Jane Houston how computers changed the PA’s role

Going back to when I’d been at school and my careers teachers had said, because I was very good at maths, “You should be going for a career in computers, get a proper job rather than going into television.” So, I think when computers were introduced, I just embraced it, and was lucky that I could learn it pretty fast. And when we used to do the news, because we were the first computerised newsroom, I found that fascinating. And it was liberating, really. It made life so much easier, but you had to remember that you were only as good as the information that you’ve put in. So, if you haven’t got the information in right, the computer wasn’t going to do it right for you. And that’s what a lot of people didn’t understand and still don’t nowadays. So it certainly changed it. And just in terms of queuing tapes, when we started out, you’d have a 10-second queue. And then by the time I stopped doing ITV, it was all instant. And I think now it’s all automatic, isn’t it? Nobody queues it. So, it’s really, really different. In the way that things were edited, completely different. All the film editors doing the offline edits and… very, very different than it had been when I started. Going into the cutting room and seeing the rolls of film on the Steenbeck, you don’t do that anymore. So, yes, very, very different. 

And I was in sound as well. Because dad in the music studio, his desk in that music studio was the first 36-track recording desk in the UK. So that’s why so many of the big stars loved coming to Granada to record music, because they could do things that they couldn’t do with other recording studios. Dad was off quite often asked to do certain parts of the track. So I know he did, I think it was the drum track on Ultravox’s Vienna. And so that was a big change for my dad and the way he worked. But, considering that he was really older generation, he also embraced that, and maybe that’s where I got the mathematical brain from! And he really seemed to understand how that desk worked and could work it very, very well. And I think was very good at what he did.

I think there would’ve been some people who would have been kind of scared and resistant to it. And, like you say, it’s going to happen anyway, isn’t it? But it’s how people embrace it really.

Well, I think people were also scared that it was going to do people out of jobs. And undoubtedly, it has probably. It’s certainly changed roles, and there’s probably roles that don’t exist now that used to. We don’t have PAs on news any more, for instance. But I think certainly in the drama world, I think it’s made it less efficient, because it’s meant that scripts can be more last minute. So, there’s not as much planning time as they used to be. You couldn’t change a script on the day before, because it just wasn’t physically possible. Obviously, you had to have somebody went ill or something, but that was exceptional. But nowadays it very much is the norm that you can start shooting on a Monday and you probably don’t get the final script until the Friday afternoon. And then it will be amended constantly, constantly. And it doesn’t matter what scale the production is, that can happen. 

I did a feature film last year where it was being written literally as we were shooting. It wasn’t a low budget film, that was quite a big budget film. In fact, we were shooting one scene and it had changed three times and the actors started saying words and I prompted with words that were on my script and they were like, “Oh no, it’s changed again since then.” So, I think computers have done a lot of good, I think for PAs doing things like Coronation Street, has probably made life easier. I don’t know, because I haven’t worked on anything like that since the computers came out. But certainly, the repetition. When you think, when you used to type the camera script and then you had to type the camera cards separately, and repeat all that typing, and now they’re done automatically. So, it must have helped with that. But, I think certainly in the bigger drama world, then it’s made it less, I would say less efficient and more susceptible to change. 

And the call sheets, when I was in the production manager’s office, the stage managers used to ring up at three o’clock in the afternoon, if not earlier, depending on where the location was. From a phone box, take the call sheet, I’d type it, photocopy it and it would go out to location. Nowadays, you quite often don’t get the call until eight, nine o’clock at night. And so you don’t know what time you start the next day, where you’re going, what scenes you’re shooting. I think a lot of it’s down to computers, because it’s down to late scripts, and so therefore it is not as efficient I don’t think.

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