medics at the bedside of an injured African.  His right arm had been shattered by a high velocity bullet: with his hand palm up, his forearm was dangling at 45 degrees towards the floor.  As a doctor searched for a vein in which to insert a drip, at the other side of the bed two uniformed white South Africa Police officers were pushing his left hand into an ink pad to take his fingerprints...

I wanted to see more of what was called at the time "emergent Africa" and secured a post with Rhodesia's Sunday Mail.  That country had entered into a Federal system along with Northern Rhodesia and Nyasaland.  But the burgeoning tide of African Nationalism - Harold Macmillan famously dubbed it "The Winds of Change" - was brewing considerable unrest.

I interviewed Prime Ministers and Presidents and, at 24, was head-hunted by the Thomson-owned Daily News to be its News Editor.  It was a campaigning tabloid and championed the cause of democracy for the six million Africans governed by the votes of only 220,000 "Europeans."  I engineered many "scoops" including a 400 mile successful search for the detained leader Joshua Nkomo, isolated in a tiny camp hidden in the bush near the Mozambique border.  That didn't go down well with Ian Smith's right-wing government: what was worse I confronted him with details I'd obtained of his Cabinet's intention to declare Unilateral Independence from Britain, more than a year before he actually did it.

Those revelations led him to use his parliamentary majority of just six to ban my paper under a clause of the infamous "Law and Order" (Maintenance) Act, originally introduced by a previous government to outlaw subversive material imported from abroad.  We were accused of publishing reports "likely to cause fear, alarm or despondency."  Hell, publication of the Whites' rising emigration figures would have aroused those emotions!  So his Lordship (Thomson) brought me back to England to be appointed, at 26, News Editor of what was to be the world's first computerised daily, the Evening Post at Reading.

After little more than two years I was offered a post of sub-editor and script writer with BBC Television News with whom I remained, in Current Affairs,  for the rest of my career.  I produced the "Made in Britain" series and in the mid-seventies was a producer of "News Day" fronted by the late Robin Day.  I travelled to the war in Beirut.  A driver met me as I came ashore from the schooner which had brought me from Cyprus.  As we drove to my hotel in Jounieh, he stopped the car on a bridge over a steep ravine and asked "Would you like to see the dead bodies?"

"What dead bodies?" I asked.  "The Christian militia bring Muslim prisoners here and let them loose in the ravine.  Then they shoot them as they try to run away," he said.  "No I don't want to see them" I retorted.  "But every Sunday everyone comes here to look at them," he said, surprised at my refusal.  The following Sunday I drove to Beirut and had to cross that bridge.  It was lined with cars as families, with young children, peered over it, like the scene of carnage was some form of weekend entertainment.  I was subsequently to come under machine gun as well as artillery fire and was wounded on my last day there - in a Lebanese training camp!

BBC Scotland asked me to produce and direct a 50 minute political documentary for  BBC 1 national television.  I had only six weeks, from planning to broadcasting, to research, film, edit and also studio-link the programme, a condensed time-span previously unheard of.  Helicoptering widely across the Highlands helped.  The programme received good reviews in the national Press so I was invited to produce another 50 minute political documentary.  Filming in Europe and America, but this time with a much more comfortable schedule, meant that I was to be honoured with the Royal Television Society's "Best Current Affairs Documentary" Award at a black tie evening in London's Dorchester Hotel.

From there I became one of the founder producers of "Newsnight" and during the colourful ensuing years travelled the world, filming on all five inhabited Continents, even the Falkland Islands with Brian Hanrahan.

Just before my 50th birthday, I narrowly escaped death for the second time in my career.   It was during the World Free Fall Parachute championships in Wiltshire.  I was filming there and asked the female reporter whether she'd take up the British Association's offer to journalists of a free fall tandem jump.

"I wouldn't ask you to do anything I wouldn't do - but after deployment you could describe from under the canopy, via a radio mike, what it was like" I told her.  "After you" she replied.  So after a cursory lesson from an RAF instructor we flew up to 9,000 feet along with some contestants.  He and I were the last out: a professional sky diving cameraman and another RAF free-faller jumped with us.

The freelance cameraman both videoed and still-photographed our 125 mph descent but after deployment (when I was suddenly aware of falling backwards) I couldn't understand why he was shouting "I don't believe it - I just don't believe it!"  The millions to one chance on a first jump had happened - the main 'chute had failed to open.  It had been jettisoned and just a tiny pilot chute with a thin thread was all that was between us and a nasty crater on the ground.  But it did pull out the reserve - otherwise, of course, I wouldn't be around to tell the tale.

As for the Lebanon, I still have the bullet which so nearly killed me.

When I decided to quit very early, at the age of 54 (very many of us chose to do that when John Birt began changing the Corporation so drastically) I was given the option of returning to any part of the world I'd produced features from to reflect upon changes there during the ensuing years.  It was to be very personalised and I would also be the writer and reporter.

Where would I opt for?  Chattanooga, Tennessee?  Hong Kong?  El Alamein?  Stockholm?  Buenos Aires?  Berlin? Or Java?  None of them.  I chose something much closer to my roots, the little mining town of Dinnington near Sheffield.  I'd produced and directed films there during the miners' strike of 1984 and saw the hardship wrought on its close-knit community.  Now, by 1993,  mining had ceased, the pithead structure had gone.  Businesses had closed and a forlorn spirit pervaded the area.  The last sequence I arranged to film for BBC Television was of a long- closed pit's brass band playing the miners' anthem.  With some of the younger generation playing the horns and trumpets, it was, at the end of my feature, as moving as I had intended it to be.

I still work every day in my studio at home, producing video documentaries via three computers for military veterans (I've been privileged to have been awarded honorary membership of both the 9th Parachute Battalion and the 1/7th Middlesex Regiment) to whom I feel I owe a great deal for their wartime heroism.

If any of my former CGS friends are associated with organisations they would like to have professionally filmed and produced by me on a not-for-profit basis - or if only for a chat about old times - they are welcome to give me a call on 01280 813100.

Marcus R Davidson

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