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 clich├ęs. 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.