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 fa├žade 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.