Sunday, March 31, 2013


Wherein I conclude this account of my sentimental education in one of the most institutional of British institutions. We last glimpsed our protagonist leaving BBC employ for the final time. I cannot now recall with certainty but I guess I must still have been on contract when my production of Farrukh Dhondy’s four-parter, King of the Ghetto, went out. At any rate, I do remember being interviewed for Radio Times in my office at Threshold House on Shepherd’s Bush Green. It was, I feel sure, part of the reason why Jonathan Powell, the Head of Drama, pretended that the production schedule was a lot more comfortable than it turned out to be that he required the tapes for transmission almost as soon as editing was completed.

As I was on hand, I couldn’t resist popping down to the viewing room to see my old previewer chums on the Friday that Part 1 was screened for them. Most of the faces were familiar to me, not least that courtly old gent Herbie Kretzmer, long the previewer for the Daily Express, whose lyrics for Les Misérables had not quite yet made him a millionaire. There was a new kid on the block, though, the previewer for The Sunday Times, who spent the entire duration of the episode on the telephone. Perhaps understandably, he has never been my favourite journalist. His name was Mark Lawson.

Herbie Kretzmer: do you hear the people sing his lyrics?

King caused a certain amount of flurry, not least because Farrukh had been writing loosely fictionalized versions of real people. I knew nothing of the background to his fiction and – call me irresponsible if you like, but – I was happy not to know. After all, the BBC had committed to production long before it was in any sense my responsibility. My first duty was to get the thing done in time for the booked slots.

In several ways, I was on a hiding to nothing. For instance, we were going to need a number of extras for several scenes shot around Brick Lane. I tried the usual gambit of placing an announcement in the trade magazine, The Stage. The mag’s advertising manager sharply informed me that we could not seek to recruit Bengalis, however. This evidently was a breach of provisions under the Race Relations Act. All we could ask for were people who could play Bengali. Consequently, on the day, the extras that reported covered the waterfront: Indo-Pakistanis, Arabs, Orientals, Afro-Caribbeans, Turks, Greeks and Cypriots, Jews and Muslims, Latinos, indeed anyone who didn’t look obviously WASPy or Nordic. Hence our crowd scenes did not bear much scrutiny.

Another problem was that Farrukh had written some dialogue to be exchanged between Bengali characters but did not himself speak Bengali. I contacted the Bengali department of the BBC World Service and someone there expressed himself delighted to supply the translations, which he duly did. Come the shoot, however, our actors who were to say the lines decried the translations, saying that they sounded more like the Bengali equivalent of Shakespeare than the appropriate demotic. This put me and the director Roy Battersby in a quandary. None of the actors was actually Bengali so how reliable could they be? On the other hand, there was no time to mess about. We had to trust the actors not to create a further problem.

Mark Lawson: he was never young, even when he was young

Before the run of the serial was finished, a formal complaint had been lodged with the BBC by people reckoning to represent the Bengali community around Brick Lane and a small if noisy demonstration was mounted at the gates of Television Centre. Roy happened to be at the Centre that day – I suspect we were still editing episode 4 – and he quizzed the protesters closely.

Farrukh, Roy and I were summoned to a meeting with some Bengali representatives in the office of the then Controller of BBC2, who was none other than Graeme McDonald, the producer of the one-off drama Circle Line that launched my BBC career. Graeme was obliged to play it lofty and impartial. The Bengalis – clearly articulate young men with a particular axe to grind and no conceivable right to speak for “the whole” Bengali community – were angry and dismissive. The three of us decided not to get into too much detailed debate or to reveal the difficulties under which we had been labouring or to concede much of anything. I remember one young chap declaring “you have raped my language and culture” and I decided he would be a local councillor before too long. I imagine some formal record of the meeting was kept by the BBC but, as far as any practical consideration went, that was the end of the matter.

Bengalis marching in Brick Lane (though not, on this occasion, against the BBC)

Whether that – relatively modest – outburst of controversy had any bearing on my own standing at the BBC, I cannot tell. The press didn’t pick it up, mercifully. On balance, it seemed to me that I had done exactly what was required and got Jonathan out of an awkward scheduling hole. But I was never rewarded for it.

