Monday, January 28, 2008

Conference phobia and the Carlisle Switcher

I find conferences a pain in the neck. Literally.

Once I walk into a room with people wearing name badges, for some reason I turn into an insecure wreck. I convince myself I’ve forgotten the names of people I’ve spent my whole career working with, and consequently look down at every single name. Or, if I do recognize someone, I’m fearful that some dreadful catastrophe has befallen them since we last met. So instead of saying “How’s business?” I study their badge to check they haven’t been sacked.

It’s quite a knack greeting someone who knows you well whilst surreptitiously gazing at their chest. Especially when they’re female. And as I’ve now reached the age when I can’t read with my normal glasses on, I have to bend my neck even further in order to peer over the top of the frames. Worst of all are women who tie their badges to their handbags where they hang with the names annoyingly facing inwards. You have to pretend to tie a shoelace in order to see them. Conference phobia even extends to meetings with relatively close friends. I panic that I've confused them with someone else, then, having established their identity beyond all reasonable doubt, I don't mention their wives or children in case since I last saw them they've got divorced, or one of their offspring has been smitten with some fatal illness. I'm sure a therapist would have a field day with all this.

So imagine how thrilled I was last week to discover I’d signed up for two conferences. One was on the future of television in the regions, and the other was on training needs of the media industry in the North. Now those of you who survived the last sentence and aren’t currently in the middle someone else's more entertaining blog, will be reassured to know that these subjects aren’t quite as tedious as they sound. Last week Mike Neville, the North East's most famous local television host, who only fairly recently retired after presenting the local news here for about a hundred years, emailed me to say he looks forward to my column (finally, fan mail), and when I emailed back to say I was off to a conference about regional production he said “It’s going to be a pretty short conference, then”.

Mike and I come from a tradition of regional television: not only programmes made for the North East, but also network television made here for the rest of the country. We first worked together when I was a trainee on Look North. I was only allowed on camera once, reporting on the 1974 sugar shortage. Mike introduced my piece by saying “Now Mrs Gutteridge in Tynemouth, you must be very proud. Here’s your son on television”. That was one way of cutting me down to size.

Later, when I was a director on Nationwide, I enjoyed working with Mike because he was the presenter who could hold things together in times of crisis. With that show, just staying on air was pretty touch and go. One of my biggest nightmares was a man we dubbed ‘The Carlisle Switcher’. For some reason the circuits (the lines carrying the signal) from all the regions north of Manchester had to be routed through a switching centre in Carlisle. One night we knew The Carlisle Switcher was on shift because in the middle of an interview on abortion with a bishop in Glasgow, the picture (but not the sound) suddenly cut to the Newcastle studio. There lounged a floor manager smoking a cigarette, his feet on the desk, reading a copy of The Sun.

In those days, regional television programmes were properly funded and an important part of our television culture. It’s ironic that the conference on Tuesday coincided with the funeral of one of the North East’s best regional producers, Harry Green.

How things have changed since Harry was making shows. Next year, ITV is axing its last regional timeslots which have been filled with fine programmes like Grundy’s Northern Pride. Instead, our local producers will have to compete with thousands of others for network timeslots. Just how our regional voice will be maintained is an important cultural and commercial issue for the region. Hence the conference. One of the people there I recognized without his badge was the director general of the BBC. He’s moving five departments to Manchester and, as we nibbled our sandwiches at lunchtime, you could hear the massive construction site for the new “Media City” outside. Sadly nothing at all is planned for the North East. Maybe we need another conference to discuss it.

Monday, January 21, 2008

Crash Landing

Senior First Officer John Coward must have the least appropriate name for a hero. With nerves of steel he guided his 777 onto the Heathrow grass, rather than parking it somewhere in the middle of Hounslow. Quite what he must have felt when the engines lost power in his final approach can scarcely be imagined.

It was hardly life threatening, but I once piloted a television programme that lost power and crash landed in front of six million viewers.

The programme was Panorama, in the days when it was presented live in the studio by David Dimbleby. One week, when I was in the director’s chair, the show looked as though it would be an extremely easy ride. With no studio guests, David had to walk across the studio, sit down at a desk, and introduce two films. We even had some standby films lined up in case anything went wrong.

With the thirty or so television monitors making the studio control room glow like the deck of a jumbo jet, the show took off with its portentous opening music. David went into the first link. “Good Evening. Tonight on Panorama…”

Just as he reached the word “Tonight”, all the screens in the control room suddenly went blank. All except four. Every single piece of film had disappeared, but there were four separate camera shots of David.

In vain, I gazed at the empty screens, willing the films to reappear. The technical crew were screaming into telephones. Oblivious to the approaching catastrophe, Dimbleby kept going.

