Mark Thompson is utterly spineless

11.49am Wednesday 29 October 2008 and news has just broken that the BBC director general has decided to pull Jonathan Ross and Russell Brand off the air while their lewd prank call to Andrew Sachs is investigated. Such is the scale of this row today. On Monday it was being covered on a few websites; today every single national newspaper has the story on its front page. At the last count, according to Radio 2’s 11am news bulletin, complaints to the BBC had reached 18,000.

Jeremy Vine is shortly to feature a discussion on the whole thing, no doubt inflating the issue further. But the BBC and Radio 2 can hardly avoid such a massive story, even if it is at the centre of the storm. I can feel Stuart Maconie’s nervousness, covering this week for Ken Bruce on Radio 2, as he hastily backtracks on every slight joke at someone’s expense to point out that it is in fact a joke and no offence is intended. Nerves must be truly wracked at BBC Towers.

But Thompson’s decision – announced in a statement, issued while Thompson is on holiday, presumably trying to enjoy half term like the rest of us – to suspend Ross and Brand from broadcasting duties is spineless in the extreme. Just like the excessive hand-wringing over the so-called Crowngate affair last year, in which the BBC showed misleading footage of the Queen to a bunch of journalists, Thompson has crumbled too soon.

I know Thompson was effectively brought in in the wake of Greg Dyke, who was bounced out of the BBC for having the temerity to preside over a broadcast that questioned the government’s claims on Iraq’s weapons of massive destruction. You’d expect a more conciliatory approach from any successor to Dyke. But the BBC needs a stronger champion than it’s currently got in Thompson.

Given the scale of the reaction to this story about Sachs, Ross and Brand (whipped up the media, of course), Thompson should of course have broken his holiday silence to issue a full and frank apology. But he should then have gone on to say there is a due process for such complaints, allowing the inquiry which is due to end on 20 November to take place. Then it should be decided what to do with Ross, Brand and the various execs including Radio 2 controller Lesley Douglas who sanctioned the broadcast. Even Peter Mandelson was investigated before being ceremoniously ejected from the cabinet on the last few occasions.

Once again, Thompson has been too previous with the cat-o-nine-tails and let MPs and his own media bully him into a hasty decision. I for one won’t be listening to whoever sits in for Ross on Radio 2 on Saturday and I hope the crew who were expecting to record Jonathan Ross’ chat show as usual tomorrow night will still get paid, despite having no show to produce this week.


Jonathan Ross, Russell Brand and THAT phone call

OK, so these are the lengths I will go to, to keep abreast of meeja issues while I am a) unofficially on holiday (ie taking calls and juggling freelance commitments, but essentially just listening to the radio all day) and b) redecorating my dead mother’s house in a bid to buck the plummeting housing market. Like a bit of natural hessian paint is going to make a difference and like this is actually a holiday.

I have just listened to a bad YouTube recording of Russell Brand and Jonathan Ross’s now world-famous prank call to Andrew Sachs’ answer phone, which featured in Brand’s Saturday night Radio 2 show on 18 October. As I write it is Tuesday 29 October and today the number of complaints to the BBC over this incident has risen from around 4,500 (about the number of complaints the Beeb had about Jerry Springer, the Opera – and that was an orchestrated campaign) to more than 10,000. The day started with ex-BBC chairman Sir Christopher Bland and comedian Alexander Armstrong commenting on the story and ended with prime minister Gordon Brown referring to Ross, Brand and Sachs by name. What has the world come to?

Most noteworthy, for me, was the means by which I tracked down the actual broadcast. I am almost in media limbo with only the wind-up radio and dial-up internet via a mobile phone for company. So listening to the extract from Brand’s show involved buffering literally every 3 seconds. Yet I persisted, for the duration of the 4 minute 48 second clip I chose on YouTube. All I got for my pains was Jonathan Ross shrieking “He fucked yer grand-daughter” during the duo’s first answer phone message.

Granted, the words grand-daughter and fuck aren’t often combined in the same sentence, but I doubt whether it was an out and out first on either the part of Jonathan Ross or the BBC. Yet it was on this basis that Sachs took offence, complained to the BBC and an astonishing 10,400 have so far done the same. Surely someone is orchestrating this as a campaign? There were just 67 complaints on Monday, before the MediaGuardian and others went big on the story.

All those mitherers should just leave Jonathan Ross and Russell Brand alone and get a sense of perspective. Far worse things are said every week on Have I Got News for You and on Jonathan Ross’ other shows – not to mention Brand’s, which naturally I don’t listen to having something of a life on Saturday nights. If these entertainers weren’t allowed to push the boundaries of taste they wouldn’t be worth listening to. Just look at Graham Norton since he moved to the BBC – no surfing the internet for glove fetishists who will flick themselves off as Joan Collins removes a pair of elbow-length black numbers. It just isn’t the same and, as a result, Norton doesn’t get the critical attention or, dare I say it, the ratings he used to at C4. We don’t want the same fate to befall Ross or Brand.


