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Denis Tuohy: When it all goes wrong on TV... how the presenter copes, or fails to cope, is what the viewer finds so hilarious

From irascible cops to violent interviewees, power blackouts to technical glitches, veteran NI-born presenter Denis Tuohy on some of TV's epic fails


Denis Tuohy (left) chats to Peter Taylor at the old Maze prison

Denis Tuohy (left) chats to Peter Taylor at the old Maze prison

Esther Rantzen

Esther Rantzen

Denis Tuohy holds a candle after the launch of BBC Two in 1964 was hit by a power blackout

Denis Tuohy holds a candle after the launch of BBC Two in 1964 was hit by a power blackout


Denis Tuohy (left) chats to Peter Taylor at the old Maze prison

The past can be no more than a phone call away. In my case the call came a few months ago from a producer for Channel 5. "We're putting together another collection of on-screen mishaps, when things have gone horribly wrong for TV presenters. Three of them involve yourself. Could we interview you about them?"

Looking at the clips after some years I was struck by how accurate my memories of them were.

But isn't that how it is with events you'd be happy to let fade into forgetfulness? It makes no difference that none of the three disasters were my fault. The one to be shown on New Year's Eve was the result of a fire in London.

As for the other two, which will figure in later episodes, one kicks off with a studio break-in and one came about through hiccups in the outside broadcast system.

None of that matters. It's the presenter who's in the spotlight and how he or she copes, or doesn't cope, is what the viewer responds to, often with hilarity.

I've also been going through mishaps in Channel 5's collection that have nothing to do with myself. There are occasions when "horribly wrong" can mean something worse than mere embarrassment.

Like the time in 1981 when Esther Rantzen earned the disapproval of a police constable on London's North End Road. She was presenter of That's Life, a long-running series that combined satire with hard-hitting investigations.

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So there she was, filming interviews with the public and handing out samples of bat stew (honestly!) when a representative of the law warned that she was obstructing the pavement.

When she didn't move on she was arrested - with the camera still running - and taken away in a police van.

The incident was screened in the next episode of That's Life and was, of course, a huge hit.

There's a commonly used trick of the trade known as door-stepping where a TV reporter approaches someone out of the blue and starts asking questions which are often unwelcome.

This runs the risk of a four-letter response or something nastier. In a clip from an Australian channel a current affairs reporter confronts a man sitting in a parked car on a Queensland roadside. He accuses him of being a criminal.

The man doesn't just swear, though he does plenty of that. He gets out of the car and flies into a rage, kicking and punching the cameraman and the reporter who makes his escape down the road.

Reflecting on that scene I couldn't help wondering, as I'm sure would some others in my profession, how close I may have come, now and then, to a similar fate.

What did decide my fate, however, in a piece of broadcasting history and more importantly the fate of BBC Two's planned opening night was a fire at Battersea Power Station on April 20, 1964.

It blacked out many parts of London including the BBC Television Centre in Wood Lane. I was due to make my network debut as presenter of Line Up, the magazine programme which would get the new channel under way. When disaster struck we waited for several hours hoping that a revised schedule might be possible if and when power was restored but we waited in vain.

So what should we do 24 hours later and what should we say when we made our second attempt? The blackout had been front page news on April 21.

Everyone knew what had happened and not happened. The Line Up team decided that a brief reference, a you-know-what-we-mean throwaway, was how to deal with it. That's why the evening began with a candle flickering on a table in an empty studio. There was a wall clock, with the hand inching towards the start time - 7.20pm.

When it got there a dark haired young man came into view.

"Good evening. This is BBC Two."

I blew out the candle and said that my name was Denis Tuohy, thus earning myself the nickname BBC Tuohy. It all seemed quite clever at the time but the clip does look a bit weird, as I've been told more than once, to viewers who don't know the background story.

Much more awkward are disasters which strike while you're on air, live, and which, somehow, must not be allowed to overwhelm you.

In 1990 when Margaret Thatcher was being challenged for the Tory leadership I was presenter of ITV's flagship current affairs programme This Week. I was based in the main studio, Debi Davies was in Downing Street and Richard Lindley was in a Westminster studio.

Let's go to Debi, I said, after some opening words, for an update from Downing Street.

Well, we could see her there but she couldn't hear me and didn't know she was on air. So she didn't speak. All right then, we'll go to Richard who's with some MPs in Westminster.

Cut to Richard who did hear me and did speak but we couldn't hear him. Worse, what in fact we heard was the voice of the now unseen Debi in Downing Street. Back to me for a not too brilliant ad-lib about it being difficult to travel across central London.

The technical glitches were soon sorted out and the rest of the programme ran smoothly. But we all knew that wasn't how it would be remembered.

Hazards of many kinds are recalled in the Channel 5 series. There's a Brazilian TV host who gets too close to the action during a mule race.

A reporter at an air show in the west of England is hit by a low-flying plane but lives to tell the tale.

Presenters of a daytime show can do nothing during a life drawing item when the drape covering the artists' model is manifestly not covering one of the parts that matter most.

And there was the night I was introducing a discussion about comedy writing only to be interrupted when a frustrated writer who hadn't been invited broke into the studio and was hauled back and ejected on camera.

There was a time when the spectacle of things going wrong was more common than it is now. In the Sixties and Seventies reports for news and current affairs programmes were still being shot on film rather than videotape. Film, especially if it had been put together in a hurry, had the awkward habit of breaking when it was being played on air.

At which point the studio presenter would immediately be centre stage. A phone would ring on the desk and he or she would hear the studio director spell out plan B, not always coherently.

I remember Cliff Michelmore, one of BBC Television's biggest names over several decades, holding the phone away from his ear and wearily telling viewers "there's a man upstairs in two minds - and he can't make up either of them".

For a while I had the good fortune of being Cliff's co-presenter. As I was very much the junior partner it was always he who was called upon in a crisis but I learned a lot from observing his unflappable studio style at close range.

I've never forgotten how he once summed up the presenter's craft.

"Can you - if you have to - look straight into camera, with no hint of fear or anxiety in your eyes or your voice, and say to the audience, 'I have no idea what's going on'? If you know you can do that, then you've cracked it, my boy!"

All New When TV Goes Horribly Wrong, New Year's Eve, Channel 5, 9.55pm

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