May I introduce you to Ben. A young man full of promise. When the producers of the BBC’s in-house complaints show ask us to do an item in a “lively, imaginative way,” you can pretty much guarantee Ben will be involved. Sometimes his activities will even draw a crowd.
No, this was not street theatre at the Edinburgh Fringe. It was happening right outside BBC HQ in Portland Place, London. On this occasion Ben had been asked to “dress as BBC One.” The channel’s livery is bright red, and changing rooms were not available, so poor Ben had to pull on the outfit in front of a group of people who were visiting from Tewkesbury.
Students who want to get into broadcasting, take note: you have to be prepared to accept almost any humiliation. Ben will go far. Finally the producers straightened the material to ensure he was unmistakable as an enormous red digit, a six-foot number ONE.
Then the cameras rolled, director Steve Eker shouted “ACTION, JEREMY AND BEN,” and I began chasing Ben around the BBC piazza. The message being that, at the time, Points of View was finding it very hard to catch up with executives at the top of the channel and put audience questions to them.
After half an hour of effort dressing up and staging the sequence, we decided it didn’t quite work. Red Ben hit the cutting room floor. He was more successful when he had to act as a fly:
Yep, that’s him on the right, in case you were wondering. Steve is in the middle. The costume was a reference to the edition of Graham Norton’s chatshow where a fly performed parkour across several glasses of wine as the audience giggled.
You get the picture. We don’t have to be mad to work here, but it helps.
Points of View is a BBC institution to beat them all. Elbowed around the schedules, forced into overlong seasonal breaks, it still boasts almost offensively healthy audience figures and is the only TV programme where the viewers dictate to the bosses instead of the other way round. When we celebrated our 50th anniversary we produced a birthday card for ourselves (knowing that no one else would) and I was quietly consumed with pride to see the lineage as it came off the printer:
Recognise them? Anti-clockwise from top left:
- Robert Robinson — should’ve been on Eggheads, a mega-brain. Although, with his professorial air, maybe not the natural choice to present the sixties spin-off for children, Junior Points of View
- Barry Took — waspish, funny, known as the “father of Monty Python” because he brought Cleese and co. together
- Terry Wogan — my colleague at BBC Radio2 and undoubtedly one of the greatest broadcasters in the UK since the invention of the microphone
- Me — just a bloke
- Anne Robinson — definitely not the Weakest Link
You’re thinking two Robinsons is a lot, I reckon. Actually Points of View had more than the Swiss Family. Not in the photo was Kenneth Robinson (presenter in the year I was born, 1965) or Tony Robinson (presented occasionally in 1986-87). So that makes four. I was very surprised when they asked me to do it, because I thought it was long past time for Robinson Number Five.
The show is part of the BBC’s nervous system — maybe even British culture. Victoria Wood once said,
When the Russians feel strongly about an issue they launch a bloody revolution. The British write a strongly-worded letter to Points of View
and it’s fair to say we have been lampooned in the past for being top-heavy with complaints that start with the phrase “Why oh why oh why . . . ” and even for broadcasting too much praise. Gloriously, Monty Python made us a target. Then the eighties comedy show Not The Nine O’Clock News took up the baton, running a skit on Points of View where the presenter reads a viewer letter saying,
I think the licence fee is far too low. I would willingly sell my house and all its contents to help the BBC
In another episode a woman claims she has had two letters read out on Points of View, and claims that if you get a third on air you are automatically placed in an asylum. But I don’t mind that kind of flak. We are currently getting sent up in a pretty muscular way in Dara Ó Briain’s In Case You Missed It. All I would say is that the Beeb needs to be careful about mocking the very people who pay for its transmitters and canteen toasters.
Anyway, we have moved on a little since we used to broadcast every complaint on a card like the one below.
That is partly because we obsessively keep up with technology to stay with our viewers. In the mid-nineties PoV caused a sensation by becoming the first TV show to ask for emails — yes, I seem to remember that triggering complaints too. Producer Bernard Newnham was undeterred; apparently he had the only internet connection in Television Centre. These days smartphones have given us a different weapon. The viewer video can be uploaded from your device in the heat of the moment, perhaps seconds after watching the show that got your goat.
If executives run from our microphones, it hardly matters; we will replace them with viewers like Sandy here, who actually talk to us direct.
Or comments from Twitter, where thousands of people are now reaching us through @BBCPoV.
When the programme notched up its half-century, we celebrated with a day out to the new BBC Archive in Perivale. I felt the hand of history, as Tony Blair might have put it. I stood amongst miles and miles of ancient celluloid as we filmed our special edition. Many of those reels of film may never be removed again from their airtight canisters, but they are still stored and labelled. It seemed to me that my programme — your programme, I should say — had been observing as nearly all of that material was made and helped run a national commentary. With me on the day was Caroline Jones, producer, who was a human hard-drive when it came to recalling what viewers had complained about most forcefully over the years. We worked together brilliantly.
Caroline has now given way to the equally battle-ready Gemma Cunningham, another superb producer who never flinches when it’s time to go into combat with a drama whose music drowned out whole chunks of the dialogue, the inaccurate news map that showed Wales as part of Scotland, a subtitling error . . .
or even a show which I have presented — Panorama, for example — where I now need to impartially field your complaints about something that’s gone wrong. Gemma and Caroline are the epitome of doughty BBC producers, totally independent and totally fair, and determined to make sure the programme retains its integrity even if it sometimes puts a top nose out of joint.
If you watch, I’m grateful.
If you don’t, do try us. It’s not the same as it was when we were teenagers . . . but it’s not completely different, either.