I had spent quite a lot of the mid-1980s looking for work. After King, I was again unemployed. I recall feeling that, as I turned 40, I was good and ready for a major post in television. Yet I couldn’t even get an interview as an assistant sub-editor on Radio Times, a publication for which I had written quite often as a freelance. Meanwhile, my contemporaries were taking over the top television jobs. Soon after my departure from the BBC, Jonathan Powell was appointed Controller BBC1 and, simultaneously, Alan Yentob became Controller BBC2. As another contemporary pointed out, they were both 40 and neither had a family. Well, nor did I.

Alan Yentob, also old when young

Over the years, I have applied for a large number of posts, many of them at the BBC. I usually managed at least to get an interview because my cv, if I may say so, is pretty interesting. I may not be a particularly dynamic interviewee. The only two times that I actually enquired what in particular had counted against me, I was told that the person who had won the post was “hungrier”. I couldn’t but feel that this was not much help. In both cases, the appointed person was quite a bit younger than me. I suspect that “hungry” in someone older can easily come over as “desperate”.

One BBC post I applied for required applicants to furnish a list of “contacts” in the industry. As a long-time journalist, I could make a list running into hundreds but I confined my submission to a few dozen, beginning with the then BBC Director-General (John Birt) whom I had known as far back as when he was a humble programme-maker, let alone an executive.

But it occurred to me that I needed to append a covering note to my submission. The BBC form required one to enter one’s full name, in my case William Stephen Gilbert. If someone checking out my contacts claim were to refer to me as William Gilbert, she would draw a total blank. Stephen Gilbert would trawl many more confirmations and W Stephen Gilbert one-hundred-percent success. But I might be unfortunate enough to find myself being checked out by the one person in the exercise to whom no version of the name meant a thing.

As it transpired, I never heard any more about that post, so I have no notion whether my application was dismissed as fanciful. Another attempt at securing work was even more disastrous. Someone had decided to create a new post, that of executive producer on the BBC2 magazine The Late Show. The programme already had an editor so it was difficult to see why it had any need for an additional manager.

I rang the information number given on the advertisement for the post, only to be told that the person who had the information was on leave and no one else there could help me. This seemed somewhat amateurish. I decided that I would be sure to press the query when I was interviewed and sent off my application. I was given an appointment for an interview at Kensington House, in those days the home of BBC arts programmes’ offices, to be conducted by the then Head of Arts Programming, Kim Evans (whom I had never met), and Mike Poole, The Late Show editor, whose path I had crossed several times, never especially to my own advantage.

Mike Poole, not always as genial as he photographs

My appointment was for 3:15 and I arrived by 3:00 and walked round the block a couple of times (one should never appear too keen) before presenting myself at reception comfortably before 3:10. A young woman came to collect me, explaining as she took me up to the interview room that unfortunately Kim and Mike would have to go to the studio shortly so it would necessarily be a rather brief encounter. I felt pretty miffed but what choice did I have?

The beginning was taken up with explanations about their need to finish by half-past and their none-too clear account of why an executive producer was suddenly required for the programme. I was asked one or two desultory questions and then dismissed, feeling sure that an appointment had been agreed before I had even entered the room. As the assistant accompanied me back to reception, she remarked that it was a pity that I had arrived “so late”.

What did she mean? Well, she said, my interview was supposed to be at 2:45. I had the letter in my pocket so I fished it out and showed her: 3:15, perfectly clearly. Suitably embarrassed, she rushed back to the interview room while I reflected that of course Evans and Poole would have spent an unlooked-for empty half-hour deciding which of the applicants deserved the post, discounting the last one who was “so late” and who anyway Poole doubtless didn’t much rate.

