The day I visited BBC Broadcasting House to record the pilot episode of This Game Changed My Life was a surreal experience.
Trips into Central London always make me feel like a yokel, so as a paramedic it was oddly reassuring to see an ambulance parked outside as I arrived. I appreciate that’s not the standard reaction to seeing the emergency services parked outside your destination. Rumours that Claudia Winkleman and Graham Norton had kicked off over the last spotted dick in the staff canteen were unverifiable.
I’d arrived a little early so I had time to look around. Outside, nestled within the striking, horseshoe-shaped building, I found the forecourt tiles oddly fascinating, with names of significant world locations engraved on the tiles seemingly at random. I puzzled over the arrangement, like it was some Indiana Jones-esque mystery which would unlock a hidden entrance. In reality, I probably just looked like a celebrity stalker waiting to ambush my favourite newsreader, so I didn’t loiter for long.
I texted Nathan Jones, the producer, to let him know I’d arrived and made my way into the foyer. It was a vast, austere space of glass and stone with a high ceiling. It didn’t seem all that friendly, with the most distinguishing features being various security measures, a series of revolving doors flanked by suited security guards at one end and a broad but minimally staffed reception desk at the other. In between was an area with some seating and a security x-ray conveyor belt device normally found at airports. They’ve really gone all out to make sure Jeremy Clarkson can’t get back in, I thought.
I hovered in the middle of this space, not really knowing what to do with myself while I tried not to get nervous. I was there to talk about my nephew’s death, which was quite sobering and so it didn’t feel entirely right to be excited. I was certainly a little anxious about meeting the podcast hosts, Aoife Wilson and Julia Hardy. I’d made the mistake of doing a bit of research into their previous work.
Aoife was a successful video games journalist and interviewer, I’d seen YouTube clips of her interviewing Jeff Goldblum and Dara O’Briain, and that had given me some reassurance that she would be safe and approachable.
But I’d wound myself up a bit about Julia. I’d watched some of her YouTube material and her TED talk on sexism and convinced myself that she was a bigot-baiting female Russell Kane who had the wit and the values to eviscerate anyone who strayed into her righteous crosshairs. Maybe, just maybe, if I could stay in touch with my feminine side, I could get through unscathed.
It was at about this point that Nathan Jones appeared and homed in on me across the foyer, introducing himself as he guided me toward the reception desk to get signed in. It was at that moment that he seemed to summon both Aoife and Julia to his side like some kind of broadcasting wizard. In fact, Aoife had been stealthily perched among the sofas and Julia had strode in through the main doors at the perfect time.
The receptionist issued our visitor passes as we exchanged polite greetings, when Julia surprised me by taking me to one side and completely shifting my view of her in a moment. She’d read one of my blogposts about loss and coping with tragedy and told me she could relate. She told me a bit about her father’s ill health and the challenges it presents her. She was thoughtful, measured and sensitive; entirely the opposite of the razor-whip firebrand I’d expected (although I learned later that this is very much in her arsenal too).
Then it was Aoife’s turn to upend my expectations as her bag passed through the security x-ray to reveal she was armed and dangerous! A brief Matrix foyer moment was upon us. Disappointingly, Aoife didn’t leap into Neo-like acrobatics, but the fact that she got rumbled for carrying a knife (of legal length, I should clarify) gave us all a bit of a chuckle and some common ground to banter about. She no doubt has valid reasons. But I daren’t ask.
Nathan then led us past security and the revolving doors, through a warren of corridors, open-plan offices, and stairs to the recording studio. And then it got fun.
Despite the underlying darkness of the story I was there to tell, Nathan, Julia, Aoife, even Giles the sound guy (he brought biscuits!) and I all got along really well and the mood was surprisingly upbeat. It goes without saying that they are professionals and it’s in their job description to help the guest relax and feel welcome, but they can only do that authentically by being genuine people; good listeners, empathetic, responsive, and accommodating. You can’t fake that.
Despite the final podcast episode only being 34 minutes long, and much of that audio was recorded by Aoife and Julia later, we talked for a good couple of hours, getting quite in depth about a number of topics, not all of which were relevant to the podcast. They gave a lot of themselves, which was quite disarming.
I think that comes across in the interview and their subsequent reflective interludes.
There are some things I do regret, but they’re silly, technical things. For someone claiming to be a veteran player, I did a terrible job of showcasing Elite: Dangerous and I should have been more prepared. In my defence, at that time feelings were still quite raw, and I’d not been able to bring myself to play the game in a while. Nathan assures me that the ill-prepared comedic chaos that ensued was probably a better listen anyway.
I was grateful for the opportunity to have a say in the development of the episode. I was given some editorial oversight and several versions were edited and re-edited. As a grieving relative, I was a little uncomfortable with the initial sensationalist hook, but as a writer I appreciate the need to engage the audience quickly. I’ve made my peace with the format as I think that overall, the story told is warm-hearted, respectful, and sensitively handled.
Furthermore, I’m proud that on the strength of that episode, a full series was commissioned which I am enjoying immensely (read my overview of the other episodes here). I can take some solace from the idea that Michael’s death was the seed that has given a worldwide audience the opportunity to hear some powerful, life-affirming stories in a rare fusion of humanising international journalism and a positive video game discussion.
Congratulations to all and special thanks to Nathan Jones, Aoife Wilson, Julia Hardy, and Giles the sound guy (sorry I didn’t eat the biscuits) for a job well done.
Thanks for the opportunity.