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Freelance Journalist Marcus Stead

Stephen Rhodes Obituary

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Stephen Rhodes presenting ‘This Morning’ during the 1990s.

By MARCUS STEAD

Stephen Rhodes, who has died aged 66 following a battle with motor neurone disease, was a journalist and broadcaster who became a household name in the 1990s as a regular cover presenter on ITV’s ‘This Morning’, but it was his feisty, belligerent, yet good-humoured handling of consumer affairs during his long spell as presenter of the mid-morning show on BBC Three Counties Radio that brought out the best in him as a campaigning hack.

Born in Dublin and the son of a dentist, Rhodes, whose real name was Tommy Keenan, was a restless, noisy child, who frequently irritated his parents by arguing and challenging everything from a young age.

Shortly before his mother’s death, she said to him: “The trouble is, we just didn’t have a name for it when you were little.” He never found out what she was talking about, but he assumed she was referring to his hyperactivity.

Rhodes was educated at St Conleth’s College, a fee-paying Catholic school in Dublin, and the Irish Retail Management Institute, after which he worked for six years in sales and marketing at Mackey’s Seeds in Dublin.

In 1978, Rhodes sent a showreel to Alternative Radio Dublin (colloquially known as ARD), a pirate station that had a strong following in the city, as well as along the west coast of Great Britain, where the 1161 MW signal could be received at night, and his radio career was born.

He rose through the ranks quickly to become station manager, and supplemented his income by lending his voice to TV and radio commercials.

A migration across the water to Birmingham station BRMB followed in 1980, where his ‘Yes-No Quiz’ quickly became a hit with listeners, and by in middle of the decade he moved up the M6 to Beacon Radio in Wolverhampton.

Rhodes’s Irish lilt and intense delivery meant he was much in-demand as a voiceover artist, which led to many TV commercials, and his relationship with Central Television saw him being given the chance to become the voice of ‘Family Fortunes’ in 1987, a role he continued for the next 12 years, spanning most of Les Dennis’s reign as host of the programme.

During the early 1990s, Rhodes migrated to Beacon’s ‘oldies’ sister station WABC, and within a few years he had moved on to BBC Radio Shropshire as the breakfast show presenter, where he won the first of seven Sony Radio Academy Awards.

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Stephen Rhodes presenting ‘Central Weekend Live’.

It was around this period that Rhodes’s career in front of the TV cameras began to take off. He presented a number of editions of audience debate show ‘Central Weekend Live’ in the Midlands, where the adversarial nature of the programme was an excellent fit for Rhodes’s tenacious personality.

Rhodes’s talents gained the attention of Granada TV, who made him and his then-wife Alison Keenan the main cover presenters for Richard and Judy on ‘This Morning’ between 1994 and 1998, a role in which he appeared at ease, but years later, he said of it: “I never really liked being on television. I didn’t enjoy This Morning because I hated cooking – there were lots of things I just didn’t like about it. But I enjoyed the money – it paid off the mortgage! I much prefer the spontaneity of radio.”

In mid-1995, Rhodes began his 15-year association with BBC Three Counties Radio, then based in Luton. Following a brief spell on the drivetime show, he began his long stint as presenter of the mid-morning consumer affairs programme, as well as hosting topical phone-ins.

From the outset, Rhodes was determined to bring his own style of championing consumer journalism to the show, where he would open the phone lines to listeners in need of help, and take on all manner of wrongdoers from individual rogue traders to major corporations on their behalf.

Challenging and forthright, yet personable and possessing a mischievous sense of humour, Rhodes was perhaps at his best when making special in-depth reports for the programme, which led to many memorable moments.

With his reputation as a skilled interrogator firmly established, Rhodes became the face of the BBC’s regional political and current affairs TV programmes in the East of England, where he presented ‘Inside Out East’ and the region’s Sunday politics slot, though he claimed he was forced to step down from the latter when he found that he couldn’t get into political meetings because he’d rubbed too many local politicians up the wrong way.

In 2008, Rhodes moved to the breakfast show on BBC Three Counties, but his tenure came to an abrupt end on the afternoon of 16 March 2010 when in characteristically maverick style, he announced to the press that he was resigning from his radio job with immediate effect to stand as a candidate in Luton South in the general election due to the expenses controversies surrounding the constituency’s outgoing Labour MP, Margaret Moran.

