Monday, February 23, 2009

Television Is Dead...

On Saturday night at the Sage in Gateshead the North East’s media elite assembled for the annual Royal Television Society Awards. It wasn’t quite the Oscars, but it was still an impressive shindig, with nearly 600 guests, ranging from veteran producers and local celebrities, to hopeful media students. Every UK region holds its own television awards ceremony, but ours is by far the largest, an astonishing fact considering our producers make the least number of programmes.

Last week Northern Film & Media, our local screen agency, launched a campaign to save our local production industry. It's not a moment too soon. They showed us some pretty bleak statistics: Wales, with a population only slightly larger than ours, produces thousands of hours for the UK’s broadcasting networks, whereas we produce almost none. In this region we fork out £134 million a year in licence fees, but the BBC commissions not a single North East network programme. It’s a shameful state of affairs. This region has creative talent spilling out of every pore, but its television industry is invisible in the national marketplace.

Blame for this decline has been laid largely at the door of ITV; I’m not sure this is fair. I think I know how the rot set in. It was in 1992 when, as newly elected chair of the film and television producer’s body PACT, I decided to launch a campaign for regional production.

I guess it was mainly guilt. Having been brought up on Tyneside, and leaving to join the BBC at the age of 21, it didn’t occur to me to return to my roots to work in the region. Like so many northern professionals, ambition and family had settled me in London, but I wanted to do something for my colleagues back home, because I knew how hard it was for them to breach the walls of Television Centre to get their ideas commissioned. Here I was in London, with hundreds of hours of juicy programmes, and my regional colleagues were getting the scraps.

So almost the first thing I did as chairman was ring up John Birt, who had just become the BBC’s director-general. I’ll never forget the call, or the circumstances. I was in The Ivy (where else??), and he called me back after I'd left a message with his assistant. I'm only setting the context, because what he told me on the phone was so utterly shocking I can still picture myself reeling with disappointment against the wooden panelling. I told John that we wanted the BBC to do something to increase the commissions for producers from outside London. He replied, “It’s not the BBC’s job to protect regional production; that’s what ITV is for”.
I probably ordered a very large glass of champagne to calm me down.

That simple sentence sounded the first death knell for regional producers. As if to underline his point, shortly afterwards he closed down all the thriving local BBC features departments, the source of wonderful local programmes over the years, and more importantly the training ground for budding producers, directors and cameramen who, by an unfortunate quirk of fate, found themselves born north of Watford. The features department used to have direct links to the networks; now all BBC regional programmes were to come through the news division. Basically, if it wasn't a factual documentary which fitted in with the news agenda, they weren't interested. No entertainment, no features, and certainly no drama or music programmes. It was the beginning of the end.

This response fired our regional campaign, which we won hands down: the BBC was forced to set aside 30% of all its production spend for non-London producers, and in 1998 this quota was extended to Channel Four. But despite having an obligation to commission, the BBC accepted no responsibility for maintaining the supply chain. It had already destroyed its regional infrastructure of training and support that was essential to nurture local producers into the network fold, and it didn't offer anything in exchange.

Leaving the job to ITV ultimately proved disastrous: for when Tyne Tees was bought by Yorkshire, and then both became part of Granada, it was inevitable that network production would be focused on the larger companies, rather than the remoter corners of the empire. As a network force, the home of The Tube, Highway, Supergran, and hundreds of hours of network production, including quality drama, the spirit of Tyne Tees withered away. They shut their big network studios on City Road and moved their
news operation into an office block in an industrial park.

From then on Tyne Tees could only offer our producers a meagre supply of local documentaries (produced on budgets less than 10% of network prices). A friend of mine has made 30 documentaries over the last few years for Tyne Tees at an average budget of just £12,000. Last year I made a single non-broadcast pilot for a network show which cost £600,000. And I doubt the series will ever be made. That's the chasm between us.

Local producers have worked wonders with these derisory resources, but recently the axe fell on even this small consolation. ITV is no longer commissioning local documentaries, so from now on they’re on their own.

So on Saturday night, as the final batch of regional programmes competed against each other and Wire in the Blood received its last ever nomination for Best Drama, there was anxious talk across the ham and pease pudding canapés about the future.

Yet, amazingly, it wasn’t all gloom; there was a real determination to fight on together. One well known actress from Emmerdale stood up on stage and issued a rallying cry for us to keep on going, even though by then she'd clearly had more than a couple of glasses of RTS champagne, she brought the house down. It was a theme echoed by all the award-winners throughout the evening.

