Vox in the Box: Gabriel Clarke

Gabriel Clarke is a reporter and presenter for ITV, largely on football. He’s also made documentaries about a number of subjects, including Steve McQueen and Le Mans, James Hunt and motor racing in the 1970s, and boxing…

Hi Gabriel. How did you get started in broadcasting?
I was working on some regional papers and I did some radio work, just on a Saturday afternoon on rugby and football, précising the action into a short bulletin, which I really enjoyed. I then thought I was in a position to start specialising in sport. I got a job at Radio Trent in Nottingham, which was a big area back then in 1987/88, with Clough still being successful with the team that won some League Cups. Plus Derby were in the top division then. After that I went to British Satellite Broadcasting, which was the start of satellite broadcasting in the UK.

It was a team put together by Vic Wakeling – a lot of the people you see on Sky today like Jeff Stelling, Martin Tyler, plus Andy Gray, were all there. It was a mix of relatively old pros who’d been in television for a long time, then guys like me who hadn’t. That was really good grounding when I look back on it. Then I joined ITV and worked on Saint and Greavsie, where I was a reporter, and started to specialise in feature reporting, and I’ve been with ITV on and off for 25 years, through famine and feast, doing World Cups and European Championships, but also doing other sports, like boxing, the Boat Race, Rugby Union, and also being able to branch off more into documentaries. In that sense it’s felt that everything has flowed into each other.

A big part of your job is those post-match interviews, where you don’t get much time – one of the big skills must be gauging the mood of whoever you’re talking to…
I think there’s gauging the mood and also making sure you précis the editorial. ITV have shorter running times than the satellite stations: we tend to have 15 minutes after a game, which boils down to around eight or nine minutes of air time. The key thing is getting the person in front of the microphone and camera, which can be a challenge if they’ve lost. In the minute-and-a-half that you have [with a player or manager], which sometimes can be two or three questions, you try and shape the interview so you cover the beginning, middle and and end, as best you can. You’re always up against time constraints, so the challenge for me is to keep questions succinct, always try to make sure I’m asking a question rather than making a statement – although sometimes a statement will elicit the same sort of response.

Certainly it’s a heat of the moment situation – on the whole I think that’s a good thing. There is this idea of ‘let them go into the dressing room and cool down for a minute’ – first and foremost ITV and the BBC aren’t in the position to let them do that because you might be off the air by the time they have cooled down, but I think with managers and players you do want a bit of emotion, so it’s up to you to gauge the right level of emotion, to ensure you get a bit of that back, because fans do want to see that, and try and elicit something that goes beyond the cliché, which isn’t always possible but you try your best.

Do you tend to stick with the two or three questions you’ve prepared, or do you change that depending on what they say?
You’ve definitely got to respond. I remember last year, Wayne Rooney just came off the pitch having played for England, and said in his answer to the question ‘What changed at half-time?’ something along the lines of ‘Michael Carrick was the best player on the pitch’. He’d come on after half an hour, so obviously you would follow up on that. You don’t stick rigidly to your list of questions, because that’s quite a big statement by England’s captain. Obviously that potentially becomes the editorial of your next question, and you want to hear them expand on that. Always listen to what they’re saying – the key to any journalist at any point is to make sure that you’re not just thinking about what your next question is, that you’re listening to what they’re saying. A player or manager will pick you up on that – if you don’t look engaged, you’re in trouble whether you’re doing an interview with the local cub scout leader or Roy Hodgson on national telly.

Have you ever been intimidated by an interviewee?
Certain managers do carry an aura – Sir Alex Ferguson immediately comes to mind. He’s a man who without a doubt didn’t suffer fools, and you are on the end of his wrath if you ask him a stupid question. But I always regarded that as a challenge, and I miss interviewing Ferguson because, while he might have been a challenge, he would also give you something that was forthright, to the point and absolutely nailed the editorial of the night. Some managers are pretty good when it comes to dodging that editorial, but Ferguson was always fairly honest with his assessments of his own team, especially when they played badly.

Ferguson, Mourinho, Wenger – all these managers, there won’t be any question they would take offence to. They’ll pretty much answer a direct question, but you just have to be prepared, engaged and on top of it, and I think most managers will respect you. The times when you’re likely to feel as though you’ve not quite got it right, or get a response that isn’t a good one, is when you’ve just been a bit careless maybe with what you’ve asked. Obviously there are always those, in the heat of the moment, when you’ve asked a fairly standard question and it was misinterpreted, or the manager will jump on you – you’re the first port of call, the first person he’s talked to after the game, and he might take umbrage. And sometimes there’s nothing wrong with that anyway, is there? Seeing a manager get emotional when he perhaps shouldn’t is good television. As long as you’re not disrespecting him. If on the odd occasion you look a bit stupid…well, I think that happens to all journalists.

