Screem Test

Screem Test - 5th January 2004 (Credit: Sydney Morning Herald)

There it is, tucked above a listing for a "business consultant and clairvoyant" and another for "a course in lucid dreaming". It's an advertisement as brief as it is unassuming. "Presenters Course," it proclaims, with the brazen implication that apostrophes are redundant in a visual medium. "Learn from the best the industry has to offer."

I dial the number. "It's a course to teach you the basics of being a TV presenter. It runs for six weeks from this Tuesday night."

Count me in. Reading an auto-cue? Hardly rocket science. Being sent to exotic locations? Bring it on. Making a fool of myself on camera? Embarrassment is my middle name. Talking with "authority" on subjects of which I know nothing? Hey, I'm a journalist.

So, at the appointed hour, I arrive at an inconspicuous Paddington terrace.

"Oh, you're Sacha?" says Di Smith, the diminutive, vivacious redhead best known as a presenter on Seven's The Great Outdoors. Smith is teaching the course.

"I thought Sacha was a girl," she says. Yep, I get that a lot. Especially from my wife.

I notice I am the only male in a class of eight.

This would be a great course for single men. Or gay women.

Smith gives us a handout. "Presenting uses all the skills required of the actor, some of the journalist, some of the stand-up comedian and some of the surgeon juggling a power tool while whisking an egg-white meringue before the lava flow behind him reaches the camera tripod," the handout says. "Welcome to the world of thinking on your feet."

Yeah right, how hard can it be?

Half-an-hour later, I am about to faint. Or throw up. Or both.

Preparing to make my first attempt as a presenter, my heart beats loudly and disturbingly. Like a Phil Collins drum solo.

I haven't felt this nervous since I interviewed Haley Joel Osment. (He's just scary, OK?)

As an introductory assignment, we are instructed to write a short piece about ourselves and present it to camera.

Sounds easy, especially given the subject is my favourite. (Me.) But, as my debut nears, the doubts grow. I am not alone.

"I'm going to have to take off my jacket because I'm sweating so much," a classmate says.

Here is my script: "Verbose? Moi? Well, yes, but mainly because I get paid to be. I work as a writer at The Sydney Morning Herald, and I have three modest ambitions: to write a novel; to be a TV star; and to win a gold medal in shot-put at the Athens Olympics."

When the camera rolls, here is what I say: "Angary phalanger."

Surprisingly, everyone assures me I made perfect sense. I soon realise this is a pleasantly supportive environment.

I also realise, now that my first take is in the can, that my nerves have been replaced by a sense of elation. This may not be as easy as I'd thought, but it's fun.

We move straight to our second exercise: presenting a segment for a children's show. "Action," Smith says from behind the video camera.

"All tall," I say to the camera, enunciating clearly as I read from a kid's book. "We are all small. All ball. We all play ball." At least this time I'm making perfect sense.

Perfect sense, that is, until Gertrude - a finger puppet that looks like a rare species of platypus found only in Chernobyl - lets me down. Operated by my right hand, Gertrude is supposed to turn the pages. Unfortunately, her little puppet claws can't grip the paper.

As Gertrude and I fumble, the awkwardness continues for seconds, which feel like hours. Like a Phil Collins drum solo.

Eventually, the page is turned, but by now young viewers would have had enough time to learn how to read, make themselves a toasted sandwich and a cup of hot milk, and methodically make their way to the end of the book for themselves.

"You were great," my classmates say afterwards. They're lying but I love them for it.

"The first rule of being a presenter is you have to learn to cope when you make an arse of yourself," Smith says. OK, I'll put this down to a learning experience, just like the time I was blazing at 110 kmh on the freeway and put the car into reverse.

As we watch the playback of our performances, I absorb another rule. Namely: Do Not Wear A Shirt With Stripes. That way you will be guaranteed to get more good lines than your shirt.

And then, suddenly, I learn something truly profound about myself. A revelation. And it is: apparently I have a chronic habit of raising my right eyebrow for emphasis. It is intensely irritating.

I wonder if a pill exists for this? Would Botox help?

At the end of class one, I feel as if my ego has been to the gym. It has been stretched, pummelled and exercised. Fortunately, courtesy of friendly classmates, it has also been massaged. So I am hooked.

Returning for week two, I take another look at Smith's handout, which lists some of the "necessary skills" for TV presenting. They include "being spontaneous 12 times in a row".

They also include "working as a team".

I remember a sports coach once told me there is no "I" in "Team". That's why I dislike it.

Today's class is less about teamwork than short-term memory, another necessary skill. That's frightening, given mine is so thoroughly perforated. Today's class is also about presenting info-tainment. There are a few rules to keep in mind, Smith says, quoting from some authority or other. "Somebody's invited you into their home through the TV. So don't be a boring guest. Or an uppity guest. Or a know-it-all guest. Be friendly. Be fun. Be entertaining."

Our assignment is to learn a script by rote, then present it to camera while performing a completely unrelated task, such as making a cup of tea while rhapsodising about the Caribbean, or taking off a jacket while discussing a trail bike. It's the TV-presenting equivalent of rubbing your tummy and patting your head at the same time.

