The invitation was totally unexpected: an envelope from the BBC, addressed to him care of his publisher.  Why, he wondered, would his licence renewal be sent to his publisher?  Fred turned the envelope over in his rough hands and carefully slit the envelope open with a knife. The letter inside was brief.

Dear Mr Fred Bambridge

We are exploring the feasibility of making a television programme about root vegetables.  The programme is still at the conceptual stage, but we envisage an interview format with experts being quizzed on the merits of eating more root vegetables.

We have read, and much enjoyed, your book on turnips and swedes and hope you will agree to be one of our advisers on the development of the programme.

If this is of interest, please telephone me on the above number.

Yours sincerely

Suzanne Brown

Commissioning Editor, BBC Food Programmes

He read the letter again and studied the signature, a large S followed by a generous squiggle.  He was surprised that anyone at the Beeb knew about his book, published six years ago with a modest print run and now out of print.  He read the letter twice more.  What, he wondered, was involved in being an adviser?  And who might the other advisors be?

He decided, as he always did with life’s big decisions, to ponder the invitation. If, having slept on it, he remained curious, he’d contact the BBC and find out more.  He put the letter back in its envelope and pinned it to the notice board in the kitchen.  He adjusted the envelope so that it was absolutely straight, pulled on his wellies and, humming tunelessly, went out to tend his root vegetables.

Fred, a widower for the past eight years, was in his early sixties and lived alone. At the age of fifty he had been made redundant by British Steel where he’d worked since leaving school.  His long years of service resulted in a generous redundancy package which he’d used to purchase a small holding of nearly two acres on the outskirts of Sheffield.  This was where he indulged his passion for growing organic root vegetables.  Over the years he had built up a successful one-man business supplying local supermarkets.  He had written his book to while away the lonely hours after his wife died and, to his surprise, it had been published. From time to time he received letters from readers asking questions:

Are neeps swedes or turnips?

Are swedes turnips that have been grown in Sweden?

Can you eat turnip leaves and, if so, how do you get rid of the bitter taste?

How much sugar is there in a turnip?

When did people start eating turnips?

He always replied by writing on the letter, ‘Thank you for your enquiry.  You’ll find the answer to your question on page (so and so) of my book’.  He then posted the letter back to the sender, wondering whether, one day, he might be asked a question that was not covered somewhere in his book.

After a couple of days, Fred telephoned Suzanne Brown and, sounding suitably non committal, agreed to attend an exploratory meeting at the BBC offices in Manchester.  He was assured that his travelling expenses would be reimbursed.

Fred travelled to the meeting by train, gazing out of the window at sodden fields.  Two young people, introducing themselves as Nigel and Julia, collected him from the reception area.  Suzanne Brown was nowhere to be seen.  As they guided Fred to the meeting room on the first floor, Nigel explained that, if the programme went ahead, he would be the director and Julia the producer. The difference between the two roles was not explained and Fred didn’t like to ask.

When they reached the meeting room, two people were already there chatting happily.  A man called Bill, an authority on potatoes, and a large, opinionated lady called Laura who, it seemed, knew everything there was to know about onions.

Nigel thanked them for coming.  ‘I’m keen to have your input so that Julia and I can make a convincing case for a 30 minute programme about root vegetables; what they are, how to grow them, how to cook them and how to enjoy them.’

Ideas came thick and fast, admittedly mostly from Laura and Bill with Fred chipping in whenever they paused to draw breath.  Julia, armed with felt tipped pens, made notes on large sheets of flip chart paper.  After an hour or so, Nigel professed himself delighted with their help. ‘Thank you.  We now have more than enough material to put together a theme paper.  I’ll send you all a draft so that you can comment before it is finalised.’

Fred went back to his small holding and continued to tend his root vegetables.  The post came and went with nothing further from the BBC. As the weeks passed, Fred’s disappointment faded but he remained irritated. He couldn’t forgive himself for succumbing to flattery and allowing his expectations to be raised.

Eventually, long after Fred had given up expecting to hear anything further, a letter from  the BBC arrived.

Dear Fred,

Apologies for the delay in getting back to you following our meeting a few months ago.  I had hoped to get the enclosed script to you well before now but I’m pleased to be able to tell you that we now have the go ahead and are in a position to finalise arrangements for the programme. 

We would like to invite you to participate in the proposed interview and I am authorised to offer you a fee of £1,000 plus expenses. 

Please sign the enclosed contract and return it to me at your earliest convenience.  I look forward to working with you on this project.

Your sincerely

Julia Bucknell  

 Producer, Root Vegetable Project.

Fred was amazed:  they wanted him to appear in the programme, not just to advise on the contents!  He was wary yet intrigued.  He read through the script and grudgingly admitted that it was rather good.  He studied the contract, reading and rereading the small print looking for snags but found none. After mulling it over for a few days, he signed and dated the contract, returning it to the BBC in the stamped addressed envelope they had provided.

Two more lengthy meetings followed with Laura, Bill and Fred going through the script carefully, suggesting modifications.  None of them had been on television before but Nigel assured them that the interviewer, a well known newsreader, would look after them and steer them through the scripted questions. It wasn’t necessary to learn their answers by heart.  They just needed to be familiar with the questions they’d be asked so that there were no surprises.  Fred was relieved to hear this.  He was happy to ad lib so long as he knew in advance what he was going to be asked.

The day for recording the programme arrived.  Fred, in his best Sunday suit, got to the studio in good time.  Outwardly he appeared calm, but in truth inside he was churning with a mixture of apprehension and excitement.  Bill and Laura chatted away nervously.  They were all escorted into the studio.  Four chairs were arranged in a semi circle, one for each of them, with the fourth chair reserved for the absent newsreader.  Cables snaked across the floor, unfamiliar lights came on and off and camera men sat behind huge cameras on wheels waiting patiently to swing into action. Nigel and Julia prowled around clutching clipboards, glancing anxiously at the clock on the studio wall.  Nigel assured them that the newscaster would soon be with them.

A pretty girl powdered Fred’s bald patch and nose and adjusted his collar.  A sound engineer clipped a microphone to the lapel of his jacket with a warning not touch it accidentally with hand gestures. Bill and Laura fell uncharacteristically silent.  Cameras zoomed in and out doing practice runs.  Julia was talking quietly on her mobile behind a cupped hand.  Time ticked away.

Eventually the famous newscaster swept in.  He offered no explanation or apology for cutting things fine.  Nigel and Julia looked relieved that he had arrived and fussed round him deferentially. The makeup girls swung into action. He asked for a copy of the script and a pencil.  He flicked through the pages, crossing things out.  ’Surely you don’t expect me to ask this?’ and ‘Who on earth wrote this stuff?’  Fred assumed this was some sort of friendly banter between professionals but was surprised when Nigel and Julia demurred, assuring the newscaster that the scripted questions, so carefully crafted over a series of meetings, were merely a guide.

The countdown began and a red light came on. They were live.

The newscaster spoke directly to the camera and introduced the panel.  He was within his element, charming and totally at ease. It was as if he’d flicked a switch.  He turned to Laura with a big smile and asked her a question about parsnips.  She gave an answer as best she could but added that she knew more about onions than parsnips.   Undaunted, the newscaster asked Bill an unscripted question about carrots.  Bill gulped but managed to produce a satisfactory answer.  The newscaster then turned to Fred, but before he could ask whatever he was about to ask, Fred unclipped his microphone and walked out of the studio and into the Manchester rain.

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