Monday, March 30, 2009

Protest Marches

I do like a good demonstration. It’s fun to walk down the middle of a road with a banner and a few thousand companions, chanting at empty buildings.

The French are very good at protesting. Just about anything gets them marching: too many British sheep, the cost of diesel, the state of the national airline – there’s scarcely a month goes by without a good Gallic riot. And once the police have squirted a few hoses, the Government usually does whatever the protesters were demanding.

By contrast, the G20 demonstration in London at the weekend was so very British. All brass bands and middle class organic farmers with a nice vegetable lasagna waiting for them in the Aga back home. They marched with their children carrying banners handmade on the wicker table in the conservatory. “What do we want?”. “Jobs! No More Poverty! The End of Climate Change! And, er, Save the Penguins!” “When Do We Want It?” “Now!” It was more street party than political rally.

A few weeks ago I went back to my alma mater York University with Greg Dyke, who’s now the university’s Chancellor. We were reminiscing about our own student protest back in 1972. Those were the days: a decent march over a single issue (the Bloody Sunday massacre), a few arrests, then a sit-in in the Vice-Chancellor’s office – which we were now sitting in with a glass of rather good white wine. We regretted missing out on 1968, when Europe really knew how to demonstrate. I suspect that by Wednesday a few thousand European anarchists will have flown into London to show us Brits how to spice things up.

Meanwhile I’m pleased to report my own little protest is gaining momentum. A fortnight ago I wrote about the lack of network television production in the region. Then last Friday Peter Salmon, the new Director of BBC North, popped up to Newcastle to announce that Tracy Beaker is coming here: 13 episodes of the children’s series will be made on the Tyne.

It’s a really good start, and, having met Peter, I’m convinced he wants to help us. However one series is just a drop in the ocean, just as 3 months every 7 years is scarcely victory for the campaign to bring the Lindisfarne Gospels to their rightful home. We should be marching down the A1 Western Bypass over that one. In fact, for maximum impact, we could combine it with our A1 dualising campaign. “What do we want?” “The Lindisfarne Gospels!” “When do we want them?” “As soon as we’ve built the visitor complex and got a decent road up to Holy Island!”

There are quite a few things in Newcastle I’d get out on the streets for. The streets themselves, for instance. I could imagine putting a brick through the window of the man who invented those absurd “No-Car” lanes. Unnecessary, ineffective and downright dangerous, they force you to weave in and out of the taxis, keeping your eyes on the instructions in the tarmac, ignoring stray pedestrians and other vehicles in the process. If Newcastle actually has a traffic planner, I can imagine him sitting in his office with a map and a pin thinking, What can I slow down this week? Sitting in his in-tray is a request for a road sign at one of our busiest junctions, between the A1 and the A696 road to the airport. He’s left the request sitting there for over two years now, presumably because he doesn’t want to spoil the fun of watching all those tourists going round in circles looking for the way out of the roundabout.

So, What do we want? “The Lindisfarne Gospels, More Regional Television, a New Road Sign, the End of No-Car Lanes, and No More Global Warning! Please.”

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Ski Stories

Every year around 40 people die from skiing accidents. The argument about whether or not helmets should be compulsory is largely irrelevant. At the speeds most recreational skiers zoom around, even a helmet can’t guarantee protection. Skiing is dangerous, and, to me, the most uncomfortable of sports. The news of Natasha Richardson’s tragic death has opened up wounds of personal grief, because I too lost someone very close, and I’ve always felt slightly responsible.

My best friend, best man at my first wedding and godfather to my son, was BBC Newsnight reporter Ian Smith. Tall, handsome, intelligent and incredibly athletic, Ian would turn heads wherever he went. He played tennis to county level and when we knocked a ball about on Saturday mornings he would return my weedy serves with smashes so violent the ball had to be prised from the netting. Ian was completely obsessive about hobbies – he did nothing by halves. When he took up cooking, he wasn’t interested in everyday food: he attempted the most sophisticated recipes and we all had to endure his experimental gourmet evenings. Then, one day in the early 80’s, I persuaded him to go skiing. It transformed his life and eventually killed him.

I myself would never have ventured on a ski slope had it not been for a beautiful woman. At the age of 29 I fell head over heels for a girl who lived in Brussels. Like most people on the continent who can pop up an Alp for the weekend, she was a stylish skier. One day she rang to say she had met a diamond dealer who had offered her the use of his chalet in Verbier. Sensing her excitement and panicking that she might go off with the dealer, I feigned enthusiasm and said I’d love to join her. “I never knew you skied”, she said. “I think skiing’s amazing” I replied, disguising the fact that I had never worn a ski boot in my life. But I did have a cunning plan.

We agreed our date in Verbier then I flew down a few days early and checked into the local ski school. Watching tiny children bombing down the mountain I thought, what’s the big fuss? Such a mistake: I never could understand why you should put all your weight on the downhill ski when every human instinct tells you to just sit down and enjoy the view. Nevertheless I plugged away and, by the time the girlfriend arrived, I could just about manage a shaky snowplough. The first morning she suggested a notorious black run. As we got out of the cable car I fell headfirst into a snowdrift. Through tears of laughter she said it was touching that I’d made the effort. A year later we were married.

