Careers in Science Broadcasting: The Day I Met Paul McKenna


I'm feeling very glamorous, sitting backstage with Paul McKenna. The TV crew is at my side, the microphone is in my hand and butterflies are fluttering in my stomach. We are about to record an interview for my own TV show, Science Sussed! and I start to wonder, how on earth did I get here...?

I'm studying for a PhD in Biomedical Materials at Cambridge University--a fantastic institution, both academically and in the multitude of clubs and societies it has to offer. Enticed by my own fascination with television, I joined the merry band of energetic, star-struck students that form the Cambridge University Televisual Entertainment Society (CUTE).

We produce a weekly live television show entitled fmd for RedTV, a local Cambridge cable channel. It is a magazine-style show, set in a bar (what is it with students and alcohol?), and filmed in front of a studio audience. The first live show was broadcast in 1997 and since then the show has been broadcast live every week, and repeated on RedTV throughout the week, stopping only for holidays and exams.

Each week the show has a central theme, such as Health and Fitness, The World, or Fame and Fortune, and we present a range of short and snappy features, interviews, reviews, and bands to appeal to a diverse audience. The technical side of the show is also coordinated by students, who take on roles as camera operators, floor manager, technical director, vision mixing, and sound.

Crazy Daisy (aka Laura Himsworth) and Juicy Lucy stir up a 'lumpy'

My involvement with the show has been to form one half of a comedy duo, Crazy Daisy and Juicy Lucy. As these bubbly, excitable characters we entertain Cambridge with our culinary skills, inventing new and inspiring recipes to try each week. We've cooked up a storm with fashionable gingerbread men, cocktails, horrible Halloween recipes, tasty bonfire treats, and our healthy fruit smoothies (now affectionately know as fruit lumpies). Our other notable exploits have included a game show challenge and making the seven wonders of the world in 4 minutes. An entertaining résumé, I'm sure you'll agree.

From a science background I must admit it was a little daunting to do live cookery in front of the cameras and studio audience. But practise makes perfect, and a good rapport with the other presenters allows mistakes to be disguised with comedy banter. When I'm doing the show I'm very focused on my performance, and I rarely think about it going out live to a potential 300,000 viewers, until my friends ask me about it the next day. Recently, Crazy Daisy and I anchored the entire show, which provided new tests, such as filling time with interesting facts, pronouncing difficult names, and trying to remember who's on next. The greatest challenge really comes from being entertaining and witty even when you're tired, it's raining, and everything in the lab is going wrong!

So what does all this comedy cookery have to do with Paul McKenna?

Well, through my work with fmd I've become more involved with RedTV. RedTV is a community television station that broadcasts across Cambridgeshire and a small area of Essex (Harlow/Bishop Stortford). It is privately funded on a very tight budget, and the majority of the station's programmes are produced by a dedicated team of volunteers, following the training and guidance of RedTV's two full-time staff, and part-time technical expert. Originally the station was based in Cottenham, before moving to Cambridge in early 1997. The station is a fantastic asset to the area, providing the invaluable opportunity to gain practical experience within all aspects of television production, providing the first steps on the ladder into an industry that is notoriously difficult to infiltrate. In fact, RedTV has been the starting point of several famous faces including Liz Fraser (presenter for Live and Kicking, Tomorrow's World, and The Holiday Programme), Harriet Wallace (producer for The Big Breakfast and Water Colour Challenge), Amelia Reynolds (reporter for Anglia News) and Louise Perry & Paul Lavers (presenters for the shopping channel).

The station has broadcast a wide variety of programmes and featured several celebrities (Jermey Beadle, Nasty Nick), politicians (John Major), and bands (Steps, Catatonia, Faithless, Feeder), but it has never had a science show. So I discussed some ideas with RedTV for a new monthly show and made some tentative enquiries around the university. The response was overwhelming, from both students and academics, and Science Sussed! was born. We are currently researching and filming our first programme, which will be broadcast in mid-December. It will include features on the Botanical Gardens, the release of orangutans into the wild, and the cloning debate, plus Dr. Know-it-all will be standing by to answer viewers' science questions. Future programmes will show reports on GM crops from Brazil, ghost experts, and parasites that live in your bowel.

With Science Sussed! in mind, I was able to get in touch with Paul McKenna, who was visiting Cambridge with his hypnotic stage show. Through persistence, a bit of cheeky charm, and because Paul is a nice bloke, I was given the opportunity to interview him. So there I was, in my best outfit, looking into his hypnotic eyes and trying not to mix up my words. He was a fascinating person to interview, with lots of energy and enthusiasm, and undoubtedly a hypnosis expert--as if more proof were needed.

What's next? Well, I'm not quite the superstar presenter yet, but I'm getting there, and I'm stunned by the success I've had so far. Besides, at the end of the day, I'm gaining useful transferable communication and management skills that will give me a good grounding whatever the future holds. And if nothing else, I've got lots of videos to bore my friends with!

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