Sunday, December 21, 2008


In exactly four weeks time my world must change forever. I’ve been anticipating this moment for eight months or, to be precise, for the last 36 weeks. Yes, Izzy is about to arrive, so the waistline has to go.

I don’t mean Joanna’s: she has remained petite and trim with nothing to show but the most spectacular orb of a bump. From the front and rear she looks the same; turn her sideways and it’s as if someone has stitched a giant beach ball onto her tummy. I know that as soon as Izzy emerges, the beach ball will disappear – it’s my waistline that’s the problem.

I think I’ve developed male pregnancy by proxy. I don’t know if it’s a recognized medical condition, but I can assure you it’s entirely authentic. As Jo’s bump has grown, I’ve developed a sympathetic clone. Now it hangs below my chest, an entirely unwelcome addition to the family.

Regular readers may sigh that they’ve seen it all before. I know it’s less than a year since I was beaten in a weight loss contest by the dieting equivalent of an innings defeat. A failure so embarrassing I’ve had to eat humble pie all year, along with apple, rhubarb, steak and ale and any other variety on offer.

The problem is, Joanna’s food cravings are too enticing. It’s not just her passion for chocolate ice cream: we have 7 different varieties in the freezer; nor her desire for mustard mash at midnight (made with a gallon of double cream and a cowsworth of butter). It’s the reassuring argument that it’s OK to binge because we’re eating for two. Which, in my case, is a lie: I’m eating for me. By this date next month, Jo’s waistline will have become a person, so mine has to become history. But how?

After last year’s debacle, I can’t risk the ignominy of another failure. I’ve tried all sorts of diets in the past, and none of them have had the slightest impact. Except one.

It was in 1980, and this diet was unplanned, but incredibly effective. At the end of our year in India, my first wife and I decided to explore Nepal. A new route around the Annapurnas was just being opened over the Thorung La Pass, which rises to nearly 18,000 feet, and we wanted to be amongst the first to try it. We set off from Pokhara with laden rucksacks and a Sherpa guide called Bim. The problem was, that unlike the common tourist route through the Kali Gandaki valley, this trek wasn’t accustomed to visitors. There were no teahouses or hippy inns; no Tibetans lined the route offering snacks and turquoise souvenirs. In fact there was nothing at all, except the most spectacular scenery and a constantly uphill horizon. The path was so steep that Jilly had to tie her rucksack on top of mine. Occasionally we came across a little village and Bim managed to persuade a local to sell us an egg or some fermented vegetable soup. Meat was out of the question.

The only provisions we’d packed were several catering sized packets of dried beef stroganoff that had somehow survived a year in the back of our van. Sherpas and stroganoff don’t go terribly well together – especially beef, which is against their religion. But at 14,000 feet after 12 days of starvation, Bim was ravenous. The following day he turned green and developed altitude sickness. So it was that I ended up carrying all three rucksacks over the pass. It was the best view I have ever seen, and by far the best diet. I lost 30 pounds.

Somehow I don’t think a walk up Cheviot is going to have quite the same effect, even if I lived on dried beef stroganoff for a month. But I guess it’s worth a try. Any better suggestions gratefully received.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Last Days of the Raj

I’m glad England’s cricketers popped back to India to finish their tour. Otherwise I wouldn’t have experienced that sweet sense of shock this morning when I discovered that we could actually win the Test in Madras (sorry, I mean “Chennai” – it’s difficult remembering all the new names India has given its cities to disguise its colonial past)*.

Though I haven’t been back for nearly thirty years, I can still vividly recall India’s smells and sounds. Last week, while moving house, I opened a dusty old box and memories of my year-long trip came pouring out in a pile of faded photographs. One exposes me with hippy beard and long hair, clutching a piece of tinsel and a plate of Christmas pudding: Christmas 1979, Uttar Pradesh. In another I’m bowling very badly against a group of Punjabi children screaming with laughter at my sporting ineptitude. India takes its cricket very seriously. If we win this game, there’ll be gnashing of teeth across the sub-continent.

Madras was on our original itinerary, but we were distracted by an unexpected encounter. Driving from the South with Jilly in our little Volkswagen campervan, we’d decided to visit Khana tiger reserve in Central India. Arriving at sunset we were just parking up in a jungle clearing when we heard a low rumble, then a deep booming voice called out “What, ho! English?” We peered through the undergrowth; lumbering towards us was an enormous elephant and perched on top was an impossibly tall man who looked and sounded just like David Niven. “I say, you must be on your way to the Queen Elizabeth Cup – would you care for a gin and tonic?”

So began our friendship with the extraordinary Bob Wright, a man who managed to preserve the spirit of the British Raj throughout his life. He was a kind of stereotypical Englishman abroad; he’d stayed in the country after partition, and had established a little tourist camp (appropriately called Kipling Camp) in India’s most important tiger reserve. “Never heard of the Queen Elizabeth?” he roared at us, “It’s in Calcutta, the most important horserace in India; everyone will be there, you simply have to go”. Several gin and tonics later, we made a pact. We’d go to the race if he came with us in our van.

“You’re on,” he cried. And we promptly forgot all about it.

At dawn the following morning there was a tap on the van door. There was Bob’s diminutive manservant Nubi, and behind him were lined up more than a dozen suitcases and bedding rolls. Bob was bringing his entire entourage.

Calcutta was 1300 miles away, along a dirt track optimistically named National Highway 7. We didn’t drive along it, we bounced; for six whole days. Weighed down by Bob’s huge frame, luggage and servant, our suspension trawled through the dust and potholes. Swerving to avoid brightly coloured lorries and buses, trying not to hit ox carts, we grew to ignore the cries from the back as Nubi, sitting on the bedding rolls, kept bouncing up and hitting the ceiling. Every few hundred miles or so there’d be a smart government sign: “Roads Define The Culture of a Nation”. Quite.

At nightfall, Bob would instruct us to drive into centre of the nearest village where he’d boom out of the window, “Where’s the inspection bungalow?” Whereupon a mob of children would lead us to the only stone house, built by the British for their touring magistrates. An ancient manager would open the shutters, dust down the bedrooms, prepare us a meal and find a punka-walla to operate the human powered fans. All for about twenty pence. It was as if the British had never left; we’d gone back fifty years and were living a scene from Jewel In The Crown.

Now I doubt our English cricketers are getting service like that, however grand their Chennai hotel.

* Of course, this was written before England performed its customary eleventh hour collapse. I guess I shouldn't have mentioned the possibility of winning. Or touched wood, or something.

Sunday, December 7, 2008

The Darkest Hour Is Just Before Dawn

Sitting here in my Northumbrian farmhouse, fields still white from last Thursday’s snow, I wouldn’t normally be inspired to write about events in a dusty landscape thousands of miles away. But, reading the headlines and seeing the terrible footage of suffering in Zimbabwe, I feel I have to share a few lines of optimism about that country’s appalling situation.

I detect the first rays of a new dawn breaking over the darkness of Zimbabwe. You wouldn’t have guessed it by the tone of the news bulletins, or in the weekend’s editorials. With the number of cholera victims expected to rise to over 60,000, with thousands more facing starvation, with the economy and all basic services in tatters, the army on the rampage and inflation running at 231,000,000%, it’s easy to see why the press has elevated Zimbabwe back to the front pages: it’s another sensational disaster story, and all appears doom and gloom.

Yesterday the Archbishop of York called for Mugabe to be sent to the International Criminal Court along with his evil cronies; Gordon Brown declared that “enough is enough”, and Condoleezza Rice has said it’s “well past time” for him to leave office. None of these outbursts would normally have the slightest effect on events. Indeed, in the past, the louder the international community has shouted, the more entrenched Mugabe has become. And the more contemptuously he has treated the West, the more his African neighbours have appeared to respect the revolutionary qualities which brought him power.

But on Saturday I received an email from a correspondent who sends me regular communications from inside Zimbabwe. And for the first time in many months, I detected a tone of optimism. The key to freedom in Zimbabwe has always been South Africa. And over the past ten days there’s evidence that South Africa has begun to change course. Partly because the exodus of cholera victims across the border is now turning into a flood, mostly because the ineffectual and Mugabe-worshipping President Mbeki has been ousted, there appear to be signs of serious pressure for change. It’s reflected in the South African media, in the statements of its politicians, and in its refusal last week to send Zimbabwe $30million of agricultural aid until the politicians have banged their heads together and implemented the power sharing agreement.

All this coincides with calls by other leaders in the region for Mugabe to go. On Saturday the foreign minister of Botswana said they should starve Zimbabwe of petrol and diesel, which would immediately neuter Mugabe’s henchmen; Raila Odinga, the Kenyan Prime Minister, said “It’s time for African governments to take decisive action to push him out of power”. It’s not a moment too soon.

According to my correspondent, if this pressure continues to grow, it will finally push Zanu PF to release its monopoly of power, and emasculate the tyrant President. And, miraculously for such a blood-stained region, this will have been achieved without the intervention of international troops or a bloody coup. The power-sharing compromise agreement, which is supposed to make Morgan Tsvangirai Prime Minister and chairman of the Council of Ministers, is only a transitional situation, but one big step towards the restoration of true democracy in that battered land. I suspect Zanu-PF will continue to fight all the way against anything that gives their opponents real power. But with South Africa holding the last few tenuous strings of Zimbabwe’s survival, it’s likely that common sense, and Morgan Tsvangirai, will prevail.

