Stuart McAlister talks to workingwise.co.uk about his wide-ranging career, from lighting Evita! to global TV news cameraman and the ageism he faced on returning to the UK.
As an experienced television news cameraman, Stuart McAlister has reported on everything from the Bosnian war to the death of Princess Diana and South Africa’s first free elections. But on his return to the UK from France eight years ago, he found himself, at 53, unable to get any work. Not only that but he has been unable to get any work in the media since. He believes that the industry he devoted so much of his life to has shut him out because of his age.
He talks about one job shortly after returning from France – an awards ceremony. Asked to film some exteriors of the building in which the awards were being held, out of the corner of his eye he noticed two youngsters with clipboards watching him. It turned out that they were members of the production team sent to monitor him, making sure he could do the job he was tasked with. It was humiliating. “Right then, I knew I was old,” he says. “The industry I loved didn’t want me any more, and the young were keen to make quite sure that I knew it. I felt insulted and wondered where my sense of worth had gone.
Now working in the construction industry, which did see past his date of birth, he talks to workingwise.co.uk about his working life – and it has been a fascinating one.
It started with an amazing stroke of luck. Through his sister, who was a singer in a West End production of Jesus Christ Superstar, he got a job on the lighting crew of on Evita!. Within 16 months, he was operating the show’s lighting board – and he hadn’t yet turned 19. He is still slightly in awe of the fact that he went from doing the lighting at his school’s annual play to soloing on the lighting board for the hottest show in the West End.
After a few years, Stuart wanted to branch out from the theatre and joined an independent lighting hire company in the suburbs. His previous understanding of lighting boards counted in his favour as he spent a fortnight at Elstree Studio working on the final scene of Monty Python’s Meaning of Life. Other jobs followed, usually through word of mouth. Many times a friend would say ‘so-and-so is looking for someone like you’, and he’d go for a chat and get the job. Back then, it was a far more informal hiring process than it is nowadays, where Stuart struggles because many of the jobs he is qualified for now require a degree, even if it is not relevant to the actual job.
After the lighting job, he worked at a video display company in Andover, which operated large-screen video projectors on television shows ranging from The Late, Late Breakfast Show and Wogan to Top of the Pops. Then he joined a rival company that provided giant mobile TV screens for sporting events and stadium concerts. In 1986, Stuart worked on Queen’s Live Magic show at Wembley. “From my vantage point above the stage, listening to 80,000 people sing and clap along to Radio Ga Ga, did something to my senses!” he says.
It was about this time that Stuart became interested in television cameras and video editing, so he joined the big-budget conference circuit. At the end of the 1980’s, a chance meeting saw him pick up a television camera for the first time. An independent television facility in Westminster urgently needed someone to cover the Guinness fraud trial at Southwark Crown Court. He admits that this first attempt at television news wasn’t his finest moment, but the facility taught him and turned him into a proficient TV news cameraman and VT editor.
In 1992, out on one of his daily filming assignments around Westminster, Stuart got talking to someone from Sky News who said they could do with someone like him – a multiskiller. Within six months of starting in Osterly, he was sent to Bosnia and, as the team’s VT Editor, began crafting reports from the heart of the conflict zone. Sky had an arrangement with American broadcaster CBS, and they would now be airing Sky’s reports from the Balkans. In effect, Sky’s viewership had quadrupled overnight. The eastern conclave of Gorazde was in the grip of a severe winter and was also surrounded by Serb troops. Nothing was going in or out.
Footage from the Sky team in the town was brought out overnight by guides who led the inhabitants to an aid station some 25 kilometres away. From his tent, Stuart edited the news packages and then sent them to Osterly and New York by satellite. Off the back of those reports, members of the public in the US began donating food and clothing to CBS.