The assistant returned, all apologies. I could have castigated her for the corporate failure to have an explanation of the post available as promised and for screwing up the particulars of my own interview but what would be the point? I went home and tried to call Mike Poole – we didn’t have mobile phones in those days – but of course he was unavailable in the studio. I got a letter off to him, which should have reached him first thing next day – we didn’t have email either but we did have relatively early postal deliveries. But I knew that it was futile and, sure enough, he didn’t bother to reply. Nor did I receive notice that I hadn’t got the job. I never troubled to check out who did get it.

Screw-ups like this and other posts that I applied for without any response made me wonder if I was on some BBC blacklist. Perhaps my file was decorated with one of those infamous Christmas-tree symbols that every BBC watcher had heard tell of. I wrote to the appropriate executive asking whether this was the case and I received a long and discursive letter back, full of pain that I should think such a thing and assurance that no such let or hindrance applied to my prospects at the BBC. Nevertheless, as I have indicated, I have never again worked for the corporation.

I had intended to go on to some more general reflections about the state of the BBC but it feels as though I have maundered on long enough for this posting. In due course, I shall work up a more considered conclusion. Be patient.

Wednesday, March 06, 2013


To continue this fitful saga of my relationship with the BBC, I want to tidy some loose ends from my aborted time at BBC Pebble Mill. The Other Side, the run of new one-off plays all of which I produced for BBC2, went out after I’d been sacked over Solid Geometry.

To my surprise, I had been told by David Rose to write and produce a generic title sequence for the series. I had always understood that these were made by the graphics department or the presentation department or some other bunch of specialists. After all, the original title sequence for The Wednesday Play had been directed by a young firebrand called Ridley Scott.

But I was delighted to be entrusted with it and sketched out a plan for the image of a revolving television set. The first time the screen passed by, it would show the animated BBC1 logo. The next time we would see a clip from a commercial (to indicate ITV). The last turn of the set came to rest on the series title. This sequence had not been shot when I lost my post, so David Rose himself went into the studio and made it, sticking diligently to my script. He added a neat touch: the series title itself took a further turn after the television set had come to rest. David also used the music that I had selected: a striking riff by Peter Maxwell Davis that proved to be a perfect fit. I had written to Sir Peter (as he then wasn’t) informing him of my plan but he never replied. I hope he liked it, if he ever saw it.

Jonathan Powell

I had thought to begin the run with the splash of the Ian McEwan. In its absence, David Rose scheduled Derrick Buttress’s Connie, perhaps because it was so quiet and modest. He probably hadn’t made the calculation that I had made: that my fellow television previewers and reviewers, from whose ranks I had been recruited, would expect me to knock their socks off. Inevitably, then, the Buttress got a lukewarm reception. In a run of plays, it’s the opener that gets widely noticed; the others have to take potluck. As far as audiences went, we had the misfortune to be scheduled against a brand new sitcom on BBC1, called Bread. Though scarcely remembered now, it was hugely popular in its time and so we never stood a chance of picking up extra viewers in what usually in those days was a poor choice of programmes in mid-evening on a Friday.

When I was sacked from Pebble Mill, a fair bit of my second series was in planning. Mike Wearing very properly took over my portfolio and went ahead with the scripts by Tony Bicât and David Cook that I had ordered up. Sadly, a couple of commissions to women writers were dropped. Mike also followed some of the other connections I had made, one of them benefiting him in spectacular fashion. It came about this way. At the Edinburgh Television Festival in 1978 (when I was still a producer), there had been a screening of the only surviving episode of Diary of a Young Man, a legendary BBC drama series written by John McGrath (a regular at the Festival which he had helped to found) and Troy Kennedy Martin and directed by Ken Loach. I had been thrilled by it and further thrilled to discover that Kennedy Martin was in attendance. I sought him out and talked to him excitedly and we agreed to meet in London and discuss working together.

It was wonderful to speculate that I might be able to rehabilitate a fine writer who had rather fallen out of fashion. And Troy had been one of the creators of the game-changing police series Z Cars, whose original producer was my Birmingham boss, then styling himself David E Rose. The quest seemed to promise much.

