Thursday, 10 October 2013

Nationality : Oh Jack.

This is a difficult piece of writing. The subject matter does sit not prettily in politics, so I will refrain from any political views and hope that we can have a more general, open discussion. Because, after all, it's our country and we pay for its governance.

I'm certain that England football player Jack Wilshere has, by now, been given a lifetime's supply of Duck Tape for his mouth. But what he says about nationality has never really been more relevant than it is today.

In short, Jack (and quite a few others) think that you shouldn't play for England if you weren't born here. This leaves the way open for Have I Got News For You and others to take some more cheap jibes at the quality of England's star soccer players. An easy target.

But this isn't about soccer, or our national ability to constantly fail when it matters at the world level of the game.

It's about life in Britain. Things haven't been great since the Empire started to fall apart. Then the Commonwealth. And now our own 4 nations seem to want to live apart. Our society is plainly not very good at integration and compromise.

And, just political for a moment, the next General Election by 2015 will be an immigration battleground. It will get horrible.

You see - it's really quite easy to be racist. A simple set of rules, easily applied. And racism has 2 powerful extremes. At one end the tattoo-ed, crew cut or bald white male hating anybody with less than white skin, or with a foreign tongue.

At the other, gentle almost unoticed racism. Listening to Len Goodman on Radio 2 last week, my mouth dropped silently open when I heard him state "I've never 'ad a curry or pasta. I hate all that foreign muck."

I wasn't surprised because Len was wrong. He was simply stating the truth and his feelings for food. But I just imagined the BBC Compliance bods getting involved and having a long discussion about whether what Len said could be interpreted as racist or an insult to a foreigner.

Because, that's how bad the debate has got. Every normal-minded person in the UK now lives in fear of being arrested and branded a racist.

We all know that racism isn't simply limited to white vs anything foreign. There's racism in this country between Asians and Blacks. Jews and Arabs. It's everywhere - let's just call it "tribal" because that's where its history lies. Bring in religion, and you open up another reason for hatred between people.

I know. Irish mother. English father. I have witnessed racism at close quarters between members of my own family. Largely based on the ancient Catholic/Protestant battles. I took my wife to see where my Irish grandma lived in Northern Ireland. I hadn't been back for years. It used to be a simple "Housing Trust" area - the NI equivalent of social housing. Now, everything including the kerbs is painted red, white & blue with anti-republican slogans on entire walls. Angry-looking white males with offensive tattoos walk their fighting dogs around the place. It's not how I remember it from childhood. My Irish family history contains Protestants as well as Catholics, it's that confusing.

And it is, of course, not much better in the Catholic/Republican areas - except the colours are green, white & gold and the tats are written in Gaelic.

This, people, is in your United Kingdom. And it has been that way for centuries.

Let's blame history - let's blame the awful English and their rape of Ireland which was continuing less than 100 years ago. Because, it's in our nature - we have to have someone to blame.

Immigration (controlled) is good. Immigration with bad controls creates more racism and hatred. Listen to the vox-pops - English interviewees telling stories of "health tourism" and immigrants ruining their community. Schools straining under the impossible weight of cultures & languages. And, of course, all those foreigners are stealing our jobs....

This UK could not have developed without immigration. Fact. But the immigration numbers are now excessive - and we only know the ones they count. It appears that many more get in without being counted.

So - what to do? I am firmly of the belief that if ANYONE wants to live and work in the UK they must be able to fluently read and write the language. And they must comply with our civilised laws at all times. They must not be permitted to drive, work, get healthcare or other social benefits unless they contribute to the economy and are fully tested that they comply with all requirements.

Does that make me racist or anti-immigration? No - it means I care for our society. And most of the rules stated already exist - but are not being policed or enforced correctly.

I love my neighbour. And we live on a 2-way street - they must learn to love the UK, contribute to its growth, not be a burden. And then they won't be a target for hatred.

Even at the age of 58, I continue to learn so much about different people and their cultures. The UK can gain from this, if we manage immigration with strong common sense. A lot of immigrants over the centuries have brought things to this country that have enhanced our lives. On the good/bad seesaw, immigration leans heavily towards good.

So - Jack - keep getting better at your chosen profession. Concentrate on that. As a player, you excite me. As a philosopher, not so.

Now - all we have to do is tell the politicians. Do they speak our language?

Friday, 16 August 2013

BT Sport : the new BSB?

You've seen the hoardings and the tv commercials. Not forgetting the newspaper ads. I think I even saw a spot for BT Sport in the cinema ads.

But the chances are, you haven't watched the programmes.

BT Sport has been with us for a couple of weeks, after a multi-million pound launch. More importantly, their first audience figures have emerged - and they must be very worried at BT HQ.

The Clare Balding Show - much-publicised and with a good line-up of contemporary sports stars - got just 1200 viewers. 1200.

The opening night of the Scottish Premier League was seen by 24,000. Which is just half the amount of people who actually attended the match.

BT Sport's loud trumpet will tell you that they've got 500,000 subscribers. But the truth is that only 23,000 of those are actual new subscribers. The other 477,000 are pre-existing BT Broadband customers who get a free "subscription".