The next two weeks are crucial, and events in Zimbabwe could still go either way. Not just for the tens of thousands of people threatened with cholera, but for the entire country and the region. Noone can ignore the events going on in Zimbabwe, not even a writer in faraway Northumberland. So the more pressure we as a nation can exert, the better. Let’s hope it’s not another false dawn.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Sergeant's Last Waltz

She’s a tough nut, that Arlene Phillips. As the whole audience rose to their feet at the end of John Sergeant’s last waltz on Saturday night, even fearsome Bruno and latex-faced Craig were smiling. However, the Queen of Mean sat there with lips tightly clenched.

Arlene has always been severe. Sarah Brightman once told me that she was frequently reduced her to tears when she was in Arlene’s group Hot Gossip. Phillips is the “Strictly” in Strictly Come Dancing, and I can assure you it’s no act.

I’ve known Arlene since the early 80’s when, hoping to spice up a dance series I was producing called The Hot Shoe Show, we hired her as a choreographer. There was some opposition to the appointment: this was a serious dance show for BBC1 viewers. Starring Wayne Sleep and Bonnie Langford, we’d managed to attract choreographic greats like Christopher Bruce from Rambert, Derek Deane from the Royal Ballet, and the musical theatre choreographer Anthony Van Laast (who went on to stage Joseph and Mamma Mia).

Some feared Arlene’s hip-thrusting style would be too lightweight for us, and her reputation for being a hard task-mistress was also a worry. However, she actually brought us variety, pace, and some really challenging work. But boy was she serious about her art, and her costumes used up all the red and black PVC in the BBC costume department. She was very into black and red. I once went to her house in Hampstead: the entire floor was “carpeted” in black rubber tiles. She’s not a woman to be messed with, Ms Phillips. In private, she’s actually very soft and friendly, but in the rehearsal room, she can be a tyrant.

It’s not surprising that the dance world is cut throat. You start (as Arlene did) at the age of 3 being dragged to ballet classes by your enthusiastic mother. Then, the better you do, the harder it gets. There’s no summit at the end: the more mastered your technique, the more a choreographer will feel inspired to test it. Pain and injuries, calluses and rejections – the life of a dancer is tougher than any sportsperson.

Despite being unable to put two feet together (my dancing would make Sergeant look like Nijinsky), it was a privilege for me to work as a director with some great choreographers and dancers during the 80s. Spending months with David Bintley creating the film Hobson’s Choice with the Birmingham Royal Ballet, or directing some of Frederick Ashton’s short pieces with Sleep and his troupe, gave me an insight into contemporary dance and ballet which grew to a lifelong passion. I remember the excitement in 1987 when I first saw, and filmed, Matthew Bourne’s nascent company Adventures in Motion Pictures.

However, my enthusiasm for dance has never extended to the ballroom, so I don’t agree with Arlene that Strictly is “all about the dance”. For me, ballroom dancing is all about ludicrous posing and flesh hanging out of skimpy costumes, and an audience waiting to applaud some bit of technical competence they recognise, like in figure skating (another form of dance which leaves me cold). Sergeant’s stiff perambulations around his blond partner have been a ray of sunshine for viewers in the relentless storm of bad news. Frankly, I’m glad he spent his rehearsals reading The Guardian; none of us really wanted him to rise above Level One or it might have spoiled the fun. Arlene’s sense of humour failure simply ensured that the no-hoper became a hero.

Her black mood was understandable: her Britannia High show on ITV is now viewed by only a couple of million diehards, yet on Saturday 12 million sat through the “proper” dancing waiting for Sergeant’s finale. I wonder how many will stay for the rest of the series, now that the real star has quit. Saturday nights will be colder and darker without him.

Monday, November 17, 2008

We Are Most Amused

Last weekend, as George W Bush and the leaders of most of the world’s economies scratched their heads to find a cure for the financial plague, as raging fires engulfed multi-million dollar homes in California and as England’s rugby players were devoured by the Australians, I could have sworn I heard Eric Idle singing “Always Look On The Bright Side Of Life”. Then I blinked and sure enough, there he was, emerging from a pile of dying swans on a stage in South London. In the midst of catastrophe and doom, Eric’s chirpy little face shone through. And sitting in the audience, laughing with his subjects, was the future King of England.

I don’t know if Prince Charles was looking forward to his 60th birthday: I’ve only four years to go before mine, and I’m certainly not planning any jamboree. Apart from the free buspass, it’s not the sort of milestone you usually want to celebrate. Charles has been hanging around all this time waiting for his first proper job, and there’s still no sign of it just as people his age should be thinking of retiring. His sons’ joke about them measuring up the stairs at Highgrove for a Stannah Chair Lift is probably a little too close to the mark.

So Saturday night’s ITV show “We Are Most Amused”, in aid of the Prince’s Trust, which brought together Idle, John Cleese, Robin Williams, Rowan Atkinson, and a host of great standups, must have cheered him up no end. Cleese has a home in Montecito, California that must be covered in burning ash right now, yet he seemed pretty cheerful; so was Andrew Sachs who, despite his encounter with Russell Brand, rolled back the years as Manuel. It was a glorious romp. But what I found odd about the show was the comedy. You’d have thought that bringing together some of the world’s best comedians and recording them during a week when the world is in turmoil would lead to some pretty cutting edge stuff. Not so. It was soft and safe. Not one recession joke, no jibes at Brown. Just the usual easy targets, like Bush and Obama. Comedy usually reacts quickly to big events, but these times are so serious, even the comics don’t know how to play them.

They say there’s nothing like a good laugh to raise the spirits. That and a letter telling me that my mortgage payments have just halved because of the falling bank rate. Prices are already tumbling at Tesco, the stock market is holding steady and my broker’s told me to buy shares again. The falling pound has made my business more competitive. I’ve had three offers of new credit cards in the last fortnight. Next week there’ll be tax cuts for all. But will I be off to the shops? I very much doubt it.

There’s the problem in a nutshell. The national mood is currently so black, we’ll be banking the lot, or more likely stuffing it under our mattresses. A friend of mine at a television network has told me that advertising spend is down by half. Millions of cars are sitting unsold in forecourts and yet, however much they drop the price or give us free credit, we’re not tempted. House prices have already fallen, but noone’s buying.

This recession is not a statistic, it’s a national state of mind. Right now an insidious fear has spread throughout the developed world. It started as a corporate collapse, now it’s a crisis of confidence. There’s a danger that all Brown’s tax breaks will simply fill Britain’s piggy banks. In my view there’s one solution to this: we need a right royal party. Or perhaps a coronation. Now that would lighten the mood.

Sunday, November 9, 2008

The Horror of the Somme

Clearing out some cardboard boxes in the garage yesterday, I unearthed my Dad’s old school cap. Tucked inside was a little blue book, dated June 1920. “The Elysian War Roll” was a list of all the pupils from Dad’s school who had fought in the war, which had ended just 19 months before.

618 names, from Alabone to Young; 10 Military Crosses, 23 Mentioned in Dispatches; 89 Fallen in the Service of their Country. There on page 25 I read “H.T. Gutteridge, Rifleman, 16th London Regiment (Queen’s Westminster Rifles). 1916, France. Invalided Out.”

Dad never mentioned the war – the First World War, that is. He always had plenty to say about the Second; and his distrust of all things German, Italian and Japanese. But he refused to speak of the time in 1916 when, at the age of 20, he found himself shipped out to the Somme. That appalling, unnecessary battle, which resulted in more than a million deaths, was arguably the most shameful chapter in British military history. It clearly had a devastating effect on my Dad.

Even in his fifties, in times of stress his stiff upper lip would crumble into a nervous twitch. When as a child I probed him about the war, he would go silent. He couldn’t be drawn on the horrors he experienced in those few months before they discharged him with what today would be called a nervous breakdown.

A sensitive, proud man, he must have been overwhelmed by the stench of filth, human excrement and death, and by the terrible scenes. Hundreds of dead strung out like flotsam on the shore; many others caught in the enemy wire. According to one witness, some looked like they were praying: “they had died on their knees and the wire had prevented their fall.”

How could he and the school friends who joined him in Kitchener’s Volunteer Army know what they were marching to, armed with just blind patriotism and a Lee Enfield rifle? One moment they were young, carefree boys from North London, the next they were surrounded by carnage. The Elysian War Roll lists their fate: P.T. Light must have been Dad’s classmate, killed in Leuze Wood (which the British soldiers nicknamed “Lousy Wood”) close to the village of Guillemont. I’ve found a photograph of Guillemont taken that same November: nothing but acres of mud and charred tree stumps.

Those back home had only a vague understanding of the conditions. My Mum knew a family called Upton whose father described how when he came home from leave, his own mother wouldn’t allow him into the house until he had stripped out of his uniform on the doorstep. Then she took a lighted candle and ran it up the seams of his uniform to burn out the thousands of lice.

Perhaps those who survived the trenches felt they shouldn’t tarnish their loved ones with the terrible blackness of their experiences, but Mum tells me that Dad wasn’t alone in not wanting to share his pain. In the 60’s and 70’s my Mum travelled the country teaching craft skills to disabled war veterans. She told me of one brave man, awarded the Military Medal, who every night woke up screaming and yet couldn’t discuss his nightmares with his wife. So Mum gave the old soldier a box of paints and suggested he tried to paint his own terror.

When Mum returned some weeks later, the man’s wife greeted her with smiles. At last, the nightmares were over, she said. Then Mum saw the painting: he had only used black and brown. The heavy strokes depicted the dark stumps of burnt trees, and to the far horizon, a sea of mud. It was a masterpiece.

90 years ago may seem like ancient history, but it is still only one lifetime. Some survivors couldn’t describe their horror – but we must never forget it.

