Monday, December 24, 2012

The Best Christmas Present Ever

Well, that wasn’t too bad. I can’t believe I’ve reached Christmas Eve without completely tearing my hair out. 

I put it down to two factors: first, our wonderful and generous neighbours Dick and Linda have invited us (and Mum) for lunch on Christmas Day, so for once I’m not panicking about whether the turkey is the right size, or whether I’ve remembered the goose fat, because now we don’t need either. Thank you so much, Linda. I just hope we’re still friends after the charades. 

Oh, didn’t I tell you about that? Mum, who’s nearly 92, has to play charades on Christmas afternoon.

Monday, December 17, 2012

A Dog Is Not Just For Christmas

One good thing about the world coming to an end this Friday is that we needn’t worry about last-minute Christmas presents.

Monday, December 10, 2012

Warming up the Hot Seat

On my desk are three folders. 

A red one contains notes from briefings with broadcasters. “Different, exciting, edgy and out-of-the-box” – that’s what they all want. Of course, some of you who watch a bit of television may have detected a disconnect between this and what actually appears on our screens. “Dull, derivative, predictable, safe,” I hear you scream, “if I see another property show or a cookery programme, or a documentary about children with two heads, I’m going to throw my TV away.” 

I can’t possibly comment. You judge the effectiveness of our current commissioning system in delivering cutting-edge television to your homes; I just write down what they say they need on a piece of paper and pop it in the red folder.

Monday, December 3, 2012

Texts, Lies and Videotape


There, I’ve done it. I know I’m “20 yrs 2 L8”, but, as today is the birthday of texting, I thought I should at least celebrate (or, to be less precise, celbr8) its existence; particularly as I have largely ignored the wretched practice for its entire, annoying lifetime. So: hpy bday 2 txting.

Saturday, November 24, 2012

The King-Maker

[Why Tony Hall was always going to become the BBC’s director general] 

Eric Stadlen, our tutor, was adamant. 

“Vun of you vill be director-general,” he told us in his deep, thick Austrian accent.

Monday, November 19, 2012

Bah Humbuggery!

Oh no – Izzy has found out about Hanukkah gifts. 

As my daughter is half-Jewish, we couldn’t really expect to keep it from her. But, seriously: 8 nights of presents? Whereas Santa’s flying visit happens just once a year, the Jewish equivalent takes eight whole evenings, on each of which a child is supposed to receive a little gift. Izzy can’t wait.

Sunday, November 11, 2012

The BBC: Turning A Crisis Into A Catastrophe

[The director-general of the BBC, George Entwistle, has resigned after a chaotic 54 days.]

Poor George. Such a charming, gentle man. 

I met him a few times, when he was head of Current Affairs at the BBC and I was pitching a television series about how to improve the rate of prisoner reoffending. What I proposed was so radical and dangerous (I wanted to move young prisoners to a “half-way house”, set them up in business, then film how they got on) that I doubted he would consider it. 

George heard the pitch, then said, in quiet, measured tones: “It’s exactly the sort of series the BBC should be doing right now”.

Tomato Blush

I'm most grateful to Mary Yeoman for offering this simple solution to my heirloom/heritage tomato problem (see previous post).  

She wrote: Put them in a brown paper bag with a few banana skins and one or two ripe bananas and I can assure you they will ripen in a few days.

Sunday, November 4, 2012

Don't Quit While You're Behind

Some say the secret of true success is to quit while you’re behind. Sadly it’s not something I’m very good at. 

Take my tomato plants, for example.

Sunday, October 28, 2012

Bags of Bother In Bogota

[Last night, at the beginning of Greenwich Mean Time, our clocks went back by one hour] 

GMT arrived noisily on Sunday morning. 

The clock on the front of our bedroom phone had reached 2.21 am, which meant it was 3.21 am in my head. I had been so looking forward to an extra hour of sleep, but the loud ringing of the phone had other ideas. 

Woken with a start, Jo grabbed the handset from its cradle. A deep intake of breath, then: “Rocca – oh no”. 

Rocca is the eldest of my three daughters. On Saturday night she was supposed to be arriving in Bogota, capital of Colombia.

Sunday, October 14, 2012

Plants Prefer Geordie - It's Official

If Cheryl Cole ever gives up singing, she could certainly become a gardener. So too, if they fall from TV favour, could Ant and Dec. 

I don’t know if our local heroes realise they have the power to make plants grow, but a gentleman from Essex called Chris Bonnett does. He owns a garden centre in Chelmsford and has just announced the result of a very important, if not entirely scientific, experiment.

Sunday, October 7, 2012


One of the great levellers between kings and commoners, between millionaires and mortals, is the dentist’s drill. The mere sound of one can cause brave men to crumble into cowards. We all encounter it at some time; in my case, we’re old acquaintances. 

Last week a piece of tooth came away when it encountered an obstacle in a cheese sandwich. I carried the fragment around in my wallet for three days, hoping the dentist could somehow cement it back into its home at the back of my mouth. 

“Gross!” was Jo’s horrified comment when I showed it to her over breakfast. Americans see teeth differently to us.

Sunday, September 30, 2012

Message from Mabel

This isn’t one of those sorries you see on the television when you know the person doesn’t really mean it; it’s a proper, grown up sorry. The sort of sorry you say when you’ve torn the electricity bill into little pieces, or chewed the arm off a Barbie doll. A real lie-on-your-back-with-your-legs-in-the-air type of sorry. 

Here goes: I’m terribly sorry, my Dad Tom can’t write his blog today because he’s not feeling well.

Monday, September 24, 2012

Moment of Truth for Bapman

The appointment sat in my diary like a pool of rancid milk in the bottom of the fridge. It had to be dealt with, but the thought made me feel sick. 

I’d cancelled twice already, claiming a busy schedule. Now the insurers were insistent: my policy was up for renewal, and they needed me in London for a medical, presumably to check I wasn’t going to die on them. 

“Bring a towel and loose clothes, and don’t eat for two hours beforehand,” the letter said. 

That meant one thing: the dreaded treadmill. They fix electrodes to your chest, switch the machine to racing mode, and you run till you drop. 

When I found out about it two months ago, I resolved to immediately get slim – which for me is quite ludicrous. A bit like putting a pint of oil in the car just before its annual service. You can’t disguise years of excess with a few bottles of Activia and a jog.

