Thursday, 6 January 2022

Britain says "Goodbye" to the much-loved, brave and remarkable Radio and Television Journalist with a zest for life called Gary Burgess

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Gary, who has died at the age of 46, succumbed to his cancer at Jersey Hospice on New Year's Day, after having forged a successful 29 year career as a broadcaster in both radio and television. He invigorated everything he did with his tremendous and infectious joie de vivre, including the way he faced up to and dealt with his terminal diagnosis. 
He was born the son of Linda and Kenneth in the market town of Bury on the outskirts of Manchester in the Autumn of 1975 and was brought up in, as he himself said : "One of those very boring 2.4 children families, in your classic two up, two down". It was here where he recalled : "The first naughty thing I remember being scolded for was going into the back garden and projecting my brother out of his pram by grabbing the handle as hard as I can and catapulting him across the lawn". 

In 1982, when he was seven, the family moved from Manchester to South Africa "Because of my Dad's job at the time and for me my education was quite different because most of the students were born in South Africa. They could speak both English and and Afrikaans, so their second language, the equivalent of learning French in England, was to learn Zulu. I remember 'sawubona thisha', which is 'good morning teacher'. My second language lesson was actually Afrikaans with Miss Ealey. There were just three of us in the class, where we had to learn 'baie dankie' ('thank you very much') and 'tots eens' ('goodbye'). We still used chalk and slates to write our lessons down on rather than exercise books". 

The policy of Apartheid operated in South Africa until the 1990s and so all the pupils in his school were white. Friends later said that witnessing the institutionalized inequality of Apartheid at such a young age may have, as a journalist, cemented his desire to question the status quo and stand up for those who could not stand up for themselves.

Clearly, the move to South Africa had been a wrench and he recalled that : "My friends had gone; the climate was different; the visual landscape was different, but in the back ground was this box playing the radio. My first memory was that every morning the weather forecast ended with the temperature being 29 degrees. It was always 29 degrees. I don't know whether that was true or not, but this consistency of hearing this message coming out of the radio and then the first song I remember was actually a couple of years later it was 1984 - Queen and 'Radio Ga Ga' (link) and its a song to this day transports me back to being this 8 year old in South Africa in the back garden in the sunshine listening to the radio. Suddenly all was well with the world". 

When he was ten in 1985, the family moved back to Britain and settled in Blackpool where his grandparents lived. He said : "I went from primary school to secondary school and it was really at that point that my love affair with radio was cemented. One of my earliest memories is to lay there under the duvet in my bed with my bedside clock radio. This slightly dirty, cream looking clock radio, the red digital clock displayed, but then the analogue tuner and at night as you're tuning along the dial, from this crackle, suddenly, this voice came out of the ether and it was Allan Beswick doing the 'Late Night Phone In' on Red Rose Radio. I'd never heard anything like it in my life".(link)

At the age of eleven Gary moved to Montgomery High School in Bispham and said that at school he was "one of those ridiculously studious pupils who kind of got it immediately, but didn't really try too hard. I was the first in the class to understand long division. I was the one helping the other students out with their fractions and observing what was going on around me and I wonder if that set me up as the sort of person I became ?"

Gary recalled : "There was one teacher at school who effectively set me up for life in terms of media, who I've actually stayed in touch with over the years". Gary was in the first cohort of Mrs Anderton's Media Studies class and had set up the school radio station. In 2020 he said :"She celebrated her 80th birthday a couple of years ago and it was one of the privileges of my life to be able to go back for that reunion and really reflect on what a difference one person can make to another's life".

Needless to say he said : "My parents were devastated that their son, who had these grand ambitions in life, was instead wanting to work on the radio". Having left school at the age of 17, he got a job helping out as the teaboy on the overnight show of 'Radio Wave' which had opened in Blackpool in 1992. He recalled : "I was there from one in the morning to seven in the morning and at seven in the morning went to work in a call centre during the day".

