As the first presenter after Phillip Schofield and the first woman into the Broom Cupboard, Debbie Flint played a relatively short but but important and well-remembered role in the history of Children's BBC.
In the (almost!) 30 years since she has gone on to enjoy great success as a broadcaster and journalist and more recently as a writer.
In this interview she recalls her first taste of TV on The Generation Game and her earliest broadcasting jobs, including Piccadilly Radio in Manchester.
She also talks about her memories of working at Children's BBC and passes on her top tips for looking barely a day older 30 years on!
"Helloooo-oooooooo" Debbie! Let's start by looking at your life before Children's BBC. You were at Piccadilly Radio, weren't you? How did you end up there?
I began my broadcasting life with a course at the National Broadcasting School in Soho, doing a three month full time course in how to be a radio presenter! After that I used my business degree to get a job in the accounts department at the newly-formed Screensport cable channel (it was only available in about five cabled towns, back in 1984 - only about forty people a night watching!) It was based in Cheshire, so I moved there and a year later the Programme Controller for Piccadilly Radio - Simon Cole - gave me a job as a Broadcasting Assistant, working behind the scenes. I worked with Timmy Mallett, Andy Crane, Tim Grundy, Mark Radcliffe, Mike Sweeney and Steve Penk. Great times. I was soon on air too, reporting and also presenting Nightbeat radio shows!
And you were a contestant on The Generation Game! What do you remember about that? Was that your first taste of showbiz?
Yes, that was great fun! Real star-studded stuff back then, or so it felt to a caretaker’s daughter from south London! A BBC car came for me and Dad and took us from Morden to Television Centre for rehearsals. By teatime we were taken to the BBC Theatre on Shepherd’s Bush green for the evening recording of the Generation Game. This was at Easter in 1981. My Mum and boyfriend at the time, Martin, came to watch. Larry Grayson hosted, Isla St Clair introduced us, and after two rounds including doing a dance routine to Singing in the Rain, I won! I then got to sit behind the conveyor belt. It was only about ten feet long, and had men at either end. We were driven home along with the big chocolate bunny (it was an Easter show!) and made the driver stop at a kebab shop as we were starving! The kebab shop owner had a right scare seeing a big black limo pull up outside! The goodies – including the cuddly toy (which was actually not cuddly at all - it was a hard, felt-covered three foot bunny!) - were all delivered a few weeks later by a big Harrods van to our little semi! It is a great memory and a real bonding thing with my late dad, Derek, bless him. They had big audiences back then and being on the telly was much less common than it is now. I was even asked for my autograph by a little lad in the park when I was playing tennis soon after it was shown. But mainly I just loved the whole TV thing. It really gave me a taste for working at the BBC – who’d have thought I’d be back there working on Children's BBC just four years later. Interestingly that edition of THe Generation Game still gets repeated now sometimes, on Challenge - along with the Stars in Their Eyes I was on in 1991 (sounded like Sheena Easton, looked like Eartha Kitt! Ha ha!)
Now on to Children's BBC. How did you find out about the job?
A friend at Screensport, Terry - who had done a six month attachment in the BBC's Presentation department - told me they were looking for two young hosts for links between children's programmes. The idea was similar to what ITV were doing, but it was going to be live. At the time ITV used in-vision hosts, whereas the BBC had colourful graphics and the normal announcers. I went down for my audition in September 1985. I met Phillip who had been doing the job for just three weeks at that time. The plan was that I’d take over after three months, but he was doing so well that Michael Grade, in charge back of BBC TV then, said to let him carry on for another three months. By Spring 1986 Phillip had been asked to present Take Two, so it was then that I got my own two month contract. I began on 1 April 1986, and I had a great 8 weeks or so as the new face of Children’s BBC until Phillip came back. I did another two weeks in the summer and then that was it – I’d fallen pregnant with my first child, Bradley, who was born in March 1987. Afterwards I was asked to join the new BBC1 daytime show Open Air (with Eamonn Holmes and co.) as a reporter, which fitted in better with being a mum to be.
Do you remember what you had to do at the audition?