Eddie Marsan interview

Eddie Marsan Scott and Poppy, Happy Go Lucky 

The other day I interviewed the actor Eddie Marsan (who played Scott, the furious, possibly psychopath driving instructor in Mike Leigh’s Happy Go Lucky). And because the interview was set up late in the day for the particular feature I was working on (several deadlines had already passed) and because I basically only needed one quote from Marsan to finish the feature and send it off to the commissioning editor in the States, I had a whole load of notes sloshing around in my notebook with nowhere to go.

So – even though Marsan has clearly given similar answers to similar questions to similar journalists around the globe, as he dutifully publicises Happy Go Lucky in the so-called “awards season” when the film and TV industries start voting on the Baftas and Oscars – I will share these notes with you.

First off, Marsan seems like a really nice guy. He was hugely apologetic when his mobile was inexplicably not working up in Manchester where he’s currently filming Sherlock Holmes with Guy Ritchie and a stellar cast. (Film tip from Marsan: the man who designed the Houses of Parliament, whose name clearly neither Marsan nor I know, also designed the town hall in Manchester. So when a TV or film scene calls for the Houses of Parliament in the background, actors and crews often head north. You’re getting all this for free, y’know.)

So anyway, Marsan is apologetic. He had one hell of a journey up to Manchester: he had a woman and three kids in the back of whichever vehicle he was in (I don’t know if any of them were Madonna); a tyre burst; he and someone else (possibly the woman, all I got was “we”) managed to fix it; he arrived in Manchester at 6.15pm not at 5pm when he should have been there; his iPhone wasn’t working; and the sat nav was its usual, erroneous self.

Then there was the problem with me not getting through on the phone at the appointed hour. But after all this, Marsan was happy to talk via his hotel’s phone line at 6.50pm on a Friday night. A true professional.

Marsan reckons Happy Go Lucky – which was released in the UK in April and which I saw in May but which has been released much more recently in the US – is going down well with American audiences because “there’s less cynicism in the US”. Happy Go Lucky, if you haven’t seen it, is Mike Leigh’s latest film and goes against the traditional Leigh grain by focussing on an unremittingly, overwhelmingly positive, optimistic, sunny-side-up character, Poppy. “We don’t trust her character as much as they do in America,” says Marsan.

But the reason I was interviewing him in the first place was because his performance in the film is being hotly tipped for a best supporting actor award at either the Bafta film awards or the Oscars in February. There is literally a small industry around creating a buzz for certain films, actors and actresses (plus the other categories) for the awards season. Entertainment Weekly has a dedicated OscarWatch feature. An entire website,, exists to say who or what is “in contention” for which awards. PR companies fall over themselves to put their film clients forward for interview, to add to the buzz (and perhaps create it where it doesn’t exist). US studios even time the release of some films to coincide with “awards season”.

And of course the whole thing is fuelled by advertising. is currently awash with ads for Keira Knightley’s The Duchess. Of course, the ads merely offer a film “for your consideration”, as a voting member of either the British Academy of Film and Television (Bafta) or the even more illustrious US Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences which hands out the Oscars. The ads don’t seek to actually influence people or anything.

So the awards buzz industry is pushing Marsan, along with lots of other contenders for different awards. But Marsan deserves recognition for his part in Happy Go Lucky where he is truly unsettling as the tightly wound, obsessive driving instructor whose satanic mantra, En-Ra-Ha, is at the same time hilarious and unnerving.

Marsan didn’t like the character Scott but says: “People seem to agree with him. I think he’s a complete victim and have very little sympathy for him.” He’s said elsewhere that actors don’t have to like the characters they play, they just have to understand them, which is fair enough.

He reckons Happy Go Lucky is an emotional journey for the audience, rather than the characters in the film. “The characters don’t change but the audience changes. When you first see Poppy you think she’s frivolous. But through the film you see her underlying sensibility and courage, through the way she deals with the tramp, the bullied boy and with Scott. Your perception of Poppy has broadened.”

He also says the film is “multi-faceted” and, because like all Leigh films it is character-led, it doesn’t jump to conclusions. So when Scott finally confronts Poppy’s irritatingly upbeat, ‘nothing matters as long as we’re having a laugh’ behaviour, he could be speaking the truth. Poppy could be selfish. Scott, the angst-ridden anal retentive, could be morally superior by being more realistic (and angry) about the way the world is and why it drives you nuts. The beauty of the film is that it leaves the audience to decide who they side with: Poppy or Scott.

Forget the awards. Talking to Marsan makes me want to get the DVD and have another watch. Award or no award, it’s watching the film that really counts.