He looked back with affection at his early days : "Radio Wave was based in the upstairs ceiling void of a party accessory room on an industrial estate on the outskirts of Blackpool. It overlooked the train line by Leyton Station. There was a brickies over the road, there was a tile warehouse. It was as unshowbiz as you could get. However, when you went through the doors of reception and up the staircase where there were some gold discs on the wall and you went in to the main office area and you saw the car stickers and all the promotional material for the radio station. From day one there was a real buzz of excitement in the air that people in Blackpool wanting to create something for Blackpool and Blackpool has aspirations of being as showbiz of Las Vegas. In reality it isn't quite like that, but it's great to aspire to. But, my word, it tried to spread the sparkle wherever it went with its road shows, with its presenter appearances, with its entirely unorthodox approach to the output of the radio station. It reacted to what the listeners wanted from day one and melded and changed and developed over time to truly reflect the quirks of Blackpool".

Within a short space of time Gary moved from teaboy to hosting his first show. He was still only 17 years old and he "was as nervous as hell. It was a time when about 75% of the music was on vinyl, about 25% was on CDs the CD players had a knack of skipping. The jingles were played out of of DCS that was the playout system at the time and there was me, this teenager, in a studio on my own with this mixing desk which appeared to be bigger than I was, suddenly attached to the transmitter that was, literally, attached to the top of Blackpool Tower. It was exciting, but bit was also terrifying and of all the songs I could have started with, the Programme Controller said : "You can pick any song in the world. You can have a free choice, first song" and I still, to this day, have no idea why I chose Chicory Tip - 'Son of my Father', mainly because I like the intro of the song".(link)

Gary was clearly attuned to Blackpool which he saw was : "A desperately poor town where there is this veneer of this 'holiday golden mile - kiss me quick- candy floss excitement'. Scratch behind that veneer, there is an awful lot of poverty. There are and awful lot of problems and there still are to this day. At the time, back in the early 90s was no different. So the idea, suddenly of this town having its own radio station, by people from its own town, broadcast from its own town, talking about its own town, suddenly created a disproportionate amount of interest". 

He recalled : "Within a few years, this job came up in the newsroom. So I suddenly developed that overnight interest in the news and I practiced speaking a little bit deeper and I applied to be a journalist in the newsroom and I got the job. It was my first time on the pay roll and the job came with a very low salary. I think it was barely over £10,000, but it was bumped up by the inclusion of a company vehicle". The vehicle in question turned out to be an outside broadcast truck. "It was a  huge Renault van with the aerial and mast on on the roof that was entirely impractical" and Gary went back to getting the bus.

Gary continued to move forward at the station and over the course of the following years he moved back into programming, presenting the 'Afternoon Show' and then the 'Breakfast Show' and "within 9 years of joining the radio station I was the Programme Controller - suddenly in charge of the output of this wonderful radio station, that still to this day means so much to me".

Gary found that this was : "A chance to think outside the box. To think how can we do things differently ? So why don't why don't we take our evening show out every night onto the Golden Mile and make it up as we go along and reflect the excitement of the illuminations ? And suddenly our evening shows were called 'The illuminations Specials'.  Just one example of necessity being the mother of invention. It was also where I got to do things where you would never expect to be able to do a broadcast live : From zip wire a rope, strung from the top of Blackpool Tower, 517 feet high going right down, over the Promenade over the electric wire that powered the tramway. I remember having this radio mic and gaffer tape on my hand so I wouldn't drop it. It probably wouldn't pass the risk assessment these days, but if you ever wanted 2 minutes of someone screaming out loud, in a force 9 gale, well that's exactly what we achieved that day". 

"For me, one abiding memory is at the time setting a world record for the longest breakfast show - 76 hours. I started at 6 o'clock on a Friday morning. I finished at 10 o'clock on the following Monday morning and over the course of that weekend we raised tens of thousands towards a local cancer unit that was being built. Cracking radio. By the end of it, absolutely knackered but it ticked all those boxes of : engaging with the audience; of them caring about what you were doing, but also of being able to make a difference in the community in a truly tangible way". 

In 1999, at the age of 24, Gary was diagnosed with testicular cancer which had spread, but after a course of successful chemotherapy, he said that "all was well with the world".

In 2001, at the age of 26, the Wireless Group, who were the owners of Radio Wave gave him the opportunity to move to Warrington to work in the radio station, 'Wire FM', based in an old school building on the outskirts of town where Chris Evans had once been a pupil. He recalled : "It was there that I presented the afternoon show and programmed the radio station and it was my first chance to go into a radio station as the Programmer. In the years gone by at Radio Wave, of course, to some I was always the teaboy done good". In his new management role, ne made the mistake of sending out too many memos until he was given some honest feedback which made him realise, as he said : "Managing is not about processes. It's about people". 

