James Pearce| Interview | Podcast | Maria Franzoni | MFL Global

Interview with Sports Presenter and Communications Trainer, James Pearce

Maria’s guest on the show is James Pearce. For two decades, James has been one of the most regular faces on the BBC’s television news bulletins. An award-winning correspondent, James freely admits to having one of the best jobs in the world. You name it, he’s reported from it. In this week’s show, James tells us how Gloria Hunniford gave him his first broadcasting break at the tender age of nine, he teaches me how to elegantly deflect awkward questions, and James shares with us an embarrassing broadcasting moment.

Maria: 

Hello, James, lovely to have you here today.

James Pearce: 

Lovely to be here, Maria.

Maria: 

Wonderful. Listen, let’s get started. Let’s take you back to when you were a child. What did you want to be?

James Pearce:  

Well, it’s interesting because everyone sort of has different memories of what they really thought when they were a child, but there is an audio tape of me aged about nine and a half, and one morning I hadn’t gone to school because I wasn’t feeling very well, and I was listening to Radio Two, Gloria Hunniford. My mother had gone out to walk with the dog, and came back, and she picked up the phone, which was ringing when she came in. The phone call was from Radio Two, saying, “We’re going to put your son on air in two minutes time. Can you please get him ready?” My mother said, “Excuse me, my son’s in bed sick. I don’t know what this is about.”

Of course, when she’d gone out the door, I’d listened to Gloria Hunniford. She was interviewing someone called Nigel Dempster, who many people will remember was a very well-known gossip columnist from the Daily Mail. I’d rung up to ask Nigel Dempster a question, and they’d rung back to say they were putting me on air. My mother, to her horror, then had to go upstairs and get me, who was meant to be sick in bed from school, put me live on Radio Two to chat to Nigel Dempster.

At the end of that, Gloria Hunniford said to me, “So, what would you like to be when you’re older, James?” I said to her, “Well, actually, I’d like to be a journalist.”

So, there you are. It definitely was in my head certainly at the age of about nine and a half. That was my broadcasting debut. I’ve still got the tape somewhere.

Maria: 

Oh, that’s fantastic. Well, let’s hope that Gloria is listening in. That would be brilliant.

I mean, most people know you as the face of BBC Sport, and that’s where we’ll have seen you, but your broadcasting career didn’t start in sport, did it? Where did it start? What’s the journey?

James Pearce:   

Well, I was very lucky because after university I went straight into the BBC. The normal route into journalism is to do a post-graduate course at university, and I was lucky. I had a couple of offers from the universities that do the best courses, but I got on the BBC training scheme. So, I went straight from university into the BBC.

It’s one of those interviews, you know, I got to the last four for the southwest training scheme. So, each region of the country was able to appoint one person a year. Sadly, the scheme doesn’t work in quite that same way now.  I was the southwest trainee because I’d been at Exeter University. I went for the interview knowing I was in the last four. I was so close to what you dream, but obviously still so far away. It was a terrifying interview in so many ways because there’s so much at stake, financially as well because you’ve got the option of being paid for a year to work as a trainee, rather than having to fork out lots of money to spend another year at university.

I went to the interview, and again, it’s probably another parental phone call story here because I did the interview, which was in Bristol, and of course, this was the days before mobile phones, and I came back home that evening and my father was there, and said, “How did it go?” I went, “Well, I think it was OK, but obviously we’ll have to wait and see. They’re going to write to me in the next couple of weeks.” My father said, “Well, actually, I think it went better than OK they just rang half an hour ago to say, ‘Could I please let you know that you’ve got the job?”

That would never happen these days, obviously, because they’d ring you on your phone. They probably wouldn’t even be allowed to ring your parents without your permission under data protection, or something else. It was actually my father who told me that I’d got the dream job at the BBC.

Maria:   

Fantastic, so you cut your teeth very young then, really.

James Pearce:     

Yes, and that, I think, has helped me all the way through. I was trained to be a news broadcaster for television and for radio, and then worked in BBC Plymouth. One of the great things at the time then about BBC Plymouth was there were quite a few young people around, and so being in a region which is a slightly lower profile than some of the others, they weren’t frightened of pushing young talent. I started broadcasting on television there aged 22, and even when I then got a job in London, I was 24 by that stage, I was doing mainly sport, but people tell me I was the youngest ever regular reporter on the six o’clock news. Whether that’s really right, I don’t know if someone’s really gone through all the archives, I don’t know. I was very, very young to be doing it. That was because I’d started off so young.

