From laundry to Frankenstein's lab


March 21, 2003

When I worked in the BBC as a television producer I was intrigued by the way senior managers addressed each other by the initials of their job titles, and I wrote a spoof memo from someone called "publicity officer (presentation organisation) current affairs technical engineering personnel establishment (Tel)" or, of course, PO(PO)CATEPETel. The memo found its way into The Sunday Times and was my first piece of writing published in a national newspaper. I was reminded of this piece of juvenilia by the early chapters of Richard Lindley's history of Panorama in which we read quotes from BBC minutes such as: "M. D. Tel said that D. P. A.'s guess was probably justified. He told D. G. that he would give some thought to this problem."

It is always difficult when reading an inside story about one's own field to judge how interesting it might be to the non-specialist. In the case of Panorama , it should be. Although television dominates the media and the media dominate our lives, most people are only dimly aware of how programmes are made.

One virtue of this book is that it charts a major change in factual television programmes since Panorama began in 1953. At its simplest, it seems to me that the change is marked by the replacement of people who are interested in the world by people who are interested in television. It is as if there were no longer novelists, or writers of books about history, science or current affairs, but merely people who were very interested in pens, typewriters and wordprocessors, casting around for topics that would allow them to use their pet technologies. In fact, in television this focus on the medium rather than the message has been resisted in a few enclaves, and this book is full of interesting anecdotes about how good programmes were made in spite of the dead hand of senior management in the John Birt era.

In my view, the shape and structure of a documentary are best determined after the research and filming have been completed. At that point you have all the ingredients from which to compile the story you have been investigating. But Birt insisted that producers write a script of the programme before they set off on a filming trip, and so the team would cobble together a "script for Birt" knowing full well that, if they did their job well, the finished programme would bear only a slight resemblance to this document.

Like most TV producers, Lindley is scathing about Birt's major claim to fame in television production, as producer of ITV's Weekend World , which did start - and end - each week with a pre-written script. " Weekend World was essentially an illustrated lecture," writes Lindley, "as tedious as it was sometimes tendentious; a thesis rather than an exploration of real life."

What is surprising is that Birt, in his managerial post as deputy director-general, was allowed to bring this fossilised form of television with him and subvert the traditional, and usually successful, production techniques by which the BBC had created the mould for allowing talented production teams to make excellent programmes.

Although the liveliest part of the book is the second half, where Lindley himself was an eyewitness and sometimes a participant in the series of events by which the BBC hierarchy destroyed Panorama , the earlier part of the book provides a fascinating glimpse into a bygone era. Those were the days when, almost unbelievably, the following was the planned content of an early Panorama , then in a magazine format: "Mrs Ada Austin will complain about laundries, and Mr Harold Paine, president of the Institute of British Launderers, will reply. Mrs Dona Salmon will talk about twelfth night customs, and show a number of Christmas cards. Lady Helen Nutting will talk about wages for wives."

To his credit, C. T. P. (controller of television programmes) winged back a memo saying: "If it ( Panorama ) remains like this it will die." But it did not die. In its middle years it went from strength to strength, with a stable of reporters who were intelligent, informed and articulate.

As with most things in life, the cause of its decline was not due to any single factor. If a control freak such as Birt had not come along, the team might have been able to weather the pressure on budgets and the nervousness of schedulers about ratings. If Birt had been a better manager, and had not insisted on stocking middle management in BBC current affairs with his own cronies, his desire to have more programmes that generated a public understanding of the world and the nation might have been helpful to the production team.

Instead, Lindley shows vividly what an appalling situation was created in the department by Birt's policies. "John Birt's disciples seem to have viewed Panorama 's cutting room, full of bits of film or tapes, as positively dangerous and scary, a sort of Frankenstein's laboratory where crazed people with no judgement madly sewed together ill-assorted body parts that they had haphazardly scavenged to create some terrifying monster over which they had no real control."

Anyone interested in the sociology of institutions and the role of managers in a creative environment will find many lessons in this book. It is rare to find the internal workings of television analysed so well and with such affection. If there were more such analyses, bringing to light the havoc that can be caused by unthinking ideologues, we might have better factual television than the dross that litters our screens today.

Karl Sabbagh is a writer and former television producer. His latest book is Dr Riemann's Zeros .

Panorama: Fifty Years of Pride and Paranoia

Author - Richard Lindley
ISBN - 1 902301 80 3
Publisher - Politico's
Price - £18.99
Pages - 404

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