Monday, December 19, 2011

Hunt's Folly

The entire audience was hushed: the play had reached its climax. Suddenly the silence was pierced by a lone shrill voice: “Daddy, I want a wee-wee”. Izzy was enjoying her first live theatre show.

Northern Stage’s slick, fun production of “Shhh…A Christmas Story” managed to hold an audience of toddlers spellbound for well over an hour. Izzy’s eyes lit up from the moment she saw the lights, moving scenery and jolly actors.

She sat transfixed, apart from one unscripted moment when, fascinated by some prop snowballs that had been flying around the stage, she ignored our pleas to sit down and strode onstage to retrieve one for herself. The actors merely paused, watched her walk round them, and then carried on. I’d love to have a video of that precious moment.

I guess that’s the sort of home video that will be the mainstay of Jeremy Hunt’s new local television plans. I can’t imagine what else we’ll be watching. Last week the Secretary of State announced that Newcastle had been chosen as one of the first “pioneer” cities to be awarded licences for local stations. Quite why he thinks there’s any demand for this in Newcastle is beyond me. None of the people who are capable of making local television work have agreed to get involved. Perhaps some wannabes have been seduced by the lure of showbusiness. They are about to get a rude awakening.

Jeremy Hunt’s plans are based on his mistaken belief that if cities like Birmingham, Alabama have their own thriving local television stations, then so should Birmingham, West Midlands. And Newcastle, Tyne and Wear. Evidently our Secretary of State doesn’t know how American television actually works. Over there all the successful local stations, which do have strong local news outputs, are owned by or affiliated to the main networks, which supply them with expensive and highly profitable primetime programming. Every big city has at least 5 local stations, carrying shows like Dancing With the Stars and the X-Factor. They transmit network daytime shows and high budget “syndicated” talk shows. They also carry local news in the morning, early evening and late night.

Sounds familiar? We’ve actually had that system in the UK since the 1950s. It’s called ITV. Until it was systematically ruined by Thatcher’s disastrous reforms, we had good local programmes through our own Tyne Tees Television, which also carried all the hits of the ITV network. Sure, it was regional, not local, but at least it gave our area a sense of identity, was independently owned, and supplied us with quality regional news.

In 2010 the Labour government tried to turn regional into local, by creating a local news pilot scheme. The concept was simple, and probably economically sound: give the ITV regional news to new local providers to create an integrated operation working on a regional, local and hyper-local level. In the North East, the licence was won by a consortium that included the daily newspaper I write a column for: The Journal. The newspaper’s newsroom would have become multi-media, enabling users to enjoy not only better regional news on ITV, but also enjoyed layers of information in print, on the web and on your mobile phone – you could even type your postcode into a computer and find information about your own community.

It was a 21st century solution that would also have been sustainable. As in America, network shows would have driven audiences to the regional output; just two commercial breaks around the regional news would have funded most of the cost and the service would have been built around a proven and profitable newsgathering operation. Good journalism requires investment, training, rigour and professionalism. You are reading the proof of this right now. Sadly, Jeremy Hunt stubbornly axed this bold experiment and replaced it with his own harebrained, old-fashioned plan for local stations.

I can’t imagine a single advertiser supporting an amateur station with cheap low-quality videos. Shots of Izzy running onstage to collect snowballs may be fun viewing for me, but it’s hardly going to compete with Strictly Come Dancing, is it? Without expertise, viewers or advertisers, Hunt’s Folly is bound to fail.

Monday, December 12, 2011

Visiting Santa

Just as we were passing through Doncaster, Jo’s phone began to vibrate. “Oh no, it’s the child minder. Something terrible has happened” she winced. As she read the text on her mobile, the panic in her eyes dissolved. “She’s on the Metro and she loves it”.

The Metro? We both felt more than a tinge of jealousy. We’d never taken Izzy on a train, and here we were, speeding at 108 miles an hour (the East Coast internet tells you precisely how fast you’re travelling) to spend our first weekend without her in London. In truth, we’d rather have been with her on the Metro. Apparently she was loving the experience so much she steadfastly refused to get off at Haymarket and would have happily spent the whole afternoon going round the big circle to Tynemouth and back, loudly singing The Wheels on the Train Go Round and Round to all the passengers.

The purpose of our trip was a carol service at my youngest son’s school, but, thanks to East Coast’s amazing new frequent traveller scheme, our first class train tickets were absolutely free, so we decided to celebrate by making a weekend of it. However, as anyone with a wife (or, in my case, several ex-wives) will know, this is a false economy.

There is no such thing as a free weekend in London, particularly a fortnight before Christmas, with the stores offering 50% discounts in a desperate attempt to drum up custom. Shops were offering customers free mugs of hot chocolate with marshmallows and the streets were full of brass bands and Frank Sinatra lookalikes crooning White Christmas. I’d have quite happily spent a day wandering around looking at the Christmas lights and eating free mince pies – not so a credit-card bearing wife. That’s why I had rather sneakily booked an afternoon train: it severely restricts the spending hours. I’d forgotten about late night closing.

Our train had reached Peterborough by the time another text told us Izzy had been persuaded to leave the Metro for Fenwicks’ Toy Department. I groaned: we’d already bought her Christmas presents – what if she latches onto some new doll? We needn’t have worried: Michelle is the best surrogate mum any child could have: our daughter was firmly under control. By the time we reached King’s Cross, they had watched Fenwicks animated window display 14 times. Now they were off to see Father Christmas.

We did the same. Actually, you couldn’t avoid him. As we arrived at Oxford Circus, we walked straight into an army of Santas. More than a thousand of them had assembled in the centre of town, all determined to get blind drunk.

Santacon is an annual flash mob in Central London. They assemble at a secret destination that’s only advertised on the internet the afternoon before (in this case a pub at Victoria Station: sleigh parking free), and head to the centre of town singing carols and smiling at everyone. It’s really an extended pub crawl and the only rules are that you have to dress as Santa (apart from those who come as reindeer) and you mustn’t scare the tourists. A group of girls had come as lingerie Santas, shivering rather miserably in their bodices.

By mid-afternoon the sea of red, bearded drunks had vacated Trafalgar Square, where they’d been handing out Brussels sprouts to the Japanese, and congregated around Jo and me.

We were glad Izzy wasn’t with us: it had been hard enough trying to explain how Santa was going to get his fat tummy (“Just like Daddy’s,” Izzy had said disloyally) down the blocked off chimney in her bedroom, let alone justify a thousand of them, clutching pints of beer and singing strange new words to her beloved Jingle Bells.

Later on our taxi passed another assembly: scores of riot and mounted police were lined up, waiting to clear the streets of Christmas spirit. A final text arrived: Izzy was fast asleep, dreaming of Santa Claus. If only she could see him now.

Monday, December 5, 2011

Off With Their Heads

[Jeremy Clarkson put his foot in it on BBC1's The One Show by calling for striking public sector workers to be taken outside and shot in front of their families]

 If Jeremy Clarkson had called for strikers to be beheaded, rather than shot in front of their families, he would have provided a perfect link to my story of how I nearly decapitated him. During the first series of Robot Wars, an errant blade flew off a robot at hundreds of miles an hour and embedded itself in a concrete wall directly behind Clarkson’s enormous head. The slow motion replay showed it missed his scalp by inches.

Had my robot been a little more accurate, there would have been nothing for 21,000 people to complain about to the BBC last week. Nor would the massed ranks of ramblers, health and safety executives, lorry drivers, Mexicans, families of train suicides and other Clarkson targets have had to suffer his ill-considered outbursts over the years. So to them I sincerely apologise. Given another chance, I will try harder next time. And I’ll make sure his family is watching.

The argument over public service pensions has produced lots of misinformed rants. If I hear one more outraged private sector employee complaining that they resent paying for the gold-plated rewards of our nurses and teachers I shall scream. Most people in the private sector, which, statistically, is most people, don’t understand the issues, because the majority of them have never made a pension contribution in their life. They’ve paid their national insurance contributions, of course, but that isn’t the point. This is about saving for your retirement, which most people have never bothered to do. Now it’s catching up with them and they’re looking for a scapegoat.

Here are a few statistics to get your Weetabix spluttering. 29 million people make up Britain’s workforce. Of these, only 6 million work in the “public sector”. 87% of these have been doggedly paying some of their salary into a pension scheme. Their employer has been contributing too: it’s in their contract of employment. Now they’re being asked to pay more and get less. Their employer is reneging on the deal. So they’re cross. I would be too.