The subsequent contest saw Rhodes face a challenge from another media personality, Esther Rantzen, and they gave vastly differing accounts to the media as to what motivated the other to stand. It was not to be either of their finest hours. Neither candidate fared well, with Rhodes receiving a paltry 463 votes to Rantzen’s 1,872, both falling massively short of the 14,725 of the successful Labour candidate, Gavin Shuker.

Rhodes quickly bounced back from this embarrassing episode with typical dynamism by setting up Bullet Point Media, a company specialising in making marketing videos, and he continued to be an active campaigner on local issues in Eaton Bray near Dunstable, where he lived with his Filipino wife Greggy, who he married in 2012.

Having suffered with back problems for some years, a water skiing accident in 2013 left Rhodes requiring an operation to repair two vertebrae. In the months that followed, he found himself becoming increasingly weak in his legs, and in October 2014 he received the devastating diagnosis of motor neurone disease.

After coming to terms with the bleak prognosis, Rhodes threw himself into campaigning tirelessly, to be, in his own words a ‘noisy old geezer’ for better support and treatment for MND sufferers, and leant his name to fundraising efforts for research into the condition.

By late 2015, Rhodes was dependant on a motorised wheelchair and his voice was already weakening, but on 28 December that year, he returned to BBC Three Counties for a farewell show, where he looked back on some of the most memorable moments from his long spell at the station.

Rhodes continued his work with characteristic vigour for much of 2016 despite increasing physical frailty, which included a meeting with MND Association patron Princess Anne, and on Twitter, he kept followers entertained with his blunt assessments of leading politicians in a turbulent year. He also managed one final trip to Ireland to see family and friends.

Away from work, his hobbies included tennis, cycling, water skiing, and buying beaten up old Land Rovers, which had a habit of breaking down at inopportune moments, much to the amusement of his colleagues.

 

Tommy Keenan, known professionally as Stephen Rhodes.

Married broadcaster Alison Keenan, divorced.

Married Greggy Lluz, 2012.

Sons: Nick, 37, Sam, 27, Jack, 24.

Daughter: Beck, 35.

Written by Marcus Stead

March 3, 2017 at 5:30 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

ExtraOARdinary Victory for Novices

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L-R: Richard Phipps, Robert Gordon, Daniel Edwards, Stephen Cleary, Arthur Williams

By MARCUS STEAD

A team of newcomers who had been in training for just four weeks were the surprise winners of the Splash and Dash Men’s Regatta at Llandaff Rowing Club.

The team of Robert Gordon, Daniel Edwards, Stephen Cleary, all aged 32, and last-minute replacement Richard Phipps formed a team called ‘Love Dem Oars’ and saw off competitors in three races, including a comfortable victory against a more experienced group of firefighters in the final.

The event was held last Saturday as a fundraiser for Velindre Cancer Care and Keep Wales Tidy.

Robert, who works as an accountant for South Wales Fire and Rescue Service, said: “I entered this event a few years ago with other people, and this year I suggested to my friends that we should take part, because it raises money for good causes and there’s a decent party afterwards at the club.

“I meant it as a bit of fun and a chance to raise money for local charities. I certainly didn’t expect us to win it!”

The original quartet began training in August under the guidance of Arthur Williams, 69, an accomplished rowing instructor, who was equally surprised by their win. He said: “I have to give them credit. They were a pleasure to work with because they were keen to learn and they have a good sense of humour.”

The team were dealt a blow just two days before the race when their most athletic team member, daily gym-goer Robert Kinsella, was forced to withdraw after being called into hospital for a hand operation, and he was substituted on the day by established rower Richard Phipps, who took part in eight races for different teams during the day. He said: “It’s been a very long, tiring day for me though it was a pleasure to step in and help ‘Love Dem Oars’. They’re a great bunch of lads and we’ve raised money for two good causes.”

The team are still accepting sponsorship money and anyone wishing to donate can do so by visiting: goo.gl/CbPTLS

Written by Marcus Stead

September 29, 2016 at 2:25 am

Posted in Cardiff

The Day I Met Owen Smith

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‘Where’s Wally?’ Labour leadership candidate Owen Smith

The context was the 2006 by-election in Blaenau Gwent following the death of independent MP Peter Law from a brain tumour.

I was doing a week’s work experience at the BBC Wales Political Unit (a MUCH bigger operation in those days than it is today), and spent quite a bit of time shadowing Owain Clarke, who is now BBC Wales’s Health Correspondent.

At the previous year’s general election, Law, an established but outspoken Labour Welsh Assembly member, had fallen out with the party over its policy of all-women shortlists. He quit the party and stood as an independent candidate at the general election, despite having recently been diagnosed with a brain tumour. He won the seat, and remained both an MP and an AM for the remainder of his life.

