Downton Abbey

Behind the scenes at Downton

Lady Edith and the Dowager Countess

Let me be possibly the last person commenting on TV to say something about Downton Abbey. The truth is I didn’t watch first series because there was something better on the other side (BBC 1). There is again this autumn because Kudos Productions’ Spooks is showing on BBC 1 at 9pm on Sundays and Stephen Fry is doing a programme about language at exactly the same time on BBC 2 so I’m spending my time catching up with those things on the iPlayer.

But Downton Abbey suits me, as it does roughly 9 million other people, on a Sunday night when I’m in the mood for its sense of history and nostalgia, sweeping gowns and brocaded drawing rooms.

I do keep catching my shins on the language though, like so many commentators before me. In one of the first episodes of this second series I was moved to look up the use of “chuck it away” when lady Sybil was learning how to cook and ruined some kind of sauce. It just jarred, but our shorter Oxford English dictionary does say the word chuck was probably used by workmen to mean throw or toss as early as 1593. God, it’s hard being a pedant on a Sunday night. Last week I tripped up over someone, the Countess of Grantham or lady Mary, asking “So what?” in conversation. ‘Humpf’, I splutter into my hot chocolate. ‘They wouldn’t have said that in 1916.’

You only have to look at this Christmas speech by our present Queen, the first televised Christmas message shown in 1957, and compare it to last year’s delivery to see how speech patterns have changed, even among the very posh. What we’re getting in Downton isn’t a true reflection of how people spoke at the beginning of the 20th century.

But of course true authenticity has no place on TV and almost certainly none in Sunday night ITV drama. If the actors in Downton Abbey delivered dialogue as people in country houses actually spoke at the turn of the century no one would be watching. TV audiences want a reflection of how they see the past and certain people of the past more, in fact, than they want the reality. The reality would be a bunch of very dull black and white films. Downton Abbey is colourful, beautiful to look at, moves along at a decent pace and just very easy to watch on Sunday evenings.

Spooks, meanwhile, is another matter. Thank goodness for the iPlayer; if only I could watch it on my TV and not my  laptop.

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Sweet memories of The Brits

Robbie Williams at the Brit Awards 99

Robbie Williams at the Brit Awards 99

It occurs to me that one of the things I can do with this blog is recount various hilarious stories, old and new, of life in the television fast lane. And of life in the slow lane, now that I’ve pulled over to let the boy racers get past. I’m observing the speed limits these days so I’ll see all those boy racers at the roundabout or the next set of roadworks.

You do know I write this whole blog with my tongue stuck firmly in my cheek, don’t you? So when I use a word such as “hilarious” it is to be taken lightly or not taken at all. As my best friends will tell you, I am not a funny person. If others occasionally find me amusing it is by accident rather than design. I merely aim to tell it like it is, or like it feels or felt to me at the time.

So, the Brit Awards take place tonight. I have just heard Chris Evans closing his breakfast Radio 2 show and swapping Brits memories with Ken Bruce. Both agreed that even the Brits amount to just another awards show which goes on for too long. I would add that despite the glamour even the most famous and apparently self-assured faces are slightly on edge on the night.

I have been to the Brits twice and my main question is: why the hell are they held on a weeknight? If you are a corporate guest of, say, ITV (who broadcast the Brits to an expectant nation) then once you are past the rock-concert-meets-film-premiere style security you drift to one of the corporate hospitality tables where you are plied with alcohol and so-so food before the actual awards start. There is pumping music, but you are in an echoey and initially quite cold arena (I went to Earl’s Court) which, let’s face it, wouldn’t be anyone’s first choice for dinner with 7 like-minded souls. Table in the middle of this vast, dark aircraft hanger, madam? This way, please.

So you eat. You drink a lot, if you do that sort of thing. Then the awards start. On comes a star presenter or Davina McCall or a series of different presenters for different awards categories. It’s a tough audience to play to. At some point the screaming masses are let into the place, wearing wristbands and lacking access to anywhere except the pit in front of the main stage. Another lot of people – presumably mortals – file in to fill the rows and rows of seating around the place. Quite what the general public make of the corporate few, noshing their noodles at candle-lit tables on a specially constructed dias in full view of the rest of the proceedings is anyone’s guess. But at that point in the evening, none of the music or tv executives present actually care.

As I said, I’ve been to the Brits twice, both times courtesy of someone who was far too nice for the TV industry but hasn’t actually left it. Once Robbie Williams was the star turn and his Let Me Entertain You did exactly what it said on the tin. But Williams was already entering the stage of his career when he became disaffected with fame and his acceptance speech for one of the awards he garnered that night went something like this: “This is for my nephew. This was when your uncle Robbie was famous.” During half of his turn, Williams didn’t even trouble himself to mouth the words to his hit. Why bother, when several thousand adoring fans are singing for you.

The other year was the year Geri Halliwell appeared on stage from between a set of giant prosthetic ladies’ legs. The sets were quite good and, in that strange way of the turning world, I later discovered that the creator of Halliwell’s vaginal stage entrance lived in Suffolk close to friends of ours. I wrote about that at the time elsewhere.

