Looking Back, but Never Down – Derek Watts

The only known pool of presenters was at Auckland Park and news announcer Ruda Landman and myself were asked if we would be interested in a new program, with no name, broadcasting to a mere 125 000 subscribers.

23 August 2018

To encapsulate 30 years of Carte Blanche in a few sentences would be an impossible task.  And hardly do justice to the lives that have been touched or the emotions of a journey that has included thousands of stories.

The question that does arise is how this program has survived, no thrived, in the same time spot and on the same channel for three decades.

That story has to start with then Naspers boss Koos Bekker and his visionary executive team deciding that the national broadcaster had ruled the television airwaves for a decade and needed to be challenged – albeit on a restricted platform.

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And two years later embarking on the launch of a new live magazine show before M-Net had permanent offices or a studio!

The only known pool of presenters was at Auckland Park and news announcer Ruda Landman and myself were asked if we would be interested in a new program, with no name, broadcasting to a mere 125 000 subscribers.

The fact that I was invited to this party is also somewhat curious. The man given the task of conceiving this new offering was the enigmatic Bill Faure of Shaka Zulu and beauty contest fame.

After virtually offering me the job with no audition, he asked for a tape (yes this was 1988!) of my work.

“Just tune in to TopSport on Saturday – I will be live for about eight hours”, I replied. Bill looked a little surprised. My suspicion is that he had seen me loitering around the SABC but didn't have a clue about my presenting skills – or lack of them!

But that was Bill: A creative genius with no respect for nuts and bolts who flew by the seat of his pants. He left this world far too soon but I believe his spirit lives on with Carte Blanche.

And it was that name, the winning suggestion in the M-Net contest, which helped to engender the amazing variety of our content. Whenever somebody said we couldn’t film jelly wrestling or nipple piercing, another voice would pipe up – “Why not? It’s Carte Blanche – anything goes”.

The truth is that we were a light entertainment show in the early days.  Interviewing champion swimmers and Bond girls live in the studio with music breaks from our DJ – the late and great Cocky “Two Bull”.

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But there was a serious side to the show. And that came from the very best CBS 60 Minutes segments from America and Australia which were pitched against our local productions at a fraction of the budget. Two inserts from the most famous and longest running investigative journalism show would run alongside our local stories.

We had to lift our game. Learn to use hidden cameras, spend weeks or even months gathering evidence and then confront the alleged baddies in ambush interviews.

A succession of passionate Executive Producers left their mark on the presentation, steering us towards telling personalised stories with that magic mix of information and entertainment.

But we only really became hardcore journalists when George Mazarakis left his lecturing post at Rhodes University and took over the helm more than 20 years ago.

George expected a lot from the team – the researchers, producers, camera crews and presenters. He urged us to push the limits but never sat back himself. Not quite a master of delegation, I don’t think there is a story over that period that he didn’t view with the lawyers personally beforehand. And we did keep them busy!

One of the possible secrets of success has been the lack of a comfort zone. Most of the contributors – producers, editors, camera crews – are freelancers. And we know that we are only as good as our last story!

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It can be a tough, demanding and exacting profession. So, enter the women of Carte Blanche who have played such a pivotal role. Ruda set the early pace – no interviewees who had strayed from the path got off lightly. Although she could also show heart-warming and sincere compassion.

And as Ruda decided to seek other opportunities before our 20th birthday, the tigerish Devi Sankaree Govender stepped into the breach with her beautiful, but armour-piercing eyes and no-nonsense interviews that have left baddies shaking.

That is what you see on your TV screens. But producing those stories takes a steely courage, tireless determination and artistic expression under pressure. And once again the women rule – outnumbering the guys two to one!

It may not seem like it, but we've had nearly 30 presenters over the decades. All with their unique interview styles, personalities and quirks. And the team right now with Devi, Claire, Macfarlane and John contributing from the UK is one of the strongest.

So that is the Carte Blanche recipe – just add a broadcaster which is resilient enough to let us tackle just about any situation or personality and a sprinkle of  good fortune to the mix.

And viewers who have embraced the show as their private property, who interact with us and are quick to praise and just as quick to criticize when they feel we have dropped the ball.

We have given you the right to see it all. And we really do believe that ‘Truth brings Change’. 

Tune in on Sunday 26 August at 7pm on M-Net channel 101 as we celebrate 30 years of truth during a special 90-minute birthday broadcast.