On my way to the meeting with Troy at the Hoop in Notting Hill Gate, I was smitten by a migraine. These had begun to afflict me in the run-up to finals at my university and I had yet to find the medication that could pre-empt them (happily, I made the discovery soon after this time). I found a phone-box and called Mike Wearing, who was also attending our session, and asked him to take over.

Farrukh Dhondy

Back in Birmingham the following week, I asked Mike how his discussions with Troy had gone.  He was non-committal about it and, perhaps foolishly, I didn’t press him.  The eventual upshot of Mike’s discussion with Troy was one of the most successful original television drama serials ever made, Edge of Darkness.  And this, along with Alan Bleasdale’s Boys from the Black Stuff, made Mike the most feted producer of his generation.  Hey ho: you win some, you lose some.

David Rose’s fiefdom at Pebble Mill, rocked by the Solid Geometry saga, was now clearly under threat from Television Centre, but happily Jeremy Isaacs rescued him by offering the post of Commissioning Editor for Fiction at Channel 4, which was due to open in 1982.  I also found myself doing work for Channel 4, though not to a fiction commission.  An independent production company pitched for – and then asked me to make – a series about television itself.  This was another invitation that I readily accepted.  It was pootling along in rather self-indulgent pre-production when the production company boss abruptly absconded to Hawaii with the programme budget.  That was the end of that.

After holding various posts, including one (not for the only time) at an ITV company that lost its franchise to broadcast during my contract, I was suddenly called in to the BBC by Jonathan Powell, the Head of Drama.  This was April 1987 and I had known Jonathan (not well) for some ten years, having first met him as a producer at Granada.  Jonathan needed a producer for a four-parter called King of the Ghetto, written by Farrukh Dhondy, who was Commissioning Editor for Multicultural Programmes at C4.  The setting was the Bengali community around Brick Lane and the story was loosely based on fact.

I quickly read the three existing scripts and happily was excited by them. Producing them would be a learning curve in several ways, including the milieu and the method (a lightweight video camera gathering takes like a movie). Jonathan told me that the director was already signed up to start pre-production in June and shooting would begin in September. He was Franco Rosso, a newcomer to television drama, though with a feature (the fairly chaotic Babylon) and a documentary under his belt. The documentary was about Ian Dury who, to my joy, had agreed to make his acting debut playing a lowlife in King of the Ghetto. And the leading man, like Ian’s a white role, had been claimed by Tim Roth, one of the hottest young actors around.

When my participation was confirmed, I took the script editor, Caroline Oulton, to lunch. She soon disabused me. Franco did not begin in June; he was already casting. Shooting did not begin in September, but June. And Farrukh had barely started work on episode 4. Jonathan had lied to me, presumably because he was in a tight spot. Perhaps another producer had walked, clearly several others would have turned it down, either because the schedule was too tight or because they didn’t care for the material.

It would have been absurd to decline to bite the bullet. Here was a chance to get back into regular producing and to pull a potential disaster out of the fire. But the difficulties came thick and fast. Franco proved an awkward customer and a disorganised field commander. He and I were soon disagreeing about many things. I also found the BBC bureaucracy much more apparent and much less malleable than it had been at Pebble Mill. Moreover, stuck in an ugly office block above a post office on Shepherd’s Bush Green, we were some way away from the stimulating hub.

Franco was random and sometimes incoherent in the many auditions we undertook to find our leading lady, also a white role (why do writers, even non-white ones, always feel they have to explore the eyes of a non-white community in drama through the eyes of white people?). And Caroline wasn’t sufficiently on Farrukh’s case, or so it seemed to me.

Franco Rosso

After a few weeks of this, matters came to a head with Franco.  He had clearly lost interest in the whole project and he walked.  I was relieved but I had to move fast.  The BBC maintains – or it did then – a long list of “acceptable” directors.  On the second page I found the name Roy Battersby.  I had never met him but I greatly admired his work.  He was part of the Kennedy Martin/McGrath/Loach generation of teledrama-makers and his masterpiece, I felt, was his epic industrial action drama, to a script by Colin Welland, called Leeds United.  I hadn’t heard of him for a while but I knew that he had been working as a fulltime political activist, including standing for parliament for the Workers Revolutionary Party, and he had made a fine feature documentary, fronted by Vanessa Redgrave, called The Palestinian.

