As Trinidad and Tobago transitioned from its colonial past to independence it also embarked on a new era in broadcasting – that of television. Trinidad and Tobago Television, (ttt) as it became known signed on every evening since its inception in August 1962, with the very familiar words – “Trinidad and Tobago Television (ttt) the Eyes the Nation”
It was with deep regret and sadness when I received the news that ttt signed off the air for good on 14 January 2005. Although I had moved on some 32 years earlier ttt held a special place in my heart in all respects. It was regarded as the “old stomping ground” a “university lab” of sorts for those of us who “leaped frog” into careers in television and communication abroad. Personally, I was able to use the knowledge, training and experience in careers after leaving ttt, first in Canada and New York and eventually as an international civil servant at the United Nations.
I recall very vividly that before becoming an employee at ttt, I was given an assignment by Neville Welch, the sales manager of the Station to canvas Port of Spain and capture images of people in the down town area standing outside of the showcase windows looking at cricket live on television. The sales manager was so impressed with my still photographs that he immediately called the Chief Engineer, Jack Evelyn who overwhelmingly endorsed the quality and content of the coverage. Unknown to me at the time, this was a contributing factor to my getting a job at ttt.
Many of those who listened to coverage of cricket and other favourite sports commentary on radio for years wanted to see the action live with commentary by Raffie Knowles even though they themselves did not own a television set. As the masses slowly adjusted to the new phenomenon of television, the city officials, encouraged by businessmen, soon mounted television sets in public parks such as Woodford Square in Port of Spain and Harris Promenade in San Fernando. Actually this was a marketing ploy to entice the viewers to purchase television sets.
In my actual interview for the a job at ttt, with the General Manager, Ronald Goodsman, he explained that my post description was going to be “operations assistant” dealing with photography. With this title, I spent a training period in the film library where I joined Louis Sorzano, George Tang, Bob Archibald, Tony Malucchi and Christine Pantin. We were all responsible, in one way or the other, for assembling the daily transmission reels by timing the programmes, inserting commercial breaks, and adding cues at the appropriate segments. Daily newsreels were also compiled from locally filmed news stories as well as foreign news films provided by International Television News (ITN) London and other sources. In our daily assignments we also collaborated with colleagues in the Commercial Production Unit. Ann Winston, one of the pioneers who came from Radio Trinidad, was our main contact in that Unit. She networked with the Advertising Agencies as they supplied commercial spots and material to be aired during the breaks in programming. Many will remember that Bonanza and Gun Smoke were among the most popular shows in those early days.
As a matter of fact in those pioneering days at ttt we very truly functioned as a team in all respects. The General Manager and Programme Director, as a matter of fact, demanded professional excellence and inspired the staff to achieve perfection. Above and beyond the familiar faces of Melina Scott, Denise Gomes, Hazel Ward, Clyde Alleyne, Bobby Thomas and Mervin Telfer who either anchored or hosted a variety of programmes, there was an even bigger creative team behind the scenes. The engineering team included Jack Elvin, Graham Shaw, Deighton Paris, Jim Richards and Claude Daniel, while the technical team included Errol Harrilal, Victor Daniel, Shaffick Mohammed, Hugh Pierre, Tony Lutchman, Miley Duke with Ossie Maingot, Suraj Basdeo and Urias Mark in the props. The creative graphics to announce either stations breaks or upcoming events to promote local programming or to inform the audience of ongoing technical difficulties were designed by Compton Welch.
Over the years, my initial training in still photography, under the guidance of Noel Norton served me well in terms of transitioning to the moving picture format (television) ratio. My first real film assignment was given to me by Barry Gordon who as he nurtured me into the assignment said, “there is nothing to it, Mike. I have confidence that you can handle the job and do it well”. With that pep talk, a Bell and Howell silent news camera with a “wild sound”recorder were placed in my hand for the event. At the time it appeared to be a daunting assignment but I faced the challenge head on. I returned to the Station with a story “in the can”. Of course, those were the days of film, so the footage had to be processed by the lab technician, Julian Best and later edited so the report was not aired until the following day.
A great many, if not all, of us were new to the environment so it was a matter of learning the technology on the job. No task was too small! Even the operators who transferred from radio had to adapt their technical knowledge to the motion picture standards. Although some of the language was familiar to me, I had to make quick adaptations from still to motion picture photography every step of the way. The equipment we had at the time was really not state-of-the-art but the technology and language was so intriguing and challenging that we grew with each assignment.
The Auricon 16 mm sound-on-film (SOF) camera was the “main stay” on major location coverage. The very first time in fact, that we covered cricket on film at the Queens Park Oval, there was really no staff with the expertise at ttt to handle it. The management had the foresight however, to contract a team from ITN-News to provide the major coverage while we under-studied the crew to quickly pick up the fundamentals, which we did with precision.
There were many limitations as far as equipment was concerned. We had the one SOF camera at ttt in the early days, so in order to bridge the gap when the film ran out of the camera we learnt to “rig” a second silent camera with a 400 foot magazine to “bridge the window” as a back-up just in case a major play was made during the reloading of film on the sound camera. This was done using a black changing bag because there were no darkroom facilities on location. We made these changes quickly and efficiently to achieve a smooth transition as the “bridged camera” was silent. As time progressed we acquired the skills and with the change in technology we eventually moved from film to live coverage.
As pioneers in the early days at ttt we were given the opportunity to learn the various operations in different departments. For instance, on one occasion I signed on the station when an operator was absent. I appeared in television commercials, one with even John Agitation, a well-know comedian in the Islands.
