Monday, November 26, 2007

The Day I (Almost) Killed a Judge

Following the extraordinary claim last week that a 23 year old was solely to blame for the Inland Revenue Lost Property Disaster, I tried to remember the biggest mistake I ever made at that age. I think it was the day someboy fell down dead on one of my television programmes.

I was working at the BBC and I'd just been made the Director of Nationwide, the television series that used to go around the country finding skateboarding ducks and other oddities of life. Twenty-three was absurdly young to be doing that job, as the show was live, incredibly complex and, as a result, fraught with the ever-present possibility of catastrophe.

We were doing an item about female judges, and how you should address them in court. Don't ask me why, it was the kind of thing which Nationwide did on a soft news day. You frequently see similarly desperate items on The One Show.

Five actors were in the studio dressed up as dignitaries, and Bob Wellings, the presenter, was walking down the line talking about how they should be addressed. Until he got to Lady Judge number three. Suddenly I became aware (as did the viewers) that the beautifully framed two-shot was becoming a single. Her ladyship was gently gliding out of the frame onto the floor.

Bob looked down. The actress had, apparently, dropped down dead.

Now this wasn't something that any of my four-week stint at BBC Director Training had prepared me for. I'd learned all about focus pulling and camera scripting and how to say "Cut to Camera Seven" in a loud imperious voice. But what to do when you lose a contributor? That certainly wasn't in the manual.

My first thought was: maybe nobody noticed? The second was: the show must go on. There wasn't time for a third thought, for the impetuosity of youth made me whisper into Bob's earpiece: "Carry on, Bob, let's have the next judge."

I zoomed the camera in to avoid any dead people messing up the shot, and Bob sighed, looked down sadly at the recumbent woman and, with a wonderfully polite "Pardon Me, Madam", carefully stepped over the body and got on with the job.

My goodness, the phone calls of complaint blocked the BBC switchboard for hours. Fortunately, the lady in question wasn't dead, but had just fainted under the studio lights, and the BBC put out an apology later in the evening. But I tell you, that sick feeling I had in my stomach knowing I'd cocked up in full view of seven million people remains with me to this day.

So my thoughts go out to the poor young fellow holed up in some Tyneside hotel hiding from the paparazzi, having been made scapegoat for the most extraordinaty piece of bureaucratic mismanagement for decades. I mean, honestly, either the chap had the power to download and send out the intimate personal details of half the population, or he hadn't. If he had this authority, then he can't have been a "junior official", and the Prime Minister was lying. If he didn't, and he just acted on his own initiative, then the system which allowed him to do so is not just flawed, it's utterly inept, and the thought that similar 23 year olds might be able to jeopardize the security of an entire population issued with ID cards is just ludicrous.

When I first saw the news story about all this, I had the strangest sensation. I can only liken it to the one I had three Saturdays ago in St James's Park, when Portsmouth took three goals in the first quarter of an hour. All 50,000 of us Newcastle United supporters were, simply, stunned. it was the same feeling millions of us felt last Wednesday during the England football game. I can only describe it as a sense of unreality caused by watching something incredibly important to us but entirely out of our control being messed up by pure incompetence. And Mr Brown has the effrontery to blame this one on a 23 year old? Come on, pull the other one.

[Note: I've updated the dead judge story in my February 24th 2008 blog]

Monday, November 19, 2007

A Drama in Pakistan

A couple of weeks ago I wrote about my trip to India in 1979. I was driving in a camper van across Saudi Arabia with a girlfriend pretending to be my sister, risking flogging or decapitation in an effort to get to India. Yesterday I read the story of a Saudi woman sentenced to 200 lashes and six months in jail for being in a vehicle driven by an unrelated man.

Our story continued in the relative haven of Dubai. We had to get to Pakistan on the other side of the Gulf, so we bribed a Chinese sea captain to winch the van with a rickety crane onto the deck of his ancient wooden dhow. With heavy heart Jilly and I watched all our worldly goods disappear over the horizon. We flew to Karachi, half expecting never to see the van again.

