Who wants to get Tarrant on air?

Chris Tarrant

“We have to get Tarrant…”

We had been running the live Twitch streams for a few weeks and one of the most popular features were the live guests. This was obvious due to the feedback we had been receiving via the live chat on Twitch, Facebook & Twitter messages and more importantly we had noticed that the charity donations were more prominent whenever the guests were on, telling us all about some glorious behind the scenes situations. So, we had to try & get him. We had to get Chris Tarrant on the show.

The TiswasOnline team have a private Facebook group that we use to message each other. The topics range from utter nonsense to even more boring deep technical nonsense, but the unspoken had to be talked about sooner or later. We had to get Tarrant on the show. Luckily for us, the timing was sublime. Chris was doing the media rounds promoting the ITV drama Quiz. This was a three-part dramatisation of the “Coughing Major” Who wants to be a Millionaire scandal. The first problem was contacting him. Due to what we do, we already have a great working relationship with ITV and the cast and crew, a few years ago we got pretty much everyone involved with Tiswas back together again for the 40th anniversary reunion, we had all of the most recent contact details, or so we thought. 

Chris Tarrant at the Tiswas40 party
Chris Tarrant at our Tiswas40 party in Birmingham City Centre

CT’s personal assistant of many years had since moved on, but Matt contacted them and they were super kind to provide us with his new PA details, a fantastic lady called Bernie, we had a phone number and I said I’d contact her. I thought it would be a little rude to call her out of the blue, so I put my toe in the water and sent her a text instead explaining who I was, what TiswasOnline do, why we were doing the live streams, lockdown, charity etc etc… and then we waited. Later that day I received a text back, she’d speak to CT for us. Result! It wasn’t a direct ‘no thank you’. The following day we received the news we were all crossing our fingers for. He’d do it, we were on, kind of…

“Zoom? No, he can’t use Zoom.”

Ah. Dammit, erm…

What I don’t want to have to do next is to write a long dull technical explanation of what we had to do next, actually no let me put it another way, I’ll have to write a long dull technical explanation of what we had to do next. Sorry about that, but it’s vital for the rest of the story. 

All you, the reader, needed to do to watch the live stream was to launch your web browser, type in twitch.tv/tiswasonline and boom, there it was, ready for your viewing pleasure! But behind the scenes, this is how we got it ‘on air’ for you each Saturday morning.

First thing was a lot of ‘passionate chat’ on our aforementioned Facebook group. We all discussed who the guests were going to be, which questions to ask, and not to ask, who was presenting that week, you get the idea. A production meeting in a nutshell. Pete went off to prepare that week’s clip compilation, a huge task in itself, but come Saturday morning we were ready to go. We all knew who was doing what, when and how. Pete was the director, he pressed on the buttons on a piece of software called Open Broadcaster Software or as it’s more commonly known, OBS. 

OBS allows you to set up your own virtual TV studio. You can prepare video clips to fire off at the touch of a button, you can swap between video clips and other things like live inputs. Our live input was via the popular video conferencing system called Zoom. As we are all dotted around the country, the easiest way for us all to appear live at the same time was via Zoom. Zoom takes your home webcam and microphone and allows you to talk to whoever else is in the same Zoom ‘room’, they can see you, you can see them, and whoever is speaking at the time, Zoom automatically selects that person to become the main focus for everyone else to see in the main window. Everyone can see one another all the time in tiny little preview windows, but the main window always shows whoever is speaking at that time. So, what we did was take a feed of that main Zoom window and placed it inside a graphic of an old-style television set. Pretty neat, and it worked wonderfully. We had written a cheat sheet of how to use Zoom for all of our non-technical guests, very simple, putting them at ease on how to connect to our Zoom room and therefore appear live on the show. All of guests so far had used it with no problems at all, we were delighted, it worked really well for the show until…

“Chris isn’t technical at all. Zoom? No, he can’t use Zoom.”

“Right ok sure no problem, what can he use?”

“FaceTime”

“Ok great, we’ll use that, sure thing, I’ll be in touch later in the week, thanks Bernie”

FaceTime? How the heck can we use FaceTime via Zoom? I knew this wasn’t going to be ‘no problem’ I knew it was going to be a massive problem. A galaxy sized technical problem. Basically, I totally fibbed as I didn’t want to lose the possibility of getting the king of Tiswas on our live show. In my day job, I’m an Apple guy, I have been for over twenty years, there’s very little I don’t know about the Apple eco system, and I knew right then that we had a huge problem to overcome. Why? Because FaceTime is a closed Apple system. You can’t take that feed and put it into another feed, not easily anyway. I did the only thing I could do, I started to seriously panic.

I think, therefore I can.

I had to think and think quickly. How could I possibly do this? How could I take a FaceTime feed at my end and turn it into Zoom feed that all the TiswasOnline team could see and therefore broadcast via OBS and onto Twitch? Hang on a second, CT was doing an interview about Quiz on Good Morning Britain the previous day, how did they do it? I had contacts at GMB so I found out. Not easily was the answer, a bit of equipment that cost thousands of pounds was the answer. Ah… bum… we didn’t have thousands of pounds nor the time, we had four days until we were live with CT as our guest.

