Archive for the ‘Uncategorized’ Category
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.
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.
Many 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?
The 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.
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
Others have written plenty about Richie Benaud the player, and Richie Benaud the commentator, but there’s a lot about Richie Benaud the person that hasn’t been given the attention it deserves in the obituary pages during the past week.
Benaud the captain was arguably the greatest cricket has seen in the post-war era. His on-field achievements have been well-documented elsewhere, but his skills as an innovator went well beyond the boundary ropes.
From the time he became Australia captain at the start of the 1958/59 season, Benaud understood the increasing importance of good public relations. After each day’s play, he would hold a press conference for British and Australian reporters, something that had never been done before, and wasn’t done again until many decades later.
These press conferences weren’t the cliché-ridden, predictable affairs that we’ve become accustomed to in recent years. Benaud talked candidly and was never evasive in his answers. He would talk about the day’s play, clear up any misunderstandings about incident or doubtful decisions, and he was fair in his assessments of players from both sides. In effect, he more-or-less wrote their articles for them.
When touring England in 1956 and 1961, Benaud took a great interest in the BBC’s early television commentaries. After the 1956 tour, he stayed behind and took a job with the News of the World as a police roundsman. Unlike so many of today’s retired sports stars who think they’re God’s gift to television once they’ve been retired for five minutes, Benaud was serious about making it in all forms of journalism, and was prepared to start at the bottom, doing the less glamorous jobs. His relationship with the paper lasted more than half a century until its very last edition in 2011, in which he wrote an excellent column which emphasised the importance of subeditors, something too many newspaper owners nowadays see fit to cut back upon.
Around the same time, he managed to arrange a crash TV course with the BBC. He was a fast learner and soon absorbed a great deal of information about the use of cameras and tips for commentary.
One of his tasks was to spend a day shadowing one of his heroes, the horse racing commentator Sir Peter O’Sullevan (who is still very sharp aged 97). Sir Peter instructed Benaud to remain silent, take notes, write down any questions he had, and at the end of the day they would go for a drink and he could ask his questions.
Benaud made his first BBC radio commentary in 1960 and soon moved into television, a relationship that would last until the corporation lost the rights to televise England cricket in 1999. Further work followed in Australia, initially with ABC and then as an integral part of Kerry Packer’s revolution with Channel 9, who he would continue working for until shortly before his death (a voiceover obituary of Philip Hughes was his last work for the broadcaster).
The newspaper columnist Richard Littlejohn once asked Michael Parkinson what one characteristic all the successful people he’d interviewed had in common – the answer was they were all very hard workers. This could certainly be said of Benaud. From the time he married his second wife Daphne in 1967, she would carefully plan his whole year in his diary, and there would be few, if any, idle days.
If he was not working, he would probably be playing golf. During the British winter, he would be in Australia running his public relations and sports news agency, or commentating for Channel 9.
He would be up every day at dawn, writing, telexing, or even fitting in a round of golf before a day in the commentary box. It was quite common for colleagues to be arriving at the breakfast table at 8:00am to find Benaud returning from a round of golf.
After a busy day there would usually be dinner parties at night. The hospitality was superb – he certainly appreciated good food and fine wine, but in the background you could be sure to hear the ticking of telex and tape machines, later fax machines and the ping of emails arriving.
Benaud usually ended the Australian winter by reporting on a few golf tournaments around the world before arriving in England with Daphne in May, where they would set up their office at their flat. In September, he and Daphne would usually go on a gastronomic tour of France where he would fulfil various business commitments he had in the country.
He’d typically arrive in the commentary box fairly early, complete with two battered leather cases and in later years his laptop. During his off-duty moments, he could often be found studying the Sporting Life and Racing Post, where he had a decades-long friendly rivalry with Jack Bannister in picking winners which lasted until weeks before his death.
During the long BBC era, a full day’s commentary would end with Benaud appearing in front of camera, still immaculately dressed, often in his cream jacket, to record presenting links for the late night highlights, which included a slick and acute summary of the day’s play. He’d do this from the top of his head, without notes, and would cue in various film inserts.
When the rights transferred to Channel 4 in the summer of 1999, Benaud moved with them. The tone of the Channel 4 coverage was quite different to what preceded it. Far greater use was made of technology and it rapidly made the old BBC coverage appear somewhat staid.
