Maggie T and a bit of perspective

Lindsay Duncan as Margaret. BBC 2/Great Meadow Productions

Having watched Margaret last night on BBC 2 – well, having watched the first minute before switching to ER on More4 and switching back to Margaret during the ad breaks for an update, then watching the final hour uninterrupted – I have this to say.

People have worked for months, if not years, putting that BBC 2 drama together. What did it mean to me and the 2.6m other viewers watching last night? It was quite good, though I fail to see why we need another drama about the final days of a political leader who fell from power more than 18 years ago, even if she was one of the most influential figures of our time.

The main interest, it seemed to me, was in judging how the stellar cast carried off impressions of the politicos we still know so well, most of whom are still alive. The best at it were John Sessions as Geoffrey Howe and Michael Maloney as John Major. I noted we didn’t get to see Roy Hattersley; just to hear an impression of his distinctive voice. I wasn’t moved by the drama. I, like most people over 30, can remember distinctly where I was when I heard Thatcher had resigned (in my student bedroom in York) and the drama of the occasion, history in the making, is still clear in my mind. I don’t need TV to rehash it, however good Lindsay Duncan‘s performance was. And by the way, what a great Denis Ian McDiarmid made. I was in the cut crystal tumbler with him. It will, of course, win lots of awards even though it was on BBC 2 and got a relatively small audience (12% of viewers,  which is good for BBC 2 but as usual most people were elsewhere in the TV universe).

So who am I to sit and critique something that writer Richard Cottan (Wallander and BBC 4’s Hancock & Joan), director James Kent, producer Sanne Wohlenberg plus all the actors and crew have sweated blood putting together?

I’m a viewer and to the average viewer TV drama is just that: drama on TV which might distract them for a couple of hours, if they can  be bothered to watch for that long and if they’re not watching or doing something else.

It’s wonderful that we have so much good stuff on TV that Margaret can pass, for me, as ‘also ran’ rather than a gem. But it is just TV and that’s worth bearing in mind while people talk of seismic change and thinking the unthinkable. A little perspective will help. Just as it’s worth bearing in mind that Lloyds bank‘s worst ever results, with profits down a colossal 80%, have still left it with a profit of £807m. I’d say a business with profits of £807m was OK, wouldn’t you?

My point is: the world hasn’t changed radically and won’t unless large numbers of people stop watching TV altogether or stop using banks altogether. Come to think of it, cash-in-hand work sounds like a great idea right now. Who’s with me?

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ITV to merge with C4 and Five? Not a chance

Coronation Street bingo. ITV.com

Yesterday, ITV unveiled a cunning plan. It could merge with Channel 4 and Five, to save all the commercial (advertising funded) broadcasters from certain doom during this recession. But it will never happen. And it’s not just me who says so.

I caught former ITV exec Steve Hewlett opining on this subject on, of all things, the Chris Evans show on Radio 2 last night which had thrown over its business slot to the story. Hewlett, who is now a media commentator and consultant, said the TV mega-merger had “not a snowball’s chance in hell” of ever happening.

His reason? The Competition Commission has just vetoed a proposal for the BBC, ITV and C4 to club together and launch and online TV service, codenamed Project Kangaroo. The commission reckoned Kangaroo would control too much of the emerging market in online video. So why the hell, asked Hewlett last night, would it allow three major broadcasters to merge and control between 60 and 70 per cent of the TV advertising market which is demonstrably worth several billion pounds?

Answer: it will not. This merger won’t happen but the idea has raised ITV’s share price for a while and perhaps rattled the bars of those in government who are thinking about the future of TV. There certainly will be some consolidation among broadcasters, urged along by the recession, but for my money a merger of C4 and Five is still more likely, with or without a deal with BBC Worldwide.

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CBeebies presenter causes a stir

CBeebies presenter Cerrie Burnell. BBC

So there’s a new presenter on BBC kids channel CBeebies and she’s causing a bit of a stir.

Here she is doing the CBeebies bedtime song and here’s BBC news doing a feature on how she’s raised questions among young viewers about what happened to her hand.