Why there’s such a fuss is because that employer is me and most of you, and all the public sector workers themselves: all of us are taxpayers.

Of the 23 million workers not in the public sector, just 3 million or so pay some of their wages into a pension scheme to which the employer also contributes. These are good employers that care about their staff, like the employers in the public sector. Most companies don’t bother anymore. They treat their workers as temporary residents in the business, generating wealth for the owners in good times, before being thrown onto the scrapheap of redundancy when times are tough or when they are too old to continue. It’s the way the world was in Victorian times and it’s become the norm in our 21st century.

6 million other people, including self-employed workers like Jeremy Clarkson, are building a safety net with a personal pension scheme. Anyone over the age of 21 would be mad not to contribute something to one, however little they earn, but very few do. My children refuse to, much to my frustration. In this consumerist world, saving for retirement is considered a pointless dilution of scarce funds. Most people would rather have an iPhone 4S now than worry about the electricity bill in their old age.

Well under half the people in the private sector have no pension at all, preferring to spend all their income now with no thought to the future. It is many of these who are now complaining about the nurses and teachers.

They’ll be the ones badgering for an increase in the old age pension when they’re 70. And, without consideration for those who’ll be paying tax on income from their private and public sector pensions till they die, some of these people will selfishly carry on living till they’re 110. Just imagine what Jeremy Clarkson will be saying about them then.

Monday, November 28, 2011

Missing The Ball

“Once upon a time”, declaimed Izzy, “there was a little girl called Cinderella and she was very very sad.” She paused, thought hard, and then remembered: “So the fairy godmother said ‘You shall go to the football’.”

The three of us were sitting in a candlelit sitting room, Jo and I dressed rather ludicrously in black tie and finery. We should have been at a glamorous ball ourselves, but the wicked wind had other ideas. We’d been invited to a friend’s 40th birthday party, but an hour before we had been due to leave the storm, even wilder than predicted, had blown away all our power. I was in the bath when the lights went out.

I lay soaking in the darkness until I realised it was no short term outage, then stumbled out, stubbed my toe on the dresser and slowly dripped to the bedroom door. Outside in the corridor I heard Izzy’s voice, then saw a glimmer of candle. “We’re coming to rescue you, Daddy”, she squeaked with excitement.

We couldn’t have left the new babysitter alone with Izzy: the house is a barn of a place even in daylight, but in the pitch black, with just a few candles and a torch for company, she’d have been petrified. Anyway the baby monitor wasn’t working, so we paid the girl off, opened a bottle of good wine, and decided to live as they did in the olden days. No lights, central heating or telephones; and certainly no television.

“I want Peppa Pig”, said Izzy. Clearly it was time for her first science lesson. I don’t know if you’ve tried to teach the concept of electricity to a two-year-old: it’s well nigh impossible.

“Electricity makes the television and lights go on, and the wind has blown down the wire that brings it from the…” My voice trailed as her eyes glazed over. “It died”, suggested Jo. Still no response.

So I tried: “the TV and lights need new batteries” and Izzy’s face it up. “Silly Daddy, put some more in straight away”, she commanded, and pulled me towards the battery drawer. I love the simplicity of a child’s logic. “We haven’t any: the wind blew them all away” seemed to satisfy her. That and a chocolate biscuit.

For a short while Jo and I sipped wine and stared at the blank TV. In some distant land a group of wannabes were trying to win the X-Factor. Later on, there’d be Match of the Day, which I’d set to record on Sky Plus. But the room, shimmering with a dozen candles, looked enchanting. Our house is 350 years old, and for most of its life, this was how its residents must have spent every evening. I threw another log on the fire.

“Let’s sing,” suggested Jo. So we did. And we told stories. Cinderella went to the football more than a dozen times and we acted all the parts in Goldilocks. Finally Izzy put her dolly to bed, gently explaining why it was dark: “Silly old Daddy ran out of batteries, so you have to go to sleep with a torch”. Meanwhile Jo and I cracked open the Boggle.

We have never enjoyed an evening as much. We picnicked on sandwiches, wine and chocolate milk and laughed together as a family. After two hours the 21st century pinged back. “Hurray,” shouted Izzy, “new batteries”.

Jo and I looked at each other. Some vacuous fake blonde was screaching on the X-Factor and the bright light exposed the crumbs on the sofa. So I switched everything off again. “Much better”, said Jo.

There are times when it’s good to step back. We spend so much of our harassed lives rushing along with whatever new technology brings us; sometimes it’s calming to escape to the past with just our loved ones for company. I hope we have more storms this winter.

Mind you, I confess I did eventually go to the football. Well, I saw the highlights on Match of the Day, anyway. After all, it’s not every day Newcastle draws with Manchester United. I’m sure it was a fairy godmother dressed as a linesman who gifted us that penalty, but we all love a happy ending, don’t we?

Sunday, November 20, 2011

The Royal Windbag and the White Elephants

[The Duke of Edinburgh has made a fierce attack on wind farms, describing them as “absolutely useless” - Sunday Telegraph 20th November 2011]

I never thought I’d see the day. They say that you get more reactionary when you get older. But agreeing with Prince Philip? Everyone knows he has the views of a 140-year-old. I thought I’d be safe for at least another decade.

Yesterday we all found out that he’s been sounding off about the iniquity of onshore wind farms to a man that’s trying to build them all over the UK, Esbjorn Wilmar, of Infinergy. Apparently the Duke told Mr Wilmar that wind turbines were “absolutely useless”. Spot on, your royal brain. From now on I’ll take what you say more seriously.

Mr Wilmar is Dutch, of course. Two thirds of the country’s windfarm manufacturers are based overseas. You and I are paying them to put these white elephants into our prettiest landscapes. Last year about £90 of your annual electricity bill went off in big cheques to these and other generators of renewable energy.

Nobody asked us: we just watch our electricity bills rise because we’re giving people like Mr Wilmar our £90 cheques, and they don’t even say thank you. Instead they build these monstrous objects across our most serene scenery.

Mr Wilmar doesn’t have any hills in his own country – it’s flat and dull as a Dutch pancake. You could cover the place with turbines and no one would mind. Instead he’s doing it here. His company is Infinergy, which is owned by KDE Energy, whose holding company is called Koop Group, whose owner is a man called Henk Koop, who, together with his pal Mr Boonstra, is retiring this year. These two old Dutchmen are cashing in and have put their windfarm empire up for sale. Personally, I think we should all claim a stake, we’re investing so much into it.

In 2009 Infinergy applied for planning permission for 17 turbines in one of the most beautiful parts of Scotland (“the windiest country in Europe”, their website says; “a unique and unspoilt destination” says the landowner, the Cawdor Estate). Except that, lured by the huge windfall generated by our subsidies, the Cawdor Estate has conspired with Mr Wilmar’s company to bespoil a chunk of its own unspoilt destination.

The Highland Council quite sensibly turned them down flat. So, of course, they are appealing, and, as these things go, what with the government ultimately making the decision, it’ll probably go ahead. Europe says we have to build thousands of these things, so yet another bit of national heritage will be ruined forever.

Prince Philip is right: wind farms are “absolutely useless”. They contribute a pathetically tiny amount of power, they don’t work in winter (as we found out in 2010), they’re noisy, intrusive and worse than useless when the wind stops blowing (which in Northumberland is far more often than my Californian wife claims).

He also said that they’re a bad idea because they rely on subsidies. He’s right: without our cheques, Mr Wilmar would be out of a job. His machines wouldn’t make economic sense, for they’re expensive to build, costly to run, and don’t work at all for much of the year. In short, they’re useless and not a good idea at all.

The Duke could have added that they’re dangerous. There are some remarkable pieces of research coming to light about blades flying off and ending up in nearby walls and buildings. Ice throw is also a problem: great chunks of it flying hundreds of feet. Then there are the birds: in Germany 32 protected white tailed eagles were killed by turbines: our poor old golden eagles may as well give up.

Let’s be frank, we’re only doing this because the EEC is telling us to. Because we’re too timid to admit that the 2000 or so of these wind turbines we’ve already built at a cost of billions hasn’t matched a single Chinese coal-fired station. Too naïve to spot that the benefits aren’t remotely worth the outrageous subsidy. Too blind to see we could satisfy our energy needs by using other much more efficient green technology. Technology that would generate cleaner power, not royal rage.

Monday, November 14, 2011

The Big Girl Bed

I have never seen my daughter’s face light up as it did on Saturday night. “I’ve a big girl bed,” she screamed, as she skipped round the house. She hugged the dogs till they winced, then wanted to ring Nana in America to tell her the news.