More Jamie Oliver fury

The shortest of posts, as it’s the Friday before half term and busy, busy, busy. Suffice to say, the news that Jamie Oliver has reportedly been given a £2m golden handcuffs deal to keep him at Channel 4 has gone down like a turd in the family punchbowl at Horseferry Road, C4’s HQ where, you will remember, about 150 jobs are disappearing like packets of value biscuits off Lidl shelves.

All a bit rum, indeed, for C4’s employees who are understandably tense about who’s getting their redundancy marching orders and who isn’t. Still, Jamie’s doing the business for C4 by pulling in ratings and heaps of publicity for his recent Ministry of Food series, so of course the channel wants to keep him and not let another broadcaster get their dirty mitts on this bit of TV talent.

But surely, of all the other broadcasters, the BBC wouldn’t touch Oliver with a bargepole because he’s still the frontman for Sainsbury’s advertising. The Beeb famously let Oliver go because his Naked Chef series bore an uncanny resemblence to his Sainsbury’s ads and the BBC is fabulously uncommercial. Thus we could conclude C4 is paying Oliver a reported £2m to keep him from ITV. Good value? You decide. Go on… leave a comment. It’s nearly the weekend.


The power of man

Dog tombstone

Forget advertising on the side of a bus. Paul Merton in India (Five, 9pm on Wednesday) showed us that the anti-God squad in India would rather pull a bus with the help of a rope and a few needles through three layers to skin to prove that miracles are the work of man and not of the Lord. Let’s see that on the streets of London. Preferrably with an Indian George Michael-alike on hand to explain the whole ritual. Fantastic stuff – am enjoying Paul Merton a lot.

Over on ITV (at the same time, but use your online catch-up service, people), Griff Rhys Jones was in Paris for the last of three Greatest Cities of the World episodes. Here, he visited among other things the Parisian pet cemetary, which is a surreal place. Anyone with a fascination for handbag-sized pooches should visit to get an idea of how their owners can obsess over them in life and death.

I recall one inscription, which has become bastardised in the memory over the years to go something like this: “My darling Frou Frou – since the night you were senselessly mown down by a speeding Velo my life ‘as been an unending river of misery. Dormez bien, little one. I will see you in ‘eaven very soon and of course I will bring you a box of your most beloved liqueur chocolats avec moi.”


Now let’s talk about advertising

BHA bus ad 

Not advertising of a product, or even a service… but advertising a particular idea; namely, that God probably doesn’t exist.

Apparently the British Humanist Association are running a pretty successful campaign on buses in London with the slogan: “There’s probably no God. Now stop worrying and enjoy your life.” The campaign has been so successful, according to the BBC, that it will appear on the insides of buses as well.

Always one for a slogan, I particularly like this one and think the cardies at our local church school should be rebranded forthwith. I say this in all hypocrisy, the day before dutifully attending the school’s harvest festival celebration at the local church.

My reasoning is, if you fill your kids with rubbish about Father Christmas and tooth fairies, you may as well throw in Christ, the Lord and the Holy Spirit. When you choose to tell them that, well, some people believe in God and the rest of us believe in a rational world where evidence is usually a better bet than blind faith is, of course, up to each family. And it’s a bit too long even for the side of a bus.


Final part of Jamie’s Ministry of Food

Jamie's Ministry of Food

Regular readers (bless you!) will know that I rate both Jamie Oliver and this series. It’s turned out, perhaps predictably, to be quite controversial and I’ve had a look at the ‘Jamie Go Home’ blog which is vituperative in its loathing of Oliver. I think he’s that sort of a celeb: you either love him or hate him.

But I defy anyone to remain unmoved by scenes of one of Jamie’s Rotherham proteges and a star of the programme, Natasha, breaking down in tears after realising she could hold her own in front of a row of Hull town hall officials. The woman who could not cook a thing a few months ago staged a cookery demonstration in the intimidating atmosphere of Hull’s panelled banqueting hall. Afterwards, having forgotten that it was all “too posh” for her in there, Natasha reflected on how her life wasn’t necessarily over after having kids at 15 and failing to learn to read and write properly. She’s found something she can do – cook – and, at the end of the programme, Oliver revealed he’d helped get her a place at catering college.

The editing of the programme was clunky, spinning out the possibly jeopardy of Rotherham town council not funding Jamie’s Ministry of Food shop for another year after the celebrity had left town. The sequence of events with Natasha also seemed awry – as if she knew she was going to catering college when she was doing the demo in Hull, which we the audience didn’t know until the end of the programme, although there was a laden conversation on a park bench between her and Jamie about whether she wanted to “take the next step” or not.

But aside from editing and Ian Jury’s, sorry, Timothy Spall’s commentary, it was a good series so thanks, Channel 4.

