Monday, June 27, 2011

Chip Off The Old Block

When my eldest son Ben was little, he became a magician.

He called himself Benjamin Bonkers and would entertain our friends’ younger children with toy rabbits and hats. Until, one day, he accidentally set fire to his sister’s hair and Mum banned him from further performances. So instead, Ben set his heart on becoming an actor.

We did all we could to dissuade him. As a producer and director, I know how difficult it is to scratch any sort of living on stage or in front of the cameras. Did he want to be unemployed for most of the rest of his life? The producers have the creative ideas and do the hiring, I told him, the players are mere employees at the bottom of the creative food chain. That’s not strictly true, of course – a good actor can be the making of a successful project – but his mother and I were getting desperate.

After enduring several years of interminable school plays, during which we failed to discern the slightest hint of latent stardom, we finally suggested he might consider following his Dad into a career behind the cameras. Ben snorted with derision at the suggestion. I produced popular down-market shows like Challenge Anneka and Star for a Night: fit only for BBC1 on Saturday nights. He was an artiste. Visits to television studios and location left him cold. We sighed and waited.

Sure enough, after A-Levels, the inevitable happened. He announced that he’d decided to study film and television at university. And, to my great relief, he shone. He has a cinematic eye I never quite developed, and he’s great with crew and actors. He’s directed commercials, won prizes for his short films, and he’s very good with comedy, perhaps the most difficult genre of all. He has a penchant for the surreal which more than matches my own, and this year he finally achieved his first major goal when he was asked to direct an hour-long network television drama. Sure, it was only BBC1 on Saturday night, but his episode of Casualty was a tour de force. It made me cry, and that was the programme, not just the sight of my son’s first onscreen credit.

Last week, en route to the Edinburgh Film Festival where he’s making contacts for his first feature film, he dropped off in Newcastle to give me my Father’s Day present. It was the ultimate gift: he directed one of my films.

It was just a short project (I say “just – in this recessed climate, any work is useful for a production company), but it was pretty ambitious. It involved all the things Ben is good at, like comedy, actors, and a surreal script. In the kitchen of a dingy basement restaurant in the city centre, with the cast caked in fake blood and sweat, I heard him shout “Action!” for the first time and I can’t begin to measure the pride. We were, for one day only, a father and son team.

It’s hard to express quite how that feels. Working together with your firstborn is something that transcends ordinary human endeavour. Now I think I understand the satisfaction that butchers and grocers must feel as they add “& Son” to their own name above the shopfront. As an old block, it was great to see my young chip bossing around the actors and crew just like his Dad. The weirdest feeling was that he now has my voice. In the edit a few days later, it was impossible to tell us apart.

"Best Leave It To The Expert, Dad..."  [all photos by David Bridges]
The final result is as good as I could have hoped for. Viewing one particularly nice shot, I asked Ben, “How did you do that?” Quick as a flash came the response: “It’s not magic, Dad”.  Quite.

Friday, June 17, 2011

My Worst Christmas


The BBC has announced the sale of one of Britain’s most iconic buildings: Television Centre. For me that vast circle of studios, like a giant question mark topped by glass-fronted offices, stirs up mixed emotions. Set in the wasteland of Shepherds Bush, within spitting distance of QPR’s football ground, it was the scene of the highest points of my BBC career, and also the lowest. For this was where, in 1971, I spent the most miserable Christmas of my life.

As a student desperate for any start in television, I’d secured a vacation job in the mailroom. They put me in a section called “Incoming Mail”. There were 15 middle-aged women and me. Our job was to open every letter sent to the BBC.

Quite why we had to do this, we weren’t sure. Nobody actually told us to look for anything – like evidence of communists, Payola, or ITV headhunters. We just opened the envelopes, stapled them to the contents, and put them in mailboxes to be delivered by men with trollies round long the circular corridors. This repetitive job turned out to be a perfect career springboard. For, by surreptitious reading of the mail, I soon identified all the key producers. All I had to do was meet them.

The head of the mail service, a man called Mr Beasley, with a voice of gravel and a heart of gold, took me under his wing and let me play the “lost post” game. If I spotted a letter to a person I wanted to meet, he let me hold it back from the mail run and go upstairs to deliver it myself. In this way I met the man who gave me my first proper job after university.