In due course, I shifted to the News Section at ttt that produced the Panorama News, which was regarded as the flag-ship newscast programme providing outstanding local perspectives nightly at 7:00 p.m. The team in the News Room at the time included Lloyd Roehler, Yussuff Ali, Horace Harrigan, and Leslie Thornhill. Eventually Panorama expanded its coverage from local stories in Trinidad and Tobago to include other Caribbean countries. Again, it was a challenge to adapt and to improvise on each location because outside news environments are never static. This meaning that there is really no “dress rehearsal” in news coverage.
Over time we learnt the importance of attending “briefings” and “walk through scenarios” whenever possible, in order to secure the best vantage points to set up equipment because in reality the crew is competing with other crews for the best vantage locations.
While covering the Guyana independence for instance, I learnt during the briefing that the lowering and raising flag ceremony was going to take place in total darkness. A crucial piece of equipment, a “sun gun”, was going to be imperative in capturing the images of the changing of flags from colonialism to independence. Other international crews who did not attend the briefing were caught off-guard and I was the only one who had the images recorded. With that experience I was able to transfer this knowledge to the coverage of Barbados independence ceremony and to other news events such as coverage of the visit of HRM Queen Elizabeth, Emperor Haile Selassie (Ethiopia) as well as the many Caribbean Ministers summits, to name a few. ttt coverage of these major media events brought history into the living rooms of citizens and actually provided them with the reality of events live-on-film.
It is often said that each major assignment has a story within a story that does not make it on the air. While covering Guyana’s independence inauguration I was personally invited by Lord Thompson, who was one of the founders of ttt, to join a group on an informal evening with Errol Barrow, the Prime Minister of Barbados, along with Barry Gordon who was expected to hold discussions with an official from Guyana. At the time Guyana was interested in launching a television station in that country.
We journeyed on an amphibious aircraft to his home which was located in an interior part of Guyana. The trip itself was interesting and scenic as we flew over the Kaiteur Falls (Guyana) which has a drop of some 228 meters. Kaiteur Falls is the highest free-falling waterfall in the world, five times higher than the well-known Niagara Falls in Canada. That, however, was not the only fascinating experience of the day! When we entered the two-story bungalow, there were two very live tiger cubs steering directly at us from the living room. I froze in my steps and waited for the others in the group to react or even dare mention a word. The host on realizing that we appeared to be petrified, tried to break the silence by launching into a litany of excuses to justify why he housed these wild beasts as domestic animals in his home. Among the excuses was the fact that the mother of the cubs was accidentally shot shortly after birthing the cubs. Still frozen in my tracks, I took a deep breath, and after what seems like an eternity, I overheard Errol Barrow say he is going back to sit in the aircraft; without hesitation I joined him. Needless to say we missed the interesting discussions and the rum punch party but felt our lives were too important to take the risk that starred us in the face that night. A hair raising experience not to be relived or caught on camera.
ttt in fulfilling its mandate to provide viewers with local programming, produced several culturally diverse shows such as Best Village, Mastana Bahar hosted by Sham Mohammed, Teen Dance Party and Twelve and Under hosted by Hazel Ward and Scouting for Talent by Holly Betaudier. Needless to say, such programmes encouraged greater admiration for the cultural differences in our society as well as preserved and promoted respect for the traditions and fundamental values in the country as well.
Moreover, one of the most popular weekly programmes was Scouting for Talent hosted by Holly Bataudier. Searches for talented contestants to be auditioned were conducted nationwide, either on location or in the studio at 11 Maraval Road. This show with all its imperfections was a genre way ahead of its time. With the advent of globalization we can now view similar productions such as “American Idol” with the famous Simon Cowell, Randy Jackson and Paula Abdul replicated internationally with spin offs such as French Idol, Chinese Idol etc. The coveted prize on the American Idol is a one million dollar recording contract while on the Scouting Talent Show the prizes were nowhere in that ball park.
As I mentioned before, I owe my success in the international communications arena to my formative years at ttt. In the onset, we were allowed to wear different hats, and this molded us and provided a broad understanding of the medium. When I migrated, first to Canada I was able to transfer the experience and knowledge in film to such assignments as covering Ontario Parliament at Queen’s Park and later in the New York at Time and Life Films, where I re-edited the famous March of Times news reels which were shown in cinemas around the world long before television became a household word.
As faith would have it, I went on to work at the United Nations where I was responsible for the production of several award-winning films and documentary videos that promoted advocacy for the children of the world.
During my 25-year career with the United Nations, working in film and television, I traveled to over 100 countries crossing cross many times zones and the International Date Line several times, logging thousands of frequent flyer miles with such well known Goodwill Ambassadors (UNICEF) as Sir Peter Ustinov, Liv Ulmman, Audrey Hepburn as well as the famous 007 actor Roger Moore and Harry Belafonte who needs no introduction.
Despite the tight time lines and the daunting circumstances, followed by the rapid changes in technology, we the committed staff at ttt were unaware that one day we will be known as the pioneers in Caribbean Television!
Again, I must reiterate that I was both saddened and nostalgic to learn that Trinidad and Tobago Television (ttt)went off the air in January 2005. Saddened because ttt was the place where I spent my formative years and where I fostered a career and love for the medium and nostalgic because it was the place where I forged lifelong friendships.
It is very tragic therefore to learn that the Eyes of the Nation are now closed!