Benaud adapted his style to the Channel 4 coverage – his commentary style became a little looser, and he appeared to be given more freedom to use his dry sense of humour. He probably sounded more like the Richie Benaud viewers in Australia had been hearing for many years. Channel 4 never used him as a presenter but he was still regularly seen in front of camera at lunch and teatime features.
Analysing the final decade of Benaud’s life and career is a little more tricky. He famously retired from British TV commentary after the 2005 Ashes, turning down an offer to be part of the Sky Sports team when they took over the rights the following summer, but that wasn’t quite the end of his relationship with British television. His voice was once again heard on the BBC, who took the Channel 9 commentary when they showed highlights of the 2006/07 Ashes series down under, and the same applied when ITV had highlights of the 2010/11 Ashes. At the 2009 Ashes series in England, he appeared as an on-screen analyst for Channel 5’s highlights programme during the Saturday of each Test, though he did not commentate at all.
Ever the professional, he instructed three or four very close friends, whose judgement he trusted, to be completely straight and tell him if they felt he was ‘losing it’ as a commentator. Commentators in other sports had gone on too long: Eddie Waring (rugby league) really was suffering from dementia in his final years. John Motson (football) began a decline in the late 1990s and became a parody of himself. Tony Green (darts) lost the plot years ago.
Thankfully, Benaud never did ‘decline’, but there was a significant change in the way Channel 9 covered cricket that did not suit his style. In his final years, Channel 9 moved from two to three man commentary teams.
One of Benaud’s strengths is that he knew when to say nothing and understood the power of the pause. He also would develop a talking point during his half-hour commentary stint. The three-man booths meant a more conversational style and near-constant ‘banter’ between the commentators which prevented him from working in the way he always had.
A planned retirement from commentary in 2010 to focus on studio work and features never materialised. He continued to be heard on commentary, though less frequently than before, and as a summariser, rather than describing the play-by-play action. He was effectively the ‘third man’ of the booth, and he would have to fight to get a word in edgeways. Indeed, there were at least two half-hour commentary stints in later years where he didn’t say a single word for the duration.
His commentary career ended when, in October 2013, he crashed his vintage 1965 Sunbeam Alpine into a wall, sustaining a cracked sternum and shoulder injuries. Friends said he seemed more upset at having written off his car than the fact he’d sustained injuries which would take many months to recover from.
A planned return to the Channel 9 commentary box in 2014/15 was prevented when he was diagnosed with skin cancer, a likely consequence of many years of playing in the blazing sun without sun cream or a hat in less enlightened times, which ultimately prevented him from coming anywhere close to the age of 104 his mother reached.
During his final summer with Channel 4 in 2005, Benaud regularly referred to the long-running ‘Slip, Slop, Slap’ advertising campaign on Australian television that told viewers to slip on a shirt, slop on sun cream, and slap on a hat. Unfortunately, that advice came decades too late for him.
Benaud’s advice to commentators is timeless. It was relevant when he started in 1960, it’s relevant now, and it’ll still be relevant in another 50 years’ time.
When it comes to TV cricket commentary, Benaud set the standard for others to follow. The modern-day Sky Sports coverage is technically brilliant, but it lacks the joie de vivre of the Channel 4 team Benaud spearheaded. The Sky Sports commentary team often feels like a clique of middle-aged, grey former England captains. It’s one-dimensional, lacks any ‘light and shade’, and is punctuated by prattle about rounds of golf and wine cellars – both passions of Benaud’s, but the key difference was when he was in the commentary box, he made the players on the field, not himself, the focus of his attention.
Let’s be clear about one thing: Jeremy Clarkson was got rid of because he subjected a colleague to an attack that left him requiring hospital treatment, which was preceded by a prolonged period verbal abuse that amounted to bullying.
Initial reports of a handbags ‘fracas’ between Clarkson and producer Oisin Tymon following a long day’s filming were underplayed. The truth was far more serious.
That’s why the BBC made the decision, not because he’s a very different beast to most of the corporation’s staff.
They’d have taken exactly the same course of action had it been those who fit the BBC mould better, such as their favourites Stephen Fry or David Tennant, and the same would apply to the legions of managers that dominate the BBC in their unofficial uniform of pink open-neck shirts and designer stubble (like Alan Yentob and Danny Cohen, more on them later).
You can’t go around launching physical attacks on your colleagues, and yes, there are limits on what you can say when shouting at subordinates, even in a high-pressure environment.