Monday, September 17, 2012

It's A Man Thing

Just as they were about to leave the Garden of Eden, Eve found Adam rushing around in a blind panic. 

“I’ve lost my figleaf,” he shouted, furiously scrabbling through a pile of half-eaten apples. “I can’t go out without it.” 

With a heavy sigh, Eve pointed down: “Adam, you’re wearing it.” 

It’s a man thing, apparently. We were born to lose stuff.

Monday, September 10, 2012

The Naked Lady of Northumberland Revealed

She’s certainly a big lass, with deep lines rippling round her voluptuous curves. Her two breasts are more Titian than Playboy. 

“Is that a boobie?” asked Granny, squinting up at the prone giant silhouetted against the sunlight. 

“That’s the face, Mum – look, there’s her forehead and her nose.” 

Izzy giggled: “Daddy’s got boobies”. 

“Nonsense,” I snorted. 

“You really must go on a diet, dear”, said my Mum.

Sunday, September 2, 2012

Living in the World of Three

I’m really sorry I missed my post last week. Every Sunday I’ve tried to write something vaguely amusing to lighten things up, but last week I simply didn’t have the time. Not one free minute in the entire day. Or in any of the following five days either. 

Last week I was out of this world, spirited into a parallel universe. Emails lay unanswered, post unopened, no time to watch the news or go down the pub: I’ve been living in the world of Three.

Monday, August 20, 2012

Nine Days To Their Biggest Challenge

I’d never heard of the Paralympics until 1991.

Three years earlier, in Seoul, our able-bodied athletes won just five gold medals. In that same month our disabled athletes broke 18 world records, and brought home 182 medals, including 64 golds.

While Steve Redgrave, Linford Christie, Adrian Moorhouse, Colin Whitbread and Fatima Whitbread became household names, the public scarcely noticed the achievements of their disabled colleagues. Neither did I.

Then in 1991, while I was producing Challenge Anneka for the BBC, we received a call from the British Paralympic Association asking for help.

Sunday, August 12, 2012

A Bit Of A Week

It’s been a bit of a week. Starting with the bull incident.

With expectations of a few blissful days in rural Northumberland, last Saturday the first of several waves of friends arrived from London. We’d promised them gentle strolls through our fields, barbecues with fresh salad straight from the garden, and long snoozes on comfy sofas. The bull had other ideas.

Sunday, August 5, 2012

The Crying Games

“Don’t forget to call me in for the bit where they cry at the national anthem,” I called out from the kitchen where I’d been constructing a mountain of spaghetti bolognese for ten hungry mouths.

Their appetites are insatiable, not just for the food, but also for large doses of the Olympics drug that for days has cemented the family onto the giant L-shaped couch in the TV room. Even the cook mustn’t miss the moment where we all blub along with the athletes during the medals ceremony.

Sunday, July 29, 2012

How they blew £27million in one night


I was determined to hate the Olympics opening ceremony.

£27m could have bought half a dozen full-scale West End musicals, or nearly two years’ public subsidy for the Royal Shakespeare Company. It seemed an awful lot to blow on a single performance. The Isles of Wonder would have to be bloody wondrous to justify that kind of expense.

So when the pastoral opening sequence failed to feature any closeups of sheep – much to the disappointment of my sheep-rearing neighbour, who had come over to our house specifically to see them in HD – and instead we endured hammy acting, wimpy maypole dancing, limp apple tossing, and some unexplained film of rugby players, followed by the self-satisfied image of Kenneth Branagh as Isambard Kingdom Brunel, I was pretty sure I’d be proved right.

Monday, July 23, 2012

Daddy - the sky is blue!

Did everyone enjoy the summer then?

The sun, whose extended visit on Saturday only served to remind us of what we’ve been missing these long wet months, immediately prompted barbecues and shorts to be dusted off across our region. Desperate to get out into the vegetable garden, I couldn’t find any sandals beneath the pile of muddy wellingtons, so I wore socks and trainers with my bright green shorts.

Jo was horrified. She wouldn’t let me even take the rubbish out in case the neighbours saw – she said I looked like a German tourist. Izzy had greeted the day by shrieking with excitement: “Daddy, the sky is blue”. She dragged me into the garden for a closer look.

Monday, July 16, 2012

Olympic Hell

From last Monday's Guardian -
Heathrow will be hell today. 

600,000 items of Olympic baggage
Apparently it’s going to be the airport’s busiest day ever, as the first wave of Olympic athletes is scheduled to arrive. They’ll step straight into queues to have their passports stamped by immigration officials with just a couple of week’s training, then on to even longer queues at the lost baggage desks. There’ll be international temper tantrums by nightfall.

Sunday, July 8, 2012

End of a Dream

English strawberries and a glass of chilled champagne – what a perfect accompaniment to a Wimbledon final.

To be honest, it was hard to find any strawberries left by the slugs in the garden and I was only drinking Cava, but I was determined to join the rest of the nation in its patriotic fervour.

I tried explaining to Jo why it was such an important day for this most English of traditions, the first time “we’d” reached the men’s singles final since 1936.

“Isn’t he the same guy who lost last year?” she asked, rather dispiritedly.

Monday, July 2, 2012

Apocalypse Now

On Thursday evening in Wallsend, as a brown river poured through the ground floor of her home, destroying carpets, armchairs and kitchen appliances, 8-year-old Ellie Wood asked, “Dad, is this the end of the world?”

I’m sure it felt like that to a lot of people. On a summer’s afternoon, without warning, the sky turned black and a tower of water dumped itself onto the city. Streets were gridlocked, cars floated around, thousand of people were stranded, all in just a couple of hours.

While the Newcastle Apocalypse was doing its thing, I was standing on a sunny terrace at a reception in London, sipping a cooling Pimms before heading to the station to catch the 7 o’clock home.

When I answered my mobile, I sensed real fear in Jo’s voice. “Don’t even try to come home”, she warned. “Newcastle station’s shut”. She’d been trying to leave the city for over two hours to collect Izzy from her child-minder, but hadn’t progressed more than a few hundred yards through the deluge; the torrent had reached the doors of the Volvo and cars were stranded all round her.