Sunday, November 2, 2008

Andrew Sachs's Granddaughter

I can’t picture Gordon Brown sitting down with a mug of Horlicks listening to the Russell Brand show. Yet in the middle of the worst economic crisis for 70 years, with catastrophe looming in the Congo, he somehow found time to pronounce on a radio programme where just two listeners had phoned in to complain. There’s no doubt Brand and Ross’s answerphone messages to Andrew Sachs should never have been broadcast: they were lewd, offensive, and would have been an invasion of privacy whether or not they had been transmitted. But did they warrant such apocalyptic reaction?

The answer depends on how old you are. The events of last week brought into focus one of the biggest problems facing the BBC: how to engage with “Youth”. Commercial broadcasters need youth audiences because advertisers demand them, but the BBC needs “The Young” because without them the licence fee will soon become irrelevant.

That’s why BBC Three was launched. According to its latest ratings, this network still fails to attract substantial numbers of its target audience of 16 to 24 year olds. Last year my development team set up focus groups with scores of young people to uncover their interests and viewing habits. The results matched the BBC’s own research: young people are hard to shock, but love being shocked; they find almost nothing on television relevant to them except Skins and Shameless (both on Channel 4) or, if they‘re back from the pub in time, Two Pints of Lager and A Packet of Crisps. In other words, they craved shocking comedy. Enter Russell Brand.

This isn’t a new problem for the BBC. When I was a producer on Nationwide, being the youngest member of the team at 24, I was given a weekly slot to produce which my bosses imaginatively called Young Nation. It was November 1976, so I booked the Sex Pistols. We recorded an interview that was (to me) hilarious, but utterly untransmittable. So I told Malcolm McLaren that we’d have another go but, if they actually wanted any publicity from us, they’d have to toe the line. Anything offensive would be cut out. They got the message, and I got the first interview with the Pistols.

Bill Grundy was not so lucky. They went on live, and Bill was drunk. It ended his career. But my interview was so bland, I doubt it did anything for Jonny Rotten’s record sales.

The big challenge for the BBC is how to reach this elusive demographic without alienating the vast majority of us now too old to “get” juvenile shock humour. Or rather, we do get it, but we simply don’t find it funny any more. Even Jonny Rotten now does adverts for Country Life butter; yesterday’s anarchists are today’s Mail On Sunday readers.

I’ve listened to the whole of the Ross/Brand piece on You Tube and I found the series of apologies, each compounding the original offence, to be quite amusing, probably because it’s a well-tried sitcom technique. However, the underlying premise and the dialogue reminded me of embarrassing nights of drunken mirth (and regretful hangovers) in the Student Union. By contrast almost all young people I have spoken to found it funny and can’t understand all the fuss.

Not that you’d believe this if you read the tabloid that stirred up middle England. Yesterday The Mail on Sunday ran the headline: Exposed -- the BBC and the Myth of ‘Yoof’ and reported a BPIX survey alleging that 71% of young people found the broadcast “unacceptable”. BPIX is a mysterious organisation. Their website has been “under construction” for years; unlike legitimate polling organisations, it publishes no supporting data, nor the complete questions asked. Yet the Mail uses it, in its own words, to “blow a hole in the BBC’s argument”. I bet Mark Thompson wishes someone would blow a hole in the Mail on Sunday.

Monday, October 27, 2008


I love elections, particularly those that bring real political change. Next Tuesday night I’ll be glued to the box till the early hours with my American future-wife and future-mother-in-law, expecting Palin to be consigned to Alaskan obscurity and the accession of the first black president of the United States.

I think my fascination for the democratic process began in San Francisco when I was 20 and marching for George McGovern behind Jane Fonda. Quite a way behind in fact: there were about 20,000 of us. I guess the sight of so many hippies protesting against the Vietnam War was too much to bear for conservative Middle America; McGovern lost by a landslide.

Two years later I was a trainee journalist in the vast BBC election studio, sitting just behind Robert McKenzie and his Swingometer. I’ll never forget the excitement of the first result, with Robin Day growling at his guests and David Dimbleby calmly in control. I was in the producers’ room of that same studio in May 1979 when Thatcher came to power. And in 1983 I directed the whole of the BBC’s election coverage as Thatcher romped to her second term.

However I think my most memorable election was in the winter of 1979. Regular readers of this blog may recall how I left my job on Panorama and drove east in an old campervan in search of love and the Dalai Lama. I ended up marrying my first wife in a Tibetan ceremony in the Himalayas, but on our way to Nirvana, we completely ran out of money, largely because we had to ship our VW campervan on a tiny Chinese wooden dhow across the Arabian Sea.

We arrived in Delhi stony broke, and resigned ourselves to selling the van and hitching home. Luckily we were befriended by the BBC’s Bureau Chief Mark Tully. One day he announced over lunch that the Indian Prime Minister, Choudhary Charan Singh, had resigned. Indira Gandhi, ousted in disgrace just two years before, was hot favourite to return to power. When Mark told us the date of the election, I realised that in Britain the result would be announced at 8pm on a Monday evening, just as Panorama was going on air. I telexed my old boss in London, and an hour later the machine clattered back with the command: “Hire crew and start filming. Get interviews with Mrs Gandhi, the Prime Minister and the President.”

Our financial troubles were over. However Jilly and I had been on the road for three months; I had long hair and a scruffy beard; we wore ripped jeans and were living in the Tourist Camp, surrounded by vegetarians and clouds of marijuana. It wasn’t quite the image for the BBC’s flagship programme.

With gritted teeth, I went to Connaught Circle and ordered a baggy cream linen suit; a printer ran up some BBC business cards. But Jilly and I were determined not give up our lifestyle altogether, so we spurned the BBC’s offer of moving into the Imperial Hotel. Instead, every morning, a white stretch Mercedes slipped past the rainbow vans in the Tourist Camp to take us to the Presidential Palace. Eventually the urge for a hot shower got the better of us and we persuaded the manager of the Imperial to let us stay in the hotel car park and use the facilities.

For six weeks we followed the Gandhis: Indira, the most charismatic woman I have ever met, and her scary playboy son, Sanjay. On January 15th we sat in our van and heard Mrs Gandhi’s victory speech on the World Service. Her opponent, a man in his seventies, hadn’t stood a chance. Hopefully next Wednesday we’ll be celebrating the defeat of another septuagenarian, and the dawn of a new era in world politics.

Sunday, October 19, 2008

Zeitgeist Surfing

I’m giving up television production and learning brick-laying. If I read Alistair Darling’s “spend our way out of the recession” plans correctly, soon the only jobs going will be on building sites. After the Olympic site, Crossrail and Heathrow’s third runway, the odds on getting the A1 north of Morpeth “dualised” have risen dramatically.

This return to Keynesian-style economics is predictable. The worst thing the Government could do is sit and wait for unemployment to hit three million and the recession to walk right into Middle England’s living rooms; especially with an election due in 2010.

We all mocked when Darling predicted the scale of the crisis. Now, with Brown the Hero of the Western World, the Chancellor is preparing us for the second phase of the drama. The stock market was eerily calm last Friday, but we’re really only in the eye of the hurricane. There’s worse to come.

One surprising outcome of this maelstrom has been the lack of any constructive response from the Conservatives. Apart, that is, from David Cameron’s ludicrous assertion on Friday that the crisis is Gordon Brown’s fault. A claim so hypocritical it’s almost breathtaking. Apart from the fact that it was Cameron’s city cronies who were the lead architects of the malaise, if any single political leader is to blame for the events that have engulfed us it’s Margaret Thatcher, whose policies started the process that led directly to the current crisis.

Actually I don’t actually blame Thatcher at all. For this would give politicians far more credit than they deserve. Thatcher didn’t invent the economic revolution; like all great politicians, she sensed a swing in public mood and then ran with the flow. Thatcher’s legacy served us pretty well for the subsequent twenty years, so could anyone seriously expect Brown to suddenly shout out “Hang on a minute, let’s stop people spending so much”? Even though the signs of impending doom have been there for years, you can’t really blame him for not putting on the brakes. Let’s be honest, we’re the ones who ran up the credit card bills and extended our mortgages, not him.

This month the tide has caught up with Brown. He’s the right man at the right time, and it’s making the Cameron/Osborne duo look like irritable schoolboys. Brown’s problem is that this performance will only run for a limited season. When we come out of the eye of the hurricane, when manufacturing shuts down and service industries go bust, it’s everyone to the lifeboats. So spending our way out of the problem is, for him, the only solution. If he can avoid a deep recession, my hunch is that we’ll see an election by next Spring.

If I’m wrong, and Brown hangs on for the inevitable economic upturn in 2010, then it’s anyone’s guess who’ll come out on top. Brown’s public image is perfect for these dour, gloomy times. But the trick for both parties will be to predict the future. I’ve written in this blog before that television producers try to predict national mood swings – a colleague of mine called it “zeitgeist surfing”. We create ideas that we hope will hit a popular nerve by the time they become programmes. Likewise with politics. The leaders who go down in history are those, like Churchill, Thatcher and Blair, who successfully match their policies to the mood of the nation.

So what will be our frame of mind in 2010? I foresee two possibilities. One is we’ll all need a jolly good party; shares in Mothercare and breweries will go up, and the Tories could do a lot worse than installing Boris as leader. Alternatively, we might just crave a new era of social responsibility. In which case, Brown needs to learn how to smile, and Cameron will have the uphill task of creating a new, caring persona.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Grey TV

My thanks to Angus Long, Director of Embryonyx Ltd, for sending me this email regarding my previous entry:

"I found your column on the subject most entertaining. However perhaps you could lightly inform the TV buyers and advertisers that they are wasting their time on the 18 – 49 year olds.