It doesn’t excuse his behaviour, but the BBC were wrong turn a blind eye to the warning signs in the months leading up to the incident by increasing Clarkson’s workload.
His friends and colleagues had known that he had been fragile for some time following a difficult 2014 – his mother had died, his marriage had broken down, he’d had health problems, and the N-word scandal in the middle of the year had left him clinging on to the Top Gear job by the tips of his fingers.
Whether in sport, the movies, music or TV, it’s a fact that talented people are often difficult to manage, and the BBC didn’t manage Clarkson at all well for the 12 months prior to his departure.
However much the BBC bigwigs hated Clarkson and everything he stood for, the fact is he was the frontman for one of the most successful brands it has ever had.
It’s worth remembering that for the first 24 years of its life, Top Gear had a more sombre magazine format that mixed reviews of new cars with features on motoring safety issues and the impact of new government legislation. Presenters in its early years included former newsreader Angela Rippon, as well as the science-based academic William Woollard and the calm, thoughtful, understated motoring journalist Chris Goffey.
The emphasis began to shift towards entertainment from the time Clarkson joined in 1988, initially as a bit-part reporter. Within a few years, he had become the programme’s main presenter, and with Clarkson at the helm, it was regularly BBC Two’s most-watched programme of the week throughout the 1990s.
The old Top Gear began to lose its way towards the end of the 1990s as long-standing presenters left to be replaced by relative unknowns, and following Clarkson’s first departure in 2001, the programme appeared to have run its course and was axed later that year, with many of the then-presenters going on to take an almost-identical format to Channel 5 under the name Fifth Gear (a programme still going strong 14 years later, now broadcast on History).
The following year, the BBC relaunched Top Gear with a radical new look. A returning Clarkson was at the helm of a new studio-based format that went for mass entertainment, humour and controversy, complete with sidekicks Richard Hammond and James May (who replaced Jason Dawe from the second post-relaunch series), which helped build a chemistry and rapport that remains fresh well over a decade later.
Clarkson owned a stake in the new format and could share in its commercial success. Thanks in no small part to Clarkson’s presenting style and very, very strong work ethic, the new-look Top Gear rapidly became a flagship of the BBC’s Sunday evening schedule, providing a welcome alternative to the genteel dramas that generally dominate the timeslot.
The format’s success was good news for Clarkson, who sold his stake in the franchise for a reported £13 million in 2012, but also great news for the BBC, for whom the Top Gear has become big, big business.
In January 2015, the new series of Top Gear on BBC Two was simulcast in more than 50 countries across Oceania, Africa and the Middle East, with a further 10 countries in Asia showing it within 24 hours of its original transmission, including Singapore, Hong Kong, Malaysia, Taiwan, Korea, Cambodia, Indonesia, Thailand and Mongolia.
Then there are the format rights, which the BBC sells to overseas broadcasters to make their own versions, as well as live arena shows, the Top Gear magazine, repeats on Dave, BBC World and other channels globally, DVD releases, and other branded merchandise. Not bad for a series that began as a regional programme for BBC Midlands in 1977!
All these factors combined means that Top Gear is now worth somewhere in the region of £150 million per year to the BBC. To put that into perspective, the annual budget for BBC Radio Four is £115.9 million, the entire BBC local radio network in England is £146.5 million, while on TV, BBC Three’s annual budget is £112.9 million, BBC Four’s is £67.8 million, while the BBC News Channel costs £57.5 million.
Whichever way you look at it, if Top Gear was axed, it would create quite a shortfall in the BBC’s income.
The BIG question is this: Which is bringing in the money? Is it the Top Gear brand/format? Or is it Jeremy Clarkson, Richard Hammond, James May and the senior production team?
Yes, the BBC owns the Top Gear name and franchise, but without Clarkson and co, how much use is it to them?
Clarkson and co can come up with a new programme name, tweak the format and keep going with another broadcaster, but the BBC has a far tougher task in making Top Gear a success with Chris Evans, Joss Stone or whoever else at the helm. They own a programme name and a format, but not much else.
Would the British public warm to it? Would international audiences take to it to the same extent? That’s anyone’s guess at this stage.
One big irony is that Top Gear is a very un-BBC programme, made by and broadcast on the BBC.
As an institution, the BBC has, in the last two decades, become increasingly inward-looking, bland, self-satisfied and smug, dominated by a metropolitan elite who all went to the same universities, attend the same dinner parties in Islington, shop at Waitrose, have the same cultural tastes, and hold the same set of liberal views.