Karachi harbour was bedlam. As far as the eye could see, there was a sea of little boats jostling to reach the shore, and no sign of ours. After six tense days, just as we'd given up hope, we finally saw it -- the van's blue and white roof at the end of the queue at least a mile away. We ran to a man in uniform to ask how soon we would be able to unload it.

"Around seven weeks", he said.

We nearly died. It contained all our possessions, and we had no means of support in a country thousands of miles from home. The officer shrugged his shoulders. In desperation I wrote the number of our youth hostel on the back of my BBC identity card. He glanced at it, and then did a double take.

"BBC? You know Mark Tully?"

"Well, not personally, but..."

Now if you've ever wondered how Moses managed to part the Red Sea, there, in Karachi harbour, I witnessed it with my own eyes. Hundreds of dhows were unceremoniously pushed aside as a large armed patrol boat carved a passage through and led our very scared Chinese captain to shore.

As we were reunited with the van and resumed our journey, it occured to me what an extraordinary legacy we'd left in Pakistan. Even though the British had been gone for 35 years, we still had the influence to overturn the rule book. But we also left behind an unbalanced structure which enables the military to ride roughshod over democratic principles to this day.

Cut to 2006. I very nearly sold a series to a big American network. They loved the idea, but somehow it was too near the knuckle. It was called "If You Were President", and the idea was simple. You took a disaster scenario, a potential doomsday situation, and you asked viewers what they would do if they were President of the United States.

In order to find topics for the series, I enlisted the help of a man who assesses worldwide risks for major corporations. I wanted a list of the ten biggest threats facing the West. and guess what was number one, way ahead of Californian earthquakes, Global Warming and the collapse of the sub-prime lending market?

"In Pakistan President Musharraf is replaced by a weak civilian government unable to contain the Taliban. That regime is quickly overthrown by religious extremists who immediately turn round the nuclear missiles currently pointing at Delhi and Mumbai and aim them straight at Tel Aviv."

How would the President of the United States react? Sadly the series was never made.

So, as the crisis in Pakistan continues to deepen I'm aware we're not just watching the saga of yet another dictator resisting democracy in a remote land. I don't know if Britain still has influence in Pakistan. But if we do, I hope for once our politicians, hitherto not too adept at dealing with Asian dictatorships, use, that power wisely. This is one bit of foreign policy we can't afford to get wrong.

Monday, November 12, 2007

How to Start a Business

According to a recent report, the North East of England needs another 30,000 businesses.

That's an awful lot of business cards, I should start up a graphic design company. Apparently we need to "develop a more entrepreneurial culture".

The name "entrepreneur" sounds like a member of some exclusive sect. I became one because I had a phone call from Andrew Lloyd Webber. He asked me to direct a television version of his musical Song & Dance, and he wanted me to cast his then girlfriend, and subsequent wife, Sarah Brightman.

At that time I was at the BBC earning £2,000 a month. I was thinking about going freelance, but never had the courage. Obviously I jumped at the chance of working with the great man, but I had no idea what to charge him for the month's work it was going to take. So I rang an agent, the late Richard Armitage, whose father Noel Gay wrote The Lambeth Walk and Run Rabbit Run. He was the wisest man and most loyal friend.

"What would make you happy?" he said.

As anything more than two grand would have been a bonus, I said "Do you think he would stretch to three?"

An hour later Richard rang back. "I said you'd accept £45,000".

After I regained consciousness he said, "Let that be a lesson to you. Andrew only employs the best, and I told him you are the best director in the world. So that seemed about right to both of us."

Of course, it was nonsense. I was way down the directors' pecking order, but it's undoubtedly the most important lesson I ever learned, and which I recently passed onto my son who has become a director himself.

So I had £45,000 burning a hole in my bank account, and at that time Richard was reviving his father's hit West End show, Me and My Girl. He was looking for backers, so I offered to invest my entire earnings in the show. Richard refused the money with two other pieces of great advice: "Never invest in a friend's business, and never put all your money into something you can't control". Shame, really, because the show ran and ran. Instead I quit the BBC and put the cash into setting up a TV production company. Within two years it was the largest in the UK.

During the next fifteen years, there were incredible highs and utterly miserable lows. The most important quality an entrepreneur can have is the ability to cope with failure. Television production is like Norfolk: turkeys come with the territory.