This all reminds me of a time back in 1990 when British Satellite Broadcasting launched itself into Sky's face with a whole new service. Back then Sky was analogue and only had 1 channel. BSB came along with 5 channels and a unique digital transmission system. Its marketing coup was the "squarial" - a small, square satellite dish which made the enormous Sky dishes look antiquated straight away.


It was technically better. Each receiver could be uniquely addressed by the transmission system - which meant that they could send targeted ads in the breaks, not just generic. The system would know which of its customers liked golf - and would send them golf commercials. Anglers would get fishing - and so on.

All good theory. Never got a chance to work in practice. I know. I was there.

Just as BT Sport has taken-on an expensive cast of presenters, so BSB signed a known line-up of talent. Selina Scott, Jools Holland, me. A gang of others. And we all had handsome contracts negotiated by our astute agents. At BSB, money flowed better than mercury. On their press launch day, I was already committed to a motor race in Leicestershire. They thought nothing of hiring a helicopter and paying for Battersea Heliport to open on a Sunday, just to get me back for a 1 hour appearance. For which they also paid a fee in addition to my contract fee.

Selina and I used to giggle in the corner, having come through the austerity of the BBC.

Launch night was a disaster, unmatched even by BT Sport. I had been contracted to present a number of shows within the NOW Channel. There were 4 other channels: Movie, Sports, Galaxy the family channel, and the Power Station music channel*. On launch night I started a series of weekly review shows, transmitted live from BSB's swish HQ studios in London.

The only way you could receive BSB was with a dedicated BSB receiver and a squarial. Just before transmission of the first show, I learned how many receivers they'd managed to install after their expensive marketing campaign.

2.

In the whole of the UK, we had 2 viewers. And - wait for it - one of those was a technical bod at home checking the signal.

It didn't get much better. The squarial was proving difficult to manufacture. Retailers demanded priority units for their shop displays - and the public just weren't that interested. After all, satellite tv was in its infancy in the UK. And those that had an analogue dish couldn't receive BSB.

A classic case of the tv industry ignoring the consumer and powering ahead with differing technologies. We've seen that all before.

After a few months, the vultures were circling over BSB. There was a dire need for more funding, because revenues were not coming in. I was asked to present a promo that was only going to be seen by 16 city bankers as part of the plea for pounds. It was like a Comic Relief appeal. Except, I got paid a fat fee without asking.

On the day of the shoot I turned up at Marco Polo House, BSB's HQ, to discover a full movie tech crew. Lights, cranes, 40 people. All to shoot the links for one 15 minute promo. They must have spent £50,000 on those 16 bankers.

All to no avail. Funding was not forthcoming.

Rumours abounded. Budgets slashed. Programmes suspended or cheapened. Then, I was asked one day to visit my immediate boss. I went into his office just after he had been fired.

By Rupert Murdoch.

Murdoch was King Vulture. He pounced on the floundering corpse of BSB, "merging" it with Sky and renaming both operations as British Sky Broadcasting.

The BSB dream was over. We all got paid-off in full. My contract was for 12 months - and it was over in 3.

I visited BSB once more, just days after the curiously trenchcoat-wearing Murdoch hatchet men had entered the building. The car park was full of shining BMW 3 & 5 series - probably over 100.

I was told that these were the company cars reclaimed from fired executives of BSB.

A financial disaster of enormous size. At that stage, one of the biggest in UK company history and certainly the biggest in broadcasting.

What was learnt?

Plainly, not a lot. Someone appears to have sold the "bible" to BT. Although I'm glad they left the plans for the squarial in the bin.

In closing, the technical side of the BSB offering was brilliant. And it's a great shame it didn't make it to the Sky platform. Smaller dishes eventually came to the UK and people felt more comfortable having those on their property, rather than the old giant Sky dish. But something the size of the squarial would have made that transition to satellite tv happen earlier.

* On the Power Station there was a new presenter. A gangly, ginger-haired, slightly spotty boy. Called Chris Evans.

Tuesday, 14 May 2013

UK radio : move your head

A long night at the 2013 Sony Radio Awards.


These are the awards that matter for the UK radio industry - and I do realise that putting the word "industry" next to "radio" is an anathema to most listeners. We've had free radio in the UK for so long that it is like a treasured relation to most of its audience. And I don't just mean the Radio 4 listeners. There's a genuine passion for radio in this country and it is surviving and growing against all the odds and naysayers.

However - it is an industry. It employs, it contracts suppliers, it creates a product and, in the case of commercial radio, it has a balance sheet with income from commercial sources. Within this industry, and dominating it, is the BBC. Funded directly by you and me. Radio is just one way that Auntie spends your £3.1 billion pounds a year.

But there's hard honest truth to face. Commercial radio is dying. Commercial radio is descending into a pit of the worst commercial kind - caring more about its shareholders than its audience. That can only lead one way. Get ready for the wholesale slaughter of local radio as consolidation reaches its peak and big leveraged groups gain control.