Users of top parenting website Mumsnet picked up on a Daily Mail article on Monday. The BBC Message board is largely supportive of Burnell as are those on this Mumsnet thread. Eagle-eyed mumsnetters had spotted Cerrie when she first appeared at the beginning of the month. The Times’ Carol Midgeley picked up on it yesterday.

I am living in a relatively CBeebies-free zone these days, replaced by feature films old and new, so I can’t say we’ve even seen Cerrie. But a friend reports that her son simply calls Cerrie “Mrs Sausage Arms” and isn’t too worried either way.

It really is true: kids reflect whatever they pick up from others. If noone makes a big deal of someone having one arm or, say, being enormously fat, neither will the kids. They’ll notice it and ask questions, usually at the top of their voice when you’re approaching said one-armed or enormously fat person in the street, but they’ll be happy with the answer if you are. It’s having an answer and being happy with it that’s the problem. Especially when you know you’re being listened to by the person who’s prompted the child’s comment in the first place.

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A distinct lack of TV excitement

 Jeremy Paxman fronts The Victorians. BBC

Gosh. No TV reviews on this site for ages. Fact is, I just haven’t watched anything worth reviewing for ages. Can’t be bothered with either Jeremy Paxman or the Victorians. Hasn’t TV mined the Victorians enough already? What did the Victorians do for us? Plenty. But I just don’t want to watch any more surveys of their times and mores on TV, even on a Sunday night.

I am watching ER on More4 on Thursdays but now the series is in full swing it’s hardly anything write home or even here about. Distracting, yes; but very far from brilliant.

I have caught a couple of BBC 1’s latest Who Do You Think You Are? episodes on Monday nights. Is it me, or have producers Wall to Wall upped the interest value of the celebrities taking part this time? Fiona Bruce appealed, if only so we could gawk at the modernist extension to her Georgian London pile. Who Do You Think Has Grand Designs? I liked it. And Rick Stein last week was suitably moved by his missionary roots to make the programme work. This is still a great way into the last two hundred years of social history.

I enjoy QI on Friday nights but it’s a shame it’s being used to prop up weak sitcom Not Going Out. It means QI’s brand of erudite chortlement is on too early, leaving a whole hour to be killed between it and Jonathan Ross‘ chat show. Far too much has been said about Ross on this blog already. I continue to enjoy his show. His interview with Mickey Rourke worked on almost every level, cleverly reminding us of what Rourke used to look like with a clip of Angel Heart in the show. The only question Ross didn’t ask and Rourke wouldn’t answer was what the hell, besides age, has happened to his features?

So that’s my TV round-up of the weekend. Oh, there was some really good stuff on Motown on BBC 4 on Friday night including a Storyville documentary but I made my life partner switch over when Ross started on BBC 1. His reaction? “This is so lightweight. At least I was getting some information from that Motown thing.” It was all down to the Funk Brothers, apparently.

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Ishoos with Twitter

stephenfry.com/blog. (C) Samfry Ltd 2009

Don’t get me wrong: I love Twitter. Just like I love Facebook and I don’t see them as mutually exclusive. We have an open relationship. I put my photos etc on Facebook, where I track who my so-called Friends are (a lot of them are colleagues, but it’s all a blur these days). I feed my status updates through from Twitter where I have very few followers, some of whom I don’t know from Adam. Or Eve.

But just as I don’t call in to radio shows with tips on what I do that’s a bit nutty but effective (pace Chris Evans‘ Radio 2 drivetime show – anyway my nuttiness is too freaky and involves not getting hair in the plughole), so I’m not sure I should be following celebs on Twitter. It’s fun to know that Jonathan Ross‘ wife had cupcake ice cream for breakfast yesterday and I’ve just watched this amusingly short interview with Stephen Fry after he tweeted about it. But I’m beginning to feel like I did in the early 1980s when I had a pash on a particular pop star and simply HAD to own every magazine that ever published an interview or photo spread with him. (That wasn’t hard in 1982 – you just had to buy Smash Hits every week and the occasional Just Seventeen.)