It’s a milestone. After two and a half years of imprisonment behind the bars of her cot, she is free. Izzy has grown up.

I reckoned the job would take half an hour. “You can quickly convert this cotbed at a later stage into a junior bed” it said in the brochure. I’m sure you can, if, during the two and a half years it has been a cot, you haven’t lost the junior bed bits.

Just after breakfast on Saturday, with Izzy excitedly telling the dogs, the postman and anyone who phoned us “Daddy’s making me a big girl bed”, I’d emptied every cupboard in the house until I finally found the side panels, which had been hiding beneath a mountain of heavy boxes. At least the assembly would be easy.

I had a cup of tea, then gingerly disassembled the bars. When Izzy saw the pieces on the floor she burst into tears. “Daddy’s broke my bed”, she wailed.

“Don’t worry, Iz, I just have to screw the new side panels on and you’ll have a new bed.” She went off happily to tell Truffle and Mabel. The three of them sat and waited.

It was then that I found the holes: just one in each corner and a little over a quarter of an inch wide. Unfortunately all the other holes had been exactly one quarter of an inch: the "little over" meant these holes needed different screws. And these ones needed to come in at right angles: no screwdriver on earth would be able to cope with that. So I did what I always do in moments of crisis: I rang my neighbour.

By coincidence, at that very moment he was freeing his own two-year-olds. They’d been waiting for this day for seven long months. The gate of the field was unlocked and my neighbour’s tupps were now free to enjoy their ewes. They were literally having a field day.

Why today? “It’s so we can have all our lambs born on precisely Saturday April 8th”, he explained.

I mused that this was probably the only certainty left in life, despite the world enjoying all sorts of new freedoms. With Italy clear of Berlusconi, and Libya released from Gaddafi’s tyranny, who knows what state we’ll all be in by Christmas, let alone April? At least this release has a certain outcome: in exactly 147 days’ time there’ll be the sound of baby lambs outside our house. I wondered if I’d get Izzy’s bed sorted by then.

My neighbour scratched his head. “You need a special screw thingy”, he said helpfully, anxious to get back to supervising his flock’s carnal activities. So out came toolboxes, top and bottom drawers, old biscuit tins, filing cabinets. But after two hours, no thingy appeared.

Three abortive trips to the hardware stores later, I decided to improvise. I purchased a shiny new wood chisel and a huge wooden mallet, and set about attacking the side panels. Vainly trying to remember a single woodwork lesson I’d been taught at school, soon there were shavings all over the floor.

“Daddy made a mess”, Izzy announced loudly. This was no overstatement. Her bedroom resembled a wood store. There were screws, drills, packets of new drill bits (another trip to the hardware store) and three tubes of wood glue. Eventually, with my generous neighbour’s resolicited help, I triumphed and, shortly after nightfall, I ceremoniously led Izzy upstairs to try out her new bed.

They say freedom comes at a price. In our case, that price is sleep. Without bars, Izzy now sees no reason to go to bed at all. She is convinced the full moon means it’s morning, and can run freely into our room at 3, 4 and 5am to tell us.

I’m tempted to put the bars back on. But I know there’s no going back on freedom. And anyway, life’s too short to try and find the bits.

Monday, November 7, 2011

Britain's Crazy Transport System: A Solution

[7 people died and over 50 injured in a 34 vehicle pile-up on the M5 on the 4th November.  A firework display was taking place nearby.]

On hearing news of Friday night’s terrible car crash in Somerset, I felt a shudder down my spine. Whatever the cause – the distraction of an over-charged firework, an “I can see through fog” maniac, an over-tired driver – the government is right to use this accident as an excuse for a proper look at our roads policy. Yet I guarantee that whatever hot air is spouted in the Commons this week, nothing will be done about the terrible state of our long-neglected transport infrastructure.

Now I know the following rant won’t be universally accepted, but I guarantee it’ll be popular. Indeed, if I were standing for parliament right now I’d be swept in on a landslide. For what I’m about to say makes common sense: and that’s one thing that successive governments have lacked for the last sixty years when it comes to Britain’s transport policy. That’s why we have the worst infrastructure in Europe, our trains the most expensive, our roads such an embarrassment. And that’s why crashes like Saturday’s will become ever more frequent.

I know that stretch of the M5 well: I used to own a cottage in South Devon. When I bought the house in 1983, the road was a smart new highway and I used it every weekend. It took less than four hours to get down from London on a Friday night. By the nineties, the journey time had reached seven hours or more, so I sold the house. It had become a journey from hell.

Our entire motorway network is far too small. Three lane motorways should have been abolished in the 90s, but they’re still considered a luxury – and far too grand for the North East. Up here in Newcastle, we’re supposed to make do with the pathetic two-lane A1(M) – no wonder the M is in brackets.

Driving to London is a lottery. It’s less than 300 miles, so you’d think at 70 miles an hour it should take just 4½ hours. Those who’ve done the journey recently will scoff: allow six or seven and you might just see the edge of Luton.

So what? say the soggy environmentalists. You should take the train. With what? An East Coast “Anytime” standard return now costs 48 pence a mile. By comparison, the diesel in my car costs me 13 pence a mile: it’s a no-brainer.

But I don’t take the car, because I have no idea how long the journey will take. Instead I search the internet for a cheaper advance purchase train ticket, which means the railway dictates my schedule, rather than the other way round. The train will likely be packed, because Britain’s passenger volume has rocketed by 41% in the last ten years, but capacity has increased by just 17%. Meanwhile this government has cancelled plans for sufficient new carriages to cope with demand.

There’s a simple solution. It’s so blindingly obvious, only a politician or a Department of Transport civil servant could fail to spot it. It’s tried and tested. And it works.

Scrap car duty. Yes, get rid of this pointless tax completely. Instead, make every motorway in the country a smart, wide toll road. It worked in France: it would work here. Where a motorway passes a city, make the outside lane a car-sharing lane, only for vehicles carrying passengers.

Start building right now, and watch our unemployment rate fall. Private finance will happily fund it, so it won’t cost the taxpayer a penny. Private operators will bid for the franchise to run them, thereby raising enough cash to fund an increase in train rolling stock capacity. At the same time, set a ceiling on all standard rail fares at 20 pence per mile. That will bring our prices in line with the rest of Europe, and the ongoing cost will be met by a levy on profits from the toll roads.

Overnight, gas-guzzling cars will be discouraged, people in rural communities who need their cars will have extra money in their pockets, the motorways will be wide, clear and safe, and train trips to London will be easy, quick, and cheap.

Job done. Can I count on your vote, then?

Monday, October 31, 2011

How's About That Then!

[Sir Jimmy Savile, eccentric, philanthropic British DJ and television presenter, died on Saturday.  He would have been 85 years old today.  He is best known for his Jim'll Fix It children's programme, which ran on Saturday afternoons on BBC1 for nearly 20 years.  He was also the first, and last DJ on the BBC's chart show Top of the Pops.]
For years I’ve reckoned my childhood must have been either utterly deprived or privileged. You see, I can’t remember writing a single letter to Jimmy Savile.

I’ve always assumed it was either because my pocket money couldn’t stretch to a stamp, or because my life was so complete, that I never craved a Jim Fixed It For Me badge. I certainly didn’t want any of the things that other children begged him for: like riding in Doctor Who’s Tardis, singing in a studio with Abba, or having a meal on a rollercoaster. What could possibly have been wrong with me?

Then, after Sir Jimmy’s death on Saturday, I realised the problem: I’m just too old. The programme didn’t start till 1975, by which time I was already in my 20s. It was my daughter who wrote to Jim’ll Fix It asking if he could fix it for her to marry Mr Blobby. Yet I’ve always felt Jimmy Savile was an essential part of my childhood.

I might have been briefly exposed to his weirdness in 1960, through a music show on Tyne Tees Television called Young At Heart, though I clearly didn’t have the heart for it, as I can’t even remember the fact that he changed his hair colour every week. He certainly wasn’t the talk of Priory Junior Mixed.

Instead my memories of him begin in my teenage years: Savile was the lucky man who each week on Top Of The Pops introduced me to my ultimate boyhood fantasy, the dance troupe Pan’s People. I adored his unpredictable, mad banter and I was always disappointed when he was deputised by one of the other, blander DJs. Most of the time, I had no idea what he was talking about, but in a world of over-hyped mid-atlantic pretension, his eccentric Northern bluntness was reassuringly grounded.

