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.