John Birt, Denis Thatcher and other old farts

Frost Nixon Interviews. DDS Media/Liberation Entertainment

On Friday I was at the Broadcasting Press Guild awards luncheon at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane. For those who don’t know, the BPG is a club, I suppose, of journalists past and present who write or wrote about TV and radio. It encapsulates all TV and radio critics and correspondents of the national newspapers and a fair few trade magazines. We vote annually for the best actor, actress, TV drama, comedy etc etc of the preceding year and the awards are staged between the Broadcast awards in January, the RTS programme awards whenever they’re handed out and the Bafta TV awards in May.

The best bit of gossip I got from the do I really shouldn’t repeat. It concerns John Birt, erstwhile director general of the BBC and a former high-up producer at LWT where he helped land the David Frost/Richard Nixon interviews now enshrined in the Frost/Nixon film. Ask not how I know but it seems the movie’s scene in which Birt is so ecstatic at having landed the Frost/Nixon interview that he disrobes and plunges into the sea is entirely fictional.

Other news: a good friend and one-time fellow journalism trainee Simon Wilson, who is now a comedy commissioner for the BBC, was at the awards supporting Andy Hamilton and Guy Jenkin who won the best comedy and best writer gongs for their truly wonderful, part-improv sitcom Outnumbered. Wilson was busily texting some mystery producers in an edit suite across town to let them know that they couldn’t have another 15 seconds on the end of the show they were finalising for BBC 1. Gags had to go. Of such minutiae are producers and executive producers lives made.

Of the stuff that happened on the podium, my favourite moment was David Frost accepting an outstanding achievment award and giving an “unplanned tribute” to Denis Thatcher in the process, as he recalled a number of anecdotes about Dear Bill, the man Frost said he most missed never having interviewed. One story concerned Denis at a gathering of world leaders where he was inexplicably called upon to speak. Denis rarely spoke in public and never took a platform – leaving all that sort of thing to the distaff side. In Frost’s memory, he got out of the hole by announcing that “As Mark Anthony said to Cleopatra on entering her bedroom: ‘I haven’t come here to talk.'” We didn’t get that in the BBC’s Margaret drama the other week.

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Television. Hmm

Stewart Lee's Comedy Vehicle. BBC

Hmm. What have I watched this week? Nothing, really. Not great for a TV journalist. I tried a bit of Stewart Lee’s Comedy Vehicle on the BBC iPlayer the other night, but just didn’t find it funny. And he was talking about television. Far better was part two of Eddie Izzard – Sexie, which had been on the radio somewhere. Now he knows how to do stand-up comedy. Even on radio where you can’t see the ‘stage business’.

And, other than that, there’s literally been nothing that takes my interest this week. Monday: nothing, including C4’s The Great Sperm Race, “the story of human conception brought to life as people, playing the part of sperm, negotiate hostile terrain”. Sounded like a Guinness ad gone horribly, badly wrong. Tuesday: bloody Heston Blumenthal again on C4; Mistresses on BBC 1; Horizon on BBC 2 doing earthquakes; and Holloway prison on ITV. No thanks.

Wednesday: The (new series of the) Apprentice on BBC 1. Despite the fact that this show gets more and more popular, it is just another reality TV show in which we’re supposed to get to know the contestants and live their (unscripted therefore supposedly close to real-life) ups and downs as they struggle to win the approval of SirAlun’s gimlet eye. I can’t do it, I just can’t.

So to tonight and more of ER on More4. I like the sound of The Mentalist on Five, but that may just be the title. In our household the term ‘mentalist’ is used with approval, as ‘it’s mental’ was back in, oh, the 80s or something.

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Perfect happiness

Author James Runcie. Christian Sinibaldi/Guardian

After last week’s Horizon with David Baddiel contemplating the education system and children’s happiness, comes this article from the Family section of Saturday’s Guardian. And a whole new level of self-doubt and questioning for liberal-minded parents.

