It was a grey, nondescript September afternoon in London, when we sat down with recording ‘machines’, and microphones, all agog for our victim to walk in.
The victim was Richard Attenborough, someone well known to our class of foreign students at the BBC (whose motto, most appropriately, was/is “Nations shall speak unto Nation“). It was just seven years since Gandhi had been released.
We had practiced the ins and outs of radio production, from managing the heavy tape machine (about as heavy as a small microwave), to splicing, mixing sound effects etc. None of this would have mattered if we didn’t get our interview right. We would have just five minutes of face time.
Mr. Attenborough – I doubt we addressed him as ‘Sir’ Richard– was extremely gracious, and disarming. This was not what our trainers had prepped us for: the evasive spokespeople, the rude celebrities, and those who intimidate you etc.
What I recall most were two things. Mr. Attenborough patiently listened to my question (about the making of the Gandhi), at times tilting his head to figure out my accent. Speaking of which, there were no shortage of versions of English and thick accents in that room at the Capital Radio studios, London that day. Before and after me were budding radio hosts from the Seychelles, Malta, Lesotho, and Fiji.
The other thing was how he punctuated each idea with his sweeping arm movements, barely grazing, but totally ignoring the microphone. This is what interviews are supposed to be structured around – conversations, not hardware.He made that easy for us.
Long after the spool tapes gave way to tiny, and barely digital recording devices, it’s still the conversations that matter.