When the camera rolls, so do the mistakes. Jackets refuse to co-operate and door handles stick. Make-believe tea is spilled everywhere.

Our efforts make us laugh, but aren't exactly career-making performances for our showreels.

"It's like the world's most boring out-takes," says a class member, watching the playback.

"This is hard," someone else says. Smith nods. "Performance is a form of torture," she says. "A form of self-mutilation."

I understand what she means. Watching the playback, I desperately want to mutilate my shirt.

Today, having learnt my lesson about stripes, I opted for a colourful batik number. And now I am learning fashion lesson number two: Never Wear A Shirt With More Personality Than You.

A week later, we have a substitute teacher, because Smith is away filming a segment for The Great Outdoors. When I realise who the sub is, I am ecstatic. It's Moira. As in "Here's Moira", from Bert Newton's GMA. The advertorial queen. TV royalty.

Moira is here to teach us how to sell products on TV: knives that don't need sharpening; eco-friendly steam cleaners; hair removal creams; anti-wrinkle ointments; and so on.

"There is good money in advertorials," Moira says - but, then, she had me at "hello".

"So," Moira asks me, with the camera rolling, "will this product make cleaning fun?"

"Um, well, no," I stammer. "But it might make it a little less painful."

Later, Moira suggests I lacked belief in the product. I agree, and venture that it might have been because I didn't believe in the product. I never have been much of a salesman.

As I watch the playback, I can't help thinking things might have gone better if I had been selling Botox. I also feel like I've let Moira down somehow.

And so it goes week by week, small triumph tempered by harsh reality, as we slowly learn the skills of TV presenting, increment by increment.

Personally, I begin to become aware of both my weaknesses (wardrobe, puppeteering, memory, salesmanship, eyebrow) and my strength (dedication). Of the eight original classmates, six of us are left for the final lesson. Leaving the studio/terrace, our final assignment is to wander around the streets of Paddington and present a PTC - that's piece-to-camera - about the region's shops. This presents a whole new set of challenges, including mussed-up hair, noisy buses and hecklers.

"How about a hot date?" yells a passerby. Not at me, unfortunately.

"It gets more difficult out in the real world," Smith says. "But it's also easier to be more natural."

Managers refuse permission to shoot in shops; kids ruin PTCs by loitering in the background; and inanimate objects make a nuisance of themselves. "I've come to Paddington for some salvation ..." a class member tells the camera, "... if my top stops falling off."

After the shoot, we retire to the safety of the classroom for a final wrap-up. And everyone is pleased.

"The difference between what you just shot and the stuff you did at the beginning is immense," Smith says to the class. "And I would happily give any one of your tapes to any of my producers."

Like Smith, I, too, am impressed by how quickly my classmates have become confident and competent. I wouldn't be at all surprised if one or more - Julia Achilleos, Lisa Brown, Megan Macgregor, Lee Poulson and Laura Vozzo - soon landed a regular gig as a TV presenter.

And one of my classmates is positive about my talents too. "You have a great right eyebrow," she says.

Six famous TV presenter upsets

Graham Kennedy, 1975

Graham Kennedy created a defining moment in television when he impersonated a crow ("faaaaaark") during a commercial on his live-to-air show. Nine's switchboard ran hot and the Broadcasting Control Board banned Kennedy from appearing live. The incident was a turning point in Australian public morality, ending a censorious era when a TV star could be dragged off air in the name of decency.

Harry Carpenter, 1977

Harry Carpenter, a BBC mouthpiece, was calling the annual Oxford-Cambridge boat race when he was sunk by an accidental pun. "Ah, isn't that nice," he said. "The wife of the Cambridge president is kissing the cox of the Oxford crew."

Bert Newton, 1979

During a long, feted career, Bert Newton has made only a few gaffes. His most famous was at the Logies 25 years ago, when he said of visiting heavyweight Muhammad Ali, "I like the boy." Ali was shocked, until he realised the racist connotations were accidental.

Don Lane, 1980

In 1967, on his Tonight show, Don Lane asked World Championship Wrestling's Killer Kowalski to demonstrate his lethal "claw hold". "Hey, you'd better get in shape, Don baby," Kowalski said, applying the hold. Kowalski finished by tossing Lane onto the floor and storming off. Then, in 1980, Lane had his turn as aggressor. A fan of spoon-bender Uri Geller, Lane invited Canadian sceptic James Randi onto his show. When Randi tried to expose Geller as a fraud, Lane scattered Randi's props and told him to "piss off".

Mike Willesee, 1989

In 1989, Mike Willesee attempted a comeback on Nine's A Current Affair but lasted only two nights after slurring his speech, giggling and dubbing an interviewee a "bullshit artist". Derryn Hinch later opened his rival show on Seven with, "I'm Derryn Hinch and I'm sober." A year later, Willesee admitted he had had a drink before the show.

Mike Willesee, 1992

During a police siege at Cangai, Willesee phoned the three gunmen who had killed five people and abducted two children. Then he played the interview on A Current Affair. "Do you know that Leonard [Leabeater] and Robbie [Steele] have killed some people?" Willesee asked the kids. "Have you seen Leonard and Robbie do some bad things?" The exchange prompted the highest number of viewer complaints to the Australian Broadcasting Authority that year.


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