The words keep rising, white against a dark blue background, and I keep saying them, occasionally mispronouncing them. All the while I am conscious of the fact that somewhere behind the words there is a camera. Very soon I lose all sense of what I’m saying. I’m just reading on for dear life.
In March, Jeremy Paxman dismissed the art of newsreading as “an occupation for an articulated suit”, claiming that “any fool” could read an Autocue. Last week, the BBC presenter Reeta Chakrabarti took him to task. “I’ve written a lot of what I’m reading out,” she told the Radio Times. “Those aren’t someone else’s words.”
She added: “Maybe ‘any fool’ can do this, but I think it’s a skill.” This is what I intend to find out – writing words is one thing, but how hard is it to read an Autocue?
The system I’m using belongs to the Guardian, and the story I’m reciting – about changes to Ukip’s leadership – reflects, more than anything else, the last time somebody used this particular machine. I am dressed in what I imagine to be a professional newsreader’s uniform: dark jacket, sober tie, no trousers. Why would you need them? In case of fire?
The letters on the prompter (Autocue is a brand name) glow in the dim surroundings. The sheet of paper in my hand is blank; the pen I’m holding is for show. I am entirely dependent on the scrolling screen.
I immediately encounter a problem I had not anticipated: I run out of words. Pausing awkwardly until more swim into view, I realise too late that the phrasing of what had gone before was, in light of this new information, entirely wrong.
According to the BBC’s business editor, Simon Jack, I’d made a classic beginner’s error. “There are only a few words on the Autocue at any given time,” he warned, “so you need to be cognisant of having to duck in any particular phrasing direction”. In other words, if you don’t know where the sentence is heading, you can end up sounding stupid. There’s a cursor about three-fifths of the way up the screen to indicate the line you should be reading – allowing room to see what’s coming next, but I’ve sprinted right to the bottom, leaving myself high and dry.
“A lot of it depends on the person doing the Autocue rolling,” Jack said. “You want a good Autocue roller, because if they jump ahead or don’t keep up you can be stranded. That makes you look stupid.” For his part Jack leans more towards Chakrabarti’s assessment than Paxman’s. “You could get someone from a bus stop and they could read it out loud for sure, but they wouldn’t last long. Their inexperience would be revealed quite quickly.”
The teleprompter (also originally a trademark) dates to 1950, but the first “in the lens” prompter was developed by Jess Oppenheimer, the producer of the I Love Lucy show, who licensed the patent to Autocue in 1955. Its main innovation was an angled glass screen, allowing the reflected words to be seen by the performer but not by the camera behind it. As you read you looked down the barrel of the lens, creating the illusion you were speaking directly to your audience, unprompted. Back then the script was printed on a paper scroll. Now it is liable to be on an iPad, but the mirror arrangement is the same.
Jack first encountered an Autocue 11 years ago, on the BBC Breakfast set. “I didn’t find it particularly difficult,” he said, “apart from the fact that because you’re not the main presenter, the Autocue roller doesn’t really care that much”. Always, he told me, be nice to the rollers. “It has been known for people, as an act of revenge on their last day, to just sort of type in some gobbledegook for the presenter to read out.”
Autocue sabotage, as featured in the film Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy, reinforces the idea of newsreaders as automatons who will helplessly recite whatever is put in front of them. In reality most presenters are diligent about editing their copy for sense, pace and phrasing.
However, the demands of the newsroom often lead to last-minute edits. “Sometimes the story will change between the time it’s written and going on air,” said Jack. “Then you get some junior producer typing in stuff and if that’s wrong the presenters go a bit mad.”
I can confirm it does not take much of an error to unseat the amateur reader. I’ve switched to a story about space exploration which, confusing as it is, is also littered with typos. Under pressure, even an “it’s” when it should be “its” can destroy your momentum. If this were my job, I’d be throwing things.
Finally, I am stopped in my tracks by this sentence: “Elon Musk says he wants to die on Mars, but not on impact.” If I didn’t know how long ago the script was written, I’d suspect that someone somewhere had it in for me.
In answer to Paxman’s contention that any fool can read an Autocue, I offer this unscientific, anecdotal and wholly irrefutable evidence: I know of at least one fool who can’t.