Even normally unflappable Mum rang to warn me. She’d come out of a matinee at the Theatre Royal and, like Doctor Foster, stepped in a puddle right up to her middle. Apparently you could white-water-raft down Grey Street. After a three-hour bus journey home, Mum’s driver had refused to set her down at the bus stop on the main road, but insisted on driving into the village and depositing the drenched 91-year-old outside her own front door. Armageddon certainly brings out the best in people.

I guess you could be forgiven for thinking the world is in its death throes. After the hottest March, we’ve had the wettest, most unpleasant three months – Spring got lost altogether. The vegetable garden is a soggy, cold reflection of how it’s supposed to be: courgette plants rotting, runner beans too fed up to bother climbing. Izzy’s trampoline sits unloved and mildew-covered – even the dogs prefer their basket to the wet outdoors. I can claim a bumper crop of slugs, though. And what the forecasters laughingly call this “unseasonal weather” isn’t just over here: severe storms have pounded America’s east coast, leaving millions without power in record 104° temperatures.

I suppose we shouldn’t be too surprised. After all, we’ve been warned for 1300 years that the world will end on December 21st 2012 – I guess this is just its dress rehearsal. According to some, we only have another 172 days left of unpleasantness before the ancient Mayan calendar ends, the world gets hit by Planet Nibiru and we get wiped out like the dinosaurs. The Arab Spring is nothing compared to what’s round the corner.

I said this to Jo when she suggested, in desperation, that we use up our remaining air miles and book a holiday somewhere warmer. “There’s no point booking for January,” I said, “though we could actually afford somewhere quite nice because we won’t have to pay for any Christmas presents”.

We spent the next hour musing on what the end of the world will mean. It means this is definitely Andy Murray’s last chance at Wimbledon; Barclays bankers have had their final bonus round so we may as well let them carry on cheating; it means The Voice will never return, Angela Merkel will never be replaced as German chancellor, and I definitely shouldn’t have bothered planting those January King cabbages. Mind you, the slugs have pretty much done for them, anyway.

Then, on Friday, some archaeologists in Guatemala burst my bubble by announcing that they’d found another ancient Mayan text. The good news is the doom-mongers were right: the end date of the Mayan calendar really is December 21st 2012. The bad news is that the calendar starts all over again on December 22nd 2012: apparently it’s just their New Year’s Day.

Yes, there’s really no end to it all: so I guess, as the world keeps spinning into an uncertain 2013, we’re just going to have to grin and bear it.

Monday, June 25, 2012

Fessing Up

Like the comedian Jimmy Carr, I too have to fess up.

You know all those dodgy investments in the film industry? The ones where people make loans to movies that are never going to make money, and get massive tax write-offs? The schemes where footballers, tycoons and comedians avoid paying the same tax rate as poor people? Well, I’m just a teeny bit responsible.

20 years ago, I was surprised to find myself elected chair of PACT, the trade body representing Britain’s film and television producers. This surprise was derived from the fact that, although I had a certain amount of experience in television, I had no track record in cinema. Like any movie-goer, though, I was concerned about the moribund state of our industry: around 95% of films in our cinemas were American and only a handful of low budget British arthouse films managed to make it to distribution each year.

It wasn’t for lack of talent: Hollywood was full of British technicians and actors, while the industry back home was on its last legs. This was culturally disastrous, so I asked my film colleagues how to get British films kick started, and they unanimously replied: “tax breaks”. They needed new sources of external investment, and were lobbying government for incentives to persuade companies and rich individuals to back them. The producers wanted to make commercial movies, and maybe get rich in the process; I thought it a good idea because I didn’t want my children being brought up on a diet of Americana.

But PACT knew that neither case would wash with government. What we needed was a good financial argument that commercial British films would be good for Britain. We worked out that £20million in tax breaks would generate hundreds of millions of extra revenue for Britain through the employment of crews, the technical services and studios, the hotels and restaurants in the locations we filmed in, and, ultimately, the revenue that returned through tax on profits. Surely it was worth a little tax concession to get the ball rolling?

So we started a campaign. It was called Impact, and we launched it at a rather grand breakfast in London’s Savoy Hotel. Like any celebrity event we got plenty of publicity – I was even grilled by John Humphrys on the Today programme about why on earth we luvvies should get special treatment. To the Tory government of the day our campaign fell on deaf ears. So instead we targeted Gordon Brown, and built a robust financial model to prove the case.

Four years later our tax breaks were one of the first things he announced as the new Chancellor. The extraordinary thing was, it worked. British films thrived and money flowed into Britain. There was one problem: a lot of individuals who didn’t really have the film industry at their heart jumped on the bandwagon and created schemes solely for the tax breaks. And then persuaded comedians and footballers to put their money in. And they still do. Sorry about that, everyone.

Of course, one of the reasons people use these schemes is because our British tax system is so darned complicated. I count myself as reasonably intelligent and numerate, yet every year when my accountant sends me my tax return with a letter saying “Please check the contents and, if you are happy, sign”, I’ve never been able to understand a single word it says. So I trust that his substantial fees reflect his genius for doing what is right and legal, and I sign anyway. Which is presumably what Jimmy Carr did. Except it wasn’t right, was it?

Britain would probably be a lot better off if we just simplified the whole process. Let’s have a £10,000 tax-free allowance for everyone, then a single 30% tax rate, withheld at source, for wages, services, businesses, investments, everything. Meanwhile, scrap stamp duty, inheritance tax and other unnecessary complications. Of course the result would be thousands of redundant tax inspectors and accountants. Maybe they could set up a film company? They could call it ‘21st Century Tax’. Somehow I doubt they’d find any investors.

Monday, June 18, 2012

Launching The App

Tonight at 8 o’clock you can join a revolution.

No need to wave a flag or march in the streets; it requires no effort or cost. You can do it from the comfort of your own armchair, while you are simply watching television. For this evening, during Channel 4’s award-winning Dispatches programme, you can join thousands of others whose viewing habits are about to be transformed by an innovation created right here in Newcastle.

Anyone with an iPhone, Android smartphone, or even an iPad – can download the free Dispatches app and, as if by magic, your phone will link to your television screen during the programme and a wealth of additional content will flow straight to your device.

When a topic is mentioned in the documentary, your phone will vibrate and ping, and bespoke graphics, maps and other useful stuff just appear. You can save or share the content with your friends and simultaneously join the Twitter feeds directly related to the programme. You’ll be able to take part in live voting and download reports.