Following his death, Law’s widow, Trish, and his election agent, Dai Davies, set up Blaenau Gwent People’s Voice. In the subsequent by-elections, Trish contested the Assembly seat and Davies the Westminster seat. Both won their respective elections.

I found both Trish and Davies to be delightful people, really down-to-earth types. They later fell out, but Davies was a decent, hard-working MP between 2005 and 2010.

Owen Smith was the Labour candidate for the Westminster seat, in what was an increasingly dirty campaign. The then-Welsh Secretary, the odious Peter Hain, told people they ‘ought to think very carefully’ before voting for Law and Davies. The implication was that the area wouldn’t get public grant money spent on it if they didn’t elect official Labour representatives.

Smith looked, sounded and behaved in exactly the same way as he does now – slippery, opportunistic, on-message. There was one comical moment when we were trying to interview his agent on the street. I was wearing a shirt and tie (though I probably looked a bit scruffy) while Owain Clarke was even more casually dressed.

As Clarke was setting up the camera, she assumed I was the interviewer and Clarke was my cameraman – in fact, Clarke was both interviewer and cameraman, I was ‘observing’. She turned to me and asked, “What questions will you be asking me?” I gave her a sharp rebuke, “I am not the interviewer – Owain is, but if I was the interviewer, you can be sure I wouldn’t be telling you my questions in advance.” 

A bit later on, we interviewed Owen Smith outside the house of an elderly Labour supporter. As we, and other assembled press gathered, the resident, an old woman, began shouting by her front door about how all working people had a duty to support Labour candidates no matter what, blah, blah blah.

Clarke interviewed Smith, and I stood by and watched. He was as ‘on message’ as ever. The interview ended, and Smith spent a few moments talking to other people stood around us. The old woman started shouting again, and then she fell over, and appeared injured. I’ll never forget what happened next:

Clarke and I had spent several minutes chatting to each other after the interview with Smith ended, and this delayed Clarke dismantling his camera equipment. When the woman fell, the first thing Smith did was turn around to see that our camera was still up. Then, and then only, did he go to assist the woman.

Smith’s instincts in that split second were to see that our camera was still rolling, then and then only did he go to assist her.

That tells you a LOT about the sort of man he is.

Written by Marcus Stead

August 29, 2016 at 7:43 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

Welsh Snooker’s Next Generation

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Wales junior snooker internationals L-R: Oscar Vaughan, Jacob Boyle, Ryan Bowgen and Alfie Davies

Anthony Davies, the former world number 26, now combines his role as Wales’s national snooker coach with a day job working at an autistic college for 16-24-year-olds in Sully near Cardiff.

Two of Davies’s snooker pupils, Jacob Boyle and Oscar Vaughan, have autism, and recently made their debuts for Wales in the under 14 team at the Celtic Challenge.

Davies, now aged 46, said: “I have to approach coaching them in a slightly different way. I explain to the other youngsters that Oscar and Jacob are a bit special and they sometimes lose their tempers when frustration kicks in.

“I’m lucky because they’re both passionate about it. They want to be here, they love being here, and I try to make it fun.”

Boyle, 12, from Cardiff, first became interested in snooker as a toddler while watching the World Championship on TV alongside his father, Joe, who said: “I don’t know whether it was the colours or the numbers that first sparked Jacob’s interest, but he quickly became very enthusiastic, and started commentating in front of the TV.

“We bought him a miniature table, and by the time he was six or seven he was playing on a 4ft table. About a year after that, he wanted to play on a full-sized table, so I took him to the [now closed] Riley’s club on City Rd near our home, and I saw a poster for a boys’ coaching club. We turned up one Sunday and it went from there, and now a few years later he’s about to represent his country.”

As well as commentating on the game in front of the TV, Boyle is avid recorder of results and statistics for both snooker and darts.

Vaughan, 14, attends Cantonian High School in Cardiff and began playing snooker around five years ago. He said: “My favourite players are Ronnie O’Sullivan and Judd Trump. I don’t have a career plan but I’m really looking forward to playing for Wales.”

Written by Marcus Stead

August 29, 2016 at 7:30 pm

Posted in Sport

Team GB’s Olympic Glory: A Sense of Perspective

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What is the point of sport? What is the point of the Olympics? If you play sport for a living, the answer is obvious – you’re in it to win, to become the best you can possibly be, and, yes, to make money.