Will anybody care? I fully realise that solving commercial radio's problems comes lower down the agenda than even caring about Chris Huhne's future. I know that there are more pressing things to deal with as our country slides along the rutted bottom of a stalled economy and a frozen political system.

But - without commercial radio we wouldn't have some of the most successful BBC radio that we have today. I'll explain that in a bit.

At the Sonys, 70% of the awards were scooped by BBC-transmitted shows. Not all in-house productions, but mainly so. Over the years the Awards have been adjusted to suit the offerings of commercial radio - so we now have awards for "branding" and "imaging". All the more galling, then, that last night's award for "Best Station Imaging" was won by Radio 2.......

I am a double Sony winner. I have experienced the thrill that something you have helped create has been recognised by its peers and its audience. Quite simply, awards are for winning. If there's an award for your chosen task in life - go for it. It's great for the spirit and does no harm to your prospects.

Why, then, as I am now a Sony Awards judge, do I have to torment myself annually with such bloody dross in the entries? It doesn't matter which category - there will always be a lake of electronic sewage speckled with the occasional diamond.

Some of the BBC entries amount to an abuse of the licence fee. Sadly, most of the commercial radio entries are worse. Hence the 70/30 split in the winners. I have listened to hours of entries that depress the hell out of me - muttering way too often "if this is the best...". Commercial radio seems to employ some of the worst on-air talent around and/or some of the worst production people who have no idea how to construct an entry for an Awards show. I can only assume that these people are cheap - and therefore a shareholder's delight.

So - commercial radio's legacy in this country. Without it, your ears would not have many of the delights that do abound today on some frequencies. The early Radio Luxembourg was the foundation for what became music radio in the UK. The pirates copied it. The BBC copied the pirates. There's a direct, live DNA connection between the music radio of today and the pop commercial radio of the 50s & 60s. Thank you for that - it means I have not had to spend my life listening to such patronising tosh as the Light Programme, Worker's Playtime and other valve-driven delights of the old BBC.

Commercial radio was the first to bring great talk radio to its audience - being interactive with people on current issues decades before interactive was in the vocabulary of broadcasting. In October 1973, Britain's first commercial radio station went on-air. LBC was an injection of adrenaline to radio listening. Suddenly, we had the phone-in, the unscripted presenters and the previously forbidden topics of discussion. Sensational, mesmerising listening.

Without LBC, 5 Live wouldn't have happened. BBC local radio would be stuck on jam recipes. Even Radio 4 would be a different place.

More recently, Classic FM has taught the BBC how to hold an audience with classical music. The Third programme, which became Radio 3, has been forced to copy outright Classic FM. They've had to steal presenters, producers and ideas directly from Classic FM in order to stay relevant.

My own radio career only really got going when I was given a free rein at Capital Radio - admittedly by executives who had all trained at the BBC. For me, Capital Radio in the late 70s/early 80s was true music radio at its best. Great music was the stitching that held together a brilliant "community" station which connected with and energised the most difficult audience in the UK. Presenters who empathised with their core audience.

The BBC isn't stupid - and it has a large cheque book. They noticed commercial radio. They constantly raid it and rob it of its talent. Now that Christian O'Connell has won his 10th Sony in 10 years, it won't be long before he gets the call.

What the hell has happened? Why is commercial radio so patently awful? It comes down to ownership. If the owners are passionate about radio and about connecting to an audience, the station is on its way to success. But if the owners are simply looking to consolidate and asset-strip, then commercial radio is doomed.

It needs investment in training, it needs to develop talent and keep that talent. And, above all else, it needs an equal playing field with the BBC. FM is still the most popular way that people in the UK get their radio. Yet, due to a decades-long BBC land grab of frequencies, there's no room left for new national commercial stations. Cleverly, but most likely by accident, the BBC have neutered the ambitions of national commercial radio. Look at Absolute - constantly innovating and producing award-winning programmes and talent. Yet confined to a national AM service with a local London FM frequency.

DAB was supposed to solve this problem. It hasn't. It's dying because the rest of the world doesn't care about DAB. Manufacturers of consumer radios are stuck in a rut. Not for them the delights of new technology enjoyed by their colleagues in the tv department. Radio, as a box, is stuck in an odd age.

Maybe the internet will rescue it. But I doubt it. We like our radio to be portable. We do not want to pay cellphone networks their exorbitant data rates just to listen to Gardener's Question Time on our iPhones.

No - the rescue must be self-driven. Commercial radio is a land of opportunity and growth if we can remove the current owners and break their rather stunning coalition of comfort. The UK commercial radio market is controlled by only 3 owners.

But, for now, I would ask that the BBC is restricted in its expansionist practices - because these have the power to kill commercial competition during this economic disaster period. Radios 1 and 2 should be sold-off to commercial, and the funds raised should be invested in BBC programming that commercial radio will never touch. Like drama. Documentary. Good, entertaining public service radio with a budget to suit. (You cannot believe how little money BBC radio gives to independent producers currently. There is no incentive for creativity to emerge, because they are constantly crushing budgets.)