Forget, for the moment, that the author is the son of former Archbishop of Canterbury Robert Runcie. Runcie Jr writing here seems like a pretty normal bloke. Forget also or gloss over the repetition in the first few paragraphs of this piece. He or the subs probably had to pad the original out to fill a whole page.

For my money, James Runcie makes an excellent point in his final two pars about the general weight of expectation parents place on their children. Even the most laissez faire mother or father just wants their children “to be happy”. But this in itself can be a burden, an expectation which the child shoulders throughout their life. Runcie suggests children, as they grow up, should be treated as people and allowed to set their own levels of expectation and disappointment rather than inherit your own.

This reminds me of my own cynical reaction years ago to reading something by a (young, new) mother writing of her children that she only wanted them to grow up happy and not addicted to drugs. Show me someone who’s truly happy and not addicted to drugs, where your definition of drugs includes caffeine, nicotine and alcohol. The notion of perfect happiness is one of the biggest perversions and distractions of our time. I’m with the “good enough” school of thought on this, as with most things.

Happy Monday.

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Who do you want your child to be?

David Baddiel and brother in BBC 2's Horizon. BBC

Perhaps consciously playing on the title Who Do You Think You Are? which has also featured comedian David Baddiel in a serious role, last night’s Horizon saw Baddiel investigating the British education system and asking whether it can maximise both a child’s intellectual potential and their happiness at the same time.

A worthy question and one that anyone with children, particularly those starting out on the great education experiment, would love to know the answer to. Baddiel’s own kids are seven and four.

There was lots in this programme to love and little to hate. Love or hate the technique, but celebrity is the perfect way into this kind of subject. We got some of Baddiel’s own story – his mixed experiences of school (he did well but “hated” it); his spell in hospital as a confused teenager; his progression to Cambridge and his fear of the nine-to-five work ethic which presumably led him to become a stand-up comedian.

We also met Baddiel’s brother, who remembers consistently being in the bottom sixth of the class at primary school and is these days a taxi driver in New York after an apparently chequered working history. We even got to meet Baddiel’s father, who Baddiel remembers saying the choice of English and History A’ Levels was “a waste of a brain”. Now in his 70s or 80s, Baddiel’s father admits he was being “unkind”. Ah, the differences between intention, perception and the passage of 30-odd years.

There was science as well as personal anecdote. The loving repetition of a 1970s Stanford University experiment in which a four-year-old child is given four marshamallows with the promise of more if he or she can resist eating any of them for a full 10 minutes. The child is then left alone for that time and must devise distracting strategies in order to resist the immediate temptation of the marshamallows on the table. Subsequent research has shown that those who did resist the sweets did better at school than those who crumbled, were ill less often and were even less likely to divorce as adults.

I love this sort of stuff. Just like I loved the idea that kids shown how to solve a puzzle tend to give up earlier on problems than children who are left alone to play with the puzzle, who tend to be more flexible and creative in their solutions. This plays well to the faint air of neglect in all my parenting. I like to give the kids some freedom and they’ll thank me for it in the end.

The killer finding, though, was that you can spoil your child’s chances of academic and presumably life success with just three words. “You’re so clever.” (Forget the ellipse of you and are. Pointing that out is not big or clever.) Baddiel didn’t say so on camera but he must join me in thinking oh god, here’s yet another ‘DONT’ for the angsty, guilt-ridden, liberal-minded parent who just wants their kids to be happy.

These days it’s all about being specific in your praise. Baddiel’s answer to his daughter’s full marks at a spellin test is to say something like “You must have worked really hard for that.” Mine is to say “Great work on the spelling. Now set the table for tea, why don’t you?”

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Monty Hall’s Great Escape

Monty Halls' Great Escape. BBC

Nice idea for a programme: ex-Royal Marine and expert diver Monty Halls spends six months on the remote Scottish west coast. But this Sunday night BBC 2 show is, from my viewing of episode three, very badly made.