He was next moved to Scotland where the Wireless Group had a radio station called 'Q96' which broadcast to Paisley and Renfrewshire which had stopped serving the audience it was licensed to serve. He said : "The Radio Authority picked up on this issued a 'yellow card' warning and my job was to get on the train go to Glasgow, which is where the studio was based and effectively shut down and restart this radio station in 5 days. Its exactly what I did at the time they rebranded it as 'QFM' " He "turned the radio station into a really 'local' radio station that loved and cherished and shouted about its area".  Two weeks later the Radio Authority remonitored the radio station and recognized the dramatic transformation. Gary said : "We' given back the local radio station to those whose radio station it was. I was so proud of that". 

About 6 months after turning around 'QFM'  he accepted the offer from 'BBC Radio Guernsey' to join it as its Breakfast Presenter and Programme Director. He said : "From working in commercial radio newsrooms and doing these 3 minute bulletins on the hour, with short clips, I was suddenly presenting this three hour, all speech, breakfast show, albeit in a small radio station in a small island, but this is an island with its own government. So effectively it is national radio for the island and you are interviewing government ministers, the Chief Minister - effectively the Prime Minister and opposition members of the parliament as well. It was a steep learning curve, but very interestingly. My forensic mind my lawyerly mind from my school days, suddenly came into its own, like never before and I developed a reputation for quite forensic, precise interviewing, where every word of every answer from that minister mattered. I'd be listening to pick up on the nuance or the wiggle room in their answers and this was something that hadn't really been done in the same way at the radio station. It wasn't quite : "What would you like to tell us minister ? But there definitely there wasn't a culture of having a go, of holding them to account and I felt that was my obligation as the breakfast presenter on this public service broadcaster. And, my word, it made people sit up and take notice".

Gary said : "A few years into my time at BBC Radio Guernsey,  across the corridor  in the same building was ITV Channel Television and they said : "There's a job as reporter coming up. Are you interested ?" Gary declined because of his "passion" for radio and the fact that "the immediacy of radio trumped television". On the third occasion they asked, he said there was a : "Niggle in my mind which said : "You might regret it if you don't try it". 

Gary found that : "TV was a whole new world for me. It was daunting. A bit like radio does, it had its own internal language and jargon that I didn't understand in my early days". When he started he "was effectively presenting radio reports with pictures painted over the top" which didn't work. He learned that : "television is picture led and you use the voice over sparingly not to describe what the viewer has  seen, because the viewer has seen it, but you use your voice over to add context and understanding to those pictures".

He said : "One of things I learned for myself early on was to treat the television camera in exactly the same way I treat the microphone in the radio studio. I've always treated the microphone in the studio as a good friend. So I'm always talking on a one-to-one basis. I also automatically know if I need to add an explanation around a person or a subject". He said he needed to make sure he was talking to just one person when "talking down the barrel of the camera". He also developed the habit of occasionally looking away from the camera. "When I'm delivering live six o'clock news, I would just glance away quite naturally into the middle distance, because its how we all talk to each other and it just feels much more natural. So I talk to the camera as a friend, but I also just glance away from time to time to make it feel the most natural thing in the world".

In 2015 it was found that cancer tumours from 5 years ago had returned to Gary's lungs. However, after their removal with surgery, once again he said that "all was well with the world". Unfortunately, he said that in : "2017 I suddenly became, very quickly, unwell. I was barely able to function. I couldn't think straight. I couldn't see straight. All my mojo had been removed". Off work, it took 286 days for Gary to be given the diagnosis of 'Myalgic Encephalomyelitis', known as 'ME', it was a variant of chronic fatigue syndrome. 

He recalled : "Some days I would have no more energy than to go to the bathroom and do my ablutions and go back to bed". Gary had suicidal thoughts about how he might end his life and said that it was :"A very dark time in my life and one where that inner reserve of resilience was used like never before. Every last drop was need to get through that time".

After 18 months he said he was : "Able to work one day a week and began back at ITV News doing a couple of shifts a week and it was a joy to be back because I was getting me back. Back doing the job I loved and over time these two shifts eventually became three shifts and that was my limit". In his personal life Gary and his husband Alan, who met in 2014, held their civil partnership in March 2018 and were first to convert to a same-sex marriage when the law changed in July that year. 