Mark Thompson, now director general of the BBC, once said that his most disastrous commission was Happy Families, a terrible Saturday night spectacle that involved Grannies being hoisted into the air in giant cages. One of my many turkeys, which viewers voted off with their remotes. Occasionally out of the gloom would emerge a couple of shows which would become part of popular culture and make it all worthwhile, like Challenge Anneka and Robot Wars.

Now I've launched another production company in Newcastle, which has cost me ten times as much as the last one. Reducing the North East business start-up requirement to 29,999.

Talk about risk money: I know I can lose the lot, but that's what entrepreneurs do. The venture capitalists (who actually take almost no risks at all) call it "skin in the game". It's the adrenalin of potential failure which keeps you awake at night and drives you to success. It requires courage and a good sense of humour. And I know those are qualities that people in the North East of England have in abundance.

Which makes it all the more galling that just as One North East is calling for more entrepreneurial risk, our government is trying to stifle it by increasing Capital Gains Tax by 80%.

Monday, November 5, 2007

A Woman's Place is on the Back Seat

On Wednesday Joanna was driving us along the Military Road, the Autumn sunshine making shadows across the fields towards Hadrian's Wall. We were listening to the news about King Abdullah's visit to London when I remembered a journey I'd made nearly thirty years ago on another dead straight road beside an icon of political power, the oil pipeline in Saudi Arabia.

A beautiful girl had seduced me into giving up my job, house and car. We bought an old Volkswagen combi van, added a cooker and a bed, and set out to drive to India.

In 1979, with my moustache and long hair I looked a bit like Robert Plant, and she'd floored me with her flowery hippy dresses and determination to meet the Dalai Lama.

Disaster struck as we camped in the car park of the Topkapi palace in Istanbul. The BBC announced the overthrow of the Shah of Iran. We studied the map. Iran was now blocked as there was only one way through: South, through Syria and Jordan, and then along a straight line through the desert marked Saudi Arabia.

A couple of weeks later, we drove into the compound of the Saudi Embassy in Amman. There were about fifty other camper vans, all painted in bright hippy colours, and standing outside were about a hundred weeping Australians. It wasn't the rugby season: they'd been denied visas and now had to face the long drive back to the UK. Resigned to failure, Jilly made a cup of tea in the van and I took our passports up to the visa window.

The man behind the glass frowned, stared at both passports, then slowly softened.

"Geel-an. Your sister?" he asked.

For a moment I looked blankly. Then, just as I opened my mouth to correct it dawned on me. My middle name is Gillan. The name on my girlfriend's passport was Jillian. To an Arab unfamiliar with Roman script, the words must have looked similar. The others had been turned back because the women were neither married nor related. So I nodded and the officer cheerfully stamped us through.

At that moment I grasped what the rights organisations mean when they talk of gender discrimination. In the Saudi kingdom, a woman is defined only by her relationship to a man: sister, wife, mother, daughter. With no identity of her own, she has no right to passport, vote or driving licence. Women can't drive in Saudi Arabia. They sit in the back like dogs.

As we joined the baking desert highway that led dead straight for more than two thousand miles, Jilly climbed into the back seat and stayed there for three days. At petrol stations, she closed the curtains and covered herself in a veil. When we passed through a town, Saudi men crowded round the vehicle to peer at her, like flies.

Every fifty miles or so we passed a little village, carved out of the brown desert dust. Beside each one was a neat pile of wrecked cars. Not old bangers, but brand new Mercedes and BMWs, driven at breakneck speed, dented and abandoned. Driven by men in a country that doesn't permit a woman to drive as much as a golf cart.

Beside us ran the huge pipeline carrying the welath that supports both our own civilisation and the Saudi regime. It's a country formed by an unholy merger between the feudal and the fundamentalist. A country without freedom of expression, religion or association, without political parties and where justice is articulated by brutal capital and corporal punishment. This is the regime which gave birth to Al-Qaeda, and to which our Queen and Government have once more pledged eternal friendship.

Back beside that other symbol of Western civilisation, the Roman Wall, I reflected on our democracy's fundamental freedom: to believe what we like and say what we believe. I guess that's why you can read this today.