Apart from the fact, they’ve never got much disposable income, this demographic group it is on the wane.

What they should be looking at is targeting the older viewer and attracting the grey pound. It is estimated that Europes senior citizens are set to grow by 60% over the next 40 years to 103 million.

In the UK alone

  • There are 20 Million over 50 today
  • More people are over 65 than under 16
  • By 2021 over 65s will account for 50% of the population
  • 25% of the online population
  • Over the next 20 years the over 50s market will grow by more than 30%
  • A collective spending power of £196 Billion
  • 80% of the nations wealth & 60% of all savings
  • Each month 50,000 people turn 50

How many will be watching TV and what do they like to see? Not big brother that’s for sure."

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

The Battle For Regional News

Today marks the 35th anniversary of my first day at the BBC. In 1973 I walked into Broadcasting House as a news trainee. Today I’ll be in Cannes, inside the enticingly named Palais des Festivals.

It’s far from palatial: a stifling conference centre set over a multi-storey car park. I’ll be in the basement with 13,000 international television executives. It’s basically a giant farmers market, except that some of the sellers have spent millions promoting their wares with extravagant advertising and lavish parties in the seafront hotels. I’ll be carrying a few DVDs of the show we’ve spent the last fortnight editing in Newcastle, and staying in a self-catering apartment behind the main drag. At least I can save the cost of drinks in the bars on the Croisette, where a tonic water can set you back ten pounds.

Television sales markets are dispiriting places for producers. The programmes that we’ve spent months or years crafting are dismissed as mere “product”, counted in hours and bundled up to be sold to broadcasters for you, the viewers. Well, not all of you, only those in the ratings charts.

I passed out of America’s “key demographic” on my 50th birthday. There the charts only count people aged between 18 and 49; three quarters of the population may as well not exist. Television isn’t about producers, or viewers; it’s about advertising revenue and demos and survival in a world where a new channel launches every day. How the industry has changed since my first day in 1973.

There were six of us trainees. We were given staff numbers and our first lecture. We were told we were destined for the top, Director-General even, and would be guaranteed senior jobs in the Corporation for life. That is, provided we didn’t commit either of two cardinal crimes: bounce a cheque at the BBC cash office, or forget to pay our licence fees. Three of the six must have toed the line, for they stayed for most of their careers. Tony Hall was runner-up when Greg Dyke became Director-General a few years back, and Chris Graham eventually left to run the Advertising Standards Authority; Bill Rogers is still there in charge of Radio News. Broadcast journalism was indeed a career for life. As secure as banking.

Last week, ITV announced that more than 400 jobs in regional news would have to go. The kind of television made locally up here in Newcastle has little connection with the television sold in Cannes. That market is about canned products produced to fill the schedules; regional programming is about what people really want to watch.

The writing’s been on the wall for our regional structure for some time. In four years our analogue transmitters will be switched off: we’ll only have digital television, so ITV will have no more command of the airwaves than Dave or Living. We viewers will be in control and by then one of the most popular parts of the schedule, our regional news, will have gone forever.

Which is why we need to join the battle to keep it now: not on ITV – its path to become a solely commercial broadcaster is already set. We need ITV to supply us with big expensive family shows like The X-Factor, so commercial sense dictates it should be relieved of the regional burden. But if you, like me, believe that local programming is important, we need to start lobbying now for an alternative to the BBC offering. If Channel Four really wants a slice of our licence fee, it should use it to axe Big Brother, stop targeting the same youth audience that every other network is courting, and instead offer a service for the rest of us. Starting with local news and regional programming made for the people who pay for it, not for the salesmen in Cannes.

Monday, October 6, 2008

Up Close and a Bit Too Personal

“The scenery needs ironing”, I said as I watched the playback in our edit suite in Newcastle. “Look, there are creases all over the curtain – and you can see footmarks on the floor at the back”.

This week for the first time I saw the world in high definition. We’ve just shot the pilot episode of Loveland, our new Cilla Black dating show, and because Sky One broadcasts in “Hi-Def”, we’ve had to film the whole thing in this shiny new format. The problem is, it’s a brand new system, and it’s not easy to get right. It’s a bit like putting on a new pair of glasses – somehow the world doesn’t look quite the same.

I don’t want to burden you with my problems, or blind you with science (largely because I haven’t got beyond the beginner’s class myself), but in conventional television, all black is, well, black. So when you build scenery for an entertainment show you pull a black cloth, called a cyclorama, round the back of the studio, paint the floor black, and when the lights are on, all the paraphernalia of the production process is instantly hidden.

We’ve relied on this trick for years. Put some lights on in front of a black background, and through the camera lens even the smallest studio looks enormous; like smoke and mirrors, the scenery sort of floats in space, a technique that’s part of the magic of television entertainment. Watch the X-Factor and you’ll see what I mean. Film the same studio in high definition, and you’ll see every cable and flaw – even the stitching in the black cloth. Thankfully Cilla still looks radiant, whatever format we film her in.

Yesterday three separate brochures were stuffed through my front door offering bargains on “Hi-Def Ready” television sets. This is, of course, the real reason why high definition has been developed: to make us buy more televisions (and also, presumably, to contribute to the credit crunch by adding to the burden on our credit cards). Now we’ve all gone widescreen and digital, do we really need this extra accessory?

Allow me to offer a word of professional caution to anyone thinking of buying one of these. Don’t imagine that it’ll give you a “better” picture. New technology may produce a sharper, more revealing image, but it isn’t necessarily the right picture, and it may well not be what the director intended you to see. Take feature films: some new televisions offer something called “100MHz”, which means they produce images twice as fast as a normal television. That’s not always a good thing, because it’s twice as fast as the television station is broadcasting the pictures, so the television set has to “invent” every other frame you see. As a result, it can turn a beautifully crafted, Oscar-winning multi million dollar feature film, shot at 24 frames per second, into something which looks like cheap video*.

However Hi-Def is great for some subjects. Sport, for example. I’m writing this with half an eye on glamour model Nell McAndrew running as Wonderwoman in the Great North Run; later this afternoon I’ll be trying to read Joe Kinnear’s lips as he rants at the players during Newcastle’s match against Everton. Both experiences would be transformed by Hi-Def technology. Reality programmes look freakily real, and wildlife programmes come alive: you can see every drop of blood as the lion gets its gazelle.

And speaking of bloodletting, I can’t wait for the Newsnight studio to start using high definition. If there’s one subject that deserves closer scrutiny, it’s politics. There’ll be no hiding place for Peter Mandelson when Paxo starts attacking. However thick they pile on his studio makeup, the Hi-Def cameras will expose every piece of spin, every back-track, every nasty little innuendo, right up close in the whites of his eyes.

[* Here's a more detailed explanation for those who don't believe me:

TVs run at 50MHz, but television is "filmed" at 25 frames per second. So there are two "fields" per frame. Each field is half a picture - odd lines in one field, even lines in the next. Because of the speed of the process, the human brain combines the two fields into one picture, which changes 25 times per second. However, sometimes you can notice a slight flickering out of the corner of your eye (when you see a tv screen from the side, for example). Having a TV at 100MHz gets rid of that because it combines the two fields (i.e. odd and even lines) into one picture, or scan. The downside of this is that with a moving picture, you can get jagged lines on the screen. You notice it a lot when there are closing credits running from right to left across the bottom of the screen. The odd and even images don't line up because the scrolling credits are moving too fast. Some TVs get over this with a kind of "Advanced" mode, which gets the TV to predict what the picture is going to do. This sorts out the credits problem, and makes pans more smooth - though sometimes the tv predicts the movement incorrectly and it can make it all look very weird.

But in a feature film, which was originally shot at 24 frames per second (I know, it should be 25, but it's always been 24 - movies on telly are speeded up ever so slightly to allow for the extra frame), when the TV predicts the frames, or when it smooths out the pans, this isn't the image the director and cinematographer intended. It effectively makes film look like video. Yuk.

My solution: disable the 100MHz facility!]

Sunday, September 28, 2008

The Next Big Thing

In November 2004, I was at a retreat in Santa Barbara with my American development team toying with a new television concept we called “Live Your Life For Half The Price”. We had a vague feeling that average Americans were uneasy about their levels of personal debt, and about the baggage of other liabilities they were carrying. We wanted to find out what would happen if people tried to live their lives a different way. I can’t put my finger on why we felt this might make a good subject for an entertainment series, or why anyone would be remotely interested in watching it. It was, on the face of it, a pretty gloomy notion, which ran counter to the current trend for shows about property, home improvements, cooking, or becoming a pop star.

Inventing new television formats is all about finding the next big thing. You get a hunch, a little glow of inspiration, which you try to justify by finding evidence elsewhere in popular culture – a song or a fashion style or an article in an obscure publication. I imagine fashion designers must go through the same process: you sense that pink will be the new black, but have no idea if the public will start wearing it. In the early 90’s I sensed an approaching wave of nostalgia (obvious, really, considering the approaching Millennium), so I wrote a quiz show called “Today’s The Day”; Martyn Lewis hosted it every afternoon for seven years on BBC2; then in 1995 I sensed that technology was becoming cool so I developed Robot Wars; it took three years to sell to a network, but eventually it became a worldwide hit, spawning a host of other techie shows like Scrapheap Challenge and Monster Garage. But doing a show that effectively said “capitalism has gone too far, let’s get back to basics”, and in America? How was I ever going to sell this?

