Saturday, 10 August 2013

Website refreshed

There's a new look to my website, at  and newer blog posts will appear there, cunningly hidden behind the Blog link.

Do come and visit, won't you?

Friday, 2 November 2012

s'a vile old world out there!

As someone who’s been associated with the BBC for a fair old time now, I find I’m being asked a variety of questions about the ghastly Jimmy Savile affair.
For what it’s worth, here’s my personal take.  I neither have, nor claim, any specialist knowledge of the matter; this is personal opinion only.

Did people know about Savile?   There were certainly rumours.  I remember, on moving to the BBC in London in 1981, being told various gossipy things by my new colleagues, and these included: “Savile likes them young” and “don’t get on the wrong side of Jimmy Savile if you value your kneecaps”. 
No actual evidence, of course, just part of the pack of character-sketch gossip shared with the new boy, alongside other snippets of variable authenticity, such as:  “Watch out for Person X, he’s certifiably insane” (he was); “Person B is a raving nympho” (not in my experience);  “Person F is too mean to ever buy the drinks” (true);  “Person W is convinced people are out to kill him” (they may well have been, no-one could blame them, but they’ve not succeeded yet and they’ve had decades to try!).

Did the BBC know?   It would be difficult to believe that nobody in the upper echelons of the management had heard the rumours, but does that mean The BBC, as a body corporate, definitely knew what was going on?  In my view, no.   Could efforts have been made to investigate the rumours?  Perhaps, though who would have made those efforts?  The BBC’s in-house Investigations unit was, back then, principally concerned with theft of property, or fingers-in-the-expenses affairs.  It wasn’t a quasi-police operation.  The Personnel Department was responsible for the behaviour of members of staff, and those on staff-style contracts, but Savile would never have been on their books; as a freelance contributor, he’d have been “managed” by whichever programming department had booked him for a show.  And, of course, the business of programming departments and channel controllers is getting programmes made and broadcast, not running investigations. 

It’s also worth noting that the world was a very different place throughout most of the Savile era.  Whilst in no way excusing what seems to have gone on – and there’s never any excuse for rape and/or child abuse – concepts such as grubby old men letching after young flesh were accepted as core components of British humour.  Slap, tickle, chase, touch, snigger, grope, it was all a bit of laugh, wasn’t it?  Well, no, it turns out that some of it wasn’t, actually, but those were different times, and the people for whom it was not a laugh had far fewer opportunities to speak out and be heard than they would now.

Could it happen again now?   No.  And, in a sense, yes.  Yes, insofar as bad behaviour by some stars is still routinely tolerated and covered up.  Not just at the BBC, but throughout the entertainment industry.  To pretend otherwise is nonsense.  The brutal truth of Showbiz is, as it has always been, that if you want to have big star entertainers, you have to deal with the fact that some of them will not be the perfectly balanced human beings you might wish for.   Whether it be drink, drugs, girls, boys, kleptomania, sheep, there are foibles, some benign, others not.  As a manager in an entertainment organisation, you are driven to get the best value from your stars and, on occasion, that may mean there’s  pressure to look the other way. 
Lower down the ladder, for Production people, there can sometimes be an uncomfortable tightrope to walk.  Imagine, for example, a scenario in which the star you’ve been tasked with producing behaves repeatedly in a way you consider unacceptable.  Supposing, say, he insists on getting his penis out and waving at you, before urinating in a paper cup and offering you the contents.  You’re not enjoying this and you go to the boss to complain.  In the Human Resources text book, the boss listens sympathetically, investigates and then deals firmly with the miscreant.  On planet real-life, there’s no guarantee the boss will do any such thing, and every probability that, if you go in proclaiming that the town ain’t big enough for the both of you, you’ll find yourself on the next outa-town bus to Nowheresville, while Mr Willy Waver moves on to wave his member at your hapless successor. 

The stars still have great power.  The entertainment management are in thrall to them.  Not only do they hold the key to ratings success, but they hold sway with the managers’ personal prestige too.  Channel controllers bask in the reflected glory of their big signings and they won’t let that go easily. If there’s a threat, the first instinct will often still be to “circle the wagons”.  In some sectors, too, there may sometimes be an uncomfortable closeness between stars’ agents and broadcast management.  Too many invitations to glittering dinners, and sometimes hedonistic events, may have a dangerously corrosive effect on strong objective decision-making.