In the 1970s ‘TC’, as it was called to all who worked there, was the most exciting place in the world. The circle comprised 8 busy studios – 4 large, 3 small, and, at the bottom of the question mark, behind the familiar BBC Television Centre sign, the biggest studio in Europe, a cavernous space full of lights, cameras and memories called TC1. In my meal breaks I would rush upstairs to the observation galleries and watch the filming of Top of the Pops and Doctor Who. Sometimes friendly studio managers let me inside to see some of the most famous names on television performing their stuff: from Morecambe & Wise to The Two Ronnies.

10 years after I joined the mailroom, I became the director of the General Election, the largest programme ever produced from the building, which simultaneously utilised every studio except TC1. That had been reserved for an entertainment series called “The Hot Shoe Show”. I was the producer of that programme too.

This was undoubtedly the high point – the following year I handed in my resignation and started my own company. But, back in 1971, my enthusiasm for life in this incredible building was marred by an unfortunate incident involving, as happened all too often in my life, a beautiful woman.

At university I had fallen in unrequited lust for a blond first-year called Nicky. Having pointedly shunned my advances all term, one day she asked if we might share a flat in London over the holidays. As the only ‘flat’ we could afford was a single-roomed bedsit, I couldn’t believe my luck. I’d be sharing a room with the most beautiful girl in the world: it was the best Christmas ever.

Sadly, on the first night, my world disintegrated. Paul, tanned and Australian, lived in the room next door. It took him less than 20 minutes to seduce my Nicky. The walls were very thin. On New Year’s Eve they stayed in for a night of romance and I trudged, in freezing rain, to seek solace in the bar at Television Centre. It was shut.

By 2015 it will have closed forever: but the memories remain.

Monday, June 13, 2011

Cutting The Beeb Down To Size

I recently found myself in a vast empty office building near Manchester, as one of the first guests of a new BBC empire. The signs weren’t up, painters were still glossing the skirting boards, men in overalls were wandering round with clipboards, and a few early staff arrivals were looking for the Costa Coffee shop. Everything smelt new and optimistic.

It’s an impressive development: towering glassfronted buildings and a fully equipped studio complex overlook the calming waters of Salford Quays. Several BBC departments are moving there, including Sport, Children’s, and a chunk of news output including Radio 5 Live and the BBC Breakfast programme. It’s a nice gesture by a London-centric organisation, although it probably won’t make much difference to us independent producers isolated in the North East.

The building was freezing, not just because it was in Manchester, but because noone had yet worked out how to turn down the air-conditioning. For the cluster of young, ambitious creatives it must be an exciting new world. Yet amongst the new arrivals I met there was talk of only one thing: the cuts. ‘Delivering Quality First’ is the catchphrase – how can the BBC maintain its programme quality whilst slashing 20% of its budget?

Nobody knows how this target will be achieved: advice has been solicited from all and sundry, and decisions are expected soon. Over the last few days, media pages have buzzed with rumour and yesterday the new Chairman of the BBC Trust, Lord Patten, hinted that some sports coverage and maybe a whole television channel might be at risk. We already know that over 1,000 jobs are vulnerable within News, so two Salford departments could be losing staff even before they’ve unpacked their suitcases.

According to Lord Patten, the World Service is safe. So that’s a relief then: people in India will still get their BBC programmes, even if we can’t watch Match of the Day.

The thing about Delivering Quality First is that it’s hard to define “quality”. Is it entertainment for millions of families to enjoy on a Saturday night? Or a concert on Radio Three, heard by just a couple of thousand? The influence and volubility of the Radio 3 audience is in inverse proportion to its size, so it would be a very brave executive that tries to cut so much as a single cello from a BBC orchestra.

The thing that I find strange is the way this exercise has been undertaken. Despite the cuts, the BBC has a guaranteed income of many billions for the next six years. With such a level of risk-free financial security, most business leaders would start with a blank sheet of paper and first work out what sort of service its customers would expect for the money, and then cost and deliver it. The current strategy is to ask how the existing BBC can deliver the best of what it already does, more cheaply.