Maria:   

You still look very young, James, but we might go into the secrets of that later off-air. One of the highlights of your career, you have said, was covering the journey of the London 2012. You covered it for 11 years, from the bid. What an amazing place to be for you, amazing historical place in sport. What are your fondest memories of that experience?

James Pearce:  

Oh, there is so many. I mean, it’s interesting because starting off on that journey, I studied politics at university, and when I went into the BBC, I always wanted to be a political journalist. I got into sport really by mistake.

Let me tell you quickly how I got into sport, but I will answer your question, Maria, I promise you. As we’ll talk later, I’m sure, I do some media training on how to deflect questions, but I’m not going to deflect your question.

To tell you quickly how I got into sport. I was just sitting in the Plymouth newsroom one morning, a Monday morning it was, and we had the morning meeting. The boss came in and said, “The sports presenter has quit, and we need someone to do the sport,” and no one was interested. In those days, I suppose, sport was a little bit more frowned on. It’s more respectable, I think, now as a journalistic career.

No one put their hand up, so about a minute went past, and I sort of said, “Well, I’ll do it if no one else wants to do it,” because I’d always had a passion for sport. They all laughed at me. No one said anything, they all just had a bit of a chuckle, and the meeting moved on.

It was a Friday evening, so four days later, about half past five in the evening, I was sitting at my desk writing up some news story, and the boss came up, sat behind me, and just put his arm around me and said, “James, I didn’t want to tell you earlier in the week because I knew you probably wouldn’t sleep all week, but you are the new sports presenter, and your first bulletin, program, is an hour’s time at half past 6 this evening.”

I had an hour to get ready for my first ever presenting broadcast in the studio. One of my male presenter colleagues put some makeup on my face. You had to wear makeup to make sure you’re not shining too much in the studio and stuff, and I was so nervous. I’d never even been in the studio before. The reporting I’d done had all been out on the road.

I went into the studio, I’d never read autocue before, sat down, and they give you your earpiece, and you put an earpiece in, so the director can talk to you. Somehow got through the autocue and got through the bulletin. I was so relieved, and then I hear in my ear, “Well done, James. That’s it. Just say good night to camera three.”

I looked at the camera, which I was talking to, which the live camera always has a big red light on it … Sorry, I’m telling this slightly wrong. “Say good night to camera one,” was what they actually said to me because I looked at my camera, and it had a three on it, to my horror. I was like, “Right, so this three. I have no idea where camera one is.” I looked to my right, and gambled, and to my absolute horror, there was a great big six on the camera. All you can see, and I’ve still got the VHS of my first presenting broadcast, you see me mouthing down “Goodnight”. That was my first ever studio broadcast. It got slightly better after that.

Once I got into sport, I never lost my love of politics, to come back to your original question, and so when London started the bid for the Olympics, for me, that was a perfect combination of sports and politics. It’s fascinating. I mean, you’ve got an electorate of about 100 for the Olympics, so one vote here or there can make so much difference. When you’re talking to the actual electors, you’re getting a really good, strong feel for how the process is going. It’s not like a general election, when you’re relying on opinion polls. You’re doing your own polls yourself, and you’re actually talking to the voters. You can see their minds changing during the campaign.

To be in Singapore in 2005 on the morning of the vote, July the 6th, 2005 was when the vote was. Most people assumed it was going to be Paris. I could feel the momentum starting to swing behind London, and you were nervous of being too optimistic on air because you didn’t want to look stupid, but on the other hand, you wanted to make people realise that actually genuinely London had a chance.

I think the strongest thing I said was about an hour before the vote. I said, “Look, I’m not going to make any promises. If you care about British sport, you must be watching in an hour’s time because I think something special could be about to happen,” and, of course, it did.  Then a seven-year journey all the way through to London 2012, which wasn’t really a sports correspondent’s job at all because the job then became one of construction and marketing, of a lot of politics around who was going to pay for everything, etc. The sport just came for the last few weeks of that job, really.

Maria: 

It was a gift of a story to cover. It was brilliant. Yeah, brilliant, brilliant.  Do you play any sports yourself?