Amusingly, I have had reason to email Jamie’s PR today with a tiny query on a feature I’m doing, and got an ‘out of office’ reply back because the PR and presumably Jamie are “on business in Europe”, which may mean there’s some truth in the idea that Jamie’s trying to sell the Ministry of Food concept to Germany and the Netherlands.

What brought me up short, though, was the PR’s reminder that “if your email is about wanting to send Jools some baby stuff” you should send it to a certain address. Companies or individuals really do that? Send things to celebrity people they know are pregnant? This will really stoke the ‘Jamie Go Home’ brigade.


Fry gets a Blackburn makeover

 Stephen Fry in America

I missed the first episode of Stephen Fry in America (9pm on Sunday, BBC 1) so joined him for the second of this six-part series where he was travelling in his trademark black London taxi around America’s deep south.

I wish in some ways I had some intelligent, insightful things to say about this – but I couldn’t possibly compete with the erudition of Stephen himself, so I won’t.  I will only say, that after getting a “burr” (aka short back and sides) in Kentucky he looked like, well, Tony Blackburn as far as I could tell. Which distracted me hugely for the rest of the programme. (He hadn’t had his haircut in the pic above, hence the avuncular whiskery appearance in front of the whiskey.)

Of course I enjoyed it in a “Sunday night, haven’t really got anything better to do” kind of way. I love Fry like the rest of the nation and he made a masterful point about the enormous scale of an amateur American football match between two colleges. He said the pomp and circumstance of the game summed up all that the US is to the rest of the world – laughable, impressive, ridiculous, wonderful, etc. How right you are, Stephen. Long may you travel and send us back your video missives to amuse and entertain us of a Sunday eve. I gather from his Dork Talk column in the Grauniad that he’s off again soon. The Guardian certainly isn’t getting very good value out of him as a columnist. Feels like he’s only just returned to Dork Talk after months off with a broken arm.


Welcome back, Cannes-lubbers

Welcome home, everybody who’s been to Mipcom and couldn’t stand the whole week out there. I remember it well: the thrill as you touch down in Nice then taxi or chopper to Cannes on, say, Sunday. You start with a few (free) glasses of champagne somewhere and end the night with G&Ts dropping like stones on the terrasse outside the Martinez. By Wednesday night, you can’t wait to get home to your own bed and a warming mug of Ovaltine.

So what have you missed? The BBC and Ofcom have thrown a few punches at each other over public service broadcasting. And the BBC has said it could move production of shows including Casualty out of London. Oh, Casualty is already made in Bristol, you say? Yes, well the BBC wants to move it slightly further away from London to Cardiff. It’s part of being an industry goody goody, supporting creative talent in the regions while ITV threatens to walk away from public service TV forever.

So how will commercial media players in the regions – from newspapers to ITV newsrooms to drama directors – react to the BBC’s renewed love affair with “out of London”? Does it go against the BBC’s professed aim to partner other organisations and instead suggest the BBC might be more of a competitor to people already doing these things in the regions?

This was a question put to BBC chairman Sir Michael Lyons on Wednesday. This was the answer: “I do believe Scottish people will be pleased if the BBC ups its game in Scotland. This isn’t a cosy deal between PSBs. It has to be rooted in what the public want.” So there you have it. The BBC will continue to be a competitor, not a partner, where it leads to a better deal for viewers and/or listeners. Sounds fair enough to me.


Old timer makes an arse of himself

A short postscript to my (rather long) post about the BPG lunch with the BBC’s Michael Lyons. Sadly, not all BPG members are as young as they used to be. Quite a few are freelance (including yours truly) and quite a few probably haven’t hacked in earnest for years (I am not, yet, one of their number). I hesitate to use the term old fart, but you can see where I’m coming from.

So Sir Michael had to endure a few questions along the familiar lines of “why does the BBC have to be so damn popular and air such popular things, instead of making things that are more PUBLIC SERVICE?” by which the questioner usually means “boring”.

The obvious answer is the BBC has to be universally popular because it’s funded by a compulsory tax, the licence fee. Lyons banged on about being convinced by a particular piece of research that the BBC does not “make a market” by paying Jonathan Ross millions of pounds a year, but responds to the market and pays market rates for talent the BBC cannot do without. Hear hear.

Our intrepid (ex-)correspondent wasn’t amused, however, and was still muttering about a waste of taxpayers money as he collected his coat. I suggested his idea that the BBC should stop showing “popular” programming might leave the BBC looking like PBS in the States which is, as I understand it, really quite dull. I’ve never actually watched it. This aged journalist said no, it’s not at all dull. It airs two-hour debates of an evening on really important subjects. I rest my case.

You will be delighted to know I then found this ancient, male simulacrum of a journalist in the ladies loo. He was presumably unable to decipher the minimalist M and F glazed lettering on the lavvy doors. Note to self: give up when you get embarrassing.