You’ve mentioned managers getting caught up in the emotions of things – are there any occasions when you’ve got caught up in that?
I don’t know really. I think that’s for other people to judge. I’ve not been in the privileged position of England winning a major tournament yet, so maybe that’s a time when I’ll get like that. There are nights when I’ve listened back and maybe the questions have been a little bit emotional – maybe in cup finals, or Champions League finals. Maybe I might cross the line if England ever get it right in a major tournament.

You do tend to come across as quite measured, relaxed…
Interviews like that are a pretty unnatural situation. You’ve got two fellas off the pitch, soaked in sweat, in front of the camera, there’s me with the microphone, the floor manager, the sound man, light in their face. They might have just won, they might have just lost – a lot of them get told to do these things, without being there voluntarily. They might know me, to a degree, or they might not, so a lot of it is an element of making them feel at ease, but that could just come naturally, in the way that you’d just meet someone in normal life.

In the pre-match features you do, ITV tend to make more of those than just a straight interview with someone. Is that something you get involved with, in the planning and production?
I do to a degree. I’ve always liked to do features – short films, three or four minute things with players, which has then directed me towards longer form documentaries. I think a lot of channels will simply do the one-on-one interview, which is fair enough, but I think a lot of times there is a story to be told. If you’re doing the story of Danny Welbeck, for example, putting across the back story, researching archives, bringing something to the set that maybe reflects their career or a photo that they perhaps haven’t seen before – that sort of feature allows you to get closer to the personality of the player.

And also there are some stories to do with players, or around the game, that you want to branch into. You can sort of hope to set some sort of agenda, and add a little bit more to the night than just the pre-match chat. If you’ve got the time to do that, I think those features have a place – it’s a bit like a newspaper feature where a Paul Hayward or a Matt Dickinson will provide a little back-story to the match. That’s always what I’ve enjoyed doing, and there’s a real value to it. We’ll certainly be doing a lot more of that this summer at Euro 2016.

Have these provided a bridge between the reporting and your ‘parallel career’ making documentaries?
I tend to get more satisfaction now out of doing more longer form documentaries. Last year I did a film ‘Steve McQueen: The Man and Le Mans’, which had nothing to do with football. I’ve done documentaries about boxing called ‘The Fight of Their Lives’ which wasn’t really about boxing, but the stories around it. I’ve done a film called ‘When Playboys Ruled The World’ on motor racing but that was more a story about celebrity. I think it feels like a natural step – some of them have been a bit more sport-centric, and some have been just like a longer form of an interview. A lot of the principles and the processes are the same, just more elongated.

There’s probably more of a sense of satisfaction sometimes with those – having said that, there’s no greater buzz than standing in the tunnel, doing something live, getting that emotion across, being at a big game when something’s happened and you’re the first person to talk to a manager or player about that. That’s a privileged position to be in. I’ve made sure this season, even though ITV don’t have the live rights to the Champions League, that I’ve done as many of the highlights shows as I can, because I still enjoy it. I was at Liverpool v Dortmund, and even though we weren’t live, there was still a buzz about talking to Dejan Lovren two or three minutes after he’s come off the pitch on the best night of his life. Being able to mix the two up – I’m very fortunate to be in that position.

Is there anything in either strand that has informed the other? Whether that’s documentary making informing your reporting work, or the other way around?
Definitely. Especially while interviewing, both processes involve talking to people, gauging moods, cutting to the chase, and I think the need to ask succinct, direct questions post-match has informed the documentary making, because sometimes even though you’ve got someone there in front of you for three hours, a three or four word question, yes or no, can get you that key answer, rather than talking at length just because you have the time to talk. There’s nothing like a direct question sometimes, no matter in what sense you’re dealing with them. That need to be concise has definitely informed the documentary making.

It’s the need to be concise, and the need to know what’s achievable: I think in a three, four, five minute piece you’re still able to achieve quite a lot in terms of a ‘beginning, middle and end’. When you work on a documentary you talk about having ‘three acts’, and I think when I’ve gone back to the longer to the shorter form, it’s possible still to think that way. You can still be ambitious, and not be rushed. I hate television that’s too rushed – one of the key things to get across is emotion, and you get that through the stories. Sport is full of cliché, which essentially is a denial of emotion. Players and managers will lapse into cliché, which is fair enough because some of the time it is the same thing every week [for them], but a lot of the stories aren’t. If the story is good enough, a lot of that is to do with the emotion of the story, so if you can get that across in the way you tell it, that’s sort of mission accomplished. And that’s why we love sport, because it makes us feel emotional.

Vox in the Box: Gabriel Clarke
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