Radio - we love you. You're not just ga-ga. But sometimes I think the suits running you have genuinely lost their marbles. And they won't find them by continually sticking their heads into their own dark passages.

MY GOOD THINGS AT THE SONYS




Robbie Williams - a stand-up comic and a fantastic performer, judging the temperature of the room perfectly. A national pleasure.








 Cerys Matthews - an eloquent spokesperson for her newly-discovered industry.








 John Humphrys - a cobra in gents clothing.






THE BAD
The sound - for an audio industry event, it was a tragedy. Wrong speakers, wrong balance. Just wrong.
Chris Evans - although not entirely his fault, but nearly 4 hours of Chris shouting at the audience was enough to dislodge good dentistry.
Orange skin - seemed to be directly related to origins of the species. And how far north they lived.
And - this will get me into trouble - the amount of on-air broadcasters who find it really difficult to ad-lib just one sentence. Often compounded by a failure to deliver the line in anything other than a rushed fart of speech, unintelligible to most human ears and with the laziest, tongue-tied orifices in the world.

If you have the privilege of being a broadcaster and being invited into strangers' homes & cars, at least have the decency to learn how to speak. It really isn't that difficult.

That's it.

I have a feeling I won't get invited back.

Monday, 15 April 2013

Women in Formula 1

There's a buzz, currently, about female drivers and Formula 1. This happens every few years when a likely candidate emerges and the media start to get excited. The current buzz is about Susie Wolff - a very talented 30 year old race driver from Scotland.


She got a BBC2 documentary (shot by her brother) on Sunday evening. And she will also feature in a Radio 5 Live debate tonight (Mon 15th April) at 9.30pm.

Conveniently for Susie's "people", Stirling Moss has made a statement saying that a female will never win an F1 race - and this is largely backed-up by the sport's supremo, Bernie Ecclestone.

Cue much frothing of the airwaves. When the fuss dies down, let's see if Susie can proceed beyond her one-off test driver stage and maybe get a race in a competitive car. The fact that she raced in the German Touring Car Championship for Mercedes last year and that her husband is now overall boss of Mercedes GP, might help.

But I doubt it.

In the mid-70s I worked for the rather brilliant John Webb. He was then Chief Executive of 4 UK race tracks including Brands Hatch. He was a motorsport enthusiast - and, crucially, a marketing man ahead of his time. His feisty, fearsome wife Angela was one of his directors - and between them they made many changes for the better in UK motorsport.

I was their wet-behind-the-ears PR man, running the press office. But I became very much their right-hand man and was put in charge of their growing stable of female racing drivers. OK - I was 20, single and it seemed an attractive offer. I soon learned otherwise.

I worked with Divina Galica at first - ushering her through single-seaters as far as Formula 5000 with an old Surtees F1 car. Eventually, "Divi" got signed to James Hunt's manager-brother, Peter and Olympus Cameras and tried to make it in F1.


Did she have what it takes? I believe so, yes. Immensely strong as a former GB Olympic skier. She trained and trained, raced and raced. But in F1 unless you have the right car under you run by the right team, you don't stand a chance. She badly needed a break with McLaren or another front-runner. That break never came. There was no way that the major sponsors of the time (Marlboro, for instance) would countenance "risking" their brand image on a woman. And if the sponsors don't want it, then the teams can't have it.

John Webb, always with an eye on the column inches, radio & tv slots which he tasked me to generate, knew he'd struck a winning formula with female drivers. The crowds at Brands Hatch definitely showed a big interest in them, and new spectators were drawn in by the type of media coverage that few male drivers could ever generate.

So we tried a few more - former showjumper Ann Moore, South African Desiré Wilson. We would stage "female only" races for media stars of the day in identical Ford Escorts. Each entrant would be put through the racing school and their progress would be reported back to John. He was looking for those who had the gift - those who had the killer instinct on the track and could be nurtured to success.

It never really happened. Desiré was the most successful of them all, actually making a season in F1.



Now, nearly 40 years later in our very different world, Danica Patrick has set the racing world on fire with enormous success in the USA - in both single-seaters and the frightening NASCAR. She has got "it". In simple terms, a female Schumacher. Fearless, talented, fast, strong and with the crucial killer instinct.



The USA will keep her in a living she could never get in F1. I don't think Danica will ever join Bernie's circus.

However, we have female racers in this country who could have the same success if they got the break with the backing. I was at a kart track a few years ago. It was wet and I stood on one chosen corner to watch races. It was corner which demanded a driver's attention in the dry, let alone the wet. I was mesmerised by one kart carving up through the pack. Out-braking, out-thinking, out-driving all the others. Then I saw the ponytail sticking out from the back of a helmet. After the race I went into the paddock and found a little family team - with a 12 year old daughter who had just won that race.

She had "it".

I just wonder if she ever got the sort of backing that talented boy kart racers get?

To the team owners & sponsors in F1 (mainly male) : c'mon fellers, give a girl a break! There's a whole new world to discover.

Wednesday, 10 April 2013

Eco cars. Good or bad?