James Pearce:   

Well, not to any great skill level. I mean, people, don’t they, joke about teachers, saying, “Those who can do, those who can’t, teach.” It’s the same about sports journalists, really. Those who can do are presumably playing sport, and those who can’t are talking about it.

I love my sport, a bit of tennis, golf, football, whatever, but I would be lying if I sat here, Maria, and said that I was some amazing athlete with a great pedigree because I simply am not.

Maria: 

Except you did score the very first goal in the new Wembley Stadium. Why did that come to you, that honour?

James Pearce:    

Well, I was saying how I became a bit of a construction correspondent with London 2012. Well, the other big construction project during my career was Wembley Stadium, and some people will remember the long drama, drawn out saga of Wembley Stadium not being built because the old Wembley Stadium was knocked down, and then they spent ages trying to build the new stadium. There was an Australian company called Multiplex came in and things didn’t go well for them at all. In fact, they ended up going so badly that Multiplex had to pull out of the UK, they got so much bad publicity.

I spent a lot of my job outside Wembley giving updates. I had some good contacts there, I was lucky. I did a couple of quite big exclusives about the fact that Wembley was being delayed by another six months, or yet another year.

When it finally came to them laying the turf in Wembley, the person who was in charge of the communications for the building company kind of felt sorry for me. I think they thought I’d done my hours outside Wembley, so now I was finally in and on the pitch. We had a media day for about 20 journalists, so we could broadcast live from the pitch, so me, and Sky News, and ITV, and everybody else.

What the woman told me, she said, “I’ve got a bag here, James, but don’t let anyone know. In this bag is a ball, and when you do your broadcast, I’m going to throw you the ball so you’ll be the first person to have a ball on the pitch, and you can then take it into the goal and score.”

So, this is what happened: so, Sky News had done their broadcast, and it came to my turn to do a broadcast, and I was standing there and she threw me this ball, which is amazing. I was ready to score the goal at Wembley, but the trouble with a 24 hour news channel – and this was for the BBC, what was called News 24 at the time, BBC News Now – was, of course, another story broke. It’s like air traffic control waiting to go on air sometimes when there are other stories around, so all I could hear in my ear was a story about Syria, or something. I was standing there with this ball and Sky News and everybody else were like staring at me, dying to take this ball off me and go and do it themselves. I was like begging the News 24 controllers, like, “Please, just come to me now because I’m going to lose this ball.”

Just in time, they did come to me. I had wellington boots on because the turf wasn’t properly laid, and I just very gingerly took the ball into the net. I didn’t shoot from a long distance. I’m not going to miss the Wembley goal. I shot from about two yards out with my wellington boots, and luckily hit the back of the net.

It was lovely, actually, because some of the builders who had been working there had been watching, and I could hear from right around the stadium the applause ringing out from the various builders who had been working on it. It was a really special moment.

Maria:

That was a very wise move to get close because if you missed, that would have been unbelievable. It would have been one of the bloopers, wouldn’t it, on the telly every year? Fantastic.

Maria: 

Actually, yes, we might have to share those on a separate discussion.

So, tell me, you cover a lot of different sports. Which is the one you enjoy covering the most?

James Pearce:  

People ask me which sports I enjoy. The answer I normally give is I enjoy sport that matters. For example, tennis: Wimbledon, football: a World Cup, golf: one of the majors. What I don’t enjoy is sport where you don’t think it really necessarily matters, so a football friendly, for example. It’s just people going through the motions.

That’s why I love the Olympics because when you go and sit in an Olympic event, if it’s a final, say an athletics final, for example, you know that people’s lives are going to change in front of your eyes, change forever. It’s something that they will be talking about to their children, their grandchildren, in 50 years’ time. Those are big moments, and that’s what I love covering as a sports journalist, is moments that really can change lives and matter. Every sport has an event that can do that to an athlete. It’s watching athletes go through those life-changing moments, I think, that’s special.

Sport is drama. It’s unscripted drama. It’s drama that, actually, if you wrote some of it in a script, people would send it back to you, saying, “This is complete fantasy. It’s unrealistic.” Things happen in sport that are completely unpredictable, and that’s obviously why I, and so many other people, love writing or broadcasting about sport.

Maria:

Brilliant. You’re so passionate about it. It’s lovely to hear.