I asked our junior researcher to dig up some facts. Was this strange hunch about financial instability some misplaced gut feeling, or was there anything tangible? For years, television and newspapers had been inundated with adverts persuading people to consolidate credit card debts by increasing their mortgages. Now credit card companies were responding by offering people more and more credit. Had people really overstepped the mark?

It took the researcher just a couple hours to find the answer. He dug up a report that revealed that 36% of all Americans were in debt over their heads. This was defined as having more than $10,000 of debt with an income of less than $25,000. And that was just credit card debt. “There’s more”, said the researcher. “Apparently 2% of all Americans are going to lose their homes and 1% will go bankrupt. Next year and every year.” In the 90’s people earned more than they spent; now credit cards were turning the entire social economy on its head.

I looked at him, incredulously. “That’s absurd”, I said. If the figures were even close, the effect on the economy would be seismic. We checked and double-checked. The facts were there, in black and white. The following week the New York Times published an article about how credit card debt was spiraling out of control. Then in December there was a similar report on Fox News. We knew we were on to something.

The series was never made. “Too depressing”, said the networks. Shame, really; right now it would be a sure-fire hit. But I guess in 2004 it would have been dismissed as na├»ve anti-capitalist invention.

But if it took my researcher, who was a game show developer, not an economist, just two hours to find the terrifying truth about how society and our banking system was heading for the rocks, why has it taken our governments four years to do something about it?

Sunday, September 21, 2008

At the Sign of the Black Horse

[Lloyds Bank is to save HBOS from catastrophe by taking it over - for a quarter of the company's value last year]

The first time I met a bank manager was in the Park Hotel, Tynemouth, where I was working as a waiter in my school holidays. I've already reported here how we were serving a formal lunch to twenty local bank managers, and I watched as our Portuguese deputy headwaiter grandly presented a huge tray of lamb chops to the guest of honour, and in the process poured two pints of scalding hot gravy (which had been lying under the bed of chops) onto his trouser crotch. The banker leapt into the air, sending the entire table skywards. The waiter burst into tears and ran away, never to be seen again.

It was end of my first week of paid employment and I proudly went round to the little branch of Lloyds Bank in Allendale Place, Tynemouth to pay the wages into my new account, number 0021291. Lloyds has been part of my life ever since.

The manager, Raymond Lycett, was a pillar of the community and knew everyone by name. He was charming, concerned, discreet, and when I was 21 gave me my first overdraft to buy a Ford Cortina. He, or rather his bank, has owned most of every house I’ve ever lived in. When in 1985 I set up my production company in London, it never occurred to me to approach a corporate player for our banking. As a result, ten years later, the tiny branch in Allendale Place found itself processing millions of pounds worth of cheques every year from my 82 separate company accounts.

One day, after Mr Lycett retired, the regional head of Lloyds invited me to lunch in Newcastle. There he told me I had outgrown Tynemouth, as they had to employ several clerks just to check my signature on the thousands of cheques. Instead he was downscaling the branch and moving me to a bigger one in Newcastle. I politely told him that if he did so, I would immediately move my accounts to some London bank that didn’t have a black horse over the door. He relented, and the Tynemouth branch survived.

For the next few years, I rarely visited the North East, but once in the mid-90s, while filming an episode of Challenge Anneka in the region, I brought the crew down for a day out at the Coast. After a blustery stroll along the Long Sands, Anneka was desperate for a cup of tea. I said I knew just the place. It was 3.29pm when we walked into Lloyds. The young girl clerk behind the counter was closing up her till when I handed her a personal cheque. She looked at the signature and did a double take. “Is it really you?” she said, and then she saw Anneka Rice and her crew standing behind me. They locked the doors and got out the best mugs and some ginger biscuits from Walter Willsons. I always felt that the staff at Lloyds – all of whom I knew by name – were part of my business, and I know the feeling was mutual.

The image of the friendly high street bank manager living in your wardrobe at home has long gone, but I still, quite irrationally, think of Lloyds with affection and so far my loyalty has never been betrayed. As an investor, rather than as a customer, I’ve found Lloyds’ to be solid, dependable, and, frankly, rather predictable and dull. I’ve always kept a few shares not for their performance, but for their cash dividend, which has tended to give a better return than any deposit account. So imagine the shock last week when they announced the HBOS takeover. Even though they’ve reduced my dividend, I can’t help feeling a tinge of almost familial pride that, when the dust has settled and the City regains its confidence, there’s a chance the old dark horse may be awarded the prize for the best deal of the decade.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

The Baby Shower

Our baby’s getting showered right now. This is quite an achievement, as she won’t be born for another four months. But as she will be half American, she’s experiencing the first benefit of her dual citizenship.

I’d never heard of a baby shower until Jo announced that we were about to have one. Apparently it’s a party for an expectant mother where, as well as silly games like “guess the circumference of the bump”, played with rolls of toilet paper, friends and family “shower” the about-to-be-born with gifts. I’m not actually invited to this shindig – mercifully it’s an all-female affair – but I’m trusting it might save me a few bob in Mothercare. In fact, as this shower is taking place in Los Angeles, and we’ve flown five and a half thousand miles to be here, I’m secretly hoping the baby booties, or whatever we’ll be receiving, will be encrusted with diamonds.

I do like these curious American customs. There’s something wonderfully old-fashioned and apple pie about them. It’s easy to think of Britain and America as just one big English-speaking community, but actually we’re worlds apart. While Britain has allowed national pride to be derided, and family values to virtually disappear, almost every American, irrespective of race, still sheds a tear when the stars and stripes are unfurled, and loyally assembles the family round the dining table at Thanksgiving. I don’t know when the Old and New Worlds’ paths diverged, but there’s something rather charming about America’s homespun traditions and conservatism.

Charming, that is, until you see what this conservatism can do to its politics. To the vast rump of Middle America, Sarah Palin represents the American dream. With Down's Syndrome child in her arms and her four other children and childhood sweetheart husband by her side, she personifies the American family ideal. But it’s not the family that Sarah Palin has placed in the forefront of her campaign, it’s God. And that, for most of my democrat friends on the West Coast, is reason enough to signal the end of the line.

Sarah Palin, gun toting moose huntress, violent opposer of gay marriages, staunch pro-lifer, advocate of creationism lessons in schools, global warming sceptic, has crossed the line between church and state that lies in the political sand of every true democracy. For her, the Iraq war is a holy war, “ a task from God.” It’s no coincidence that her political star has risen just at the time when the fundamentalist Christian right wing has taken control of the Republican Party. Her campaign already sounds like a religious mission. She’s even against sex education in schools, despite the fact that her own 17-year-old daughter has got herself pregnant.

In Britain, Sarah Palin’s ultra-conservative politics would have made her unelectable, or perhaps consigned her to the fringes of the extreme right; in America she’s now considered mainstream. And that’s pretty scary. The possibility that she could be one heartbeat (and a fragile McCain heartbeat at that) away from the White House is making intelligent Americans on the East and West Coasts despair.

In a bar where my male friends and I have gathered to pass the time during the baby shower, Guido, who’s Italian but has lived for many years in LA, puts his head in his hands. “My God, I know our Italian politicians are all corrupt; but the American politicians are just plain stupid.” The woman who could soon be in charge of the world’s foreign affairs only obtained her first passport last year; she has yet to meet a world leader. As her inexperienced face stares down at us from yet another “exclusive” television interview (you’d think she was the only candidate), another friend adds, “You’re so lucky. Your child will be born British. With that gun-toting zealot, I really fear for the future of our children.”

Sunday, September 7, 2008

Hell in Area E

At Newcastle Airport the security guard checked our boarding passes and held up his hand. “You can’t go through, your flight’s been cancelled”.

It was just before 6am and we’d been up since half past four. We had a vital production meeting in London at 9 o’clock and, ignoring the voice inside me, which warned that the words “British Airways” and “on time” are not entirely synonymous, I’d assumed we’d be safe enough with the first flight of the day.

A rush to Central Station and £300 worth of rail tickets later, we perspired through our first meeting an hour behind schedule. It wasn’t a good start, but we got on with the day, and actually arrived back at Terminal 5 in time for a good dinner in the Gordon Ramsay Plane Food restaurant. At least that was the plan.

The security guard checked our boarding passes and held up his hand. “You can’t go through, your boarding passes have been cancelled.”

“Our computer thought you weren’t travelling because you missed the outbound trip”, said the charming but clueless check-in lady. She rang her superior four times. “I’ve keyed in everything”, she said, “but computer still says no.” Gordon Ramsay’s was running out of sea bass.

After half an hour or so, she gave up. “You’ll have to go to Area E”, she said.

Now I wouldn’t wish Area E on my worst enemy. It’s passenger purgatory: a row of about twenty desks. Behind three of them sat tax collectors, waiting for money for excess baggage. They had no takers, so instead sat idly watching the long line in front of the only other two manned desks, optimistically offering “Customer Service”. However, as each customer was taking around twenty minutes to service, and the computer appeared to be having a bad hair day, the queue was building up at such a rate that a man had to snake it into one of those annoying barrier mazes. Nobody thought to ask the redundant tax collectors to multi-task, so the mood of the queue soon grew grim. There was a New Zealand girl in tears because she was about to miss her flight; a delightful Nigerian man trying to get to New York with his family – the computer had checked him in, but had managed to delete all his children; all down the line there were desperate looks and pleas, but no one around with any concept of customer care.

Jo and I were rescued by BA’s Executive Club, which still has competent people on the end of a telephone. We made the flight only because it was its customary half an hour late. It’s astonishing that BA’s Terminal Five appears to have learnt so few lessons from its public relations fiasco of just a couple of months ago.