A month has passed since my last utterance via the blog. Not a totally happy month - but we said a fun-filled goodbye to Harryboyo, my spoon-playing father-in-law. Every guest at his burial was given a set of dessert spoons to play at the appropriate moment - as Sarah introduced a childhood tune that Harry sang to her. Tiddly Widdly Winky Woo. On You Tube if you fancy a burst.

And as his casket was lowered, the entire gathering broke into a round of applause.

'Bye Harry. The world has come a long way in your 90 years.

Which is a thought that crossed my mind on a slight incline on the M25 this week. I remembered back to my mum's first car - a boxy, blue but lovely Ford Prefect 100E with a 3-speed gearbox - and the accelerating power of an F1 car chained to a concrete post. Mum would deliver me to school, on occasions, in this car. Of course, I was 8 or 9 at the time and every journey was fun. (Except the ones where she left the choke out too long and fouled the plugs - I went on to win a prize at primary school for inventing a "choke warning light". In reality, a switch with a pea light.)

And except the ones where she was required to downshift a gear and overtake an invalid carriage. Finding the gear without mashing the other 2 in the box was an ear-splitting experience. Eventually, with a noise like a circular saw going through human bone, the gear was found. The old non-synchro, sidevalve 100E would cough & fart its way forward (hopefully) trying desperately to produce enough power to out-sprint whatever we were overtaking.

That was the 60s. The Prefect was from the 50s. Cars were rubbish, compared with the 21st century.

Or not.

Last week, I had a 100E/Mum moment on the M25.

Now - you may not like this. My usual wheels these days are German, Dr Ferdinand's finest and not a Beetle. My 911 Porsche (of the 997 variety, for enthusiasts) is 3.8 litres of flat-six joy that makes me feel so good and safe that I want to grow an inordinately large belly, wear 1980s jeans and shout loudly out of something that resembles a mouth - but is more often regarded as an arse. The 911 has enough reserve power to get you out of trouble, if you have a brain. If you don't have a brain, it's power will kill you in a number of exciting but, ultimately, numbing ways. You see speed doesn't kill - what kills is senseless driving by idiots.

A car can kill you at 8mph, or 80mph. Just depends who's holding the wheel. Or not, in the case of phone users, nose-pickers etc.

The Porsche is also frowned upon by the environmentalists. Look - I'm not going to get into a slanging match here about green-ness and its apparent godliness. But let me simply state that, in the past 15 years, the environmentalists have been winning the battle for control of government minds all over Europe and beyond. The power of "green" is so great in Germany, for instance, that manufacturers call their eco-cars "Blue" for fear of committing a political crime. (Even more confusing is that most German cars are, in fact, silver....something to do with - ah - heritage, I think.)

Green (or Blue) is almost the sole reason why your electricity and gas bills are climbing beyond reason - because energy companies are now legislated to spend gazillions of your money on things other than - er - energy. Whilst the Chinese keep opening coal-fired power stations at the rate of ONE every WEEK, you and I are being heavily taxed & fined by an EU that seems to have lost all its senses. Do they honestly believe that cars can make that much difference? Have they seen the environmental maelstrom on other continents caused by globalisation and industrialism?

This same EU is comfortable that the world's most polluting transport - marine & aviation - pay no tax at all on their diesel-like fuel. Weird. (See footnote) Ever been near Heathrow or Southampton Docks on a nice day and tasted the yellow air?

And we all know that the real rise in the price of Unleaded for your car is due to environmental taxes.

Unleaded itself was a total lie introduced to this country after much lobbying by oil companies. Back in the late 80s, under the Thatcher conservatives, Ford had invented a beautiful piece of technology for petrol engines called "lean burn". This used less petrol, more air and the UK government initially agreed it was a good idea and gave Ford some financial incentives to start producing lean-burn engines in the UK.

Big oil didn't like it. Big oil could only see it producing less consumption. And so, bastard Unleaded was introduced. Unleaded actually produces more CO2 than Leaded fuel. And consumption actually climbed, yet lean burn was killed. A chance to really make a difference was swept under the carpet due to commercial lobbying.

Anyway, I love driving. Always have. Always will. Learned at the age of 9 sitting on my Dad's knee in that 100E on an old Irish airfield. Raced around fields at 14. Rallied & rallycrossed at 17, raced from 18. BMW factory driver in 1988, BTCC team owner and driver 89-91. I used to regard driving on the roads as a great freedom. However, not long ago it ceased to be a freedom.

The "safety cameras", the average speed limits, the constant monitoring and restrictions placed on the motorist took away the total enjoyment. It's a rare day when I can enjoy my chosen vehicle on the public roads. And by that, I don't mean speeding or anti-social driving. I mean that I constantly live in fear of my life as confused drivers try to take onboard everything they now have to process. Multiple useless signs instead of simple ones that actually help, random speed limits, traffic news, red lines, white lines, yellow lines. Lordy, the picture through your windscreen most days is so confusing.

What suffers is safety. The very thing that is supposed to be enhanced by some of the distracting items listed. Drivers distracted from their sole purpose - guiding the vehicle safely with full respect for other road users - is something that no longer happens without distraction. Throw-in loud audio and the dreaded GPS - and you just know that an accident will happen.