So I can understand the outpouring of national nostalgia this weekend – you’d have thought the Queen had died. Jim’ll Fix It staggered on until 1994, which is an incredibly long run for a television series, so he must have touched the childhoods of swathes of the population, including the editors of the newspapers and news bulletins that gave his death such prominence. They all grew up, like my older kids, with the sight of that familiar big red chair, his shiny bling-bedecked shellsuits and the sound of his irritating voice; his “How’s about that, then?” catchphrase drummed into their brains every Saturday afternoon.

I met him a few times professionally, and actually found him rather haughty and grumpy. I think I’m in a minority here, and my view may have been clouded by the fact that I can’t bear the smell of cigar smoke. But he was selfless in his support of good causes and, in one way, I’m personally grateful to Sir Jim. For he directly influenced my own career path: I have no doubt that Jim’ll Fix It was the inspiration for Challenge Anneka.

Both shared the same underlying concept, that the power of television can be used for good, and both put ordinary people at their heart. It’s a formula I still believe in, and it’s sad that these days only cynical talent shows and shock reality docs offer an opportunity for members of the public to get onto our screens simply as themselves. Jim’ll Fix It was the archetypal feel-good show in a period of family entertainment that’s long deceased: these were the days of The Generation Game, It’s A Knockout and That’s Life. He and they will be much missed.

Jimmy Savile and I are also linked by music. A very good friend of mine is a composer called David Mindel, who wrote the iconic theme tunes of both Jim’ll Fix It and Challenge Anneka. David made a lot of money out of Saturday nights on BBC1. I greatly admire him for another achievement: not only did he write the most brilliant, catchy tunes, he achieved a teenage dream that even Jimmy Savile could never have fixed for me: he married one of Pan’s People. How’s about that, then?

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Ding-Dong! The Witch Is Dead

Holed up in the only brick house in town, the three little pigs could hear the wolf furiously huffing and puffing outside.

“Why is he still trying to kill us? Doesn’t he realise he’ll never blow it down?” squeaked the first little pig, still smarting from the loss of his nice straw bungalow.

“That wolf’s insane. He’s ruined our lives and deserves to die”, snarled the second little pig, clutching tightly the few remaining sticks from his own wrecked home.

Just then they heard the sound of growling on the roof. “Oh no, he’s coming down the chimney”, shrieked the first little pig: “Quick, open the cooking pot”. “Wait, we mustn’t kill him,” said the third little pig. “We need to call the RSPCA.”

“Don’t be an idiot”, said his brothers, “he’ll destroy everything. He’ll howl for his hateful wolf family and they’ll come for revenge”. And with that, they took the lid off and the wolf fell into the boiling cauldron.

Just then the phone rang. It was the United Nations. “We hear you’ve caught the big bad wolf. We’d like you to hand him over to the ICC so that he can be brought to justice. He’s a prisoner of war, after all.”

“Go away,” said the first little pig. “We’re having wolf stew for lunch.”

“I’ll handle this”, said the third little pig, picking up the phone, “It’s OK”, he said politely. “I swear by the hair on my chinny-chin-chin he was definitely caught in the crossfire.”

“Yes, he’s in the fire and very cross indeed”, chorused his brothers as they stirred the pot.

When you’re two-and-a-half, morality ought to be straightforward. After the hunter cuts open the wolf to rescue Little Red Riding Hood and her granny, I’m sure I never asked my Mum if they stitched the animal back up. Likewise I never questioned the fate of his pig-hunting cousin. But Izzy caught me out on the day they killed Gaddafi.  I was reading her the Three Little Pigs at bedtime when she suddenly said: “Is the wolf still inside the cooking pot?” Then somehow in my head the stories got intertwined.

I could have answered, “I’m sure the wolf police came and got him out and took him to that animal reserve in Scotland where they’re trying to rehabilitate them back to the wild”, but she would only have snorted, “You’re silly, Daddy”. Instead I told the truth: “He was a very nasty, evil wolf, and deserved to die.” That seemed to satisfy her, though I’ve probably scarred her for life.

Just as the Munchkins sang “Ding-Dong! The Witch is Dead” at the demise of the Wicked Witch of the East, thereby validating the concept of a just execution for future generations of children, so the death of Muammar Gaddafi had the entire Libyan population celebrating, and probably most of the Western world too. Does it really matter whether the perpetrator was a miracle called Dorothy from a star named Kansas, a tornado that dropped a house on him, or an over-exuberant 20-year-old rebel who pulled a gun and shot him in the head? The Munchkins are saved and the world is a better place: until the Witch’s even more evil sister comes for revenge, that is.

In fact, the circumstances surrounding Gaddafi’s death ought to matter to us: we are, after all, supposed to be more civilized than pigs and more intelligent than Munchkins, but Gaddafi was so incontrovertibly evil that even the soggiest liberal finds it hard to care about international justice at this time. There are so many more important issues facing Libya right now.

This is a country without identity: it has no institutions, no infrastructure, no concept of democratic process, its wealth has been squandered, its human rights denied for the last forty years. Is it any surprise that the rights of the wolf that destroyed their homeland have been overlooked? Already, the factional rivalries he encouraged are threatening to strangle this new nation at its birth. Let’s hope they can be reconciled.

Libya’s witch may be dead: but there are many more villains huffing and puffing outside its newly painted front door.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

A Campaign For Live Television

For two weeks, Channel 4’s daytime gameshow Deal or No Deal is broadcasting live for the first time in its history. As a result, it’s audience has increased substantially.

I’m not surprised: viewers can really sense the tension and peril of live television. So much of what we watch these days is manufactured, edited and homogenized. From reality shows to talent competitions, producers do their best to artificially inject tension and jeopardy into the safely pre-recorded mix, but it’s rarely convincing. There’s something about the security of recording that saps suspense, and I’m sure our relentlessly vacuous daytime output really benefited from the thrill of potential disaster. Noel Edmonds, probably the best live entertainment presenter Britain has ever had, is the ideal host for the experiment.

As a producer, nothing quite matches the thrill of live TV. For the first dozen years of my career, I was a studio director, sitting in a darkened control room facing banks of monitors, calling the shots and trying to hold it all together. All too often the fragile bubble burst and the show descended into chaos.

That embarrassing episode of Panorama, where David Dimbleby sits alone in front of a solitary camera with nothing to say for 11 minutes because the film has broken down? That was me at the end of the telephone helpfully telling him to “just keep talking”. That live Nationwide episode when a lady judge keeled over in a dying faint and the presenter just stepped over her recumbent body? I was directing that night, too. Grace Jones hitting Russell Harty? It was my voice in his earpiece, foolishly telling him to ignore her.

Yet the more things go wrong, the more audiences seems to enjoy it. It makes the viewing experience somehow more real and the viewers more connected.

Nowadays viewers can turn even pre-recorded programmes into live viewing experiences by texting or tweeting their friends with comments about the content. I reckon that around 80% of all young people use phones or iPads while they are watching television, often to communicate with each other about what they’re watching. Channel 4 News positively encourages viewers to debate the issues on the programme using Twitter.

Next Wednesday I’ll be speaking at a conference in Leeds about “second screen technology”, where viewers will be able to have a live, parallel, two-way experience with a television programme, using their mobile phones. I guarantee it’s the next big thing for our industry, and I’m proud that our Newcastle-based company, ScreenReach, has developed world-beating technology to facilitate it.

The problem is, actual live television, what we in the trade call “event” television, still costs a great deal of money. Now that high definition cameras and cheap editing software are on sale in any high street electronics store, anyone can become a television producer. Yet it still takes guts and a very large outside broadcast unit to go live.

I do hope that, following the publication of its long-awaited strategy review “Delivering Quality First”, the BBC remembers to include plenty of live shows for the nation to enjoy. Most of its other recommendations seem pretty spot on.

I would say that, though, wouldn’t I? In January I gave a speech at a media conference where I proposed five key changes for the BBC. These were: move BBC Three to Salford; replace original daytime programming on BBC2 with repeats; transfer childrens programmes from BBC1 to CBBC; use BBC3 and BBC4 as experimental feeder networks for BBC1 and BBC2; and reduce the evening output of BBC local radio, which almost nobody listens to.

I’m pleased to say that all these suggestions are now BBC policy. I hasten to add that this is not because I had any influence whatsoever, but because they are blindingly obvious solutions to the BBC’s economic plight. I’m now regretting I didn’t add a request to preserve risk-taking through live programmes. As the darkest phase of this recession starts to bite, we need more laughs. And what better way achieve that than to encourage television producers, presenters and performers to make fools of themselves for us, live in our own living rooms.