This culture has been allowed to expand over the years as BBC mandarins recruited and promoted from within their own kind.
Andrew Marr, himself a part of that set, put his finger on the pulse of the BBC’s institutional bias a few years ago when he said: “The BBC is not impartial or neutral. It’s a publicly funded, urban organisation with an abnormally large number of young people, ethnic minorities, and gay people. It has a liberal bias, not so much a party-political bias. It is better expressed as a cultural liberal bias.”
Do goldfish know they’re goldfish? Are they aware that a world exists outside their goldfish bowl? I’ve no idea, but BBC executives don’t appear to know much about life beyond their own goldfish bowl of BBC buildings, fashionable restaurants, pretentious opera houses, and designer-furnished homes in the more fashionable parts of London.
Last week, Alan Yentob, the BBC’s ‘Creative Director’ said on Newsnight, said, in defence of the BBC: “There are quite a lot of programmes which reach out to audiences which are C2s, DEs, which aren’t the metropolitan elite.”
C2s are the social demographic described as ‘skilled manual workers’ and DEs are ‘semi and unskilled manual workers, pensioners, widows (no other earner), casual or lowest grade workers’.
They’re not the sort of people Yentob or other BBC executives encounter very often, but believe they know what they want to watch, and kindly make programmes for.
I have been known to mingle with such peasants, usually for a few beers and a game of poker than a dinner party with overpriced, obscure food and wine from Waitrose, and I can assure Mr Yentob that these philistines consume very few of the BBC’s programmes outside of sport and Top Gear, generally preferring the offerings of Channel 4, Channel 5, Sky, and, increasingly under Peter Fincham’s leadership, ITV.
Then there is Clarkson’s old nemesis, Danny Cohen, the BBC’s Director of Television, who made an offensive comparison to Jimmy Savile when describing Clarkson’s situation. This is the same Danny Cohen, still only 41-years-old, who, fully aware of Savile’s, erm, ‘dark side’, commissioned a special ‘Jim’ll Fix It’ programme shortly after his death, and also has such highbrow, intellectual hits as ‘Snog, Marry Avoid’, ‘The Inbetweeners’ and ‘Hotter Than My Daughter’ to his commissioning CV.
So yes, there are plenty of good reasons for liking Clarkson and liking Top Gear. But less clear is why Clarkson is somehow considered a ‘right winger’.
Stephen Fry was once described (by an uncertain source) as ‘a stupid person’s idea of what an intelligent person is like’. On that basis, Jeremy Clarkson is ‘a left wing person’s idea of what a right wing person is like’.
Driving gas-guzzling cars and making politically-incorrect jokes about foreigners and homosexuals does not make you right wing.
In the eyes of BBC types, a right winger is something undesirable that behaves like Clarkson, but where is the evidence that Clarkson is especially right wing?
Yes, he attended Baroness Thatcher’s funeral, and he’s friends with David Cameron (not that David Cameron is truly right wing). He comes from a well-off background and his mother, Shirley, did very well out of manufacturing Paddington Bear toys (the prototypes being Christmas presents for a 12-year-old Jeremy and his sister, Joanna).
But beyond that, the evidence is thin. When has Clarkson ever said anything of note about the things that right wingers (quite a broad church, actually) consider important?
Has Clarkson had much to say at all about things like national sovereignty, a low-tax economy, the traditional family, law and order, proper education, Christianity, personal responsibility and individual liberty?
These are values the BBC cliques are at best indifferent, at worst downright hostile to, but are the values that millions of ordinary British people hold dear.
That’s not to say Clarkson should have things to say on these matters – he’d be well-advised to stick to what he’s good at, but to claim he is a ‘right winger’ is neither fair nor accurate.
So what happens next? We know that the planned arena shows are to go ahead without any Top Gear or BBC branding (the shows will be known as ‘Clarkson, Hammond and May’), and inevitably, Clarkson’s agent will be (has already been?) inundated with offers.
James May and Richard Hammond’s contract expired at midnight on 1 April. They, too, are free to speak to rival broadcasters.
Sky are going through a period of cost-cutting at present after paying a staggering £4.18 billion to hold on to their Premier League football rights, up 70% on the previous inflation-busting auction just three years ago. They’re unlikely to splash out on a big contract for the trio.
