Monday, March 31, 2008

The Great Cock-up

It was shambolic, embarrassing and a national disgrace. However Chief Executive William M Walsh (“Willie” to his friends, or “Wally” to his customers) passed it off as “not BA’s finest hour”.

This has got to be the most inept understatement in the history of PR. The last four days have been disastrous for the company that used to call itself “The World’s Favourite Airline”. British Airways wisely dropped that epithet as its popularity plummeted in line with its declining service. I wish they’d drop the “British” as well. I can’t imagine many experienced travellers fly BA by choice. Of the dozens of BA flights I’ve taken in the last year, only one touched down on time. On that occasion, the pilot seemed so surprised by this unusual turn of events, he positively crowed as he announced the good news before landing. Only to return sheepishly to the microphone a few moments later to inform us that, because no domestic gates were available, we were trekking to an international one and would have to wait for a pair of steps and a bus. Last year British Airways was forced to admit that 23 out of every 1000 bags it handled went missing. That’s without the 15,000 stuck inside Terminal 5.

On Friday, Mr Walsh said he had no intention of resigning. I’m pleased about that, because it gives the board the opportunity to sack him. If I were his Chairman, I’d make Wally earn out his notice period in the bowels of Terminal 5 personally loading each of the missing bags into the boot of his company limousine and delivering them with a handwritten note of apology. After all, he did say “the buck stops with me”. Not the big bucks, I bet – his contract is bound to guarantee him an enormous payoff.

What amazes me is that, with so much at stake, the new system at Terminal 5 wasn’t properly tested. I work in an industry where there are no second chances. The launch of a new television programme is a do or die event. Particularly live television.

The first one I ever worked on was called The Great Debate, a live programme about Europe hosted by Robin Day. It was in 1972, the year before we joined the EEC, and as a student I’d managed to get a holiday job as a “runner”. I had two key roles: running for the tea, and then, on the big night, running the result of the vote to Mr Day himself. All round the country people sat in BBC studios waiting to vote and, most exciting of all, the result was going to be generated by a computer, the first time such a thing had been used on TV. After two hours of the most mind-numbingly boring debate, the votes were fed into a machine the size of a lorry and I positioned myself by the printer waiting for the outcome.

Robin promised the viewers that, owing to this miraculous new technology, we would have the result in less than a minute. The seconds passed. Nothing happened. I stared at the printer, willing it into life. Five minutes, still nothing. After a quarter of an hour, Robin Day asked the voters for a show of hands.

Finally, the computer spluttered out: “?”

Thousands of pounds worth of technology, days of rehearsals, all for one solitary question mark. My job was not to comment but to run, so I dutifully rushed the “result” to Mr Day. That’s when BBC1 viewers heard the immortal line: “Ladies and Gentlemen, The Great Debate has turned into The Great Cock-up”.

The computer, of course, was fired on the spot. Not so Wally Walsh, I suspect. He’ll be uttering phrases like “British Airways needs to deliver” till the next great cock-up. And, as usual, only the passengers will suffer. As well as Britain’s reputation.

Monday, March 24, 2008

With One Word I Was Married

I could never live in New York. It’s a great place to stay for a few days (or, as we did last week, for a few hours on our way home from LA), but the extremes of temperature would soon drive me into airconditioned madness. The winters are freezing and the summers are like a permanent steambath.

Joanna and I weren’t exactly prepared for the icy blasts down 5th Avenue. We only had clothes for 75-degree California, so we looked incongruous dressed in layers of t-shirts while everyone else wore overcoats.

My first trip to New York was a result of young love. In my first year at university I'd fallen for a girl called Mary and, having pledged eternal devotion, my world fell apart when she won a scholarship for a year at a New York university. Mary-less, I pined for about six months until my mother, despairing of all my moping, lent me some money to fly over and spend the summer vacation with my beloved in New York.

So, with clean socks and underwear, I set off promising my worried mother to contact her as soon as I arrived.