I can write off following Messrs Ross and Fry as a professional duty. As a journalist and blogger, I should experience these things so that I can comment on them. But in another sense I’m not exactly their “public”. I listen to Jonathan Ross, as regular readers of this blog will know only too well, and am a great admirer of Fry. But I’m more likely to come across them professionally than those who are truly members of their “public”. I guess this is a case of boundaries blurring once again. For now, Twitter is fun in a mildly distracting and sometimes fulfilling, information-sharing way and if it ceases to be so I imagine we’ll all just move onto the next thing.

PS: If you’re desperate to know who my girlhood crush was on, it was George Michael and I don’t care that he turned out gay and slightly rotund. Love forged in youth knows few bounds.

Do you love/hate Twitter? Go on – leave a comment. You might enjoy it!

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Jade Goody

The sad news that Jade Goody has been diagnosed with terminal cancer aged just 27 is one of the biggest showbiz stories of the week. It is also, of course, a private tragedy for her and her family.

So why write about it? Because she’s halfway through filming a fly-on-the-wall series with Living TV. Because she’s using Max Clifford as her PR man. Because she gave a candid interview to the News of the World yesterday. And because today it emerges she may marry on camera, for the highest bidder.

Goody and Clifford are justifying all this attention on two levels: it highlights the dangers of cervical cancer and the need for regular screening; and Goody will earn as much as possible for her two sons, doing what she does, while she still can.

It leaves the chattering classes, myself admittedly among them, feeling decidedly uncomfortable. A woman brought to fame because of a stupid gameshow less than seven years ago is now apparently living out her last weeks in the limelight which has illuminated and burned her by turns. There are perhaps some lessons here for media treatment of so-called celebrities, but they feel slightly out of reach. Certainly Goody’s fate, even when she fell from grace in the racism row with Shilpa Shetty back in 2007, could not have been predicted. Clifford, by the way, still lists Shilpa Shetty among his case studies of successful PR on his website.

I simply pause and consider the sort of stress some people endure and what that might do to a person. Whether that stress is sought or forced upon people remains a very moot point.

Death at an early age is always sad; more so when children are involved. I’m unsure about Goody’s embrace of the limelight and the advice she’s being given, apparently about how to live out her life. I feel uncomfortable. I don’t know Goody from a bar of soap but I wish her well.

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Slumdog Boyle

Cast of Slumdog Millionaire. Fox Searchlight/Guardian

That’s a little unfair, for I’ve no reason to believe that director Danny Boyle is a slumdog. He does originally come from Manchester but, still, is far from a slumdog, I assume. It’s just that, post-Trainspotting, Slumdog Millionaire has become THE film which we associate with Boyle.

Having only just seen Slumdog Millionaire and having loved it – tragic and uplifting, fraght but fun without being saccharine – I’ve been moved to dig out notes of a conversation I had with Boyle back in October when he was just starting out on a US publicity tour for the film ahead of its official opening. We were supposed to be talking about the appetite for British films and TV shows in the US for a feature which I never did see published by the Hollywood Reporter. But they paid me so I’m happy.

Boyle said lots of interesting things about the differences between the British film industry and the US movie industry, including a confession that: “I don’t get a sense that we love movies in the same way here in the UK.”

But what’s really striking now about that conversation is how modest Boyle was about Slumdog and its prospects. He said the film had already had some “amazing help” from film festivals in Toronto, where it won best picture in September, Chicago and Austin. He gently outlined the plot without the arrogance of someone who assumes you already know the details of his latest masterpiece. His take on Jamal’s predicament in the film was this: “There’s a slum kid who goes on Who Wants To Be A Millionaire and wins the top prize. Everybody assumes he’s cheated but he hasn’t. A lot of it is luck; he guesses; he’s relaxed. Because winning is not his primary goal.” Sweetly, Boyle declined to go into details of the love story at the heart of the narrative. This was long before most people had seen the film and would happily tell you Jamal was trying to get the attention of his childhood sweetheart Latika by appearing on the gameshow.

I share this with you simply by way of saying: Danny Boyle. What a nice guy. What a good director. What a great film Slumdog Millionaire is, with its hatred of money and love of the underdog and disgust at the way poverty and children can be exploited and its ultimate happy, happy ending.