Rather than “Should we be keeping BBC 4 as well as BBC 2”, wouldn’t it have made more sense to ask: “What is the public’s demand for factual programmes, and how best can we meet it?” I find it odd that we have daytime programmes with miniscule budgets on two separate channels, and yet thousands of great programmes lie unrepeated in the BBC Archive – I know which I’d rather watch on a wet afternoon. I also don’t understand why the BBC spends hundreds of millions on a separate channel for 16 to 24 year olds, most of whom don’t see the relevance of television in their tweeting, texting lives.

Consensus will be impossible. I just hope that, when the white smoke comes from White City, and the decisions are announced, the BBC remembers that it’s a broadcaster for the whole nation. Whatever cuts it makes, it must continue its commitment to the North: starting with that empty building in Salford.

Sunday, June 5, 2011

Cheryl Cole and The X Factor: The Final (Geordie) Word

I went to the wrong school. That’s my excuse when friends down South ask me why, despite an entire childhood on Tyneside, there’s scarcely a twang of Geordie in my speech.

Quite how I avoided the accent is a mystery: it was my background music for more than 20 years. I can tune in and understand every word perfectly: I can even communicate with Kevin, our house painter, when he’s in full flow. His accent is so strong it renders Jo utterly speechless with admiration and incomprehension. I’d be a brilliant Cheryl Cole interpreter.

In fact, my wife swears that my hidden Geordie dialect emerges after I’ve had a couple of pints of Tyneside Blonde down our local pub, but I know that it’s not very authentic. Sure, I may find “upaheight” a more economical use of language than “it’s up there on the top shelf”, or fret that my wife “blethors” or about the “clarts” which perpetually adorn Izzy’s wellingtons. I may conjure up an entire vocabulary of Geordie abuse when United are a goal down, but I can’t reproduce the fluent, passionate language of the Angles and the Venerable Bede, the delicious (but sadly endangered) burr of the people of Redesdale and the North Tyne, where I spent every teenage weekend, or the sharp, expressively precise language of Tyneside, my home until adulthood and ambition drew me south. No matter how many pints I consume, I still call a "short" a "shirt", and I probably always will.

Mind you, Jo’s from California, so she’s scarcely one to judge. Nor is Mike Darnell, the President of the Fox network. He lives in a nice house in the Los Angeles suburb of Calabasas, a permanently sunny, botoxed world as far removed from Newcastle as you could possibly imagine. According to some tabloids, he it was who decided to first axe and then reinstate our Cheryl Cole for the US version of The X Factor. Now they say the final decision has been made: Cheryl is out. And all because of her accent.

Personally, I don’t believe a word of it. Darnell’s a genius: he virtually invented reality television; he understands better than anyone how to create a popular hit; and he adores the English – he jumped when I brought him Amanda Byram for Paradise Hotel (OK, she’s Irish, but it all sounds the same in Calabasas). Did he really worry that Cheryl’s speech might be an impediment?

There’s something terribly fishy about this whole U.S. X-Factor Geordie-hating story. I wouldn’t be surprised if it turns out Paula Abdul was involved. Many thought American Idol improved when she finally departed. Quite why she’s back in Cowell’s good books I can’t imagine, but I doubt Paula would want to be upstaged by someone prettier and wittier. If Cheryl had returned and Paula stayed, you can bet fur would fly and tears flow. And I doubt Fox would have insisted that Cheryl had emergency elocution lessons: self-defence more like.

Perhaps she should have developed her own mid-Atlantic drawl. I find it almost impossible not to impersonate people when I’m with them: from Americans to Italians, Brummies to Belgians, my accent flows with the crowd. According to Jo, I’m particularly embarrassing when I’m abroad. In Italy I only have to step off the plane before I lapse into Italianglish, flinging my arms around and shouting loudly at waiters.

Jo claims I don’t speak a single word of actual Italian. She’s wrong: I speak fluent musical notation: “Andante Sostenuto, Affretando, Subito Pianissimo”, I cry with confidence once the Chianti takes hold.

Admittedly, these words aren’t much help when you’re trying to order squid or sea bass, but I’m sure they’d be pretty useful if I was asked to be a judge on the Italian version of the X-Factor. And I know I’d be perfectly understood, because I’d be speaking them without the slightest hint of a Geordie accent.