New York in June was in the nineties, both in temperature and humidity. It was pouring with hot rain and the moment I stepped off the plane I was bathed in a thick mask of perspiration. Mary was sharing an apartment on the Upper East Side with a neurotic actress, three cats and no airconditioning. It was hell, but somehow through the jetlag, despite the sweaty nights in a single bed, we seemed to be getting on OK.

So I dutifully sent my mother a telegram (it was 1972, well before the days of International Subscriber Trunk Dialling or the fax machine). Mum had given me strict instructions to report three key facts: Had I arrived? Where was I off to? and How were things with Mary? The trouble was, telegrams were charged by the word, and I could only afford twelve.

It took me two and a half hours to squeeze the facts into the limit, and I even managed to include a reference to the weather. Triumphantly I telephoned the result through to Western Union:


It wasn't until I returned to England two months later that I discovered the havoc my telegram had wreaked back home. Western Union had only got one word wrong, but it almost gave my mother a coronary:


She was devastated. I was her only son, and now I had married without even telling or inviting her. And we were off on honeymoon to Florida. Nevertheless, to Mum’s eternal credit, she went to St Nicholas’s Cathedral to light a candle for our future happiness.

The next time she heard from me was a month later. I sent a postcard from San Francisco saying I had run out of funds and was living on MacDonalds. By then I was marching behind Jane Fonda in support of McGovern against the evil Nixon. He lost by a landslide. But we were young, idealistic: and, in those days, very thin.

Speaking of which, I offer you all an apology. In my New Year’s Day blog, I swore I would lose 21 lbs by Easter. Of course I hadn’t reckoned on Easter being so absurdly early. Well, that’s my excuse and, yes, I failed. My cause wasn’t helped by the last three weeks in LA. My mother brought me up to eat everything on my plate, which is a really bad idea in the land of the giant portion.

On Easter Day I confess I was just 10 lbs lighter, and I have a feeling that Keith Hann, who took the challenge with me, will be gloating in his column tomorrow. My cheque book awaits the bad news.

Sunday, March 16, 2008

Tibetan Wedding

I was seven when the Dalai Lama fled to India. With 50,000 Chinese troops surrounding Lhasa, where, as now, unarmed people were in the streets demanding freedom, the 23 year old leader slipped out of the Norbulinka Palace and began his two week icy trek to the Indian border. It was March 17th 1959 – exactly 49 years tomorrow. In exile in the Indian town of Dharamsala he has since watched the systematic destruction of his people’s way of life.

It is significant that he took with him not an army, but an opera company. The Tibetans carried to safety trunkloads of costumes, scripts and musical instruments. For the Dalai Lama knew that the Chinese would wield their brute power by attempting to stamp out Tibet’s culture and religion, and he wanted to ensure that a vital part of Tibetan life, the community opera, would survive.

In Dharamsala, he established a small dance and drama school, now called the Tibetan Institute of Performing Arts. I know that little dance and drama school well, set in the village of McLeod Ganj overlooking the main town. In fact, I was married there.

Last year I wrote about my drive across Saudi Arabia to India with my girlfriend Jilly. During our year in India we drove south to Mysore, where a large Tibetan community was based. We’d heard that an opera was to be staged using the original instruments and costumes brought over during the exodus. What we hadn’t expected was the scale. Three days before curtain up, in a huge clearing, thousands of Tibetan families had arrived with tents to claim their spaces. It resembled a giant Glastonbury, with little cafes and stalls, and by the time the opera started, there must have been tens of thousands in the arena.

It was like a continuous Ring Cycle without the intervals. With fantastic colourful costumes and masks, the opera told of heroes and Gods, dragons and evil forces. With an orchestra of drums, cymbals and deep rasping horns, and a chorus of girls with high-pitched reedy voices, it was a cross between Glyndebourne and pantomime. From toddlers to the ancient, the crowd sat transfixed. Tibetan Opera dates back 600 years. It’s a unique form of folk art handed down by successive generations. It was part of the rich culture which the Dalai Lama was trying to preserve, the “genocide” of which he accused the Chinese this weekend.