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Noel Edmonds Appassionata

Jennifer Saunders as Vivienne Vyle. BBC

There’s all sorts of excitement on the web today, as there is every day of course. Earlier I was alerted by one of Stephen Fry’s excellent tweets to the brewing row between LBC/Global Radio and blogger and Guardian Bad Science columnist Ben Goldacre over a programme on MMR. You can read all about that here.

Suffice to say, far too much rubbish has been written and spoken about MMR and now measles is on the rise in the UK. You may not think that’s a problem and probably won’t until a child of yours gets a bad dose of measles or goes deaf as a result of mumps. Your choice, but at least look into both sides of the argument and don’t give the rest of us a “modern medicine = bad juju” kneejerk reaction.

It’s literally staggering that we’ve come so far from the days of massively high infant mortality rates to the point that parents will happily turn their backs on something that CAN and DOES save lives. One hundred and fifty years ago parents would (I suspect) have given their right arms to prevent the sort of suffering and death that was a recurring reality for them and their children. And they might have had fewer children as a result. Now, some parents won’t offer up a chubby thigh for the same happy result. My 4 year old has just had her pre-school booster jabs including an MMR booster and been decidedly off-colour for a couple of weeks. Whether that was a result of the jabs or not, I don’t care. She’s now back to form and I feel assured that she’s inoculated against these particular diseases. My choice.

On Dr Goldacre’s excellent blog (newly discovered by me today) is a link to this astonishing rant from Noel Edmonds, no less. According to jeffrey44 who posted this clip on YouTube, the sequence from Edmonds’ live Sky One show (about the former soldier who can’t get planning permission for a bungalow) was significantly edited when it was repeated. All I can do is stand and stare and be reminded of Jennifer Saunders in her inimitable but sadly unreprised role as TV presenter Vivienne Vyle. The similarities are extraordinary. Who’d have thunk it?

Next post: the inside track on how Noel Edmonds schmoozed me as editor of Broadcast when his BBC 1 career had come to an abrupt end.

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Lobbying continues for Channel 4.5

Good to see channel Five chief executive Dawn Airey keeping up the pressure for a possible merger with Channel 4. This is the most obvious solution to C4’s various problems, which basically stem from not being able to make enough money to fund everything it wants to do in future including low-rating but worthy programmes like C4 News.

Airey, styling herself “bewildered of Long Acre”, has given an interview to mediaguardian.co.uk today and said Five and C4 could set up a government-appointed editorial board which would presumably oversee worthy as well as commercially viable programming.

All well and good. Whether or not C4 forges a link with BBC Worldwide, the commercial arm of the BBC, its future as a hybrid commercially funded yet public service broadcaster is still in question. There’s plenty to lobby for before the government reaches its final conclusions on all of this in the summer. God knows, summer seems a long way off.

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Top marks to Jay Hunt

Gael Monfils. BBC Sport

You’ve got to hand it to BBC 1 controller, Jay Hunt. Speaking on Radio 4’s Today programme this morning she ably defended the decision to sack Carol Thatcher from The One Show for using the term “golliwog” in connection with a black tennis player. Hunt also quickly squashed comparisons with the offence Jonathan Ross caused back in October, saying he has apologised on several occasions. Ms Thatcher appears not to have yet apologised for a remark made, as Hunt said, “in a BBC workplace environment”.

Speculation has of course centred on who Thatcher was referring to. Someone with lots of French connections tells me the French press were yesterday naming the tennis players as Gael Monfils (above). Today, thefirstpost.co.uk reckons the person in question is Jo-Wilfried Tsonga. Either way, it seems Thatcher was talking about a black person when she used the G word.

Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant mined this territory some time ago in hilarious but uncomfortable scenes featuring the hapless Maggie in an episode of Extras. Golliwogs and their associations are still fraught with difficulty. We live in a culture that is still often racist, or must seem so to anyone who isn’t white. So there’s offence all round: to black people; to people who think you should be able to say what you like in certain places; to “gollitoys”. Ultimately the BBC is damned if it does (sack someone called Thatcher for causing offence) and damned if it doesn’t (sack someone called Ross for causing offence).

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