Sunday, October 9, 2011

Inside The World's Most Exclusive Club

Last Wednesday I was invited to lunch at the most exclusive club in the world. It only has a few hundred members, yet it has enormous premises overlooking the Thames.

Quite how you join is unclear: they never advertise vacancies, yet I have a few friends who joined quite recently, and others who are there through family connections. There’s no enrolment fee (though some are said to have paid handsomely for the right to be there) nor is there an annual subscription. On the contrary, once you’re in the club, they actually pay you to visit, though you have to buy your own lunch, and your membership doesn’t expire till you drop down dead.

My friend had been given his membership card by an uncle; then, in 1999, the club took it away. It caused a huge row – it was in all the newspapers. He had to wait for somebody to die, and then they gave it back to him. I’m glad they did, because it gave me a chance to go behind the club’s impressive façade and try out its beef stew. I wore a tie.

The House of Lords is a bit like being back at school, except it has blue carpets instead of parquet flooring, the paneling is polished and nobody runs down the corridors. It also doesn’t smell of stale rugby shirts. Everyone has his own metal coathook with his name on it: I hung my briefcase on my friend’s, before we went down a long corridor to lunch. Like school lunches, the dining room starts serving at precisely 1pm. But unlike school, we waited in the bar: I had a gin and tonic. The chairs were covered in red leather.

Despite the club’s exclusivity, there’s clearly no Gordon Ramsay behind the scenes. The dishes are mostly roasts, stews and grills. Mine had a herb dumpling, and there was spotted dick for dessert. This was boarding school comfort food: not that I went to boarding school, of course, but I used to quite like the spotted dick at the RGS. Everyone was very polite and smiled at each other. At one point, the impressive shape of Lady Trumpington sailed across the room and barked “Good Day” to anyone who caught her eye.

After lunch, my noble friend (for so he is) invited me to see him work. We sat outside the “chamber” until precisely 3pm, presumably to allow the spotted dick to clear the noble oesophagi before proceedings could begin. Suddenly the doorman snapped us to attention and we all stood up. Like a sergeant major he marched in slow motion across the room until he faced a closed door, then turned on the spot and stamped his feet. A mini-procession then ambled in, consisting of a man with a large silver mace, another wearing breeches and a lady whom I took to be the Speaker. The door to the chamber swung open on some kind of hydraulic mechanism and they entered. The proceedings began with prayers – presumably a throwback to school assembly.

The House of Lords inhabits a curious constitutional time warp. The day (or, rather, afternoon) starts with questions. The Speaker sits on a large cushion, called the Woolsack: you’d think they might run to a chair, though while I was there she didn’t actually speak at all. Instead, it was first come first served. Without warning, arthritic hips leaped up and their owners start talking on top of each other. Eventually someone would give way and the winner had his moment in Hansard. Every seven-and-a-half minutes a clerk in a wig announced another question and after half an hour the four questions were dealt with and the chamber emptied as quickly as it had filled.

It’s an extraordinarily cumbersome way to run a modern democracy, but it kind of works, thanks largely to the passion and commitment of its ageing membership. The Lords is part anachronism, part essential check on the elected people housed what the Lords disparagingly call “the other place”. There they have green leather seats instead of red, but I hear the beef stew isn’t half as good.

Monday, October 3, 2011

Last of the Summer Whine

I hope you’ve all remembered to fit your winter tyres. Having been cruelly teased with a glimpse of summer, there’s a rumour going about in weather circles that we’ll be under a foot of snow by the end of next week.

Nothing about our climate would surprise me. If the forecasters are right, then, it’s likely my winter tyres will be booked for their fitting precisely one day after the snows arrive, thereby consigning my car, like last year, to a three-month icy tomb.

I’ve always had a deep distrust of weather reports, stemming from my first job as a reporter on BBC local radio.

Every Friday all the journalists in the newsroom would descend on the local pub and spend the entire afternoon drunkenly playing away their wages on poker. As the most junior person, I was not only the designated driver, but also the mug that had to go back and read the 3 o’clock news and weather.

Quite often the official weather telex wouldn’t show up, so I’d just look out the window and make it up.

“It’ll be quite cloudy in about 20 minutes”, I’d say confidently, and it always was. The listeners must have marveled at the accuracy. If there were any viewers: the station was a bit short on feedback, which is presumably why nobody rang up to complain when I accidentally switched the station over to Radio 4 for a whole hour.

My wife, who’s from Los Angeles, where the average October temperature is 80 degrees Fahrenheit and the threat of forest fires lasts till November, agreed to relocate to Northumberland only because I took her to the Roman Wall during our previous warm spell in August 2006. Do you remember that week? There was a fire warning in Kielder Forest. We had ice cream and I wore shorts.

Ever since I’ve been pretending it’s just a bit of a cold snap. I fear that, after five years, this argument is wearing thin. It was so sweet to see Jo’s glowing face on Thursday as the sun warmed up our Californian sun loungers: since we brought them over they’ve been shivering unoccupied on the terrace.

However I know last week’s warmth spells only trouble. As the cold mist descended on our valley yesterday and the barbecue cover was put back on, the subject of furry boots and winter coats was top of Jo’s agenda.

Still, even though it’s just a meteorological blip, it was still nice to see brightness in the middle of the gloom. I only wish our business community could experience something similar. For them it’s been a perpetual perfect storm of uncontrollable turmoil.

So I was surprised to see, at the regional CBI’s annual dinner in Newcastle the other night, a room crammed with jolly, optimistic faces. There was, if not exactly confidence, certainly enough exuberance in the air and a gritty determination to see this recession through.

That’s what I love about the North East. When the rest of the country writes us off, and they always do (don’t you love the raised eyebrows in London when you say you’re from Newcastle?), when they scrap our development agency without consultation and replace it with a system no one wants and a fraction of the money we had before, run from London of course, when the state-run railway puts up the cost of an ordinary second class London return to £287, we just plough on. We know we’re part of a team that everyone thinks is destined for relegation, but we’re here for the long term.

Like our footballers (sorry, Sunderland supporters, this bit is not for you), we may not have too many star strikers, but when we pull together, and support each other, we simply can’t be beaten. Who needs Carroll, anyway? We wouldn’t have a Tevez if he was sent to us on a free transfer wrapped in Argentinian fillet steak. We know we’re on our own up here, just waiting for the growth to happen.

Come on, you coalition chaps talking hot air in your warm Manchester conference, send us some quickly, before we all freeze to death.

Sunday, September 18, 2011

A Martian Spies on the Venusians at Play

When Jo’s fourth girlfriend arrived, I knew I should have gone to the pub. I stayed because I was curious to find out what women do when they gaggle. Yes, I know it’s not really a verb, but it conjures a pretty good image of what women do when they get together for a night in.

It was the birthday of one of Jo’s closest friends, so they had arranged an evening of pampering. They’d booked a hairdresser, a manicurist and a pedicurist, or at least I think that’s what they call someone who cuts toenails for a living. To me, having your toenails clipped is an annual ritual to be performed quietly on your own, with one foot placed firmly on the edge of the bath. Sometimes I remember to retrieve errant cuttings from the soap dish. Mostly I don’t.

Forgetting to pick up nail clippings is on a par with leaving all the cupboard doors open, forgetting what I’m saying in the middle of sentences, littering the kitchen table with tools from half-completed tasks, or throwing my socks on the floor beside the bed every night and only retrieving them when the pile gets big enough to trip over. I am a man, and I am wired differently to half the world’s population. Men don’t notice stuff. But we can do speed shopping.

I can never understand why women get so excited about clothes. They started talking about them the moment they walked through the door. I can buy a year’s supply in just five minutes from a single shop. If I find a pair of jeans that vaguely fits I’ll buy six to save having to go back again: it saves on the washing, too. I have eight black shirts, one for every day of the week and an extra one in case there’s a power cut. I wear the same shoes every day till they fall apart, whereas Jo has a roomful, and knows when she’s worn every pair. Neither of us throws shoes away: my trainers have been loyal to me for at least 15 years, so I haven’t the heart to discard them. Jo says she can smell them from the end of the garden.

Though clothes shops leave me cold, I can’t walk past an Apple store without buying a new toy. It will eventually end up in a drawer stuffed full of wires, connectors and old mobile phones and electric shavers. If I suddenly woke up back in the eighties I'd be completely ready for a world of analogue technology. I even have a VHS machine somewhere, and a reel-to-reel tape recorder. If I could find them. I’ll ask Jo – she always knows where everything is. She has a cupboard full of nothing but carrier bags: she even has carrier bags inside the carrier bags. I always forget to take them to Waitrose and come back with another load.