If you’re a spectator, there are four main reasons why you watch. In no particular order: You want to be entertained; you enjoy watching the pursuit of excellence; you find it a form of escapism from the humdrum of daily life; you identify with certain individuals or teams, and because of this, your mood correlates with their success or lack of it.

There is nothing wrong with any of these four reasons for watching sport. I tick all four boxes. But we should be very careful not to exaggerate the extent to which it impacts on our own lives. Collecting Olympic medals is becoming a very expensive hobby for Great Britain and Northern Ireland. More on that later.

In terms of medals, Britain has never had it so good. ‘Team GB’, as it’s now known, came home from Rio de Janeiro with 27 gold medals, 23 silvers and 17 bronzes.

Let us take nothing away from the competitors. Success does not come without enormous sacrifices on their part, regardless of how much money is thrown at their sports. This means early morning and late night training sessions, as well as missing out on parties and various other pleasures young people enjoy.

Credit must also be given to their families, who have to make sacrifices of their own, both in terms of finance and of time used ferrying their children around. There’s no denying the fact that the majority of Britain’s Olympians come from comfortable, middle class backgrounds, and have parents who have the time and the means to support them, but they still have to put the work in.

Mo FarahMany of the competitors are a true credit to our nation. Mo Farah is an extraordinary individual who overcame extreme hardship as a child in Somalia to become arguably the greatest British athlete of all time.

Kate Richardson-Walsh’s inspiring words about hard work and achievement during her interview following the gold medal hockey match should be played in every school in the country.

Lutalo Muhammad was utterly devastated after missing out on a gold medal in taekwondo by a single second, but still handled his media duties with tremendous dignity.

The Islamic community in Britain would do well to hail Farah and Muhammad both as role models to impressionable young Muslims, and as examples to wider society of the positive contribution members of their faith make to our nation.

Yet there is another, less appealing side to the Olympic fever that we are told has infected the entire country over the last few weeks. People older than me will remember how Brits used to ridicule the Soviet nations in the 1970s and 80s for ruthlessly targeting Olympic glory by whatever means necessary as a political propaganda tool, while their countries were grim, shabby, secretive, authoritarian dictatorships. We’re now doing something very similar ourselves, albeit using money, rather than performance-enhancing drugs.

Our national debt is increasing by £5,170 per second, and is currently somewhere in the region of £1.7 trillion, more than double what it was in 2010, in spite of George Osborne’s ‘cuts’ and ‘austerity’ agenda. UK productivity is currently at the lowest level since records began, yet we work far longer hours than those who are doing better.  Our armed forces are a  fraction of the size they once were. Our public services are creaking and inefficient. Millions of people still have to travel on creaking Pacer trains that should have been retired for scrap decades ago. Libraries are closing, council provisions are being cut back, and the bins are being emptied much less frequently. The success of strangers who happen to come from the same country at us in a sporting festival on the other side of the world will not change any of this one iota.

There is no relationship between the number of Olympic medals a nation wins and its overall wellbeing. If British people were given a choice, would the majority have swapped the London 2012 medal tally for the economic growth Australia experienced around that time? They probably would.

Or what about Singapore, who went from Third World to First World during the second half of the 20th century, and is now one of the most developed countries on earth, but didn’t have a single Olympic gold medal to its name until Joseph Schooling won the 100 meter butterfly this year?

National Lottery.jpgThe turnaround in Team GB’s fortunes began with the creation of the National Lottery in 1994, which created a steady flow of millions of pounds that was invested in ‘elite’ athletes.

The money was channelled in very specific ways. It was targeted at hiring coaches, buying equipment and subsidising athletes in events where competition is weak. They went for the keirin cycling rather than the men’s 100 meter sprint, and the kayaking rather than the 110 meter hurdles.

And it paid off. The process began to bear fruit as the children of the mid-1990s became the medal winners of the 2008 Olympics, and the medal haul has grown with every four year cycle since.

Again, well done to the competitors involved. I’m happy for them. But their success in half-empty arenas in Brazil in no way reflects the overall state of Great Britain and Northern Ireland.

The BBC appeared to lose all sense of proportion during the Olympics. Far too much of the Olympic coverage itself consisted of BBC staff interviewing each other, killing time with endless waffle and platitudes about how amazing Team GB were, swapping journalistic impartiality for sycophantic cheerleading.