Monty spent episode three looking for basking sharks. Fortunately he found one and we just about got to see it too but there were no underwater shots, despite the fact baskers pose no threat to humans and live entirely on plankton. On another boat trip, Monty got to see not one but four sea eagles in the air at once. But we the viewers didn’t get to see them because the rolling sea and, one suspects, a cheap camera made close-ups impossible.

Much of the end of the episode was taken up with Monty’s quest to spot an otter and re-live the “Ring of Bright Water” magic which had drawn him to Scotland in the first place. There was much build-up along the lines of being terribly excited to see his first wild otter. All well and good, except that earlier in the same episode Monty and his visiting girlfriend had already seen an otter lolloping casually along the beach in front of his bivouac.

This programme was so badly edited as to make it virtually unwatchable. Closing shots were merely glimpsed before the camera cut away to another time, another place and another moment in the bodged together script. Shame, because otherwise Monty Halls’ Great Escape would be perfect Sunday evening fare, coming as it does after the amazing photography of Yellowstone, BBC 2’s series about that celebrated American national park.

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The good, the bad. And Heston

Heston Blumenthal. Channel 4

What is it about Heston Blumenthal? The more Channel 4 appear to be in love with the guy, the more I decide I hate him. I wasn’t sure about him in Big Chef Takes on Little Chef. He is basically a poncey chef, who finnicks around in his Berkshire restaurant with slivvers of gold leaf. So what he was doing trying to serve hearty fodder to the road-weary desperates who call in at Little Chef was anyone’s guess. Truly car crash television. Although Blumenthal eventually made a relatively good fist of a new menu, I never warmed to him as a personality.

Just a few short weeks later and he has been back on C4, with a Victorian Feast last week on 3 March and this week with a Medieval Feast. Bad timing that his celebrated gaff The Fat Duck has recently had to close with epidemic numbers of people complaining of feeling ill after eating there. So bull’s testicle plums seem like even less of a good idea than they might have done when the programme was commissioned.

I should rise above the personal criticism, but there’s something about Heston’s slightly wraparound specs which can’t do anything to hide the fact the lenses magnify his eyes, about his shaved head, about the suspicion that he’s not really as clever as someone at C4 thinks he is that irritates the HELL out of me. I caught some dildo action in the Victorian episode. But watch the Medieval feast, I did not.

Also managed to miss the most talked-about drama of the past week, Red Riding, with part two on C4 tonight. But judging by this thread, it was a bit tough to follow – even if you’ve read the books.

One highlight of the last week – not for me but for my life partner – was the first episode of Al Murray’s new sketch show last Friday (6 March). How he laughed at Gary Parsley, the 70s pop star who bears no relation to either Elton John or Gary Glitter; how he guffawed at Barrington Blowtorch (just the name, never mind the sketch); how we both loved the mobile phone “sales” boys complete with irritatingly etched facial hair. Overall the show was more of a boy thing than a girl thing, but at least there’s something to follow QI on a Friday night now. You just have to switch to ITV 1 at 9.30pm to find it.

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So little time (left for those working at ITV)

Demons. ITV1

Have been too busy with paid employment to post on here. But the crap has clearly hit the circulating cooling device today, with ITV unveiling an abysmal set of results and announcing 600 job losses plus a staggering £65m cut to its programming budget. ITV spends less than £1bn a year on programming (£867m last year) so that’s 7.5% of its budget going this year. And the same again next year.

Poor old ITV. Poor old 600 folk getting the Spanish Archer. And there are more horror stories to come later this week from Five, which will announce its response to the advertising downturn on Thursday. Channel 4 has its own set of problems and redundancies to roll out.

And yet I refer you to my earlier comments about tough times in TV land. All those involved are fortunate enough to work in a relatively well-paid industry (except the runners, of course) and if they’re any good they will find other jobs and they will have redundancy packages to nurse them through the next few months. Looking further ahead, people will still watch TV. Some say we’ll watch more TV and want more light entertainment and fluffy features while the recession lasts. So once the dust has settled this week, it’s business as usual. Just with a few less people around and a few less business expenses to hand. Expenses. Ha! Welcome to the real world, TV types.

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