What you’ll be enjoying is the world’s first live interactive television “second screen” experience. So why do television viewers need this extra distraction? Isn’t it enough to simply watch the programme?

Well, the sad fact is that most of us don’t. Recent research suggests that nearly three-quarters of viewers are distracted by mobile devices while they watch the box, usually by tweeting or texting (often about the programme’s content), or keeping up with “friends” on Facebook. Now broadcasters want to fight back and harness these straying eyes within the programme experience. That’s where “second screen” comes in.

I met Paul Rawlings a couple of years ago. He is, by his own admission, a geek. He is also a genius. He’d started a business called ScreenReach Interactive with private funds. Paul had invented a technology called Screach, which is effectively a new computer language that can link mobile phones with screens on mobile advertising sites, or events, such as football matches or exhibitions.

They experimented with the crowd at St James Park, inviting them (and the listeners of Real Radio) to vote for the game’s Man of the Match. The system worked well. Paul, his business partner Sam Morton and their chairman Tom Maxfield, invited me to join the board and I soon realised their incredible technology offered a possible solution for the broadcaster. If you can provide viewers with sufficiently engrossing and relevant material on their mobile phones, played out to them live as a programme was being broadcast, you could keep everyone hooked on both screens. It was certainly worth a try.

It’s taken a year to develop, and eventually, despite competition from other technologies throughout the world, I sold the concept to Channel 4, who commissioned our production company Standing Stone to make a pilot using the Screach platform.

Since then Paul and I have spent the last 6 months co-developing the Dispatches app for the network, which his technical team built and our creatives are filling with rich, interesting content. It launched last week to critical acclaim and tonight will be its first big test. Channel 4’s ambition for second screen matches our own, and it’s probably significant that the person in charge of the project at the network, Vicky Taylor, also comes from Newcastle: she has believed in us from the outset, and as a result our offices in Byker are now buzzing with creativity and optimism.

This is a north-east success story in the making. But first the revolution has to take off. So please do go to the App Store and download the Dispatches app, then tune into Channel 4 and watch the programme tonight.

This week’s subject is incredibly moving: it’s about a brave man called Tony Nicklinson who, following a terrible stroke, has locked-in syndrome and is fighting the government for a right to die. It raises huge moral questions, which is why we hope many viewers will use the app to vote and comment on the issues. If you have a smartphone, please do join them.

Thursday, June 14, 2012

The Olympic Torch Relay Hits Town

Flanked by police outriders, the lorries trundled slowly towards the line of staff waiting patiently outside the Turnberry Hotel.
Receptionists, chambermaids, waiters, two chefs and a kilted doorman had been neatly arranged on one side of the road so the photographer from the Ayrshire Post could get a nice shot of the hotel behind them. Everyone had been given a little flag to wave, with “South Ayrshire Council” on the side. 

This was, according to a Scottish government minister, a chance to “put Scotland on the world stage”. The Olympic torch relay was passing by and the world would be watching. In fact, the only people watching were a group of American golfers waiting to start their round and a few sleepy guests, including Granny and the rest of our family, dragged out of bed for this once-in-a-lifetime experience.

The Olympics people had put banners on all the lampposts, and presumably cleared the route of any illegal Olympic logos made by subversive primary schoolchildren.  They’d timed it to the second: the torch would arrive at 8.09am, and pause for exactly seven minutes to allow the press (well, the man from the Ayrshire Post) to take photographs. 

My niece Holly with The Man With The (Unlit) Olympic Torch

To my surprise, when we turned up a few minutes early, the torch was already there, held by a man in a tracksuit. It was gold and shiny and full of holes, a bit like the Euro. The man let us touch it, though 6-year-old Johnny wasn’t allowed to carry it in case it dropped. To my surprise, the flame was out. Then it dawned on me, and how silly of me not to realise it before: there wasn’t just one Olympic torch, there were two of them. 

I felt rather disillusioned. I’d always imagined a unique creation, lit by the pure heat of the Olympian sun, welcomed by Greek actresses in nighties performing ancient choreography, then carried aloft by athletes across Europe and around the highways and byways of the United Kingdom before being cheered by millions into the Olympic Stadium. So, there’s a reserve torch? Fair enough, the weather in Scotland is notoriously unpredictable and gales were forecast that afternoon – better to be safe than sorry. 

Then loud music and a bright red lorry arrived, packed with smiling youths handing out bottles of elixir from the Gods. Except not even Johnny wanted Coca Cola at 8am. A girl tried in vain to interest the American golfers: “It’s free Coke”, she cried. Frankly, we’d rather have had a warm bowl of porridge. 

I was excited about the second lorry, though, which was blue, and had Samsung on the front.  I’d have gratefully accepted a free phone, but all we were offered was a video advert. The spectacle over, the two lorries trundled off to the next town, and a loudspeaker announced that “the Olympic Torch will arrive in five minutes”. 

Exactly on time there were more blue flashing lights and a few gold painted vehicles then, panting furiously, came a local runner called Toni, who’d been chosen for her “inspirational, motivational qualities”. 

“You can walk now”, shouted an official. Then, “Stop”, and Toni stood smiling, flame aloft, while the man in the tracksuit brought his unlit torch alongside and an official turned on his butane gas supply with a special Olympic Allen key. 

The flame exchanged, he trotted off behind the police outriders and Toni got into a gold painted bus carrying more young people in tracksuits. 

At the front, in a special compartment, stood around 20 perforated torches, all awaiting their own moment of local photo-glory. Apparently the runners can buy their own torches for the knockdown price of £215, presumably to sell for thousands on e-bay.  So much for the magic of the Games.

"While the torch will bring the Games to life for many, Scotland is of course already taking part in the Olympics, with world-class football matches at Hampden,” the Government minister had said. I think she meant Egypt versus Belarus: apparently ticket sales have been very slow.  

Afterwards I started moaning about how much taxpayers’ money this was all costing. 

“Nonsense”, said my Mum, “pageantry is really important”. 

“I suppose that’s what Hitler said when he introduced the Olympic torch relay in 1936.” 

“Ah, but he had too much pageantry”. 

That’s not really something you could say about this torch relay.  Newcastle next stop.