FaceTime is usually used on iPhones but it’s also available on Apple Mac computers as well. Great, I’ll do it all on my Mac and send the feed via Zoom, cool, time to test it. The first thing I needed to do was grab the FaceTime video feed, ok, I need to use a ‘virtual camera’. This is a bit of software that allows you to take something from your screen and turn it into a webcam, a ‘virtual camera’, so instead of Zoom using my own webcam, it could use this ‘virtual’ camera instead. I used a bit of software called ManyCam as our virtual camera. Could it take the FaceTime feed and turn it into a virtual camera that Zoom could use? Only one way to find out. My wife was our pretend Chris. She called me, I answered the call on my Mac took that virtual feed as my camera and used Zoom, Pete was at the other end waiting for me to join Zoom. I then joined Zoom and success! Pete could see ‘CT’ via Zoom, hooray… oh… not hooray. Pete could see but not hear ‘CT’. Dammit. Why? 50% of the problem fixed, but not 100%. We had a virtual camera but not a virtual microphone. Pete could hear me, but not ‘CT’. I had a bigger problem. How can I sort this so I can speak to CT and he can hear me, but take my audio feed and CT’s audio feed and turn both of them into a virtual microphone and shove that down a Zoom connection? Virtual cameras are easy enough, but virtual microphones? They don’t exist. Erm…..

A lot of testing and a day later I had a solution. I used another piece of software called LoopBack, this allows you to create weird and wonderful audio connections, mainly for use in recording studios to combine audio feeds. I had to take my own microphone and create a virtual connection from that, I then had to combine that with the audio feed from FaceTime, that was another ‘microphone’, I then need to combine both of those ‘virtual’ microphones to create another ‘virtual’ microphone that Zoom could ‘hear’ and use. We did another test with our female ‘CT’, and it worked! It worked!!!! I managed to do what major broadcasters had to use thousands of pounds of equipment to accomplish, ha! It was flawless, audio sounded perfect, ‘CT’ could hear me, we could hear ‘CT’, the video and audio was bang on, it would work, we were ready to go. Or so we thought.

What can go wrong will go wrong.

Bernie gave Chris my phone number so he could FaceTime me on the Saturday morning, around 10:50, about ten minutes before the main video compilation was due to end so we were ready to go on Zoom. What was going to happen was that Pete would cue Amy in, so Amy knew exactly when the video compilation was going to end, and we were live. Pete had to cue us in, and we couldn’t watch Twitch, as it was about six seconds behind what we were doing. It takes time to go from OBS, up to Twitch, and back to the end viewer. To recap, the plan was for the compilation to end, we were waiting on Zoom, Pete would cue Amy in, she would say hi and introduce us and boom, there was CT on screen. Nope, it didn’t happen that way, but you, the viewer, would never had known the sheer terror that was happening behind the scenes as the compilation was coming to an end.

CT tried to call me. He appeared on my screen and then disappeared again before I had a chance to accept the call. A split second on screen before the call was cancelled. This happened a few times, and the seconds were counting down. Eventually the call worked for more than a quarter of a second and I could answer the call, I heard CT at the other end. 

“Morning Chris, I’m Toby how are you this morning mate?”

“I don’t know what’s happening here Toby, and I can only hear you, not see you.”

A professional broadcaster……………………………………………………………………………………………………………… and a not so professional broadcaster.

This was correct on my end as well. I could hear him but not see him. But we had tested this, it worked, what was happening? I knew we were getting perilously close to the end of the compilation; I didn’t have long at all to sort this out. And then the realisation dawned on me. When we had tested it, I’d tested it with my wife. She was in my contacts list; therefore, Apple’s security would know that it was a trusted user trying to call me and would allow video. CT and I had never spoken before, he wasn’t in my contact list, I didn’t know his number…. This wasn’t going to work…. Oh boy… thirty seconds to go, I had to move and move fast. I had to grow some massive balls, take charge of the situation and just go for it, this could backfire horribly. Twenty seconds to go…

“Chris, I know why this isn’t working mate and even though you don’t really know me from a hole in the wall you’re just going to have to trust me on this. I’m going to have to have your mobile number, and I need it right now if this is going to work. I’ve done work in the past for Stephen Fry, Helena Bonham-Carter and many other celebrities quite frankly with more to lose than you when I had their personal number so give me your number mate, I’ll eat the evidence afterwards but I need it right now”

Thankfully, he laughed and gave me his number. I could see the compilation end graphic on the Twitch feed. Six seconds behind reality, I knew Amy was going to be on screen in about a second’s time not knowing what the hell was going on as I wasn’t there on Zoom with CT. I called his number and boom, there he was, video & audio. He was smiling, he obviously knew what pressure I was up against and just went with it, he was brilliant, I was explaining to him that I was dialling in and then when I got the cue that he wouldn’t be able to see, we would be live pretty much straight away in other words. I was saying this as I was dialling into Zoom at the same time. Zoom connected. I could see Amy talking away, being super professional as if nothing was going drastically wrong and then I saw her glance out of the corner of her eye that we were there, and she introduced us perfectly and me and CT were then on…

Chris was Chris. He was charming, funny, delightful and had so many wonderful stories. We were chatting away like old mates down the pub, I was keeping an eye on the live Twitch chat and used questions from the viewers.

After we had finished and the A-Z video was being streamed he said to me off air that he loved every single second of it, he loved doing it and had so much fun. That was wonderful to hear because he really meant it. He was only due to be on for about twenty to twenty-five minutes, I think it was about forty minutes by the time we had finished. It was almost totally brilliant. The only thing we were let down by was CT’s home internet connection. That’s why when he tried to call originally it kept cutting off before I could answer it. The only downside was his audio kept cutting off but the video held up and we could make out what he was saying so it was bearable, but such a shame that after all the stress, a home internet connection got in the way of making the whole thing a triumph.

And that’s the full story of how we managed to phone a friend.