Our producers now need the support of all our politicians and opinion formers. The creative industries will be the heart of what the government proudly calls Digital Britain; it’s vital that our region will be part of that future. Watch this space.

Monday, February 16, 2009

My Censored Newspaper Column

[My usual weekly column in Newcastle's daily newspaper The Journal didn't appear this morning. My editor gave me the following explanation:

"Tom, I've decided not to print your column tomorrow. Disparaging newspapers and those who write for them should not be the work of Journal writers, however contemplative they intend to be."

For my regular readers, here's what you missed.]

The problem with writing a newspaper column is the deadline. I’d love to be writing on Monday morning as you read this, so you can know my thoughts about things that are happening right now (your right now, not mine, because my right now will have happened several hours ago).

I mean, who knows what excitement could have occurred in the intervening hours while The Journal’s presses are churning away and the vans drive through the city to your newsagent. Another of our banks (yes, the banks we now own) could have accidentally lost us another £8 billion; a third plane could have nosedived into a city; Gordon Brown could have smiled (unlikely, I know, but hey, it’s been a surprising few weeks).

But I guess if you really wanted to know what I was doing or thinking right now, we’d be using Twitter. There, I’ve said it: the T-Word. I’ve absolutely no idea how or where you “twitter”, or why it’s called “twitter”, but everyone I speak to is talking about it, if not actually twittering, so I thought I’d mention it this week to be part of the club. Obama twits (or is it tweets?), and so do Ross and Fry. It’s a social networking thing where the only communication you have with your friends is telling them what you are doing or thinking. In 140 characters or less. On your mobile phone. Goodness, modern life is exciting. How did we live before Twitter?

So, What Am I Doing Now?

"I’m actually writing these thoughts in the contented afterglow of Valentine’s Day."

That was only 81 characters, so I’ll add: "With 3 of my 5 children, including baby Izzy, and partner Jo."

Somehow the space restriction doesn’t encourage a satisfactory reflection of my feelings of bliss engendered by watching the family playing together, separated by three marriages and 27 years; or my continuing amazement at Joanna’s beauty as she smiles at baby Izzy snuffling at her breast. My world is now complete, the ultimate Valentine’s present. It’s enough to stimulate the green shoots in a recession.

Speaking of which, I know something good is on the way the way because of the tweets. Not the messages sent on Twitter (which really are called tweets), but the birds in our wood, which have gone quite twittery over the last two days. They know it’s soon to be the end of this cold, heartless winter. And according to the man in the country store, loud tweeting means early Spring.

I’m surprised I’m feeling so positive. On Thursday night I was at a dinner party with the leaders of quite a few media organisations, and, gloves off, we all said what we really felt about the recession. Gloom doesn’t describe the collective feeling. The consensus was that we’ve seen nothing yet and it’s going to get a great deal worse. It’s enough to make you go off and live in a farmhouse in faraway Northumberland. Which, as luck would have it, I do.

But the assembled gathering also felt that, aside from utter cowardice of our bankers, what’s really holding back those green shoots is public confidence. We’ve all got our heads under the duvet, waiting for winter to end, and until we pop them out and tweet like my birds, it never will. It was also felt that the last people to spot the upturn will be the journalists, and especially the newspaper columnists. News likes gloomy; good news doesn’t sell papers.

So as soon as I’ve worked out how to do it, I’m going to get Twitter. Because I want to know what real people are doing and thinking right now – not the bankers and politicians and journalists. Because that’s the key to the end of this recession. And the moment there are some positive vibrations floating around I’ll let you know. Albeit a few hours later.

[As you will surmise, the reference to journalists was actually made by others at the dinner, attended by some senior broadcasters, publishers and journalists, together with a number of academics. Because it was a small private dinner held under Chatham House rules, I can't reveal who said what. These thoughts are also echoed to a certain extent in an article on Twitter in today's Media Guardian - where it's revealed that switched on journalists are now using Twitter to get information about popular culture and the mood of society.

In one way, I'm rather relieved this wasn't published, as the piece is far from my best work. I suspect that familial contentment doesn't make for spicy writing. However, I don't really see where the slight against journalists appears, other than my cheap and unnecessary cliche about good news not selling papers. I don't actually believe this axiom, particularly not in the case of The Journal, which provides an excellent service for the North East and specialises in front page splashes about major local achievements. It also holds celebratory campaigns for the good things about life in the North, like its food and many natural assets.