[Postscript:  This morning, back in Newcastle, I was dropping off some clothes to our local dry cleaners.  The lady who does the alterations was in a real state.  She was hacking away with scissors at a pair of white tracksuit pants emblazoned with the London 2012 Olympic logo.  I recognised them immediately.  

"Why are you destroying that Olympic tracksuit?" I asked.  

"It's a nightmare," she wailed.  "This obese man just walked into the shop and said he was taking part in the Olympic torch relay in Newcastle this afternoon, but they'd given him a tracksuit that was ten sizes too small.  So he got a second pair and he's asked me to make a new tracksuit out of the two of them.  He wants them in twenty minutes - he's sitting in the cafe opposite in a pair of shorts."  

"You must be a really good seamstress," I said.

She shook her head: "Don't be daft, I've never done this before - I only know how to shorten trousers".  

At least he'll stand out from the other runners on the local TV news tonight.]

Sunday, June 3, 2012

The Diamond Jubilee

Last night after dinner Mum stood up and gazed skywards as if admiring an unseen deity. Then suddenly, with a speed belying her 91 years, she spun round and flapped her arms like a deranged pigeon.

“The Raven?”, “The Birds?”, we offered, unable to suppress our laughter.

“No, no” she shouted out loud, frustrated by our incompetence.

“Ssh”, everyone went, “do it again, Granny”.

Once more she looked up and bowed, then resumed her flapping even more wildly. A goose, maybe? Or a very cross swan?

“The Black Swan – that’s three words, not one”.

Playing charades with Granny is like going back to those happy evenings without X Factor and X Box, texts or apps. It’s how life must have been in the innocent days of the Fifties when Elizabeth became Queen. And when I was born.

There are ten of us in this holiday apartment on the West Coast of Scotland. We’re here for Jubilee week – not because we didn’t want to join our English compatriots for their loyal celebrations, but in truth because we hadn’t realised our family party would be clashing with The Queen’s when we booked.

As we drove through Northumberland, people were still draping union jack bunting over fences and telegraph poles. At the border, opposite the enormous blue and white flag of Scotland, a modest union jack implored us to stay in England, but it hadn’t quite made it to the top of the flagpole, which gave it a rather mournful air. Reflecting the impending loss of its blue background, no doubt.

All the bunting in the Scottish villages was plain blue and white, or faded and multicoloured, left over from a thousand village fetes. It looks like Scotland left the United Kingdom a while ago. The BBC isn’t even bothering to put up one of their big public screens in Glasgow: to most people here, the Jubilee, like the Olympics, must be an irrelevant London-centric curiosity.

Despite the lack of royal branding, there’s nowhere that appears more stuck in a Fifties time warp than this part of Her Majesty’s realm. At the local Asda I asked for an aubergine and they thought I was mad: “We don’t sell that kind of thing here”. But they had a good selection of sliced white bread and iced finger doughnuts. I’m glad we brought our own supply of Marks and Spencer’s jubilee cakes. One way or another, I’m determined to celebrate this Jubilee: for I completely missed the last two.

Ten years ago I was the only Brit on an American film set in Mexico, so the Golden one came and went without me. Back in 1977, I was actually directing the BBC’s live Silver Jubilee coverage at Television Centre. On the warmest day of the year we’d filled an enormous studio with a traditional English summer fair, brimful with British clichés. Children wrote special Jubilee songs, everyone wore red white and blue, and we had outside broadcasts from street parties across the land – even from Scotland. Meanwhile the Queen waved cheerily from her coach through the streets of London.

Despite the enormity of the occasion, like all television producers I felt rather disconnected from the real world, and, by the time it was over and I’d stepped into the warm evening air, they were already sweeping up the union jack napkins and empty champagne bottles from the gutters.

So this time, we’re doing it properly, and I’ve brought a red, white and blue shirt and a fake diamond tiara for Izzy. We’ll toast Her Majesty with pink champagne and after the Jubilee cake we’ll probably play another drunken round of charades; Mum will fail to decipher my impression of The Royle Family.

“Give up?” said Mum finally, exhausted with all the flapping.

“Yes”, we groaned, exhausted by all the laughing.

“It’s Superman, of course”.


“It’s obvious – he’s super, and he flies”.

Simultaneously eight of us put out an arm in front of us, impersonating the real superhero.

“Nonsense – no-one could fly like that,” Granny protested.

“But he’s Superman,” we said.

I hope The Queen is better at charades than my Mum.

Monday, May 28, 2012

The Wedding

“We’ve settled on June 8th 2013,” said Ben. He paused and waited for my reaction. 

The finality of his words aroused excitement, satisfaction, relief, but also, deep down, a slight twinge of regret. This date marks the end of the first part, and the beginning of the next. The age of dependence has passed. My son is becoming a husband. 

“We’ve booked the Church near Mum’s house, with a marquee; my friend Stu is doing the music and Izzy will be flower girl”. It all sounded so grownup and organised. So very unlike Ben. 

His life started in a panic, and he’s managed to live in a state of frenzied confusion ever since. He was almost born in our old Volkswagen camper van because his mother and I were late leaving for the hospital – we hadn’t reckoned that London’s roads would be gridlocked because of the royal fireworks event for Charles and Diana’s wedding, so we drove on the pavement hoping a policeman might arrest us and give us an escort through the traffic. My wife’s waters broke on Hammersmith roundabout. 

We finally made the hospital and Ben’s head popped out just as the first firework exploded. Since then, Ben has managed to learn from his parents and be stylishly late for everything in life. 

 I nicknamed him Tig because that was his first decipherable sound as he crawled round our sitting room in Putney. I still call him that, just as everyone still uses the name that Ben called his baby sister – he couldn’t quite say Rebecca, so she has lived happily with Rocca ever since. Ben transforms everything he touches. 

He is loving, handsome, adorable, with more creativity and talent in his little finger than I have in my entire body. I cried when I saw him win the backstroke title in the primary schools’ swimming gala; I cried when he appeared in his first school play; and I cried again last year when I saw his first television credit, as the director of Casualty. 