“Our first film tonight…”

We had just ten seconds before David reached the end of his script. I braced myself for the inevitable.

“Here’s his report”, he announced. Then silence.

It took a few seconds for David to realize we weren’t going to cut away from him. Then he apologised to the viewers, and paused. I rang the telephone on his desk. The scene has been replayed many times on Auntie’s Bloomers Indeed, if you turn up the volume you can just about make out my voice at the end of the line.

“Er, David, we have a problem”.

“I can see that. Shall we go to the next film?”

“Er….there is no next film. And no standby.”

“So, what would you like me to do?”

“Just… keep talking”.

Which he did, for eight gruesome minutes. He talked about the studio, the cameramen, what he was going to have for supper after the show. In front of six million transfixed viewers.

It was a performance worthy of the adlib king Mike Neville during some of the many glorious breakdowns on Look North. But that was local news, and this was the BBC’s current affairs flagship.

Then, suddenly, the screens bounced back into life and I rang the studio phone again to put David out of his misery.

We did eventually find the cause. During the afternoon a fluorescent light bulb had gone out at the back of the control room and someone had rung up the engineering department to have it changed. Just as we went on air, a man in a brown coat arrived clutching a spare, found a switch marked “Power”, turned it off, changed the bulb, and exactly eight minutes later turned it back on again.

I do hope for Boeing’s sake something as simple as that lies behind the 777 problem. Because right now I wouldn’t live in West London if you paid me a fortune. It was bad enough living in Putney for 14 years, right under the flight path, with conversations drowned out every sixty seconds. We all used to fear that one day a plane would come down on top of us.

And yet the Government is seriously thinking of allowing Heathrow to expand and blight the lives of Londoners even further. Instead they should shut the whole thing down and build a decent airport in the middle of the Thames Estuary. Provided Boeing makes sure their planes can float.

Sunday, January 13, 2008

The Night I Got Drunk With David Hasselhoff

Tomorrow night has been rescheduled.

I’m not referring to the resurrection of ITV’s News at Ten, with Trevor McDonald cryogenically preserved in his chair still clutching his cheery “And Finally” stories. No, tomorrow tonight at ten o’clock I had been looking forward to watching Sky One’s coverage of the Golden Globes.

Jo and I are suckers for celebrity awards. She provides the fashion commentary and tells me who everyone is (I have no capacity for facial recognition, which is a bit of a hindrance for a former chatshow producer). I sound off about the movies that should have won, and then Jo puts me right. Over a bottle of red and a mound of tortilla chips, nothing could be finer.

Instead, this year’s ceremony was cancelled because of the writers' strike and replaced by a press conference. By tomorrow morning we’ll know the winners, so Jo and I will be debating the results over breakfast.

My office is piled high with DVDs because by noon tomorrow I’m supposed to vote for the BAFTA shortlist. Like many voting members, I don’t get out to the cinema as much as I should -- our local cinema in Hexham is not the most comfortable way of spending two hours. I really miss the Everyman in Hampstead, where they serve you drinks and food inside the auditorium, and you sit on plush two-seater sofas. So instead the studios send me every film to watch in the comfort of my own living room. Because they only arrive in December, and also because I can only do things against an absurd deadline, this means that for the last few weeks I’ve been watching two a night.

Normally the awards season, which begins with the Golden Globes and ends with the Oscars next month, has one or two certain winners. This year, for the first time I can recall, it’s a really tough choice.

Personally I hope Atonement wins director Joe Wright a gong if only for his six minute long single shot of Redcar transformed into Dunkirk. I want to meet Mr Wright one day to ask him about the single chorister in the bandstand who's singing the wrong words to Abide With Me (or maybe he's the only Welshman), and whether he considered going for a retake, but I do think the shot, and the film, was one of my movie highlights of the year.

But it’s up against very stiff competition like American Gangster, Michael Clayton, and No Country for Old Men. There’s talk of glory for Daniel Day Lewis for his soulless oil man in There Will Be Blood (though am I the only one who thought the film far too long and self-indulgent?) but for me the real stars this season have been the women, particularly Ellen Page in Juno, Julie Christie in Away From Her and, above all, Marion Cotillard as Edith Piaf in La Vie En Rose. Juno had the year's best screenplay by far, but I guess it'll be considered a little too lightweight for the big prizes.

Whoever and whatever wins tonight, I’ll miss seeing the ridiculous frocks and borrowed diamonds, the rehearsed smiles, bland interviews, and above all the terrible speeches.