However my real point, albeit sloppily made, is about the social climate, and how we can spot changes in what people want and think if we keep or ears to the ground; it's a theme mentioned elsewhere in this blog, for I believe that one of the primary jobs of a television producer (and also a journalist) is to sense the popular zeitgeist in advance. After all, we're pitching shows which won't be seen for a year or two, and we want them to be enjoyed - so predicting public taste and fashion is part of the job. As a consequence searching for green shoots in these dark days is an important goal - we can't rely on the house price index or unemployment figures. These indicators reflect what has already happened. What's interesting is what is happening now - and that's where Twitter could come in handy.

Incidentally, one person at the dinner suggested that it should be the BBC's role to provide uplifting content for the nation in its hour of need, rather as the British film industry tried to do in the 30's. I pointed out that at least one country in Europe had an alternative solution to the depression, which was fascism. Perhaps more episodes of Strictly Come Dancing might have a positive effect. Or maybe Bruce Forsyth should become our Fuhrer.]

Monday, February 9, 2009

Selina Scott to the Rescue

Seeing the ruins of Lord Steven’s garden fence beneath my dented car on Monday night, I was reminded me of another fence I mangled some 25 years ago.

In 1984 I had a little red sports car, a Mazda RX7, which I used to drive at absurd speeds whenever I had the opportunity. At that time I was still working for the BBC, producing a BBC1 dance series called The Hot Shoe Show, with Wayne Sleep and Bonnie Langford. That series had brought me into contact with Andrew Lloyd Webber for the first time, and I’d just direct
ed a video of his musical Song and Dance. The Hot Shoe Show was in its second season, and had an incredibly complex and exhausting schedule, but I still said yes when Andrew asked me if I’d moonlight to direct a video of Unexpected Song with his new wife Sarah Brightman. So it was that after a long day in the office in Shepherds Bush, I’d hit the M4 and drive over to Sydmonton, his Victorian pile on the edge of Watership Down in Berkshire to plan the shoot.

As I’ve never been one to knowingly arrive early for anything, I used to force my Mazda to ridiculous speeds in order to make up time once the road had emptied itself of rush hour traffic. Just after Reading there’s a stretch of motorway which runs without an exit for about 13 miles. It must be one of the most boring stretches of motorway in the country.

One evening I was cruising in the fast lane at well over a hundred miles an hour, and I was about ten minutes from the Newbury turning to Andrew’s house. I was finding it hard to keep my eyes open and had to turn the air vent onto my face to stop myself nodding off.

Then I felt a bump, and blinked hard. A pair of Wellington boots was flying in slow motion past my windscreen, followed by a kettle, some large lady’s underwear, and then, held weightless in suspension as if in a space capsule, a cloud of small household items. It turned out to be the contents of a small white caravan which I’d apparently shunted up the rear, and which had managed to absorb some of the impact of my car. Over what seemed like about thirty seconds (but in truth must have been a fraction of this time, for the adrenalin in a road accident causes everything apparently slow to a snails pace) I pushed caravan and its unfortunate owner off the road. The driver of the other car and his wife, quietly motoring to a week’s holiday in Devon, must have had no warning. One moment they were gently pootling in the middle lane, as caravan owners tend to, oblivious to everything else but the Archers on the radio, the next they were being pushed out of control towards the hard shoulder.

I’ve driven this stretch of road many times since, and I’m amazed at the narrow escape we all had. At the point where the accident happened there’s a steep ravine to the left of the road. Immediately afterwards there’s an equally steep embankment about a hundred feet high. In between the two runs a small ramp of grass and trees, like a sliproad no more than ten feet wide. One second earlier and we’d have been over the ravine, with a fall of into the river below; a second later and we’d have hit the hill and overturned. As luck would have it, with just a couple of feet on either side, my car pushed us all up this narrow ramp. Slowed down by some newly planted trees, we came to rest at the edge of a field. I can still picture the broken fence post in front of me, and the steam pouring from my bonnet.

I got out of the car, and went to check the others. Luckily noone was hurt, but the caravan had disintegrated and both cars were written off.

“What happened?”, said the confused driver, a man in his 50s who worked for the gas board. Avoiding the temptation to apologise and say I must have fallen asleep and driven into his mobile sitting room, I merely repeated, “What happened?”