I dutifully allowed skiing to share our life and, after listening to us droning on about the delights of gluhwein and mountain views (though secretly I hated the fact that I was always too cold or too hot, and invariably soaked through), Ian was eventually persuaded to join us. He was instantly hooked. Although nearly 40, he took to the sport like a 5 year old.

He became obsessed by powder snow and heli-skiing, and eventually quit his job to spend more time in the mountains. However his body didn’t have the suppleness of his ambition and he often had to be collected from Gatwick with sprained or broken limbs.

One day they brought him home in an air ambulance. He’d slipped over the edge of a glacier and hit his head. Ian never spoke or smiled again. The man who’d been one of the most promising television journalists of his generation spent the last five years of his life in a vegetative state in a home for the incurables. I have never skied since.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Life and Death in Local Radio

The other day I was the guest pundit on the breakfast show of a local BBC radio station. The format required me to pontificate about anything and everything, interjected by phone calls from listeners.

The morning’s hot topic was a suggestion from some planet-saving organisation that people shouldn’t have more than two children. As a producer I know that what any good programme needs is a bit of a spat so, as both the only guest and someone who’s just become the proud father of his fifth child, I surmised that it was down to me to supply it.

The trouble was, worn down by lack of sleep caused by said Child Number Five, my brain no longer functions in the morning. For some reason the only thoughts that came into my addled mind sounded staggeringly right wing: Britain’s native population is actually decreasing, it’s the immigrant population which is going through the roof, etc. I think I ended up well right of Norman Tebbit. It was slightly scary that most listeners who phoned in wholeheartedly supported me. The radio station seemed to enjoy it too: I’ve been asked back.

I’m pleased because I do love BBC local radio, and have done so ever since I was first sent to work at a similar far-flung outpost as a young trainee journalist. For a rookie full of misplaced superiority and confidence, the experience was a baptism of fire.

The news editor was a bull of a man whose every sentence was laced with swear words, although his authority was somewhat undermined by the fluffy slippers he wore in the newsroom. He was waging a personal war against a madman in the town who ran his own extreme right wing party and who would send us lengthy press releases furiously typed on a very old typewriter (there were little holes in the paper instead of the letter O). When we refused to read them out in our bulletins, he would throw bricks through the newsroom window.

Every Friday lunchtime the entire station would retreat to the local pub, where the journalists spent the afternoon betting their wages in games of high stakes poker. Being the youngest, poorest and therefore least drunk member of the team, I was sent back to write and read the 3pm bulletin. One day I pressed the wrong button and switched the whole station onto Radio Four. Nobody appeared to notice.

The highlight of my stint in local radio was our special extended coverage of the formal opening of a long-awaited road bypass. When I say “special”, it was actually just me in the back of the radio car, a converted estate car with blacked out windows. It looked like a hearse with an aerial on the roof. In fact, local legend claims that it was once used as a hearse. Apparently the sports editor was enjoying an extra-marital relationship with the radio station’s receptionist when one evening he suffered a heart attack and died in her bed. The distraught mistress rang the newsroom and the lads brought round the radio car to pick up the corpse and transport it to the station’s surgery so that they could keep the affair from the chap’s wife.

I tried not to think of this story as I set the radio car on a bridge overlooking the gleaming new bypass and waited for the mayor to arrive for the ceremony. Suddenly a thick fog enveloped the road; I couldn’t see an inch in front of me. So I did what any self-respecting producer would do: I made up the whole thing. I described in detail the police escort, the mayoral car, the cutting of a non-existent ribbon, the first drive along the smooth new tarmac. It was a commentary worthy of a state occasion. It wasn't until I got back to the radio station that I found out the ceremony had been cancelled because of the fog.

Thank goodness the BBC wouldn’t do that sort of thing today.

Sunday, March 8, 2009

East of the Pennines

Last week’s announcement that ITV is to close its studios in Leeds was a body blow for the North’s television industry.

Not only will hundreds of jobs be thrown onto the scrapheap already created by cuts in regional news, it now means that all studio production of what used to be called the best television in the world will take place in London or Manchester (which may as well be in London, it takes so long to get there on what is paradoxically called the “TransPennine Express”). Put simply, if any of our local producers were lucky enough to invent the next X-Factor or Britain’s Got Talent, they would have to travel to London, Manchester or Glasgow to make it.

A couple of months ago I was talking to BBC Chairman Sir Michael Lyons about the state of our industry. He proudly pointed to the impending relocation of five BBC departments to Salford as an example of the corporation’s commitment to the North. He asked me if I thought it was a good thing. I replied that far from solving our problems, I feared that the stronger Manchester becomes, the more difficult life would be east of the Pennines. “Ah yes,” he said. “The East of the Pennines Problem. I agree it’s something we need to address.” Well, no time like the present.