Like water torture or or a dripping tap, eventually the greens got to me. I started to feel guilty about my 911 freedom. And I noticed that other road users display about as much respect for Porsche drivers as M Thatcher did for the Belgrano.

So, the time arrived last week when we needed to purchase a little runabout for my filming business. Public transport in and around most UK airfields is completely non-existent unless your name is Heathrow or Gatwick. At our little jewel of an airfield, there's one bus which passes the entrance twice a day. When I see it, there's always the same 3 seniors' faces staring forlornly out of the windows - and one them appears to be the driver. It also goes nowhere near the local rail station. Very joined-up.

We are inside the M25 - yet I once tried to commute by public transport from my home in London 20 miles to the office. (Don't ask me why - I'd probably been hectored by a BBC Attenborough documentary the night before). That 20 miles took 90 minutes, not including the 20 waiting for a cab to take me 2 miles up the hill to the final destination.

So - when clients come to visit, we try to ensure their day out doesn't also include an overnight, and collect them from the station. And we also have several company errands that need to be run to places where they never see buses.

And so I found myself in a Toyota showroom doing a deal on a slightly used iQ 2. This vehicle, glowingly sold to me by a very enthusiastic man who turned out not be telling the entire truth, is an environmentalist's delight. A little 998cc engine that appears to have its roots in the Singer sewing machines of the 60s. It breathes petrol at over 43mpg, no matter what I do to it. There's no Road Fund Licence payable and, big bonus, it qualifies for Boris's Greener Vehicle Discount on the dreaded London Congestion Charge. Or does at the moment. See footnote.

It has smart keyless entry and start, clever design features and appears to be very well engineered. It has a smiley face, is very comfortable and has a radio that almost makes Jeremy Vine listenable.

But it's not a car. It's a deathtrap in the name of saving the planet.

The small incline on the M25. The HGV in the inside lane, the iQ trying to overtake. All going well until I got caught by another HGV which appeared to be fitted with an old Space Shuttle engine. He wanted past both of us.
He completely misjudged his closing speed and nearly exercised a fine, unique iQ feature - the only car with a rear window airbag. Mind you, the rear window is so close to the driver's head in an iQ, that the front airbag would also protect it.

I determined from this almost Darwinian experiment that environmentalists are going to kill us unless they apply the same power-restricting rules to all forms of road transport. The amount of restrictions being placed on private motorists is making them an endangered species, when other vehicles have so many exemptions.

As an example, look at the London congestion charge - an environmental tax in all but name. (Ask the US Embassy..). The list of exempt vehicles tells a story. Taxis and buses are exempt.....yet they cause more pollution than cars. Taxis are still running around with very old, inefficient diesel engines - but other motorists are being forced to buy low emission vehicles. And the goalposts keep moving. See footnote.

So - eco cars. Yep - I see the point. But they need to come with special awareness for the drivers. They are gutless with no power reserve and you will have to accommodate that in your driving style or risk a serious accident.

Which takes me back to my mum's Ford Prefect in the 60s. Good old MDR 939 - ahead of its time.

The footnote
Transport for London snuck out a "consultation" last November. I, a registered CC user, was not notified and only learned about it after the consultation closed in February. The nub of it is that the current Greener Vehicle Discount may change in June - lowered from 100gms CO2 to 75gms. This will knock-out a lot of currently exempted vehicles which private motorists and companies have bought purely to comply with the existing regulations. We await Boris' final declaration - but the London Assembly is pushing the change forward. Details here. And remember - what happens in London guides other cities around the UK.

Aviation fuel: jet turbine engines use Jet A1 which is untaxed "for business purposes". Smaller planes and helicopters like the ones we use are on 100LL. This is a refined petrol at 100 octane with low lead. We pay the same environmental taxes and other fuel duties as motorists. Figure that one.

Monday, 11 March 2013

Harry Greene


We all have to hope that we make it to our 90th year in great fettle. And when the time comes to "switch off", it happens without you knowing about it.

And so, Harry Greene left this world on Monday 4th March 2013. Born 90 years earlier in 1923 in the Rhymney Valley, I had only known "Harryboyo" since I first dated his eldest daughter Sarah, 32 years ago. My own dad had died back in '76 - so Harry became particularly important to me.

He was one of those driven people. Largely self-employed from teenage years and working his way from Wales to London via Art College, Cardiff University, stage management, design, building, acting, writing and teaching special needs children. He modified and built his own property with his own hands. He ensured that his 3 children were educated, informed, loved and sent on their way in life.

Born Henry Howard Greenhouse, he realised that his name would be too long to go on the canopy of a theatre or cinema. In 1950 he changed his surname to Greene by deed poll. Harry to us and tv viewers, Howard on his IMDB profile.