Far too clever to bother with good exam results, he had a deliciously rebellious streak, which marked him out at boarding school. In his first term he broke the house record for flooding his dormitory bathroom – the water reached ten inches before streaming down the walls of the room below, narrowly missing a priceless Gainsborough. He caused a sensation by going out with a sixth-former when he was just 13 and later dated a Prussian princess. I frequently had to send compensation to disgruntled taxi-drivers for cleaning up their upholstery after his illegal nights in local pubs. The school was unamused: I spoke sternly, but quietly rejoiced at his independent spirit. 

My only really painful memory was seeing him wheeled out of the operating theatre in Barcelona where they’d patched him together with metal bars after his road accident – never, ever, let your children ride motor bikes, however much they plead. 

For years I’d been pushing him to propose to Natalie. They first dated and then lived together in a tiny flat in Barcelona; then they painfully split up, before easing themselves back into each other’s lives. Now they’re taking the plunge into the warm comforting waters of matrimony.

So on Saturday Jo and I drove to Edinburgh to meet the in-laws. Nat’s mother is German and her father is something big in the US military. They sounded formidable, but in reality are as delightful as their daughter. Beautiful, witty and clever (she is a media lawyer), Natalie has thankfully inherited her parents’ organisational skills. A perfect foil for the Gutteridge chaos.

“You’re early”, exclaimed Ben, when he arrived half an hour after us. 

“You’re late,” I said. 

“No I’m not, I told you the wrong time on purpose,” he said, then confided: “It was Natalie’s idea – she does it to me all the time”. 

“That’s why I was so early,” I said, pointing at Jo, “She told me the wrong time too.” 

The two girls winked at each other, then huddled in the corner to discuss wedding dresses.  Order, thy name is Woman.

Monday, May 21, 2012

I Don't Believe It!

I’m sure age is turning me into a curmudgeonly Victor Meldrew. Nothing to do with the events of this week, for which, apparently, I only have myself to blame.

It started with the puncture. It was two miles from the National Tyre Service depot in Newcastle, where I’d just been persuaded to buy three new tyres. You see, I’d stupidly let them sell me winter tyres last Autumn, and when I came back to have them swapped for my old summer ones, they said that summer tyres shouldn’t be stsored, because they rot, so I now needed to spend £600 on replacements.

“It’s because they haven’t been driven on”, they explained, as if to an imbecile.

“But it was winter!” I began to say, then meekly paid the bill.

On the way back to my office, the car suddenly swerved to the left and I narrowly avoided a pedestrian. One of the new front tyres was flat as a pancake. So I called my wife, several times, but the phone appeared to be off the hook. By the time the rescue vehicle arrived and I was back on the road it was nearly midnight.

Naturally Jo berated me for being so late – supper was ruined. She’d been worried sick, with visions of the car upturned in a ditch (which it nearly was); she couldn’t get hold of me because our phones and internet were down. All because I’d stupidly switched the line to BT.

For three happy years Sky had provided us with a perfectly good service and, just because an ad offered us an incredibly cheap deal, I’d switched and now we were cut off. So I rang BT at 1 in the morning, standing on a window ledge above the back door to get a faint signal on my mobile. Several chirpy songs and a fortune later (“0800 calls are charged at normal rates from mobiles” they said), I heard distant crackling, and what sounded like someone telling a joke in Hindi. I could hear people laughing. It was probably a joke about a man who switches his service to BT to save money and spent twice as much listening to jokes in Hindi.

I hollered down the mouthpiece: “Anybody there?”  I whistled and cursed. Izzy woke up with the noise and I nearly fell off the window ledge. I rang back and, eventually, a woman with an Indian accent answered. She’d check the line for me and would call me back in “exactly 5 or 6 minutes”.

“Is that 5 minutes or 6?” I asked, “because I have to climb back onto this window ledge, you see”.

“Yes, exactly 5 or 6”, she said.

An hour later at 2am, with my fingers numbed, I called again. A man checked my records and said, “We have investigated your line and you most certainly have a fault with your house wiring”.

“No, I don’t have a fault, you do”, I screamed. “Sir, it is most certainly your fault, our wiring is fine. We can send an engineer to fix it, but we will charge you £98.”

“OK,” I said, “I’ll pay you £98 if I’m at fault if you agree to pay me £98 if it’s your fault. Deal?”

“Yes, sir”, he said, clearly not understanding one word. “An engineer will arrive on Monday morning”.

“Monday?” I fell off the ledge in disgust. An entire weekend without phone or internet.

The following day I returned to the garage with my broken tyre and a manager called Darren said it wasn’t their fault, as it was a faulty valve. A valve they had just sold me, fitted, and not checked.

“It was new, so why would we check it?”

“Because it could have killed me?”

Darren didn’t apologise. Nor will BT, I’m sure, even when they discover that they’ve cut off all my neighbours’ phone lines as well. And I’m pretty sure they won’t cough up my £98.

Who could blame me for being a little cross?

Monday, May 14, 2012

Vidal Sassoon Cost Me A Fortune

Vidal Sassoon cost me a fortune over the years.

Before him, people who cut men’s hair lived in barbershops marked by red and white spinning poles, to be visited rarely and salelyto stop the hair from growing over your eyes.

Our local barber in Tynemouth had frosted windows and chairs with leather straps where the men with the swept-backed Brylcreemed hair would sharpen their switchblades before shaving foam off old men’s chins. The buzz of electric shavers, interspersed with the clickety-click of comb against scissor, reverberated round the little wooden-paneled room, bedecked with adverts for Durex and Old Spice. Grown men talked of football and beer: I was ignored, other than to be asked questions about my favourite subject at school. I was certainly never asked how I wanted my hair cut: “Not too short” was my Mum’s terse instruction. Short hair was what you got when you had nits. My £1 cut was rounded off with an electric trim up the back and Brylcreem on top.

My hair has always been an embarrassment: it’s the most uncooperative mop. Mum has an appalling photo of me as a choirboy with protuding ears and hair stuck out at an extraordinary angle. She calls it angelic: it’s actually horrendous. My Dad always insisted I had a parting, but when you put a brush anywhere near my hair, it would spring skyward. No gel invented could tame it, no comb could ever breach its impenetrable thickness.

It was many years – too many – before the parting and I parted company. I’d spent my teenage years trying to straighten it, even growing it longer in the mistaken belief that its own body weight would make it sleek as the stars’ locks on Top Of The Pops. Or at least cover my projecting ears. How I envied boys at school who could imitate The Beatles. Mine was more Art Garfunkel.