In those ways, the system is as flawed as ever.  So, could Savile happen again?  Yes, but then again, no.  No, largely because of today’s access to communications and technology.  The whole world of Social Media and mass communication would now spread the story with speed, and it is now easier for a concerned in-house whistleblower to get word out.  Improvements in communications also mean that Police forces are now able to share intelligence and correlate those serial allegations which, a decade or two ago, would have been seen in isolation and then consigned to a soon-to-be-forgotten drawer in the local card index.  And, crucially, the tide is turning in favour of victims, who have more ways of speaking out and will, hopefully, be growing in confidence that they will be listened to.

Resignations at the BBC?   There may well be, but it’s hard to see how they’ll be more than sacrificial scalps, and I hope that the BBC and the Trust will be able to keep in proportion the sometimes hysterical calls from the Press, a sector - let's remember - with little of which to be proud when it comes to either outing Savile or honestly investigating its own errors and omissions.



Wednesday, 25 August 2010

Eggheads and more

Now, where was I....? Doesn't time fly when you're having fun?!

Since last we met, my travels have taken me to Glasgow, Swindon and Belfast. The key headlines from each: Tricky Questions; Concrete Jungle; Fowl Alert.

So, the Glasgow trip first. I'm always glad of an excuse to return to my home town, so when the makers of the BBC 2 quiz show Eggheads extended an invitation, I was delighted to accept. They're lining up a series of "Celebrity" episodes for transmission sometime near Christmas, and some bright spark had thought of having a team of Voice-over Artists. First challenge, when we arrived for the show? Choose a team name. This was the subject of hot debate, over a cold lunch. I can exclusively reveal that the final choice was Rent-a-Gob. Elegant, don't you think?
That's about all I can reveal, without spoiling the various surprises of the show, but here's a glimpse of our team:

(L to R) Redd Pepper, Me, Jon "Weakest Link" Briggs, Steve Punt, Mitch Johnson.

Eggheads is made at the BBC studios in Glasgow. Always nicely nostalgic for me to work there, as it was BBC Scotland that gave me my first professional broadcasting job, back in 1978. The fine old building in which I worked has now been reduced to rubble, and the site awaits eventual redevelopment (rather more eventual than was envisaged, it turns out!) while the Beeb now occupies a glossy glass box in the heart of town beside the Clyde.
I did most of my growing-up in a house across the road from the old BBC building, so it was always just sitting there when I looked out of the window. On the occasion of this visit, I was staying in a hotel just across the river from the new building, so there was something slightly familiar about the concept of eating breakfast whilst looking out at the day's workplace only yards away. Fortunately, I did manage to remember that it was now a river, not a road, that lay in between home and work, so feet remained dry!
And as for the quiz itself, well, I won't spoil the surprise (transmission is due shortly before Christmas), but I would refer you to that headline I mentioned....

And so to Swindon, the latest venue for our periodical Radio Lags' Night Out, that jolly fixture which brings together a disparate array of wireless practitioners intent on (a) a good time; (b) a drink or two; (c) foul and contemptible gossip; and (d) staying awake til long after bedtime. I am pleased to report that all of the above was achieved, but there was a time when it was looking a little questionable. Swindon must have one of Britain's least navigable town centres. A veritable feast of that greying 1970s concrete, it gives little quarter to the casual visitor. The famous Magic Roundabout (pictured above) is definitely a highlight. A quick Google of the postcode for our budget hotel had brought up a rather vague location. The newly built commercial estate on which it sits is sufficiently newly built to be absent from the map, but it appeared to be within a couple of miles of the railway station. No worries, I thought, I'll get a cab from the station. This was a good idea. And I should have stuck to it. So, what went wrong? Well, I fell for the yarn spun by a Swindon taxi driver at the station. He assured me that the hotel I wanted was just round the corner, so close that it made no sense to go by cab and I'd be there in a trice if I just wandered up the road and turned right. I set off, trying to ignore the drizzling rain, and followed the directions. Moments later, I found myself facing an array of featureless buildings and a hotel or two. But not my hotel. I continued to wander, but the mystery just deepened. Then I saw a row of Bus Stops, with maps. Phew! I even found a service that listed a destination with a similar name to my hotel's location. Simples! Now, which way should I be going? This side of the road or t'other? I tried wandering into the local Bus Station, but the uniformed figure lounging against the wall had no idea and just gestured vaguely in the direction of the street from which I'd just come. Muttering darkly, I returned to the Bus Stop Maze to review my options. At that, a gaggle of local Pensioners fluttered in and roosted on the seats in the shelter. "Might any of you ladies know the way to Kembury Street?" I ventured. None of them, it transpired, had any clue where Kembury Street was. Sadly this proved no impediment to a lengthy group discussion about where it might be. I swear I was stuck there for 10 minutes listening to the theories. I left none the wiser, and with the heady aroma of Algipan assaulting my sinuses!

