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]

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