From the day that Granada took over Yorkshire/Tyne-Tees, the death knell sounded for our region; it was inevitable that everything would consolidate in Manchester. Now the axe has fallen, the only way the North East’s producers will get a voice on our national television will be by commuting on National Express or British Airways – or joining the traffic jams on the M62.

But it’s just possible that some good may come out of last week’s dire news. For the death of Yorkshire Television affects such a huge region, we might just be able to harness the wrath of the white rose to our own end. Northern Film & Media’s campaign, launched in the Journal just two weeks ago, should now be expanded to a North-wide campaign for network television. We need an unholy alliance to wreak political havoc with the broadcasters’ plans.

It worked in Scotland. I was recently in London pitching a show to the BBC. The Controller appeared to like it. We started talking about budgets, which is always a fairly good sign. He then said, rather apologetically, “Is there any way you could shoot it in Scotland?” The BBC now has an obligation to the Scots to produce a proportion of all its programmes north of the Border, and the BBC has fallen short of its quota. Thinking we might find a warehouse just outside Berwick-upon-Tweed to stage the show, I agreed. Sadly that series isn’t going to happen. “We liked it, but felt it was too innovative for a BBC1 audience,” came the rejection.

If the power of the Scottish lobby could lead to the BBC’s massive investment in studios and resources in Glasgow, couldn’t the same trick work East of the Pennines? Scotland only has 5 million residents; the North West, where all studio programmes outside London are now to be made, has only 6.7million. Yet Yorkshire, Lincolnshire and the North East have a combined population of 8.3million and not a single working television studio between them.

This could become a new cultural, political and economic battle and, harnessing the power of MPs from the Tweed to the Wash, we might just win it. Imagine if all British films were to be made in Hollywood – there’d be an outcry. So now’s the time to join the fight for local production. Write to your MP, write to Sir Michael Lyons at the BBC, put pressure on the Government and let the outcry begin.

Monday, March 2, 2009

Happy Beginning for an Old Dog

There’s nothing more satisfying than watching an old dog performing a new trick. As the cheers rang out with the bells of St Boniface’s Church on Saturday afternoon, Craster the border terrier, proudly sporting a new purple collar
and lead, led his smiling owner down the aisle. The bride was radiant, young and beautiful, and next to her, with page-dog lead in one hand and wife held just as tightly in the other, was, of all people, Keith.

Those of us on the right hand side of the aisle could hardly believe what we were witnessing.
At the overripe age of 55 Keith Hann, the grey-haired bachelor whom I first knew at school and now is a fellow newspaper columnist, had finally got himself hitched.

Poor Keith, holed up with Craster in his isolated cottage in the back of beyond – no, beyond even the beyond, almost in Scotland and ten miles from the nearest paper shop – for years well-meaning friends had made vain attempts to pair him off. There was no easier way to liven up a dinner party than to persuade Keith to recount stories of his failed love life. There were hysterical tales of blind dates with utterly inappropriate women, most of whom appeared to have turned into stalkers, nutters or lesbians the moment he met them. He’d been engaged several times, an
d it’s said that three expensive Tiffany engagement rings lay in his bottom drawer. Jo and I had resigned ourselves to having him on our Christmas Day waifs and strays list forever.

Then, out of the blue, came Maral. I actually thought she was a man at first; or possibly an anagram. For me Maral spelled Alarm, as Keith excitedly showed me her email. Apparently his amusing blog had generated some single female fans in Chester and one of them, Claire I believe she was called, asked a friend called Maral to write to him on her behalf.

Or that’s what the email said. But it was so witty that I’m ashamed to say (ladies, I apologise) it sounded as though it was a jolly jape written by a male friend. Her style of writing reminded me of Keith’s own humour, so I said that if Maral existed, and was vaguely female, he should try asking her out, and ignore the unfortunate Claire. Keith eventually telephoned, then met Maral, and the rest is history; or, rather, the future, as it now includes a bump called Charlie who is due this July 4th.

It was an appropriately eccentric service on Saturday conducted by a quirky vicar who called
himself Rick the Vic. The congregation sat bemused as, like a stuck record, Vic repeated three times the formal question about whether Maral would take Keith as her lawful wedded husband.

“Are you sure?”, he kept saying, while Keith’s friends were hissing “Get on with it, man”, lest the groom had a change of heart. Some had delayed buying their wedding presents in case he failed to show, and Maral told me she was quite expecting to have to tell the wedding car to drive round the block a few times if he got cold feet.

In fact, it transpired that Rick the Vic was following the Iranian custom of asking the bride three times if she wanted to proceed. For Maral is Iranian, or as one lady whispered to me in Church, “Did you know, she is a loose Muslim?” I think she meant lapsed.

If opposites attract, this couple must be fused together. Maral: young, attractive, sociable, Muslim; Keith: Thatcherite, curmudgeonly, the world’s grumpiest old man. Yet they found they possessed the most powerful aphrodisiac: a shared sense of humour. Keith said in his wedding speech that since he met Maral, he has never laughed so much in his life. It shows.