After the performance, we became friends with several of the cast and, perceiving that we were in the throes of young love, they asked if we were going to get married. We explained that it was tricky as Jilly was still married to someone else. Apparently that made no difference in Tibet. We were in love, so we should marry.

So it was that a month later, we sat next to a photograph of the Dalai Lama in the Dance and Drama School, swathed in little silk scarves (the Tibetan traditional gift of greeting), and exchanged silver rings made by the Dalai Lama’s own jeweller.

The ceremony was simple. Did anyone in the village think these two shouldn’t be married? They all shook their heads. Then applause, the ceremony was over, and a test of virility followed: I was handed an enormous three-pint jug of sour Tibetan rice beer to down in one. Next everyone had to perform a song. I was far too drunk to remember what or how I sang, but I do recall standing with my bride looking out over the Himalayas as the sun set thinking that somehow, someday, the international community had to put pressure on China to cease its brutal repression and grant Tibet some form of autonomy.

I hope the current events, just two weeks before the Olympic torch arrives in Beijing, will mark the beginning of that process.

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Hot Air from BA

This is my third letter from America. We’ve now flown from LA to New York to pitch our ideas to MTV. The flight takes five hours to cover the 2,500 miles and our tickets on JetBlue cost $350 each. We’ve just found out that, because of the change of itinerary, British Airways won’t transfer our London Heathrow to Newcastle booking, so we have to buy new tickets for the short 50 minute, 250-mile hop. Cost: $450 dollars each.

Sunday, March 9, 2008

Letter from Hollywood

Yesterday evening we had dinner with a celebrity handbag designer called Nancy. She does wonderful things with leather: Angelina Jolie has just bought seven bags and now Nancy’s making her one to hold nappies and baby bottles, which she’s calling The Nanny. When news gets out, Nancy’s company Jamah could become world famous.

In Hollywood fame and fortune can arrive overnight, but the real challenge is stopping them leaving again in the morning. It’s a city of promises, many of them broken. Last week I recounted how we finally got into production with Gerry Anderson’s Space Precinct. What I didn’t add was how that series nearly ruined me.

It started so well. We found a film-loving American billionaire to back us with thirty million pounds. Or that’s what the contract said.

We hired two enormous stages at Pinewood and filled them with spaceships, aliens, actors and crew. After a few weeks of filming, the flow of cheques from America slowed down. So, courtesy of Lloyds Bank, Newcastle, I ran up a modest overdraft to cover what I assumed was a technical delay – after all, we had a firm contract. Within a month, I was one and a half million pounds in debt, and the funding dried up completely.

I don’t know who was more suicidal: me facing bankruptcy, Gerry losing his reputation, or the lovely bank manager in Grey Street who had allowed an unsecured overdraft to get out of control.

So I threatened to sue the billionaire. He responded by sending in the heavies: eleven black-suited lawyers flew into London. They claimed their client knew nothing about the series, that a rogue underling had signed our contract without authority and moreover that, as this underling had used a limited liability subsidiary to do the deal, there was nothing we could do about it. It was the end.

I was summoned to meet the executioners. I left Gerry sitting gloomily in the production office, surrounded by Thunderbird models, waiting for the axe to fall.

Suddenly I had an idea. I’d read somewhere that in the States you can “pierce the corporate veil of limited liability” by proving that a director of one company had control over its subsidiary.

I ran to my office and frantically searched through my files. Eventually, tucked away in a drawer, I found a solitary fax from the underling, complaining about the colour we’d painted the scenery. He said it looked too gloomy, and asked us to brighten it up.

I shoved the fax into my pocket along with a few personal letters, including a note from my girlfriend reminding me to pick up the dry cleaning.

The meeting was brief. There was no discussion: they were pulling the plug. The suits closed their briefcases and prepared to leave. It was time to play my only card.