Yes. Initially I was sat in the Broom Cupboard and they recorded some audition links - the usual stuff, all quite short - just a bit of programme info and so on. The next stage was a tandem afternoon - that's where I practised presenting an entire afternoon from the spare Broom Cupboard at the same time Phillip was doing it for real on BBC1. Phillip was lovely - very generous and kind, and gave me a few pointers about what the job was like. The Producer was a right character – I wonder what he’s doing now? - and he babysat me through the process. I also met Pat Hubbard, who was the Head of Presentation.
By the time you went on air Phillip was already quite well established; did you have any concerns about taking over?
Of course - I was desperately nervous! Phil was lovely though – he would come back to the little office where we were based, in between recording his Take Two shows, and make sure everything was going well. I found it quite overwhelming to suddenly be in the public eye – in those days there were very few channels so most kids watched either ITV or BBC1 each afternoon. I recall even a year later, whilst I was with my husband going into our house, a group of lads calling to me from up my road. It was all from a distance, though, rather than coming to say hello. But Phil had established the role, and he was doing so well so I was glad to do the stint I did. The first girl in the BBC Broom Cupboard!
Any memories of doing the tandem afternoon - the as live afternoon in the spare Broom Cupboard?
I was given the Radio Times and told to prepare some short and some long links. Phillip was doing the real links on BBC1, and I was covering the same programmes but round the corner and only being seen within the BBC. It was weird - but it was OK. Having been in radio I was used to ad-libbing which was just as well, because just before one long link, the producer looked in and said "Do you have your Radio Times handy?" - and I thought something was about to happen! It did – they mocked up a breakdown and I had to fill for an extra minute. It went without a hitch and obviously showed what they needed it to see, and I got the job! Soon after, Phillip and I went to shoot a load of publicity shots around Television Centre.
It was the job of the Children's BBC presenter to operate the mixer desk in the continuity suite. Presumably as a DJ you worked similar equipment. Did it present any problems? We know you forgot to open the mics during one link but all the presenters did it at least once!
No, no problems really – I’d just come off the back of a year being a radio production assistant and ‘flying the desk’ for the lunchtime news show, ‘tech-opping’ (being technical operator) for the journalists and playing in their new reports on both ‘cart’ and ‘reel to reel’ (sounds so archaic now, doesn’t it!) So operating faders and pressing a button or two wasn’t really a problem. Apart from on the odd occasion, as you say!
You were a very popular presenter and the volume of mail showed, didn't it?
Bless, yes it was lovely to get the Silly Snaps in particular – they came flooding in – mostly dogs with sunglasses and outfits on! And I was dead impressed with one letter which arrived in my mailbag, addressed to just ‘Debbie, BBC’ and nothing else! The post office clearly knew where to send it! It was quite a job though, behind the scenes, to reply to as many as possible. We got sent sweets and were told not to eat them just in case, and we got through piles and piles of publicity photographs. If you notice mine, it was before I had my slanted front tooth capped. That was fixed during my time there, mainly because Biddy Baxter (Editor of Blue Peter) called for me one day. She commented on my tooth saying I'd have to get it done - so I did, just in case the call had ever come to go to Blue Peter!
Who came up with Aristotle as the Producer's name? And where did the wigwam thing come from?
Do you know what, I think they were both the brain child of the producer at the time – he was always coming up with weird and wonderful ideas! He wanted something different to Sid, I think? Sid was Phillip’s Producer. The wigwam I can't recall exactly – if anyone remembers, do let me know! Sadly I lost all my tapes in a garage fire in 2000
You wore odd earrings and this rather caught on with the viewers... tell us about the idea.
Funnily enough I’d got a long, pretty pair of faux pearl earrings and I lost one! But I didn’t want to stop wearing it so just wore another earring the same length to go with it! It was in the 80s-Madonna-Era, ie anything goes with jewellery, so no one batted an eyelid! But yes I got several letters from youngsters about it at the time, and a couple of photos of girls doing the same thing!
How many people worked on CBBC at this time? Did you have much input in devising ideas for links?
