Saturday 20 April 2024

Let’s do lunch…with Alan Meadows

This interview was first published in the year 2000 and much of what Alan talked about is still very relevant today

From the Broadcasting Authority to Rediffusion to advertising, marketing and now video production and PR, one can say that Alan Meadows has run the gauntlet of fields in the media business

When Alan Meadows is asked ‘where are you from?’, his reply is most unexpected: “I was born in Haifa, Palestine, of an English father and a Maltese mother who was born in Egypt.” Can you get any more exotic than that?

When he was just two, his father, who was a pilot, went missing, presumed killed, during the war. At the age of 6, the family moved to Malta and he was eventually constrained to give up his British nationality.
Before finding out more about his intriguing background, I wanted to know about his choice of restaurant. Alan generally skips lunch so our ‘let’s do lunch’ was in fact a ‘let’s do dinner’, and Michelangelo’s spacious ambience was the perfect venue for a summer evening.

“Well, Michelangelo’s has a relaxing, welcoming atmosphere. It is a good eating place, not too stuffy and not too informal. It is great for when you want to pamper yourself on that special occasion. When I eat out, I don’t want to eat food I can have at home. Fish is very difficult to cook well and here they cook it to perfection.”

Indeed, we had already been shown a selection of fish to choose from for our dinner and had opted for the Roc fish (cipolazz) cooked al cartoccio, wrapped in foiled and garnished with garlic and other seasonings.

But as Alan points out, it is not just the fish which makes Michelangelo’s special. “It is the only restaurant in the St Paul’s Bay/Qawra area to serve freshly made pasta.” In fact, he chose as a starter a mouth-watering dish of fresh ravioli filled with asparagus, parma ham, shrimps, avocado and fresh cream.

Our wine was a Grand Vin de Hauteville, which was the recipient of a silver medal. During his stint as Marsovin’s marketing manager, Alan learned a thing or two about wines. So when he was asked to try the wine, I was suitably impressed (the couple of times I’ve been to a wine tasting, I only pretended to know what I was doing). He offered to give me a crash course: “first you smell it, and if something is wrong with it, you will notice immediately. Then you swirl the glass round to look at the colour, which is supposed to be clear and then you taste it, rolling it around your tongue which has different areas to taste salt, sweet and so on.”

Although he is half-British, Alan considers himself to be pure Maltese and “very Mediterranean” in temperament.
So is there not one English bone in your body?

“Well, maybe. I have a love of understatement certainly. As a PR man I keep well back in the spotlight, whereas other people might push themselves more. I even downplay my achievements. I have a sense of fair play which is definitely British in origin.”

Where he considers himself to be Mediterranean is in his tendency to be loud and extrovert – he is not averse to getting out on a dance floor and making a fool of himself.
And his sense of humour? Is it more Yes, Prime Minister or Fredu l-Fra? “ I appreciate irony and satire and the ability to laugh at oneself.”

Alan Meadows started out as a teacher before moving on to Educational TV with the Broadcasting Authority. In fact, he was the BA’s first Programme Editor, which is a bit of a misnomer, as the actually job has nothing to do with editing, but consists of vetting and monitoring television programmes.
After returning from a 6 month TV production course in London, he starting producing programmes such as L-Imghallem, still considered one of the best series to have ever been made about traditional Maltese crafts.
He agrees that he seemed to have had a natural affinity for broadcasting.

“Well, I’m an Aquarius and they do say that this sign tends to be associated with the media. If you ask me what I am, I would say that I’m a communicator. If someone wants to present an idea or concept in any form, I am the person who conveys the message.”

And indeed, all the jobs he has held have been media-related. From the BA he moved to Rediffusion where he held posts which ranged from production to advertising to newscasting. When Mintoff’s Labour Government took over Rediffusion, Alan Meadows, along with many others who were properly trained, found that they no longer had a future with the company. In 1977, he joined an advertising agency and eventually took up courses in marketing. In 1981 he became Marsovin’s Marketing Manager (hence his knowledge of wines), building up the marketing department from scratch.

Among his other jobs, he was also a journalist; a stringer for Visnews (now Reuters) an international news agency, which supplied news coverages to TV stations all over the world. Here, his British sense of fair play certainly came into the fore. “Regardless of my own political beliefs, when it came to covering local events, I have always been apolitical.” He was there to cover the now infamous Mintoff mass meetings (the ones with all the references to linef (chandeliers) and other colourful phrases). Shaking his head at these memories, Alan remarks that, love him or hate him, there will never be another politician with the ability to mesmerise the crowds like Dom did.

It is obvious from his CV that, contrary to most people of his generation, Alan was never the type to hang on to the same position for years and years. “In those days it was considered rather odd for a person to chop and change, but today it is accepted that within a certain period of time you move on. I have the kind of temperament in which I can tend to start feeling stale and bogged down. I enjoy exploring new things and I’ve always broadened my experiences. There is a lovely Chinese expression: ‘the only constant thing in life is change’. The rate of change in my life has always been rapid. You have to move with the times.”

