Jacqui Harper MBE is one of Britain's most experienced and respected broadcasters and corporate trainers. She has anchored news and current affairs programmes for BBC TV, Sky News and GMTV...
If you went on the stage during the old music hall days they told you to make ‘em laugh. It was great advice for life itself.
For the comedian and musician Rowland Rivron it tops the list. And for one simple reason. “When you have made people laugh you have put them at their ease,” he says. Those who cringed when Mrs Merton failed to get a titter out of Chris Ewbank on her television chat show would see vividly what he means.
Humour made everything work for Rowland when he hosted Good Stuff, a television programme about what was happening in London.
“Every week I was chatting to four or five people I had never met before,” he recalls. “I found the quickest way of getting round the feeling that these people were strangers was to have a good laugh with them. People drop their guard when you have a genuine laugh with them.”
Shared jokes and quips not only strip away any reserve that interview subjects and audiences may have. They also blot out any preconceived ideas they may harbour about you, says Rowland. So often we are wrong to think that a reserved man has no feelings. As soon as a few chuckles have broken the ice he may appear outgoing and amusing too.
There are, of course, many ways of lightening up uneasy and tense moments. Rowland once went with a colleague to do a Virgin Radio interview with the Hollywood actor and dancer Patrick Swayze. The star was in London to promote a new film he had made with Terence Stamp and was probably becoming weary of the obligatory media interviews.
Rowland looked around the hotel room and told Swayze he would only be adding to his boredom by talking to him across a table. “Pretend you are in the shower while being interviewed,” Rowland suggested.
Swayze liked the idea and the shower was turned on. The idea worked. On radio the sound of the running water created the illusion that Swayze was actually having a shower as he answered questions and told stories. “It was a good bonding thing,” says Rowland.
The unusual laughter–making ruses are Rowland’s speciality. “You can ask the same staid old questions if you like, or you can have a lateral way of doing an interview,” he says. “But if you do something out of the ordinary people like it because you are probably the 28th interviewer they have seen. You see their eyes light up if you are mucking about and they think this part of the day is actually quite interesting.”
The BBC television Holiday programme gave Rowland an opportunity to indulge his preference for this off–centre approach. Often he lands in a wonderful sunny location where holidaymakers are perched on the beach practically naked. “In these shows I have tried to appear at odds with the environment,” he says.
Therefore, in temperatures of 90 fahrenheit he slips into a pinstripe suit to speak to men in bathing briefs and women in bikinis. Suddenly the funny man seems like a fish out of water. “This phases people,” he grins. “Then they do whatever you say and answer whatever questions you ask them.”
Radio, naturally, makes somewhat different demands on the presenter. But triggering laughter is still the principle in a radio studio without an audience. Rowland presents a three–hour Saturday afternoon show on LBC with Janice Vee, the former Link and Bikini pop star. The programme, intended as an irreverent look at life, is called simply Rowland Rivron with Janice Vee.
Rowland says: “If I can make Janice laugh it’s like having an audience. There is nothing better than getting someone laughing uncontrollably. But it must never be a private joke, for the listeners’ sake.”
The same treatment applies to guests on the show. “I can’t chat to people for four or five minutes without trying to make them laugh,” says Rowland. “That’s my litmus test.”
He adds a word of caution, however. “You have to be quite astute and read the situation quickly,” says Rowland. It is disastrous if the interview subject just does not respond. You spot the problem usually when the first joke misfires and you have to change your approach immediately. Remember Mrs Merton and Chris Ewbank. Fortunately this was a comedy show but there could have been grave embarrassment in more serious circumstances.
Tailoring the approach to the conditions was never more important than when Rowland hit calamity on one of the Good Stuff television programmes. An unusual aspect of the show was interviews conducted in a limousine driven around London. Rowland’s guest on this occasion was the actress Jenny Agutter.
Jenny stepped into the limo with a big smile and put her handbag on the floor of the car, right beside a bottle of sparkling wine.
As the limo moved off the cork popped out of the bottle and the wine poured itself into the actress’s handbag. The interview had started with hilarity and fun but very quickly Jenny was hinting: “Can we get this over with as soon as possible?” She was hardly pleased and no jokes would have mended her mood.
All’s well that ends well, however. Rowland says: “I have seen her since.” And what do they do when they meet up again? “We laugh about it,” says Rowland.