Sunday, January 25, 2009

No Win Situation

When I joined the BBC as a news trainee in 1973, the first thing our instructor said to us six wet behind the ears young hopefuls was, “I expect one of you to become Director-General in a few years’ time”. I’m sure our newly graduated arrogance caused us to smirk with ambition, and indeed one of us, Tony Hall, nearly pipped Greg Dyke to the top spot a few years back. Today I couldn’t imagine a worse assignment.

Caught between the devil and the deep blue sea, Mark Thompson decided not to broadcast an appeal by the Disasters Emergency Committee calling for donations to its Gaza relief fund, and now all hell has broken loose. His logic is that putting out the advert would undermine public confidence in the impartiality of the BBC. The result has been an outcry, with politicians, journalists, and even the BBC’s own staff, calling the decision weak, a serious error, or just plain wrong. Ben Bradshaw, the Health Minister, who used to be a reporter on Radio 4’s The World At One, said “This is a humanitarian catastrophe and I am afraid the reasons given by the BBC are completely feeble”. Even Phil Harding, the former BBC Controller of Policy (or, as we used to call him, Head of the Thought Police), who actually wrote the BBC’s editorial guidelines, says that although it’s a tough call, Thompson misjudged this one. I have to say, I agree.

Israel is, and always has been, the BBC’s hot potato. Constantly accused of bias on both sides, the BBC actually admitted it got it wrong (together with most of the world’s media) in 2005 over its overemotional (and consequently pro-Palestinian) coverage of the Israel attacks on Lebanon. That’s why this time it’s determined to get it right. The BBC says that by broadcasting the DEC appeal it might be seen to be backing Palestinians rather than Israelis as victims of the Gaza conflict. Consequently it’s now being accused of bias in favour of Israel. The Director-General can do no right.

The BBC’s mistake is that suggesting that broadcasting what is palpably a humanitarian, not a political appeal, might in some way confuse its viewers. This is condescending to the extreme. Does he serious believe that you and I will mistake it as some kind of pro-Hamas rant? This is an appeal by an umbrella group of 13 British humanitarian aid organisations, from Oxfam to Save the Children, to help children and innocent civilians whom, everyone agrees, are enduring the most appalling conditions. The money isn’t for the rebuilding of Gaza: that will presumably be funded by the Syrians and Iranians, who supplied the rockets that Hamas have been firing into undefended Israeli towns for the last six years. Whether or not Israel used disproportionate force against a civilian population, or Hamas used those civilians as human shields, is utterly irrelevant. Urgent aid is needed now, and these organisations need our cash as soon as they can get it.

The DEC was set up in 1963 to respond to extreme humanitarian emergency overseas. That such an emergency now exists is fact: it’s even accepted by the Israelis themselves, which is why organisations like Labour Friends of Israel are calling for the broadcast to go ahead. The scale of suffering is greater than anyone first thought; meanwhile the BBC insults the intelligence of its own viewers by suggesting they cannot distinguish between fact and propaganda.

As the Archbishop of York said at the weekend, this is not a row about impartiality, but about humanity. By the way, if you do want to donate, DEC’s phone number is 0370 60 60 900.

Monday, January 19, 2009

Boom Bang a Bang

Poor Diane Warren must be wondering what she’s let herself in for. One of the world’s most successful songwriters (she wrote Cher’s If I Could Turn Back Time, and Toni Braxton’s Unbreak My Heart), she now has the tough task of lowering her game to pen the lyrics for Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Eurovision song. Ms Warren is an odd choice: apart from being American (couldn’t they find a British songwriter good enough for a show called Your Country Needs You?) she’s been dubbed Queen of the Ballad. Although she claims never to have been in love she has prompted more lovers to weep into their cappuccinos than any other songwriter. I doubt a ballad will set the right tone in Moscow; most successful Eurovision entries tend to be bland, poppy numbers that get the Balkans swaying over their slivovitz. The day after our disastrous Eurofiasco last year, when Britain came last, I wrote that even if the great Lloyd Webber were persuaded to donate a song, we still wouldn’t triumph. In a few months we’ll find out if I was right.