And so, dear friends, we draw a veil on Swindon and move on to matters Fowl.

This was a trip to Northern Ireland, to visit some friends in farming territory on the outskirts of Belfast. Very enjoyable, with good hospitality and fine fresh air. And some scary wildlife...

This is Cogburn. The rooster. And, yes, he comes complete with a John Wayne swagger and a "don't mess with me matey" attitude. I never expected to be cowed by an aggressive chicken, but encountering Cogburn changed all that! He patrols his territory thoroughly, sizes you up and then runs at you. If he gets close enough, he then leaps into the air, turns his heel spurs your way and digs in with vigour. The approved technique is to push him away with your foot while you prepare to scarper. He reacts to this rather in the manner of one of those town-centre drunks you see on Police Camera ASBO Danger Reality Crime Wars Uncut when you can't find anything worth watching on Sky, staggering backwards, neck puffing, shoulders swinging, before rushing forward for Round Two.
Keeping my eyes fixed on the hostile fowl, I started to reverse slowly towards the safety of the house. It was going fine until I heard a threatening hiss and a loud HONK! Oh Lord, now it's the bl**dy Geese!
This gorgeous family of feathered beauties wander round the farm according to some unpublished schedule all their own. The fact that you're standing there is no reason to change their plan. George, the Boss Goose (the girl is called Mildred!) simply walks up to you and delivers a series of clear messages: stretched neck and hissing, honking, wing flapping and the repeated thwack of webbed feet on tarmac. It doesn't take a genius to translate. Two words, and the second one is "off". I beat a hasty retreat.

You know, I don't think the farming life is for me!

Sunday, 18 July 2010

Fab song - and a funny bit of musical history!

I've been enjoying the new album from Eliza Doolittle, not least for this song, "Pack Up".

As an inveterate reader of sleeve notes, I was surprised to find a full credit in there for the writers and publishers of "Pack Up Your Troubles In Your Old Kit Bag (and smile, smile, smile)". I'd have taken a flying guess that an old World War 1 marching song would be well and truly out of copyright by now, but not so.

It was published in 1915, the work of two brothers, George and Felix Powell (lyric and music respectively). Indeed, it won a competition in that year for Best Morale-boosting Song. UK copyright generally subsists for 70 years after the year in which the composer dies so, since George Powell stayed with us until 1951 (sadly, Felix committed suicide in 1942), the work is well and truly still in copyright.

It's an object lesson in never assuming you know the copyright position of an elderly work!

Happy Birthday to you, as frequently sung at family celebrations, is another problematic copyright case, as a few media outlets have discovered to their cost over the years. But let's not go there now!

Meantime, in another part of the forest....

.....regular visitors will know that I always enjoy oddities from the world of "Signage". Here's a recent sighting:

So many questions! Does this establishment have a particular problem with people fondling the signs? Are they only touching it because they are blind and that's how you read Braille? If they are, then how is an added sign in plain English going to resolve the problem?

Friday, 11 June 2010

All at sea .... the conclusion!

Now then .... where was I ..... ? Ah yes! At sea.
In our last, thrilling instalment, you found me contemplating a rush back to the UK, from Barcelona, to cover important broadcasting commitments.
Two things then conspired to obstruct that carefully honed plan: The British Airways cabin crew strike and the Icelandic Volcano. With Alan Dedicoat unable to leave London, there was only one thing for it: I would have to stay on the ship for the duration.
This was, clearly, terrible news.
I retreated immediately to the nearest bar to consider the situation. Whilst considering, I was momentarily distracted by Pudsey, the Children-in-Need bear, who had commandeered the piano, in a shameless attempt to serenade Radio 2 Pause for Thought favourite, the Reverend Ruth Scott.
Mind you, I'm sure she welcomed the light relief after her tough session moderating "A Natter With Nove" in the ship's theatre....
Having come to terms with the shocking fact that I was to be imprisoned on the ship, risking life and limb to thoroughly test Cunard's legendary hospitality, I felt a little light exercise was called for. Here we see a brief venture into Line Dancing, with me and my colleague John "Boggy" Marsh being given expert coaching by Lucy Quipment of the TOGS party.