For instance, quite a few BBC presenters and commentators need reminding that there are no teams called ‘We’ and ‘They’. The BBC’s sport department has developed an irritating habit of treating sport as a branch of light entertainment in recent years, and this was evident in the overall tone of the coverage, from Helen Skelton, who seems lovely but still has the persona of a Blue Peter presenter, to the talented but over-exposed Clare Balding appearing excessively impressed by each and every achievement of a Team GB member.

Far worse was the way Team GB’s success was treated by BBC News, who day after day relegated important stories down the running order to make way for Soviet-style propaganda about how well our competitors were doing. Sport has its place in TV news bulletins, but only in highly exceptional circumstances should it be placed at the top of the bulletin.

People who relied on BBC News for information could be forgiven for thinking that for the two-and-a-half weeks of the Olympics, the conflict in Syria had stopped, the situation in Turkey had stabilised, and nothing unpleasant or tragic happened in Britain.

Perhaps the worst example of this came on the Tuesday night of the second week, when the BBC’s flagship Ten O’Clock News was delayed for an hour and a half while we waited for a three minute race, which Jason Kenny was expected to win. Apparently it was too much to ask of viewers to switch to BBC Two at 10pm as scheduled to witness the race.

When the news eventually started at 11:30pm, the lead story was, you’ve guessed it, a report on Jason Kenny winning the race I’d watched just minutes earlier, followed by one about his partner, Laura Trott winning her race earlier in the evening, followed by a further report summarising Team GB’s achievements that day.

In the minds of the BBC News editors, this was worthy of top billing, ahead of Anjem Choudary’s conviction, huge tax fines and the possibility of ‘special status’ for Britain in the upcoming Brexit talks. All three stories will affect the people of Britain to a far greater extent than two heavily-subsidised cyclists winning their respective races.

I am a sports fan and always enjoy the Olympics, but I keep its importance in the grand scheme of things firmly in perspective. I am also very aware that a significant number of people have no interest whatsoever in the Olympics, and were extremely irritated by the BBC’s propaganda machine at work in what were supposed to be ‘news’ bulletins.

It is also worth asking whether money targeted at a tiny number of elite athletes is the most appropriate use of National Lottery funds. Each medal won by Team GB equated to £4.1 million of lottery money.

There is a strong argument that in these austere times, the money could be better invested in keeping community facilities open and well-equipped including swimming pools, leisure centres and recreation grounds, as well as ensuring schools do not have to sell off their playing fields, which places severe limitations on the access children have to sports that require a large playing area.

Questions are also being asked as to whether lottery money is always being used for its intended purpose. While British cycling’s headquarters are a hub of activity focussed on Olympic excellence, there are increasing suspicions that the training base of the boxing squad in Sheffield is being treated as a finishing school, as a number of current professionals take advantage of facilities and coaching available.

With this in mind, would it not be better to divert a generous portion of this money towards amateur boxing clubs the length and breadth of Great Britain that have bills to pay and facilities to maintain?

It is these clubs that get youngsters off the streets and instil the discipline and skills required to start their journey in boxing. Without these clubs and the volunteers who give up their time to maintain them, there would be no Team GB.

Yes, it’s wonderful to see Team GB winning all these medals. Well done to them all. No doubt they’ll be richly rewarded in the honours system, and in some cases, with sponsorship opportunities. In six months’ time, quite a few of them will have faded into relative obscurity, known to few outside discerning followers of their particular sports.

But as a nation, we need to rediscover a sense of perspective. A heavily-subsidised athlete winning a medal is not more worthy of leading a news bulletin ahead of a city being bombed in Syria, or a major political development in Britain.

A child might be inspired by Adam Peaty winning a gold medal, but he may not have the opportunity to try to emulate his hero because the council has closed his local swimming pool.

As a nation, we need to regain a sense of perspective about the level of importance we place on the Olympics and the heavily-subsidised elite athletes. The Olympics are interesting to many, but not to all. They bring temporary enjoyment to many, but not to all. But they make a lasting difference to the lives of very, very few.

This reality should not be lost on the editors of newspapers or broadcast news bulletins, nor on the ‘powers that be’ who decide how National Lottery funding is spent.

Written by Marcus Stead

August 25, 2016 at 1:07 am

Posted in Uncategorized

Theatre Review: King Charles III at the Everyman Theatre, Cheltenham

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This play isn’t for everyone. If you have no interest in constitutional matters, or are not a serious thinker, it’s probably best that you stay away.

I have long believed that the death of our current Queen will have a far deeper and more profound effect on this country than most people realise. When that sad day comes, as it inevitably will at some point within the next 15 years or so, a lot we currently take for granted will suddenly and abruptly become far less certain.

