The most heartening news for a long time (assuming the Daily Telegraph report this morning is true) is that plans are afoot to establish a legal right for carers of Altzheimer’s sufferers to be given “respite” – that’s to say, holidays from their round-the-clock daily caring. In recent years I’ve had cause to observe the tragedy of this awful ailment at close quarters all over the country. And always it has struck me that the compassion and charity afforded to sufferers has failed to understand the sheer exhaustion and desperation that’s the lot of those who shoulder the burden of caring at home. As an example, I think of a 60 year-old woman who spent hour after hour every day for years playing the piano as the only way to soothe her husband’s trauma. Social services would not provide relief which could have given her a break. They claimed that their budget wouldn’t stretch to that. Soon, apparently, it will have to. In these days of social service cuts, it couldn’t be better news.
In all the amply-justified criticism of the BBC’s coverage of the river pageant, one name has cropped up again and again – that of Richard Dimbleby, who might be said (I hope not crudely) to have turned in his grave. Was there a single soul who displayed a fraction of his standards of research and preparedness, of simple hard graft? I have always made it a personal rule never to criticise individual presenters and performers on my old tv stamping-ground, but I have to admit being ashamed of what I watched on this occasion. You would have thought that there had been no time to prepare for the event, no opportunity to learn from the professional example of the man who was regarded as the voice of the nation or to watch recordings of some of his great commentaries of historic state occasions. In my latest book (“Mr Nationwide” – Kaleidoscope.org.uk) I pay especial tribute to Richard Dimbleby and his incredible attention to detail before every broadcast in my days with him on “Panorama”. Oh, how we missed that, this Jubilee season!
The local election results were a disaster. But before you charge me with (an entirely uncharacteristic) party political bias, let me emphasise that I’m talking about the turnout. In many areas, less than a third of the registered electors actually bothered to put pencil to paper. And we call that democracy! How can we claim that as government of the people by the people? We have put into office thousands of men and women who represent a pathetic third or so of those whom they are charged with governing! That doesn’t seem to me to be very far removed from the farcical practices of communist and fascist states. Surely we must act to restore our precious democracy which we fight (yes, actually fight) to bring to other countries? But how are we to achieve that? I can see only one solution – to introduce compulsory voting. May I have your vote?
Many moons ago – 68 years to be precise – I started work on the “Sunday Mail” in Glasgow. As the editor’s tea boy and horoscope writer, I was quite properly paid 35 shillings a week. However, I progressed rapidly and within a year or so I was assistant to the Sports Editor, earning the princely sum of £3.50 a week. On Saturday nights I actually ran the sports desk, in charge of seven “slip” pages and giving instructions to much older men who would be paid £20 for a six or seven-hour session of subbing. The difference in pay seemed to me most unfair but there was nothing I could do about it because it represented an agreement between the proprietor (Kemsley Newspapers) and the National Union of Journalists. It was based on age, of course and employers were (naturally?) determined to stick to agreements made under some pressure. The experience left me with a lasting suspicion of both employers and unions in matters of reward and it is 54 years since I last had an employer or a union membership. So I’m intrigued by recent proposals that people like teachers and civil servants might be paid according to merit rather than age, sex, qualifications and so forth. It’s an interesting thought – though I’m appalled by the suggestion that those who perform only moderately well should be paid less – rather than those exceeding basic expectations being paid more! I also wonder who, or what bureaucratic body, should be given the role of valuing staff members for wage and salary levels. Dangerous ground.
The sadness of hearing about Lord (Jack) Ashley’s death the other day was tempered by happy memories of that extraordinary man. I was privileged to know him well in his years as a producer with the BBC and then Member of Parliament (sitting on the cross benches, though he was the most ardent of Labor Party stalwarts, so that he could read the lips of speakers on either side of the house, many of whom – including Prime Ministers – would turn in his direction to help him do so.). But I haven’t read many tributes to the most remarkable woman who helped him through the really bad times after his hearing loss became total – his wife Pauline, who died nine years ago. She devoted herself to getting him through the trauma in the most extraordinary way, staying at his side all day long. I could phone him at home and he would answer with a cheery “Jack Ashley”. I’d tell him my name and he’d instantly respond: “Hello, Mike, how are you?”. It seemed impossible as he was stone deaf – and it could only happen because Pauline would be on the other side of the telephone desk and would lift the other phone simultaneously, mouthing my name and our succeeding conversation. Eventually he became so adept at lip-reading that I conducted a live tv interview with him – the first he ever did. It was a great gamble which typically this extraordinary man was happy to take. What an inspiration he was – he and Pauline together.
