Monday, October 26, 2009

But What Happens Next (Question) Time?

[The biggest story in Britain this week was the appearance by ultra-right wing politician Nick Griffin of the British National Party (BNP) on the BBC's flagship debate show Question Time. It caused a nationwide uproar.]

In the mid nineties I bought the company that produced Question Time. In doing so my company Mentorn acquired bragging rights to one of the most revered brands on British television.

In those days Question Time had its own question mark hanging over it. After 15 years of Conservative government and with Labour still looking unelectable, politics and political programmes were dull as ditchwater. Ratings were at an all time low and the only reason for the programme’s existence seemed to be to provide a platform for MPs’ egos. There was even talk in BBC corridors of trying to kill off the dinosaur once and for all.

In 1995 we’d tried out a potential successor to the show. It was called You Decide, hosted first by Jeremy Paxman and then for its second season by John Humphrys. It was a radical format: 24 hours before the show went on air we posed a single question and asked viewers to vote. We chose hot topics like Should Handguns Be Banned? Then, whichever way the vote went, the programme presented the contrary view. In other words, on the grounds that there are two sides to every argument, we tested the viewers’ knee-jerk reaction to a sensitive subject and then put it to the test. With two opposing sets of experts lined up we only confirmed the guest list a couple of hours before the live show. Afterwards we took a second vote to see if viewers had been swayed by the counterarguments. They usually had.

The series demonstrated just how volatile public opinion can be and how, despite thousands of years of public education, prejudice still triumphs over perception. A fact that keeps some of our tabloids in business.

I doubt our format could have coped with some of the issues aired on this week’s Question Time. Would the BBC have dared to put questions of race and homosexuality to a public vote, and then spend an entire hour arguing the other way? You Decide ran for two years until New Labour arrived and saved Question Time’s bacon.

Now Nick Griffin of the BNP has given the old warhorse the biggest boost any television programme could desire. Eight million viewers tuned in to see Thursday’s car crash: few could have been disappointed. Even though I sold Mentorn some time ago, I still felt a glow of pride when I saw the credits at the end. It was skillfully produced, riveting entertainment. Rarely has a single television programme been so at the heart of current events. Celebration wine will have been flowing through the BBC hospitality room.

But what will be the fallout? The point most commentators seem to have overlooked is that wasn’t a one-off appearance. They were invited not by choice but by right, because of their success in the polls. Unless the public votes them off the guest list, the rules say that Griffin can return, in common with the other minority parties. That’s a huge problem for Mentorn’s producers and for the BBC executives who have ultimate editorial control. This week they legitimately made the BNP the subject of most of the debate because the press had already ensured that people were talking about little else. But they can’t do it twice. Griffin effectively neutered himself when he tried to justify his policies and his history. He was exposed as the nasty racist he really is and he almost certainly damaged his party’s cause. But what happens when he faces normal mainstream questioning?

I fear the odious man’s oily smile may begin to look a little more genuine to some when he’s allowed free rein to spread his disgusting doctrines amongst the rabble. And then it’ll be the responsibility of all of us to stand by with the counter arguments. And hope the nation listens before it decides.

Monday, October 19, 2009

Education, Education, Education

Izzy’s fourth tooth broke through today. It’s been signaling its arrival for weeks: red cheeks, roof-raising screams and diarrhea were clear warning of another milestone on the road from “baby” to “child”.

Elsewhere Izzy is determined to retain her baby status. At nine months she still stubbornly refuses to crawl: not even a bumshuffle. Jo and I find that rather a blessing – a moving target is less controllable – but certain elderly relatives have raised eyebrows in disapproval. You know the kind of thing: Little Johnny was walking at this age; Jenny was reciting Shakespeare by the time she could crawl.

Why are we so obsessed with accelerating our children's learning process? No sooner are babies ingesting solid food at one end than their parents start talking about potty training the other. Crawling, talking, walking, reading, writing: they’re all going to happen at some time. Why this compulsive boasting and one-upmanship, as if speeding through childhood were something desirable or useful? It’s not exactly a triumph of human progress to perform something every one of us is ultimately programmed to achieve.

As I write this Izzy is saying “Yadadaga”, clear as anything. Surely you can hear the “dada” in there, even though she’s looking at the dog?

Ben’s first real word was “duck”. He’s 28 now and has done many things in life to make me glow, but nothing quite matches the achievement of pointing at three flying Donald Ducks we had on the wall and saying “Duck!”. A word he then applied for the following two months to every flying thing: “No, darling, that’s an aeroplane – say “Concorde”. “Duck!”.

I’m teaching Izzy to say “dog” by holding our two spaniels and repeating the word incessantly. One day she’ll probably point at the television and say “Paxman”, but for now she just ignores the dogs and gives me a pitying smile. I know what she’s really thinking: Just give me a break, Dada, I’ll get to it in my own time. Thank God there are no SATs for one-year-olds.

