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.