He married his true love in 1955, the year I was born. Marjie Lawrence, a gorgeous English actress, worked alongside Harry with Joan Littlewood's Theatre Workshop at the Theatre Royal Stratford, East London. Harry toured the country for Theatre Workshop - sourcing the company's succession of battered old vans, building sets, acting. His contemporaries included Sean Connery, Sheila Hancock - and he was even at TW the day Michael Caine got rejected by Joan Littlewood : "You're going to be a star, but not here. F*** off to the West End" said the never-diplomatic Littlewood.

Harry & Marjie fell in love and were together for 55 years, until Marjie passed away in 2010. Marjie was Harry's star. When she started to get large West End roles and film parts, Harry became the all-supportive husband and father at home, championing his wife's right to have a career.

In 1955, when they married, they became 2 of ITV's first stars - a soap opera called Round at the Redways featured the two of them as a married couple - with Harry playing the part of the DIY husband. From that, he actually became television's first DIY expert.

It was his DIY career that I got to know. In the 80s he worked for Greg Dyke at TV-AM, devising, writing & producing a great series called Dream Home. Harry found a tumbledown small house, persuaded TV-AM to buy it (cheers, Greg!) and then they filmed the whole conversion & building process. At the end, the house was given away in a competition.

Later, for the BBC, he did a similar operation in the bizarre surroundings of the car park at Pebble Mill studios, Birmingham. On The House was a project to build and complete a house from scratch - and Harry and his team rose to the challenge.

If it wasn't for Harry Greene, none of those DIY tv shows of the 90s would have happened. He made DIY fashionable and accessible. Some of his best ideas were "borrowed" by various tv executives and put on-air - with no recompense for Harry. That's telly.

For 10 years he was QVC's original DIY presenter, showing and selling hundreds of thousands of pounds-worth of new products for DIY every Sunday morning. He was in demand from the likes of B&Q and the Ideal Home Show. People loved his personality and his high jinks on-air.

If you can find copies of his published DIY books, do. The Harry Greene Complete DIY Problem Solver is a bible, produced by him and only him. I know - because I helped him with photos & contracts. That book has his DNA all over it.

So - I became very close to my father-in-law, particularly over the past decade as his wife declined and eventually left him on his own. I started to really appreciate his foundation, his dedication, his skills from the past. He was never without a camera - so we all have plenty of memories to savour in his multitudinous albums.

It's going to take a while to absorb the shock of his passing. Sarah, Harry and I had just returned from a holiday together - something we've done every winter since Marjie passed away. On that holiday he got to see his grandchildren who live in the US, and his older sister.

3 days after we got back, Harry came home from shopping, parked his car - and didn't get as far as his house. He just switched-off and collapsed. Neighbours rallied, paramedics arrived within minutes and we were called. The NHS went into its brilliant mode, trying to save a life. But he never regained consciousness and died 4 hours later. His attending medics assure us that he would have known nothing, nor felt any pain.

Some of his most distraught neighbours are kids who simply loved him. He always had a bit of magic for any children he met. When we were going through his travel documents this week, out fell some rubber bands and playing cards : Magic Harry's kit for everyone's amusement.

I never had a chance to tell him how great he was. How I really liked it when he played the spoons at our wedding. How I loved when he hugged me, grabbed my thighs and called me "muscular". How he gave me the most incredible wife a man could ever have.

I took him from his Smith Corona typewriter to computing, in the early 90s. Once he got to grips with an iMac and printer - he was off. In the last few years, with his sparkling MacBook never far away, he has been researching & writing his own life story. Here was a man in his 80s, embracing new technology and wandering with purpose around the web. It's 3 completed volumes and several hundred pages long with photos and his own drawings. A true legacy.

So, cheers Harryboyo. We shall lay you to rest as you wished. Everybody attending will wear something pink and you are no doubt entertaining elsewhere by now, with stories, spoons and magic tricks.





Sunday, 10 February 2013

The future of TV. And it won't be TV.

February 2013 will be a milestone in the history of broadcasting : the month when streaming came of age as Netflix released their original drama series House of Cards, starring Kevin Spacey and directed by David Fincher.

If you haven't got Netflix, then here's how it works. Once you have your account online at netfix.com, you can use the same sign-in across all your chosen devices. So long as you have broadband access with a download speed of at least 400K, Netflix can be streamed to your phone, iPad, laptop, desktop and even that old thing in the corner - your tv.

Many new tvs are internet-enabled and have wifi. You just log it into your home wifi. And most of these have the Netflix app built-in. If your tv isn't internet-ready, you can cheaply make it so with a simple black box like Apple TV or other wifi devices. Netflix has been very clever to ensure that its streaming is immediately available across all platforms.

The figures are impressive. Your first month is free, then it's about £6 a month. No other charges and as many movies and tv series as you can handle. You get your own home page where you can search through thousands of titles and create a queue for future viewing. This same info appears wherever you sign-in - in the UK or globally.

Netflix has 33 million worldwide subscribers already - this figure will grow rapidly. And their library of movies, tv series, docs and others will grow at the same speed. Already Netflix is generating £200m revenue a month - some £2.4bn a year.