As we said goodbye to our newfound international friends still waiting in Area E, I apologised to them for our discourteous national airline. A woman walking past suddenly turned and snapped at me. “Are you trying to say something to me?” She had a British Airways badge on with a long title and a face like thunder. Now there were a lot of things I could have said to her. About how they cancelled my flight without warning or apology; how their customer service department needs a service; how they treat their passengers worse than Mike Ashley treats his fans. But instead I simply said, “No, I have nothing to say to you that you won’t be able to read in Monday’s Journal”.

There is one hope of redemption for BA, though. Next time they’re bringing Mike Ashley back from the States, they could arrange for their computer to delete him somewhere over Greenland. Or leave him and his unwanted baggage of cronies stranded forever in Area E. Now that really would be service.

Sunday, August 31, 2008

What's So Funny?

[Geoffrey Perkins, comedy writer and producer, died in a road accident on Friday]

The death of Geoffrey Perkins has left a huge gap in the world of British television. He was one of the greatest comedy producers of the last twenty years and his death on Friday in a road accident, at the age of just 55, is a blow that will be felt right across my industry. Geoffrey was the original producer of Father Ted, and later, as head of comedy for the BBC, was responsible for countless hits such as The Fast Show, Catherine Tate, My Family, Coupling and 2 Pints of Lager And A Packet Of Crisps. Before that he worked in radio, where he produced The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. He’s also credited with creating the hysterical ‘Mornington Crescent’ game in my favourite radio programme I’m Sorry I Haven’t A Clue; sometimes, when it comes on the car radio, I can laugh so much I have to pull over for fear of crashing.

Geoffrey’s death happened in the same week that both the BBC and ITV announced they were looking for more situation comedy – that is, narrative shows filmed live in front of a studio audience. A few years ago people thought sitcom had lost its sell-by date, overshadowed by the new shaky, single-camera style of such masterpieces as The Office. Studio comedy is notoriously difficult to get right, partly because of the presence of the audience sitting, arms crossed, demanding a great gag every twenty seconds or so. A good sitcom also needs two or three classic moments every episode – that’s a lot to ask. Audiences also have to grow to love the characters; perhaps that’s why some of our greatest sitcoms, like One Foot In The Grave, have needed two or three series to really take off with viewers. The pool of good British comedy producers is pretty shallow, so imagine how great the loss of a really fine talent will be.

Unlike Geoffrey, who sat immersed in comedy throughout his career, I’ve been a butterfly in television, flitting between drama, music, entertainment, arts programmes and documentaries. After 30 years of trying, I have no doubt that of all television, comedy is the hardest to nail. I don’t know whether I find everything funny, or don’t find new work funny enough but, for whatever reason, I’ve never felt entirely comfortable in the genre.

I’ve been given plenty of opportunities: I produced a series for the BBC called A Kick Up The Eighties. It was the show that brought Rik Mayall to television as the weird “reporter” Kevin Turvey, dressed in a cheap C&A anorak we bought together in Glasgow; it also discovered Tracey Ullman. I spotted her in a studio theatre play and she auditioned for me, finally getting the job over another newcomer I’d seen in the Cambridge Footlights that year, Emma Thompson. Later I worked with Lenny Henry, David Jason, and even the great Stanley Baxter. I’ve loved every second of these experiences, but somehow I always felt a bit of an imposter. I’m probably not strong enough to cope with the pressure and the precision. Comedy is a pretty serious business. The audience, both at home and in the studio, can be utterly unforgiving. The difference between funny and dull is often a single word, a split second in timing, or a wrong camera angle. As the producer, you have to worry about every line, every nuance, and at the end of the day, when the script has been printed and the actors rehearsed, all you can do is just wait for that reassuring chuckle or, if you’re very lucky, a belly laugh.

To me Perkins, and comedy creators like him, are the gurus of my industry. The ability to predict what other people will find funny is one of the secret magic arts, and one that I’ve never managed to properly crack. I wish I had half that man’s talent.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Bomb on a Train

The other day someone put two bombs on board the 9am National Express train from Newcastle to London.

The culprit was an elderly man. He climbed on board with a bulging Ikea carrier bag, and lumbered into the restaurant car to order breakfast. The bag was clearly heavy, and as he wedged it in the gap behind his seat he sighed, “God, those bombs weigh a ton”.

It’s not the sort of conversation you normally overhear in the restaurant car. Usually it’s “Would you like one poached egg or two, dear?”, “How’s the baby coming along?” or, “Do you think Keegan will ever manage to get another striker?”. Through the shocked chorus of cutlery dropping onto plates, Eunice, formidable ruler of the restaurant, didn’t blink an eyelid. “I’m sorry, Sir, what did you say?”

The bomb man looked about seventy, and was perfectly charming – a most unlikely terrorist. “Those bombs weigh a ton. I’ve got two of them in there”.

You and I would have run screaming towards the nearest communication cord. At Heathrow the whole place would be evacuated and the man shot by marksmen. News helicopters would be circling overhead. But Eunice, product of years of training and experience, simply said “I see, sir, and can I ask why?”

“They’re Second World War. I’ve just bought them and I’m going to the Imperial War Museum to have them checked out”. Eunice called her train manager. He too was impeccably polite. “I’m sorry, sir – you really should have had them checked out before you got on board. We’re going to have to ask you to leave.” And so, with wonderful British phlegm, the train discreetly made an unscheduled stop at Newark Northgate and the man got off, bombs dragging along the platform behind him.

I wonder what he did next. I suspect Newark’s taxi drivers would have been a bit nervous of the cargo. Perhaps he tried to hitch a lift down the A1 with an armoured truck. Maybe he’s still there. Sadly, unless the chap reads this blog, we shall never find out. But it certainly livened up the journey for Fahima, our redoubtable production manager, who was sitting in the restaurant car and witnessed the entire drama.

Much to our annoyance, Fahima and I are now spending a considerable part of our week on National Express. I do enjoy my 9am breakfasts with Eunice, and dinner on the way back with Gina and her wonderful chef Caroline. It beats the Ivy any day. But twice, sometime three times a week, is a little too much for the waistline. This is all because, sadly, the North East no longer has its own television studio.

You may have read that we are now in production with a new dating show called Loveland, starring Cilla Black. That’s the good news. The bad news is that we have to shoot it at Elstree studios, because there’s nowhere suitable up here. So, however successful our production company Standing Stone becomes, we’re going to have to be satisfied with planning, producing and editing our shows locally, but spending large amounts on studios, sets, lighting and so on, down South. One North East please note: we’re on the verge of something big, but now need the resources to move forward.

Sunday, August 17, 2008

Going for Gold

I nearly choked on my Weetabix. Having spent last week on holiday in Italy, the Olympics had pretty much passed me by. With Britain languishing below Ukraine in the medals tables, and Italian television not exactly concentrating on rowing or sailing, I’d assumed most of the British teams had got stuck at Terminal 5 and never made it to Beijing. Then, calmly having breakfast at home on Saturday morning, I heard the BBC commentator shout out, “The British are coming! The British are coming!” and watched our rowers draw level with the Australians. “Wherever you are, shout and scream at the television,” he ranted, “We can do it”. In London’s Earl’s Court, thousands of Aussies were hurling cans of Fosters at the screen. By the time our lads had crossed the line, I was dancing round the kitchen. The dogs started howling, convinced the Italian sun had gone to my head.

British victories happen so rarely, we can be forgiven a moment of euphoria. The BBC said that we hadn’t won as many medals in a single day for the last hundred years. That’s an even greater achievement than it sounds, because in the 1908 London Games virtually anyone who owned a pair of shorts could take part. In the Tug of War, Britain managed a clean sweep of gold, silver and bronze because we entered three separate police teams. The Americans, our only serious competitors, withdrew from the competition complaining that the Liverpool Police wore spikes on their boots for extra grip. The judges rejected the protest on the grounds that the boots were standard police issue.

It’s a shame the Tug of War has lost its Olympic status because it was up there with Polo and deer shooting as Britain’s best chance for glory. My grandfather was a tugger (I’m guessing that’s the word). I have a silver tankard at home commemorating his second prize in the 1890 Royal Tournament. He bequeathed his sporting ability to my Father who managed not only to play cricket for Surrey second XI, but was also a professional Football League referee. Indeed I have a newspaper photograph of Dad at Highbury in 1927 refereeing the first ever match in the world to be played with a white ball. He’s quoted in the Daily Mail saying he thought it would never catch on.

Poor Dad, I was such a disappointment to him. He tried hard to teach me how to hold a straight bat, but I’m afraid our sporting genes skipped a generation (my daughter played hockey for England). My Mum, who also came from a sporty family, complained there was no point washing my rugby kit – it came out of my rucksack in the evening as pristine as it had gone in. My parents knew that when I joined the school rowing team, it was just a motley group of rugby skivers (our boathouse down at Blaydon allowed us to get away from school for a whole afternoon). I remember the abject embarrassment on my parents’ faces when they came over to Cumbria to cheer us in the Talkin Tarn Regatta. Their exhortation “it’s not the winning but the taking part” must have taunted them as we coasted in half a mile behind the tailenders.

So, as Britain soared up to third in the medals table yesterday, I was rather hoping this national sporting resurgence wouldn’t just be a flash in the pan. Perhaps our success might rub off on the other teams I support? I’m writing this just as Newcastle United are running onto the pitch at Old Trafford for their first game of the new season. I’ve supported them all my life, and I’m still waiting for my first glimpse of silverware.