After 2012, you actually started your own media training company. Who are the people you were trying to help at that time?

James Pearce:  

I’ve done a long time at the BBC. The journey to 2012 had been so amazing, and the BBC is full of people who kind of get wheeled out when they’re 60, and I just didn’t want to be one of those people, but I love the broadcasting, so I had this massive dilemma after 2012. I thought if I’m ever going to do something different, I’ve got to do it now. This is the right time to change.

I had lots of chats with the BBC, and decided to go freelance, so I’d continue broadcasting on BBC, but I had the freedom to do some other stuff. I wasn’t really quite sure what I wanted to do. I just knew that I needed to do some other things.

The British Olympic Association spoke to me, and said, “Look, could I work with some of the athletes with their media training and helping the prepare for Olympics.” The National Lottery are fantastic, they actually fund media training for all athletes who get into an Olympic or Paralympic team.

I started working with those athletes. I hadn’t really got experience teaching at all, I’d been too busy broadcasting. It’s not until you start teaching that you realise just how much knowledge is useful that’s in your head because there’s stuff that is second nature to me after doing it for so long, but you realise, actually, there’s a lot you’ve got which you can pass on and is useful to people. The more of it I did, the more I realised that and, I think, the more I enjoyed it because you can see people improving in front of your eyes. When they’re high-profile Olympians, and they’re coming up to you, going, “James, that was the most useful two hours I’ve ever had in a training session,” or whatever, you think, “Oh, OK, I need to maybe think about doing some more.”

I got approached by the Football Association very soon afterwards and then won a contract, which I still have five years on, to run all the media training for the English Football Association. I work with all the different age group squads, from under 17s up. So, some of the England players you watched in the World Cup in Russia, I’ve worked with.

It’s an absolute privilege, but without blowing my own trumpet too much, I think I am genuinely helping them, and if I can help people, it’s a really good, rewarding thing to do. I then realise that I’m just working with athletes, but the techniques I’m teaching aren’t just for athletes, they’re for anybody who’s in any job that requires communication.

For example, I do a lot of training for NHS England, I work with FTSE 100 executives. I can’t say all of my clients, but you can look at my website jpmediatraining.com if you want to, and you’ll see some of the list. There’s a wide variety of clients that I work with, and those are just the ones that I’m happy to put on the website. Some of them remain confidential.

It’s really interesting work, and when you’re working one-on-one with a FTSE 100 executive, you really get to see the real person. You break them down a bit. There’s no spin there in the session, it can be quite brutal, but really rewarding at the end.

Maria: 

Brilliant, and actually, more and more, all of us are using video … I mean, some of us have our own podcast show, you know? You might be aware.

Is there a tip or two you could share with me and our listeners as to what we can do with our broadcasting maybe?

James Pearce:  

I mean, the challenge is to make it interesting, isn’t it? If something’s not interesting, people aren’t going to want to watch it.

Of course, it’s content that’s key in there, and trying to come up with content which is interesting and memorable, and not too long-winded. Some people just go on and on. You get 45 seconds in and you’re bored. I mean, the average person’s attention span is roughly between 30 and 45 seconds to an average answer, so if you’re under 30 seconds, you’re underselling yourself, and if you’re going over 45 seconds, which I have been on a number of these answers, I’m probably starting to lose you and to bore you, but you really don’t want to go on too long. Less is more is one of the things I try and hammer home in communications training.

I know you call it media training, and often it is, but actually for many people it’s communications training. I go to people’s company’s offices, they’re never going to do any media, but they need to get better at talking to clients, either on a positive note or how do you handle difficult questions? If a client asks you a question you’re not happy answering, how do you answer it in a way that’s actually going to give them an answer that they’re content with?

Maria:   

Actually, on that, let me ask you, so if my partner asks me a question that I don’t want to answer, how do I deflect it?

James Pearce:

Well, this is free media training you’re getting.

Maria: 

Oh, yes, thank you. Thank you.

James Pearce:                      

It’s the ABC, a lot of it’s about the ABC. So, acknowledgement is really important. Say, for example, something’s gone wrong in a company, and I say to the boss, “How serious is this crisis?” Now, if that boss spends the next minute or so saying how serious the crisis is, that boss is probably saying all sorts of things that the boss doesn’t want to say. If the boss goes, “Well, isn’t is a lovely, warm day in London today?” That boss is looking like an idiot because they’re deflecting the question completely. You need to have something in between, and that’s where we bring in what we call the ABC technique.