 As a result, 60s style completely passed me by until eventually I gave up haircuts altogether. There’s a picture of me at university looking like a camp Robert Plant with purple sweater and brown corduroy trousers. My hair, left to its own devices, had become a nest, like something from an Edward Lear poem, in which an owl could happily raise its young.

So when I went to the BBC to begin the process of becoming a journalist, something had to be done. I did some research (well, I asked someone famous I met in a lift at Broadcasting House), and they said I had to go to Leonard. Leonard was the protégé of the great Sassoon, the man who’d created 60s hair revolution. It wasn’t just about the women, with their sharp angular shapes. Men, too, were being pampered in glossy hair emporiums. And none was more glamorous than Leonard’s “house” in Grosvenor Square.

It had yellow and white awnings. I booked an appointment. “Who with?” they asked. This threw me: I assumed it would be with Leonard. Sure, I could have Leonard, but it would cost as much as a family car. Or I could have Sarah. Sarah would do just fine. I have never felt so insignificant: it was a palace. They played music and brought you coffee and magazines. It was full of beautiful women, with frozen Sassoon cuts.

Thinking I’d come to the wrong department, I asked for the men’s section. The girl behind the counter laughed: this was unisex. She summoned a supermodel with impossibly long legs who sat me in a chair until Sarah arrived, studied my birds’ nest in a mirror, then asked what I wanted. I hadn’t the slightest clue. “Not too short, please,” I suggested. She snorted and then I spent the next 2 hours – and £25 plus tip – in makeover mode.

 I emerged short and, as Sarah called it, “choppy”. And I’ve been short and choppy ever since. Since then my hair has been cut by a succession of stylists, all of them expensive and all trained in the Sassoon tradition. The result: I still have terrible hair, and it’s cost me £10,000 more than it would have done in my local barber’s shop. But, short and choppy – that’s me.

Monday, May 7, 2012

Unlawfully Killed

We all know clairvoyance is just a magic act, a branch of showbusiness – how could there be such a thing as psychic power? 

18 years ago I was at a dinner party in London when I noticed the lady opposite staring at me a little too intensely. When she caught my eye, she leaned forward and whispered, “You’re going to marry an American”.  Such impertinence, and totally inappropriate, because, having recently divorced my first wife, I was rather publicly in love with an English television presenter, who was sitting next to me at the dinner. 

“And you will have six children,” she went on. This was too much. No way would there be any more children: three was quite enough. I told this story at my wedding at Jo’s parents’ home in Laguna Beach. Baby Izzy was there with my four other children. Everyone laughed, especially at the prospect of my American wife bringing me yet another child. 

But what I didn’t reveal was the rest of what the clairvoyant said that night. It’s been parked at the back of my mind all these years, but was chillingly recalled last week by the coroner’s verdict on the bizarre death of MI6 employee Gareth Williams. 

After dinner, the clairvoyant took me aside. She had something very important to tell me. “Your friend didn’t die the way they say, you know. They said it was sexual and perverted, but one day the truth will emerge.” 

Stephen Milligan MP
I knew immediately she was talking about one of my closest friends.  A respected member of the community, we’d been on holidays together and spent long evenings arguing about politics in his little house in Chiswick. He’d been engaged to a delightful journalist called Julie. He’d been foreign editor at the Sunday Times, a senior BBC journalist, then finally an MP. One day his body was discovered in scandalous circumstances. He name was Stephen Milligan. 

All this I knew, but didn’t breathe a word to the clairvoyant. “There’s a dark, evil force,” she went on. “ and a faraway country. Oman. He went to Oman, or somewhere near there, Yemen maybe, and when he was there he found something out. So they killed him. One day it will all come out and your friend’s honour will be restored.” 

Then she mentioned a name – a famous name. Apparently there was a connection to spying. He had been involved in my friend’s death. It was all weird and nonsensical. 

The police hadn’t investigated Stephen’s death beyond confirming the ghastly details: he was found on his kitchen table, a black plastic bag over his head, a cord round his neck, naked but for a woman’s stockings and suspenders, a small piece of satsuma in his mouth. They called it auto-erotic asphyxiation. In one mad moment, the life and reputation of a brilliant, witty, utterly moral friend, journalist, politician and godfather of my eldest son, had been completely destroyed. 

Cross dressing, auto-erotic asphyxiation: sounds familiar? Stephen Milligan’s inquest may have ruled out foul play, not so Gareth Williams’ coroner this week. 

Williams couldn’t possibly have put himself into the red bag in the bath and there were no fingerprints. Why did MI6 wait a whole week to report him missing, by which time any small scratches on the body would have gone? The verdict: he was “probably killed unlawfully”. 

According to last week’s Independent on Sunday, there have been 17 mysterious deaths linked to the defence or intelligence services over the past 50 years, a third featuring bizarre sexual practices or asphyxia. Men like Stephen Drinkwater, the GCHQ clerk, found choked with a plastic bag over his head; journalist Jonathan Moyle, hanged inside a tiny wardrobe while working on a story about a dodgy arms deal; ex-MI6 agent and writer James Rusbridger, discoverd in a gas mask surrounded by bondage pictures; and Stephen Milligan MP.  

It all reads like a spy thriller, I know. And yet you don’t need to be psychic to know that one day the true story behind all these cases will emerge. But I am quite sure my friend will be vindicated. Because a clairvoyant told me.

Sunday, April 29, 2012

If I Were Jeremy Hunt

A few weeks ago I was invited to speak at a conference in Salford where our esteemed Secretary of State for Culture and Media gave the opening keynote address. I was booked to reply the following day in a panel session called “If I Were Jeremy Hunt…”

You have to hand it to Hunt: he’s is a tough act to follow. The packed audience of hardened television and radio professionals rather warmed to his wit and assured confidence. Standing centre stage and tieless in a dark suit (it was a media conference, after all), he spoke without notes or autocue, demonstrating the superior, charming, permasmiled demeanour that can only have derived from a proper boarding school education.  Head boy at Charterhouse School (fees £30,534 per annum), first class degree in PPE at Magdalen College, Oxford, president of the university’s Conservative Association, he's the perfect Tory politician. Before last week’s revelations many spoke of him as Cameron’s natural successor.

