The BBC is still the world’s best broadcaster – although you wouldn’t think so to see the way some papers are trashing it
?In my experience the reviled BBC managers are like army officers: half of them are people of great intelligence, insight, charm and skill. The other half are pretty much useless. I recall one who, when Linda Smith died, said we should go ahead with a normal News Quiz, “because it’s what she would have wanted”. Luckily none of the regular panellists would have dreamed of doing the show that awful week, and we ran a tribute instead.
There was another middle manager who announced that a political programme I was working on was “elitist” because sometimes we mentioned less well-known MPs. Often these people had been producers, but were no good, and had to be kicked upstairs, only to do even more damage.
That said, the BBC still is by miles the greatest broadcaster in the world, and the sight of some papers trying to trash it for two admittedly serious mistakes is fairly loathsome. Just before George Entwistle resigned I was watching Attenborough’s Ark, a show about some of the strangest animals in creation, and reflecting that it was almost worth the licence fee in itself.
?Privatised companies – energy, the railways – are presently gouging us for everything they can get, via bloated prices or taxpayers’ subsidies or both. So, like the NHS, it’s even more vital that we keep the BBC a public service, even if other media corporations would love to dismember it.
Oh, and since they need a new director general, why not Greg Dyke, now amply vindicated after the Hutton nonsense? It’s a really good idea, which I suppose is why it will never happen.
?To Southwold for the annual literature festival. I was fascinated by Jessica Fellowes, niece of Julian, who spoke about Downton Abbey and revealed that most of the characters are based on real people.
The earl, for example, is Julian’s father, a man so honest – it was said – that if he crashed his car in the desert and there was a parking meter, he’d fret if he didn’t have the right change. Carson, the butler, “more snobbish than the family he works for”, was based on a butler called Arthur Inch. O’Brien is a cousin of Julian’s grandfather, and the dowager countess is Jessica’s great-great-aunt. Maggie Smith is the only female member of the cast permitted not to wear a corset – she says she’s finished with them.
There was some disagreement with the audience about the language. How is it, they wanted to know, that every visual detail, down to the appearance of telegrams and the cast’s underwear, is researched immaculately and reproduced perfectly, while the dialogue often sounds as if it could have come from Friends or EastEnders?
The examples they quoted from the last series were “steep learning curve” and “a big girl’s blouse”. Jessica said that if Julian used them, they existed at the time, though I doubt that’s the case in the first, and the second might have been heard in a ladies’ clothing store, never used as an insult.
?Jeremy Vine told a story about perils of the internet. He has Google Alert, which tells him if his name crops up online. Once he learned about a blogger who was asking his readers, “is Jeremy Vine (a) a tosser, (b) a huge tosser or (c) an intergalactic tosser?”
He said: “I needed to know how the voting was going, but to find out you had to vote. I did, and discovered that I was the only person who had voted.” As the Google people will tell you, half of all blogs have only one reader: the blogger.
?More on the late Peter Morrison, the paedophile who was also Margaret Thatcher’s parliamentary private secretary. Grahame Nicholls, who ran the Chester Trades Council when Morrison was the local MP, wrote describing how he’d often met Morrison, who was by the 1980s pretty well constantly drunk.
“After the 1987 general election, around 1990, I attended a meeting of Chester Labour party where we were informed by the agent, Christine Russell, that Peter Morrison would not be standing in 1992. He had been caught in the toilets at Crewe station with a 15-year-old boy. A deal was struck between Labour, the local Tories, the local press and the police that if he stood down at the next election the matter would go no further. Chester finished up with Gyles Brandreth and Morrison walked away scot-free. I thought you might be interested.”
This was only a year and a half after his failed, boozy campaign to save Mrs Thatcher. Incredible that she – presumably – had no idea, and that such deals could be struck then.
?Sir Rex Hunt, who has just died, returned to the Falklands as governor after being thrown out by the Argentinians in 1972, which meant that he was on site for Thatcher’s greatest ever double entendre. She had flown out for her victory tour, and was being shown around battle sites. On a cliff top overlooking the plain over which the Argies would have had to march if they re-invaded, she was shown a huge field gun, manned by a single squaddie. She admired the weapon and the soldier asked if she would like to fire a round.
“Goodness!” she replied, “won’t it jerk me off?”
The problem with this unintentional smut – bizarrely frequent – was that nobody could ever laugh or even look remotely amused because of the terrible fear that she might turn to you and inquire in that blood-freezing fashion what was so very funny.
?Daft labels: John Cranston bought a tube of Ronseal smooth finish filler: “Smooth over filler with wetted finger prior to drying”, then further down, “avoid contact with skin”.