Nobody under the age of 70 has any meaningful recollection of a time when Elizabeth II wasn’t our Head of State. Our current Queen is kind and dignified, but it is a myth that she has remained carefully neutral on political matters.

For example, she did not speak out when she might have done about the surrender of our independence to the European Union, which badly damaged her own position, turning her from a Sovereign into just another EU citizen.

In 1998, Her Majesty went out of her way to endorse the Belfast (Good Friday) agreement, and helped Mr Blair bamboozle Ulster’s Protestants into voting ‘Yes’ to a gradual and on-going surrender to the IRA godfathers.

In her 2004 Christmas Day broadcast, she proclaimed that ‘diversity is indeed a strength’ effectively endorsing the multiculturalism many oppose and dislike.

In other words, the Queen has always sided with, and aided, the government of the day, even if it damages herself and the Crown. Her reign has been steady but highly predictable.

By contrast, Prince Charles is a man of unfashionable opinions and strong conservative instincts (not Tory, by the way, a party which often does some very un-conservative things). I am sorry that the climate change lobby has got to him, but he has a great deal of value to say when he expresses opinions that embarrass the government on matters such as selection in education, rural affairs, medicine, social cohesion, opportunities for young people and modern architecture.

And it’s this entirely plausible conflict between Charles and the government of the day that provides the pretext of this play. The plot is relatively simple to understand: The Queen has died, and Charles, as King, holds his first weekly audience with a slippery Labour Prime Minister, Tristram Evans, who explains that he will shortly be asking Charles for royal assent for a parliamentary Bill that will severely restrict the freedom of the press.

The King’s respect for our country’s ancient liberties kick in, overriding any personal bitterness he may feel for the treatment he has received in the press over many decades. He refuses to support or sign the Bill, thereby invalidating the unwritten rule that the Monarch will give royal assent to all Bills passed by Parliament. The battle between government (supported by a two-faced Tory Opposition leader) and Monarch develops, yet Charles stands firm. He appears to share my sentiment that Parliament, on all sides, is dominated by career politicians who think and behave like teenage social liberals who know little and care nothing of our national heritage and ancient liberties.

Charles attempts to exercise his right to dissolve parliament and call fresh elections, which triggers protests, especially in London. The Duchess of Cambridge plots a solution, which involves William publicly offering to be a mediator between the government and his father. He announces this at a press conference without his father’s knowledge, and, seeing this as betrayal, Charles reacts angrily but ultimately finds himself forced to abdicate in favour of William (and Kate), who signs the Bill and restores the status quo between king and parliament.

The playwright Mike Bartlett, still only 35, clearly has a deep appreciation of Shakespeare and has borrowed ideas from Macbeth, with the ghost of Diana meddling as she plays Charles and William against each other, while the Duchess of Cambridge is revealed to have a ruthless, cruel and ambitious streak.

Robert Powell, one of Britain’s most versatile and diligent actors, is excellent as Charles, while his appearance has barely changed at all since I watched him alongside Jasper Carrott in The Detectives during my childhood in the 1990s.

Jennifer Bryden is spookily convincing as the Duchess of Cambridge. She looks, sounds and dresses exactly like her, while adding a much darker side to her character.

Another stand-out performance comes from Tim Treloar as the shifty, devious Prime Minister with a comically exaggerated Welsh accent thrown in for some light relief, while Lucy Phelps as Prince Harry’s rebellious, socialist, republican girlfriend Jess Edwards provides an important subplot.

A favourite scene of mine is when Prince Harry gets talking to a kebab vendor, who ponders: “When does Britain get so cut down, that it’s not Britain anymore?” He goes on to list the shrinking of the armed forces, and the demise of the NHS and Post Office as signs that Britain is a shadow of the country it once was.

Director Rupert Goold’s careful casting and attention to detail gave the play authenticity. It gets the balance right between entertainment, fun and wit, while still providing a powerful commentary on the monarch’s role in society and an entirely possible conflict in the not too distant future.

The play left me even more concerned about the future of this country than I was before. Britain is an increasingly divided and mistrusting country, and there are simmering tensions behind the orderly façade of law-abiding civility. The political classes consist of youthful, careerist politicians, PR men, retread Marxists and Europhiles who think the country should be governed by bureaucrats in Brussels.

The political establishment is loathed by millions, with both major political parties kept afloat by State funding and dodgy millionaires, rather than the membership fees and donations of ordinary people. If Charles did get involved in such a conflict for real, he could, with some legitimacy, claim to speak for many of the majority of people who did not vote for the government of the day.