I’m intrigued to know if Andrew had a song in reserve when he agreed to do this, rather than, as the television programme is suggesting, genuinely composing the thing during the series. I suspect the former, as Andrew has sporadic moments of sheer genius and never throws away a good tune. I do hope this is the case, for I doubt he’ll be able to draw much inspiration from the unexciting group of wannabes who are still left in the BBC contest. He even said of the sub-cruise-ship act he “saved” this week, Emperors of Soul, that “they would absolutely entertain us in any cabaret club”, a plaudit more damning than anything Simon Cowell could dream up.

I’m privileged to have watched the master at work at his creative best. Having been asked to direct a television version of his musical Song and Dance I fully expected to be working with the original star Marti Webb. Instead, Andrew’s manager took me aside and said “Andrew wants you to audition another girl: it’s entirely up to you, but…”. That girl was Sarah Brightman, with whom Andrew had just fallen passionately in love.

I remember sitting in Andrew’s office with the choreographer Anthony van Laast and Don Black, the show’s lyricist, having to decide whether to cast Marti or the composer’s lover in a project that Andrew was personally funding. Tough call. Actually, for Don it really was a difficult moment, as he was Marti Webb’s manager, but at the end of the day, Lloyd Webber was the one paying the piper – and it was his tune we were already playing. Besides, Sarah was rather good.

It was almost an honour to spend some very enlightening months with the loved-up Lloyd Webbers making our film. It was during Andrew’s most creative period: Cats was wowing the world, Starlight Express was in rehearsals, and gestation was already well under way for Phantom of the Opera, written for his new love’s incredible vocal range. British musical theatre had never been so rich, and neither had Andrew Lloyd Webber. Occasionally I would be invited to stay over at Sydmonton, his Victorian pile overlooking Watership Down. I remember sitting in the kitchen having breakfast, when Andrew came down in his manorial dressing gown, beaming. “Come quickly”, he said, calling me into the music room, and tried out a new tune over the cornflakes. One morning he produced “Unexpected Song” which he’d dug out of the bottom drawer and re-worked as a vehicle for Sarah’s high notes. We stuck it in Song and Dance and it brought the house down.

On a good day Andrew’s catchy melodies play the emotions like no other. I just hope those Eurovoters appreciate all the efforts he’s putting in for them.

Sunday, January 11, 2009


The destructive impact of those two little words can’t be overestimated. If anything argues for the termination of our contract with the House of Windsor, it’s Prince Harry’s use of the paki and raghead words. We’ve always suspected that racism is rife in our armed forces and this incident proves it. If our trainee officers have these words in their everyday parlance, you can be pretty sure they’re endemic throughout the ranks. Indeed, in the unlikely event that the Ministry of Defence wants to demonstrate a genuine commitment to eradicating racism, it would sack Harry immediately. But apart from leaving us with yet another redundant royal, that wouldn’t really be getting at the heart of the problem, which apparently lies behind the front door of the army’s commander-in-chief. Harry can be sacked from the army, but not from his role as a member of our monarchy.

For the last 24 hours, royal commentators have been trying to placate us with the justification that “this happened three years ago; Harry was na├»ve and innocent; it was just young lads in the army; he intended no malice”.

They’re absolutely right. There was no malice; he was young; the words just came out. But isn’t that what makes it all the more unacceptable? It’s the fact that the language was just sitting there in Harry’s everyday vocabulary that renders the situation so deplorable.

This young man, educated in an absurdly expensive school, was born into the most privileged family in the world; a family with a publicly funded lifestyle and wealth derived from prior centuries of taxation, yet which remains accountable to no one. So if youth and inexperience are to be used as excuses, point the accusatory finger instead at a school and family culture that apparently tolerate such language as normal. Blame either Eton, or the castle opposite the school’s gates on the other side of the Thames. Either way, it’s a sign of institutional racism at the heart of our privileged classes, and something you’d have thought a civilised democracy would have rooted out by 2009.

If I’d discovered one of my children using words like these, I’d have been the one to apologise first. I’d also be demanding a refund from their costly private school. Instead, this incident will probably be swept under the carpet as just another embarrassing royal gaffe, like the numerous snobbish and racist comments of his grandfather and great grandmother. The responsibility of parenthood doesn’t end when children get sent off to school or to university. Our children are what we make them, and if anyone should apologise to our Asian communities, it’s the monarchy itself.