Together we made our way down to the motorway. Traffic had come to a halt as people stopped to gape at the carnage. Except there was no carnage, just two cars and a few bits of tangled metal in a field.

“What happened?” The words spread round the onlookers. Someone found a bit of white caravan by the roadside with a blue scratch on the side. Then someone else said he had seen a blue van drive off after the accident. And then the police arrived.

They were terribly polite. They took our details, examined the debris and called for a tow truck to extricate our cars from the field. By now the “witnesses” had embellished the story. Apparently a blue van, going much too fast, had struck the caravan and knocked it into the side of my car, pushing both vehicles off the road. The policemen nodded, and wrote things into their notebooks. They radioed the details of the blue van. I kept quiet.

“And what do you do, sir?” one of them asked.

“I work in television”.

His notebook closed. He lowered his voice and said into my ear, “Do you by any chance know Selina Scott?” Selina was in those days the host of BBC Breakfast News and by far the most desirable female celebrity in Britain: to police officers, anyway.

“Actually, I do – we worked in the same department for a while”.

“Do you think you could get her autograph?”

“I’m sure there’s no problem, officer.”

We were standing beside a smashed motorway marker sign. Coincidentally, it appeared to be exactly the same colour as the blue scratch down the side of the bits of caravan. The same blue as the missing van. The policeman studied it carefully, and wrote something down in his book.

Just then the tow truck dragged my car out of the field. It came to rest beside us. There, embossed on my rubber front bumper, was the imprint of the number plate of the caravan. Clearly my car had struck it precisely in the rear.

The policeman frowned and turned to me again. “Of course, sir, if you hadn’t been hit by that blue van; if, dare I say it, you had fallen asleep at the wheel, and you’d driven into the back of that poor couple’s caravan, now that would be quite serious. It would in fact be called dangerous driving.”

I nodded sadly, as more bits of broken blue sign were extracted from the remains of the caravan.

“Could I have a private word, Sir?”

The policeman led me up the side of the motorway.

“The thing about dangerous driving is, that it’s incredibly difficult to prove. Usually, it’s just not worth our time. Now, are you absolutely sure that you can get Selina Scott’s autograph?”

Two months later I got a letter from Thames Valley police. It apologised for the fact that they had been unable to trace the third party in my unfortunate accident on the M4: despite exhaustive enquiries they were unable to find the blue van.

That was my first and last road accident. Until last Monday, that is. Tomorrow I take the Volvo into the “Mill Car Clinic” for an estimate. It’s been an expensive week.

[By the way, regular readers of this blog might like to know that you can "follow" its contents regularly by clicking on the Follow This Blog link on the right. Or you can "subscribe" by clicking on the appropriate link. Or post a comment - I'd appreciate your feedback.]

Sunday, February 8, 2009

How Not to Drive Down a Hill

I have no sympathy for those thousands of motorists caught in snowstorms over the last week. I mean, why on earth does anyone go for a drive in a blizzard, playing chicken with the emergency services? – they deserve a good dose of hypothermia. It’s no use blaming the councils for running out of grit, people should be at home watching Newsnight rather than selfishly obliging nice innocent villagers to unlock their community halls and heat up bowls of soup in the middle of the night.

There’s something about bad weather that brings out the worst in men. Yes, men, for I doubt many women would be stupid enough to venture out in conditions like these. But no, a man has to get out his 4x4 and show it off.

On Monday night, just as a white blanket was descending over our valley, I decided to visit my Mother. “Don’t come,” she warned, “you’ll never get down the hill”. “Don’t be absurd, Mum”, I laughed, “the Volvo has four wheel drive.” “You’ll still never get down the hill,” she droned. “I’ll be fine; I’ve got a special button called Hill Descent Control. You just press it and take your foot off the brake.” “Off the brake? You’re mad; you’ll end up in the river.” “Mum, the engine torque holds back the weight of the car”, I added, without the slightest clue of what I was saying.

The white road snaked into the darkness below. My Hill Descent Control button has a picture of a car confidently gliding down the side of an alpine peak. I pressed it and led the shiny new Volvo into the abyss. 10 jerky seconds later, I realised that this had all been a huge mistake. It must be a sensation felt across the nation this week, especially by those morons in Devon who thought they could make it safely up the A38 before the snow was up to their windscreens. It’s been a great week for bodyshop repair companies. Halfway down the hill, I knew there was no way my two ton monster would make the turn into Mum’s drive; the powdery white surface was the frosting on a cake of pure ice.