John is not accustomed to vigorous exercise (or any exercise, come to that) and had prompt recourse to the poolside bar for emergency refreshment. This is a man who has two garden sheds so, naturally, the Pina Coladas had to double up too.

And so, to Cannes, at the height of the world-famous Film Festival. The mighty Queen Victoria anchored in the bay, next to some smaller, but pretty impressive neighbours, like this motor yacht Octopus. Note the two helicopters! There's also a submarine tucked away somewhere in there. The owner is one of the founders of Microsoft. He didn't invite us for cocktails. Miserable sod!

But all was not lost! Ashore, our PR supremo, Dan Kirkby (of the legendary Kirkby Monahan Publicity) somehow secured us a place in a comfortable beachfront venue (something about an international porn star, but I didn't like to ask). A bottle of chilled Rosé, a touch of Calvados, a proper French Tarte Aux Pommes and a chance to admire the way the locals had managed to set up a leather dining suite on the sand and keep it looking stylish...

Meanwhile, on the main drag, a fine array of ladders erected by the eager Press corps, awaited action on the red carpet.

I tried to provide some of the aforementioned action, but they seemed unimpressed!
Back aboard, Sir Terry Wogan joined us in time for a bit of book signing, meet & greet and general bonhomie, culminating in shipboard version of his Weekend Wogan show, with music and laughter in the splendid surroundings of the Queen Victoria's Royal Court Theatre. Here's me getting stuck into a round-up of some of the voyage's many goings-on....

...not least the tale of the party of TOGS on the return leg of a coach trip to Naples who suddenly spotted six ladies of dubious virtue stationed at the roadside, displaying their wares to passing travellers. When the working girls saw the TOGS on the bus, they quickly put their wares under cover, to the considerable chagrin of certain of the party! And, after a revelation like that, time to leave the stage!
So, there we have it! There's much more I could drone on about, but I've kept you long enough. The good news is that the efforts of the TOGS on the voyage, combined with the generosity of our friends at Cunard, raised over £81,000 for Children-in-Need. That, plus a good time had by all, is what I call a result!

Just before I go, a quick glimpse of a neat bit of design. One of the lovely things Cunard have done with the look of these ships is to keep a continuing reference to the history and tradition of the line, and ships of the past. The whole interior design is full of elegant curves, sweeping lines and wood panelling, and little touches like this:
Lovely surroundings, and a ship's company who really do exemplify their employer's motto: Legendary, Elegant, Memorable.
It's been great fun to be a little part of!

All ashore!

Sunday, 16 May 2010

Ahar, me hearties!

Well, dear reader, you find me all at sea, on another TOGS’ Voyage. Just a quick explanation for the uninitiated: the TOGS are the hardcore followers of Terry Wogan and his now defunct Radio 2 breakfast show. The show may have gone but, happily, the TOGS and their fun, games and splendid charity work live on. Over 300 of these good folk have booked on Cunard’s Queen Victoria, for a cruise entitled ‘Jewels of the Mediterranean’. (So, where it’s going is anyone’s guess!) And they’ve had the good grace to invite a bunch of us jolly broadcasters along to share the merriment. And as you can see, Children in Need mascot Pudsey Bear is with us too.

We set sail from Southampton at teatime on Friday, the huge ship making her way carefully down Southampton Water, past the Isle of Wight, and out into the English Channel. We celebrated our departure with champagne at the stern of the ship, and then a champagne reception to welcome our TOGS friends. Here’s me, waxing lyrical – or is it whimsical? - at the evening bash.

In the course of Saturday, we traversed the notorious Bay of Biscay. It’s vast! Bigger than it looks on the map. It offered up a bit of a swell, too, but it takes a lot to interfere with the smooth running of a ship this size.