It can easily afford to fund productions like House of Cards - in which it has invested £75m. It also steps in with co-funding - so Ricky Gervais' C4 series of Derek, currently airing in the UK only, will go global in April with its Netflix release.

For producers, Netflix offers a chance that very few broadcasters can currently offer - instant global release. House of Cards released on the same day globally. The days of region-specific releases on DVD are over.

What's the viewing experience like? Netflix seem to have nailed the old streaming problems with some intelligent software. Once you hit "play" for your chosen viewing, the Netflix system silently looks at your connection and adjusts the stream it sends to suit. Blocking and buffering during playback rarely happen. I was really surprised by how little bandwidth was needed for a good connection and have been happily watching the whole House of Cards series on a poor 500k downstream connection. The picture and sound quality is better than DVD.

And House of Cards was originally a BBC series 20 years ago. Netflix have that covered - the series is available to stream!

"Binge-viewing" was previously confined to boxed set DVD releases. Many is the lost weekend when we have watched 9 episodes of 24. Without any guilt! But Netflix have re-introduced the concept. By releasing a whole 13-part drama on one day, research is showing that about 37% of the audience has binged from Friday to Sunday and consumed the lot. So - the thirst is there. But can Netflix keep it sated?

The overhead of running Netflix is miniscule alongside, say, the BBC. The BBC gets £3.1bn a year in licence fee money - out of which it has to pay for 10 national tv channels, the Red Button service, 10 national radio stations, National services for Scotland, Wales and N Ireland plus over 40 local radio stations, BBC Online & BBC World Service. It employs 17,000 people and the salary bill alone is over £1bn. Your licence fee "tax" of £145 a year pays for all of that.

Netflix needs just 2,000 staff to generate its £2.4bn a year. A mix of full and part-time staff costs £75m a year. That's a very healthy ratio - and these people don't require as much space as the 17,000 BBC staffers. Let's not forget that Netflix owns nothing, however, and its business model is entirely based on licensed material from suppliers. But that's today. The future may well be different as Netflix digests the figures for original series - they will become major players on the production front.

And, of course, we must mention that the 17,000 at the BBC only know how ONE side of a balance sheet works. They have no concept of how to make money - just spend the stuff we happily give them.

So, the BBC and Netflix are vastly different organisations with different cultures - but catering to the same consumers. And consumers, fickle as we are, will always opt for the best deal for us.

I can foresee a future when the BBC licence fee is under £100 a year and the BBC's total output dramatically different from today. You'll want your local & national news, major sports, decent dramas, natural history docs, good radio. But everything else will be handed lock, stock & barrel to commercial tv as it struggles to make its business plan work.

Because, in the future, the commercial tv model has to change in the face of Netflix commercial-free streaming. Someone - Google, Apple or any other company sitting on a cash mountain - is going to buy Netflix soon. When that happens, the streams will become rivers. Commercials absent.

YouTube already handles live transmissions of events. No tv transmitters, minimal infrastructure costs. Pay a small fee and you get it commercial-free.

The future is wired to your home already. Get ready for the tidal wave that will change tv broadcasting forever.

In all of this, radio will live-on - but only if we fence-off a portion of the licence fee to pay for it. Commercial radio is already doomed and can only be saved if the BBC gets out of its face. There is no reason why all the music broadcasting of R1, R2, R3, R6, R1 Extra cannot be a commercial success - let commercial radio have them.

The licence fee structure must change. It is totally unreasonable to tax everyone who uses a tv tuner in this new age. It's bizarre that I have to pay for the BBC if I never watch it. But if I listen to its radio services, I pay nothing. When I travel the world, I can't use iPlayer (even though my licence fee pays for it) but I can still access all BBC radio through a web browser. And, I'm sorry ex-pats and others, but you should not be entitled to free BBC radio & tv just because you have a Sky card organised by your Spanish plumber.....

Lord Sugar, Knight of the Realm and Bad Grammar on Twitter, recently told "all Brits living in the USA - get this service now." He was plugging, several times over Twitter, a web-based service which gives you Freeview channels in the USA. This circumvents the BBC's policy in the USA and is a complete disregard for the concept of the licence fee. It is also, under UK law, a criminal offence. Not just a Knight of the Realm with responsibility to uphold our laws (fail), but a BBC artiste who makes substantial amounts from your licence fee (fail again). None of which sits at all comfortably with his position as Non-Exec Chairman of YouView - funded by UK broadcasters!

The times demand a change. UK broadcasters, wake up. UK Government - stop treating broadcasting as your convenient mouthpiece and revenue stream. Instead, inspire our industry to use the talents, skills, knowledge that it has acquired to lead to the future - rather than constantly being a follower of whatever comes out of the USA. There is no reason why Netflix could not have been a British idea, on British soil, protecting British jobs.

Instead our UK broadcasting industry is being torn apart by micromanagement, stultified by the smothering of creativity and experiment. It lurches from one financial crisis to another like a schooner with no masts in a storm, and then gets washed onto the rocks of politics where its hulk will rot. Too many useless, non-creative managers pursuing kingdom-building agendas at the expense of programme investment.

Netflix is the sub you can't even see yet.