Yes, if I had any ideas I could suggest them. But the links were mostly so short I didn’t have much option to do anything other than talk about the last programme, do a quick pic or quip, and introduce the next show. I did get to interview a few people who squeezed into the tiny space - there was barely enough room for two chairs. And I loved doing the Tuesday chart run-down. In those days the pop chart was announced on a Tuesday lunchtime for some mystifying reason, and that afternoon we’d play a little clip from a pop video too. I can never hear George Michael’s Turn A Different Corner without remembering those days! Nostalgia! Mostly though, the links were short and very straightforward.
Any memories of the programmes, or personal favourites?
A couple of super memories come to mind – seeing Yvette Fielding on Seaview before she joined Blue Peter. Jossy's Giants, Hartbeat and Newsround too – I had lunch once with John Craven for a little article in his Radio Times page one week too. Another nice memory of my stint in the Broom Cupboard was being asked to go be a guest on Lift Off! - I turned up in the lift, or something! Not sure what I was there for, and I don’t think I added much to the show, as I was so nervous I got a bit tongue tied! Good job I don’t nowadays - or QVC wouldn’t sell much when I’m on! Behind the scenes I found I loved elements of the job even more than in front of the camera. Firstly I loved the Wednesday morning voice-over session where we recorded the week’s trailers or promotions. I just had to read the wording off the paper I was given, and put on my best accent (I’d poshed it up a bit in those days from my usual south London!) We had a lovely character called Esme (I think) who was our tealady – in those days the Beeb had an actual tea trolley service going round the offices and she was a real colourful character – she’d always convince me to take a scone and butter with me when it was voice over time, even though I was eternally on a diet in those days! The companionship of the little team was great though and we all used to go out to dinner on the odd occasion, including Phillip once or twice. He and I had a little chat in 2005 at the get-together of staff, old and new, when Doreen the production secretary who had been there all those years, retired. It was nice being included even though I’d only effectively done about three months in 1986!
What are your memories of working at Television Centre generally? An amazing place to be, with a great vibe?
Definitely – you never knew who you’d met in a corridor or see in reception. I recall being in a dressing room once with a couple of famous newsreaders including Sue Lawley. I also remember during my two weeks in the summer introducing the first link off the back of Breakfast Time with Frank Bough and Debbie Greenwood, who is now a friend since she went on to join QVC and worked there for a while too. I loved doing live broadcasting and being involved in such a
successful early service. After that it gave me a different outlook on life – if anyone said "but the chances are against you" I’d think "well, I managed to be the one who got the coveted Children’s BBC presenting job out of all those other applicants". You should never give up on your dreams.
Tell us more about those two weeks at the end of August 1986, picking up from Andy Crane who had just done his first three weeks. Any differences by this time? We know that by day two of this stint the mail was flooding in!
No major differences in what we were doing. Andy had done really well – I was so proud of my friend from Piccadilly Radio. And it was clear that Pat Hubbard loved what Andy Crane was doing with his ‘C’ team – the cuddly toys he’d brought in with him. For me, being pregnant by this time meant I felt a bit sick occasionally. My summer links again included a secret message competition where I put letters on a board behind me and a sign saying ‘collect these letters.’ I changed them each day and at the end of the week they spelled a Programme name - the children had to write in to tell me what it was, all without ever referencing it verbally. There was a winner too – they never missed a trick!
You endured a fairly hefty programme breakdown on your last day and flew by the seat of your pants during a problem with the final episode of Bullwinkle & Rocky. Phillip was on hand to help fill the time - a memorable end to your time on CBBC?
Oh god yes! He was always intended to come in for the last bit, since he was about to take over and resume the afternoon links on 1 September. He was in the wings ready to take over when it happened. I had a load of filler material handy anyway but it was nice that he came in and helped out.
What came next? We know you did some cable and satellite...
I had my family and was a jobbing presenter, on Open Air, on LBC radio, on Telewest (United Artists/Cable 17) local cable in South London - and I got a fabulous job for a season on the short-lived BSB satellite squarial service. It was a dream role co-presenting a live entertainment show called 31 West. It involved interviewing all kinds of celebs and guests on a
nightly half hour show. Before Doctor Who became a regular feature on repeats channels, we had the infamous BSB Doctor Who Weekend in September 1990, which I co-presented with Shyama Perera and the last producer of Dr Who, John Nathan Turner. That show still gets mentioned now amongst Whovians everywhere. I became the ‘Forces Sweetheart', introducing programmes on SSVC/BFBS TV for ten years, and co-presented an afternoon show on Living TV with Jayne Irving, called Live at Three. In later years I went back to the Beeb to host my own BBC1 daytime gameshow, Meet the Challenge, which ran in June/July 1998. That was great, but to be honest, I’m most at home doing my current job, and doing my writing!