The French elections and polling exercises seem to be indicating a marked distrust of politicians in general, with extremely low voting expected and those who do vote registering merely a protest. They seem to be reflecting popular attitudes in our own country, where there is widespread dissatisfaction with the behaviour of all parties. The worrying aspect of all this, it seems to me, is that democracy itself is under fire: More and more people – not only the young but old fogeys like me, too – are asking how we can put things right – how, for instance, we might halt the growing gap between rich and poor. The answer that we can express our wishes through the ballot box is patently ineffective. Politicians of any party, it seems, are incapable of forcing major change to a system whose power is in other hands – notably, the civil “servants” behind the scenes in their well-padded bureaucratic armchairs. And how do we move them? Not through the normal voting process, that’s for sure. In recent weeks, the Coalition Government has been responsible for an alarming number of cock-ups – some of them caused by simple incompetence, some by even more dangerous social bias. Much the same was observed during the Labour Government’s long spell in office. My contention is that many of the dubious decisions could be traced to the secure staff “advisors” behind the scenes. And there’s little chance of moving THEM.
More nostalgia, prompted by my joining Henry Kelly on his BBC Radio Berkshire show this Saturday (at 0900 if you’re interested). The memory it stirs is of my taking part in a BBC closed-circuit exercise in Stoke-on-Trent which was part of the build=up to the establishment of local radio in Britain. There were those who thought it could “never work” and others (myself among them) who suspected it was all part of a plot by the Beeb to kill off commercial local radio before it could get started. It all seemed rather ludicrous as we desperately strove to fill hour after hour with mostly mindless local waffle. I remember dong a long interview about a hole in a local road with vox pops on what had caused it – then filling a long spell on the Saturday evening reading out an endless list of football results including games in the local parks. It was all a bit of a joke – except that, of course, local radio proved in the end to be a significant element of our national broadcasting network. How wrong I was in thinking it could never happen!
Do you remember Prestel? I had the exciting task of launching it on video in 1979, “knowing” that I was in the forefront of a major revolution in information technology with this interactive videotext system pioneered by the Post Office following multi-million pound research. I “knew” all about technical advances, of course, following my years in “Nationwide” when we pioneered so much exciting progress in communication techniques (as described in my new book “Mr Nationwide”. And I’m reminded of Prestel (which achieved just 90,000 subscribers before its demise) on this “all change” day of the great analogue switch-off. I like to think I now dabble in the white heat of technical advance by blogging and tweeting and smartphoning – but, of course, we’ve merely arrived at the next stop in a journey that will take us . . . where? Any ideas which now look far-fetched but might come to pass?
I seem to have been away – from this blog, I mean – for a long time. Sorry, but I’ve been madly busy – first, writing my book (“Mr Nationwide”, published by Kaleidoscope) then taking part in a BFI evening on the South Bank which featured many sequences from the Nationwide archives plus a long conversation I had with the delightful Sian Williams just before she left BBC Breakfast after 11 years. (We’ll miss her but happily she’s gong to do more radio work). Last night’s BBC2 programme – the first in a series on the Seventies – added to my mood of nostalgia and, to be honest, left me wishing for a moment I was back in the saddle! It also reminded me of the male fashion for long hair which I could never stomach. Nostalgia seems to be the mood of the moment. Writing the book, of course, forced me to look back a very long time indeed although it has only passing references to life as a journalist – which began in 1944 – and concentrates on my times after joining Panorama with Richard Dimbleby, Robin Day and other great names at whose feet I learned my tv trade.
I can’t claim to have been in at the beginning of television broadcasting in this country before the war – but I do look back now at what were pioneering days before colour hit our screens. I joined “Panorama” in 1963, “24 Hours” a couple of years later and then – the high point for me – started “Nationwide” on September 9, 1969. We were then pushing at the limits of technology – not infrequently coming an embarrassing cropper on air in the process – and pulling in an astonishing 11 million viewers at six o’clock every evening. They were the happiest days of my professional life. I’m not one of those who complain that broadcasting “ain’t what it used to be”. Today’s broadcasters are producing some extraordinary programmes – look at Attenborough’s “Frozen Planet” and gasp – but I wonder whether the successors of people like me are having as much fun and sense of challenge. We didn’t have breakfast-time television in my day, of course – and I sometimes wonder whether we’d still be better off without it!