Then in 2019 Gary's cancer returned and he had to undergo : "What is called 'salvage chemotherapy'. In effect 'last chance saloon chemotherapy'. It had spread all around the area between my heart and lungs. It was grueling three months of chemotherapy - hair falling, out projectile vomiting". However,the tumours shrank and he was able to return to work, just at the start of the pandemic. Then : "A few months later, a scan showed the tumours had come back and the situation was as bad as it could be. In November 2020, the oncologist breaking the news to me that there was no treatment left ana I had 6 to 12 months to live". "Nothing prepares you for that moment where the oncologist, who in normal times would be sitting face to face with you, but because of this pandemic, was on a video call on my iphone, was breaking the news to you that the cancer was back that there wasn't a treatment available and its entirely possible I am now living the final year of my life". 

He said : "Receiving that news is followed by this strange emptiness. This silence. My husband Alan and I sitting on the settee, collapsing into each others arms. Crying our hearts out. That whole body shaking cry, like you've cried before and very quickly you realise there are practical thing you have to do". One of those thing was to tell his father by phone and said : "To have to ring your dad, to break the news to your dad, that his son may be dead in the next 6 to 12 months is one of the cruelest things I've done in my life. It's the only time I've heard my dad cry. It is one the hardest things I've ever had to do and it really brought home to me how cruel this last year has been for so many people a story that I'd been reporting on as a journalist and tried to show empathy. Suddenly I had this understanding beyond imagination to the real time, real life consequences."

Gary was : "Very clear from the start that I didn't want the return of my cancer, my 6 to 12 months diagnosis, to be 'the elephant in the room'. I was very keen to talk about it. So I shared it with my friends. I wrote a blogpost ( Gary's Chemo Diary : link ) that got shared all over the place and quite overwhelming, to deal with all of a sudden, these thousands of messages from friends and strangers near and far".

In the post he published the day after he was told the terminal news, he wrote : 'Hearing you're going to die is odd. It's a strange other worldly experience, to think there may only be one more birthday, one more Christmas, one more wedding anniversary. I'm not dying. I'm living. It's just that I've got less of it to do so my obligation is to make it matter more'.

Gary was keen to share his story and said :"I'd been gifted the opportunity to tell this story of what happens in the final months because I think there is still this taboo around death and so I wanted to make it as easy for my friends and family and other people as well to talk to me about it. But also very quickly to make them realize that life has to go on". 

He said : "I don't want to spend everyday moping. I've been gifted the opportunity, indeed the obligation to spend every day living in the most wonderful full colour way I can and that includes all the ordinary stuff. If you can't think of the right thing to say, get in touch and tell me you can't think of the right thing to say, because that 'is' the right thing to say and is the start of the ability to have that conversation".

Gary, who in 2021 was nominated as 'Journalist of the Year' at the prestigious Royal Television Awards and awarded the rarely presented 'Silver Seal of Guernsey' by the island's Bailiff in the same year. As a columnist for the Jersey Evening Post was also named 'Community Champion of the Year' in the Pride of Jersey Awards. He continued to work until August in that year said : "I genuinely feel like the luckiest person on the planet. I've been gifted this awful news about my own health, but I've been gifted such clarity about the road ahead. If people can look back over my life and indeed, in my dying days if I can look back over my life and think : "D'you know what burgess. On reflection, you were a good person and you made a difference. I'll take that". 

In a statement written for release after his death and published by ITV, Gary wrote :

'It's time for me to hand over my microphone and keyboard for others to do the talking about me, so let my final words simply be 'thank you'. Every person in my life has, in their own way, helped me live my best life. That'll do'.

ITV News Channel Television paid him this fulsome tribute.

* * * * * * * * * * 

In grateful thanks to Gary's 2020 podcast on 'RADIO MOMENTS Conversations' which I recommend as a lasting testimony to his life, work and character and without which this post would not have been possible.

On a personal note, much of what Gary said about his illness resonated with me. Five years ago, having been diagnosed with Stage 3 bladder cancer, my initial reaction was similar to Gary's. I underwent a course of chemotherapy, nowhere near as grueling as Gary's, to shrink the tumours. Then, in a five and half hour operation, my bladder was removed and part of my colon to create a stoma linked to my kidneys. Since then, I have had clear CT scans on a yearly basis.  

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