“But Mr X was not only a director of your client’s corporation, he also had influence over our production,” I said.

“Nonsense”, they snapped, “he had nothing to do with the filming.”

“Right down to the minutest details”, I went on, “like the colour of the scenery”. I slowly pulled out the fax from the pile of personal correspondence and began to read.

Just then, a curious thing happened. The lawyers opened their briefcases again.

“Mr Gutteridge, we’d like to take a ten minute break.”

Three hours later, they came back into the room with a cheque for three million pounds and a commitment for the remaining twenty-seven.

So if I tell you that earlier today I had a meeting with a nice man called Mort who says he’s going to pay for our new television series and turn it into a worldwide hit, you’ll understand I’m taking it with a pinch of salt. But Joanna and I, and Nancy the celebrity bagmaker, did split a bottle of champagne over dinner. Just in case.

Saturday, March 1, 2008

The Hard Sell

Warning. Those of you prone to jealousy should turn away. As I write, I’m trying to stay cool as the California sun beats down on my computer. Remember warm air? We last experienced it in Northumberland in April 2007. For an hour or two.

I’m over here talking to broadcasters about one of the ideas we’ve been developing in our Byker office over the last few months. I’m pleased to say it’s getting a pretty good reception. When I say “good”, it means that they’ve politely sat through the DVD I’ve played them, rather than brusquely cutting me off with “Not for us, Tom. Anything else?” It means they quite like it, not that I can go out and buy a mansion in Beverly Hills. There’s a long, precarious path from pitching to production, about as arduous as the route to the pitching stage from the first glimmer of an idea.

At least this week’s experience is going more smoothly than my first terrifying pitch in the US years ago. Gerry Anderson (yes, Mr Thunderbird) and I wanted to make a sci-fi drama series called Space Precinct. Trouble was, it was going to cost around $36 million dollars and we didn’t have any money. So when a man rang me and asked if I’d like to go to New Orleans to take part in a “pitching seminar” at a convention of broadcasters I leapt at the chance of exciting a few buyers with our idea. As I walked towards the conference theatre, I heard a low roar not unlike a hundred thousand Romans preparing for the entry of the gladiators. The vast room was packed. What I hadn’t appreciated was that this was a pitching contest, a sport akin to bear baiting.

Four of us were given five minutes each to present our ideas, and then we were to be cross-examined, X-Factor style, by a group of judges each of whom made Simon Cowell look like a pussy cat. I was last to go. The previous entrant, a sweet French documentary producer called Natalie with a perfectly decent if rather Gallic idea, was already in tears. The other two sat red-faced and depressed, head in hands, two years’ development work torn apart in just ten minutes.

Chief inquisitor was Greg “Mr Nasty” Dyke, who was then head of London Weekend Television. Now Greg and I have a bit of a history. We were at university together and, I’m pleased to say, we are still quite good friends. But our relationship had hit a bit of a rocky patch after I’d competed against his company for the London television licence. Even though he won the bid, it took him years to forgive me. So that day he decided to take sweet revenge.

I played the showreel, which had cost months of preparation and not a little cash. Greg went straight for the jugular. “I can’t think of a network in Europe that would take it”. The other judges took his lead. My show was dead in the water.

Just then, an extraordinary thing happened. From the middle of the audience a man in an expensive suit stood up. “My name is Kloiber. I represent RTL 2”. It was Germany’s most important buyer.

“I would like to buy this series”.

There was a stunned silence. Then laughter. Surely he was joking? But with a wonderful Germanic wave of the hand, Herr Kloiber continued. “I would like to offer $100,000 per episode for a seven year licence”. Then wild applause, and a man from Tokyo stood up and made an offer for Japan. Within five minutes I had raised enough money to get the show into production.

Ah, such sweet memories, I think the sun has gone to my head. That’s the sort of thing that can happen in America. But for a show conceived in Byker?

Well, let’s see.