I know how easy it is to get carried away in acceptance speeches. I was once up for an International Emmy in New York. I’d made a film with David Jason called The Bullion Boys which had been nominated for Best Drama. It was produced and directed by Christopher Morahan, who'd won many awards for Jewel In The Crown.

We knew we hadn’t won from the moment we arrived because my co-producer Richard Broke was in a wheelchair, and there was no ramp onto the stage: a bit of a give-away. So Chris, Richard and I spent the evening getting blind drunk, and everyone at the table cheered as I tore up my acceptance speech into little pieces.

Just as we opened our eighth bottle of champagne, I thought I heard my name being called out. Then I saw my face on the television monitors. We had won. Chris and I managed to stagger through the minefield of tables to reach the front and received the award from David Hasselhoff (a man who knows a bit about the effects of drink).

I don’t remember much about what followed except that, with every word of my acceptance speech forgotten, I launched into a diatribe against the Academy for its lack of disabled facilities for our co-producer. The result, in politically correct America, was a three-minute standing ovation, as Richard wheeled himself to the centre of the hall to share our moment of glory. I was last seen at 1am pushing him down the middle of 6th Avenue, with taxis swerving to avoid us.

I think it was probably the best moment of my life. And it shows how drunkenness and spontaneity (but mainly drunkenness) can beat a professionally written script any day. I just hope the writers' strike is over before the Oscars.

Monday, January 7, 2008

Michael Grade and the White Chocolate Cake

In last week’s Journal column, I inserted a postscript claiming I would shed 21lbs by Easter.

It was a private thought. Frankly, I rather hoped it would pass unnoticed. You know how New Year’s resolutions go: they sound impressive, then, after a while you fail and everyone forgets.

But not this year. How was I to know that another overweight Journal columnist would challenge my resolve and reputation?

Keith Hann wants a fight. He says we should donate £10 for each pound the other loses to a charity of the winner’s choosing.

The last time time I lost weight publicly was the result of one of those wagers you make late at night in a bar when you’re not thinking straight.

I was at a conference with Michael Grade, then boss of Channel Four, and BBC1 supremo Jonathan Powell. It must have been late because the three of us were complaining about the disastrous effect too many pints could have on middle-aged waistlines. It was clearly a topic that touched a nerve, because we kept ordering rounds to debate it further. As the clock struck two I heard Michael saying, “So we’re agreed. Six weeks to lose a stone, and whoever fails pays each of the others one hundred quid.”

I thought no more about it until the following week, when I had a call from Grade’s assistant.

“Michael’s organized the weigh-in tomorrow morning in the canteen. He’ll see you there at eight and asks if you could bring some scales.”

Imagine the bizarre scene. Three executives in suits, one clutching a set of bathroom scales, each wondering if the other two are really serious. When Jonathan and I arrived, Michael had already ordered us full English breakfasts, with double fried bread.

“Shouldn’t we do the weigh-in first?” I suggested.

“Don’t be an idiot, these sausages must weigh half a pound each. Eat.”

So after the fry-up, as the canteen began filling with bemused staff, we stood in the middle of the room, took off our jackets, and, like championship boxers, berated each other as the scales groaned.

There’s nothing more boring than a man on a diet. I know that compulsive preoccupation and overwhelming feeling of anxiety which causes every conversation to begin: “Lost another pound this morning”.

I decided on a guerilla campaign. I sent a large slice of white chocolate gateau to each of my competitor’s offices, with instructions to their assistants to present them at 4pm precisely. I then waited for the phone calls. Jonathan's was first.

“You bastard,” he screamed, and slammed down the phone.

But from Michael I heard nothing. So I decided to get some intelligence on how he was doing. I rang Bill Cotton, and he told me that Grade had been his lunch guest the previous Sunday. Bill gave me the entire menu, including the bread and butter pudding, of which Michael had seconds. I sent the menu to Michael with a calorific conversion.

“You may as well write out the cheque now”, I crowed.

But, as with most diets, once metabolism slows down, so does weight loss. As the deadline approached, I’m ashamed to admit I rang my Harley Street doctor. He prescribed a couple of hefty looking diuretics, to be taken the night before the weigh-out.

“Don’t expect to get much sleep”, he warned. He was right.

The following morning back in the canteen none of us had so much as a cup of coffee before stepping gingerly onto the scales. The whoops of victory could be heard for miles. As we celebrated with bacon sandwiches, Michael handed me a box – containing the untouched but now rancid chocolate cake.

Later he took me aside. “Tom, don’t tell Jonathan, but I did have a secret weapon. My doctor gave me a diuretic the night before. Sorry.”

So, Mr Hann, bring it on. I shall probably lose friends and dinner invites, but I look forward to your cheque on Easter Day. And a really big chocolate cake.