By the time the manicurist had unpacked all her little coloured bottles, I realised that the ladies were now speaking a language that was completely foreign to me, so I retreated to the snug where football teams I don’t support were playing a match I didn’t much care about. Jo was happy to see me go, leaving them to intuit away and analyse each other’s emotions. I assume that’s what women do when they go to the loo together in restaurants. My friend Keith would look at me very strangely if I suggested joining him in the gents for a discussion about our feelings or the latest polo shirts in John Lewis.

So while the women put the world to rights, I watched the game, drank beer and replaced the batteries in Izzy’s baby monitor, thereby disproving the theory that men can’t multi-task. Later Jo found me fast asleep on the sofa. The batteries were on the floor.

Monday, September 12, 2011

Red Or Black?

Yesterday a second woman-beating rat crawled out of the rotting timbers of the sinking ship called Red Or Black? Are we surprised?

Well I, for one, am amazed. Having produced television entertainment most of my professional life, I am finding it hard to believe that Simon Cowell’s company could break a cardinal rule of the gameshow: that all participants must be thoroughly checked. “Backgrounds, psychs and meds”, we call them.

Background checks are simple and cheap. For less than £50, you can find out if someone has a record with the Criminal Records Bureau. Producers automatically exclude those who do because they don’t want to traumatise their victims, or give the press a scandal that might damage the reputation of the show. As the revelations of the last few days demonstrate, the damage tarnishes not just the programme, but the network itself.

I’m astonished that Nathan Hageman, who was awarded £1million at the end of the first episode, wasn’t weeded out at the first hurdle. He had been jailed for five years for beating up his ex-girlfriend, and his criminal record sits in public view for life. For £50, the broadcaster would have known not to put him on the screen at all, let alone make him a millionaire.

The “psych” test costs more, but is essential for any programme offering a big cash prize. Contestants sit for a good hour with a psychologist, who is tasked with uncovering emotional and mental flaws. This not only reassures the producer that the player can cope with the pressures of winning or losing, but also protects other contestants and programme staff. What if an aggrieved loser were to attack Ant and Dec? Anyone with the slightest hint of aggression is automatically excluded, which makes Mr Hageman’s appearance even more extraordinary. In America, the mere threat of violence whispered off-camera by a reality contestant would lead to instant disqualification.

In physical game shows or reality series like Big Brother, many other contestants fall at the medical. When I produced America’s Paradise Hotel, around 40% of the applicants were rejected at the “med” stage, most for sexually transmitted diseases – a sad indictment of our youth.

Meanwhile, as Cowell’s show’s ratings declined as fast as his reputation, derision and hostility have been thrown from all sides of the critical spectrum, even from the normally pliant industry trade press. In this week’s Broadcast magazine, the editor Lisa Campbell writes a blistering editorial headlined “How Cowell ran out of luck”. She lambasts the show: “the premise should have set alarm bells ringing at ITV about Cowell’s understanding of, and aptitude for, gameshows… try as they might, no amount of sob stories, weepy phone calls or stirring strings are going to make a viewer invest anything in a bunch of strangers whose choices display an utter lack of skill, effort or reasoning.”

Campbell’s view is echoed across the industry, and it’s easy to see why. For the format of Red Or Black? breaks another gameshow rule: that winners must be “worthy”.

Whether it’s a talent contest, a quiz, or an action gameshow, the prize must always be deserved. Contestants can demonstrate “worthiness” in a number of ways: by answering difficult questions, or performing complex or dangerous tasks; by bravely risking what they’ve won so far to gain more; or by generating sympathy from the viewers who follow them on their perilous journey.

Red or Black? offered none of these. Supposedly based on the story of Ashley Revell, a professional gambler from Kent, who bet all his possessions, including his clothes, on a single spin of the roulette wheel, these contestants invested nothing to win their prize. It is simply a game of greed and chance, nothing more. Thankfully the programme’s viewers, who are a lot cleverer than producers sometimes give them credit, saw right through it.

Monday, September 5, 2011

The Day The World Changed

The messenger’s bike was chained to a green lamppost. Red, white and blue plastic roses and an American flag stuck into the grey dust on its handlebars, it stood waiting patiently for its owner to return. He never did. The bike had become a symbol of the thousands of innocent lives thrown away. It’s my most haunting memory of 9/11. That and the stench, acrid and lingering, the smell of burning concrete, which still permeated downtown Manhattan a month after the horror.

Down in the hellhole behind the hoardings, the remains of the twin towers were piled like a huge smoking bonfire, many stories high. Out of them, two iconic metal structures, like the ruined facades of a huge cathedral, pointed towards the sky. How men worked in those scalding, foul conditions, I'll never know, but the searching never ceased: it would be another six months before all the debris, human and architectural, was removed.

On the streets of Lower Manhattan, there was the most haunting, sobering atmosphere. Locals, workers, visitors like me, everyone walked silently with shocked respect. The only sound was the relentless pounding and whirring of the machines and cranes down in the rubble below. Sometimes, all too infrequently, they too were muted – as another body, or part of a body, was released from its dust-covered tomb and firemen and workers stopped to pay their respects. We all knew the world had changed forever: this was the human side of the devastation.

St Paul’s Church, a few yards from the epicentre of the disaster, or “ground zero” as the news operations had called it, had become a place of refuge and recuperation.

Workers slept in the pews, food was sent it by local restaurants, pedicures and massages were offered for worn limbs or burnt feet.
I watched exhausted firemen queuing for coffee and comfort. By night, back in the clean luxury of my hotel room in Union Square, I looked across the 30 or so blocks to the floodlights where the twin towers had been, unable to get the terrible images of September 11th out of my mind.

It was one of those seminal moments, like the death of Princess Diana. Right now, television networks are full of recollections, repeats and re-enactments. Of course this is an event the world must never be allowed to forget, but we should beware lest overfamiliarity weakens the shock of those terrible images; the live television pictures that day were the most appalling the world has ever seen.

We watched the world change in high-definition clarity, thanks to a perfect blue sky over a smogless morning. Everyone remembers where they were: I was in my London office, on the phone to Jane Root, one of the BBC’s Controllers, when the second plane hit. A pause, and then “Oh my God”, we said in unison, and Jane added “I’d better go” as she rushed off to cancel her programme schedule. I remember the fear and the rumours in my office: would London be next?

I came to New York a month later because ABC had asked us to make a Christmas special for them. Challenge America, it was called, based on the British show. Erin Brockovitch became Anneka, but we needed a project. The problem was where to start: there was so much devastation, yet most workers in the city were still digging for bodies at Ground Zero.

So we restored a little theatre close by and threw a party for the children of the victims. It was the first building project in the city since the disaster, and Mayor Giuliani came to launch it. But it was just a tiny drop in the ocean, and seemed an inadequate response to the enormity of the problem. We mended their theatre, but the looks on the faces of the children showed that it would take so much more than a television programme to rebuild their lives, so cruelly destroyed on that horrible day.

Monday, August 29, 2011

The Visitor

The small crowd waiting at Arrivals turned and stared as the voice boomed out: “Is this Tom?”

She was just 5 feet, slim and muscular, her tiny frame buried beneath an enormous rucksack, yet the voice was deep and rasping, like rusty hinges on a heavy door. She must have been well over 50, with lines of care etched into her sundried face, yet she wore the short leather skirt, boots and tight lacy top of a teenager. This was Maria from Venezuela, and she had come to stay.

It was an innocent enough comment in a Californian gym that brought her into our lives. She was a personal trainer, and the woman being trained was Jo’s distant cousin. Maria was planning a trip to Scotland: did she have any suggestions?

“Gee, you must go visit Tom and Jo – they live in Scotland.” A pardonable error: even friends in London think Newcastle is near Aberdeen. Innocuous emails were exchanged: Could we look after her dear friend who was such fun and wanted to see some Scottish countryside? Of course we could, but we’re not actually in Scotland. Never mind, she’ll come for two nights. Oh dear.

On the short drive from the airport, we had scarcely put the red gravel driveways of Ponteland behind us before she told me she was divorcing her husband, had just been through the menopause, and was going to seduce a Scottish landowner whose advances she had rejected in her 20s, but who was almost certainly still in love with her.

Her command of English was as rusty as her voice, but she substituted what she lacked in vocabulary with a rich mix of Anglo-Saxon expletives. She had flown all the way from Florida with some terrible two-year-old in the next seat, except she didn’t use the word “terrible”. She had wanted to shoot the child, and would have done so if she had brought her husband’s pistol -- she demonstrated by pointing an imaginary gun at my head. I hoped Izzy would be on best behaviour.