Ian Dury, actor

I tracked him down to an address in Chiswick and called him.  He was available and readily agreed to look at the scripts overnight so I took them over to him.  A tall, handsome, beaming man welcomed me and immediately put me at my ease by expressing his admiration for my courage over the Solid Geometry business.  He then sent me packing and set to reading.  He called me first thing next morning to accept the job.

I felt triumphant that, not 24 hours after I lost my first director, I had a first-rate one sitting in my office for a discussion about logistics.  Then a summons came from upstairs.  Jonathan was away at some jaunt and the acting Head of Drama, a conventional old BBC lifer called Ken Riddington, needed a word.  When I joined him, I found him ashen-faced.  He informed me that I couldn’t employ Roy who, he said, was blacklisted.  I showed him Roy’s name on page 2 of the approved list. Riddington’s fears may not have been eased but his objections had no more ground on which to stand.  Back in my office, I found Roy smiling broadly.  He gave me a history of his own dealings with the BBC and his political activism outside the business, to which he had only recently returned.  We noted that the BBC’s failure to exclude him from the approved list had ensured that he could not be denied work there if a producer wanted him without lawyers being brought in.  Game to us.

Dury & Roth in character

Making King was very tough, although Roy made it a pleasure and, as he habitually did, raised everyone’s game in the process.  Farrukh’s final script, endlessly delayed, came in way over-length and we compromised by both trimming it as we went and shooting more than we knew we could use – practically all of Ian Dury’s scenes had to be dropped in the edit of this episode.  Each part was supposed to be 50 minutes; though it made overseas sales more difficult, we could stretch up to 60, but anything over that kicked in a slew of extra payments to actors (however, I notice that each episode of Stephen Poliakoff’s recent Dancing at the Edge ran a minute above 60 minutes and, in two cases, above 90 minutes, but he always seems to be a law unto himself).  Even so, despite the scramble, I brought the show in on time and under budget – which was (frighteningly when you have it for the first time) a little over £1million.

Unlike many producers, I attended most of the location shooting and got to know the crew – one veteran reckoned that he’d never ever been bought a pint by a producer before.  As editing got under way, I began to attend to my own BBC future – Jonathan Powell had promised that there would be subsequent projects for me but as he’d lied about everything else I couldn’t leave that to chance.

Roy Battersby

The one possibility I had great hopes for was a notion I worked up with a Manchester writer I admired called Janey Preger.  It concerned a young couple of dancers, a white girl and a black boy, who were penniless and lived in digs where they were indulged by an eccentric landlady, but who went out and had fantastical adventures, often centred around foiling criminality.  The pair furnished the series’ title, Hattie and Cole, and the prototype for the series’ demeanour and style would be The Avengers, then a rather forgotten favourite.  At the same time, the show would tap into the zeitgeist of the Thatcherite ‘80s, suggesting that being unemployed in a world full of crooks shouldn’t stop talented and sexy young people having a glorious time.  Each episode would end with Hattie and Cole performing a knockout dance number.

Another flavour I wanted to bring to the mix was to fold in constant references to classic Hollywood and to musicals and, in tandem with that, to persuade unprecedentedly starry names to make guest appearances, as much for fun as for money, so that appearing in the show became a fashionable thing to do.  In the pilot that Janey and I wrote, there was a corrupt cop named Orson Caterpillar (“whoreson caterpillar” is an insult deployed by Falstaff), a character based on Orson Welles’ Hank Quinlan from Touch of Evil.  I intended to get Robert De Niro to play this role.  Never suggest that I lack ambition.

King – a rare revival on satellite

Jonathan Powell gave me back the script, saying no more than that he didn’t understand it. This has three possible interpretations: that he didn’t read it, that he lightly skimmed it while doing something else or that he never intended to extend my contract. When King was finished, I was out of work again and that was my last job at the BBC.

In a final chapter of this saga, I will try to draw together some more general thoughts about the BBC.