One evening, before taking to his sleeping bag, Stuart heard a noise overhead. “The Serbs had effectively cut Gorazde off from the outside world,” he says. “There was this dull rumbling noise overhead, the distinct sound of transport aircraft. The UN were now dropping relief to the people of Gorazde. If our reporting had gone 0.01% of the way to making a difference, then I’d die a happy man. On reflection, that assignment changed me completely.
After several trips to Bosnia came a more uplifting assignment: covering the first free elections in South Africa. “It was just extraordinary,” says Stuart. “Snaking into remote polling stations were queues of people waiting to cast their votes, and on the other side, those who had just voted were dancing and celebrating. To see such a reaction was truly humbling.” Prior to the joy had come the darker side of the South African story: a right-wing white farmers’ group exploded a 90kg car bomb in Johannesburg, killing nine and injuring 92.
Stuart returned to the UK and was interviewed for the new Associated Press [AP] Television News agency. There was a lot of healthy competition for the job, but being multiskilled, he edged ahead and got it. It was a management role focused on quality control while also teaching seasoned journalists and producers how to shoot and edit their own news footage. One of the people he taught was Simon Cumbers, who was later killed in the 2004 terrorist attack that left BBC reporter Frank Gardner with lifelong injuries. Stuart gave the BBC a tribute. “I am proud to have been part of Simon’s learning curve. He became a highly competent TV cameraman,” he says.
In 1997, AP offered Stuart a freelance contract as a cameraman/VT editor in their Paris bureau. With five months of him first arriving, he found himself looking into the opening of the Pont d’Alma tunnel, the wrecked and twisted Mercedes carrying Princess Diana and Dodi Fayed within. He stayed in France, though not with AP, for almost 20 years, going fully freelance a year after arriving. He became a regular fixture with CNN and, after that, the BBC. The stories he covered included the Kosovo conflict for CNN and for the BBC, watching Ellen McArthur cross the finish line on her round-the-world trip.
Stuart returned to the UK in 2015 and found it impossible to find work. “It was as if I had arrived from another planet,” he says. He contacted friends and former colleagues, but nothing was available. He was told: “You have no recent history here, and we know nothing about you.” After working his way through savings, he reluctantly signed up for Universal Credit while applying for and taking several menial jobs, including parking cars at Gatwick airport. The difficulty of finding work wore away at his sense of self. “Had I wanted this level of rejection,” he says, “I would have joined online dating.”
He doesn’t hold that humiliation against young people trying to get into the industry. In fact, recently he has been mentoring them through editing and media courses at several further education colleges, and he says they are keen to learn and can see that his skills are still relevant. Now an account manager at a major construction firm, his boss is half his age, and he gets along very well with her. He adds that the company is open to employing older workers and realised, after looking at his CV, that he had vital skills that they could use.
While the media is often presented as a young and highly competitive industry, Stuart thinks the ageism he has experienced is not wholly limited to one sector. He would like to ask hiring managers two questions: why is it so important to have a degree these days, and why are companies so reluctant to employ the over-50s? “I am tired of the ‘we don’t think you’d fit our culture’ answers,” he says. “If organisations insist on filling their offices with 30-somethings, then the introduction of an over-50 will be even harder to fit in.”
Before finding his current job, Stuart contacted his local MP, sending him a long, heartfelt email. In a later face-to-face meeting, the MP leant back in his chair and told Stuart that he had three things going against him: he was the wrong sex, the wrong colour, and the wrong age. He added that if Stuart ever got another full-time job, he would be very surprised. “I had come looking for help, and he basically dismissed me, insinuating that I would never get another job,” he says. “I felt useless and that it was my fault that I failed to meet the requirements to find employment.”
“It’s down to the hiring managers. They can’t see that there is a lot that can be learned from the older generation,” he adds. Stuart wants to keep working past the state retirement age. “I love working,”he says, “but I don’t want to end up stacking shelves at B & Q if that is the only option. I went from working in a busy, skills-based news industry and in demand 24/7 to a dead-stop. To nothing.”
It’s a startling contrast for anyone to handle, but it also seems like a shocking waste.