The A is for acknowledgement, and that is the important bit really. If you can acknowledge a question and move on, it doesn’t look like you’re deflecting. The acknowledgement to, “How serious is this crisis?” Might simply be something like, “Clearly we’ve still got some big issues to resolve here.” You haven’t hidden away, but that’s only two seconds.

The B is for bridge. The most common way to bridge, to take it back to where you want to get to is “but.” “Clearly we’ve got some big issues to sort out here, but,” and then the C is continue.

You’re C, Maria, is whatever you want to talk about, so if it’s your partner giving you grief, you’re taking yourself back to where you want to get to, and your C could be whatever. “Clearly, we’ve got some issues to sort out here, but I’m really looking forward to going to the theatre on Saturday night,” or whatever you’re comfortable talking about. It’s getting the acknowledgement right is the one of the keys to handling difficult questions.

Maria:  

That’s brilliant. I’m going to look out for that when politicians are deflecting, but also that’s quite useful. It’s not usually that he’s in trouble. It’s usually that I’m in trouble.

Let’s talk about your corporate work. How did you first start working with corporates, and what were they asking you to do? Was it the communications training?

James Pearce:    

A lot of it was confidence stuff and even hosting panels. Even when I was at the BBC, I used to love hosting panel sessions. The trouble with being a BBC correspondent is you can say yes to something, but you can never 100% say yes because I’m on call, and if a big football manager has resigned that morning, or something, I can’t say to my boss, “I’m really sorry, I’m hosting a panel discussion in the middle of Birmingham, and I’m not going to be in London until the evening,” because obviously I was on a staff contract, whereas now as a freelance, I can take a booking and stick to it.

I host something, for example, called the Sport Industry Breakfast Club, which meets every few months. I’ve done that for quite a few years now, and they get one or two senior sports executives onto a platform, and people in the industry pay to come and listen over breakfast, but that’s two or three hundred people. I do quite a few things like that, or conference moderating.

Since going freelance, I’ve got more of the conference hosting stuff as well, which I just enjoy. It’s a very different skill, talking to an audience that you can see, rather than talking to a camera. In some ways, I think it’s much harder talking to people you can see. If I talk to a camera, and I tell a joke, I just assume the whole world is laughing with me. You talk to an audience, and no one laughs, you’ve kind of fallen flat. You have to make sure the content is probably better if you’re talking to an audience.

Maria:   

Yes, true. You get immediate feedback, don’t you?

James Pearce: 

Yes

Maria:  

You’re one of our favourite conference hosts, and you’ve said you’ve done a fair bit of hosting, but there’s a lot of companies that don’t bring in a professional host for their conference. What do you think a professional host adds to an event that perhaps somebody who isn’t experienced or trained to do it wouldn’t add?

James Pearce:  

I guess, someone who’s obviously comfortable in front of people talking, but the most important thing everyone says when you sit down to plan a conference, it’s the timings. Everyone squeezes everything into these tight time schedules; they’re three hour slots, or they’re one-day conference, whatever it might be. If people start going over, the whole thing falls apart. You book the venue until five o’clock, and you’ve got to be out. You can’t be only on speaker number three when the time comes to kick you out of the room because you’re off.

I think what someone external brings, more than anything, is the timing. I was a broadcaster, I’m used to working to times. If I’m on the six o’clock news for one minute, 10 seconds, I have to speak for one minute, 10 seconds. I can’t go a second over because the whole program has to stop at a certain time. As an outsider, if someone is starting to go on too long, or you’re moderating a panel, you have to shut them up.

It’s quite difficult for someone who’s working in the same company to maybe politely, or not so politely, tell people to stop. You’ve got to be in control. I think being external, it’s much easier to have that whip and to keep people under your command than it is for someone who’s got to go back and face them on a Monday morning, especially when potentially the person who’s moderating or hosting isn’t as senior as the person they’ve got on the platform. If you’re from the same company, if it’s your boss talking, it’s very difficult to tell your boss that they need to get off the stage.

Maria: 

Yes, true and also dealing with live things as they happen, which obviously, you’re used to being live, you’ve dealt with all sorts of things, and I’m sure you’ll maybe share a story with us a bit later.

