Towards the end of ITV’s transmission of the Rugby World Cup semi-final between England and New Zealand in 2019, the internal audio feed went dead. “We were in the middle of an advert break,” Mark Pougatch, the presenter, recalled. “Normally you hear the hubbub of the gallery – the producer, the editor, ‘ten seconds to come-back...’ Suddenly there was silence in my ears.” Then out of the corner of his eye, he spotted an autocue with the words, “Keep talking”. Pougatch – one of Britain’s leading sports broadcasters – had one person to thank: Sophia Walker, who has the job on set of prompt operator. “She acted very calmly but very quickly. That was the only way of getting a message to me. Via her.”
The incident was “chaos”, recalls Walker, who has been working in the television industry for almost 15 years. Whatever the sport, a producer will write a script before a game, often collaborating with the presenter, before sending it on to Walker. She sees her role as a proxy for the audience. A lot of “ops” – broadcast jargon for a prompt operator – “will sit there and put up whatever,” she says. Walker likes to think about whether a line is unclear, offensive or just ill-suited to the person assigned to deliver it. During a broadcast, she maintains audio contact with the presenter because, as she puts it, “I’m the last set of eyes.” Sometimes, a presenter such as Pougatch seems so fluent that Walker will say he simply doesn’t need her. “And he’s like, ‘Sophia, I will always need you.’”
Walker’s first proper job after doing a degree in media studies was at a basketball magazine in London. She then moved into television, first with Channel 5 News. Looking back, she says that a news programme is the easiest job for an op. “You sit there and you scroll,” she told me, as we traced a series of large circles around Clapham Common, near where she lives.
Working in sport brings both greater challenges and greater pleasures. “She takes the time to get to know people,” Pougatch says. “The world is divided into drains and radiators. Sofire [as Walker is nicknamed] emits warmth and joie de vivre.” Walker is successful because “she listens”, he says. Long hours at the autocue mean that she’s learned how words on a page will be inflected by an individual presenter’s voice. She “knows exactly how people like to speak,” Pougatch adds. “What their rhythm patterns are, where they like to have a pause, where they like to have a breath. If I have to write the script quickly – like a closer at the end of an England rugby or football match – she can interpret how I want to say it.”
“You start to understand where they will and won’t go,” Walker told me. She edits a script differently depending on whether it will be presented by Pougatch or Matt Smith, another British commentator. “Well, Pougers is posher,” says Walker, chuckling. “Matt Smith is more colloquial. And they learn to trust you.”
It’s also a matter of accepting a presenter’s habits. Pougatch likes to have dashes peppered throughout his feed. Walker knows exactly where to put them. Every presenter has a tic: the autocue style of Jimmy Carr, with whom she works on “8 Out of 10 Cats”, a comedy panel show, tends to be fairly “comma-tastic”.
I asked Walker about her experiences as a black woman in an industry that skews male and white. She said that there has been “a slight improvement” in representation during her career, but “still not enough”. In her early days, Walker recalls holding her tongue because she was conscious of being the only black person in the room. “I’d think, ‘I don’t want to lose this job.’”
She has felt self-conscious when described as being loud. “I am loud,” she says. “I know this. But there are still descriptions that only black people hear. Would they say that if I was white?” She adds: “Even if it comes from a place of love and respect, I don’t always want to be described that way.”
But Walker has an air of confidence which has come with her growing status and sense that the tv studio is akin to a democracy – or perhaps a football team. “Everyone has to back each other up,” she explains. “Nobody is more important than anybody else. If one thing goes down, the shit hits the fan.”•