Safely home, she greeted Jo like her best friend, patted Izzy gingerly on the head and slumped into a chair. I offered her a glass of wine. She shook her head to say no, but her voice said “just a little”. I opened a bottle of Chilean sauvignon blanc to make her feel at home (I know, but it’s close – well, as close as Newcastle is to Aberdeen), and mouthed at Jo “What shall we do with her?”

Then we heard the sobbing. We turned to see Maria, wine glass already drained, with red-rimmed eyes. “It was so good then,” she wailed, and then recounted, in details so graphic that I can’t begin to describe them here, her entire sex life from puberty to a fling with a minor Hollywood actor. Strangely, although I’d only poured a single glass, the bottle was half empty. An hour later I was restocking the fridge.

Jo and I went to bed early and left her mumbling incoherently at the dogs. Then, at around 2am, we heard loud thumps and bathwater running in her bedroom. “Oh my God, she’ll drown – do something”, said Jo. “I can’t go and see her in the bath”, I protested, so Jo padded upstairs and I heard a muffled scream.

“She was dancing stark naked with the bath overflowing”, said Jo. “I dragged her into bed and she passed out”. I think in my sleep I asked if she had a good body, because I remember a pillow hitting me on the head.

I’m ashamed to admit a host of important meetings appeared in my diary overnight, so Jo looked like thunder when she realised she’d be taking Maria to the Roman Wall herself.  Somehow we survived another night and I poured her onto the Edinburgh train with a bottle of good malt whisky as a gift for her landowner. I doubt it survived the journey. Good luck, Scotland.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Taking To The Skies


There’s no messing with Lord Stevens. Well over 6 feet tall, back straight as a redwood tree, the former head of the Metropolitan Police has a no-nonsense tone in his voice that has inspired respect and loyalty in equal measure throughout his distinguished life. He has charmed prime ministers and presidents, sat in judgment of the British Army and the RUC, and advised the government on international security. Now he was sitting in our dining room, staring across a plate of my homegrown beetroot, and frowning at me.

“Nonsense”, he barked, and I felt myself wilt. All I said was that I wished I’d taken flying lessons when I was younger, but was now too old and fat. The conversation had moved on from rioting (who better to invite for lunch after a week of lawless disorder?) to his other specialist subject and greatest passion, apart from his wife Cynthia.

John Stevens was literally born into flying. His father Cyril was
The S stands for Stevens
the founder of BKS, the airline that pioneered commercial flying out of Newcastle airport, and John took his first flight in a cockpit at the age of 4. He is President of the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association, holds a commercial pilot licence and various stakes in planes that he flies to his numerous board meetings around the country.
Newcastle Airport when John Stevens was a lad: note the snow

“You’re never too old to fly,” he said. “You will come up with me this week: I promise you’ll be hooked.” The voice was insistent: not “can”, but “will”. “I have a fear of heights”, I protested in vain.

That much is true: Sam, my 13-year-old, knows not to try to get me onto Oblivion at Alton Towers, I’m nervous on a stepladder changing a lightbulb, and my neighbour takes pity on me when it’s time to trim the wisteria.

But I do have a boyhood fascination with airplanes, and Baron Stevens of Kirkwhelpington is very good company so, before head could engage with tongue, I heard myself say “I’ll be there”.

That’s why on Thursday I found myself in a cockpit with headphones and a steering yoke as John, sounding just like the pilot of a 747, was requesting permission to take off from Runway Seven Zero at Newcastle Airport. A black raincloud drifted towards us from the West. Although he flies regularly, he’d meticulously read out a list of pre-flight checks, inspected every inch of the single-engined plane (yikes, only one engine) and removed every last drop of condensation from the fuel tank.

We listened to air traffic control as a Thomson holiday jet in front of us lifted off for the sun. Then a moment of drama as the jet struck a bird and officials raced up the runway checking for debris. It was ten minutes before we could get airborne, but by then John had so calmed me down, we could have flown to the moon.

Immediately after takeoff he handed me the controls. “Let’s find your house”, he suggested, so I eased the yoke to the left and followed the Wansbeck. It was far more responsive and exciting than my car, like driving in 3D, and a few minutes later I spotted the garden below us. I was glad I’d mowed the lawn.

Izzy and Jo waved from a window as we circled overhead. “That’s Daddy in an airplane”, said Jo, and Izzy shouted “He’s going to Los Angeles”, that being the only point of a plane that she knew.

Later, John demonstrated something exhilarating called a touch and go, setting us down in a neighbouring meadow before zooming up again. We soared through the rain clouds to 7,000 feet, and then all Northumberland lay circling below us. There were no hills: all the ups and downs of life just seem to flatten out when you’re flying. I could have stayed up there forever.

Dreaming of blue skies
John was absolutely right: I’m hooked.

Sunday, August 14, 2011

After The Riots: Time For An Educational Rethink

Izzy is already proficient in Maths and English. Actually, that’s a slight exaggeration. To be precise, she can count to 16 (when climbing the stairs to bed) and, when asked her age, replies “I’m two…” before pausing and adding “and a half”.

Although that’s about the only evidence of her prodigy, Jo and I are, as you can imagine, typical proud parents, glowing happily when others say how bright she is.

Long may it last. In just four weeks, she will enter Britain’s educational system via the nursery class at our local state school. From then, we’ll be trusting teachers to help deliver her into adulthood both literate and numerate. If Carol Vorderman has her way, she will be learning numbers until she is 18. And, if I have my way, she will be writing her first novel at 12. And a half.

The events of the past week have turned the political spotlight onto how we bring up our children. 11-year-olds running amok on our streets, arms full of stolen trainers and iPhones; gangs of teenagers throwing missiles at unarmed policemen: where have we gone wrong?

It’s easy to blame parents and schools. I bet you a pair of Nike Air Prestos that most of the parents of the delinquents in the news wouldn’t understand the first concept of responsible parenting, because they themselves were denied it. What boiled over onto the streets of Hackney and Croydon is the product of mistakes by successive generations: not just politicians, educationalists but ourselves, for voting in governments that have done nothing to change the way our society rears its children.

Sadly, for the young people in the courts last week, it’s probably too late: we can beat sticks and apply sticking plasters to cover the mistakes of the past, but it’ll be a tough haul to transform the entire Big Brother/X-Factor/National Lottery generation, where fame and fortune come to the lucky and the loud (or to the dishonest), rather than to those who work hard and respect others.

But where to begin? I think we should start with Izzy’s age group and pressurize the government to add a new requirement to the National Curriculum for primary schools. In addition to numeracy, literacy and science, let’s ensure that our children are taught crucial life skills, like social responsibility, caring and sharing, strength of character, the importance of honesty and respect for other people’s culture and possessions. These are essential moral values that ultimately will underpin a new order in our society, values which can be passed down the generations. Of course, like most middle-class parents, these are things we already teach our kids, but not all children are so fortunate.

When I was 10, about a month before taking my 11+ exam, I was pretty confident. My parents had encouraged me, my primary school delivered, I was a high flyer. In my class there was an overweight boy with ginger hair and freckles called Paul. He was soft, kind and laughed a lot. He also cried when the bullies hit him. One day I found him in tears at the back of the classroom. When I asked what was wrong, he said that he knew that he was “thick” because everyone said so. He would fail his 11+, and he was scared of the big boys at the secondary modern school.

For a month I worked with him after school, trying to teach him things I had mastered at the age of 5. Despite my feeble efforts, he failed the exam, another piece of rejected flotsam on the outer edges of our educational process.

I always wondered what had happened to him. Many years later I found out he had served two years in prison after being wrongly convicted for the manslaughter of a six year old. “Mentally unstable”, they called him in the press. Another inevitable victim of the current system, I’d say.

Monday, August 8, 2011

Why Is Britain Treating Artists Like Criminals?

A few months ago two young Argentinian tango dancers, Ismael Ludman and Maria Mondino, had a bad experience at Glasgow Airport. Now what I don’t know about tango would fill several libraries, but I’m told these folk are big in the dance world.

Argentinian tango isn’t like the flouncy stuff you see on Dancing With the Stars. It’s exotic and erotic, sinuous and sexy. With their upper bodies welded together, the dancers intertwine, their legs making graceful arcs around them. It’s fascinating and beautiful, and Ludman and Mondino are two of the best exponents. They travel the globe giving workshops and they’re quite well-known in Scotland, apparently, which is why they were invited to tour a few village halls and other small venues.