If you are hosting a conference for a day, how much preparation goes into that for you?

James Pearce:   

Quite a lot. It depends a bit about how much you’re moderating, and how much you’re linking. If you’re throwing to other people, it’s more getting a feel for the company. If you’re moderating and asking questions, obviously you’ve got to make sure that those are the right questions. People are traveling often a long way to a conference. I love the research.

It’s the same with the media training as well. I can’t go to a media training session with someone who’s senior from a FTSE 100 company and not know everything about that company because I’m not going to give them the right training. I can’t turn up for a company’s conference and not know everything about that company because I’m not going to be guiding them in the right direction. I’m not going to be telling the right jokes. A lot of research. You’ve got to kind of live and breathe the company, especially if you are going to be asking some questions. You’ve got to make sure you’re asking the right questions.

For me, that’s part of the fun. Of course, it’s enjoyable when you’re actually on the stage doing it, but learning about new things, hopefully for anybody, is a good skill to have, and is something which is challenging your brain and expanding it. It’s a positive thing to do and hosting events definitely makes you have to do that.

Maria:   

I think that’s invaluable, as you said, also asking the right questions. I mean, many clients will script the host, but what’s great about somebody who’s got journalist experience, who’s got presenting and broadcasting experience, you will actually potentially come up with a question they haven’t thought of or phrase it in a way that maybe they hadn’t thought to phrase it, so that’s great value, I think.

James Pearce: 

It’s not only that, obviously it’s listening to what somebody says. If someone gives you six questions to ask, and the first answer someone says something really interesting, but you’re given a second question which has nothing to do with that first answer, you’re not getting the best out of the speaker.

Part of the skill of obviously being a journalist is to listen to what somebody’s saying. The weakest journalists, or the inexperienced journalists are always ones who turn up to any interview with just a list of six questions that they ask. Good journalists are the ones who develop what they ask depending on what somebody says. If somebody says something interesting, you’ve got to follow that lead.

Maria:  

And that’s a good lead because I’m going to completely change the subject and not go further into this wonderful answer, and take you on a totally different topic. As an inexperienced journalist, I wanted to ask you about your own quiz game. So, you’ve created a quiz game with the creators of Who Wants To Be A Millionaire? First of all, why? And then what do you do with that, and who can play it, and how can they play it?

James Pearce:    

I love this. The reason it started was because when I first started working with the Football Association, running their media training, they have an amazing Centre of Excellence in Derbyshire called St. George’s Park. You’ve seen some coverage of it during the World Cup because it’s one of the reasons the England squads have been doing well because they’re now starting to go through this Centre of Excellence.

I spent quite a lot of time working there with the media training for the England squads, but they have a lot of conferences there. There’s a big Hilton Hotel complex there. A lot of people go through for conferences, and the Football Association said to me, “James, can you give any help for how we can entertain these people because it’s a brilliant facility and people love coming here, but once we’ve shown them the England dressing room and the England training pitch, there’s not a vast amount to do.”

I came up with a couple of ways to entertain them. One is we have this commentary challenge. People go into a little booth and they become TV commentators, and we get a commentator down to help them. They commentate on famous England goals over the years.

The second is an interactive quiz, which often, being St. George’s Park, is a sports quiz, but it doesn’t have to be a sports quiz. It can be any topic you want. It’s all done with electronic keypads, but rather than just doing a quiz that can alienate people because some tables are already miles behind after 10 questions, we divide it over a dinner. It’s spread out, which is better.

We have one round of 10 questions before the starter, and each round there’s a winner, a team wins, so a table will win. The scores get reset after each round, so you can come last in the first round, and still end up winning the quiz as I’ll explain in a moment. We have three different rounds during the dinner, and each round will be a completely separate topic and separate winner, and obviously, it’s all electronic, so you can see on the screen who’s winning as you go through. The three winning teams come to the front of the room, and we have these proper great podiums, which they go to, and stand behind big podium buzzers, and that’s a fastest finger on a button round. At the end of that, obviously the winning podium team is the winner of the quiz.

It’s a really good way to keep people engaged because you can be the quiz round that’s after dinner, having had a disastrous first two rounds, and still get on the podium and still win. There’s about 10 to 12 questions each round, so we keep them quite short, maybe 10 minutes each round, so that the people are staying engaged.