So good luck to all of tonight’s Brits nominees and the various hacks and media executives assembled to adore and schmooze. Enjoy your night, especially if you are a guest of corporate hospitality. Try not to be sick before you leave and remember where your ride home is to be found at the end of the night. I shall be watching on ITV.

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How much is too much?

 TV graph. www.thinkbox.tv

More than one person (yes, OK, it was two people) has asked me why I watch so much crap TV. I know, media people, it’s incredible to you and me to comprehend but some folk out there in the “real world” with “real jobs” and “real lives” don’t appreciate your efforts at churning out expensive, time-consuming hours of drama and documentary programming.

So I bring you this little piece of good news which plopped into my inbox yesterday from Thinkbox, an organisation calling itself the marketing body for the main UK commercial TV broadcasters, namely ITV, Channel 4, Five, Sky, Turner (CNN, Cartoon Network) and Viacom (MTV and Comedy Central).

According to Thinkbox, the average person watched 17 hours 24 minutes a week of commercial TV between January and March this year. If you factor in viewing of non-commercial TV, that is the BBC channels, the average person must be watching a hell of a lot more again. Even at 17 hours 24 minutes a week, that’s about 2 hours 29 minutes a day.

This is desperately important to commercial broadcasters because they’re desperately competing for advertising with the internet and other media (newspapers – remember them?) so if broadcasters tell us lots of people are watching their channels, advertisers are more likely to keep advertising with them.

But it’s also one-in-the-eye for those who still peddle the clapped out line that TV is for saddos. There may be a lot of crap on TV, but there’s a lot of good stuff too. Your crap is my foie gras, etc etc. And with catch-up services on the internet it’s easier than ever to find something you want to watch, when you want to watch it.

So, media people: as you were. Panic abated, for now.

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Separated at birth: Susan Boyle and Al Murray

I know this is beneath me. It’s beneath all of us, frankly, to judge the proverbial book by the cover, the 47-year-old life-long singleton and newly created reality TV star Susan Boyle by her appearance.

But it was, inevitably, Boyle’s appearance – complete with bra strap falling down a plump upper arm – that created the dramatic irony behind her tear-jerking performance of Les Miserables’ I Dreamed A Dream on ITV 1’s Britain’s Got Talent last week. A performance that, thanks to t’internet, has propelled her to global star status within a week.

But hang on, y’all. Shurely shome mishtake? She’s not a West Lothian spinster after all, but another product of Al Murray’s Multiple Personality Disorder. Judge for yourselves.

Al Murray as Peter Taylor. ITV Susan Boyle

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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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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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Andy Burnham’s speech

Andy Burnham. Dept for Culture, Media and Sport

From the speech made by media secretary Andy Burnham today:

“The old media world has ended – and the sooner we say so the better.

With it must go old thinking.

But the difficulty we all have is this: it doesn’t yet feel like an era of new possibility, and change we can all believe in, but one of threat and decline.

My main message today is: we need to break out of this thinking and we can – but only if we look beyond our own backyards and see the bigger picture.

So here is our collective challenge now: can we articulate a shared vision and forge a path to the future for British public service content, however difficult it may be?

That vision is more likely to stick if it is done with goodwill, holds the broadest possible consensus and, crucially, represents a good deal for the public.

But achieving it means two things for everyone without exception: change and compromise.

In 2009, we will find out what appetite and capacity we each have for both. Whatever happens, this needs to be a year of decision.

This should not be a debate about winners and losers. If we believe in the bigger picture – preserving and building Britain’s creative strength – then everybody should have the courage to stand outside long-held positions.”

That sounds like a warning shot across the bows of broadcasters: they’ve got to reach agreement over issues like the future funding of C4. Supposedly this has always been a “light touch” government, in media at least.

Burnham again: “We will only succeed if at all times we are guided by the viewing and listening public whose voices, at times, are dangerously excluded from fevered and inward-looking industry debates.

In my view, the public reaction to the Ross-Brand episode was a raw articulation of what Ofcom has found: that quality and standards matter in a world of fragmenting media experiences.

Content made primarily for TV in the public mind still stands for quality and higher standards.”

Fair point. What he’s saying is that it doesn’t matter what the TV industry is debating – the future of public service TV, or whatever – viewers and listeners respond to what they see and hear on TV and on the radio. He slipped up by going on to talk about “content made primarily for TV” because, of course, the Ross/Brand row blew up over a Radio 2 Saturday night programme. Once again, it’s convenient to forget just how that original programme was taken out of context and broadcast, online via YouTube and in newspapers, to an audience who decided to get offended.

On with the speech. Burnham welcomes Ofcom’s latest offering on public service broadcasting and “would like to thank Ed Richards and his teams for carefully guiding us through a necessarily exhaustive process and for rooting this entire debate where it needs to be – in the views of the public.” Unbelievable. Where is the evidence that Ofcom’s report reflects the views of the public? In the research I cited yesterday, which shows just how little “the public” know about the funding of TV?

Blah, blah, blah. He re-states the importance of having more than one public service broadcaster (ie, not just the BBC); he says good, impartial regional and national news is important, as is great British content including children’s programming, drama, current affairs and factual stuff.