There are a few tickets left for Simon Hoggart’s talk next Wednesday about his new book, House Of Fun. www.kingsplace.co.uk
‘Until recently, I could eat 50 doughnuts a day and not put on any weight’
I try not to look too hard in the mirror. If I do, I’m vaguely happy with what I see. I’m 47 and my hair is greyer than it used to be, but that’s what 25 years in the BBC does to you, all those early mornings and late nights. I’d like to be more toned, but the joy of radio is it’s not too tyrannical about appearance. I’m not too self-conscious about appearing on TV, either. I don’t have any complaints. I quite like the shape of my face and nose – they’re quite angular, which is fine by me.
It was a different story when I was a teenager. By 14, I was 6ft 3in and skinny. I looked like Peter Crouch. I was very conscious of how I looked and unhappy about being so gangly. Words like scrawny and lanky all applied to me. Now those things are good; they’ve translated into tall, thin, with a fast metabolism – until recently, I could eat 50 doughnuts a day and not put on any weight. I have to be more careful about what I eat now. I don’t smoke – I’ve had three cigarettes in my life, just to show off. I don’t drink much, either. I hope I’ll be like my dad. He’s 73 and in great shape with a great brain; he eats well and never has seconds.
I’ve invented something called the C diet, which means not eating anything beginning with “c”. Crisps, chips, curry, Coke, cookies, cheese, cream – all the bad things begin with c. It’s a very simple rule, except you run into trouble with cabbage. I’m not sure why I haven’t lost weight on it yet, but I’m still hoping.
• It’s All News To Me, by Jeremy Vine, is out now in hardback (Simon & Schuster). He will be appearing at Edinburgh International Book Fair on 23 August.
Back to the future. The scenario that has them worried at the BBC
• And still we wait to learn who will seize the crown that is director general of the BBC, when Mark Thompson makes his exit. Will it be Ofcom boss Ed Richards, subject of another hatchet job yesterday in the Daily Mail? Or Caroline Thomson, the chief operating officer? Helen Boaden, director of BBC News? Or indeed the internal favourite, George Entwistle, director of BBC Vision? We don’t know. We know it won’t be David Abraham, head of C4, for he ruled himself out of the race early on. But, as an ambitious sort, he may therefore be surprised to learn that Jay Hunt, his chief creative officer, was designated a person of interest by headhunter Egon Zehnder and Lord Patten, chair of the BBC Trust. Hunt, you may recall, was previously a BBC1 controller and much maligned over the Miriam O’Reilly ageism scandal, which saw the presenter avenge her sudden axing from the Countryfile programme with a tribunal victory and hefty damages. Hunt’s return would make life interesting. Ex-colleagues have the smelling salts ready.
• Mindful perhaps of the criticism prompted by the cavalier treatment of Miriam O’Reilly, the top bods see the need to cuddle up close to the on-air talent. Perhaps that is why no fewer than three candidates for the DG’s job – Boaden, Entwistle and Tim Davie, director of audio and music – turned up for the launch of Jeremy Vine’s new book, It’s All News To Me. What else did we learn there? That David Dimbleby and Huw Edwards both have reason to believe that they will be anchoring the BBC election night coverage for 2015. Doubtless both have received assurances from different bosses. Neither will be surprised.
• For the very best learn to cope with the unexpected. Take Matthew Amroliwala, positioned as he was outside the high court last week, knitting together BBC coverage of the Leveson inquiry. Following a few problems caused by protesters/placard-wavers/drunks earlier in the week, he was assigned security. Nevertheless, as he went on air, his equilibrium was disturbed by a figure eyeballing him in a pretty aggressive fashion. He’s a pro, so he carried on, but as soon as he was able, he turned to the producer. There’s an “aggressive-looking man staring at me,” he said. “Ask the security guard to get rid of him?” “That is the security guard,” the producer replied.
• From security to policing, for yesterday the Labour party unveiled its candidates to contest the police commissioner elections. Harriet Yeo will seek a commissioner post in the badlands of Kent. Bad indeed. For as Tom Watson revealed on Twitter, 24 hours before the announcement, she was burgled.
• And something for all those prospective police commissioners to think about. Today on BBC Radio 4, the lawyer Amber Marks will be exploring olfactory detection – the use of creatures with a highly developed sense of smell to detect crimes. In her book, Headspace, Marks notes that pigs, mice and bees have terrific sniffing skills but there has been a certain – perhaps understandable – reluctance among police officers to arrive at a crime scene accompanied by the sort of animals that might help them crack the case. The dog obsession obscures all proven alternatives. The likes of Harriet Yeo could sweep away that sort of thing.
• Finally, amid Ireland’s national gloom over the football team crashing out of Euro 2012, some consolation that in its own way, the country has become a world beater. Beginning on Saturday – which was Bloomsday, and thus the day to celebrate the life of James Joyce – Seamus Heaney and Roddy Doyle joined a powerful literary squad of 111 Irish writers who broke the German-held record by continuously reading from their works throughout a 28-hour period. Jack Harte, director of the Irish Writers’ Centre, tells us he saw the event in cultural terms. The Irish always knew they had “better writers” than the Germans, says Harte, but finally they also managed to be more efficient. Efficiency was never Joyce’s strong point. But he might have been glad all the same.