For me, rather than just having an after dinner speaker, I think it’s quite a good way to do something a little bit different. People love it. The podium round is always very, very competitive at the end with these great, big buzzers and people slamming their hands on the buzzers and seeing if they can light up their buzzer before anybody else.

Maria:  

That sounds great fun. What are the best numbers for that, or can you be very flexible?

James Pearce: 

It can be very flexible. You can have sort of 50-odd tables, or so, so 500 people easily. You could have 50 buzzers among 50 people, and everyone have their own buzzer as an individual, so yes, anywhere from sort of 10 people to five or six hundred people really.

When you get to the podium, if one table qualifies, obviously you don’t have all 10 people on the podium trying to press the same buzzer. They all nominate two or three people to be their podium people with their hands on the buzzer.

Maria: 

Perfect. Sounds brilliant fun.

You mentioned after dinner, so I’m going to put you on the spot here. To close the podcast, I’m going to ask you to share one of your favourite anecdotes from all your years of broadcasting. Are you able to do that for us?

James Pearce:  

Yes, I’m sure I can.

You mentioned Auntie’s Bloopers, which is the BBC show of things that have gone wrong, and I always love it when things go wrong because you know that no one switches off. Some people panic when things go wrong, but I just think that no one’s ever switching off when things go wrong. They love it. Auntie’s Bloopers actually pay you when they use your broadcast, so actually, I always say it’s probably the only job in the world you get paid to mess up because if something goes wrong you have to sign a contract to agree to let the BBC rebroadcast it again. They pay you not a vast sum, but they do pay you for doing it, so you get paid per mistake. Can you imagine working for Amazon, or someone, and getting paid to lose someone’s order? It wouldn’t quite happen.

One of my bloopers, which is probably one of my best known bloopers, was back in 2002, the football World Cup, and the football World Cup then was shared between Japan and South Korea. South Korea did amazingly well. In fact, they got to the semi-final, and each round bigger and bigger crowds were coming out into the streets of Seoul to watch the matches.

South Korea were playing Germany in a semi-final in Seoul, and because of the time difference, the kick off time in the evening in Seoul was breakfast time in the UK, or leading up to the kick off was breakfast time.

I was doing live broadcasting for the BBCs breakfast program, and there were over a million people on the streets of Seoul, and we’d hired or got permission to use the roof of the Mayoral, the Mayor’s building, so we could look down on a crowd. It was an amazing view, but the noise was indescribable, I mean, you could not hear a thing. It was just singing, dancing, cheering. I couldn’t hear a thing.

I’d gone inside and spoken to the presenter of the program who I knew was going to be doing the interview, someone called Michael Peshart, and I said, “Michael, I’m not going to hear a word you say, so you’ve got to tell me what you’re going to ask me and I will answer those questions, but I’m not going to hear them, so please just stick to what you said you’re going to ask.” We agreed three questions.

I got up onto the roof and I hear the first question. I can’t hear anything, but I give my answer. The second question, the same. I didn’t hear anything, but gave my answer. Third question, same, gave my answer. I thought I’d finished. Of course, then I hear in my ear, “Blah, blah, blah, blah,” and I was like, “I have no idea, Michael.” I was thinking, “You idiot, you know I can’t answer anything else if I haven’t heard it.”

I did the normal technique of, “I’m really sorry, I couldn’t quite hear what you said, but let me tell you this,” and I told him something I hadn’t said before. What you then do as a broadcaster to be safe is give a really long answer, so there was no danger of them asking you another question. I went on, and on, and just filled the air time.

What I didn’t realise was actually what Michael Peshart said to me was, “James, thank you very much. Enjoy the match.” I started answering the question, and they had to go to the weather forecast, and I, of course, didn’t stop. I went on, and on, and on. They couldn’t shut me up. When they were trying to talk to me, I couldn’t hear them say, “Stop, stop.”

In the end, they went to the weather forecast, and what they did was very clever, I think the director thinking on her feet. In the corner of the weather forecast, you can see me carrying on talking all over the screen.

It got to the end of the weather forecast and I was still talking. One of my favourite bloopers.

Maria:  

Fantastic. He should have given you some hand gestures. I’d have given you some hand gestures.

James, thank you so much. That was a real pleasure. Thank you for your time.

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