Yes, in 1994 you went on to join QVC; as a 'queen' of shopping TV. Did your time on CBBC help at all?
I guess nothing could have been more nerve-wracking EVER than going on air from the broom cupboard for that very first link, knowing I was broadcasting live to a nation of children awaiting their favourite TV programmes. So however daunting anything else has ever seemed since then, nothing could be worse than that! Plus, the experience of doing live links, along with my previous radio expertise, all helped me become proficient at talking to time, and being able to juggle several things at once on live tv, like dealing with props and interviewing at the same time as listening to talkback and addressing the camera directly. QVC is actually one of the most challenging jobs in broadcasting and very cerebral! I get bored easily - people take the mick out of me for being a geek (Debbie is a member of Mensa, the high IQ society, two less than Carol Vorderman!) so this role suits me perfectly. Plus I’m an eternal saleswoman and buy loads myself so I’m in heaven on QVC! I took a break from it and did other things like running a business and writing, but I returned again in 2009 and have been very happy since. I like doing other things, but apart from my ‘day job,’ it’s writing that really grabs me nowadays.
Tell us about your career as a writer – what have you written and what’s coming up?
Well I’ve always written – when the kids were small I wrote a few short children’s stories for ITV Rise and Shine, for instance. But around five years ago I went on a few writing workshops, having watched a BBC programme about 100 years of Mills and Boon. It got my juices flowing again to get cracking on the novels I’d been playing around with in my head. Self-publishing changed everything and last year I was also signed to a UK independent publisher. If you look on Amazon you will now find 8 or so novels, novellas and short stories, including a steamy romantic trilogy and a semi-autobiographical weight loss book. My kids are now 28 and 25 but my brother Glenn’s daughters are just 5 and 8, so I may be co-writing some childrens’ books with him. Choc Lit the UK publisher have picked up my trilogy and the first one is due out early Summer 2015 – it’ll be a proud moment and the ambition of a lifetime to go into a bookshop and see my book on a shelf, like in WHSmith at Waterloo! Can’t wait. It’s who I am, a writer. When I’m a grown up I’d like to live in LA half the year and write movies! Haha! Other work coming up includes a series of novellas based on a true story from the 1920s. It’s a cross between Downton Abbey, Mr Selfridge, and Call the Midwife and is called ‘French or Dutch – four nurses, two horse-drawn caravans, and one scandalous ideal.’
Are you still in touch with anyone from the CBBC days - shockingly almost THIRTY years ago? And yet you've not aged at all! What's your secret?
Haha! Actually I could give you a list of item numbers for skincare and beauty products, Imedeen supplements and face gadgets that might help! Seriously, staying out of the sun and never grow up! That’s my recommendation for anti-ageing! One of my good pals now is Gabrielle Bradshaw, who was on Take Hart back then – she’s now a guest on QVC too. Love her! And lovely Andi Peters was also on QVC doing his own cooking show recently with my colleague Dale Franklin, so I caught up with Andi then too. Andy Crane and I occasionally cross paths or tweets. Apart from that, not really. I worked with Simon Potter on 31 West – he was one of the later CBBC presenters, a while after me. But in those days you just lost touch with people, there weren’t even mobile phones, let alone the internet!
Maybe if they have a 30th anniversary get together – like they did the 10th in 1995 – they will kindly invite me too and of course I’ll go if I’m not on air selling stuff!
It’s lovely to have been part of some TV history in my small way, even if I have been told ‘you’re the one we wondered what had happened to her!’ I was there if you knew where to look! And having a family, which I’d never do differently. Some amazing memories, and it’s been a little piece of reminiscing doing this, so thank you! Ta for asking and see you on QVC!