ITV are the front-runners to sign them. As a business, it’s in much better shape than it was seven years ago, its share price has risen steadily in recent times, and they have money to spend. All they’d need to do is come up with a new programme name, a slight format tweak, and they’d have a product they could export globally and successfully, as they do with Downton Abbey and many other flagship programmes. Could it be as big a hit as Top Gear? There’s no obvious reason why it couldn’t.
Such a programme would also attract, and I hate to use Yentob-speak, the ABC1 demographic that ITV finds harder to draw in – more affluent, younger people (especially men), who are much sought-after by big brand advertisers, like, well, car and electronics companies, the sort who advertise during ITV’s football coverage.
Of course, there are other possibilities, Channel 4, Channel 5 (recently purchased by American giants Viacom), Netflix, Amazon and goodness knows what else.
For the time being, Clarkson would be well-advised to take a break, sit on an island somewhere and get his head together, but bet your bottom dollar on him being back on our screens before too long.
Clarkson is dead. Long live Clarkson!
Click here to view my new YouTube show, Marcus Stead’s Coffee Break. Episode 1 is very much a trial run, and there’s lots wrong with it. We have: 1. Priceless advice for young wannabe journalists. 2. Shrinking chocolate bars/boxes. 3. Russell Brand – time to show him the red card. Enjoy!
Years ago, I attended a church where every Christmas morning the priest went through a routine at Mass that has stayed with me ever since.
It was the same every single year. He would begin his sermon by inviting all the children to sit in a semi-circle at the front. Then he would ask them what presents they’d received for Christmas. Excited hands shot up and the answers were much as you’d expect: games consoles, footballs, dolls houses and so on.
Next he would ask them what presents they had last Christmas. No excited hands shot up this time. A small number, maybe 10% of those assembled, cautiously raised their hands and could just about answer.
Then he would ask them what they received two Christmases ago. Not one hand went up. Nobody had a clue. Then he would turn to the adults and ask them the same question. In a congregation of around 300 people, not one individual could remember.
Now it’s your turn. What presents did YOU receive two Christmases ago? Can you really remember what you got last Christmas? There may be the occasional reader of this blog who received an engagement ring from their partner from the top of the Empire State Building, but for the most part it’s long forgotten.
This year, a great deal of media attention has been drawn to the phenomena of ‘Black Friday’ and ‘Manic Monday’. I first became aware of the former around a decade ago from America, where apparently it crept in during the late 1990s, but until now was unfamiliar with it in a British context. I can honestly say I was completely unaware of ‘Manic Monday’ in any sense until this year.
Those crazed scenes of stampedes of people charging through supermarket doors before they’ve had a chance to open properly and those arguments between customers over who put their hand on the last cut price 42” LED TV first have become extremely ugly, unhealthy aspects of Christmas.
Whether you’re a child or an adult, ask yourself how much the presents will matter to you next month, let alone by next Christmas. In reality, people are sucked in by cleverly-pitched marketing campaigns and alliterative tabloid headlines. They are told that aspiring to own that TV or that computer game will make them happy and their life complete.
The truth is that excessive consumerism offers us no such thing. The more you have, the more you want. What you currently have will become the norm, and you will want more. This leads to neither happiness nor contentment long-term. In fact, the novelty will wear off in days or weeks, months at the absolute most.
Think back to your old childhood Christmases. Most people, including those youngish like myself, can remember a time before Black Friday and Manic Monday, when there was very little hype until well into December, and shops weren’t afraid of putting up Nativity scenes in their windows – the official excuse for not doing it is that it’ll offend people of other faiths. The reality is that it’s generally the aggressive secularists and radical leftists who dislike it the most.
Can you remember many (or even any) of your presents from those Christmases? Probably not. What you are more likely to remember, especially if you were fortunate enough to have a happy childhood, are family gatherings, nice meals, sitting in front of a warm fire watching TV or playing games together.
If you consider yourself a Christian, you’ll want to remind yourself every year of the Christmas story – of the baby Jesus born in a stable to give hope to a troubled world. But even if you’re not, it’s time to go back to basics, to a Christmas of families, long days spent with people who won’t be around forever, children appreciating the magic of the season.
These are the things you’ll cherish in your hearts in years to come. The other stuff, the forced jollity, the Black Fridays, the Manic Mondays, the big-screen TVs and games consoles that seemed so important at the time will all be long forgotten.
A happy and joyous Christmas to you all.