He would not describe himself so much as a workaholic, but rather as someone who works hard, with 12 hour days being the norm. He is now at a point in his life, however, where he is trying to find more of a balance in life, as he strives to get his priorities right. “The world is becoming so fast, people are having so little time for each other that the quality of life is suffering. So you have to make time for other things – that is why I’m involved in MADC.”

The Meadows name has long been associated with the stage, and with Panto, in particular. In fact, when in 1983 Alan played the Dame, it was the first time that this character was given a local flavour through the creation of Queen Valgaria, and this tradition has been kept ever since. Eventually, the whole family was roped in for the annual Panto: Alan’s wife Nella helps with the costumes and their children, Tristan, Amber, Alana and Scarlett have been involved in various roles both off and on stage. One immediately notices the unusual choice of names in the Meadows household. This is Nella’s doing, an exotic-looking woman who loves individuality in all its forms, including the way she herself dresses.

“It gives me a chance to step back from the humdrum of everyday life” Alan says of treading the boards. “I love doing humorous parts – there is a satisfaction in hearing people laugh.”

He tells me an anecdote from his Panto days:
“We were doing Robinson Crusoe in 1985 at the height of the water shortages in Malta and particularly in Sliema. I was down among the audience cracking a joke that you could recognise the people from Sliema because they smelt, as they couldn’t have a bath or shower. This remark offended a senior member of the Labour party, in one of the official boxes who began to heckle and insult me, threatening to stop the show. The show was in fact interrupted for about 20 minutes as some heavies came backstage to intimidate us. However they got more than they had bargained for! We continued with the show and from that day on we played to full houses. You must recall that during those difficult times the Panto was one of the few, if not the only medium that openly took a satirical look at life in Malta.”

In 1987, Alan made perhaps one of the biggest changes in his life when, from being an employee, he became his own boss by setting up his own video production house. Never one to stand still, he later expanded his company when he took over the operations of an advertising agency. His son Tristan works with him, an arrangement which he feels works quite well: “at work we are colleagues, not father and son”.

A refreshingly open-minded man in his thinking and his approach to life, he is, for example, in favour of soap operas, something which most people would rather die a slow death than admit. He quoted an international study which showed that soap fans can cope with life more and are happier people, “so there is something therapeutic about it. But it doesn’t mean that they have to be of poor quality; it depends on how it’s done. But by good quality, I don’t mean lack of mass appeal.”

A marketing man through and through, he is very aware of what people want, and he specifically understands the demand for Maltese language programming. Even the English-speaking businessmen, he points out, when they are in their own circles, are speaking Maltese. Being himself fluent in both English and Maltese, he concurred with my own long-held view that it is baffling why one language should be at the exclusion of the other. (We must be the only country in the world where people brag that they don’t know how to speak or write in their own mother tongue.)

We talked about the state of local television in general. Referring back to his own unceremonious removal from Rediffusion, Alan sums up where it all went wrong: “I am very saddened by the fact that there was a certain amount of expertise in TV, people who trained abroad, or were trained in Malta by foreign experts. But there was no mechanism for this knowledge to be passed on, so you had a situation where people were always re-inventing the wheel. Many talented people just went elsewhere. Secondly, we went through a stage when initiative and talent were not encouraged.”

A self-declared optimist, however, he believes that human beings adapt, they go through cycles and through ups and downs like a pendulum. He certainly seems to have weathered the dips of life through a sheer force of will and a love of life.

He is not at all a vain man…how do I know this? Well, he didn’t mind being photographed with his glasses on, for a start. And he also readily told me how old he was, with no beating around the bush. “I’m 58, so what? I don’t mind saying!” he tells me with his characteristic open smile.

Alan looks around and sees that the major problem with Malta is the inevitable tendency to fragment our pool of talent. He has seen it in television and he has seen it in theatre. “It is part of the Maltese psyche because we are close and on top of each other; we build walls around ourselves. As opposed to the Americans, who because they have large, open spaces, prefer to come together to work towards a common good. We are too individualistic in temperament. We are a nation of contradictions. Jew nejja jew mahruqa.. We either make do with what is mediocre, or else naraw kbir and we want to have the best in the world.”

He believes our proximity to each other has brought about an inherent suspicion of each other and a lack of tolerance. And yet, on a positive note, “the Maltese are an industrious, flexible race. We have an ability to communicate with others, we are very cosmopolitan and can integrate with people from other countries very easily.”

Despite being in the business of commercials, Alan is adamantly against the commercialisation of our lives. This is a point which he keeps coming back to during the interview. He seems to have taken stock and is trying to re-organise his perception of what is important. Having said that, he would not like to stop working either. “No” he replies to my question, much too quickly. To this day, he feels he is still learning something new. Alan is lucky to be working in an environment where he can bring the wealth of his experience to the creative energy of the younger generation. He is an open admirer of young people because of their drive, their willingness to take risks and their exuberance. The MADC, he points out, is still going strong because of the new influx of young people each year.

And Alan Meadows himself, is still going strong because where other people might think and feel that they are getting old, his mind and spirit are as youthful as any 20-year-old. Which is a pretty good approach to life, no matter how old you are…