Tomorrow, I’m going to a funeral.
I shouldn’t be and it doesn’t make sense because Alison was young, gorgeous, passionate and full of life. I still can’t believe she’s gone.
She died last Tuesday 2nd July 2013 after a long battle with cancer. And when I say battle, I mean she really fought back – more than anyone I’ve ever known. She was truly inspirational.
Alison Ford was the editor of BBC Breakfast which goes out every morning on BBC1 and the News Channel from 0600 and in the last six years, under her leadership, she made it more successful than it has ever been in its thirty year history. The BBC Director-General Tony Hall, called her a “brilliant editor” and of course, she was. But so much more than that, she was a wonderful manager and a great friend to many.
And I’m so very proud to say, that I’m one of them
She joined the BBC as a trainee reporter in 1991 but it wasn’t long before her management skills were spotted and she held a number of senior roles in BBC News, including Editor of Midlands Today, before becoming Head of BBC East Midlands, responsible for all radio, TV and online output in that region.
From there, she became UK Newsgathering Editor and more importantly, my boss !
I remember when I first saw her. It was after she had got the job but before she had taken up the post and she had come to look round the newsroom, see her new office and chat to management. She was bright blonde and gorgeous and the rest of us were all appraising her, ready to make our first judgements just on her appearance. As I was musing on how young she was, a rather forthright (well let’s be honest, downright bitchy) colleague sidled up to me and said “ she’s a bit brassy, isn’t she” and as I considered that comment, Alison turned round to look at the team and caught me looking at her. She gave me the most beautiful smile and I was instantly hooked. As she walked into her office, I turned to my colleague and said quite simply “I like her” and from that point on I wouldn’t hear a word against her. Not that there ever was one. She won everyone over pretty quickly with her big personality and natural warmth
She joined Newsgathering at a time when we were in a bit of a mess. In fact, it was so bad that I was actively looking for other jobs within the BBC in a bid to escape the management. However, Alison came along at just the right moment, took one look at the place, saw what was wrong and rectified it immediately. She simply merged two departments together to get rid of some very weak managers and a lot of duplication. Within weeks, she had streamlined our area, and had us all working more efficiently. Almost overnight, I enjoyed my job again and under her leadership we enjoyed somewhat of a golden era
I got to know her personally quite soon after she started the job. I had gone for a drink one evening with Jim, my immediate manager who was already close friends with Alison, and unexpectedly she suddenly came and joined us. I remember being on my best behaviour at first, as I wanted to impress her but by our second drink, I realised there was no need as she was such an easy person to be with. That first evening, we spoke quite frankly about the difficulties of being working mothers and she opened up with complete honesty about how hard it was for her being away from her family in Nottingham for much of the week. But then, we both agreed that however hard it was, the fact that we worked and had jobs that we enjoyed, actually made us better mums….and we got yet another round in to drink to that !
She got to know her vast team and became familiar with their strengths. She told people that they could come and talk to her about problems or worries and she genuinely meant that – they weren’t just empty words. Bizarrely, because I knew I could complain to her at any time if I wanted to, I suddenly never needed to. In fact, under her management, I never had any complaints. And whatsmore, I watched how she dealt with some notoriously difficult people and marvelled at how absolutely brilliant she was at placating them all.
As well as being a fabulous manager, she had great news judgement too and at our editorial meetings, she was never afraid of taking a story back to basics to make sure we were covering it properly
All too soon, it seemed, the post of Breakfast Editor came up and of course she got it. I couldn’t bear the fact that she was leaving us, but she gave me a hug and said that she’d had to apply for it as it was her dream job and her eyes were so bright and excited about the prospect that it was impossible not to be happy for her. And the Breakfast desks were just next to ours so it wasn’t as if we wouldn’t still have her around. And sure enough, the drinks after work and joining her outside for a chat while she was having a quick cigarette break, still continued.
I realise now as I write this that I pretty much idolised her and I guess that’s how everyone else felt too because she had this unique talent of making everyone feel special
And she seemed so unaware of how great she was. I was fortunate enough to get on to a BBC management scheme a few years back and it was great with lots of really interesting courses. One of our tasks was to facilitate a day of workshops and find an inspiring BBC manager to give a talk. It said a lot that the rest of the group didn’t feel they knew any good managers to ask and I was jumping up and down suggesting Alison. When I asked her if she’d do it, she was thrilled but seemed a little bewildered as to why I thought she was right and kept suggesting other senior managers.