This national obsession with standards and milestones is the underlying theme of the Cambridge Primary Review, the report that took some of our country’s top education experts three years to write and our education minister precisely 45 seconds to reject, presumably because it’s the most damning criticism of government education policy yet articulated. “The apparatus of targets, testing, performance tables, national strategies and inspection (distorts) children’s primary schooling for questionable returns”, it concludes. It criticizes the “disenfranchising of local voice; the ‘empty rituals’ of consultation; the authoritarian mindset”: in short, it utterly rejects the policies of this and the previous (Tory) government.

In most other civilised countries where formal teaching starts at six, universal educational standards are higher than in the UK. How can this be? Sure, numeracy and literacy (what you and I would call Maths and Reading) are important, but so too are knowledge and skills. And here, tragically, our country’s standards have fallen through the floor.

Middle England’s kneejerk reaction to the report is that children should read and write as soon as possible. Not so. An appallingly high proportion of five year olds are turned off school and simply never recover. The majority are from disadvantaged backgrounds and the feeling of inferiority can last a lifetime.

Meanwhile, there’s no indication that those unfortunate children pushed by middle-class parents through hoops of early learning end up happier than their peers. On the contrary, last Friday I went to my old school reunion, where many of the brightest “fliers” seem to have led the dullest lives. By contrast, those of us whose reports always warned they “could do better” ended up having a ball.

So Izzy, just take your time. Apart from the potty training.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Why I bought Chris Evans a car

According to Chris Evans, I once bought him a car. It was a 1956 MGA Roadster in old English white with red leather interior. He thanks me for it in his autobiography, which he’s been touting all week and which I picked up for half price in WH Smith.

Chris writes that he bought the car with £10,000 that I gave him for doing nothing except agreeing to have his name on a piece of paper. He adds, “Out of all my experience with the media and money thus far, this was the craziest I’d encountered to date.”

It was in 1992. My company Mentorn was competing for the breakfast franchise on Channel Four. We’d been supplying part of the Channel Four Daily for a number of years, which was pretty lucrative for us even though almost nobody watched it. When the network announced they wanted a completely new show they invited us to pitch. Our team came up with a long list of ideas: I felt none of them clicked with the brief for something revolutionary to wake the nation.

Then I heard about Chris Evans from a friend called Nik Powell, who’d started Virgin Records with Richard Branson and was the personification of cool by being married to Sandie Shaw (she of the bare feet and Puppet On A String). Chris had hosted a pop video programme on Nik’s ill-fated satellite Power Station and was currently presenting a weekend show on BBC local radio.

I listened: Evans was awesome. His freshness, irreverence and unpredictability seemed perfect for a Channel Four audience. We met in my office in Wardour Street. I couldn’t believe this ginger geek with the terrible glasses, who looked and sounded about 15 years old, could transform into the charismatic bundle of energy I heard on the radio. Yet I somehow sensed he could become huge on television so, against the better judgment of some of my colleagues, I ditched all our conventional programme ideas and hung the entire bid on a wild, anarchic breakfast “zoo” radio show called Good Morning Chris Evans.

Then I found out that another consortium led by Bob Geldof was also trying to woo him, so I offered Chris £10,000 to sign with us exclusively. I didn’t know that he went out and bought a car – or (until I read Chris’s book) that Geldof’s bid still included his name.

You can imagine that I was more than a little miffed when I discovered that not only had our bid been rejected but that instead Channel Four had chosen The Big Breakfast, hosted by Chris Evans.

I checked our contract. I didn’t want to get in the way of a man and his career and there was no doubt the Geldof consortium’s idea of setting the show inside a real house was inspired, but our exclusivity deal was watertight. So I simply asked for my money back. When Chris’s agent refused I called in the lawyers. I duly got the cheque, not from Chris but from Geldof’s company. Chris evidently kept the car.

My view of Chris has always been slightly tainted by this experience, though we’ve been perfectly friendly to each other ever since. In the 90s he was the most influential and inspired onscreen talent in the UK. When, in 1998, my new series Robot Wars was scheduled against his megahit TFI Friday, my heart sank: nothing could take on that battleship. But when, within the first six episodes we’d matched them and by the end of the second season we’d knocked them off the air, I felt just a little avenged.

I’m sure Chris hardly noticed, because, as frequently happened in his rollercoaster career, he’d already moved on to bigger things.

I sincerely wish him luck with the Wogan slot. Doubtless the fee will buy him a fleet of cars.

Monday, October 5, 2009

The High Life

I'm writing this in a dingy French basement. Outside, the sun is baking the cafes on the promenade; with the temperature in the eighties, the Mediterranean is gently lapping the shore, the glamorous beach restaurants are polishing their champagne glasses before lunch. I'm sitting here surrounded by 10,000 delegates sweating in suits, all desperately trying to close their first big deal of the week. It’s that time of year when the world’s television producers and distributors make their way to Cannes to try to sell programmes and formats to each other.