Which brings me to my own children. In last week's blog I wrote the fateful words: “I’m determined things will run a little smoother” when referring to the imminent birth of Izzy, my fifth child. She was due to arrive on the 26th but, having recounted the story of how my firstborn scared the wits out of me by trying to arrive in the back of a campervan stuck in gridlock on the way to the hospital, Izzy decided she wasn’t to be outdone by her elder brother.

At 4am on Monday, just after I'd published the blog, Jo’s waters suddenly broke. This event coincided with a blizzard and a curious decision by the council not to grit the A696 or the A1. As a result the ambulance took an hour to arrive, and even longer to convey us, blue lights flashing, to hospital. I’m delighted to say Mother and baby are doing well and I have a thousand thanks to convey to Duncan Irons, who was roused from his bed to do the deed, and to all the amazing staff at North Durham University Hospital, who together make up the best maternity team I have ever encountered.

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

The Vet's On Standby

Dr John Braxton Hicks first observed them in 1872. Observed? Surely they were bleeding obvious. You certainly couldn’t miss them in our house on New Year’s Eve as Joanna writhed in agony on the floor. “Braxton Hicks” are the bane of pregnant women. They’re bogus contractions that nonetheless feel extremely real. Just two weeks off her due date, despite the pregnancy manuals’ reassurances that “you’ll know a real contraction when it comes”, these false alarms are disturbing. Although Izzy will be my fifth child, I found myself counting the breaks in the pain and planning the fastest route to the hospital. Childbirth is the most inexact science. Despite millennia of practice, it’s extraordinary how hit and miss the whole process is for the female human.

27 years ago, when my first child was due, my wife and I twice piled her hospital bag into the boot and dashed off to the maternity ward, only to be greeted with weary mockery by the nurses. “Oh, they’re only Braxton Hicks”, they said and sent us packing. The second time we felt truly ashamed.

It was on the eve of Charles and Diana’s wedding when she felt the contractions for the third time. “They’re only Braxton Hicks”, we chorused, cracked open a bottle of Moet and switched on television to watch the fireworks in Hyde Park. A couple of hours later we were merrily toasting the royal couple as the BBC prepared to light the hilltop beacons around the country. But despite the champagne, Jilly was in serious discomfort. I timed the gaps and picked up the car keys. “No rush – but maybe we should get ready”. We had another glass for the road, then climbed into our battered old van.

London was strangely silent. The reason became apparent as we reached the high street. The entire city was gridlocked. Over a million people were trying to get to Hyde Park and the roads were jammed solid. The hospital was four miles away across the Thames, and hundreds of stationary cars blocked our way.

At that moment Jilly’s waters broke. No time for an ambulance, we needed a police escort. So whether it was the alcohol or just sheer panic coursing through the veins, I decided to try to get arrested. On the wrong side of the road, horn blaring, I weaved through the oncoming traffic. Storming along the pavement, across a bowling green, down a shopping mall, I roared up to the local police station. It was shut; every policeman in London was in Hyde Park. It was the longest four miles of my life, with Jilly in the back screaming obscenities at me like women in labour always do in the movies.

We arrived with minutes to spare. As Ben’s head popped into the light of the delivery room, we heard the first bars of Handel’s Royal Fireworks music from the nurses’ lounge next door, and a hundred rockets exploded in the sky.

This time I’m determined things will run a little smoother. The calm, possibly hung-over telephone voice of Jo’s consultant on New Year’s Day (“They’re only Braxton Hicks”) has condemned her to another fortnight of discomfort.

Don’t believe anyone who claims pregnancy is a joyous experience. I reckon it’s an unpleasant process from start to finish. Jo’s body is absurdly distended, Izzy’s feet are somewhere under her mother’s chin, and neither has had a decent night’s sleep since August. You’d have thought women would have evolved a more user-friendly reproduction mechanism by now.

Jo says men have no idea what women go through. That of course is a great blessing, but it’s also a frustration, as I’d really like to be sharing our most important event of 2009. Meanwhile I’m taking no chances. Our next-door neighbour is a vet, and I’ve put him on standby, just in case the Braxton Hicks turn into the real thing.