She was so beautiful and really cool and very funny. We were always discussing different diets and there was one that involved only ever eating half-portions. I walked into her office late one afternoon, just as she was fishing out half a sandwich from the bin that she’d discarded earlier as part of her regime. But because she hadn’t had a chance to eat since, she needed to rescue it! I hasten to add it was still in the wrapper but she couldn’t stop laughing at my face and assured me it was a one off. I don’t think it was that particular diet but she did end up losing loads of weight and she looked amazing. She came in one day in tight black trousers and heels and she looked more like a rock chick than a mother of two growing young men. I was in complete awe of her
When she was first diagnosed with breast cancer, it was such a shock but she was amazing. She was determined not to let it beat her and at first it seemed that the cancer wouldn’t stand a chance. The gruelling treatment didn’t seem to affect her in the beginning and it was just another thing to do in her already busy schedule. When she lost her hair, she wore a wig for a bit but then discarded it as soon as her hair started to grow back. And she wore that look so well. Closely cropped hair really suited her strong features
When it was decided that Breakfast was to move from London to the new BBC centre in Salford, she led the project even though she wasn’t well. She had a great team supporting her of course, but she was so determined.
I saw a lot less of her after the move, although she had to come to back down to London fairly regularly. Everytime I saw her, she insisted she was well and to be fair, she looked great.
Then at the beginning of this year, I saw her in the ladies’ loo at work and after hugging and both squealing at each other, she admitted that she was tired. That the return of the cancer and the treatment was taking it out of her. It was the first time I had ever heard her talking about her illness in such a downbeat way and then in typical Alison fashion she said she was sorry for bringing me down and that she was fine really and that she was just a bit tired. But I went home worried about her and really prayed that she would be OK.
Last Tuesday evening, I was out for drinks with Jim and he said that he had seen her a couple of weeks ago in hospital and then again at her home, last Saturday and that she was now really very poorly. It seems fitting that it was probably while we were on our second bottle of wine and talking about her that she slipped away. When Jim told me the next morning, I burst into tears. It seems so unfair that such a vibrant young mother should be taken so early and my heart went out to her boys who she was so proud of.
I spent the day on Twitter as the tributes flooded in, all saying what a great woman she was – fearless, brilliant, honest, inspiring, intelligent, incredible, nurturing, beautiful & loved by all who knew her.
They had a minute’s silence for her just above that huge London newsroom on Wednesday and on Thursday, a simple tribute at the end of her programme on BBC1 had me in tears again as it conveyed just what a wonderful person she is.
I’ll end this post with the last exchange we ever had. She was too ill to make my leaving do back in March but in my speech I said she was the best manager I had ever had in my thirty years there. Almost as soon as I had sat down, I received this text:
I’m so sorry I wasn’t there to say goodbye to you. I’ve had a dreadful few days of chemo and am bedridden, again!! I’ve heard you said some lovely, lovely things about me tonight. I can’t tell you what it means to me to have your respect. I wish you an awesomely good next stage of your life. You deserve lots of love, success and happiness. I’m sure you’ll be showered by love tonight. And I know it’ll be totally heartfelt. Massive hugs, kisses and love from me too.
To my shame, it took me a few days to reply with the following:
how lovely to hear from you and I’m so sorry that the chemo is taking it out of you. You have been through such a lot and whenever I have seen you, you have been nothing but positive and upbeat, even when I’m sure you have felt anything but. That’s what makes you so extraordinarily special and why I put you up there at the top of the list of my favourite managers…..much to Jim’s huffing and puffing!! It was a lovely evening, marred only by you not being there. It has taken me this long to feel vaguely normal again and to be able to focus on the small font of my texts, hence this late reply!! Please know that I love you to bits and that whether you realise it or not, you were responsible for making me believe in myself again. I wish you all the best and look forward to seeing you fit and healthy again soon. KEEP FIGHTING
I will miss her terribly but shall always be thankful to her for turning around my career and for always being there with her advice and kindness
Thank you for everything, Alison. You truly were the best xx