Good news for indies. Burnham made a point of saying one of his priorities is: “Supporting and promoting independent producers. We don’t celebrate enough these British indies, whose flow of good ideas has made such an impact on viewing in the UK and exports around the world.”

He wants a strong BBC but he wants it to be a “supporting hand under others, rather than build itself ever bigger.” He wants to see the BBC and ITV develop proposed partnerships in regional news. He wants things done locally, helping people get into the media industry.

Then to the meaty stuff. ITV is being let off some of its public service obligations. So C4 should “balance the BBC in core public service programming”. All this we know. He said it’s time for “a new structure” for C4 and “a new more specific remit” (another one?). Then he said all the stuff about it making sense to look at BBC Worldwide.

His conclusion was “that the investment the public already makes in broadcasting can be made to work harder on its behalf”. That means no extra money for the broadcasting industry.

What happens next is that broadcast minister Stephen Carter will publish a report on Digital Britain, which will say a lot more about broadband than was mentioned today. This will be consulted on and a final Digital Britain report will be published by the summer. So, in Burnham’s words “we are only weeks away from clear decisions”. Thank Christ for that.

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The future of TV: the government must decide

Family & remote control. Ofcom

The TV industry may not agree with Gerhard Zeiler’s assessment of Channel 4 and Five being “complementary broadcasters” (the cultures of the two places are radically different, as is their history), but C4 changed the day it started selling its own advertising in 1993.

From that point on, its public service remit has been in tension with the need to earn money and operate commercially. C4’s commitment to making loss-making, public service programmes such as Dispatches and Channel 4 News is therefore already being tested by its need to survive commercially. A tie-up with BBC Worldwide would not end this commercial tension but simply bring in more cash, just as the end of the ad sales arrangement with ITV did in 1998. That money went on digital channels Film4, E4 and so on. A merger with Five would also perpetuate the tension between public service output and commercial revenue. But at least the new entity would have a larger share of TV viewing and advertising. In these days of doing fewer things better it seems the most realistic option.

The public service brodcasting review which has come to a head today – like the countless others before it – has taken place in and among the TV industry with the general public still not having much of a clue about how broadcasters are owned and/or funded. Ofcom insists it has done “detailed audience research”. But look at Annex 8 of the report on public service broadcasting in which Ofcom tells us it interviewed 2,004 people in July and August last year.

When asked unprompted what the licence fee pays for, less than half of respondents mentioned any aspect of the BBC. In other words, a huge swathe of people – 56% in this survey – do not automatically link the BBC with the licence fee. Only 2% of people in Ofcom’s research correctly said the licence fee pays for all of the BBC’s services. Far more, 24%, mentioned TV channels/programming/TV technology generally in connection with the licence fee.

This gives a truer picture of the level of ignorance about how TV is funded than the results of the next question where people were prompted with a list of services that the licence fee could pay for. It’s far easier to answer a multiple choice question than an open question where you have to supply your own answers. When prompted with a list, 87% of people mentioned at least one BBC service (mostly BBC 1 and BBC 2) when asked what the licence fee pays for. Only 37% knew all of the BBC’s services are paid for by the licence fee, even when prompted with the right answer.

Against this background, it’s impossible to argue about what the public “want” from public service broadcasting. The public show what they want by using their remote controls: they watch BBC 1 and ITV 1 in their droves; they make programmes like Strictly Come Dancing, I’m A Celebrity and Big Brother “popular”; they don’t watch C4 News and Dispatches in huge numbers. That is the reality and only a certain amount of tinkering with the format of public service programming will change it. There are just too many other things to do and too many other ways of getting information.

So the public won’t care or particularly miss out if C4 and Five merge. Unless C4 suddenly stops selling advertising altogether, it must continue to behave commercially however it’s set up. The government should now decide what it believes will give the viewing public the best of all options in future: the popular and the worthy. Over to you, media secretary Andy Burnham, who is giving a speech tomorrow.

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The future of television: right here, next week

Mark Thompson. BBC Michael Grade. ITV

Andy Burnham, the secretary of state for culture, media and sport (let’s call him the media secretary, eh?) is due to make a speech next week at a media get-together in Oxford where, it’s widely thought, he will outline the government’s thinking on public service TV.

Ofcom’s been doing its own work on this and will report its findings soon, too. And of course the main public service broadcasters (the BBC, ITV and Channel 4) have been lobbying hard for what they want. The last-ditch efforts came out in newspaper articles at the beginning of this week, penned by TV execs and their ranks of public affairs officials. First off, BBC director general Mark Thompson wrote something for the FT about how it would be a good idea if C4 and Five merged (but he would say that, because he came up with the idea when he was running C4 a few years ago). As it happens, I agree with him. Then on Tuesday ITV chairman Michael Grade wrote something for the Daily Telegraph in which he called again for a relaxation in the many rules that apply to ITV.

The media industry is waiting with baited breath to find out what Mr Burnham says. Meanwhile it is screamingly obvious that noone in the real world knows anything about this high-level moving and shaking to determine what our mainstream TV channels will look like in the future. Bookmark this site and return next Thursday to find out the shape of things to come.

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