Decisions, decisions, decisions…
I was watching one of David Attenborough’s spectacular nature documentaries the other night and while admiring its wonderful cinematography and contemplating the gargantuan production values that went into putting it all together I suddenly felt an unexpected pang of envy and disappointment.
Envy at the ambitiously conceived, fantastically executed and well-funded nature of the project; disappointment at knowing my chances of ever being involved again in such a series are extremely slim.
It was a fleeting moment and, to be honest, not one that really upset me, but it did get me thinking about the decisions we make as freelancers and the impact they have on our careers, most being choices made with limited other options and all having unintended consequences.
I’ve said it before; I’ll say it again: the eight months I worked on Reporters At War in 2003 in London was the best gig of my career to date.
From the moment my friend and bossman at True Vision Productions, Brian Woods, following a meeting his business partner had with Discovery, told me they were looking for war ideas and asked me if there was anything in the war section of a much bigger idea I was working on (that’s yet to be made, sadly), through development, pitching and production, I’ve never been happier workwise.
I was usually first to arrive at the office in the morning and last to leave in the evening, often taking participating war correspondents’ memoirs and autobiographies to read on the tube home and in bed at night.
And I though on the back of it my career as a world renowned – yeah, right – documentary maker would go stellar.
How wrong was I?
I spent the following years developing and pitching a whole range of ideas, some big, some small, that, despite initial interest in both the UK and US, including from the major American documentary channels in New York after Reporters At War won an Emmy, all went nowhere.
Many meetings with production companies and commissioning execs were had; when needed well known faces were approached to front proposals – the likes of Dara O’Briain, Natalie Imbruglia, Joe Jackson, Kevin McCloud, John Parrott, Chuck D, John Simpson and Krishnan Guru-Murty all provisionally agreed to author programme ideas if they were made; but for a long time it was like knocking your head repeatedly and painfully of a really solid brick wall.
Sometimes we were simply beaten to the punch by others who’d had the same idea, just earlier.
Sometimes there was some preliminary interest that eventually petered out because of a gradual realisation that it wasn’t really their cuppa or that they couldn’t actually afford it.
Mostly we didn’t even get that far.
Eventually in 2007 I was lucky enough to get an idea commissioned for Channel 4’s first-time-director First Cut slot, a half-hour doc on the routines and rituals of sharing a bed.
This lead directly to making a Hidden Lives doc for Channel 5 for the following year on four people with uncontrollable urges to eat at night, whether awake or asleep.
I was on a small roll here, I thought; neither were ideas that totally rocked my world but if I played my cards right, maybe I could be onto something at last.
When that summer of 2008 Channel 5 then asked me to further develop two ideas I subsequently pitched to them I figured I was comfortably on the pig’s back.
And each time we met, one of the two ideas grew hugely in stature, starting out as a 1 x 120’ list show, ending up as a far more lucrative 8 x 180’ series.
I was beginning to plan in my excited wee head the purchase of an imaginary house in the south of France and maybe even a penthouse apartment off Central Park in NYC…
And then the recession happened.
In the midst of subprime foreclosures and major bank collapses, media advertising fell off a cliff and suddenly my two ideas were no more.
The email from Channel 5 talked of putting them on hold but we knew they were really dead in the water.
That was the last time I worked in London.
If they hadn’t I have no idea how I’d have survived; their timing was perfect both from the perspective of my personal finances and mental wellbeing.
But watching Attenborough’s nature masterpiece – I think it was a repeat of an old Natural World on the Himalayas – I fleetingly wondered if returning home was in fact the right decision.
But Irish broadcasters simply haven’t the resources to make something like Natural World – or indeed, Reporters At War or many of the more largescale ideas I pitched afterwards – so here I’m highly unlikely to work on such extensive productions again.
Add to this that everything you pitch here has got to have an Irish element at its core and it severely limits your range of options.
This isn’t unusual; globally there are very few openings for truly international factual programmes but at least in the UK there are more opportunities to get such ideas away via transnational co-production deals.
Not that immense is always beautiful but having the ability to move between the big and the more intimate as suits each individual idea best is the ideal to which any programme maker surely aspires.
Thing is, when you’re busy you don’t have time to think about such what-ifs.
Very recently a major project that we have majority funding for and that we hoped would be in production as I type was put back to the new year so suddenly I’m not working when I had planned to be.
Will I get another gig in its place to keep me busy between here and xmas? Who knows?
I’m not complaining. I’m delighted to have been kept really busy for last few years during which learned loads on a huge variety of projects even if many wouldn’t particularly have been my first choice ones.
I’ve pitched a bunch of my own radio and TV ideas but very few ever got past first base. The ones that did have all, to varying degrees, unsurprisingly been the most rewarding gigs I’ve worked on.
But now I’m really not that surprised I’m looking at Attenborough & Co’s ab fab output with a jealous eye.
Frustration is part and parcel of being a freelancer – regularly feeling rubbish goes with the territory, as luckily does occasionally feeling brilliant.
It’s an up-and-down world.
Right now, I’d murder for a gig, both for the money obviously and cos I’m bored silly.
I have of course got my hustle head on, but so far, between the ideas I’ve pitched and the meetings I’ve had about possible work, nada.
Though I did actually turn down one job.
Not long after leaving RTÉ I got a call from a TV production company offering me a gig as a researcher.
I was a tad surprised.
I may not exactly be like offering a brain surgeon work as a hospital porter, but it’s certainly a step or three down the ladder.
I passed on their kind offer, not out of arrogance but because of the real world politic of freelancing.
I’ve never been a researcher in my life and I ain’t gonna start now.
Ok, just a soupçon of arrogance then.
And no, I don’t regret it.
Not yet anyway.
A major upside was that for the first time I was available to help out on St Patrick’s Mental Health Services’ annual pop-up radio station for mental health week, Walk In My Shoes, and at short notice presented a show last Tuesday and co-presented one on Thursday.
I had a blast.
Maybe I should do more of this presenting lark?
Now, if only that was my decision and not all those lovely station managers’, huh?
So, every now and then I still wonder if, despite everything, I should have stayed in London.
I also regularly wonder if I should have ever gone there in first place.
Very occasionally I even contemplate what might have happened had I stayed on at Head 2 Toe back in the ‘90s.
But these are the kind of decisions we all have to make from time to time, increasingly so in our modern no-more-jobs-for-life world.
And we’ll never know what would have happened if we’d made a different choice.
You’ll have plenty what-if moments afterwards but y’know, don’t sweat it.