Sunday, August 3, 2008

The Case of the Disappearing Dates

One of the perils of the blind date is the disappearing partner. You’ve just ordered the meal and she receives an unexpected text. Her dog’s been run over, her flat is on fire, and her sister’s husband has just been diagnosed with a terminal disease. Don’t believe a word of it. You’re her date from hell and the text from her best friend is the prearranged escape route.

I’ve spent the last few days discovering the perils of dating. Not for myself, I should point out. Jo and I are very happily loved up at the moment; indeed, I’ve finally consolidated our relationship by proposing to her. This week she and I met scores of people rather less lucky in love, all of whom are so desperate to find Mr or Miss Right, they’ve responded to our adverts for participants in our new television dating show which is to be hosted by Cilla Black.

There were quite a few tragic tales: the single father whose girlfriend left him at the altar with their two-year-old; a 37 year old woman with sad eyes who has only ever had three boyfriends, all of whom cheated on her; a gorgeous lady who fell in love with a handsome Swede and moved to Stockholm to get married, only to find out that her new husband expected her to let him continue enjoying the corporal delights of his former girlfriends. It was sad to meet so many charming women with the relentless chiming of the mid-thirties clock in their ears. Most of them deserve love, and some of them may well find it through our show, called Loveland.

We heard some great stories of thwarted romance. A chap who, late for dinner in a restaurant where he was to meet his girlfriend’s parents for the first time, screeched into the only available parking space to find himself in a furious row with a man already trying to reverse in. He arrived at the table to discover he’d punched his girlfriend’s father. Or the teenage girl who turned up for Sunday lunch at the home of her new boyfriend’s parents, to be greeted at the door by a completely naked father. Her boyfriend had forgot to mention that his parents were naturists.

A large pretty girl told us of a blind date in a Toby Carvery. The boy ordered just a salad then, when she started piling her plate at the buffet, he popped out to the loo and never came back. She had to telephone her father to rescue her and pay the bill. In fact, more than half the people we met had been victims of the disappearing loo trick. It normally happens shortly after the start of the date. So boys: order wine by the glass, just in case.

We had a glorious selection of people: “glamour” models (“I’ve only spent £20,000 on my body so far – I’m just 18”); a bald fat Russian (“She must speak Russian, and cook, and must be clever for our children”); and a whole cast of wannabe actresses seduced by the chance of getting on the telly (“I was at the Sylvia Young stage school – but I really do want a date, honest”).

As we listened to the stories, I felt relieved that I no longer have to take part in courtship rituals. Once, on a candlelit date with Jo, a young admirer at the next table slipped her a note (“Don’t want to interrupt your meal with your dad, but are you free later?”). Thankfully, she said yes to my proposal, so a large engagement ring now defiantly fends off all comers. And the increasingly big bump in her tummy helps too.

Sunday, July 27, 2008

Caught In The Act

[Max Mosley, President of the FIA, has won his privacy case against the News of the World]

There’s a big difference between “public interest” and “what the public are interested in”. That was the crux of the legal argument in the Mosley case. The tabloids fear the end of press freedom. But how many stories, justified by public interest, are really only there to sell newspapers?

No wonder Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt had their twins in France. Since 1970 there’s been a law that gives everyone, however famous, the right to a private life; it’s also illegal to publish a photograph without the subject’s permission. Of course, there’ve been ludicrous consequences: the French electorate knew nothing of President Mitterrand’s mistress and illegitimate daughter; a magazine was fined for revealing that Prince Albert of Monaco has a son by a former air stewardess.

It’s hard to imagine a British court banning similar bombshells from our public domain. If Prince Charles had an illegitimate son, disclosure would undoubtedly be in the national interest. But where do you draw the line? A premiership footballer in a gay relationship; the head of a sports organisation with a fondness for perverted sex; the postman seducing your next-door neighbour? The line between what the public wants to read and what it has the right to read has never been drawn in Britain; largely because the press cries foul at any restriction over what they can or can’t print.

Unlike most newspaper columnists, who have jumped straight onto the “free speech and public morality” bandwagon, I’m finding it hard to get off the fence on this issue. That’s because I know how devastating it can be to have one’s life pulled apart by the tabloids.

I’m not looking for sympathy, far from it. It was many years ago during my wild days and I was guilty, caught in the act. I am deeply ashamed of a sequence of events that led to a 3am phone to my Los Angeles hotel suite where I was ensconced with a married television presenter. “Mr Gutteridge? Nigel Dempster of the Daily Mail. We know whom you’re with, and, thanks to our front page this morning, so does all of Britain. Just look out of your hotel window.” I peeped through the curtains: paparazzi lenses lined the street, shutters primed.

I first rang my wife to confess, and then tried to figure out how to leave the hotel without being photographed. The Sunset Marquis is used to celebrity scandal. They booked us on a Virgin flight and a black limousine arrived outside the entrance, instantly devoured by the snappers. Meanwhile in the staff car park, we climbed into a cheap hire car and drove to British Airways where the head of customer services organized an incognito flight home: I suspect he’s done it many times before. We avoided the paparazzi, but for days dozens camped outside my home taking pictures of my sad family.

Some celebrities believe there’s no such thing as bad publicity. But for an ordinary person caught in the crossfire, being on the front pages for what seemed like weeks (actually, it was just a few days), was shattering. Embarrassed and depressed, for seven weeks I cowardly hid out in a hotel under a false name; in public places I searched over my shoulder for long lenses in the bushes; I put my life on hold; it destroyed what was left of my marriage. What I should have done was go home, face the music, and try to rebuild. But the feeling that somehow my life was being studied through a public lens made private reflection impossible. It was nonsense, of course: people were no more interested in me or my affair than any other piece of newspaper tittle-tattle, consumed in seconds and dumped in the recycling bin.

Hopefully this week’s furore will lead to a proper public debate on privacy. Somehow I doubt our fearless press will allow it.

Sunday, July 20, 2008

In Praise of Village Shops

[The Post Office has announced the closure of thousands of rural post offices. Northumberland has been hit particularly hard]

It’s frustrating trying to get the ear of a deaf government. When I chaired the producers’ trade body in the 90's, we tried to persuade Whitehall to give tax breaks to help the film industry. It was like teaching a goldfish to speak French.

So I feel for the rural post office campaigners. We know the government won’t back down: the horse has bolted and the stable door has already been thrown into a skip. Sure, the odd vocal campaign might deliver a short stay of execution, but the government has decided that the social arguments for post offices don’t outweigh the economic. So shut them down.

The response from individual communities has been special pleading. Take Belsay, for example. Last Thursday The Journal gave their campaign a whole page. Now I agree Belsay is a special case that deserves support. But I’m not sure it’s going to cut much ice, because the Post Office isn’t the real target.

They’re not going to be interested in the claim that “rural businesses depend on the post office for mail and banking”. Besides, as an argument it doesn't really stand scrutiny. Unless a business uses cash (in other words, is retail), it probably won’t need retail “banking services”. Apart from a cafe, and the village post office itself, there's not much need for retain. Most postal services can be delivered online, so the main commercial complaint is probably the ten minutes it takes to drive to the sorting office in Ponteland to drop off parcels. Not much of a financial case, really.

No, this debate isn’t commercial but societal. Belsay is one of the very best examples around. If Michelin published a village shop guide, Belsay would have three stars. I frequently divert there to pick up some fish (they’re supplied by Ridleys of Corbridge) or quality organic meat, or something interesting from their well-stocked deli. It’s obvious that the thriving Belsay shop is the epicentre of village life and its loss would destroy the heart of a community that the Belsay Trust has spent years trying to preserve. The post office occupies a small section of the shop and presumably contributes to its income. If its demise leads to the death of the shop, it would be a tragic loss.

So how should rural communities fight this deaf administration? I hope that Belsay wins its special case status. But what of the others? Perhaps when this war is lost, as it surely will be, they should regroup on a new battleground. The Post Office used purely commercial reasoning when it persuaded the government to lift its obligations towards rural post offices. However this battle is not about whether or not old people can get their pensions, but about the soul of village life itself. Imagine the national reaction if BT went to the government with a commercial argument for reducing the number of people they had to supply with telephones, or councils decided some people lived too far away from the council tip to have their dustbins collected, or the BBC decided it was too expensive to broadcast to people who live outside the major cities? It’s inconceivable because we all agree (for now) these are fundamental services that should be readily accessible to all. Now the government has decided the post offices are no longer essential. But what about a village shop? Can we argue that this is a human right? And if so, can we also create a financial argument for it?

That’s what we did with the film industry. We had a strong cultural argument: our children were being brought up on a diet of American movies, although much of the world’s filmmaking talent was British. It got a lot of backbench support, but the argument was too sentimental to get government backing. To make the Treasury listen, we created a robust financial model to prove that a thriving film industry would be a good thing for Britain. We eventually got our tax breaks, and the British film industry is now soaring. Today it was announced that home-grown movies earned £1.6billion around the world and the top 20 UK films grossed £244million at the British box office. Best of all, UK movies accounted for almost a third of all cinema tickets sold in Britain, up from one in twenty at the start of our campaign.

Surely a flourishing rural economy has got to be good for Britain too. So much of what is wrong in Britain is city-based. More people than ever want to go rural, but they want to live in communities not ghost villages. So maybe it’s the shop in Belsay, not the post office, which needs the help. Perhaps there should be special incentives to encourage investment in all kinds of village services, from pubs to hairdressers. The social argument is blindingly obvious. But to get government to listen, you need to demonstrate the economic benefits. To achieve this, we’d need to develop a financial model which proves how these services directly encourage inward investment and wealth, thereby safeguarding the future of rural England.