The audience in Salford were left in no doubt about Hunt’s unerring conviction that, like the rest of Cameron’s cabinet, he is absolutely right about everything he says. He and his colleagues clearly believe that government policy shouldn't be influenced by people who know what they are talking about: industry experts or doctors or the armed forces, or, God forbid, the lifetime's experience of a cabinet minister’s own civil servants.

Being something of an expert myself – if working within the television industry for 40 years counts as accreditation – I felt justified in disagreeing with some of Hunt's policies, particularly his crazy initiative for local television. This was a man whose first task in Government was to tear up Trinity Mirror's fairly won pilot contract to supply a groundbreaking multi-media news service here in the north east of England and replace it with his own barmy plan to hand out television channels to a load of community groups who are bound to go bust in the process.  Trinity Mirror is, of course, the newspaper group that is Murdoch's biggest competitor in the UK.  A coincidence, I'm sure.

Of course the views of people who could be expected to know what they are talking about have never really been taken into consideration when formulating any of this government's policies, which is why most of them are lying in tatters: instead, the cabinet have relied on “special advisers”, and the tittle-tattle of their exclusive clubs and cocktail parties. This is a government that listens to no one but themselves.

The head of a very large media organisation, who is not called Murdoch, recently told me that their senior editorial team was invited to tea at Downing Street for an informal “consultation”, but ended up listening, sandwich-less, to Dave hectoring them for an hour about his plans. Not one of them was asked a single question.

Back in Salford, I’d written myself quite a formal speech in response to Hunt's comments but, having seen the master in action, I stood in the centre of the stage, took it out of my jacket pocket and quietly ripped it to shreds.  This, I think, got me brownie points and quite a few laughs, after which I attempted to restore some balance to the debate about the future of media in our country. I knew exactly what I’d do if I were Jeremy Hunt, and I told them.  Wasting time on hyperlocal television stations wasn't part of my proposed agenda as the next Secretary of State;  listening to the industry and the viewers most definitely was.

But I confess I was utterly upstaged by the wonderful veteran journalist Gillian Reynolds, who rose to her feet and performed a glorious parody of Hunt himself: she portrayed a man who loves himself more than he’ll ever love the electorate, preening, smiling, perfect, who neither cares nor understands the common man, a professional politician who, like all his cronies in this Coalition, is utterly out of touch with reality. She brought the house down.

What a contrast to see him in the House of Commons last Wednesday: embarrassed, halting, his head buried nervously in a carefully constructed statement, Cameron and Osborne squirming uncomfortably behind him. Here was their own firewall self-combusting in front of them, caught out by his deviously fawning “special adviser” and his own closeness to the Murdoch dynasty, any pretence of “quasi-judicial” impartiality utterly busted.

I guess he’ll try to wriggle out of it to the very end, but I know what I would do right now if I were Jeremy Hunt: I'd resign.

Sunday, April 22, 2012

Joining The Mickey Mouse Club

Izzy stabbed another chip into the ketchup, held it high in the air, then paused and frowned. Suddenly she exclaimed, in a voice so shrill the whole restaurant turned to look: “Mummy when are you going to speak proper English like me and Daddy?”

A moment’s silence, then an eruption of laughter. Izzy was surrounded by her American uncles, cousins and friends. Despite 7 years in the UK, any slight British twang in Mummy’s voice had been erased the moment we stepped off the plane in Los Angeles two weeks ago. 

Since then, Izzy, Jo and I have been filled with Californian hospitality. With a different set of friends and family to visit every day, and scores of much-missed restaurants to patronize, I managed to add 10 pounds to my already overpadded waistline in as many days. 

The problem with Southern California, our home from home, is that it’s all so perfect. People are complaining because petrol (“it’s not gas, silly Mummy”) has hit $4.50 a gallon (60 pence a litre); the supermarkets are packed with cheap, local produce; the temperature hovers between 75 and 85 degrees every sunny day; whales and dolphins swim past the beach restaurants; cheap and cheerful Mexicans are there for nasty jobs like cleaning homes and digging gardens.

The recession, for more people, hardly happened: the economy is growing again, the plants in the perfect gardens never stopped. Sure, the underbelly of America has problems as severe as the poorest parts of the UK, but you’d never notice it in California’s manicured, gated, comfortable life.

Not that I want to give the impression that I’ve been on holiday for the past couple of weeks. It was actually quite tough work. Twice I had to drag myself up at 3am to watch Newcastle United cruise towards Champions League glory in high definition; every night I had to endure a marathon wine-tasting from my very generous brother-in-law, determined to convince me that great California wine is as good as its French counterpart; and you wouldn’t believe how hard it is to remember to bring enough change for the valet parking.

One morning I felt so bloated and indolent that I donned a pair of swimming shorts (“Daddy’s wearing trainers, not sneakers, Mummy”) and set off to run my own London marathon round the block of neatly grassed front lawns.

I swear I got a cheer from the neighbours – or maybe it was a suppressed scream of horror.

My nephews cruelly photographed me and posted the result on Facebook: apparently I reminded them of Borat.

Izzy, meanwhile, found Paradise: she met Mickey Mouse at Disneyland.  Not the EuroDisney or Florida fakes, but the original rodent in his actual home.

She even saw his gloves going round in his washing machine. 

Jo met him too: I was stabbed with jealousy as Jo threw herself into the arms of someone even older than me. Izzy just melted with excitement.

Sadly all that’s behind me now. This morning, I braved the icy rain to put my Californian beet seeds into the sodden ground of my Northumbrian vegetable garden; back at my mother-in-law’s house, the roses are in glorious full bloom. I turned up the central heating to full, just as I had the air-conditioner two days ago. I filled our cars with fuel in case the tanker drivers go on strike: for the same price I could have driven halfway across America.

Jo, who’s decided to stay over there with Izzy till the weather gets better, has just rung to say they are eating burgers and fries by the sea. I can’t blame them staying on: it is another world. But I’m making the best of it. Yesterday at St James Park I helped cheer Newcastle to victory – so much more exciting than watching them on television; I’ve filled the house with daffodils and tulips from the garden – there’s nothing like an English Spring, even a wet one; now I’m off to the pub with friends for lunch – roast beef and a pint of bitter is nicer than any burger.

Meanwhile, Izzy, please remember you are eating chips, not fries.