It’s the antithesis of the Cannes Film Festival, where bright young wannabes mingle with the genuinely famous; where helicopters fly celebrities into the Hotel du Cap, tickets for premieres are fought over and everyone feels important just being in town. Here there isn’t a starlet to be seen. This is all about business. However big you are in our industry, it’s impossible not to feel just a little intimidated by the scale of the event.

MIPCom (as it is called) takes place within the bowels of a building rather grandly called the Palais des Festivals: in practice, it's just a glorified car park. It’s depressing to realise that the programmes you make, carefully crafted in edit suites back home, are being hawked in suitcases round the international marketplace as mere product, sold by the hour and only as valuable as the ratings they can generate. It’s a sobering experience; though sobriety isn’t much in evidence as the overpriced champagne flows through the packed bars lining the Croisette. As the alcohol takes effect, the most tentative discussions are talked up into lucrative deals. I’ve long since stopped believing a single word anyone says. So much bullshit in one short week.

I’ve been a regular here since the late 1980s. In the early days I used to think I was terribly grand because I would charter a yacht for the week: a 137-foot steamer called Fair Lady with a British crew of six and a skipper we called Captain Pat. I commandeered the "master stateroom" with a four-poster bed and huge cast-iron roll-top bath. The whole ship was paneled with dark wood and I used to throw grand parties and dinners on board to impress the buyers. One year Robert Wagner and his wife Jill St John joined us as we sailed up and down the coast. That’s when I smoked my first really big cigar, then promptly turned bright green and threw up over the side. I have to admit I enjoyed my brief flirtation with the highlife. Occasionally I would extend the hire beyond the week of the festival and take the boat down the coast.

The first time I did this, I got my first taste of what it must be like to be super-rich. I was sitting on the back of the boat (sorry, stern) having breakfast with my friends with the boat heading out beyond the harbour. Suddenly we became aware that we were going round in circles. I went upstairs (again, I apologise for my complete lack of nautical vocabulary -- some may say I went topside: I went upstairs) and found Captain Pat waiting for me on the bridge. "Why are we going round in circles, Pat?" I asked. "Waiting for instructions, sir. Where would you like to go?"

Then I realised that with an ocean-going yacht at my disposal I could go literally anywhere I wanted. He laid out the map - or "chart" as he called it -- and I pointed to St Tropez. "Good idea", said Pat. "The Nioulargue is taking place tomorrow". The Nioulargue is a race for classic yachts, beautiful vintage sailing boats, some 60 or 70 years old. Off we went, with the chef cheerily killing lobsters down below and the champagne clinking in the ice buckets. From time to time we pulled over close to the shore and Pat lowered a speedboat over the side so that those stable enough could go water-skiing. I had drunk far too much champagne to be a candidate.

It was nightfall by the time we arrived in St Tropez. Pat decided that rather than go into the harbour, we would moor a little way off, close to a beautiful yacht lit up like a battleship. We all got dressed up and took the speed boat (it was far too big to be called a tender) into town. Big mistake: my friend Debbie had got dressed up to the nines. We weren't aware that on the night before the Nioularge the locals had a jolly custom of arming themselves with hosepipes and drenching the people from the smart boats as they came ashore.

The following morning I groggily looked out of the window (you couldn't really call it a porthole) and saw the most amazing sight. Pat had moored us right on the start line for the race and we were being circled by about twenty amazing antique yachts. They saluted us as they came past: for we were also one of the grande dames of the ocean. Despite our hangovers we managed to wave our croissants at them as they came up to the start, then chased the race in the speedboat. I confess that the experience was so utterly intoxicating I very nearly succumbed when the owner of the boat called me a few weeks later and offered to sell Fair Lady to me for a mere couple of million pounds. Those definitely were the days.

As a young Turk of a producer with a couple of hit series under my belt I really thought I’d made it. In fact, of course, I was nobody, for unless you own your own broadcasting company like Rupert Murdoch, no one, however grand, can ever really be truly powerful in the television industry. It’s the most transient, temporary world. One moment you’re president of a network, the next you’re just a salesman, carrying your little briefcase with your promo tapes and your brochures. Whether you’re Jonathan Ross or David Letterman, Michael Grade or Mark Thompson, nobody is indispensable in our world of hiring and firing.

So here I am this morning, the travelling salesman from Newcastle clutching some of the formats we’ve been working on for the last six months: created in Byker, now on sale in Cannes. Last year we did rather well: a broadcaster bought one of our shows and gave us half a million pounds to make a single pilot. I've just had my first meeting: with a buyer from a cable network in the UK, who absolutely loved our new dating show project. It means nothing till the cheque's in the bank, of course. By the time I get back next weekend I’ll either be euphoric or resigned to more hard slog back at the drawing board. Who thought that life in television was glamorous?