Sunday, July 13, 2008

Death In The Family

I’ve seen how I want to die. Swiftly, calmly, whilst eating some favourite tidbit. If only humans could ring up the vet when their time comes.

A few months ago I wrote that Muka, our faithful companion, had gone blind. Sadly, on Friday we said our final goodbyes.

With her big bat-like ears, she had the sweetest nature, especially with children. But as a rescue dog, brought up on the dog-gang warfare of Los Angeles, she just had to sense another dog in the area and she’d start snarling. She could only be walked on a lead.

Mind you, even if she’d been the most sociable animal, she’d still have had to be leashed. You can go hundreds of miles in California without finding a decent open space to exercise your dog. America, land of the free and supposedly a nation of animal-lovers, is in fact a Guantanamo of anti-dog restriction. They’re banned from beaches and parks, condemned to exercise on streets or tiny areas of bare earth called “dog parks”. It’s tragic to see beautiful specimens, bred for the fields, forced to trot on hot pavements chained to their jogging owners.

Muka seemed happy enough with her lot. For a time she and Joanna lived in a tiny apartment in West Hollywood. Olivia de Havilland lived in the same building and liked to stroke Muka’s ears when they met in the lift. Later, when Poncho the cat joined the family, the two animals became inseparable. Poncho used to bat Muka’s ears with her paws, and they slept in the same bed.

When Jo and I moved to London, the pets came with us. My house overlooks dog heaven, Hampstead Heath. I feared the worst: Muka’s aggression would have us drummed out of town. Worse, I already had a spaniel, a breed Muka vehemently detested. So on arrival at Heathrow we drove straight to Dr Roger Mugford, the animal behaviourist.

Roger has a magic device that harmlessly blows air in a dog’s face every time it misbehaves. Ten minutes, two puffs, and Muka had accepted the spaniel. But the massed wagging tails of Hampstead were another matter. A week later we stood on top of the Heath, with Muka, magic device on collar, looking down at the lush acres below. Slowly we unbuckled the lead. Her big brown eyes stared at us with disbelief. “Go on, then”, I said. And off she went, running in huge joyous circles, a big doggy grin on her face. At the age of 15, her first proper run. And from that day, on or off the lead, she never growled at another dog.

Last year the Northumbrian winter brought on arthritis, so the runs grew slower. But her ears still pricked up every time she saw us, especially when we offered her favourite “treatie”, a thin tube of rawhide that her jaws could demolish in seconds.

After she went blind she bumped into doors and fell down stairs, but gradually her sense of smell restored a decent enough life. That was her downfall. One day she sniffed out a sealed tub of liver training treats. The maximum daily dose was 4 grams. By the time we found her she’d munched through half a kilo. Muka’s liver never recovered. The smell in the house was appalling, but we kept her going for a month on a diet of rice. She was wasting away.

When I took her to the vet I think she knew it was time. In the waiting room I produced one last rawhide treatie. She held it in her mouth like a lollipop, too tired to chew. As the vet shaved the hair on her leg for the injection, she gently sucked on the rawhide. As the blue poison went into her bloodstream she looked at me, then slowly sank to the table, lollipop still in her mouth. I could swear she was smiling.

Sunday, July 6, 2008

Sweet Dreams in Disneyland

I’m writing this in a medieval castle. Sitting in my turret room, I look out over lush gardens resplendent with topiary and a lake. There are servants dressed in flowing uniforms. The idyllic style winding its way through the entire castle conjures memories of times long past. The walls are adorned with beautiful frescoes and the building itself is an expression of the most important elements of French history.

Those last two sentences are not mine, of course, but quoted straight from the brochure of the Dream Castle Hotel in Disneyland Paris. A dream castle that’s probably my worst nightmare. I have a fleur de lys wallhanging in my room next to a picture of a princess kissing a frog. Built in 2004, it’s one of several “theme” hotels that have sprung up around Disneyland. This one is a cross between King Arthur and The Three Musketeers. Joanna and I have brought Sam and a 10-year-old classmate to celebrate the start of the summer holidays. Last night we endured “culinary delights in a historical environment, an authentic buffet selection of French and European regional cuisine”. I think you get the picture: all you can eat for 25 Euros. Last night was “Italian night” and Mussolini must have been turning in his grave.

Why is it that hoteliers assume that if you cater for children you have to throw style, quality and good cooking out of the window? The Italians have it sorted: from the cradle children accompany their parents to proper restaurants in the evening. They eat adult food or they starve. We British only feel comfortable with our children in “family” restaurants, where we are forced to eat bland overcooked food which we accept because the kids are having such a ball. The consequence is, our children end up with picky tastes, don’t eat their vegetables, and this morning Joanna and I have indigestion. I guess the Dream Castle Hotel can be forgiven, though. It is owned by Austrians, so it’s unlikely that they’ll ever allow haute cuisine to permeate its castle walls. Austria: home of schnitzel and strudel. Enough said.

Sam’s friend is vegetarian, which is a bit tricky in a chicken nugget laden place like Disneyland. I felt rather sorry for him as he pushed his “authentic” cheesy pasta (more flour than cheese) and soggy broccoli round his plate. I just hope there’s a decent vegetarian alternative to “Cattleman’s Chili” at Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show tonight.

I wouldn’t know what to do if my child turned vegetarian. Boarding school, probably. My eldest daughter has contracted the disease, but thankfully she waited until she left home. Like all flesh-eating parents, I still hope it’s just a fad, and whenever she stays I provocatively cook bacon in the morning to try to awaken her comatose taste-buds.

Scotland cured my first wife. Jilly had been a veggie for six years before we met and all my attempts at healing had been in vain until one summer we went to the Edinburgh Festival with our first born. Ben was just six weeks old, and we were staying on the top floor of a rather smart hotel overlooking the Castle. On Sunday lunchtime we carried the baby in his Moses basket down to the Carvery. While Jilly inspected the cauliflower cheese, I sliced off a solitary doorstep of Aberdeen Angus. That did it. She took one look at the beef, and dived in. After six huge portions she hauled me back to our hotel room to sleep it off. It was two hours later that we realized we’d completely forgotten the baby. We dashed downstairs to find him still happily sleeping in his basket under the restaurant table.

With another baby on the way – my fifth and Joanna’s first – I regret this won’t be my last trip to Disneyland. I’m not sure I’ll be doing Space Mountain at 65, but I guess there’ll be at least one more of these theme hotels to suffer. Unless someone has the bright idea of creating an adult-friendly hotel at Disneyland, complete with Gordon Ramsay restaurant and a swimming pool they don’t allow children to urinate in. Now that really would be a dream castle.

Monday, June 30, 2008

The Whispering Diva

I’ve spent three of the last seven days going to the opera. Well, going and coming back to be precise, and to only one opera at that. Glyndebourne in Sussex is just about as far South as you can get before the language turns French. It’s deep in Cameron country and, unless you have a private helicopter, the journey from Newcastle takes you a day each way. So I was relieved that the performance was just about worth the trip – Benjamin Britten’s Albert Herring was a jolly romp, almost as good as the three operas I saw the previous week in Newcastle’s Theatre Royal, and for which you didn’t require a mortgage to pay the train fares. I can’t tell you how lucky we are to have Opera North.

For most people the point about Glyndebourne isn’t the music, it’s the picnic you have during the 90-minute interval. Thankfully, as my host had looked at the weather forecast, we dined in the restaurant, and so had a grandstand view of the rich and pompous sitting on the drenched lawns with pink champagne and Marks and Spencer cool boxes. Most drank from plastic flutes, and dragged soggy sandwiches from Tupperware, but the lack of crystal was more than made up for by the cut glass accents. A picnic in the rain is a great English tradition, and from the comfort of the restaurant you could see overweight affluent ladies in long old-fashioned frocks, shoes as wet as their bow-tied husbands, tartan rugs round their necks struggling to keep warm. They wouldn’t survive a day in Northumberland.

The first time I went to Glyndebourne I was behind the scenes, directing an opera for the BBC. It was a fiendishly complex little piece by Ravel called L’Enfant et les Sortileges (The Bewitched Child), and involved animations projected onto the set designed by the Wild Things creator Maurice Sendak. After days trying to get the animations to synchronise with the scenery, we were just about ready when disaster struck. We turned up on the day of filming to discover that the lead had completely lost her voice. Doubtless thanks to too many picnics in the Sussex rain, Cynthia Buchan’s warm mezzo-soprano voice had been reduced to an almost inaudible whisper. A performance was clearly out of the question, but we had a million pounds worth of cameras, recording equipment, scenery, and Simon Rattle and the London Philharmonic sitting waiting in the theatre.

Now the word diva has a double meaning. It’s used to describe an arrogant or temperamental woman because that’s what a distinguished opera singer is supposed to be. Not so Cynthia. She was desperately upset, obviously, but after sitting down with her, and frantic phone calls to our insurance company, we came up with a plan.

So it was that the black-tied picnickers arrived to find a little note in their programmes. The “Child” was to be played by Ms Buchan, but they weren’t actually going to hear her sing. I put a microphone inside her costume, and she whispered her way through the entire opera. Then, weeks later, when her voice had returned, we sat in a sound studio in London and added her real voice. Not a single television viewer noticed.

This rule that the “show must go on” is part of the magic of television. This week my company landed a big order with a major network. Sadly this show won’t go on in the North East because Newcastle no longer has a television studio large enough to accommodate it. It’s a tragedy: the talented technicians are still here, but there’s no studio for them to work in. That’s another thing to be added to the shopping list of the region’s facilities: along with a decent road link to the South and a Champions League-level football team. Maybe next year.