Mum was wrong about one thing, though: I didn’t end up in the river. This was thanks only to a huge gatepost connected to an even larger gate, along with about twenty feet of perfectly good fencing. All of which belonged to the former Metropolitan Police Commissioner, Lord Stevens, and which currently lie in pieces somewhere near his front porch. He was terribly nice about it. Lady Stevens took photographs as Britain’s most distinguished policeman and I tried to tug a ten-foot fence plank out of my chassis; it had somehow managed to drive itself into the fog light and out of the other side of the car, so the Volvo re
sembled a gazelle impaled by an Assegai spear.

He’s a decent bloke that John Stevens. Apart from blaming his road for being too icy,
and his gate for being shut, neither of which were any justification for an event caused by my customary stubbornness and refusal to listen to my mother’s good advice, it was obvious there was no way my all-weather XC70 was going to get out of his front drive until the thaws came, so he gave me a lift home, and on the way demonstrated how a real expert drives on ice. I felt about 12 years old.

The last time I destroyed a fence was 30 years ago, on the M4. That time I was rescued by Selina Scott. To be precise, I escaped arrest by promising the boys of the Thames Valley police a signed photograph of their favourite newsreader. It’s a shameful story, which I couldn’t possibly repeat here. But if you really want the full confessional, see my next post.

Sunday, February 1, 2009

Immorality In Immingham

I went to Immingham on Friday. It’s not what you’d call a destination resort. You drive forever across a flat landscape. Then you see two dozen thin chimneys sticking up through the horizon, like cardboard models. You can smell them long before you arrive. It must be like living in a petrol station.

Local people are quick to defend their oil refineries. They say I should have arrived by night, because then they’re lit up like Disneyworld. On Friday morning it all looked post-Apocalytic. Immingham is not a place to go for your holidays; especially if you’re Italian. I wasn’t there to see the refinery, but to visit the community television station.

Immingham has a great sense of community. The studio is the only purpose-built local station in the country. It’s a fantastic resource: yesterday they were telling you how to keep fit while walking your dog. And on their dog cookery programme, they were making doggy pizzas. With unemployment in North Lincolnshire up by 47% in the last year, there’s plenty of time to walk your dog.

I’d set my car’s sat-nav to the postcode of the television station, and it took me the pretty route, right past the Total site. It looked like a film set. Blue flashing lights and no-entry barriers. An enormous crowd swarming round the gates. That was just the press. There were cameras on ladders, scaffolding, in helicopters in the sky, and hundreds of men with rather polite placards, like “In the Wise Words of Gordon Brown: UK jobs for British Workers”.

The sat-nav led me through the town, bored seagulls resting on lampposts, into a painfully shabby council housing estate, and deposited me outside someone’s front door. I could see the studio building across their back garden, so made my way round to the Immingham Resource Centre and Museum. The car park was full of police backup vehicles. The town was quiet as a morgue.

It is about as far removed as you could get from bustle of bankers’ wives shopping in the boutiques of Davos. Not a big demand for Prada on the Humber. Those world leaders and economists should get themselves to Immingham to smell the coffee. Or, rather, the oil products.

Already the politicians are condemning the protests. Of course these strikes are indefensible: the Italians’ bid was cheaper; under EU law, Total had every right to add a few cents to its share price by going with the stingy option. By all means ignore any corporate responsibility for the existing workforce, just allow your sub-contractor to moor a boatload of Italian workers in Grimsby docks, while the Immingham unemployed stay at home to watch dog-cooking videos. Let them look out of their peeling windows at the giant plant, built by their fathers in the 70s, which is, and always has been, their only source of income. A quarter of Humberside lives in abject poverty, but how could that non-global fact make any sense to the subcontractor in California who weighed up the bids and chose the Italian option. Why should a multi-national have a heart?

When Brown made his “British jobs for British workers” speech in 2007, I actually agreed with him, despite the risk of sounding like a member of the BNP. Local does matter. On Friday night Gordon Ramsay tried to cure a downturn in one of his protégé restaurants by gathering together hundreds of townsfolk, a local farmer, butcher and the restaurant owner in an effort to persuade them all to forsake the chains and go local. It was a neat, logical circle, and it worked. Mandelson calls it protectionism. But in these times, the global economy has let us all down, and the pitiless and cynical, albeit logical and legal, way in which Total treated its loyal community down in Immingham must be a sign that things have to change.