Reform of the political establishment is a much more pressing concern than reform of the Monarchy, the House of Lords and the judiciary.

One of the biggest contrasts in the play is between the reassuringly wise yet outspoken Charles and William and Kate, who are youthful and popular.

William and Kate’s popularity, both in the play and in real life, is worthy of further analysis. Unlike Charles, they have never expressed a controversial view on anything. Like the current Queen, they play it safe and are never likely to criticise, let alone attempt to block, the government of the day.

Their popularity is superficial. Young British people, especially women in their teens and 20s, very often treat celebrity gossip with a religious reverence, and feel they must take a deep interest to fit in with their friends. They are interested in William and Kate in much the same way they are interested in the Beckhams and the Kardashians. It’s the celebrity they want, not their role as a constitutional monarch and defender of ancient liberties, which few know nor care very much about thanks to nearly half a century of inadequate comprehensive education.

If you managed to make it this far into my review, you’re the type of person who absolutely must go and see the play if it tours within reasonable commuting distance. I travelled from my Cardiff home to Cheltenham, and it was worth every penny and every bit of inevitable inconvenience on the creaking rail network.

This play deserves much greater attention, and should be made into a film or a TV serial. It provides a thought-provoking yet entertaining peek into a scenario that may well unfold for real one day quite soon. 10/10

Written by Marcus Stead

March 6, 2016 at 6:18 am

Preparing the BBC for the Next Decade

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Here is a short analysis of the situation the BBC currently finds itself in. In it, I look at how the BBC can prepare for the next decade and continue to do what it does best under the backdrop of tighter funding and a government that is ideologically opposed to its existence in its current form.

The BBC prepared for the digital revolution remarkably well during the 1990s. For all his faults (and they are many), the then-Director General, John Birt invested both money and resources in creating, building and maintaining the BBC’s online presence as the internet became an integral part of people’s lives in what was, looking back, an astonishingly short period of time.

Praise too for Birt’s successor, Greg Dyke, who pulled a masterstroke with his pivotal role in creating Freeview. As he admitted much later, Freeview flooded the market with ‘dumb’ boxes, with no card slots or encryption technology,  meaning they were incapable of turning the BBC’s channels into ‘pay as you go ‘ services at a later date.  This effectively secured the long-term future of the licence fee.

However, as the multi-channel era took off, the corporation lost focus, and began to battle on too many fronts. The licence fee ‘pot’ was spread too thinly, there were too many new services, and too many attempts to mimic the commercial sector.

A combination of the new licence fee settlement, recently-announced initiatives plus political pressures ahead of next year’s charter renewal means the BBC needs to save a total of £650 million over several years.

This chart is several years out of daBBC spending graphicte but it provides a rough idea of how much the various BBC services cost, but there are a few glaring omissions, such as the £75 million it now provides to fund Welsh language channel S4C.

Yet it provides an adequate guide to how money could be saved without compromising what the BBC does best.

Here are my suggestions:

Axe BBC Three (saving £112.9 million per year). Yes, we know this is becoming an online-only service from January, but there is a strong case for closing it completely. It was created with the aim of attracting the ‘yoof’ audience and being a sort of young, ‘innovative’ creative hub, but there has been a huge amount of trash on the channel like Freaky Eaters and My Manboobs and Mewhich have no place on a public service broadcaster and are clearly attempts to compete with the ITV2 and MTV demographic. Most of BBC Three’s successes have been imports, repeats from other BBC channels and films. If, as its supporters claim, it really has been a successful creative hub for comedy and other ‘talent’ (I see little evidence of it personally), the controllers of BBC One and BBC Two need to become more creative themselves when commissioning new output, especially comedy.

Axe BBC 6 Music (saving £11.7 million per year).  This is, to a large extent, providing a copycat service to those available on commercial digital radio, however, what’s innovative about it could be continued by moving it to off-peak slots on Radio 1 and Radio 2.

Axe BBC Asian Network (saving £13.0 million per year). We are a multiracial society, and that is welcome, but an increasingly large number of people, including our own Prime Minister, have gone on record as saying they do not believe in multiculturalism, which means something quite different. In a stable society at peace with itself, you can have many races, and many faiths, but you can only have one culture, in other words, one set of laws and values upon which we all live. It therefore follows that it is unwise to spend licence fee money on a service that encourages Asian people who have made Britain their home to look backwards towards the place from which they came, rather than towards their future here with us. It’s the role of a public service broadcaster to help them to integrate and adapt, rather than to segregate. Besides, from what I’ve heard of the Asian Network, it appears to be a largely Pakistani and Bangladeshi service, rather than a truly Asian one. Plus it’s only available on FM in a small part of Britain.