Saturday morning, in the Grand Theatre (and grand it certainly is, a well equipped 850-seater which would not look at all inferior in London’s West End.) the entertainment bill offered A Natter With Nove, in which, with the excellent interviewing assistance of the lovely Reverend Ruth Scott (of Pause for Thought fame) the assembled ladies and gentlemen were treated to the story of my life and haphazard career. We followed that with Uncle Charles’s Newsreading Challenge, in which a number of brave volunteers were dragged to the stage to have a go at some News bulletins, of the style we do on Radio 2. They did very well, and were pretty brave to get up there and give it a try in front of their fellow passengers.

More champagne followed (are you detecting a theme here?) interspersed with a sprinkling of G&T. I’m writing this having come in from sunning myself on deck, with a glass of Pimms and an ice cream. It’s hell, I tell you. One of the party travelling with us is a lovely Spanish lady, Christina. She was a little puzzled by the concept of the TOGS’ names. They tend to have an alias that they use for activities connected with the show, and most of the names are a play on words of some sort or another. Names such as Eileen Dover, Dora Jarr, or the retired military genius Major Sir Gerry Pending, are par for the course. Anyway, one of my on-stage Newsreading participants was the delightful Norma Stitz. Even with the top-class grasp of English possessed by our Spanish friend, this idiomatic usage was a bit baffling. And so it came to pass that Janet, wife of my friend and colleague John Marsh, set to explaining some of these names and how the puns worked. She worked gamely around the idea of Norma’s tag. There was a small pause and then the penny dropped and, grinning broadly, Christina announced, loudly, in her Malaga accent: “AH! ENORMOUS TITS!”. Fortunately, the band was playing cheery melodies for the Black & White Ball at the time, otherwise the ladies walking past at the time might have been taken aback at this observation.

First stop, after 3 days at sea, is Barcelona, where I am due to take my leave, flying back to London so that my colleague Alan Dedicoat can come out to join the ship. Then I’m due to return to rejoin my shipmates in Rome on Friday. If you take out of the equation the British Airways cabin crew strike and the Icelandic volcano, it should all be smooth as silk………

Saturday, 1 May 2010

A nearly gaffe - Exclusive

As the media extracted maximum value, and then some, from Gordon Brown's "Bigotgate" moment, I recalled a moment, long, long ago, when another senior politician came very close to illuminating the airwaves with his innermost thoughts....
(fx: shimmering vision + assorted harp glisses)

It's 1979, and the General Election campaign is in full swing. (This is the election that'll see Jim Callaghan humping his belongings into the removal van and departing Downing Street to make way for Britain's first female Prime Minister.)

BBC Radio Scotland is broadcasting one of a series of election phone-in shows, with various party representatives facing questions from the public. The programme is being presented in Edinburgh, but one of its guests, the renowned Conservative MP Teddy Taylor, is joining the proceedings from Glasgow. For technical reasons, he's sitting with me in the station's main continuity studio.

The calls come thick and fast and, it would be fair to say, Mr Taylor is given a pretty thorough interrogation by a largely hostile electorate.

Being every bit the experienced media veteran, he displays a neat routine for lighting his cigarettes (yes, you could smoke in a workplace back then!) with a match struck underneath the acoustic table, so that the microphone does not pick-up the sound. As the hostile calls come thick and fast, the rate of fag lighting increases, and I'm sure I detect a slight nervous tremor beginning to show in his hands.

Eventually, the programme draws to a close and Taylor emits a sigh of relief, turning to me and opining: "J*sus Chr*st, not a f*cking Conservative among them".

I hastily make the international sign for "Shhh .... not now, matey!" as I open the mic and embark on the live end-of-programme continuity announcement. Just one second earlier on the mic fader and the listening public would have been able to share his observation. Sadly, only Teddy and I had the pleasure. In fact, this blog is undoubtedly the first published record of this event! I probably shouldn't divulge this studio secret, but I'm unofficially invoking the 30 Year Rule.

Although that election swept the Conservatives to power, it also swept Teddy Taylor out of his Glasgow Cathcart seat, as Labour reasserted itself in working-class central Scotland.

Incidentally, 1979's was a May election, and the Labour campaign focused on the damage they predicted the Conservatives would do to the country. James Callaghan cautioned that a Conservative government would "just allow firms to go bankrupt and jobs to be lost in the middle of a world recession". The Tories were, he said "too big a gamble to take. The question ... is whether we risk tearing everything up by the roots".