Sadly, the UK Border Agency had other ideas. The couple were held at the airport, refused entry and sent home. Just two casualties of a new immigration system that is making a mockery of Britain’s claim to be a magnet for international culture.

I only know about this because I was in Kirk Yetholm on Saturday night, where a public meeting, chaired by my daughter, was held to highlight the problem. There were artists, writers, musicians, gallery-owners and film-makers, even a true-blue-blooded member of the House of Lords, and they were all concerned about a system that is threatening to turn Britain into a cultural ghetto.

In 2008, our government introduced a new points-based visa system for non-EEC immigrants. It’s similar to the one that works successfully in Australia, except that in Australia there’s a special category that allows short-term visits by artists, writers and performers. Australians think it’s important that their country’s cultural diet is enriched by the work of significant international artists. Yet, despite Britain’s claims to be at the heart of cultural exchange, when they brought in our new immigration law, the government simply forgot about the arts.

Big festivals, like the Edinburgh International Festival, are given special status, but smaller events, like a book-signing by an award-winning American writer at your local Waterstones, or an appearance by a international director at a film festival in Hawick, requires a “licensed sponsor”. No sponsor, no entry, and the cost of each licence and visa runs to hundreds of pounds.

Sometimes the artist would have to travel hundreds of miles to get a biometric test – a ludicrous expense if you’re just performing for one night at a village hall where a few people like to tango.

The situation is now absurd: an international writer or a photographer on a tourist visa faces deportation if they so much as open a notebook or take a single snap; an established artist can’t even come to visit his own exhibition of paintings.

Musicians and poets from Africa, artists from Russia and China, and now Argentinian tango dancers, have fallen foul of the rules, and the world’s greatest living pianist, Grigory Sokolov, has simply deleted the UK from his touring itinerary. These are people of genius, whom we idolize for their extraordinary creative talent, and then we let the staff of the UK Border Agency treat them like illegal immigrants. They aren’t stealing employment from us, we invite them to our shores to enthrall us with their art.

According to the meeting in Yetholm, the government simply needs to create an “artists and entertainers visitor” route to solve the problem, and yet, despite a crescendo of complaints from every part of Britain’s cultural establishment, Theresa May’s Home Office remains oblivious and Jeremy Hunt’s Culture department is doing nothing to help.

The Argentinian tango dancers have got their revenge, however. There’s a magical YouTube video of them performing around their suitcases in the airport, a tribute to our pointless bureaucracy and the jobsworth mentality of the UKBA. Do take a look, before you write to your local MP.

Monday, August 1, 2011

The Perfect Holiday Hotel

There’s nothing quite like an English country holiday, especially if, like us, you’re staying in a luxury establishment. The scent of the roses outside, crisp linen on firm, comfy beds, superb cooking, with vegetables plucked fresh from the chef’s garden: that’s my idea of a good time. An informal, relaxed home-from-home.

I’m writing from one of the most beautiful tourist areas in the UK. Although it’s well past 11am, Jo is deciding whether or not to order breakfast. There are beaches and hills close by, acres of wild heathland within strolling distance, the food is wonderful, there’s a playground for Izzy: in short, we’re having a ball.

We only made the decision last Friday to take a week off. Jo said that July was so gloomy, we should have a proper break, just the three of us. Somewhere remote, without internet or mobile phones, but fairly near the sea, with nice country air. And no more than a three-hour drive from home: Izzy and long car journeys don’t go together.

Jo first suggested a B&B. In America they’re like boutique hotels, with four-poster beds, luxury furnishings and bedlinen, and free wine and cheese at 5pm. Then I reminded her of our experience on Arran. The sheets were pink polyester, the tiny pine wardrobes could hardly contain our belongings, the bed was soft as a sponge and the landlady tut-tutted loudly outside our door if we were a minute late for breakfast. Porridge is punctual, she said. Never again.

Besides, we wanted to bring the dogs, so we opted for self-catering. Although we only needed one bedroom and a cot, as we were booking with just a day’s notice, we didn’t expect to be spoilt for choice. It says something about the recession that there were several options, mostly tiny converted farm cottages, or wooden chalets with balconies.

I used to own a holiday let. The furniture was 20 years old – when we bought a new sofa we’d send the old one to the rental property. The beds were solid and cheap, the linens, towels and saucepans a job lot from a discount store. According to the agent, it was top notch, well above the norm, clean as a whistle, and so it was booked almost every week of the year. The clients seemed perfectly happy with these facilities: they weren’t to know that the entire place was filled with rejects.

Jo and I reckoned we could put up with a pine kitchen and lino flooring, tiny shower room, saggy bed and threadbare sofas with throw-covers, because we were on holiday. After all, you only sleep, eat and play Scrabble in the place. Who cares about comfort? We’d enjoy the scenery and the seaside, Izzy would love it and all we had to do was try to keep the dogs from bringing sand onto the carpets. And it was only £700 for a whole week in a Scottish bothy with a sea view (from the attic window) and gas central heating (meter controlled).

Then we looked at the weather forecast: torrential rain on the West Coast. And we looked at our nice comfy house, and said, “Let’s pretend”.

That’s why, yesterday morning, Jo woke to a perfect cappuccino from room service. The chef prepared poached eggs and smoked salmon and then we headed off to an almost deserted, sun-drenched beach near a pub with the best fish-and-chips we’ve ever had. We met the nicest people on our trip, and have a different excursion planned for every day this week. In our exclusive hotel, the internet is switched off, and the restaurant offers a vast menu featuring only home-grown produce. The furnishings seem to mirror our own taste precisely, and, as we’re the only guests, the service is immaculate. Best of all, it’s entirely free.

Thank you, Northumberland: we’re having a great holiday at home.

Monday, July 25, 2011

Growing Up

Izzy looked serious for a few moments, then gazed up at me beaming. “Daddy, I did it”, she squeaked. “You’re kidding,” I replied. “No, did it. I get off now.” And she did, and there it was: proof that my little girl was growing up.

“Yay – go Izzy”, I shouted, like an American at a baseball game, and our palms met in a triumphant “Hi-Five”.  “I wee-weed in the potty”, she reminded first me, then everyone she met for the next hour. As she was spending the morning at my office, that was a lot of people to impress.  A major milestone finally passed: nothing could signify more strongly the passing of her babyhood.

It’s exciting, yet seeing your child grow up is a bitter-sweet experience. As each tie of parental dependence severs, the more vulnerable she appears. How do little humans actually survive life without us? They’ll be reading next, then crossing the road, then having boyfriends. Before Jo and I know it, we’ll be discussing universities and, eventually, her moving out.

The truth is, humans are the only species in the animal kingdom where offspring are never truly allowed to quit the nest. I know that my Mum, 90, still worries desperately about me, 59, as much as I worry about Ben, 30 this week (another milestone), let alone tiny Izzy, 2, who’s head barely reaches my knees. The thought that anything might happen to any of my kids makes me physically wretch.

I remember the near misses: like Ben’s scooter accident in Barcelona. The call from his friend, whose voice failed to conceal the panic, the rush to the airport, the sight of his blood-covered face on the stretcher outside the operating theatre. Of course I’d warned of the dangers of bike-riding, and I’d always refused to buy him one. What else could a Dad have done? You know how headstrong youngsters are.

So I can’t begin to imagine the grief of Mitch and Janis Winehouse. They’ve watched helplessly as their beloved daughter self-destructed. In 2008 Mitch gave that sad, resigned television interview: “She won’t die of a drug overdose, that’s too quick. She would die from emphysema, if she didn’t check her behaviour, a slow, painful death, gasping for air.” How could they have saved their (in Stephen Fry’s words) “poor, unhappy creature”?

The fact is, no amount of parental vigilance can guarantee a child’s protection from cruel Fate. Over in Norway, 150 parents are in mourning, their children stolen from them by the madness of an evil fanatic.

It’s impossible to describe the excruciating, eternal agony of the loss of a child. I simply can't imagine the pain of one of my wife’s friends who, a few days ago, took her beautiful son, just nine months' old, to childcare. An hour later, she received a phone call that froze her blood: he’d stopped breathing.  An only child, his tiny light was snuffed out without warning or explanation. For his poor parents, it’s the start of an unbearable, inconsolable torment.  That’s why this weekend we’ve been hugging little Izzy even more than usual.

It’s a cliché to say that life is fragile, fraught with risk. But we’re treasuring every tiny moment as she grows up to face her own uncertain world.