The University of the Third Age


Bernard Newnham TV-Bay Magazine
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Here's a cliché - "We all get to be old one day - if we're lucky". There comes a point when things like "....mastered in Dolby Vision Domestic and SDR Rec 709....." become just a touch unimportant (and actually I never really understood that stuff in the first place). I retired for the third time last year - BBC producer, and before that cameraman, then freelance producer, trainer, do-your-own camera, sound, editor, blah blah, then 11 years university teaching. I did my bit - never a BAFTA, but certainly the first into a good few things - but it all has to come to an end sometime.

Or maybe it doesn't - not yet anyway. When the university I was working for dropped the courses I worked on, I walked away with mixed feelings. Over the years I've grown into strong opinions on what should and shouldn't be taught by universities over three years, but don't get me started. There I was retired - old, past it, no longer an asset. Once upon a time, at 70, it would be pipe and slippers and sit in the corner watching daytime tv - but somehow that isn't me, and probably isn't an awful lot of people these days.

It was then that someone on an email list I run mentioned the U3A - the University of the Third Age. At the time I knew nothing about it, but now I know, and so do you, that it's a worldwide thing started in France a long time back. You have to be over 50 and not in full time employment. It's totally voluntary, and runs hundreds of different courses. I paid my £15 annual fee and was invited to go along to a new starters meeting. I expected about three of us, but there were probably fifty. People explained various aspects, but the big deal was that they were looking for more course leaders. I said nothing - after all, I'd only joined 20 minutes ago. There was tea and more chat and more leader requests. In the end I put my hand up and said that I'd just stopped teaching video production at a university. They pretty much fell on me. The world is full of people "happy to help, but don't want to be in charge". BBC producers are in charge or they're not producers any more, so after 40 years it's built in to me, and here I am in charge again.

I couldn't run a show without kit, and felt that my Canon HD palm camera, though ok, wasn't the right tool. Back at the university we'd gone through several generations of cameras - they don't tend to be fashionable for long - and older cameras were just stashed away in the store. When young students are paying £9000 a year you can't make them use miniDV ("Tape? What's that?"), but I'm in a different world now. I called someone at the uni and asked if they could sell me some old gear. No, no system for that, but I could long term borrow some. I always liked the Sony Z1, it was a good camera in its day. This one hadn't been switched on for a long time, but it still works, and I have a few left over DV tapes in the cupboard. I also borrowed a rather battered Manfrotto tripod and fixed it up with the help of the friendly people at Manfrotto. The uni students hadn't done it any favours but it's pretty good now. I have some redheads, reflectors and mics, so I was reasonably ok at the sharp end. I keep looking at radio mics on eBay, and I do wonder what's out there gathering dust in endless store rooms.

For post production this is a very good time for us no-budget people. A very top end system is just waiting out there to be used for free. Take a bow, DaVinci Resolve. Of course, getting from HDV recorded on miniDV to an edit is no longer a straightforward exercise. Luckily, my students don't care about 4k etc. Good quality sound and vision is all we need. Take a bow, free OBS Studio. A cheap USB video grabber - £7.50 on eBay - gets from the Z1 composite output into the laptop, leaving an mp4 file ready to edit. The students can take away copies on USB sticks or SD cards. It isn't the sort of quality I'd really want, but there's no budget, and if I put it on YouTube you wouldn't be able to tell it from a good few others. In any case, it's the story that matters, as I've been saying for a lot of years.

I advertised myself on the local U3A mailing list, by then mid autumn term, and got a dozen or so replies, which is the right number. I wanted to do practical stuff, not "chalk and talk" or the modern equivalent, and that's a quorum. The nature of being the U3A is that students tend to have had professional careers, and I have all kinds. A semi-retired actress, a Unix man, a world travelled accountant, an HR lady. Like the students I'm used to, these students have weeks when they aren't there, but it tends to be because they're on a cruise, not because they got hugely drunk the night before.

One of the first things I had to explain, and make an on-going deal of, is that we use technology to make art, to tell stories - like Rembrandt or Shakespeare, though just possibly not in the same class. The technology in itself isn't important, it does a job. Some of my group have been scared of tech all their lives, but there are plenty of production jobs that only require awareness, not deep knowledge, and the current ones seem to have relaxed a bit.

And so, here we are. I've reached a point where we can set up on a location without me doing everything. The U3A runs lunches for group leaders, and at my first I'd hardly walked in the door when the lady who runs the ukulele group asked if we could video them. The prospect of thirty enthusiastic performers of "When I'm Cleaning Windows" - well, I've been in tv for half a century now, I can cope.

A friend told me that joining the U3A changed his mother's life. It's rather made mine the same - but then making tv has (almost) always been fun.


Tags: iss139 | u3a | panasonic | davinci resolve | Bernard Newnham
Contributing Author Bernard Newnham

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