Axe the BBC News Channel (saving £57.5 million per year). This was a well-intentioned idea of John Birt’s when it was launched in 1997, but technology has moved on rapidly in the years since, as is the way we consume news. In 1997, the internet was still in its infancy and smartphones were some years away. Today,the vast majority of people have the internet in their homes and an ever-increasing majority have smartphones. The concept of 24 hour news channels is far from obsolete, but with the BBC providing news across a plethora of platforms, the BBC News Channel is an unnecessary luxury in this day and age.

In addition, I propose major reforms to the BBC’s local radio network (current budget approximately £146.5 million per year). 

At its best, BBC local radio provides an excellent public service for the areas it serves, while news and sports coverage has largely disappeared from many commercial stations during the last 15 years.

At its worst, BBC local radio provides endless hours of stale, formulaic programming, typically phone-ins about dog poo before Granny Adams pops in to the studio to tell us about her prize-winning parsnips.

Another interesting issue is guests. If, for example, an author has a new book they want to promote, they will often be booked to do a number of interviews on BBC local stations across the country. They will be asked to attend the nearest BBC studio to where they live, and will, over the course of a few hours, do a series of near-identical interviews to different BBC local stations. This strikes me as expensive and unnecessary.

I would change this, so that there are eight hours of truly local public service broadcasting throughout the day, but during other periods (lighter, entertainment-based programmes), one programme would be networked on all 39 BBC local stations in England, as well as BBC Radio Wales, Scotland and Ulster, with short news and travel bulletins still remaining local throughout the day.

A typical weekday schedule on BBC local stations would look something like this.

6:00am Breakfast (local) – News, sport, travel, weather and entertainment for your area. A lighter, localised version of the Today programme.

9:00am Simon Bates with the Golden Hour (networked from Plymouth) – Bates already presents the breakfast show on BBC Radio Devon, which can continue, and he follows this with the Golden Hour, which could be networked to the whole country.

10:00am Jason Mohammad (networked from Cardiff) – Music, chat, competitions and special guests.

12:00pm The Lunchtime Phone-In (local) – Political figures from your area answer your questions. In the second hour, experts from law, medicine, cookery, gardening etc take your calls.

2:00pm Martin Kelner (networked from Leeds) Two hours of entertainment, chat and music.

4:00pm Drivetime (local)  News, sport, travel, weather and entertainment for your area. A localised version of the 5 Live Drive programme.

6:00pm Sport (local) – Sports news and discussion for your area.

7:00pm Mark Forrest (networked) – An improved, livelier version of what’s already in the slot. There will remain local opt-outs for live sports commentaries.

10:00pm Allan Beswick (networked from Manchester) – The king of late-night phone-in radio in the North West during the 1980s returned to his old timeslot earlier this year, and this would be networked to the entire country.

1:00am As Radio 5 Live

This, I believe, strikes a solid balance between protecting, even improving what BBC local radio does best, while removing the bland, the formulaic, and the duplication of services. Across 42 stations, the savings would be considerable.

Back to television: There are rumours that the BBC Four TV channel is under threat. With a budget of £67.8 million per year, it’s a bargain, and is a superb example of what the BBC does best. It is, without doubt, genuine public service broadcasting. It MUST be protected at all costs. It is distinctive, and is not a gap that could be easily filled by the commercial sector if it closed.

One final note: The BBC needs to stop competing with the commercial sector when it comes to populist, formulaic programming. By all means innovate and create its own popular formats (Strictly Come Dancing is an example of something the BBC created that became mainstream and popular) but there is no case for the BBC spending £22 million to buy the rights to the format of The Voice. That is a clear abuse and waste of licence fee payers’ money. This sort of thing belongs on the commercial sector.

These proposals would save the BBC £280 million per year, at a conservative estimate, and I haven’t even touched on the way the BBC could save money internally, with a simplified, smaller management structure and more frugal use of resources.

These are tough, radical proposals, but if carried through, would reinforce the BBC’s commitment to public service broadcasting, while also continuing to inform, educate and entertain.

Thoughts welcome……………

Written by Marcus Stead

September 8, 2015 at 6:23 pm

Posted in Comment, Opinion, Review